May 23rd: Maseru, Lesotho to Bloemfontein, South Africa
Again my early start was thwarted by the inefficiency of minibus taxis. I was up by 7 a.m. and made the 5km trek to the border, and walked back across to South Africa. I was across the border by 8:30 a.m. The fate of the rest of the day was in the hands of the minibus game. I knew it would be a long wait as I peered into the 21- seater with only 2 spots occupied. For the next 4 hours I patiently waited in the minibus taxi as each seat slowly filled. The only upside to the ride was the driver was much more competent behind the wheel then my previous drivers. It had become a reoccurring theme that relatively short distances, which could be covered quickly under normal circumstances, turned into daylong adventures, a 1½ hour drive into a 6 hour excursion.
I finally arrived in Bloemfontein around 2pm and splurged a bit on a room because I couldn’t find anything in my price range. Bloemfontein itself was a nice city, nothing special to see, but it seemed to lack the underlying racial tension found in some other areas of South Africa. I couldn’t complain too much though as I took advantage of the nicer accommodation. It allowed me to re-charge in a variety of ways. I had a bed for the first time in 4 nights, and felt the warmth of a hot shower for the first time since I left Cape Town. The downtime I had gave me an opportunity to reevaluate the rest of my trip. I decided on giving up the useless public transportation and renting a car. Having a car would allow me to get to national parks, and other out of the way areas of the country which I really wanted to see, and which would be next to impossible to see using public transportation. A car also provided me with a way to get to slightly cheaper, more out of the way places to sleep, and I would now be able to carry more food and self-cater more often then on foot.
May 24th: Learning to drive…again/ Bloemfontein to East London
When I went to pick up my rental car in the morning I received unexpected but excellent news. They were out of the basic models of cars, so I was receiving a free upgrade. I soon was sitting comfortably in my brand new looking white Volkswagen Polo Vivo. The night before I had plotted my exit route out of the city, so I could make as few turns as possible to get out of town. I got it down to two turns. After squaring away all the paperwork I threw myself into the fires of left-sided driving. To my surprise it came quite easily and I was soon comfortable. The most difficult things to get used to were: shifting gears with my left hand, backing up looking over my left shoulder, reaching for the seatbelt over my left shoulder, and coming around blind turns in the road, while fighting off that feeling of impending doom that bubbles up from your belly. After making my two turns I was cruising on the N2, which would take me from Bloemfontein down to South Africa’s only river port, the coastal city of East London. As soon as I was cruising down the interstate it was as if a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders, and it wasn’t because my backpack was in the boot, but because it was my eyes peering over the bonnet. Having a car meant freedom, and endless possibilities. I was no longer at the mercy of the fickle minibus taxis. I could stop anywhere, if I was hungry, or if I had to go to the bathroom. I wasn’t clutching my backpack in front of me anymore in case I needed to deploy it as an emergency airbag. A 6-hour drive had never been more enjoyable.
The landscape opened up soon after Bloemfontein into vast plains predominantly dotted with cattle and sheep. The metric system also gave me a nice mental boost along the way. I kept imagining the kilometers being miles and it made me feel as though I was traveling further and faster than ever before in the USA. Upon my arrival in East London I contacted my friend I had recently made in Lesotho, Dr. Andres Dupressis, who had insisted I spend the night at his place when I passed through. He lived in a cozy coastal villa perched up on the bluffs overlooking the Nahoon River flowing into the ocean. I was quite spoiled for the night, and was extremely grateful for his generosity. It was a good rest that I needed before another stretch of camping.
May 25th: Dwesa Nature Preserve
After a short bit of way finding to get myself out of East London I hopped onto the N2 headed north. It was a relatively short drive to Dutywa and from there things got a bit hairy. The main thoroughfares were well signed, and I made the mistake of thinking the smaller roads would be consistent. From Dutywa I headed southeast to Willowvale, the last decent sized town on the way. The tarmac ended in Willowvale. The only directions I had, was that I should continue on the lone gravel road past Willowvale, and look for signs. It was a much different situation when I arrived. When I got to the end of town there was a split of two gravel roads, with no signs. I consulted the maps I had which only showed one road, and decided on the road to my right, since it seemed in better shape, and seemed to be headed more in the direction I wanted. It was slow going over the unpaved road in my rental car. After about 10km the road split again, and again with no signs. I now was just going by my gut and picked the more travelled looking road. This continued as the road split about every 10km. After about 30km of slow mazy driving I started to get the sinking feeling I had gone wrong somewhere.
