Transkei 1989, Episode 1

At the end of our second last year at school – a meaningless distinction since three of us were already in imminent danger of being excluded from the school system due to irreconcilable differences – my three friends and I decided to all take a hike in the wilderness and refine the fledgling spirit and nature of our gang. We studied the country and went about the business of finding a little paradise for our exploration. Eventually, after much thought, we focused our sights on the strip of land called the Transkei, which hugs the East Coast of South Africa. The ‘coast of storms’ and many wrecked ships. A coast of cannibals, some say.

So we got our stuff together and worked out a plan of action. George, by this stage, had begun to slide steadily away from the ‘alcoholic’ thing and over onto the ‘Jah is our main guy’ side of astral operations. The more you smoked Pot back then, the more you realized how completely stupid alcohol is. For one thing: Dope is more fun. You can do a lot with dope. If you were stuck in a lighthouse for a week on some remote Scottish coast with only a copy of Tolkien to read, trust me, you would rather have a little section of the good weed than a bottle of Jack.

So George had really got into the stuff and once old Jah Rastafari enters your life, he gets in good and stays there some time. Suddenly, he found the idea of spewing vomit across your bedroom wall after a night of heavy drinking somehow unappealing. The Rasta’s can be very judgmental about these things, contrary to the main selling point of their beautiful racket. He wanted to go to the Transkei because as everyone knows, the god of marijuana fell from the heavens and was buried in the Transkei so that we, the people of the Earth, could smoke the divine green coiling light of Mary Jane that grew raw from the soil in such great abundance.

I wanted to go for the fishing. I have an obsessive love of fishing that stems, I think, from the fact that fishing time with my dad represented the only moment of real joy and contact that I ever remember experiencing between us. I now see fish as thoughts and the water body as the lake of the subconscious through which I row my perception. I dream a lot about fish, swimming in the water below me and – despite the fact that I most like to pull them out of the water and eat them – I find them very calming. I thoroughly cherished the idea of eating from the land. I brought along three huge rods – rods you could erect a circus tent with – and all of their tackle. The irony of these rods, in all of its sublime irony, would only in the near future be properly revealed.

The main thing I can say about our leaving Johannesburg – and taking into account those gigantic rods – is that we were really heavy. Four heavy little boys, our backpacks tormenting the miserable skeletal frames that dragged them along. They were like obscene slave-masters, shoving us around, driving us forth. We left the evil surrounds of our school and its web of arcane power to travel in a train to Durban where my uncle Case, who was a cook in some hotel that favoured the ‘buffet’ and ‘Danish Style’, entertained us. He reminded me of boiled chicken heads but we took full and uncensored advantage of the open tab to get ripping drunk.

Another series of coincidences involving cars and roads and we are at ‘The Cape Sun’, several hundred clicks South, a hotel which sits on the very border of the Transkei. If you stand in the water off the beach, it is very difficult to tell where South Africa ends and the ‘Wild Coast’ begins, excepting of course for the fact that the South African side of the divide has a very nice, civilized hotel on it. If you sit on the hotel deck and look just over there you can imagine it, the coast of dreams and infamous savagery. At the time that we decided to travel there, in 1989, the company was in the upheavals of a revolution and the Transkei government had been overthrown in a bloody coup.

 

Back in Durban we were warned against traveling there and in the hotel on its edge we were warned once again. We had however all committed so much to this idea that nothing would dampen our spirits. Our parents had not really believed that we would even go through with this. We were in danger of losing our education and had nothing to go back too. None of us even had a job. We had to pull this trip off, for sure, pull it off good.

It was a challenge to our group. It was the union of us, the trial, judge, jury and execution of us. We listened nervously to the reports of violence that were coming from that land, a land of the black people and their killing weapons. Undaunted and unable to afford the enormous costs of the protective hotel, we packed our things the following morning and headed across the river and onto the wild beaches of the Transkei, land of violence, ill repute and potentially very good weed.

Six hours along the beach and the heaviness thing became a serious problem. Some of us were dragging along sixty kilograms of compressed peanuts and baked beans. We resolved to eat everything encased in metal on the very first night. That first night was not far off and we had decided to alight alongside the banks of a gloomy, foggy river, when we heard the sounds of manic laughter and guttural Afrikaans spewing forth into the night like. Then we saw torches and realized that these foul-mouthed boatmen were roaring drunk and had gone for a night-fish. On the far bank we saw a very comforting camp with a big fire blazing away into the soggy night.

As a group we had all forced ourselves to avoid thinking about the tent problem, namely that we only had one and not only didn’t know to work it, but it was designed presumably for two small monkeys, the type of tent you might well find in a lucky-packet or in your Christmas stocking. Whether it even had all its bits was another thought that had been forcibly removed from our conversations. Given these facts and the utter misery of the weather, we made great pains to attract the attentions of the boatmen and were eventually rewarded by them rowing over, looking very drunk and holding automatic weapons.

What we didn’t know about them was that they were South African Special Forces killers, stationed on the border of the Transkei on 24 hours standby, who had both had the regular privilege of being able to shoot at live targets, normally at night, while drunk. Fortunately, they thought we were hilarious. It took them a long time to stop laughing and when they eventually did they rowed us over on the wildly unbalanced craft to sit by their fire. They spent the rest of the night telling us how violently stupid we were for contemplating a walk one minute down the beach. Then they happily set about making us homemade weapons to carry with us.

