I need to explain my relationship with the town of Mthatha, which was called Umtata when I was a youngster (1953 to 1959). It's where I spent my primary school years and I remember those years fondly. A clean town with gracious buildings, a cinema, a beautiful town hall, public swimming pool and a great climate. We went to school barefoot in the summer and crime was unheard of. It was with some trepidation that I approached the outskirts of my old home town as I had heard some reports that things had changed a lot. Those reports were disappointingly accurate.
Today Mthatha is a frenetically busy town with gridlocked traffic, general chaos, dirty streets and it's humming in every sense of the word. I drove down Madeira Street where we once lived - a big square single story house with a long stoep in the front and a half acre garden at the back with fruit trees, mealies and potatoes. It is gone now, having been replaced by a steel and corrugated iron spaza shop selling mobile phones and offering haircuts.
The car dealership next door was called Smythe & Cox Motors where my mother worked as a shorthand typist. Amazingly it is still there - same building but with an upgraded facade - and it's still a GM dealership to this day. I remember as a young boy hearing that a 1959 Chev Biscayne had been towed in to the garage after hitting a horse on the Engcobo road (gravel at that time). The horse had crashed back first through the windscreen and was still inside the car, together with the carnage from the accident. Everyone had died. It was not a pretty sight and it left an indelible mark on my memory.
Much earlier near Grahamstown I had entered Matatiele as my destination waypoint on the GPS and was both relieved and surprised as it indicated I would arrive about 2 hours ahead of schedule. I should have smelt a rat already but I enjoy driving and was on cow, donkey, sheep, goat, pig, dog, Quantum, Polo and Corolla radar watch - just a wee bit preoccupied. About 10 km along the Port St. Johns road something started bothering me about the ETA. The previous hour (surviving Mthatha) had distracted me completely so I wasn't thinking that far ahead.
Now I thought "Why am I being directed onto the PSJ road when Matatiele is actually north of the N2 near Kokstad?" So I pulled over and had a good squiz at the GPS (with reading glasses on - And why is it that the font is just too small to read drom 400mm away?) and to my total surprise realized that there are actually two Matatieles in South Africa and both are in the Eastern Cape. The one I was headed towards is a tiny Pondo village and is located about 20 km north of Libode. Well, I learn something new every day. Measure twice, cut once.
After 5 minutes of finding the correct Matatiele off my very long list of waypoints, the lady said "Recalculating" and the distance to go changed from 24 km to 246 km. The ETA also changed from 16h30 to 20h15. The biggest issue was that the new route indicated I had to return to Mthatha and get onto the N2. "No, No, No !" I said out loud to no-one in particular. I had after all, just survived a 65 year time warp experience.
I then decided to do some village hopping using my instincts and some help from Tracks4Africa and found myself rejoining the N2 about 12 km north-east of Mthatha over roads that had not seen a proper vehicle for a very long time. By the time I reached Kokstad it was fully dark and the final leg through to Matatiele, where guest house owner Phillip Rawlins and his wife kept some delicious hot food for me, I was the last guest to check in.
Observation: The traditional round thatched mud hut has now become hexagonal built with airbricks and IBR roofs. Even the fancier homes still have at least one hex or round rondavel which sometimes sport tiled roofs with grecian columns to form an entrance and balcony. I think we can call this modern tradition.
(Next week we will relate the journey from Matatiele to Port St Johns)
PODCAST: A discussion around our recce trip to the Wild Coast. CLICK HERE TO LISTEN,
Featured pass of the week: We have just completed the double video set on this beautiful gravel pass that is easy to access from the R62, yet offers a feeling of isolation with wonderful views, some technical driving and a double river crossing. This is also the first pass we will be driving on our upcoming Kouga-Baviaans Tour in mid March.
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Words of wisdom: "Quality is not an act. It's a habit" - Anonymous