Transkei 1989, Episode 3
We had not walked five steps when suddenly the sky vanished and angry clouds exploded across the heavens, very quickly spilling into big, wet raindrops that fell at first sulkily and then moodily and eventually righteously. We were soaked in moments, stumbling through the muddy dark with our bucket of booze clambering along in tow. We completely lost our way but eventually somehow ended up back at the fancy hotel like a pair of drowned poodles.
The hotel itself was a little mansion with eight beautifully appointed rooms crafted with cloths and silks and knick-knacks pilfered from colonized countries worldwide. It was a joke that screamed into the face of all probability, this little colonial cotton-picking mansion in the middle of one of the most dangerous anti-colonial countries on Earth. When the revolution came, this place was going to burn to the ground, its flaming demise reflected in the eyes of the on-looking locals, upon the sweat of whose backs it had been crafted.
The hotel would have none of us either. The matron who greeted us at the back door had either never had children or had never been a child but she would rather have seen us die in the rain than soil her coal-shed. We hung out there on the stoep shivering, sadly sharing a bottle of whiskey, for it was raining hard and we were tired of sleeping in the rain. Then this guy walked out onto the stoep and it became a riotous assembly, for he was Indian and funny to the point of pain. His expressions were hysterical and his voice like a nightingale after the angry matron.
‘It is not advisable for you to be consecrating together in the rain at this hour’ said he – just add accent – and we fell over ourselves laughing. It was such a delicious irony really. Here were George and I, colonial throwbacks of the grand British Empire, which had thoroughly stomped colonialism on to the Indian races and bludgeoned them into subjugation and serial poverty and he was staying at the posh hotel while we were out in the brain, sozzled with booze, without a roof over our heads.
Eventually he left and about an hour or so before midnight on that Christmas day we pondered the fates and choices that lay before us. Mostly we wanted to sleep and we were truly outraged by the bad Samaritan behaviour of the hotel staff. For George the solution was simple. We were going to have to break in. I was just terrified at the idea, as I have never been a great risk-taker and considering the political temperament of this place, rash criminality seemed a bit short-sighted.
The rage grew in me too though and by the end of the bottle of Jack Daniels I had committed to this nefarious plot. We pulled open the window of one of the outside rooms and slithered through it like crocodiles onto the shaggy white carpets, like eels in fact, all slimy and dirty and wet. We slithered up onto the bed and into the sheets, leaving a trail of polluted scales within the silken folds. My heart was beating like a deranged woodpecker on a piece of petrified wood.
We set George’s watch alarm for 5:30 but either George messed it up or we didn’t hear it and we awoke to hear the sounds of the cleaners opening up all the empty room doors to air them out or something. We jumped out of the silken soiled sheets so fast that it was as if we had been teleported and then we teleported through the window and down the hill and onto the beach. The exhilaration raced through us with pumping bellows of power. Now we were free! We had gone in and escaped alive. We still had booze and we had the whole of boxers’ day to celebrate with our friends.
That was a fine day indeed. We just lay around and did as we pleased, drinking and smoking and just taking a nap or going fishing or whatever; A grand, grand day and the weather holding out just beautifully, the proverbial roof of stars tucking us in for a good night’s rest. The next day was dismal, a grey sky and dampness creeping across the land and into our bones, stiff muscles and alcohol steeped brains. We had spent almost all of our cash on booze and there was a unanimous feeling that home was beckoning and should not be ignored.
With packs lightened by lack of food but somehow heavier than ever before we trudged forward into weather that would not abate in misery for the entire return trip. A couple of hours later and we found the nest of the Super Yuppies, empty and unguarded. George did not hesitate to scamper around the back looking for an open window while I hissed at him fiercely to leave the house alone. Any minute I expected a hail of goat herder bullets to split the deathly silence of the day.
Eventually, I walked around to the back and discovered him already in the kitchen, the fridge open and his head buried in it, chomping indiscriminately, his head thrashing left and right like a sawfish moving through a shoal of sardine
Sheepishly, I accepted an offering of left over lamb lunch but warned him on pain of death not to steal anything else. It was only an hour later that I noticed the Christmas present sticking out of his backpack and I nearly throttled him. Bad karma was the last thing we needed right then. It turned out that it was a box of French chocolates – Delicious French chocolates.
