They say ‘Don’t drive there’. Don’t listen.
The cashier peers curiously at me and asks whether I am Cuban as well.
As well as what, I wonder. Is everyone else here Cuban? It seems unlikely. This is Mthatha.
The advice has always been the same: Don’t drive through Transkei. They drive straight at you and then swerve suddenly. They don’t place rocks in the road, they place whole kopjes. The potholes are the size of a Kimberley mine. They actually keep cattle on the highway. They throw boulders at bakkies. Uncle Frikkie and Auntie Magda set off down the N2 from Kokstad in 1979 and have never been seen again …
Well, it is rubbish.
Yes, there is road-kill. Plenty of it. Although some is clearly fresh and I don’t look too carefully, none looks human. Goats. Cattle. Chickens. No Frikkie, no Magda.
I am rushing. Mthatha Airport is staying open late for me to collect a missing bag and, in my little white toaster-sized hire-car from ‘Maritzburg, I splatter speedily through squashed bovine corpses towards Transkei’s Big City.
Trucks indicate that I can that I can safely overtake in the dark and, holding my breath, I trust them. They know the road. They could drive it with their eyes closed. In fact, they probably do. Often.
The only traffic police are blue-flashing an overturned oil tanker, gurgling ominously, where it straddles the highway. The taxis approaching Mthatha don’t use lights at all – not even during loadshedding – although they too pull over, unfailingly polite.
Bag recovered, I turn in at a Sasol petrol station, smiles all-around in the half-glowing lights.
“Where are you from?” a Pirates-capped taxi-driver asks the man before him at the till.
“Bangladesh,” comes the reply. He is dhoti-clad and chestnut-brown.
“Is that in Africa?”
“Yes,” the Bangladeshi assures him, thinking fast on his sandaled feet, but there is no sign of xenophobia here.
My interlocutor declares himself from Havana when I reveal my own total lack of Cuban-ness. He looks disappointed. Perhaps he is lonely. Maybe he arrived as one Manto’s doctors and turned to the more lucrative business of supplying fuel to the Eastern Cape. I feel a twinge of guilt.
A few days later, the dawn drive home from Umngazi along the gentle national road is a delightful counterpoint to the night terrors of the highway.
Past Lusikiki, I motor through lovely hills dotted with pale blue and burnt orange houses and white rondavels emitting occasional puffs of smoke. Wound with laundry, collapsing fences sway in the sunshine before leading down bush-laden river gorges.
Blanketed women are genteelly escorted by bent old men with sticks, woolly hats and close-fitting buttoned jackets, their church-bound milling faces brushing through the tall yellow flowers on the roadsides.
Here and there, a large tent promises a wedding or remembers a departed neighbour’s well-lived life in this rolling unspoilt landscape.
Disused collapsing stores shade languid cattle and wagging-tongued, mating dogs. Three donkeys stand unmoved in a pathway while chickens pick at the dust and a cattle-warning sign hangs forlornly aslant alongside a rusting overturned bakkie, its wheels still turning where a child spins them in the sun.
I am listening, aptly, to Ode to Joy. Heaven must be like this, I decide.
Two traffic officers are sleeping peacefully on the roadside, windows down, and the child beams at me as I bawl the words to the inside of my car-roof.
Do, do, do drive through the Transkei. It is achingly beautiful and unerringly courteous. Whether you are from Bangladesh, Cuba or Kokstad.
And if you should see Frikkie and Magda, leave them be. They probably chose to stay.