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.
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.
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.