A Travellerspoint blog

South Africa

The perils of hitchhiking

A few years back, two friends of mine, John and Sarah were on holiday in South Africa. They were in the prime of life, and things could not have been better. Married for just under a year, they were wonderfully in love, had a large group of devoted friends and family, excellent jobs and prospects and barely 2weeks beforehand had discovered that Sarah was pregnant with the first child they both desperately wanted. In the grand scheme of things, life really could not have been any better for them.

John had spent some time growing up and working in South Africa, and was definitely not the average naive tourist. It was late morning and driving through a remote, scenic and fairly un-touristy area of South Africa they came across an old woman by the side of the empty road, looking for a lift to the market in next town. Both having hitchhiked in the past and with space in the car, they had no compunction in slowing down to offer her a lift. Indeed, though always careful who they stopped for, they had already given lifts to locals several times on the trip.

Details of what happened next will necessarily always remain hazy, but in general terms 3 or 4 drunk men suddenly appeared from their hiding places near the road and attacked them. Amongst much else, John ended up with some stab wounds and was knocked out, whilst Sarah suffered a much worse ordeal. The men and the old woman then took off in the car with all their papers/possessions, leaving them badly injured in a ditch by the side of the road.

Luckily, John and Sarah were found not that long afterwards by a passer by who raised the alarm. Both spent several days in hospital, but the baby was lost. Perhaps understandably, neither was ever the same again. Both were shells of their former lively selves. They divorced 2 years later and Sarah committed suicide - at the 4th known attempt – soon afterwards. John moved and melted away in an attempt to start some kind of new life. Nobody I know has any idea what became of him, or where he is. It is a horrible, horrible tragic tale.

I bring up this horrific story with great reluctance, and only as an – admittedly extreme – illustration of what can happen when you let your guard down. I have hitchhiked extensively over the years: Indeed, tales of Matt and I hitching around obscure parts of Europe and Asia with Erik, our wonderful (if now sadly deceased) giant inflatable camel have gone down in local legend, and at least one border post still has our photograph up over 10years later.

Normally, I have no problem stopping for hitchhikers although I obviously will not stop for every last one, rather using gut instinct as to whether to stop or not. But in South Africa, despite us normally having the whole back seat spare, I refused. I am sure that the vast majority – possibly absolutely all of them - of people were genuine, and i felt especially bad leaving old ladies or women with babies by the side of the road. But I just could not stop. One incident 5years ago has meant that I (and many others who knew John and Sarah) will never be able to stop for a single hitchhiker/local in South Africa, and will indeed regard all with perhaps overly deep suspicion. And that is a very sad thing.

* note that due to one of the couple having a very distinct and unusual name, the names have been changed to protect identities and to avoid causing any accidental offense by bringing up the whole tragic episode again.

Posted by Gelli 04:21 Archived in South Africa Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

You are only as old as something or other

I felt really old in Coffee Bay. Though we didn't stay long, we were there long enough to return passports and moneybelts to 2 young German girls who had accidentally left them in the safe in Cintsa where we had also come from. Looking at their passports on the way up, we had noticed that both of them were born in the 1990's. As a child of the 70's, this was a slightly sobering discovery, as was the later discovery that for both of them this was their first ever trip: So much is out there for them to learn, see, discover and experience, and for a moment I was wistful of time when i was also so innocent, untraveled and full of anticipation.

The other thing that made me feel old was that the bar had several drinking games and rules (bar rules mean you can only hold a drink in your left hand, and offenders are picked up and have to down their drink after the piercing cry of 'buffalo' goes up). Most of the clientèle were young, drunk (or well on the way), excited, on one of their first trips away and wanted to party, and I just didn't feel it. Sure, I enjoy a party as much as the next person, but when i travel i want to see a place, experience it, learn about its culture and history, relax and talk to people - locals and other travelers – that actually have something interesting to say, and Coffee Bay was not really the place for such an old persons mindset.

I can't believe i really said that. Feck me, am i really getting so old and boring in my old age???

Oh, and despite a rumour going around, Kiki was not 'ere. Not that I saw, anyway. And that's enough for me.

Posted by Gelli 08:20 Archived in South Africa Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

The difference in African perceptions

I was expecting the worse. Everybody had warned us. Maaret had been there 3 years previously and remembered it as being very bad. The hostel staff the night before had said it was terrible, and a couple of people who had just driven from Coffee Bay confirmed that it was a horrific road. But a brief chance discussion with an elderly couple along the way had led to the comment 'it's really bad, and you have to go slow, no more than about 70'. And then I started to wonder. 70?! Perhaps it's not really that bad...

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Coffee Bay is a small town and resort on the wild coast, nestled in a small valley between the cliffs and with just one road in and out. This road, a 90km stretch from the main N2 to the coast, is what I had been constantly warned about, and I had initially viewed it with some trepidation. This increased due to the fact it was starting to get late and the light was fading, and the by now familiar dark clouds were beginning to gather apace. There were no signs along it, but several small turn offs, and at one point my passengers were convinced we had gone the wrong way and wanted to turn around and go back, or find somebody reliable-ish looking to ask.

