South Africa’s Wild, Wild Coast: Part 1

We round a bend and there it is: a metal gate with a sign for Dwesa/Cwebe Nature Reserve. Finally! I was starting to feel like we’d never make it. Now we’ll have just enough time to get to the beach before sunset.

The smartly dressed park ranger, a stout woman with curly hair and a wide smile, walks out to greet us. We exchange the usual pleasantries.

“We’ve booked a chalet in the nature reserve,” I tell her.

The ranger looks confused. “You’re not booked at the hotel?” she asks.

“No. A self-catering chalet.”

“Eish! You’ve come the wrong way.”

The ranger explains that this is the entrance to the Haven Hotel, which is inside the Dwesa/Cwebe reserve on the north side of the Mbhashe River mouth. The self-catering chalets, however, are on the south side of the river mouth. There is no bridge across the river mouth. To reach the chalets, we’ll have to backtrack and drive about 40 kilometers to the other side.

It takes my brain a while to absorb this news. We left Durban at 7:00 this morning and it’s now after 4:00. The sun is very low in the sky already — winter days are short in the Eastern Cape.

Mistake #1: Attempting to drive from Durban to Dwesa in one day.

Forty kilometers (about 24 miles) is an easy distance to cover under conventional circumstances. But this is the Wild Coast, in a region of the Eastern Cape formerly called the Transkei. The roads out here are not conventional. For the past two hours, we’ve been averaging 25 to 40 kilometers an hour on a rough, rutted dirt track.

Transkei scenery

The Wild Coast/Transkei. Beautiful, but it’s a bitch to navigate.

About an hour ago, we came to a fork in the road. Google Maps told us to turn left, but there was a sign for the Haven Hotel to the right. The left fork had no sign.

We’re going to Dwesa, we thought, and the Haven Hotel is in Dwesa. (Actually the Haven is in Cwebe, which adjoins Dwesa. But we didn’t know that at the time. It’s all very confusing.) So we went right at the fork. Google Maps continually nagged us to turn around, but we ignored it.

Mistake #2: Ignoring Google Maps.

So now we sit at the wrong gate with the friendly park ranger, considering our options: 1) We can check in at the Haven, if they happen to have a room. But we’ve already paid for our chalet and the Haven is more expensive. 2) We can backtrack and try to reach the other side of Dwesa, and our cozy chalet, before dark. Or as soon after dark as possible.

“If you leave now, you might get there by 6:00,” the ranger suggests. Option #2 it is.

Ray can see I’m not coping well. “Let me drive,” he says.

I climb out of the driver’s seat of our rented Nissan Qashqai SUV. It was a free upgrade from the Toyota Avanza that we originally reserved. Thank goodness — we could never have made it in a smaller vehicle.

Ray turns the car around and we head off again.

Mistake #3: Not staying at the Haven.

The late afternoon sun illuminates the walls of thatched, pastel-painted rondavels. Herds of livestock and domesticated geese saunter across the road. Gangs of teenage boys jog past, chanting and holding up long painted sticks. There must be an initiation ritual tonight.

I love places like this. But there’s no time to get out and take photos, no time to talk to the locals and find out what life is like here. We need to get where we’re going, as quickly and safely as possible.

Dwesa geese

I actually took this photo on a different day. But it’s similar to what we saw that afternoon. Except the road pictured here is much, much better than the one we drove that evening on the way to Dwesa.

We follow the GPS over endless hills, through countless valleys. Ray drives slowly, carefully, avoiding deep chasms and big rocks. Ray is very patient.

The sun disappears behind the mountains, and we begin to climb in earnest. We find ourselves on a steep, narrow mountain pass with no guard rail. “I’m not going to look,” Ray says, referring to the gaping drop-off to my left. We descend, skittering on the sparse gravel, then climb again, hugging the side of the mountain.

Twenty-five kilometers to Dwesa, according to the GPS. The light is fading fast.

We later learn that we could have avoided this entire harrowing experience if we’d taken a different, slightly longer route from Mthatha, via the towns of iDutya and Willowvale. But Google Maps doesn’t seem to know the difference between good roads and bad roads. The non-harrowing option was never suggested to us.

Mistake #4: Following Google Maps. (Yes, Mistake #4 contradicts Mistake #2. Because Transkei.)

Suddenly, a loud clunk. A sharp rock that Ray didn’t see. The car becomes harder to control. Ray pulls over and gets out.

“There’s a flat,” Ray says.

A walnut-sized puncture in the left-front tire. Inevitable, I suppose.

I’ve survived 25 years of driving life without ever changing a tire. Until now. Fortunately Ray knows what to do.

We empty our luggage from the trunk and pile it on the side of the road. Haul out the full-size spare tire and the jack. Set up the emergency reflector. I struggle to raise the jack, balanced awkwardly on the rocky, dusty road, while Ray labors to loosen the lug nuts. We’re each stabbed repeatedly by a thorn bush, which is pressing against the side of the car.

