It is a Friday afternoon and today Zithulele has been blessed with a perfect blue sky, warm sunshine and the gentlest of breezes. Swallows are criss-crossing high overhead. There is a clear view from our hilltop across to the next range of hills and beyond. The zigzag line of the dirt road to Hole-in-the-Wall climbing up the opposite slope can be seen distinctly. Two tiny figures are visible walking along it. Through binoculars they turn out to be women carrying brightly coloured bundles on their heads.
It is the end of the working week for everyone except those scheduled for weekend cover in the hospital. A mention is made of drinks on the beach and five of us make plans to go. Two of the girls want to run down. Rona, Joe and I go down in Joe’s car to meet them there.
Joe’s little Suzuki 4WD is a legend. It has done a vast mileage and the inside is the equivalent of a bachelor’s pad, minimal luxury and lots of useful things and some rubbish. Rona climbs in the back and I sit in the front. The back seat is of the minimalist variety and is concealed under papers, the odd tool and bits of fishing tackle. My seat in the front has a novel auto recline function which catches me by surprise and I find I am looking at the car roof unexpectedly. I sit back up and scrabble to join the seat belt with its insertion clip. All that remains of the latter is the red push button and the catch, on a wire frame. I eventually get clicked in.
We set off from the hospital and turn off down the dirt track to the beach. It is a steep winding road which passes several isolated rondavels. At one point it curves round past a rise to suddenly reveal a spectacular view. In the distance down to the right and far below us the wide smooth Mncwasa river splits around an island and then rejoins before finally twisting into the ocean across a beach. The river is surrounded by dark green wooded hills and a steep slope on the far side. This estuary doesn’t feature on any tourist guide, nor is it exceptional among the many parallel Eastward-flowing waterways along this coast. Were it in the UK however it would be a national beauty spot. It is accessible only on foot or by boat. So few people are lucky enough to get this view; I feel very privileged.
We climb up the next slope over some serious boulders, teeter at the top and then, roller coaster fashion, plunge down the opposite side. There below ahead of us is the long strip of flat white sand with a tall hill at the far end and the blue Indian Ocean rolling in with pure white topped waves. Lubanzi, we treat it as our private beach. Occasionally a few backpackers turn up and there is a small hostel for them nearby. Most of the time it is completely empty
The sun is quite low and there is that magical early evening light slanting across the hills adding a brightness and slight yellow tinge to the green of the grass and lighting up the sand with a golden glow.
We share the view with a raptor which hovers motionless above us for a few seconds before banking off to the left. The fingered feathers at the wingtips and the very short tail identify it as a bateleur.
As usual we have the beach to ourselves. We park on a small flat area facing the sea and quite close to the edge and scramble down the steep grassy slope and across the line of stones at the back of the beach. The rounded smooth grey boulders near the slope slim down to small rounded pebbles where the sand starts; hopeless for skimming, perfect for juggling. I took three home last time and left them on the windowsill. A furious hammering on the window announced a crow trying to get at the banquet of unguarded eggs inside.
We are in the sea within minutes. The water is slightly cool at the first splash but then pleasant to swim in. The two girls arrive a short while later and we spend about 20 minutes getting exhausted diving through the crashing surf and body boarding the big waves. The undertow is powerful and at one point I feel myself being sucked along towards one end of the beach. Time to get out and we sit around on the rocks sipping beer and wine and nibbling water melon as the sun finally sets behind the hills.
The sky begins to haze over and a sea mist gathers. It gets cooler and we gather up our belongings and all cram back into Joe’s car. The three girls squeeze into the back on the seat or floor. I strap in again. The bare simplicity of the car is like a Spitfire cockpit. The impression is strengthened as I notice Joe bent over outside fiddling with the front wheels. All we need is a cry of ‘chocks away’ to complete the scene. He scrambles back in and explains that since we need four wheel drive on the way back he has been adjusting the nuts on the front wheels to engage them with the drive shaft.
The engine roar reinforces the Battle of Britain feeling. The clutch engages and we shoot forward for take-off towards the drop leading to the beach.
Joe brakes, apologises for the wrong gear and we reverse slowly back to the road.
We start up the steep slope in rally style the four wheels grasping for purchase on the loose boulders and mud. The little car has a fair load of humanity on board but Joe is confident about its capabilities and tells me that he has used it to pull other cars out of holes before now. I develop a growing admiration as it copes with the off road conditions well. The slope steepens and the wheels are bouncing and sliding a bit. In the back the girls are chatting away while clinging on tight as the car buckets along. There is a sudden exclamation from all three as we hit a particularly steep and rough patch; it distracts us both in the front. I swing round ‘What is it?’ I ask, hoping everything is all right; but perhaps they have seen something remarkable – another eagle?
‘A baby donkey – it is sooo cute’. My shoulders slump with despair as I turn back.
For comfort I am holding on to the dashboard. I feel grateful that I had my microdiscectomy earlier in the year. My back is holding up well; six months ago this sort of pounding would have had me clinging on to the car roof by now.
We hit a flatter patch and Joe pulls to a halt to get the car out of 4WD mode as it doesn’t perform at its best like that and is only used when necessary. He adjusts the wheels again, jumps back in and starts the engine. He reaches this time for the 2WD gearstick and it comes off in his hand. I look down through a sizeable hole in the floor where I can clearly see the potholed road surface.
Joe is unfazed, this is apparently a normal occurrence and he has a variety of tools to sort this out, including a spoon. The gear stick is eventually reinserted and the engine revs up. Joe lifts the clutch pedal and the gears engage – or not – as a higher pitched, very fast whirring screaming sound emerges from beneath our feet. I recognise the noise as identical to the time I stripped the gears on the Black and Decker drill, the sound is unmistakable. These gears are tougher though, a couple more roars and then reluctantly they engage and off we go.
It is getting dark and groups of young men are materialising out of the gloom, off for a Friday night out no doubt. Joe hoots at them to warn them we are coming in case they haven’t spotted the single working headlight. I rate this as pretty superfluous as the engine noise must be audible in Durban, but it does at least add to the variety of sounds the car is making.
We get back to the hospital and pile out, breathless and almost helpless with laughter (and relief?). I have a new respect for the Suzuki.
We separate and reconvene later. Joe has produced an excellent poike, a traditional Afrikaaner stew where everything is cooked together in a large cast iron pot, usually over an open fire.
A battering by the waves, a driving adventure and a hot tasty meal – as potent a combination as one could imagine for an extremely sound night’s sleep.
What larks Timmy