We left Addo early afternoon and headed for the Nananga Farm Stall recommended by an East London local I’d been chatting to at the waterhole.
First thing we were greeted with was a sign saying that remote jammers were operating in the area and advising us to double-check the car is locked before walking away from it. In fact we had triple-checked it, deadlocked all the doors, removed the steering wheel and put the steering column lock on. We were feeling increasingly nervous.
The food and the farm stall itself were lovely but when we headed off again, and eastern South Africa spread out ahead of us, I was beginning to wonder whether we would get to the end of our South African leg in one piece. Isn´t this supposed to be a fun, stress-free lifestyle? Isn´t travelling the world many people´s dream? Suddenly it was feeling more like a nightmare, when would we be out of danger and able to relax? Can you ever relax when you´re a nomad having no local knowledge, never knowing anyone around you, never sure who means you harm and who is just looking at the big, silver Landrover with curiosity.
I needed to stop all this and calm down, as long as we took sensible precautions – were savvy travellers – we should be fine….shouldn´t we? In any event, high stress levels would probably do more harm to our health than anything else so just settle down. We had another 2 weeks in South Africa before our visas ran out, we had to do more than make the most of it, we had to enjoy it and appreciate it.
Thinking about the two week timetable brought about a different concern. We still didn´t have enough time to do everything left on the itinerary despite the axe I had taken to it at the end of the Garden Route. We reviewed our options again, cut out a few more detours and headed straight for Hogsback.
Hogsback is probably not at the top of the ´most visited tourist spot´ list, in fact I doubt few international visitors go. So it may have been strange that it stayed on our list despite the itinerary hatchet job. But I am always keen to mix things up, have lots of variety and do things that are not necessarily the obvious thing to do. Hogsback is all about the forest and with forests seems to come an element of the spritual….including fairies!
Yes, well, you wont be surprised to hear that James declined to have his photo taken with the fairy!
We stayed at a lovely campsite called ’Away with the Fairies’. They are well known for their outdoor bath which is apparently so popular you have to book it well in advance.
But in the middle of winter with temperatures ranging between -1 and 15 degrees the weekly booking sheet had only one slot taken by some very hardy camper!
We may not have entered into the ’spirit’ of things (sorry!) with the fairy theme in Hogsback, neither were all the meditation, yoga and contemplation activities necessarily our thing. But we did make the most of our time there and found the change in pace refreshingly good fun.
First up was the Eco Shrine.
An interesting art installation by a female artist representing the ‘rape and pillage’ of the planet by ’western men’ and how learning from women’s perspectives and those of other cultures could save the day. James zoned out the moment she started talking to us about how much damage men have done and how spiritually connected women are. I listened politely and took what I could from her message without necessarily agreeing with all of her views!
But as a piece of art it was lovely and the views across the three Hogs Backs and forest were spectacular.
The same day we visited a labyrinth. Set in the grounds of a backpackers hostel it was designed for meditation and contemplation. James walked straight across it and sat in the middle waiting for me to walk the 1.4km route through.
It took me about 15 minutes but I can’t entirely say that I felt meditated or any more relaxed at the end! So I followed James out the quick way!
We tried to visit some gardens, one of the many things Hogsback is famed for, but they were all closed for the winter. So we missed out on seeing the Alice-in-Wonderland red mushrooms with white spots and had to console ourselves at the artisan chocolate shop before heading back to the campsite!
Not wanting to miss out on the forest which defines the culture and people of Hogsback, we decided to go for a short, 45 minute walk through the forest to the local Big Tree. We headed off early the next morning bundled up in coats and hats.
The walk started off with a steep climb down a rocky path where a troupe of baboons were walking in the opposite direction. As some of you may know, baboons are not the cute and cuddly type of primate, they can be aggressive and dangerous, so we stepped carefully and slowly ensuring we were heading away from them at all times. They watched us warily, mothers pulling their young closer to them as they carefully walked by. Some of the males were posted at intervals to stand guard as the families went along the path. At one point I stopped to watch and saw the bristles on their backs rise so started walking again to relax them. It felt like two tribes meeting millennia ago, neither wanting to fight but both prepared to defend their territory and their families if needed.
The deep forest was cool, quiet and green, the walk was beautiful.
It didn’t take long before we reached the 800 year old Big Tree and, as with the others we had seen on our travels, it was big!
Unusually for James, who is not normally a big walker, it was his suggestion that we carry on for another hour to see the waterfalls deeper still into the forest. Maybe the spirits had seduced him, or maybe he just didn’t want to be taken to see any more mad feminist eco warriors or mazes!
Either way we enjoyed a peaceful hour walking through ancient forests completely isolated from the 21st century and when we reached the waterfalls they were well worth the effort.
The only way back was the way we had come so we turned around and headed off on another hour and a half walk smiling and chatting, clambering over rocks and roots, through dense undergrowth and over streams until we finally made it back to the campiste at lunchtime, tired and aching but happy, ready for a big meal of vegetarian spaghetti bolognese!
