It was not to be an average Sunday afternoon drive. Forget that it was actually a Monday, but when there aren’t any available seats on a small bush plane for days, and a pair of safari lodge managers needs to get back to work, we launched an arduous transportation effort to return them to their 5 star lodge via a variety of South African “roads”, including some that can’t be seen on a map. Pulling out of a dirt driveway in this year’s Toyota Fortunera was just the beginning of a journey through touristy towns and smaller villages that society has left behind. Following the paved, modern highway north from White River (wit rivier in Afrikaans) was easy enough, however the center white line turned out to only be a suggestion for drivers to stay on their side of the road. Regardless of curves, turns and hills, oncoming drivers often saddled the center line. In this newer section of Highway 40, the lines are well painted and often have reflectors as well. Drivers use great precision, with great proximity, when overtaking the car in front.
For several kilometers, hundreds of adults and uniformed school children walked on the roadside, and if they (and we) were lucky, the road was wide enough to provide a shoulder on which they could walk. These pedestrians often blindly stepped on to the highway, oblivious to the traffic racing through at 100+ kph. Drivers honk horns to jerk the pedestrians back to reality and back to the edge of the road.
We stopped at a little bakery called Brie Street and enjoyed the high quality baked goods. We were not disappointed with our individual servings of lemon meringue, milk tart, and chocolate cake. Milk tart (milktert in Afrikaans) is a sweet pastry with a flan-like filling. In the glass front refrigerator were a variety of cold drinks, including some flavors of Snapple Tea that I had not seen before: Kiwi and Strawberry, Cranberry Raspberry, Mango and Pink Lemonade.
Soon the winding paved roads turned to winding dirt roads and then eventually to something that resembled a road. Thousands of large potholes were perfectly spaced to make driving in S patterns normal and mandatory. Most potholes had puddles and often interspersed with patches of washing board hard packed dirt. South Africans call the washing board sections corrugated.
Passing through one town after another, we soon entered Acornhoek (pronounced acorn hook) and my eyes popped a bit wider. Hundreds of people milled about, going about their daily chores from shopping to haircuts, to car repairs to furniture shopping to walking home from school. Neon yellow is a popular color of fabric for these brightly dressed people.
On my left were several outdoor, open-air “stands” that were nothing more than a few sheets of corrugated metal atop towers of cinder block or wood poles resembling 2 x 4s. These stands are places of business for the residents and several served as barber shops and hair salons. Out in the open, people sat and chatted with friends as hairdressers trimmed and styled their hair. Some vendors sold fruits and vegetables, and another sold green plastic garden rakes alongside toilet paper. Nailed to a utility pole, a sign offered “funerals that you can afford”, and further up the road “Furn for Sale” grabbed my attention. “Furn” stood for furniture and a dozen new mattresses, stacked, were on display on the sandy concrete front porch.
Our road at this point had turned back into pavement but was covered with sand. After leaving town, several washouts of red dirt disrupted our flow of traffic and drivers in both directions often shared one lane. The edges of the road gradually disintegrated and soon we were driving on hard packed dirt. Dozens of barefoot children literally squealed with delight and chased our vehicle as we bobbled along. Many patted their stomachs, giving the universal gesture of “I’m hungry”. Some yelled “money, money” as they laughed with us. We waved, gave two thumbs up, and carried on.
A few days prior, I had driven through a town called Pothole, and at that time thought that the name was apt. During this newest adventure, it seemed it would be more accurate to call one of these villages by that name. Driving across a pothole on one of these roads could have been lethal to the vehicle.
We chattered and laughed as we bumped along, and while the journey was tense for me, the three South Africans with whom I was traveling had lots of experience on this route. Our journey continued for a solid three hours, including a stop at the Sabi Sands private reserve gate and security check point. We delivered our friends back to work, we watched some hippos and water buck from the lodge’s deck and then headed back towards civilization.
Taking a different route back provided some new adventures. To start, these roads are not on any maps. We appreciated the mostly hard packed dirt road for about 30 kilometers. We cruised up and down over the hills passing an occasional village. Eventually we came to concrete, and while it didn’t seem like an actual road to me, it felt like we were driving down the side of a mountain. And then I saw it – the world’s biggest pothole. It was easily 30 yards across and filled with water. A couple of young men waded ankle-deep across through the edge, giving us hope of shallowness across the entire pothole. One offered to walk through the deeper middle to demonstrate the actual depth, but, it was dark and we needed to keep moving quickly, in part for safety reasons. I could not even take time to photograph it. We bolted through, creating wake and giving the headlights a muddy bath.
We finally rolled to a stop, back on the original dirt driveway, nearly seven hours after we started our day’s journey. The vehicle was in great shape and had weathered the bumps and potholes better than our bodies. What an adventure.
There are roads and then there are roads.