This area of the Wild Coast is home the Xhosa people, and also a stone throw from the birthplace of Nelson Mandela. It was a designated homelands area, or Bantustan, during apartheid. It is similar to the establishment of Indian reservations in the USA, an area specifically designated for a single ethnicity. The people here are predominantly black and much less English is spoken compared to the large cities. I knew I would be in for a treat getting directions as my Xhosa vocabulary was greatly lacking. I flagged down the next oncoming truck I saw and played the usual game of charades that occurs between two people who can’t fully understand each other. It slowly became apparent I was indeed heading the wrong way. I was on the road to Qohora’s Mouth, not Dwesa. I had, according to the man in the truck, made the wrong decision at the first split in the road at the end of Willowvale. I slunk back into town trying to not gain any attention, but it was all in vain as I lapped the main drag of Willowvale searching for any sort of sign to point me to Dwesa. I finally stopped by the police station to see if they could point me in the right direction. I was reluctant at first to go after hearing mixed stories about the police in South Africa. There were 3 officers standing outside the station who could not have been friendlier. They deliberated awhile about which route was the best to take before telling me about a tiny little turn off by the gas station that I had missed.
My constant driving through Willowvale had not gone unnoticed, and by the time I stopped to talk to the police I had amassed quite a following of curious people. Everyone was interested to where I could possibly be headed, and many were hoping to hitch a ride if I was headed their direction. Willowvale is the only grocery store for all the villages, so a good deal of people walk or hitch rides up to 60km if they need to get into town. Once my final destination had been found out a great deal of chatter erupted among the following cohort of mine, until I had four people standing at my side. Before I had finished getting directions from the police officers the group had already delegated who would be riding along with me if I chose to give anyone a lift. Now under most circumstances I would never pick up people hitching, especially alone in a foreign country, but I made this one exception. The four people who had been chosen consisted of two very elderly gentlemen each with 4 bags of groceries, and two middle-aged women each with arm loads of belongings. I was reassured by the police officer saying that they would be able to give me directions since they all lived along the route to Dwesa. I went from a lone traveller with an empty car to a packed full South African bush taxi in the blink of an eye. I was also now equipped with a phenomenal four person Xhosa GPS to guide me through the maze of gravel roads to the coast. The drive progressed, as did my Xhosa, which caused riotous laughter from the backseat as I struggled with the clicking sounds of their language. It was about a 60-70km drive to get to Dwesa, all of which was unpaved, so it made for slow going, and one by one my passengers left me. Each one giving directions for the next few turns ahead before offering money for the lift. I refused the money, and thanked them for the help in guiding me on my way.
I finally had found myself rolling up to the gates of the Dwesa Nature Preserve late in the afternoon after what turned out to be a very action-packed day. Dwesa is really the epitome of the wild coast and is one of the few places where the camping is open, and part of the reserve. It is a relatively small chunk of land dedicated mainly to the preservation of coastal marine life, but it is home to a plethora of other species as well. I made a quick dinner of apples, bread and cheese before I set up my tent near a troop of vervet monkeys. I figured if anything big and scary came during the night the monkeys would make a commotion and alert me to it.
May 26th: Dwesa Nature Preserve, South Africa
I opened my eyes to a starry night sky and high hopes at about 5:30 a.m. As I waited for the sun to rise I packed up all the gear that I needed for the day. I set off at first light in hopes of catching some of the wildlife on the beach at dawn before they went back into the labyrinth of forest that covered the hillsides. The only thing I found was a fantastic bright pink sunrise, which made the early morning start worth it either way. I followed the coastline to the Kolobo river mouth and turned inland along the banks of the river until it became too narrow for my comfort. There are crocodiles, Cape buffalo, rhinos, and leopards here that I did not want to encounter in any tight spaces on foot. I had made a pretty conservative plan for my hiking for this same reason. I was a stranger in a new land and unfamiliar with the terrain. I predominantly stuck to the coast, and only went inland to follow the route curving along the bluff that overlooks the ocean. I did end up finding a few bushbucks, and a medley of birds and insects to keep me enthralled throughout the day. I did not run into a single other person the entire day and I had the coast all to myself as far as the eye could see. I made the most of it until a strong Antarctic wind blew in after lunch. After dinner the local vervet monkeys treated me to a fine show for the second night in a row with a special encore presentation by a bushbuck and her little one alongside grazing at dusk outside my tent. If I was more well versed in hiking through the bush I could have easily spent another few days exploring the preserve.
May 27th: Dwesa à Addo, South Africa
There was an awful argument between vervet monkeys as I awoke before my alarm to the bickering, chatting, and frolicking in the tree above my tent. I was unable to get back to sleep, so I threw on my headlamp and started packing up camp as the sun was rising. I then creaked and crawled my way back through the maze of rough roads testing the limits of my little rental car, which was now caked in dust. The car and I exalted a collective sigh of relief when we finally hit the tarmac back in Willowvale. From there the short journey north to Dutywa were I took the N2 west back towards East London and beyond to Addo Elephant National Park.