Having had our fill of fairies and fantasies, we headed off the next day for a long drive to Coffee Bay in the heart of the rugged Wild Coast.
As we drove through the Eastern Cape the difference between this province and the Western Cape was startling.
Gone were the high-rise cities and immaculately kept , busy towns. Gone too were the dense townships of corrugated tin shacks and dirty streets lined with portaloos. In their place was mile after mile of sparse villages with no discernable centre.
The houses were either thatched or tin roofed. Everything about the landscape seemed clean and spacious. The rolling hills were beautiful.
There was clearly no money here, the roads were either pot-holed or dust and the people were far from well dressed. I also became away that, whilst we met the occasional vehicle travelling through on the main roads, looking out across the houses and villages there were no local cars at all, anywhere in fact. There wasn’t even any provision for cars, no streets, no driveways, no vehicles parked alongside any of the houses. People walked. Or maybe used horses. They gazed at the Landrover speeding past with a mixture of curiosity and disinterest.
We drove along the main N2 road through this landscape heading into the Transkei region. The Transkei has a very troubled history, forcibly made into an independent state by the apartheid government, breeding abject poverty, political instability and huge amounts of resentment. With this history being so recent, not a lot has changed since. We had been warned about travelling through this area more than any other for violent attacks, car jacking and theft.
We smiled and raised a hand to the people we passed and most raised their hands back. Children shouted after us but mostly everyone just went about their business. We started to feel less uncomfortable as we drove, partly because people seemed perfectly friendly, but also because it was sparse and open and the chances of anyone having the chance to do us harm seemed low.
Just before we turned off the N2 south to the coast we took a small detour to Qunu, the village where Nelson Mandela grew up and loved so much that he retired there. It is also where his grave lies.
We didn’t find the house he built, nor did we find his grave. In fact, there wasn’t a lot there at all. We pulled over to fruitlessly consult our maps for the grave, so we could pay our respects to this great man, but were attracting rather too much attention so gave up and drove on.
The rest of the way to Coffee Bay, off the main road, was slow and tortuous. Dirt roads gave way to mud roads then back to dirt. Even when we found tarmac the pot-holes were so bad it was slower going than on the dirt! We found ourselves reminiscing about Guinea-Bissau!
But finally we made it and arrived at a lovely campsite by one of the beautiful beaches. It was late and the town of Coffee Bay was quiet and a little run-down so we didn’t fancy wandering out to find food and our own cupboards were bare.
The owners of the campsite took pity on us and made us jalafels and chips which they kindly brought up to the Landrover for us!
The whole area around Coffee Bay is gorgeous but there isn’t a lot there. The main attraction is the Hole in the Wall, a big rock arch carved out by the sea. We went to visit the next morning.
We found the viewpoint with a little help from Google and Maps.me and no help at all from the locals who kept trying to direct us elsewhere – apparently somewhere from which we would need a guide to find it. As we took in the view and clicked our photos we could see people running up the hill towards us so quickly jumped back into Henry just as the first of them arrived declaring we needed to pay for a guide or a parking permit or something similar.
We didn’t feel like staying around much longer, all the guide books said this area was full of people wanting money so we set the sat nav for another long drive to the Drakensburg Mountains and headed out.
At first we enjoyed the views along the road back up towards the N2. It should have taken about 2 hours to reach the main road.
The cows slowed us down but were all part of the fun!
But we didn’t recognise the roads out, we seemed to be heading a different way to the route we took in. The road became smaller and dustier, there seemed to be little around. The people gazed at us in astonishment, we appeared to be the only vehicle on the road.
At one junction we took the wrong turn so had to back up and try again. As we were doing so an elderly gentleman poked his head through the window and started to chat to us. His friends looked on smiling then they waved us on our way looking confused as to what on earth we were doing. We drove past a man on a bicycle who looked equally bemused at us. Children were playing in the dirt road in front of us and a woman, panic-stricken, rushed out of her house shouting and pointing for us not to run into them. We had seen them and simply smiled and waved as we waited for the kids to move aside. But this didn’t seem like a road for cars, it seemed like a road for people.
Then there was no road at all, just mud and deep ruts. Then nothing. The sat nav insisted that there was a road and we should go forwards but unless we had a tractor there was no forwards to go! We were stuck.
We quickly turned around and retraced our steps – past the woman with her kids, past the guy on the bike, past the old gentlemen. All looked at us with amusement – strange tourists!
But our worries were not over, we were lost. The sat nav would tell us only to go back the way we came down the non-road. Maps.me knew nothing of these roads at all and simply threw its hands up in despair. And don’t talk to me about Google Maps – by this point it was a complete waste of App-space! We had no idea which roads would lead to bigger roads and which to the middle of a field again. Tension rose.