The next morning we left bristling with sharp sticks and fishhook grappling weapons and bamboo guns and without the worrisome additional weight of half of our food, which they had been only too glad to share. They gave us some great hints however, perhaps the most important of which is that while it was a country overrun by hungry little savages, it was also a country where the price of a tin of food could get you almost anything. The soldiers themselves had a whole army of the little Goat-herders just outside the camp who would perform even the most dubious services for these two heavily armed lunatics. It would prove to be a very useful tip.

As cold and miserable as the previous night had been, the day was mercilessly hot and the beach, which we had resolved to stick too, was like a giant magnifying glass. We were being seared as we walked. The beaches were long and completely uninhabited. At one point we met an old man with a crazy grin who enthusiastically gestured to a pot of crayfish that he wished to sell to us. In our heat-induced delirium we decided to turn him down, as at the very least we didn’t want to include crawling lobsters to our list of difficulties. It was a good decision, as it turned out, because we discovered not long afterward that they were grown from seed at the bottom of the long drop toilets shared by the tribal people, where these aquatic cockroaches feasted delightedly on the accumulated human faeces.

Eventually, we decided to camp under the shadow of a rocky outcrop, unsure of how far we had travelled, especially on account of lacking a map and no navigation equipment. Water, it turns out, is another very important and very rare substance on the wildest coast of Africa. The very few streams that trickle their sweet juice down to the sea are completely polluted by cow effluent further upstream and we couldn’t bring ourselves to drink from them, even after we had attempted to boil it over a twig fire no better than a box of matches all piled up. To take our minds off our thirst we gobbled the last of the salty peanuts. Even more worryingly, George had seen not a sign of the promised fields of marijuana and he was starting to permanently lose his sense of humour.

There is something fundamentally different about the hunger that accumulates in a city boy. Food is like an all-pervading instant satisfaction program. You get hungry and you eat. It also goes well with sadness, irritation, boredom, joy and birthdays. You just reach out and you get it. In the bush it is more a question of timing. You eat at the eating time and when you are not eating you spend all your time trying to get food. Walking along the beach that day and we are experiencing the whole gamut of brilliant reasons for eating something and our minds were entirely possessed by the opulence of our civilized lifestyles, demanding not just simple food but complex sugars and proteins, things only a very advanced, automated civilization is capable of producing.

By nightfall we knew not how far we had travelled but we were thoroughly exhausted. Unfortunately, the point at which light and bodily strength gave out was a rocky bit of coast which blew cold winds and gave us as our only company sparse grass and big boulders. At some level there was a sense of relief because we still didn’t have to try the tent out and discover its horrible truth. There was nowhere to anchor it. At around eight a light drizzle began to seep through the landscape. We still had some of the peanuts, but by this stage were having trouble swallowing them. George had a can of some food or other left and we lit into it with powerful hunger. After that we tried to get comfortable in the shade of a big, wet, rock.

The brightness of the following day and we trod optimistically onward. My legs and other exposed body parts had been so burned from the day before that they had swollen up like ripe, red melons and were painful to the touch. George had started to seriously consider the prospect that the marijuana legends may not have been true and he was not dealing with it well. As we walked, he became increasingly quiet and developed a faraway look in his eyes as he constantly monitored the landscape that embraced the beach. It took him until early afternoon to decide that we had to travel inland and start a serious, coordinated search for the source of the marijuana rumour. At that point my legs were so swollen that I could hardly walk. I found it hard to believe that his words were actually originating in a brain.

 

In a savage act of irony we came around a coast and realized that we were trapped and would have to track inland in order to get back to the coast. George said nothing but I could see an insane vindication ripple through him and I knew that he was integrating this change into the plot of his working mythology. The Gods were guiding him and as a matter of fact guided us slap bang into a huge swamp of rhino grass or whatever you call it, like a million long, green knives that spear upward in every conceivable direction, sometimes so aggressive that they even spear through each other. My swollen legs opened like balloons of pus, lacerated by a thousand vicious paper cuts. After that it was a true struggle for survival hacking our way back to the coast. Renewed by a spiritual energy however, George went almost double the distance as he backtracked toward remote signs of civilization looking for a priest … or a dealer.

By darkness we were finished and were seriously considering eating the instant soup, no matter what it represented. We hurried along into the gathering darkness, collected water at a stream and by the last light of day saw a big open plain of sand to pitch the tent, just to the other side of a relatively modest river which emptied into the ocean. By the time we arrived at its banks however it was looking a lot more formidable and fast flowing. George jumped in straight away, leaving his pack behind and swimming across. Presumably, he was going to sling a fifty-foot rope across with a grappling hook and tie it to a tree so that he could haul our kit across. He even called Ian across to help him, who stupidly did so. By the time his dive was finished he was almost out at sea and it was by sheer skinny tenacity only that he made it across.

It was only as he stood wet and shivering without any kit on the other side of the now raging river and rising tide, that George must have considered his rashness and the advantages of rope. In the sinking darkness we could do nothing. But the universe is not without its sense of poetic irony. Directly across from us, Rene and I climbed up a cliff face and found a beautiful warm cave like a bushman villa overlooking river property and a huge pile of dried twigs with which we lit a very merry fire and made ourselves a nice cup of soup. In a final flourish Rene dug out his little walkman and external speakers and played the soft sounds of Phoebe Snow into the night. There we sat on that ledge, fishing, drinking hot soup, resting against our warm pillows, listening to some tunes while directly opposite us Ian and the barely sane George were huddled on a big flat piece of sand in a torrential downpour.

What would tomorrow bring?