Now that I’ve re-mastered how to manage a right-hand drive stick on shit roads again, we double-time it back down the Pass and return to Underberg. Liquor store’s still closed. We look up directions to Coffee Bay and it’s still over 6 hours from here. Thaaaaat’ll put us in after dark probably. Better make haste.
We hit the road and floor the triumphant lil Polo til she maxes out around 130-150 klicks. All warmed up now. Open roads and nice countryside here. We pass through Kokstad, Sugarbush, gain some elevation into Mount Frere, and go through a ton of places I can’t begin to properly pronounce; Emzinto, Mvulmenwano, Mgungundlovu.
While there isn’t any oncoming cars I pull the phone out for a few shots along the way. We pass through small towns, mainly colorful shanties dotting the hillsides. It makes for a beautiful drive and we’re cruising along as the day passes by, occasionally slowing for cows, goats, sheep and dogs in the road.
We pull into Mthatha where there is a large construct commemorating the birthplace of Nelson Mandela. We stop in to fuel up and get a little lost on the way back to the freeway and the road South to Coffee Bay. Mthatha is a slightly larger town but still seems rundown and slightly unremarkable given the history. There is a large museum here that would probably be worth dipping into if we didn’t have time constraints.
The sun goes down as we make our way South and things start getting a little hairy now that we’re off the main highways. The road goes to shit, as Dean had warned us it would, and Peter and I are really wishing we’d gotten here earlier in the day. Massive, car killing potholes and trenches are now jumping out at us and I try to keep a local ahead of us at all times so I can see which way they juke.
There are also large sections of speed bumps that you have to slow to a crawl for. The Polo barely makes it over without bottoming out. Heeding Waldo’s warnings of carjackings, we make sure to keep some distance from the car in front so as not to get boxed in with no escape avenue.
The roads are winding and dark and this last section of the drive is painfully slow and terrible.
I’ve lost all the locals now and it’s just our lonely car in the dark. Every slight movement by the road keeps me slamming the brakes as sheep, cows and dogs are suddenly popping out of the night right by the car. I’m pulling left and right all over the road to avoid countless trip ruining potholes. But I can’t avoid them all…
We gain a little confidence on a straight stretch and up the pace ever so slightly. Turns out to be just enough and the next car slayer jumps into the headlights too quickly to dodge. It’s a massive trench that covers most of the road. “Fuck, fuck, FUCK!” I pull left but the right wheel takes the brunt and instantly blows. It starts flapping against the road as I hit the hazards and slow to the side of the road. We’re both silent as the reality sets in.
We hop out into the orange blinking darkness. A dog starts barking from a shanty not far away. Pull out the phone and survey the damages. Fuck sakes, the tire is totaled. We head to the trunk and start moving our bags into the back seat so we can access the jack and spare. I go up the road to put out the orange triangle that hopefully will get people to slowdown while we try to fix this mess. It’s dark, there are stray dogs outside of junk-strewn shanties milling just outside the blinking light radius. I put down the triangle and think that I’m really just advertising “Free shit over here”.
Peter has gotten out the tire jack and is trying to crank off hubcap bolts. “Not a great spot to breakdown, man”, “Fuck no, we’re just a target in no man’s land now.” The hubcap has cracked and is preventing us from getting to the bolts. It’s ziptied to the rim, we’ll have to break it off. Won’t budge, I cut myself trying. Fuck this. The anxiety is mounting. I go back to my bag and try to find something to cut it. Not checking bags for the flight means I don’t usually fly with knives. Best thing I can find is a sturdy little zebra pen, might be able to get some leverage with that.
I stick the pen between the ziptie and the hubcap and pull. You bitch, come off. Peter gives it a go. We’re losing patience in the imposing dark. We make some headway with a little teamwork by pulling it away from the tire with the pen and then whacking the hubcap until it cracks and starts to give. Wait a sec. Is that fucking footsteps?
I wheel around with the phone and there is a guy coming towards us out of the darkness from the other side of the road. I take up the tire iron behind my back, “Hello?” The shape slowly keeps coming forward. “Hello?” A light comes on. It’s a phone flashlight. “Hello”, there is a young kid walking towards us. Looks to be alone. “Are you in trouble?”, “We busted a tire”, “I see.”
Ok, this kid is freaking me out a bit. Hoods up and he’s a little too quiet. Maybe he doesn’t speak much English? “What’s your name?”, “Symptom”, “Symptom?”, “Yes.” Great, his name is symptom.
Symptom shines his light on the tire from above Peter. Doesn’t seem like he’s up to anything, just curious. Our nerves are on high alert though. Peter is noticeably angsty and sweating from the exertion of fucking with the now shattered hubcap. I slip the jack under the car and Peter puts the tire iron to it, cranking the Polo off the ground. I retrieve the spare. Oh thank fuck, I think it’s a full sized spare.
I go back and Symptom is still there holding the light. I guess he just wants to help. Peter starts going at the bolts.
We sit in an angsty awkward silence as Peter cranks on the bolts to get the busted tire off. Symptom pipes up, “What are you doing here? It’s dangerous here.”
There’s a split second where Peter looks up at me with the “Are you fucking serious?” look and I look back with the worried “Seems pretty fucking serious” look. After Symptom’s announcement you’ve never seen anyone change a tire this fast. Peter should work in the pit crew of impending danger because this tire gets changed in record time. The tire iron glints off Symptoms phone flashlight in a furious whirlwind and nut after nut goes spinning onto the new spare.
I rush back to get the ‘Free Shit’ triangle off the road and biff it in the back. Peter drops the car onto the possibly loose new tire and we quickly fold the jack back into it’s space. Peter goes to put the tire iron back with the jack and I grab it, “I think we’ll keep this in the front from now on”, “Fuck, good call.”
We biff all of our shit back in the trunk and thank Symptom for his enlightening presence. He’s already disappearing into the dark. wtf. “You wanna drive?”, “Nah man, woulda happened to anyone.” I start up the Polo, cut the hazards and pull away. Tire feels alright. Pretty sure it’s a full spare. Hope it’s a full tire. On queue a hard rain starts and immediately kicks into a torrential downpour. Wipers frantically swish swishing to keep visibility as we leave the scene.
Peter is looking at the directions on his phone, “Fuck dude, it’s all switchbacks from here to the coast. Let’s take it easy.” The road somehow continues to worsen as we make our descent. The rain is now filling the potholes and we can’t even tell where they are anymore. To add to this now comical clusterfuck, it gets insanely foggy the closer we get to the water. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding”, “I know, right. Could not be possibly worse than this.” I’m dodging phantom potholes and can barely see a foot in front of me. Every hole I do hit has us clenching our teeth, sssshhhfff, and slowly limping away to the next black unknown. Fucking hell, it’s an adventure now!