People adjust quite quickly to the scale of their environment. In London I automatically allow an hour to get anywhere and when living there it wasn’t a big deal to drive for that length of time to visit people. In Cambridge, unless I have to, I am reluctant to travel all the way to the north side of a town which is barely 3 miles in diameter. The Americans are legendary for travelling miles and miles for a day trip. Here it is similar; the huge distances mean that you accept that to get anywhere necessitates you spending hours in the car; it is just a way of life. One UK expatriate who worked here some time back is remembered fondly for exclaiming in frustration half way from Zithulele to Durban that wherever he was going in the UK, he would be there by now.
I am going to Port Edward to meet up with Amy and visit her hospital at nearby Bizana. According to Google Maps it is 370km from Zithulele to Port Edward which doesn’t seem too far.
I have begun to enjoy the drive to the N2 from the hospital; the scenery is a pleasing mixture of unpopulated wide swooping valleys and small collections of farmed areas. The weather is beautiful as I set off; the sun is hot and the countryside at its best, a rich greenness spreading as far as the distant hilltops and a blueness to the sky that you find only in places like Northumberland, well away from the hazy pollution of towns.
Approaching Mqanduli the road is in poorer shape and there have been repairs ongoing for many months. These involve a local specialty of traffic control. Superficially it will be familiar to UK residents as it is a version of the single lane contraflow with Stop/Go signs. One lane of the road under repair is made inaccessible with some cones and barriers but the innovative deterrent here is the deliberately scattered boulders the size of house bricks which pepper the unfinished side of the tarmac. Traffic takes turns at travelling along the intact lane and the whole operation is policed by a quite substantial number of people at each end, equipped with mobile phones, whose job it is to speak to each other and, between them, coordinate the turning round of the Stop/Go signs to let one or other traffic stream move. The phones are needed because the repair companies work on very long stretches of road at a time and one cannot see from one end to the other. All this sounds conventional until you realise that the team at each end treat their job primarily as an excuse for a social gathering; the road control is an incidental nuisance which drags them away from chewing the fat and generally catching up.
It is nice to see a group of people clearly enjoying themselves whilst at work; their roars of laughter echo out across the scene. I stop where indicated and wait while a small line of half a dozen cars, vans and taxis comes through in the opposite direction. The traffic stream peters out and I put my car in gear ready for the off. I wait for whatever straggling vehicles might be on their way but none come. Time ticks on; the amount that has elapsed would have been enough to empty most of the M25. My empathic pleasure at the bonhomie in front of me begins to wear thin. Suddenly one of them jumps up as if stung and, remembering why he was here, clamps his mobile phone to his ear and marches forward to swing the sign round from Stop to Go. He returns to his seat on an oil drum and the laughter resumes.
At this stage all should be well but I move forward tentatively. The Doctors at Zithulele refer to these not as Stop/Go, but as Go/Go, roadworks. This is because at any stage you may encounter vehicles coming towards you, usually at high velocity, commonly the minibus taxis, jammed with passengers. The conclusion must be that the coordination between the teams at both ends is somehow not quite perfect. I creep forward along the narrow single lane, a steep slope to the right and boulders to the left, wishing I was in the Night Bus from the Harry Potter books with its ability to squeeze through impossible gaps. I eventually get to the checkpoint at the other end where a line of traffic sits. The drivers are visibly drumming their fingers on the steering wheels in tight lipped sufferance at the hysterical laughter from the traffic crew at this end. The unworthy thought pops into my head that they might be laughing at the setting up of the near misses that they have engineered that day. My paranoia centre is obviously in overdrive, surely no one would…. would they?
As I approach the main N2 trunk road I pause briefly at the ungated single track railway line with its easy to ignore Stop sign. Only one train passes each day but the local traffic police have a favourite pastime of hiding nearby and pouncing on forgetful drivers who drive straight across, at which point the choice is between either a trip to the police station or their much preferred on the spot cash fine.
I turn on to the N2 and head for Mthatha. On a clear morning the view to the West can be magniificent; the wall of peaks of the southern end of the Drakensberg rising out of a layer of low cloud. Today the there is too much heat haze to see that far. The traffic is reasonable and the road generally good providing one keeps alert for the many and often mysteriously sited traffic calming devices. The most obvious are the sleeping policemen rising from the tarmac, conspicuous with their white diagonal stripes. There is no uniformity about these, either between groups or within a group. You can be lulled into a sense of security by the gentle undulation of the car as you cross them and then, at an unexpected interval one much bigger than the rest rocks your suspension and tosses your luggage into the air. The only trick I have learned is, as I approach, to examine the tarmac in front and beyond each bump to see how much it has been scraped by the undersides of previous vehicles. Often these humps are neither painted nor signposted and it is only the sudden slowing of traffic in front that provides the warning. They also have rumble strips. These are not the gentle auditory reminders I am used to in the UK which make a short ‘diddley diddley dit’ as you cross them. Here they are laid in wide serried ranks with each strip the height and diameter of a broomhandle; a blatant conspiracy with the dentists to make all your fillings drop out.