A vehicle approaches — a single man in a bakkie (small pickup truck). I wave and the man waves back. But doesn’t stop.

Jack is raised, flat tire is off. We can’t get the spare tire on though. The jack isn’t quite high enough. Ray digs out the space under the wheel and I try to raise the jack higher, twisting the small, awkward wrench.

Ray nearly has the new tire on. “We need some light,” he pants, sitting back on his heels. I look inside the car and see my iPhone in the cup holder. Without a thought, I pull open the door.

Mistake #5: Opening the passenger side car door while changing the passenger side tire.

A loud bang as the car door explodes into my face. Ray reels back, stunned. “Oh my god, are you okay?” I’m crying, afraid Ray is hurt. But he looks fine. Luckily he wasn’t under the car when it fell. The jack has collapsed and the car tilts awkwardly. My face hurts.

I put my hand to my face and feel swelling above my eye. “I hurt myself, ” I moan. Ray is hugging me. “You’re bleeding,” he says. He strips off his t-shirt and holds it tightly to my face. I sob, the sound echoing across the valley. Far below, the young male initiates are still chanting.

What the fuck are we going to do now?

“It’s okay,” Ray soothes. “We’re okay. I’ll call the Haven.” He gently puts my hand on his t-shirt, which is still against my head. “Hold that there.”

Ray is on the phone, calling the Haven. (Cell phone signal is surprisingly strong around here.) “My girlfriend might have a concussion,” I hear him say. While he’s speaking to the Haven staff (who are nice but ultimately unhelpful), another bakkie approaches. This one stops.

We’re saved by an angel named Luwazi and Luwazi’s friend, whose name I never learn. Luwazi has a sister in Joburg and he used to stay with her in Northcliff. He and his friend are expert tire-changers (duh, they live in the Transkei). We’re ready to go in under 15 minutes.

I’m feeling so much love for Luwazi and his friend. They have truly saved our asses. I hand them R300 ($25). “I wish we could give you more,” I say, and I mean it. But from the size of their smiles, I can see that R300 goes a long way in the Transkei. We follow them until the next turnoff to Dwesa.

It’s pitch dark. Ray is shirtless, driving under 20km per hour with the high-beams on, dodging pedestrians, cows, and holes in the road. I’m still holding the t-shirt to my head but I’m not bleeding much. I can tell I’m okay.

I look at my phone: it’s just after 6:00. It feels like midnight.

We reach the Dwesa gate between 7:00 and 7:30, after navigating an endless maze of twists and turns. It’s been 12 hours since we left Durban. There’s an elderly man standing just outside the gate, his bakkie stuck in the mud. We stop next to him.

“Are you okay?” Ray asks.

“Oh, yeeeees. Someone is coming for me.” The man has a beautiful face. “Where are you going?” he asks.

We point to the sign for the nature reserve. “Ohhhh, it’s very nice there,” the man says. “The road is bad out here but once you’re in the forest, it’s good.”

We wave goodbye to the kind old man and approach the park entrance. There is a gatehouse, curiously dark and abandoned, but no gate. We drive through, into another world.

The journey isn’t over yet.

Read Part 2.
Read Part 3.

Herding_edited

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27 Comments

  • Reply Timmee June 20, 2015 at 2:11 pm

    Oh my gosh! Can’t wait for the next installment! Banana.

    • Reply 2summers June 20, 2015 at 4:51 pm

      Nana.

  • Reply Gail Wilson June 20, 2015 at 2:13 pm

    That’s what you call an adventure, can’t wait for the continuation.

    • Reply 2summers June 20, 2015 at 4:51 pm

      Yep, adventure indeed.

  • Reply Graeme Strickland June 20, 2015 at 2:39 pm

    OMG! What a harrowing experience! As a kids, we’d spend the Xmas holidays at Qora Mouth and walk down to Mazeppa Bay along the beach. I loved the Transkei but haven’t been back since I took my American wife to see it in 1972. I think I’d be rather wary travelling there now and I’d probably totally freak out in a situation like yours!

    • Reply 2summers June 20, 2015 at 4:52 pm

      Well, I think we managed to pick the absolute hardest part of the Transkei to visit. Port St. John’s was much tamer and easier to get to – I’ll write about that next 🙂

  • Reply Sunshinebright June 20, 2015 at 7:22 pm

    Can’t wait for the next installment!!!! 😉

  • Reply tenneymason June 20, 2015 at 7:23 pm

    Wow!

  • Reply mvschulze June 20, 2015 at 10:47 pm

    WOW! I am literally on the edge of my seat….. M 🙂

  • Reply UnderAnAfricanSun June 21, 2015 at 8:37 am

    Wow, glad you are ok, can’t wait to hear the rest.

