Doug Morton
16 minute read
1 Jul 2022
11:52

Floody good holiday

Doug Morton

Incessant rain puts an unexpected, sometimes terrifying, twist on a journey to Port St Johns.

The river level was so high that the waves at First Beach were running up the river for over two kilometres to break over the bridge to Lusikisiki. PHOTO: AFP

A steady, often heavy, rain had been falling for nearly a week on most of the eastern seaboard of South Africa, reaching well inland.

There had been some localised flooding along the coast, and we anxiously scanned the sky over Pietermaritzburg each morning and evening hoping to see a change.

Each morning, afternoon and evening the SABC English Service announcers, in rich, plummy tones, told us what to expect of the skies the following day and even a day after that.

Denied the sophisticated technology availble today, the weather forecasts 40 years ago were a good deal more reliable than the falsehoods we’re fed by the multitude of state-of-the-art weather services nowadays.

“We’ll go anyway,” Hank and I agreed on the Friday afternoon. The rain was set to ease the following day, and we’d be fine, travelling inland most of the way and then branching off at Umthatha to head for Port St Johns on the Transkei coast.

We’d been planning the April trip for some months, and had made special arrangements for the the stay at the beach. It seemed a pity to let a bit of rain get in the way of all that good work.

In any case, four very young children would be shattered at a cancellation after all the build-up. We could just imagine them sitting in the lounge, broad-brimmed hats on their heads, glaring indignantly at their pristine buckets and spades that had promised so much enjoyment.

And still the rain fell, but more softly. We fellows had courteously agreed to allow the ladies to do the grocery shopping and packing for the two-week jaunt, as well as organise and pack clothes, medical goods, all toiletries, toys and sundry items that would be needed in beach bungalows that we’d been told offered nothing but round walls, thatched roofs and basic furniture without linen.

There would be no electricity available, so we menfolk had graciously arranged for refilled gas bottles with cooker tops, lanterns and a gas fridge. With all this frivolity taken care of, it was also our critical task to sort out the fishing tackle for the onslaught we’d be making on the Grunter and Kob at First Beach.

This was hard work, and we listened with disbelief to the mothers yelling at the scrapping and squalling kids as they got on with the easy, enjoyable part of the preparations. At last the fridge had been shoe-horned into Hank’s Peugeot 404 Station Wagon, rod clamps attached to roof gutters, rods and nets affixed and secured, heb coolers with frozen bait installed – we couldn’t afford to waste time when we got there – petrol tanks full to the brims, and we were ready to roll.

We stared aghast at the mountain of baggage that needed to be allocated space in the station wagon and my Fiat 125 sedan. “It’s only for two weeks,” Hank and I chorused. “It’ll never all fit in.”

“Well, the fishing bags and heb coolers can stay behind,” ventured Debbie, knowing that this would never happen.

“This is a holiday for all of us,” she continued, stating the obvious.

Hank and I reluctantly became load masters, filling up every tiny space and gap with something that was essential to the success of the trip.

It took much grunting, planning what should be on top and available if needed, packing and unpacking, and the occasional muttered swearing, but eventually it was done to the satisfaction of the mothers who were, after all, in charge.  

At last, long after dark, the back door of the Peugeot and the Fiat’s boot were persuaded shut as both cars bulged sideways, and it was time to retire to our own homes for some broken sleep.

Our starting hour – the ETD (Early Time of Day) was to be around five o’clock, but this depended on no crises arising in either home. There were none, and six o’clock saw us on the road to Richmond, Ixopo and beyond, the two vehicles carrying loads intended for heavy trucks.

This was 1975 and fuel restrictions were in force. Filling stations were open from six to 12 on Saturday mornings, and Hank and I had calculated that with a short stop at Mount Frere to top up we’d easily make it to Umthatha to fill up again before closing time at noon.

‘ROAD CLOSED’

The trouble started before we reached the muddy streets of Umzimkulu.

The Peugeot was misfiring. It didn’t seem too serious and we carried on, but the problem grew. We passed Kokstad, but by then were limping along, and the clock seemed to be galloping.

We reached Mount Frere with just a few minutes to spare before noon, and filled up gratefully. This would see us through to Port St Johns with no trouble.

The problem was the misfiring. Still parked in the forecourt of the filling station, with growing queues of aggressive and often drunk would-be travellers demanding lifts to somewhere else, we were approached by the owner of the garage who asked about our problem.

“I can’t sell fuel after twelve,” he said, “but spares aren’t a problem.” Not knowing what was causing the misfiring, we took a wild guess. “Could be points, condenser or plugs,” was my contribution.

The pleasant owner rummaged about in his office, surfacing with a set of points that would fit Hank’s Peugeot. He had no spare plugs or condenser.

It took Hank a few minutes to fit the points while I warded off the attentions of the queue of hitchhikers, and VOILA. The Peugeot was running like a river again.

Thanking the kind man profusely, we jumped into our cars and locked the doors against intruders and were off, the station wagon feeling like a Ferrari at Kyalami.