There is something about going back that saps the energy. It’s like you’ve already achieved the goal and from here on in it is just tired, hungry work. It becomes a slog. Unbeknown to us, the early whisperings of tick bite fever were snaking through our veins with morbid determination. By midday we were absolutely finished, my cracked sunburned legs throbbing with the monotonous pace. When we could not take any more, we sat down and rested on a high ridge some way inour frienfd
It was there that this bunch of kids – training goat herders – came around the corner, all laughing and singing with their perfect white teeth and bellicose smiles. Or so they automatically seemed to me, being wrapped around the faces of what was purportedly the other side. I thought to myself: These kids are probably real hungry, probably only a meal away from savagery. I watched them approach with a cautious readiness to my gaunt frame.
It was then that I remembered the immortal words of the two reconnaissance soldiers: ‘this may be a land of very hungry savages but it’s also a land of very hungry savages’; and in a flash I understood the wisdom of this casual statement. Our remaining scraps of food were whipped out of our bags and ten minutes later we continued walking with each of the kids sharing one of our heavy packs and thus we continued for the remainder of the afternoon. To this day I find it absolutely astonishing that a ten-year-old child handled what I could not accomplish – quite easily – in return for a few scraps of food.
The following evening, absolutely famished and drained of all energy, we crept into the forest a bit to find a place to sleep. We had spotted signs of human habitation, or rather a burned out building that had once housed humans of some description. It gave us a bit of a bad feeling and we remembered the words and dire warnings of everybody we had met, not least the trained assassins we had encountered along the way.
So we did what all boys must do in these circumstances. We trod around in the bush loudly, calling to each other in broad voices. Sometimes we even called out in Afrikaans – or Shambok Dutch as I called it – in case there were any natives lurking nearby, waiting to pounce out with spears. It was said that they feared the Afrikaans language something fierce, unlike English, which often produced only mild, embarrassed laughter from the enemy. Then we whipped out our hunting knives and made a big show of throwing them into a big, old tree trunk.
Needless to say, we were robbed in the night. Despite all our ninja instincts and our very clever trick of placing all of our valuables in the bottom of the sleeping bag, they just whipped our stuff away out from under our very heads, their quiet little knives slitting through the fabric. It was a horrifying thought to wake up to. Visions of those knives crossing over my jugular veins haunted me. George – who still had his blade – could not be held back and went down to the beach to track them. Unbelievably, he found two of the packs a few minutes away, hidden in the bushes. To my undying delight, one of them contained my writing files, which had achieved a sort of cult value for me.
What we didn’t find however was our shoes. In the face of this calamity we set out, sore and mind numbingly hungry, our feet scalding on the hot stones and sensitive to every tiny, sharp rock. George was cursing so loudly and furiously that I thought he would murder the first local we came across. We had decided to try and complete the last phase of the journey home – a comfortable two days walk – in one go, and did not stop for a rest.
I clearly remember that dizzying day, like the slow motion replay of every starving desert scene I had ever witnessed. It pressed on us, the ferocity of the challenge. Slowly but surely we began to lose hope, or I did at least and George wasn’t doing any better, wilting in fact, his savage Italian ferocity fizzling out like the colour yellow spread too thin. At first we tried to help each other, but eventually Rene and Ian, perhaps tasting the copper tang of their own mortalities, just switched onto automatic, leaving us trailing behind them in an ever-widening gap.
At some point I collapsed and fainted, my face hitting the dirt with the chunky promise of a bruise. George had done the same, some way before or after. There we lay through the baking day with parched lips and bulging eyes, our stomach’s twisting with hunger. I must have lain there for hours before getting up and stumbling onward into the mounting darkness. It seemed like days passed and then the lights of the hotel swam again into view. Even as I crumbled to the ground, I saw Rene and Ian, who were having a fine little tête-à-tête on the veranda, waiting without a care, their hands hooked around some very fine Martini’s, plotting our return course across the barefoot miles that separated us from home.
We had accomplished a journey through the real world, there and back again, against almost insurmountable obstacles, but soon we would begin another journey, a journey of much greater danger and almost infinite distance. I like to think that we had experienced a crash course in preparation for the gate, and beyond it, paths that would ultimately reveal our astonishing fate.