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Posted by Tim on May 10, 2011
Off the Beaten Path on the Wild Coast, Part 2

This post continues the epic tale of our best travel day ever. If you haven't read the first part yet, you're advised to do that before proceeding. We'll be picking up our tale with your two hedgehogs in the South African city of Umtata, just as their minibus taxi departs for Xhora/Elliotdale (from which they shall endeavor to make their way on to Bulungula Lodge).

It should be noted that from this point on we didn't take our camera out much (in part because of the rain, which will be making an appearance shortly), so there won't be able to be as many photos from here on out.

Arrival in Elliotdale

'The road to Elliotdale. Note the ominous clouds.As usual, I fall asleep on the road from Umtata to Elliotdale. Outside the sky grows steadily more threatening, but the rain hasn't started yet. We pass through the dusty hamlet of Mqanduli, where we were warned we might need to change minibus taxis, but it turns out that this taxi (which is a pretty dang nice one, incidentally) is going all the way through to Elliotdale. After around an hour, we arrive at a dirt parking lot surrounded by small shops and filled with pickup trucks. Apparently, this is Elliotdale.

It's about 3pm, which means we're now approximately three hours behind schedule. More to the point, it means that it will start to get dark in another three hours or so. The clock is distinctly ticking, in particular because of a little something called the eskepeni – but we'll come to that in a bit.

'Next stop: NkanyaOur next goal (as laid out for us by the directions on the Bulungula website) is to try and make our way to the village of Nkanya. Jessica and I ask the woman sitting next to us as we exit the taxi, and she says she'll take us over to the taxi headed there. The two of us are joined by our new friends Peter and Loes as we follow her over to a dented old pickup truck with a covered bed along the edge of the parking lot... one which is absolutely completely packed with people. You seriously could not fit an additional limb into it, much less four adult human beings, despite all the encouraging words being offered by the beckoning people already squashed inside.

After seeing that we won't be able to fit, our friend instead leads us over to another taxi, a completely empty one, which will also be heading to Nkanya. And just then the first rains hit.

There is a terrific peal of thunder as lightning arcs across the sky, making everyone jump. As the first raindrops begin to pelt down the wind suddenly whips up into a frenzy, swirling clouds of dust across the earthen parking lot. People shriek with surprise and flee to the cover of the shops along the edges of the lot, and for some reason it all feels uncomfortably like the end of the world for just a moment. Once that moment passes, though, we follow a trio of matronly-looking women who have just boarded our taxi, and climb into the covered bed of the pickup truck.

A Very Special Taxi

This is what is known as a bakke (pickup truck) taxi. In Thailand, they're called songthaews ("two rows"), because they contain two rows of benches. Thailand's songthaews are much more advanced that this one, though, with their raised roofs and comfortable benches. This is just a regular old pickup truck, with a couple of two-by-fours bolted along the sides to sit on. You have to crouch over a bit because of the lack of headroom, but I can't really complain because poor Peter is several inches taller than me!

'Bustling Elliotdale, in all its gloryThere's actually a bit of confusion regarding our taxi, and we all need to climb back out and wander over to wait for it to pick us up on the side of the road. Fortunately the rain has subsided for the moment, but the heavens look like they might open again at any second. We make conversation with our fellow passengers as best we can while we all wait along the side of the road for our taxi to appear, sharing smiles and laughter to compensate for our lack of shared language. (One man – a fatherly, bald man with a kind face and a gentle voice – speaks enough English for us to confirm we're in the right place.)

Eventually, our taxi appears again and we all pile in. Immediately it becomes clear that in our absence the taxi has been loaded with enough goods to feed a village for a year, and we need to carefully make our way around giant bags of flour and shrink-wrapped packages of canned tomatoes until we wedge ourselves into a place near the front of the truck.

More people climb aboard, and then more. Twelve people are squashed into the truck with us, and then a thirteenth and fourteenth arrive. I'm starting to wonder if we wouldn't have been better off in the first pickup we saw, which doesn't seem so full to me now. Fifteen people now. And still, more and more goods are being piled in. Giant bags of puffed rice, sacks of breakfast cereal, plastic tubs of who-knows-what – all of it fills in every available cubic inch of the truck like water. Our legs are surrounded by supplies, which are piled atop our laps until the entire truck is filled to a depth of about chest-high or so. Oh, and now a sixteenth person has managed to climb in. Excellent.