Next stop, Umthatha. The rain had stopped, but the skies were still a moody lowering grey. We didn’t need fuel at Umthatha, of course, but made a pitstop at a locked filling station, and found a place that sold snacks and cool drinks.

We made the turn onto the dirt road to Port St Johns, and we started the final stretch. It lasted about three kilometres.

Approaching the low-level bridge over the Umthatha River we found a crude hand-written sign nailed to a post that had been hammered into the road. “Road Closed” it told us, and looking beyond the sign we could see why.

The bridge and the flood plain were awash with churning brown water looking everywhere for a place to go. There would be no vehicles crossing that bridge that night, assuming the bridge was still there.

We four adults milled about in the muddy road, trying to make some sort of decision. Any decision.

“Did you see, Hank,” I asked, “just before we got into Umthatha, a primitive roadsign at the roadside? It was to Port St Johns.”

He hadn’t spotted it, but with no alternative we decided to backtrack through the town and look for it.

We found it, and took the turn onto a soggy road that wound through a poor area, disappearing into a sheet of mud. However, we could see the track emerge from the morass some 100 metres away, and decided to try.

I led the way in the doughty Fiat with the Peugeot almost floating behind us, but managed somehow to cross to firm ground. From there the track led onto the Port St Johns road beyond the low-level bridge.

I yelled with delight. We were through. The only doubt still in my mind was the low-level crossing over the Umngazi River. We were on our way. One hour to Port St Johns should do it. Not for long. Barrelling along the firm sand road, in high spirits after all the travails, we were already home, if not quite dry.

The loud bang under the Fiat was sound only, except that without losing speed, the car began to lurch alarmingly. I pulled to the side of the road as soon as I could and tried to collect my thoughts.

The engine was fine, but as soon as I engaged first gear and moved off there was the strangest lurching. Finding a relatively dry spot I stopped, got out of the car and crawled in under it.

CAR PROBLEMS

The news wasn’t good. The gearbox mounting bolts had all stripped and fallen out, and the gearbox, although still working perfectly, was hanging on the drive shaft.

This just had to be a formal workshop job. We were stuck properly this time. Despondently, hopelessly, I extricated my old apprenticeship toolbox from under all the baggage, opened it and surveyed the contents.

As apprentices and artisans we’d always, like crows, garnered a miscellany of bolts, nuts and screws, just in case we found a use for them.

There were also a few odds and ends that had been in the box for some eight years, just because there was no point in throwing them out. The odds against what happened must have been monumental.

I found four identical screws that would fit, and a screw tap (a device that cuts a screw thread) of the same size. I lay in the mud for half-an-hour cutting new threads for the new screws, and the gearbox was back where it belonged.

We retrieved the now muddy, but still cheerful kids (isn’t childhood such a blessing?) and put them into the cars, slammed the doors and set off once again, gingerly at first, but it soon seemed that the repair was going to last. One more obstacle, I thought – the Umngazi River.

For once the news was good. Although the racing water was splashing over the little bridge, the way was clear, and we hooted long and hard as we drove across the narrow mountain torrent. We’d made it. We thought. Almost within sight of the bridge we found another dreaded stake whacked into the road surface.

“Road closed,” read the primitive sign. I just didn’t believe it. There was no indication of water anywhere.

I drove around the sign and down the road that seemed in good condition, only to find, about 500 metres along, that the road disappeared into the Mzimvubu River that was in full flood.

We were going nowhere. Again. For the second time in a few hours we milled about in a deserted muddy road, wondering what to do.

We couldn’t spend the night and possibly the next few days at the roadside, and even if we could make it through, we didn’t have nearly enough fuel to get home, and the next day was Sunday, with no fuel on sale anywhere.

This time there was no escape. No-one would find us, and we’d be camping like neanderthals for days. It was Hank’s turn for a light-bulb moment. He recalled seeing a sign immediately after crossing the Umngazi bridge.

It showed the way to Port St Johns. We had nothing to lose in that deep valley of rushing water and steady rain, so we turned back. There stood the sign, like a talisman posted there just for us, showing us the way to salvation.

Squinting up into the rain and the hills, we all agreed to see how far we could get. Anything was worth trying. I turned the little Fiat onto the traders’ track with Hank not far behind, and we began to climb a mountain.

No sedan should have made it across those mountains. The track was in most places little more than a partially cleared pathway strewn with rocks and branches, connected by stretches of rock face hewn from the mountain.

Although I didn’t realise it at the time, we were climbing Mount Thesiger, one of the “Gates” of Port St Johns. On we went, up we went, now in driving rain, pausing here and there to take stock.

The track led forever upward, at times in thick swirling mist, the rain incessant. We stopped in places where we could see the Umzimvubu River below.

It looked like an ocean on the move, seething and heaving along a course that covered the entire valley floor.

A SCARY CLIMB

Whole trees tumbled end over end in the swirling spate, rushing with their age-old roots from the plantations and forests to the alien environment of the ocean.

