An unrivalled experience awaited us, the four members of George Malan’s hiking club eponymously called George Malan’s Hiking Club, before its transmogrification into the Quo Vadis Hiking Club as we set out to hike the Wild Coast Trail in August 1988. Having only previously done the Fish River Canyon Hike & the Blydepoort Trail with the Club, I was still the novice in the Club, minding my Ps & Qs – pints & quarts – so to speak. By now the team dynamics were becoming evident but this trail would expose those that were not the team players. Unfortunately it was not the appropriate time to do so but when is it ever?
The Wild Coast Trail traverses the Transkei littoral from Port St John’s to Coffee Bay & it involves the crossing of a number of fairly large rivers which can be perilous at the best of times. Unknown to us, this would be the time of our lives for all the wrong reasons, most not related to hiking per se. Nature was the second element that was master in more ways than one.
The hikers involved were George & I, travelling in his car & Kurt & Mike Brown in Mike’s car. The journey down would not be uneventful but rather treacherous as South Africa was in the midst of torrential rain with wide-spread flooding experienced in parts of South Africa. The roads were slippery & speeds had to be reduced especially when entering into the Transkei with animals wandering aimlessly along the National Road to East London.
Apart from the fact that Mike & Kurt were firm friends, I soon learnt why I had been relegated to travel with George. As a qualified chemical engineer, he was an extremely intelligent man but suffered from some unfortunate traits which would eventually lead to his “withdrawal” from his progeny, the Hiking Club. He suffered from a bi-polar disorder which although under treatment seemed to affect his moods periodically.
On the trip down I found it difficult to engage in conversation let alone debate as George possessed a very fixed world view which he defended obstinately & dogmatically. Always loud & overbearing, he became obnoxious after a few hours. Not for him the cut-and-thrust of robust debate rather it was the world according to George Malan. In small doses, like all people with this personality trait, they are quite witty as they express their own viewpoint with vigour whilst trammelling over the views of others. Being a lawyer or a Trade Union Organiser would have suited his temperament to a T.
As the Organiser of the hikes, what one has to quickly realise is that everybody is an adult & that normal run-of-the-mill arrangements such as food, starting times, walking speed & a host of other inconsequential arrangements are best left to the group or the individual to decide. But not George! He wanted to control the minutiae of the hike such as what we could or could not eat, when & how things were done & a host of other issues, much to our chagrin & annoyance.
The usual tactic when such events arose was to flatly ignore George’s wishes but this could only be taken so far as George insisted on purchasing the rations & was prone to harp on such “disobedience”. This had already reared its ugly head when on a previous hike, Kurt & Mike had overridden George’s dictum of sparse & uninteresting meals. Instead they rebelled & cooked a hearty breakfast of eggs, bacon, sausages, tomatoes and more. For the rest of the day, George was like a bear with a sore making grumpy remarks to all & sundry. Furthermore being George, the food that he would organise was Spartan with dehydrated foods & mash predominating.
As the rain lashed down, George’s car became trapped between huge pantechnicons on the single lane road down to the coast through the Orange Free State. Overtaking in such conditions was precarious. The trip through Natal – as it was then called – was slow & uninteresting with agreement with George being the preferred method of keeping the peace.
Pools of water on the windy twisty road through the coastal hamlets reminiscent of the eponymous English seaside resorts, strained the nerves. After 8 hours of George’s complaints & grousing – as if I had special connections upstairs to alleviate the driving conditions – we were into the Transkei. Here the danger was the ever-present droves of animals using the road as their pathway, the herdsmen undeterred by the hooting cars & irate drivers.
Finally we were on the way from Mthatha down to Port St Johns on a dirt road. The end of the journey was nigh. However the continuous rainfall had taken its toll. The average speed dropped to 15kph as George negotiated the former potholes but now huge furrows & ditches. This persisted for 20kms until eventually on a steep decline where the raging water using the road as its water course, it had created a new ravine straight across the road. In this situation the brakes were also useless as the pervasive mud caused the car to aqua – or more accurately – to mud-plain.
The car slides to a halt. Two grumpy dishevelled creatures climb out & survey the scene. In spite of the hand brake being applied, the car imperceptibly slides forward. In an incandescent rage George tries to retrieve the situation. Simply put, we were stuck in the middle of nowhere in the bucketing rain in an era before the cell phone & no way of contacting help. Not wanting to suffer the frustrations of an irrational companion, my mind is crystal clear. I elect to run to Port St Johns & summons assistance so as not be the left to the predations & untender mercies of an irritable George.
Without proper premeditation & forethought, I am off, sloshing through the oozing mud which quickly fills my running shoes. I slish-slosh along at a gentle pace, splashing through pools of water, sliding head-long like an out of control skater when thick patches of mud are encountered eventually wobbling, sliding, gliding & slipping into a pool of water. I sit with heaving chest, steadying my breathing, cursing in the muddy water. Sinking down, I slurp like an animal from the rivulet at my side. Surely I must have run 10 kays already. But who knows? In the ambient light & dripping silence, the passage of time is indeterminable without a watch.
“Whoooo”, an owl screeches in the distance & then flaps overhead. As if willing it to accompany me, I shout out “Wise owl” but it is gone. I pick myself up & compose myself to continue my lonely journey.
