On the road to Nairobi

The long journey means a sampling of every form of transport there is

A faltering breeze makes no impact on the weighty tropical air. Gazing out over the sand and sipping drinks, it all seems quite simple: we are going to Nairobi. We will take a taxi, then a matatu (minibus taxi), go on foot for a while, followed by a ferry, then a tuk-tuk and finally a train.

We have five hours to travel the 42km from Diani to Mombasa, aiming to arrive, as instructed, two hours before the train’s scheduled departure time. In case it leaves early, we suppose, as is so often the way with African trains.

The taxi is late – a disconcerting start. We set off on foot. Our taxi hurtles past us. Screams to a halt. Showers us with dust. The driver’s name is Davies.

He laughs like a gurgling sink as we try to explain why our president has so many wives and children. We scrunch our suspension-free way to Ukunda, where Davies deposits us in a matatu.

Matatus are unlike our taxis in that the passengers smile and Bob Marley plays loudly in place of kwaito. In every other respect, they are similar. Stinking hot, a whiff of dope, 32 passengers on 16 seats, a conductor hanging out of a door that won’t close, breakneck speeds, roadblock bribes.

We sit buried, rucksacks mercifully blocking our view of the driver’s maniacal swervings, and move only to allow passengers to disembark. One of them showers us with sugar from a punctured bag he is passing out of the window.

The R5 matatu route to the ferry is 454 times cheaper per kilometre than Davies’s road-scraping taxi. And much quicker. The ferry is still free but, from the desperate rush to get aboard, people are obviously worried that the proposed 10c fee might be imposed at any moment.

The throng sweeps us forward, forces the gate open and propels us onto an already-moving ferry. Everyone laughs at this victory over security.

On Mombasa Island, we leap into a tuk-tuk for a rapid ride to the Castle Royal Hotel and a sandwich. A Swahili Louis Armstrong belts out an admirable Hello Dolly, complete with hanky.

Revived, packs on backs and lives in hands, we stride through Mombasa’s dusty side-streets to a fenced compound, dominated by a rusting sign. MOMBASA. We pay $65 for the train. An hour and three quarters sharing the platform with a growing gaggle of passengers, a few dozen chickens, a strolling minstrel who plays Hakuna Matata ad nauseam and seeping sewerage as it drools from the over-full long-drop lavatory pits.

Our compartment has a jammed-shut window, a dysfunctional fan and faulty lights. It is 38C and night is falling as the train pulls out. Evans, the train manager, can’t help with any of our problems but agrees to swap his room for ours.

Dinner is silver-service. No, really. A pallid mushroom soup ladled from a vast tureen; rolls with butter from a silver dish; chicken or beef; the shocking Kenyan equivalent of Spoornet coffee.

Squashed on a narrow bench next to a Somali woman, I sip from a brought-in bottle of wine harboured between my legs. The line of 20 ceiling fans is a motionless monument to a former, grander time. The lights fluctuate with the train speed. A kung-fu movie plays on a plasma screen, for this is Africa.

Linen sheets await – and an unparalleled sleep, rocked by the swaying of the train to awake to an unspeakably disgusting silver-service breakfast, passing through golden-light beautiful rolling grasslands and lovely placid villages. Children wave. Old men in blankets raise their sticks in greeting.

Rarely has faded splendour been so splendid.

A Sweli time was had by all

Rousing white wedding was a skop with beers and sweet, fizzy dop.

‘Whoop!” exclaimed the umfundisi, beaming mischievously – glinting eyes and shining teeth in a glowing round face.

“Umtshato!” yelled the congregation, also beaming, in response. “Wedding!”

And this was not the first time. The good priest brought it on every time he thought he was losing his audience – which was quite often – and it was very effective.

Many of them, in anticipation of revelries, were already half-cut and finding it hard to follow the plot.

A male Sweli was marrying a female Mantai in a small and unbeautiful church – the Apostolic Faith Mission, Bethel Assembly, in the so-called “location” of an historic Karoo town.

He was doing this because (a) they no doubt love each other; and (b) in order to legitimise their next offspring, due this month, and with any luck, by association, their five-year-old son.

It was, so-to-speak, a white wedding, but not in any of the traditional senses.

There were only six of us at the church on time, including the bride and groom, the said five-year-old, somebody’s uncle (nobody seemed sure whose), the priest and me. We raked up an additional few folk as the Swelis swelled in number and kicked off, a bit late, with a respectable 24 people – about a 10th of capacity – who fair raised the roof with their joyful song, swayed the walls with swinging hips and shook the floor with their stomping feet.

It was magic.

By my standards, it took a long time to get to the “I do” bit, but nobody seemed to mind. The Mantais are Afrikaans-speaking people and the Swelis are Xhosa-speakers, so the umfundisi’s words of wisdom were translated as we went along by a very helpful (and very bulky) woman who had, right at the beginning, told us that she was vyftalig and could translate into English too.

Thank goodness nobody asked her to.

We might still be there now.

Each family had appointed a spokesperson to say a few comforting words.

“We are Swelis,” said another uncle in Xhosa. He later pointed out to me that he was a refuse collector and was hoping for a good Christmas bonus.