Surely we must be about to leave now? There can't possibly be room for anything else in here anymore. Jessica and I are waging a quiet turf war with the women across from us with Peter's backpack – they keep trying to push it into our laps, and we keep trying to hold it back in the middle of the truck so we have some breathing room. Speaking of breathing, the truck is becoming increasingly warm, and although neither of us is at all claustrophobic, I'd swear it's getting hard to breathe in here. And it stinks a bit, too. What is that?

Oh, I see. They've just loaded an enormous plastic barrel of gasoline into the back, which is only partially covered. A seventeenth man climbs in and sits on it, and then the back door is slammed shut. And then we're off.

Third Leg: Elliotdale to Nkanya

It's incredibly hot and humid inside the truck as we pull away, but fortunately Jessica and I are in front of one of the small windows in the cab. As soon as we wrench it open, though, the rain starts pouring down again outside. Jessica is directly beneath the window, but she's wearing a windbreaker which is shielding her from the worst of the rain, and she prefers the rain to the heat. (This might be a good moment to remember that the poor girl is sick with the flu as all of this is happening.)

The fatherly bald man reaches over and closes the window with a smile, thinking he's helping to keep her dry. After a few more minutes of baking heat, though, he apologetically asks if we can open it again, and we are only too happy to accommodate him.

The road the truck is roaring over can really only be called a "road" in the most general sense – it's more like the idea of a road, a general concept that has yet to be fully flushed out. The truck is bouncing about like a bucking bronco, but we're all so squashed inside the bed that there's no room for any of us to get jostled about, so it's not too bad.

It's at around this time that we really start to get to know Peter and Loes better. She has been living in one of South Africa's poorest townships for the past few months, trying to help teach entrepreneurial skills to the young people there, so that they can have a chance for a better life. Peter came to join her for the final weeks of her project, including the job fair that was the culmination of her work there. They are both just such sweet, genuine people, and it comes across immediately – we loved them from the very beginning.

'Our friends Peter and Loes, taken at Bulungula, when we were decidedly not pinned under hundreds of pounds of groceriesVirtually none of the other people in the truck with us speak any English, but they're all watching us with rapt attention as we talk. Loes is passionate about the work she's been doing, and it shows on her face as she recalls all the challenges she has faced, and as she anguishes over the things that went wrong. Our fellow passengers might not understand her words, but emotions are a universal language.

Sometime thereafter, Peter realizes that he can't feel his legs anymore. The poor man is almost bent double where he's sitting, and his feet are pinned beneath a mountain of groceries. The four of us work together to try and make a little extra space for him, and soon the rest of the truck joins in as well. Eventually, after an effort akin to Hercules tidying up the Augean stables, we make enough room for him to move his feet an inch or two. It's enough to get the blood flowing again, and he thanks us all profusely.

After about an hour and a half or so crammed in the back of this truck, unable to move a millimeter and half-drunk on gasoline fumes, we pull to a stop in the middle of a small village. This isn't Nkanya, our destination, but it is where most of our fellow passengers are getting off. More importantly, it's where all of the supplies are being unloaded!

Impromptu Karaoke

There is much excitement and adventure as the supplies are unloaded. It seems the entire village has turned up to help unpack, and we all get into the act with them, handing things out in a fireman's line. At one point, the plastic bag containing our food and water (and Jessica's cough drops) accidentally gets unloaded, but the fatherly bald man retrieves it for us. Then there's the matter of the enormous bag of flour, which seems to have caught on something and splits open at some point, covering everything and everyone nearby, including me.

Eventually, everything gets unloaded (including everything strapped to the top of the truck, a pile of stuff taller than the truck itself), and we head out on our way again. There are only a half-dozen or so people in the back with us now, which suddenly feels ridiculously roomy after the cramped coziness of the first leg. At first we think this makes it all more comfortable, until the truck really gets going over the bumpy path again. Without all of our friends (and their groceries) to hold us back, we all get thrown all over the inside of the truck for the remainder of the ride. On one of these bounces, Loes's pants get caught on something and get torn, much to the dismay of the woman sitting beside her.

At one point, Loes mentions that she had noticed me saying something in Xhosa earlier, and asks me how much of the language I know. To demonstrate that it's basically nothing at all, I list all of the words I know how to say, which goes over very well with our fellow passengers. The last word I mention happens to be the first one I ever learned – umqombothi (a traditional Xhosa homemade beer). When I say this word (clicking on the "q" as I'd taught myself so many months before), they all burst out into hysterical laughter.

"Umqombothi?" the woman next to Loes demands, astonished that I know this word.

"Yeah, umqombothi," I respond, "like in the song."

