– By Warwick Jones
Goose-flesh wracks my entire body, and steam pours from my mouth – dragon’s breathe in the frigid morning air. Despite the ridiculously early hour, and my morning-dementia, I am not mistaken; I am no dragon. I’m just bloody cold.
Sally is late, as usual, and I stand outside my gate in the freezing cold, clutching a half-hearted effort at egg and mayonnaise sandwiches; my luggage strewn at my feet. I hear her first, the engine revving with sufficient gusto to blow it right from its little compartment. That and the misplaced sound of Gregorian chanting round the corner, barely contained in her little Renault.
She pulls up to the gate and slides from her seat, her trademark “HELLOOOooooooo” (accompanied by a particularly spirited Gregorian chorus) breaking the once reflective silence. I manage a smile, despite my teeth chattering so violently I fear they may shatter at a moments notice. It’s early, and I’m confused; Sally seems not to notice the sleeping teenager in the back seat of her own car.
“Aren’t you excited?” She beams. “We’re going to live among the Pondo”.
I wipe sleep from my eyes, understanding very little. After fetching my trusty companion, Kate, we set off toward Msikaba; the not yet rising sun at our backs. These early stages of the trip are quiet, but wonderful. Only Sally and I are awake, our conversations ranging from Buddhism, to Paolo Coelho, to why the editing profession is both wondrous and entirely horrifying.
The land itself changes drastically as our journey continues. It is far greener as we pass through the Midlands. Sally is not hesitant to point out the many historic landmarks that lay along our trail; none as unimpressive as a tiny wooden blip that looks awfully like an old porter house. I’m told it’s actually the smallest church in Africa. We continue along the winding roads, through the rolling hills that KwaZulu-Natal is so famous for.
From the car, I can catch only glimpses of old buildings, white and grey and broken. I am told that among them are the ruins of old Trappist monasteries. Even from my tiny window into a world, old and new, I spot decaying wood and broken stone which seems to exist perfectly with ever-growing moss, and climbing ivy. All around the crumbling pillars of the past, men in blue overalls till the soil outside their huts, and tend to their crop. From my little window I can see history written all over this land, and I can see it written still in the little coloured clay huts stretching over the hill.
Some time later, Sally stops aside the road. “Bush wee”, is all I catch. This is the precise moment the teenager decides to arise from his slumber. He claws his way out of the back seat, and stumbles onto the tar – just to see Sally’s legs squatting between the car doors. He gives a little yelp and dives back in. Kate and I almost giggle, but the egg and mayonnaise monstrosities I had conjured are no laughing matter. Kate, ever tactful, swears that they are delicious; Sally is less inclined to diplomacy and asks me if I forgot to cook the eggs.
Back in the car, we venture on. We are close now, very close – deep into the Transkei. This is Pondoland – and the green of upper Natal has been exchanged for shades of brown and yellow. It is dusty, and a slight wind has picked up. We stop at the last petrol station along the way – another half an hour, we’re told. I choose not to purchase some particularly villainous looking sausages from a road-side vendor, and instead we continue through Lusikisiki, what I am told is the nearest town to our camp-site at Msikaba.
The dirt roads from Lusikisiki are terrible; cavernous gabions and sink holes litter the way . Sally pays little heed, as we bounce merrily on, our jaws clattering to the tune of Meatloaf’s greatest hits.
“You should see these roads after the rains,” she says, swinging her steering wheel with gay abandon to avoid yet another giant hole. “If it rains, we’re stuck here till February.”
Sally decides on an off-road path up a particularly mountainous hill. Her off-road skills leave a great deal to be desired, as the bottom of the car scrapes over multiple grassy bumps. When we crest the hill, however, I understand her decision. We shuffle from the car, and look down as the hill seems to flow into the ocean below. All around us is grassland, and in the breeze you can here little but the whistle of each long yellow blade flailing against the next. “Lusikisikisikisikisikisikisiki”, each gust seems to sing.
From our rocky outcrop we can see the Mpondo village along the coast, to the South; their coloured clay rondavels scattered across the horizon. To the North, between (what feels like) the mountain we now stand on, and the Msikaba river mouth, is our campsite. Reluctantly, we leave the grasslands, and their song, and travel down into the camp site.
My family are not renowned for their camping skills, so when we arrive to a city of canvas, guy rope and shade-cloth, I’m somewhat surprised. The Hines’ are clearly no amateurs, and are accustomed to making themselves comfortable during their stay. Upon our arrival, Bart (camp-master extraordinaire) and his motley crew are found lounging in the kitchen tent, having just devoured breakfast.
Clearly, under the sweltering sun and unyielding humidity, living had been tough: my remaining egg and mayonnaise creations are shovelled down in a matter of seconds. My mother looks particularly relieved to see us, not because we have arrived safely, as I soon learn, but because we have brought with us a supply of wine. Kate and I, the least experienced campers are ushered to the supply tent – our new home. We get set up on the half of the tent that actually has a shade-cloth floor, and attempt to parlay with the spider-kingdom we have just annexed.
There is no electricity here, and no cell-phone reception. We are more than an hour from the closest hospital, and God-knows how far from a source of anti-venom; after all, we are but visitors in this black-mamba hotspot. No cause for concern, we are told, they’re afraid of people. This is a lie: Google informs me that mambas are viciously curious animals (albeit a little stupid). I can only hope that like much of humanity (the stupid ones, I like to think), the little bastards ignore me.
The beach is a two minute walk down a varnished wood boardwalk, that passes through a small forest of amatungulu and milkwood trees. The path leads out of the trees and onto a lagoon – into which the Msikaba river flows. Across the rapid-flowing water is a cliff face, and the Wild Coast. Atop the cliffs, Sally says, is a nature reserve, built around the ruins of a leper colony turned tuberculosis hospital. The walk is a tad painful; the midday sun setting fire to the white-yellow sand below, but the beach along Msikaba is beautiful – stretching far along the right, before large boulders bar one’s way.
After a great deal of time in the sun, we return to camp. Kate, of fair skin, already looks remarkably like a tomato. She is first to retire to the showers, from where a loud scream echoes. We rush to her aid, concerned she has found the Spider King; instead, she has found something far worse. At Msikaba, there is no hot water.
Instead, as we are informed, the Hines boys bathe at a small waterfall up toward the Pondo village. I gather my soap and my shampoo, as instructed, before we climb into the bakkie and head off. Standing, gripping the railing, the drive is horrifying and exhilarating all at once. The roads are terrible; but testosterone fuelled driving makes them more so; we skid around corners, shouting with glee (and fear) as dust clouds billow out behind us.
We arrive, battered and bruised, as our fathers step, giggling, from inside the driver’s compartment. The waterfall is small, but at its base is large pond, only a small section of it not taken up by reeds. The Hines’ toss their belongings into the bakkie, and leap from the miniature waterfall, into the warm pool below. Just up the hill from the waterfall is a Pondo village, and further up stream naked children frolic in the shallows while their mothers wash their clothing.
The setting sun casts its final orange light across the rolling hills, and the undulating land is set ablaze. It’s hard not to be happy here, and in the sun’s dying moments a sense of serenity is difficult to ignore. I walk to the edge of the waterfall and close my eyes; “Lusikisikisikisikisikisikisikisiki”, the grass song, ever lingering.