on the way to Coffee Bay

The South African backpacker circuit is dominated by Germans and Dutch, but you meet people from all sorts of places. On the bus to Coffee Bay we sit behind Ed and Lana, about to be Australian citizens from Israel and Belgium respectively, who live in inner Sydney. It is nice to meet fellow Aussies, well about-to-be fellow Aussies, for a change. They and others we meet are so understanding of Sam’s behaviour and make such an effort to engage and involve him that I am yet again deeply touched. Ed is a very outgoing and bubbly guy. For fun he asks us and others around us where we would go in time and place if we had a time machine. Nominations include Ancient Rome, the Renaissance, the building of the pyramids and Nelson Mandela’s release.

‘Where would you go back in time to Sam?’

‘1992, in California.’

‘Why?’

‘To see Bill Gates releasing Windows 3.1.’

Ed and Lana think that’s awesome.click tab to read further

The bus climbs onto the 2,000 metre high plateau Transkei plateau after crossing the Kei River at the Great Kei Cutting, a deep gorge that plunges down to the stony river bed below. A table top mesa rises before us over sheer cliffs hundreds of metres tall. Previously tribal justice included execution by throwing poor souls off the cliffs. Sam and I have a conversation about capital punishment.

Nelson Mandela grew up on the Transkei, with its emerald green undulating hills unfolding in almost perfect sinusoidal waves. Sharp edged creek beds occasionally crack the surface like a cake that is about to fall apart. Rondulas sprinkle the hills, spaced out rather than clustered together. Each has a small animal pen with walls of long sticks thatched tightly together, a vegetable garden, a field of corn or tilled earth. There are glimpses of yellow pumpkins and brown chickens. Pigs, dogs, goats, horses and long horned cattle wander between the huts and across the unfenced road, causing some sharp swerving and braking by our incredibly relaxed driver.

The sun is getting low as we near our destination. Low clouds scurry across the plateau with shadows dancing over the hills. The rondulas seem to have a colour scheme of being painted or half painted with one of only four colours; white, an aqua green, apricot or pink. They dot the fields like blobs of paint on a Monet painting. Anka, a Dutch physiotherapist, speculates whether there is a cultural significance to the limited colour choice. Perhaps a colour means a family name or an ethnic sub-group?

‘Driver, does the choice of house colour mean something?’

‘Yes.’

‘What?’

‘It means you like that colour.’

The bus bursts into laughter as we come off the plateau and back down to the Wild Coast at Coffee Bay.

On arrival, the hostel manager warmly greets Sam and me, knowing about our arrival in advance. Word is getting out on the hostel grapevine apparently, and both staff members and guests are reading the blog before they meet us, which is kind of weird, but makes for an excellent ice breaker. It also saves me having to explain our situation over and over again.

That evening I chat with some amiable white South Africans as we suffer yet another compulsory two hour blackout, called ‘loadsharing’, for South Africa’s overloaded electricity grid. This has been our fourth evening in a row where the candles get broken out, restaurants can’t cook food and bills and receipts are done by hand. There is a lot of disgust at the government, and suspicion of corruption. Power rates have risen 22% this year, but nobody thinks things will improve any time soon. One of the guys studying economics tells the power crisis will slash a full 1% of the GDP this year, which I could well believe.

Sam is principally annoyed that he can’t charge his Nintendo DS. We take our torches and head off to our room after dinner. We are sleeping in a cottage that we need to cross a small creek to get to. Navigating the rocks by torchlight is somewhat hazardous.

As we take off our wet shoes on the veranda our discomfort is compensated by our view of the moonlit surf and the Milky Way. I light the candles in the cottage as the sound of drums drifts across the village, and the echos of Shosholoza being sung somewhere. It seems that South Africa takes away, but then it gives back.