And then, for no reason other than that it seems like a good idea at the time, I start to sing it.

We MaDlamini (everybody)
Uph’umqombothi (come and drink my)
We MaDlamini (magic beer)

And, like something out of a movie, she starts to sing with me, laughing so hard all the while that tears are streaming down her face. We only sing a few bars of it together, but by the time we stop several other passengers have joined in as well.

(I'm not going to lie. That is a pretty dang happy memory of mine.)

The ice broken, we start doing our best to chat with all of our new friends. The woman sitting next to Loes, it turns out, speaks a little English. Not very much, but certainly a heck of a lot more than any of us speak Xhosa.

She waggles her finger back and forth between Peter and Loes. "Utshatile?" she asks, and then scrunches up her face to remember the English translation. It comes to her after a moment: "Are you married?" Both of them shake their heads, smiling.

"No?," asks our new friend, returning their smile. "Why not?"

There's a pause, during which Loes and Peter giggle at each other. Loes points at Peter and says, "Ask him." Peter blushes a little as everyone in the truck erupts into laughter.

Then the woman waggles her finger at Jessica and I. "Utshatile? Married?"

This might be my favorite part of being married: the fact that such a simple question can convey to people so much about our relationship. Not too long ago, our answer would be the same as Loes and Peter's. We would find ourselves wanting to explain that we loved each other as much as any married couple, that there wasn't anything "wrong" despite whatever they might assume given how long we'd been together without getting married yet, and that we absolutely considered our love to be just as "forever" as we would if we were married.

But now it's so much easier. Are you married? Yes. And with that one-word answer, you let them understand an entire world more about you and your relationship.

And sometimes, you don't need even that one word. "Utshatile?," our new friend asks us. "Married?"

Instead of answering, we point to our rings and smile. And the entire truck erupts into laughter once more.


By the time the taxi drops the four of us and the final other three passengers off (including our new friend), the sun has dipped below the horizon. And that has us a little nervous.

We're standing in the middle of what I suppose is Nkanya village, but I don't see any village – just a few fields of crops, and forest surrounding us on all sides. As Loes and Peter pull their bags out of the truck, Jessica and I ask the driver where the eskepeni is.

'If the ferry wasn't there, we weren't getting to Bulungula tonightEskepeni is Xhosa for "ferry." The next leg of our journey will involve the crossing of a river, which is the main reason we've been worried about time all day. We have no idea how late the ferry runs, or what we will do if it has stopped for the night.

I had hoped we'd be able to see right away if it was still running or not, so we could have our driver take us somewhere else if it wasn't. But I can't even see a river anywhere, much less a ferry.

"Eskepeni?" he blinks. "Walk straight. Eskepeni. Yes, walk straight."

And then he climbs back into his truck and drives away, as the rain begins to fall once more.

To Be Continued...

Yes, yes. I know, I did it to you again. I'm incorrigible. But I can at least attest that the final chapter of this saga has already been written, so you don't need to worry about any Ban Lung-style delays.

So, no worries. You won't have to wait too long to discover what transpired next, now that we've been abandoned by our taxi driver in the middle of nowhere on South Africa's Wild Coast, at sunset, in the rain. Oh, and remember, poor Jessica is still sick.

May 11, 2011 at 10:14am
"…Oh, and remember, poor Jessica is still sick…"

I'm amused because, as I'm re-reading this story, I'm sick with another cold right now as well. LOL! :)

missy et al
May 12, 2011 at 4:54pm
my hats off to you guys. my claustrophobic, panic attack ridden butt would not have made it this far on your journey, Especially if i had the flu at the time!

and now Tim leaves me hanging, stranded in a literal feeling of nowhere, waiting for the ferry, while night/rain is starting to fall? and there are trees– so possibly monkeys and baboons? yeah, i probably would have pooped my pants with anxiety, haha.

May 12, 2011 at 6:42pm
LOL! Glad you're enjoying it! :)

And yeah, my little cliffhanger does leave off at one of the more stomach-churning moments of the adventure. No worries, though – the final chapter will be coming on Monday! :)

May 12, 2011 at 9:05pm
The suspense! yea!
The sickness! Not-yea!
The bonding over silly Xhosa ads?… Priceless :)
May 13, 2011 at 6:46pm
Whenever I look back on my memories of this particular adventure, I'm still blown away at how much she went through while feeling like crap the whole time. They don't come any tougher. :)

And yup, that half-truckload of folks singing with me is most definitely one of my favorite memories from any of our travels anywhere in the world. :D

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