The rain abates to reveal a black almost velvety sky. A cool sea breeze arises bearing its salty fragrance far inland. At least this is a reality check. I am at least within running distance from the sea. My saving grace would be two-fold – a cool star studded sky & a plenitude of water all be it in the multitude of impromptu streams which 3 days of driving rains had created.
With a whole night ahead of me, a slow easy jog was my solution. Without the constant negativity & complaining of George, it is nirvana. I am enveloped in the wilderness & the senses are tingling with life as they probe the environment. The delicious smell of freshness is offset by the musky smell of dampness, comingled with cleanliness. The time slips by. Pockets of clouds remind me that more rain is a distinct possibility, an eventuality I do not relish. With the moon being obscured periodically, the road becomes indistinct in the gloomy shadows & the pace slows somewhat as I do not want to trip into one of the countless potholes again. A bank of clouds again closes the curtains of the sky & the rain pitter-patters down once more, not hard & stinging so as to soak one immediately but sufficient to keep one wet. The damp clothes chaff one’s armpits & one’s thighs as water drains down one’s head into one’s eyes ultimately sliding as salty drops in my mouth.
A sound reverberates across the bush. Not a sound of the wild but something totally alien, a mechanical sound, harsh but arhythmical; louder & softer, louder & softer as if stopping & starting. With arrhythmia, it could not possibly be a vehicle. Probably a dilapidated farm vehicle! Who knows? Anything but a conventional vehicle! An approaching light blurs the stars, extinguishing them somewhat, breaking the spell. This mechanical device is drawing nearer.
The erratic noise comes yet closer. Again I debate with myself speculating what its source is. A dilapidated bakkie, which the scrap yard should long have claimed, draws up beside me. It stalls. Its owner, clearly inebriated, tries to start it while attempting to mumble something to me. Without a bonnet lid, Mr Sozzled half falling out of the ill-fitting door, attempts to adjust the carburettor as if he knows, from hard earned experience, what to adjust – instinctively. Then he sprays some Q20 onto the spark plug leads & distributor. I stand fascinated by this incongruous scene. Without understanding the words, I translate his intention. He is offering me a lift to where I know not but a lift is infinitely better than an unknown run in an unknown area of unknown duration in unfavourable conditions.
A beer is instantly proffered & instantly accepted in gratitude not so much due to the need for a drink but rather as being indicative of friendship, being on the same level as my generous “Rescuer”. Another beer is offered before I have even savoured the first mouthful. He is clearly either an experienced drinker or extremely thirsty. Obviously it is thirsty work driving this contraption. In his stride, the empty bottles either join their predecessors at my feet or are flung through the non-existent windscreen. Careening ahead, they splash into one of the interminable pools, their trajectory caught in the solitary headlamp, a hand-held hunting version.
Grasping yet another refill, my saviour swings the lamp around aimlessly lighting up distant trees instead of the road. Anywhere but the road!
“Crump”, followed by an “Oh Sh*t”, as the bakkie bulldozes aside the branches of a bush.
Taking the opportunity of getting a lift all the way to the campsite instead of being dropped in the middle of town, I follow the dictum of “If you don’t ask, you will never get”. He consents without a whimper. The sparse feeble lights of Port St Johns are quickly left behind.
Ten minutes later up pull Kurt & Mike having driven right through without a hitch but George is nowhere to be seen. Within another five minutes up pulls George but not in his car. It had been abandoned at a garage on a plot.
Car trouble did not bolster George’s demeanour. He is clearly not enamoured with the prospect of having to organise a replacement differential in such a desolate place far from civilisation. Neither am I but for different reasons. I could contemplate the probable consequences.
But first supper had to be attended to. A braai had been planned. The first obstacle is wood. What wood that was available could be found – not under the protection afforded by a specially constructed lean-to – but packed outside in the rain obviously placed in the most convenient spot by some indolent wood chopper. We curse out loud to no effect, it remains wet. It is wet through to its core having been subjected to four days of unrelenting rain. Kindling & paper was sought out. George is dismissive of all our efforts with his ideas being better than ours. Disparaging remarks make the atmosphere tense & volatile. George’s comments do not dry out the soaking wood or assist in its ignition in any way. After an hour of struggling, a smoky billowing fire struggles to give birth, almost stillborn on numerous occasions. Frantic blowing keeps the infant blaze alive but barely so. It is close run thing. Eventually in exasperation some fuel is syphoned from a vehicle & the fire is assured of life. Finally at 23:00 supper is made.
The eventful start to an eventful hike.
But worse was to follow. Much worse.
Episodes of The 1988 Wild Coast Trail – 25 year Retrospective Report
The 1988 Wild Coast Trail – 25 year Retrospective Report Part1: The Journey
The 1988 Wild Coast Trail – 25 year Retrospective Report – Part 2: An ignominious start
The 1988 Wild Coast Trail – 25 year Retrospective Report – Part 3: In Too Deep
The 1988 Wild Coast Trail – 25 year Retrospective Report – Part 4: The route march through a swamp
The 1988 Wild Coast Trail – 25 year Retrospective Report – Part 5: The old & the future South Africa collide