Taking the backroads through Umzimkulu

I set off to ‘Somewhere,’ via a little town called Franklin that I randomly picked on the map and with the only plan being to do some sort of a loop and end up back home by nightfall. I left home, armed with a pepper spray, my cell phone, some good tunes, an outdated map and the words from my brother that would help me remember how to change a tyre, should there be a need. Lefty Loosey, Righty Tighty, Lefty Loosey, Righty Tighty, Lefty loosey, intercepted by the blaring voice of Queen “I WANT TO BREAK FREE!” And just then, the road opened up, bringing the rolling hills into focus, the infinite blue skies and a flood of memories, faces and forgotten landscapes, like being re-acquainted with an old friend.

“Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road, Healthy, free, the world before me.”           – William Whiting

I’d like to get to know South Africa better this time. Admittedly, I was at a  young and carefree stage in my life the last time I lived here. Having grown up a bit, seen and experienced a bit more since then, I’ve returned home wanting more; wanting a diverse experience and a deeper understanding of this vast and complex country I now call ‘home,’ again.

And what better way to get to know a country than to take the unpretentious back road, the place people have no idea where you are talking about or the road they have no interest in travelling! The road that doesn’t make the Trip Advisors Top Ten or the road that doesn’t lead to the Big 5, or to the mountain that looks like a table or to the bright lights of trendy Sandton City. The back road doesn’t ‘try.’ What you see, is what you get – the average, down to earth, non glitzy, real South African road.

I crossed the bridge over the Umzimkulu River entering the Eastern Cape province. My memories of Umzimkulu go back to the apartheid days, when it was called the Transkei and we needed a passport to enter or exit the area. I swung a right through the bustling town of Umzimkulu and followed a signless road that seemed to go in the direction of the dry, horse and cattle studded hills. About 20 kilometers up the road, the tar came to an abrupt end, and an explosion of dust rose up and trailed behind my car. I had absolutely no idea where I was. The road went on and split into a number of forks, prompting me to stop and ask directions once or twice.

On one occasion I stopped to take a picture of a herd of cattle resting in the grass, bum to the wind, and I passed a young boy who looked like he was about 8 years old. He saw me in the car and started running for his dear life, screaming and bellowing as if he’d seen a ghost! He didn’t stop screaming until he was well over the hill and faraway. Rather perplexed and slightly amused, I wondered what he thinks? Is it that he’s never seen a white person and I looked incredibly strange, and evidently, frightening or is it what he’s been told. I wonder.

Suddenly, with no warning, the road and the scenery changed. Leaving the Eastern Cape homelands and cutting through forests of pine then finally arriving at Franklin, (and soon leaving) my only vague destination in the travel plan. A town that seems to be ‘in waiting,’ for ‘something,’ though I’m not sure what.

Next I found my way to Swartberg, another sleepy hollow but with classic South African farmlands. I was treated to a farm-style traffic jam, followed by views of the hazy Drakensberg mountain range. I have since found out that it was the last day farmers were allowed to burn fire breaks and in result, smoky landscapes and the visibility of about nil!

The road home, via Underberg, eventually led me back into chartered waters, ending my trip with a Donnybrook sunset and finally back home to Ixopo in time for dinner. In one day, the back roads took me through the Umzimkulu homelands, through forestry, through Swartberg farms and finally to the Drakensberg mountains. Lesotho was ‘right,’ there and I couldn’t help wish that I’d packed a change of clothes and my passport too! But then again, what better way to prompt a return trip than to leave a page unturned.

“Travel does not exist without home…If we never return to the place we started, we would just be wandering lost. Home is a reflecting surface, a place to measure our growth and enrich us after being infused with the outside world.” – Josh Gates