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Typical houses - Rondavels – in the countryside around large parts of South Africa

In reality, it was fine. We arrived just as night finally drew in, and whilst i admit that it was possibly the worst road I have driven in South Africa, by African standards it was high class. It was tarred for all but the last 1km, 2 lanes wide and had white lines painted on it, and though there were quite allot of potholes they were mostly fairly easy to avoid, and none of them were of the sort of size or depth that swallows cars whole (something I once saw in Romania, for example). In some countries in Africa, the main road of the entire country has been in significantly worse shape. It was also slightly odd in terms of habitation: The map showed 3 small settlements along the road, but we only passed one. However, the whole way along – the full 90km – there were dwellings, often rondavels, along the road and in the surrounding areas, so that at no point in the entire journey were we ever out of sight of at least a couple of dozen houses. Which would have been more interesting had it not been annoying as I was increasingly in need of a rest stop, and didn't find anywhere secluded enough for one...

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The kind of rest stop i required, but could not take...

That night, listening to conversation about how bad the road had been an how poor the area had been, i reflected on the road and all the warnings I had heard, and realised that in a way they were correct. It was a bad road, but by South African or Western European standards. And that it is all about perception and experience: Most, if not all, of the people who had warned us about the road were basing the warning on South Africa. I, in my naivety had taken the warning that it is a really bad road as being bad by African standards, and thus been very pleasantly surprised. Yet again, I am beginning to realise how un-African (and in a way insulated) South Africa and some of it's tourists really are.

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This is about as bad as the road got. Sure, a few potholes, but on the grand scheme of things it really isn't so bad

Posted by Gelli 00:19 Archived in South Africa Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Extra...

After leaving the Karoo, we headed East.

Posted by Gelli 15:18 Archived in South Africa Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

WooHoo! Into the Karooooooooooooo

Our luck continued unabated the next day. Barreling down the empty road in the early morning back to Upington, I rotated the electronic computer on Lydia to a display which showed that we had 127km worth of fuel remaining. This was an interesting discovery, especially as we had just past a sign saying 'Upington 150km', and there was definitely no fuel – or even a building – until that point. Slowing right down, we then crawled along at 90km/h, allegedly the most fuel efficient speed possible, praying hard. Luckily, that, at least, worked and we made it into Upington showing 11km of petrol to spare and with 3 different warning sounds and lights for low fuel going off.

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The road was entirely empty, although there was an occasional phone line following it, with some very scarily large birds nests on them

By the end of the day, we had driven some 850km – stunningly, the first several hours were clear and sunny, though it got increasingly gray with periodic very wet patches - and were in the Karoo, a beautiful, dry (yeah, right) mountainous area of South-Western-ish South Africa. An hour or so before our destination, we stopped over in the small town of Middelburg for more fuel, provisions and refreshment. In a coffee shop, we got talking to the friendly owner who was saying that they were desperately in need of rain, as they hadn't had a drop in 8months. Maaret and I looked at each other, and told the woman not to worry. We were here and the rain was chasing us hard, so it would surely rain soon. The woman didn't seem to believe us, until a full 12minutes had passed and the rain started. We should start charging for our services as Rain gods.

We were staying in Nieuw Bethesda, a small village nestle in the mountains, and a very strange – if picturesque - one. It seemed a very white colonial village, and was one of the first places we had seen that did not have every door and window barred, and foreboding. In a way, it looked like how I expect small villages in rural America to look, but the whole thing looked kind of out of place.

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Fred finally made his first appearance that evening, as soon as a bottle of Tall Horse wine made it's appearance. I admit that I was happy to see him, although he did look slightly unwell, and i was not overly impressed: I get up at 4am to go and collect him, and then drive him around for 5whole days before he can even be bothered to awake from his drunken stupor and say hello. Rumours of his escapades in Europe have also reached me, and suggest that the young lad is rapidly going off the rails. The lad needs discipline. And wine, naturally.

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A typical street from central Graaf-Reinert

The following day we wandered a bit around the Karoo including the obviously touristy town of Graaf-Reinert, which was again nice but strange. Another, larger, old colonial town, the differences between the richer white and poorer black (as was) area are blatantly obvious, whilst the old buildings are all so well kept, whitewashed and scrupulous clean as to appear almost clinical, as opposed to loved and lived in. Escaping town, we took in the wonderfully named 'Valley of Desolation', which, obviously, is actually a mountain with some great views and a trail around the summit, before heading slowly back towards home.

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The small bits of the Karoo that i have seen are beautiful, but the towns whilst pretty and a bit strange and could certainly use some integration into the real world.

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It's a slightly different way of life in the Karoo...

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This is both part of a pretty sunset, and confirmation that it's about to chuck it down again very shortly

Posted by Gelli 14:16 Archived in South Africa Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

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