The river level was so high that the waves at First Beach were running up the river for over two kilometres to break over the bridge to Lusikisiki.

We looked down on the historic jetty where the coastal trading ships had once docked as they brought in supplies and took on timber and other products, not knowing that by the next morning the jetty would be somewhere in the Indian Ocean. It was a scene that I wish never to see again.

The raw power and unbridled ferocity of the chocolate coloured deluge was frightening to behold, and who knew what poor victims were being swept along with it. Underneath all that was the road we should have been travelling.

I suddenly felt more comfortable, more in control of my future, than would have been the case where I should have been just then. The track gradually levelled out, but we were in cloud, our view restricted to a few metres, having to pick our way ahead without any certainty of what awaited us.

We crossed a plateau and then began a truly frightening descent where we could see no more of the track than what came at us from ahead. I was certain that a terrifying drop was just beyond my door, but nothing could change that.

My occasional glance in the mirror showed the blue Peugeot faithfully on my heels, and it struck me that if I went over the edge, Hank and his family would probably follow.

This too, was a track carved from the mountain rock, wide enough for a car and little more. The scariest thing was moving below the cloud line and being able to see where we’d been.

Never would I have agreed to a trip like that, and never shall again. In a series of minor mudslides the track delivered us into the village of Port St Johns, and for the first time in what seemed like a lifetime we knew where we were and felt safe.

Our destination was a cluster of rondawels on the bank of a stream that flowed into the sea at Second Beach.

With the rain still falling lightly, we drove past the gates that looked as if they’d not been closed for a very long time. Within the property we found a long line of rondawels that seemed to stare balefully at us.

In the reception office I was asked where we’d come from, and I replied: “Pietermaritzburg.” “That’s impossible,” said the manager.

“The Umngazi bridge has been under water for over a week. We haven’t had fresh bread, milk or vegetables in the town since then. How did you do it?”

We described our journey, but it seemed he didn’t believe us. We didn’t even have any photographs to prove it.

Everything about that trip resides only in our memories. From then on, things went weeeeell OK at the resort, which was then owned and operated by the local municipality.

There were few people in the place, for obvious reasons, so we had the ablution block more or less to ourselves, a mixed blessing with its intermittent hot water supply and the calf-deep muddy walk across the lawns to our units. We had a scrap with management about where our cars were parked – the whole place was waterlogged and the “road” was a river.

The accommodation for each family consisted of two very basic rondawels connected by a makeshift kitchen with almost nothing in it.

SECOND BEACH

The parents slept in one while the little kids had the other, two closed doors between them. The rain had driven from the ground multitudes of earthworms seeking drier conditions, taking refuge on our floors. A barefoot walk in the black of night to soothe a crying child meant skidding this way and that on the biggest, longest worms I’ve ever seen.

It wasn’t all that much fun. The beach, however, compensated and far more for the trials.

We went for long walks on the huge First Beach where no bathing was permitted, and marvelled at the recently planted Macadamia Nut trees sticking out of the sand dunes far beyond where the back line of waves would normally have been.

The last time we’d seen the trees was on their way down the Umzimvubu River a few days before. It looked like a petrified forest in a desert. Second Beach, right next to our accommodation, was the loveliest beach imaginable.

We had it nearly to ourselves for much of our stay because many visitors had cancelled their holidays due to the floods.

The bathing was safe, the rocks always a joy to explore, and kids could be kids after the old style.

Sand castles were built only to be swept away by the next high tide, white inland bodies were tanned, and it was just idyllic.

Hank and I never made good our threat to the Grunter and Kob, and I paid the price for venturing barefoot on the rocks that every local fisherman knew bore a deposit that would cause an infection in scrapes and cuts.

In a short while I had septic sores on all my toes, and one afternoon it suddenly developed into a serious case of blood poisoning. The local doctor took one look at me, tossed me a pack of antibiotics, and then we spent the next two hours talking about how the National Party government had sold out the town community in the face of the establishment of the so-called Republic of Transkei.

 She was a town councillor and had been privy to all the details. It was at once horrifying and fascinating. She added that the loss of the jetty was being seen by the townsfolk as a portent of the bad times that were imminent.

By then we’d tired of the conditions at what the kids had named “The Stinking Bungalows”, and we booked into the Cape Hermes Hotel for the rest of our stay.

My malady was soon over, and we lived in luxury, having a real holiday free of cooking and laundry and other domestic chores until it was time to return to the city. The return trip, thankfully, didn’t resemble the first leg of the visit in any way at all.

The cars weren’t as heavily loaded and performed perfectly, mechanically and electrically, and we got back to Pietermaritzburg with no more drama than many complaints along the way about the stench of the bait juice that had leaked into the carpets during the two weeks of futile angling.

It had been eventful, restful and beautiful. The Wild Coast has no equal in Southern Africa for spectacle and grandeur, and we determined that not too many years should elapse before another foray. It never happened.