“We are looking forward to making one family with the Mantais, we are peaceful people …”

A Mantai aunt – the Mantais being a family of formidable women – gave a suitable response in Afrikaans.

Everybody cheered. At least, those who had understood her did.

The umfundisi, who probably hadn’t, “whooped”, the audience bellowed “umtshato!” and off we went again into rousing song and barrelling dances.

We were led from the sidelines by a fabulously vocal, unrelated woman – known only as “Ma” – in a doek, with a tambourine and very few teeth.

Finally, bilingually, and at great length, with dreadlocked youths in tears, Ma chanting in the background, occasional “whoops” from the priest and ongoing shouts of “yes!” from a couple of drunken uncles at the back, the couple exchanged vows and were released into the world as indoda and vrou.

The cavalcade of hooting cars wove its way through the township and out to a river bank where a braai had been laid on and, more importantly, the beers and sweet, fizzy wine began to flow.

It was an occasion of huge and unadulterated joy.

Walmer and The Carpenters

Chris Harvie discovers a true country hotel near the centre of Port Elizabeth.

I am always sceptical of hotels that call themselves country lodges when they are blatantly in towns but this was the genuine article, slap in the middle of the leafy Port Elizabeth suburb of Walmer. In place of the usual roar of traffic there is an assault of birdsong weaving through the colourful shrubs. And I have never seen so ebullient a yesterday-today-and-tomorrow.

“Have a drink, then I will show you to your bedroom”, suggested Roy, the acting manager. Interesting. In most hotels they take you to your ‘room’, not to your bedroom. This is the subtle difference at the heart of what makes Hacklewood Hill so refreshing. You really are expected to use all the rooms in the house in addition to your bedroom. You can even wander into the kitchen if you want to. The only discordant feature is that they still play The Best of The Carpenters at mealtimes, all day in fact, when I rather imagined that, like me, the rest of the world was over Karen’s tragic untimely demise and had moved on.

Our host was fairly frank about Hacklewood’s clientele. “Not everybody likes it,” he clarifies. Some find it too old and too frilly. Well, all I can say is that I hate frilly but I didn’t think this was frilly. And of course it is old. It was built in 1898 and is one of the oldest buildings of its kind in the city, but never was a home better suited to its current use. Maybe there are people out there who don’t like highly polished antique furniture, thick curtains from ceiling to floor and spade-loads of Spode china. But that’s just tough for them, isn’t it? They are probably the same people who are still listening to The Carpenters. They can stay somewhere else and leave Hacklewood Hill, once the music collection has been updated, to sophisticates like me.

I toured the cellar and then partook of afternoon tea in the drawing room. So homely was it all that I half-expected a Victorian couple called Harold and Dora with seven scrubbed-up children to come tripping in and join me but they didn’t. Instead, I got talking to Roy about the history of the house.

The accompanying biscuits and fudge bode well for dinner so I showed restraint in anticipation, managing also to stay away from the fruit basket on the table by my four-poster. (The strawberry, at roughly the size of a cricket ball, was the biggest I have ever seen.)

I lost myself in my oversized bathroom a number of times whilst changing for dinner, re-orientating myself by following the call of the Knysna loerie in a tree by my balcony. This brought me safely back to the bedroom and then downstairs for pre-prandials on the verandah. If you are getting a colonial feel here, you are right. But then what’s wrong with colonial? I have read enough brochures harping on about the ‘romance of a bygone era’ to know that there’s a market for it. And Hacklewood oozes bygone era by the silver jug-full.

I can’t fault the menu or the presentation of dinner. There was a good range of dishes and some clever flavours. I had the butternut and biltong soup followed by the linefish, slightly overcooked but rescued by its delicious caper, citrus and sweet chilli reduction. Creme brulee is, of course, the toughest of the kitchen arts to master and Hacklewood’s was perfect. I celebrated with an espresso and a large port which came with more chocolates and, unexpectedly, a marsh-mallow sosatie.

Later, hunkered down in my enormous bed, having ejected a number of unfrilly pillows to make space to lie down, I lay buried in fine white linen, as Hacklewood Hill, an extraordinary suburban masterpiece, enfolded me. There was no road noise; no dogs barked; the loerie had jacked it in for the day.

All was still. The quiet of a bygone era. Even The Carpenters had stopped their noise although, as can happen after port, I fear I may have shattered the silence by snoring like their friend the Walrus.

If you go:

Where it is: 152 Prospect Road, Walmer, Port Elizabeth. Between Heugh Road and Main Road Walmer. 3km from the airport.

What it has: 8 bedrooms. Tennis court, swimming pool and just about everything from aircon to heated towel rails and painkillers to cellphone chargers. We checked. A boardroom with conference facilities for 12. Oh yes, and five stars.

Why go there: Victorian sophistication and old-fashioned silver service, enhanced with wireless Internet.

Rates: From R1335 to R1625 per person per night, bed and breakfast, depending on season.

Contact details: Tel 041 581 1300 Fax 041 581 4155 Email hacklewood@pehotels.co.za Websitewww.hacklewood.co.za