Port St Johns is a beach resort on the Eastern Cape. A colleague’s daughter, Amy, is working at a hospital further up the coast so we plan to combine catching up and exchanging experiences with a trip to what is portrayed as one of the hidden gems of the Wild Coast. It’s a bit logistically complex as she is at a course in East London and driving back this weekend so we decide provisionally to meet for lunch at the resort when she arrives back on Sunday.
Port St Johns is about two hours by car from Mthatha. There is no easy way to get there without going through that particular hell hole. It boasts the Nelson Mandela museum since he was born not far away (actually it was closer to Zithulele). I cannot imagine anyone other than the most uninformed casual visitor with a burning desire to lose all their possessions wanting to stop here to visit it, which is a shame for the Mandela legacy. Mthatha has a reputation for unpleasantness which some say exceeds Jo’burg. I am sitting in my car in a traffic queue at the ‘robot’ – the local name for traffic lights – when someone tries the car door handle and finding it (as always here) locked, runs away.
Outside Mthatha the suburbs straggle away and eventually I am in hilly countryside again. The road follows the river Mzimvubu valley leading to Port St Johns. The scenery is rugged and impressive and by the time the river reaches the town itself it is a huge brown torrent 100m wide. It dominates the beach, hitting it near the North end and cutting diagonally across southwards making two beaches out of a very large stretch of sand.
At high tide the whole beach is underwater. At low tide acres of smooth, stone free sand appear. Even if the weather was better I would have no intention of swimming. My source of all information about sharks told me before I left the UK that Port St Johns has the highest shark attack rate in the world. There have been 6 fatalities in the last 5 years. At that rate, as she pointed out, if I stay here two days I have a 1 in 150 chance of witnessing the seventh. The Zambezi or Bull Shark is the culprit. It haunts estuaries as it can swim upstream into fresh water. By unhappy coincidence it is also the most aggressive of all shark species. As an aside it must have the same remarkable physiology that the salmon and eel have in being able to survive in both salt and fresh water. One was found 50km upriver.
I find my hotel along a dirt road and am shown to my room. Entry is through a Dutch door into the small bedroom (the ceiling fan spans about one third of the width of the room). It is simply furnished with a soft bed, a desk and a narrow cupboard. Opposite the entrance another door leads into the en suite shower room. Something about it suggests it wasn’t always a bedroom. The ceiling looks as though it is made of corrugated iron and it has a utilitarian feel. In fact the corrugations turn out to be the imprint of moulding on the cement as there are two stories of bedrooms above me. Even so, to me it still says ‘shed’. As I start to unpack a large millipede strolls in on glissando legs through the large gap under the door and heads purposefully for the bathroom. I redirect it back out.
After 6 hours on the road what is needed is caffeine and I drive down to the coffee shop on the road leading back into town, just after it becomes tarmac again. I sit watching the street life over a moderate apple cake but a nectar-like coffee. It is early afternoon and the children are coming home from school. Small knots of figures in coloured uniforms walk past, giggling and playing up like school kids everywhere. Three go past slowly. From their close attentions to each other two are a couple I think; they contrast sharply as he is a tall gangling lad and she is about 4 foot 6. The third is another girl about the same height who stands out because of a huge mane of black hair cascading down her back. Also, for someone so petite, she is, how can I say this delicately, rather inappropriately buxom.
I pay my bill and get directions to the dam where I am told there may be good birds to watch. It is up a winding steep hill and much further than I imagined. I come back to the town convinced I have taken the wrong route because I have found nothing. I make friends with a workman using my limited Xhosa (I am now fine at asking if you are vomiting or having night sweats but these are not the best gambits for getting directions). He assures me the dam really is up there. I try the same route yet again and miss the turning; no one had mentioned it was down a dirt road signposted ‘landfill site’. At first I cruise past this up and up and eventually reach the very top of a small mountain. Strangely two taxis come past me in the other direction. The road suddenly becomes hugely wide and very straight and flat. About 400m ahead I can see a plane facing me. I have hit the airstrip which is also the dead end of the road. A swift about turn and eventually the dam is found. It is a series of brick steps a few courses high. The water from the lake beyond cascades over it and also funnels under it through some pipes. From here it streams in multiple rivulets over a broad flat rocky area before disappearing down a steep slope into the valley. It is very picturesque and worth the trip and I am rewarded with a chestnut bellied kingfisher, fairly rare and very pretty. After about an hour which includes a chat with some workmen from the landfill site on their way home in the back of a pickup truck, and a mercifully brief visit by a pack of young boys, the drizzle has become persistent and I leave. It is more than two hours since my coffee and another one seems due. Driving back down the hill I encounter schoolchildren on their way up going home and amongst them, to my surprise, I spot Little and Large and Dolly Parton wending their weary way upwards. They must walk for two or three hours each way, every day, to school and back.
The town is buzzing and posters proclaim that I have had the great good fortune to arrive on the weekend of the Wild Coast music festival. There are large marquees and to add to the sense of a miniature Glastonbury the fields around them are a total mud bath.
After dinner I go to bed. Thankfully my hotel is a distance away from the late night revelry and all is silence. Sleep for me requires four components: – warmth, a comfy bed and peace – meaning both absence of loud noise and a lack of any sense of danger. I am woken at 3 am when the latter two vanish announced by the unmistakable shrill ‘eeeeee’ of a female mosquito hovering near my ear. Although the competition is strong and includes cicadas and frogs, mosquitoes must be serious contenders in the decibels per kilogram stakes. It is not misogyny to accuse my tormentor of being female since males only eat fruit sap; females need a blood meal before they can produce and lay their eggs. The falsetto whine bizarrely triggers thoughts of Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen, the exquisite Mozart soprano aria from The Magic Flute with its thrilling tessitura sections*. Is it the sound or perhaps the translation ‘Hell’s rage boils in my heart’, possibly both.
I am not good with mosquitoes. What I like to imagine is a usually rational nature evaporates and I can spend a long time trying to eliminate one small insect from my bedroom. Here it is a hopeless task. The room has so many gaps and nooks, and, when I switch on the light, the perfection of the corrugated ceiling with its flecked paint as mosquito camouflage becomes apparent. I smother my face and hands with repellent and try to sleep again. An inspiration is to put my floppy hat over my exposed ear so even if the ravenous monster hovers trying to find a square millimeter of unprotected flesh I won’t hear it. It works and I sleep undisturbed.
Next day the clouds have moved firmly in. The news headlines state ‘Eastern Cape braces itself for more storms. Four drowned in floods’ I call Amy to discuss the weather and logistics. She mentions something about meeting for a meal in Mthatha. I express my doubts along the lines that I can think of better places to discard my money and my life. We decide this weekend is a busted flush and take a rain check on lunch.
I get back to Zithulele after driving through continuous cloud and mist, in some places I can barely pick out the road. Just as in the UK some drivers must be clones of Clark Kent. They roar past using either their x-ray vision or heat vision to bore personal holes in the fog. Back in the flat I look out of the window over the field which I can hardly see. The swallows are perched on the fence, shoulders hunched and with a resigned air about them. Their heads turn to and fro as if in conversation and I imagine an exchange along the lines of ‘What can you do in this visibility’ ‘Yeah nothing flying anyway worth catching’ ‘They say it’s going to be like it for days – call this Spring’.