I was navigating, James was driving – almost certainly the better combination in such circumstances. I set the sat nav to take us back to where we had started and we followed it until we reached a road recognised by Maps.me – in other words, a real road not one our sat nav had made up! Once on a Maps.me road I switched the sat nav off and told Maps.me to take us to the Drakensbergs. Little by little the roads widened, smoothed and eventually turned into tarmac. We were out of the woods!
Finally we made it back onto the N2 but were short of fuel and food. Our nearest large town was the capital of the Transkei region, Mthatha, and the N2 ran straight through it. So we set the now-forgiven sat nav for a fuel station and supermarket.
The fuel station was fun, we filled up both tanks which takes a long time and two guys at the pumps chatted to us about the Landrover and our round-the-world plans. One of them had ambitions to visit Greece…..
We then headed for the supermarket and locked Henry up very tightly as Mthatha didn’t feel at all friendly. We tried to go to a restaurant in a shopping mall for lunch to save some time but failed to find the entrance. The traffic was getting heavier and heavier so in the end we gave up and, hungry and unhappy, headed out of town.
Easier said than done.
We were grid-locked and going nowhere.
All our doors were locked and the back three deadlocked. I had my window wound down about 2 inches and James had his half-way down. He was leaning out of the window chatting to some locals who were curious about the Landrover and who warned us to keep safe as they said Mthatha was not a good place. We were getting edgy about being stuck in traffic for so long when suddenly James shouted ’Watch out!’. I turned to see a man hanging off my side of the Landrover with his hands over the top of my window trying to pull it out. He had tried all the doors and finding them deadlocked was now trying to break the window to get in. Had he succeeded he would no doubt have dragged me out and tried to take everything inside. The ballistic-lined window resisted his plans, the window bent horribly but didn’t break – but it wouldn’t be long before he got his way.
I was outraged! I can’t describe it any other way! I didn’t feel fear but I also didn’t think clearly about how to stop him. I hit his hands and yelled at him! James on the other hand has the capacity to think very clearly and calmly in a crisis and grabbed the pepper spray from under the dash. He shouted at me to wind my window down so he could get a clear shot. That was enough, he didn’t even need to press the nozzle down, the man saw what it was and jumped down. But he only ran to the back and jumped onto the step trying to pull the door open. Again, James was in control – he put the Landrover into reverse and started driving the man into the car behind.
We hear that people like this don’t expect tourists to fight back, they expect them to be exposed and to panic. They rarely attack South Africans as the locals are generally armed and fight back with everything they have.
This particular man was taken by surprise in a big way, he saw the Landrover and expected an easy target and a big pay day. Instead he got high security, pepper spray and a near-death experience! It was enough for him, he leapt off the back and ran away down the street. Beware mad overlanders – and we were extremely mad!
Angry we may have been, and we may have successfully defended ourselves, but we were seriously shaken up. The traffic eased slightly and James dodged and swerved through the cars and eventually got us out onto the open road where he put his foot down.
It was 3.45pm so we decided to forget making any more progress for today and find a nice campsite where we could have a cold beer and de-stress. But our day hadn’t finished with us yet! I checked the map to find we were in a camp-site deadzone. Not surprising given where we were – far from the usual tourist trail in the middle of the Transkei. The nearest camp-site was 1.5 hours away off the main road in the wrong direction. We could find very little information on it so it might not even have existed and if it didn’t we would be stranded as darkness fell.
We looked for other options – a guesthouse or lodgings maybe. There was very little. We drove past one place in a town but it didn’t look welcoming. We were feeling shaken and unsafe after the incident and were getting concerned. Our Tracks 4 Africa map showed a self-catering cottage about half an hour off the main road so we headed for it. It didn’t exist, all we found was a small rural village and a group of men shouting and waving at us – whether angry or friendly greeting it was hard to tell and we didn’t hang round long enough to find out.
Once out of there we pulled over and looked at the maps again. James found a campsite on a farm 56km further up the road we were on which would take us over an hour away from the main road. But it was something. I checked it out online, found fairly recent good reviews and even a web-site – it looked like it existed at very least. It was 4.30pm by now and starting to drift into dusk. The last thing we needed was to still be on the road in the dark. I found a mobile number for the farm and sent a Whatsapp message asking if we could camp that night. I stared at the message as the other end came on-line, the message ticks turned blue indicating it had been read and then they were typing….’you are very welcome, here is the code for the gate and GPS coordinates in case you have trouble finding us’. Relief spread over us as we sped towards them.
We arrived at around 5.30pm just as the sun was going down. We were greeted by the friendly farmer and guided to the campsite. We found a beautiful lake, a spotless ablution block all to ourselves, peace, quiet and safety. In fact it was one of the nicest campsites we have stayed in and couldn’t have come at a better time.
We popped the roof, set the chairs up, opened a couple of beers and sat listening to the wildlife with our heads back and eyes closed thanking Henry and the Gods for keeping us safe and for the end of a very bad day…..