  • Reply Vincent June 21, 2015 at 8:45 am

    OMG!! I hope you’re okay! Such an adventure! And your writing… Great stuff!!

  • Reply Lani June 21, 2015 at 10:17 am

    You poor thing. Jeez. We have to wait for part 2? There’s a part 2? I hope you are okay.

    • Reply 2summers June 21, 2015 at 11:03 am

      Yes, I think we’re fine now. There’s definitely a part two coming! Thanks for your concern 🙂

  • Reply Duncan June 21, 2015 at 12:03 pm

    Hey Heather – thanks for the blog and like your Instagram feed too… it’s a nice bit of home! Ironic how a place is often better shown by someone who’s not a local… 🙂

    We went walking in Transkei (Mboyti to Port Edward) in 1991 – apartheid was as good as dead by then but no one was sure of what was going to happen next – we could feel the uncertainty in the air.. . On the road out of Lusikisiki (which was probably a bit like the road you were on) we rounded a corner and drove straight into a big ANC march. Despite being a group of lefty white kids we would probably still be seen as being on ‘the other side’ – so there was an immediate sense of wtf. We had no choice but to drive on. We slowly edged through the throng – and as we drove through the amandla’s and the toyi-toyi’ing and got the other side I realised that what I felt as uncertainly and fear was actually hope and excitement. I think it’s still a wonderful place with wonderful people.

    Anyway, your blog made me think of that, so thanks.

    Duncan

    • Reply 2summers June 21, 2015 at 12:29 pm

      Wow, that’s a great story Duncan — thanks so much for sharing. Another photojournalist friend of mine shared a story about going to stay at Dwesa in 1994, just after the elections. He spent two days recuperating there after all the madness, and said that the roads were so bad that his car radio fell out on the way there. Anyway I love stories like this and I’m glad that my blog brings back memories of them. I appreciate the comment!

  • Reply catherine June 21, 2015 at 6:38 pm

    Hope you are ok now, you write so well, I am also really looking forward to the next installment….have an enjoyable sunday night and hi to the Melville cat!

    • Reply 2summers June 22, 2015 at 3:03 pm

      Thanks Catherine 🙂

  • Reply Sine June 21, 2015 at 9:09 pm

    Heather – such a typical African travel story. It feels like our life was full of those for the three years we lived there. Particularly the one in Namibia, where we had a similar day driving way into the dark getting lost and not finding our next lodge. And then of course the day of the 3 (yes 3) flat tires, I’m sure you’ve read my blog post about it. Currently working on the Namibia book, so I guess that’s the upside of days like this for a blogger/writer – you can always look forward to the story, and it might make an entire book one day. Nice leisurely trip to nice hotel = not much of a story:-) Can’t wait to hear Part 2!

    • Reply 2summers June 22, 2015 at 3:02 pm

      Yep, the blogging potential was, as usual, the only upside of that experience.

      I don’t know how this is possible but I don’t think I’ve read your 3-flat-tire post, although I’ve seen reference to it several times in your blog. Or maybe I read it but don’t remember. Either way, I want to reread it now as I think it will make me feel better about our experience. Could you please send me the link? I searched around your blog but couldn’t find it for some reason. Looking forward to the Namibia book!

  • Reply Eugenia A Parrish June 21, 2015 at 10:39 pm

    Wow, and I thought Martha Gellhorn’s adventures in Africa in the Fifties was exciting! I’m very glad you didn’t have to experience your adventure alone, though. I can’t wait to hear the rest.

    • Reply 2summers June 22, 2015 at 2:58 pm

      Yes, I really don’t know how I could have survived this without Ray. Driving alone in that part of SA is definitely not an option.

  • Reply amelie88 June 22, 2015 at 4:47 am

    This sounds terrifying! I’m the kind of person who freaks out when getting lost in an unfamiliar area. Your alluding to a Part 2 sounds sinister, especially with the abandoned gatehouse. I’m imagining some kind of Walking Dead scenario (please no zombies, I am so over zombies!).

    • Reply 2summers June 22, 2015 at 2:57 pm

      Haha. Don’t worry — no zombies 🙂

  • Reply Firefly - Jonker June 22, 2015 at 11:03 am

    I got through my whole Wild Coast trip in May without a puncture, thank goodness. Some of those roads are horrible though but the end destination makes up for it.

    • Reply 2summers June 22, 2015 at 2:56 pm

      Yes, the final destination did make up for the trauma of the journey. I just wish I’d had more time to enjoy it once we recovered. Unfortunately we really didn’t plan this well 🙁

  • Reply sandicaganoff June 22, 2015 at 7:36 pm

    Heather, I had a disastrous road trip here 10 years ago except I was going to The Haven and landed up at Gate Number One…

    • Reply 2summers June 22, 2015 at 7:50 pm

      Omg. I knew we couldn’t be the only ones!

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