A Bull and a China Shop

Some creatures make a big impression, some leave no trace of themselves at all

“You gave us the wrong fingerprints,” the baffling woman repeated. “You must do them again.” I had come to pick up my driver’s licence from the Sabie Traffic Department. She had said it would take six weeks. Pointlessly, I had given her a precautionary three months.

She was unbending in the face of my explanation that – maybe rather foolishly – I had brought the same fingers with me this time as the last. I must reapply using whatever fingerprints I had to hand.

Bowing to her superior understanding of bureaucracy, I was resigned to the fact that I must take my next road trip through a bunch of countries renowned for traffic police more awkward than ours, carrying a temporary licence and somebody else’s fingerprints which I had always taken to be my own.

We counted the road blocks – seven in Mozambique, six in Malawi, 14 in Zambia and 21 in a four hundred kilometre stretch of Zimbabwe. Not one of them was fazed. In fact, with its parchment shape, its dazzling crimson stripe and its ridiculously handsome photograph, I think the temporary version may have looked more official than the permanent.

There were hold-ups of a different kind to beef about en route, though.

We wove a wary path between the potholes to Beira. They say that if you see a pair of ears sticking out of an indent in a Mozambiquan highway, it signals not a rabbit but a giraffe. My bakkie swerved in and out, throwing itself at Africa with its customary fearless abandon.

Unable to find a campsite in grimy Tete, we settled instead on a roadside motel for the night. One uncomfortable bed was evidently stuffed with concrete and the other with popcorn; squadrons of bat-sized mosquitoes circled ominously under the dysfunctional fan. There was no door on the bathroom and the TV channels ranged from Islamic prayer to fishing on the Yangtze with no option of news or movies. We beat it to the bar for a 2M beer and some supper, bombarded by a video of Velvet Revolver playing a tuneless composition entitled Train Sucking Blues.

A more musical metal-rending crash then broke the dusty darkness followed by a deep and lengthy groan and cursing in Portuguese. Perhaps someone had sucked up a train outside the hotel? No.

Although the dying groans of a truck-bashed bull seemed perversely to improve the music, the staff disappeared to witness its pain first-hand and the service came to a standstill for 15 minutes.

We survived the night and my companion’s disagreement with his curry, which rendered the lack of a bathroom door all the more unfortunate, and awoke with the dawn. The dead animal was still lying on the roadside, minus a couple of rump steaks, as we escaped in the direction of Zuma’s empty Malawian thoroughfares.

Zambia’s road blocks were for the most part elephantine and Zimbabwe’s merely a demonstration of paranoia so it wasn’t until we got back to Bushbuckridge, Mpumalanga, that we saw a lurching Ni-Da piling into another bull, believe it or not, just outside the China Shop. The imprint on this unfortunate beast was deeper and with more immediate effect.

Far, far deeper than the imprint of my finger which was never found. I eventually got my new licence and, in place of my isithupha, appear the words “No Print”. I look forward to that discussion with a traffic cop if ever I strike an itinerant steer. “Why don’t you have any fingerprints?”

“I just can’t seem to make a good impression,” I shall say. No bull, my china.

Party Train to Pasture

Larry the Landy’s last dance was a festive affair with trompoppies and hooch

Larry and I had co-travelled many tens of thousands of kilometres but we now had to finalise our impending divorce before Death itself should us part. It was heart-rending. My Land Rover was slowly giving up the ghost. I could no longer afford the medical bills.

Travel had become much tamer in recent times. We couldn’t risk breaking down in Deepest Darkest; there was no bundu-bashing at Mana Pools, no hurricane-dodging in Niassa. Instead, our most recent foray had seen us topping up his water in the car park outside Shoprite in Graaff-Reinet, again outside Spar in Jeffrey’s Bay, followed by Woolworths in Plett and finally Checkers in Bredasdorp.

It had been a glorious winter trip of sunshine and whales, white surf crashing onto white sandy beaches, cliff-top walks and empty roads, until we reached Cape Town, where the doof-doof from the Waterfront was muted. The city was in lockdown pending the arrival, not of me and Larry, but of the most powerful man on earth. Obama was heading for Robben Island.

We went instead to a mechanic near the Castle who insisted that he wouldn’t be able to look at my car for two weeks. It was the straw that broke the Landy’s back. I went straight to the railway station to book the last berth to Johannesburg for me and the last spot in the vehicle carriage for the Land Rover. I wasn’t going to risk a breakdown and two weeks in Leeu-Gamka.

In his outlandish turquoise and purple outfit, Spoornet Man could not have been more helpful. He even promised me that the food on the train had improved. Spoornet’s infamous coffee was back, he said, and I must try the Pap en Tik.

This, I had decided, would be Larry’s last ride.

We arrived the required three hours prior to departure, allowing time to fill both fuel tanks and thus to weigh down and manoeuvre Larry successfully under the roll-up door and onto the train.

The riotous din of the boarding hordes was a magnificent manifestation of rainbow polyglot joy, wherein a preponderance of gap-toothed women yelled “waars my f@#*%n sakkie?” and “wie het my f@#*%n kind gesteel?” as they kept noisy tabs on their belongings and their offspring.

A mother from Rondebosch gently placed her hands over her daughter’s ears.

A couple of hundred passengers have loaded onto a train here every other day for I don’t know long but still it was as chaotic as the first day of a massive department store sale. Then into the pandemonium strode a snake of paired-off touring trompoppies from Bellville, in yellow track-suits and green beanies. The noise cranked up another couple of hundred decibels as they boarded the train with a gaggle of mothers in pursuit in DRUMMIE MOMMIE jackets.

It was not a peaceful journey but it was a happy one, the shouting, the stomp of running drummies and the strong smell of hooch only subsiding at about 2am somewhere near Kimberley. The by-now more subdued crowd finally disembarked in Johannesburg at dusk the next day, a respectable seven hours late.

I waited for Larry to appear. “Nice vehicle!” said one onlooker.

“If it had been a nice vehicle, I’d have driven it here, and not paid R4000 for it to come by train!” I muttered and then realised she wasn’t looking at Larry.

A shiny black Jeep appeared from the vehicle wagon, a mid-20s Naomi Campbell lookalike at the wheel. The number-plate read PRENUPT WP. As I was finalising the end of my time with my Land Rover, this Jeep symbolised the beginning of a marriage. An intriguing lobola.