I negotiate the hazards to and through Mthatha and set out North on the N2. The scenery becomes rugged and Pennine-like but with the ubiquitous tough grass instead of heather. At its best the road is fast and smooth. The landscape of vast ranges of towering hills stretching to the far West to the smoky blue peaks of the distant mountains of Lesotho would grace any Lord of the Rings movie. Yellow billed kites soar past occasionally with their instantly identifiable forked tails.
It is late in the afternoon and the sky dulls with gathering cloud. The drive has already been long with only one brief stop. I come to a lengthy Go/Go section where the traffic comes to a halt and I can see the stationary queue curving up the hill to the left in front of me for at least a mile. The old hands switch off engines and get out. We are a long way from the actual Stop/Go sign and the road is still two laned although the oncoming right side is of course empty. As if from nowhere a group of locals, mainly women, appear, brightly clad in wonderfully unmatching primary and pastel coloured tops, skirts and headscarves, carrying trays and bags in their hands or balanced securely on their heads. It is the local service station that has sprung up in response to the regular lines of stationary traffic. They have drinks, fruit, lurid bags of sweets and gifts to sell. One man is carrying what looks like a bunch of long strings of liquorice. On close inspection these turn out to be in-car chargers for virtually any make of phone you can name.
The food sellers do a relaxed but reasonably successful trade with the drivers. There is no pressure, they know they have plenty of time for people to change their minds even after a first refusal.
After about 25 minutes I spot some forward movement of the trucks at the very top of the hill. Like the old Le Mans race start we all run to our cars and get in and optimistically switch our engines on. At this point I am stunned as all the taxis take to the right hand lane and start shooting up the hill overtaking the queue and then forcing an entry back in as they approach the roadworks. The bare-faced cheek of it leaves me speechless with indignation. Luckily I just make it through and I fume impotently for the next half hour.
The road is very high up now and far off to the right out of the corner of my eye I catch a flash of light. It looks like lightning. I reach my turnoff and settle down for another long stretch on the road to Bizana and thence to Port Edward. The road winds to and fro through darkening countryside. Bizana seems a lot further than I thought. Again out of the corner of my eye a see a flash in the sky. It is probably a storm at sea as the coast is in that direction but luckily it seems further south than I am aiming. Another hour passes and the flashes continue. I have a rising sense of unease as the road direction slowly but inexorably inches round to the right. The flashes gradually move from my peripheral vision until they are dead ahead and it dawns on me that the storm is at or near Port Edward.
By now it is pitch dark and I pass through small villages of rondavels and houses with pinpoints of lantern light in their doorways. The road slowly and then more rapidly descends as I approach Port Edward and the storm becomes more and more visible. It has been going on for an hour already and for the next hour as the coast nears it gets more and more vivid. There is barely more than two or three seconds of darkness between each spectacular flash which lights up the whole sky and the clouds above the now visible sea. The cracks and rumbles of thunder follow at shorter and shorter intervals. It is as though Thor and Zeus have come head to head in the final of ‘Strictly Come Bolting’. ‘Take that, Nordic punk!’ ‘Huh that little fork, weaker than your Greek economy; follow that!’
I have never experienced a storm like it. Mercifully, I muse, the rain is all out at sea, but as I pass the sign saying Welcome to Port Edward huge beefy drops begin hitting the windscreen and soon the wipers are full on and barely keeping up with the deluge coming down from above.
I have a mental map of where the hotel is and at the ‘robot’ I turn off down the road signed to Port Edward. The road winds down through a progressively more deserted housing estate and reaches a dead end. It is still absolutely pelting with rain. I recall that I cleverly left the hotel details in the boot of the car. Luckily I have their phone number so I call. An urbane African voice tells me, a little patronisingly perhaps, that I shouldn’t have turned off down this road. I am to go back to the junction and turn right at the robot and continue up the road about one and a half kilometres where is a neon sign showing the name of the hotel right by the turnoff. I drive back and turn up the hill as instructed. For the life of me I can find no sign, neon or otherwise. About 3km further on I pull off and phone again. ‘I seem to have missed the sign’ I say ‘I am at a sign saying Glenmore’. ‘You have gone too far’ he says smoothly ‘you will have missed the hotel sign because of the power cut’, ‘Has that just happened?’ I ask. ‘No it has been out all day’ he says.
Seven hours after I set out I finally reach my destination where the welcome is warm and the room is superb. Supper settles the stress and it is bedtime.
Before going to sleep I consult Google Maps which tells me that the drive to Port Edward from Zithulele takes 5 hours 38 minutes (precisely). Perhaps it is tiredness from the journey but this suddenly seems hysterically funny and I start to giggle. 5 hours 38 minutes – for Luke Skywalker possibly…