Friday, November 23, 2007

Durban Holiday: Out of the frying pan...

In early November, Hubby and I took a holiday to Durban. This is the second in a series of blog entries written on the road.

Sunday, 4 November 2007

I have never liked the town of Harrismith. The first time I was there it struck me as a dirty, dreary, disorganized little hamlet and nothing I have seen since has done anything to disabuse me of that notion. There is just one thing that makes me look forward to entering Harrismith, and that is the certain knowledge that, once we have wended our way through the inexplicable maze of dirty little unkempt streets and placed our tyres firmly on the N3, our journey is near to its end. As a harbinger of better things to come, it is incomparable, but as a destination in its own right, Harrismith is just a boil on the butt of South Africa.

Now, I am not easily intimidated, but Harrismith scares me. When we first entered the town from the northwest, there was a rather confusing confluence of poorly marked streets that gave us pause. Ordinarily when you make a change from one national road to another, you take a turnoff from one highway to the next, an effort generally involving off-ramps and clear signage. Typically the road is in reasonably decent condition and you just follow the sign boards to determine where to exit, which way to turn, and where to enter. It could not be simpler…unless you are attempting to exit the N5 and enter the N3 in Harrismith.

Under the best of circumstances, making that short little trek is fraught with difficulty. On our first attempt, several years ago, we immediately got lost due to signage that ranged from poor to non-existent. We ended up going the wrong way through a rather dodgy part of town…in the dark…and ultimately had to find a petrol station to get directions. I was desperate for a loo, and while Hubby got directions from the station attendant, I approached the loo with great trepidation, loathe to thread my way through the motley collection of loiterers…many of them quite obviously intoxicated…who were hanging about in front of the door. The condition of the place did nothing to inspire confidence in its sanitation, but beggars can’t be choosers, so I accomplished my mission and got out of there double quick.

I jumped into the car and we sped off, only find the directions questionable. We arrived at the spot where we were supposed to find the entrance to the N3 only to find a battered, barely paved track leading off to the left and under a cement freeway bridge…no lights, no signage. Cautiously we approached…it looked like we were driving into a dark alleyway where thugs could be waiting to swarm over us as soon as we were out of sight of the main body of traffic on the road in front of the Spur, but as we made the curve we found, to our great surprise, a familiar green and white signboard indicating we were on the right path to the N3 and Durban.

Our second slog through Harrismith was little different. There was still no clear signage indicating the direction to the N3 and this time the road had been re-routed so that we had to cross a dismal little watercourse over a narrow bridge. But, once we got to the proper end of town, we recognized the on ramp and merrily headed down towards our destination.

Our most recent experience, however, was the absolute worst. First, we got to Harrismith at twilight. Second, on exiting N5 there was a detour sign directing us left and when we followed it, it took us to a Y intersection devoid of directional signage. Knowing that, as the crow flies, the N3 entrance was to our right, we made the counter-intuitive choice, this being Harrismith after all, and took the left fork. We followed the road under an ancient railroad bridge and soon found ourselves in a queue to cross Harrismith’s dismal little joke of a river…on a one lane bridge! It was nearly dark and the only illumination was the glaring headlights of the cars and trucks on the other side of the bridge, awaiting their turn to cross.

Hubby shook his head, clearly annoyed, and muttered a few imprecations about this being an inexcusable way to connect from one national highway to another…no signs, no lights, no lane! Curbing my own tongue, I thought about those highway interchanges I had seen off in the middle of nowhere between Beaufort West and the road to KwaKwa and thought to myself, these people should be ashamed of this mess! Even if they wanted the traffic to wend its way through their town in a bid to collect a few traveller’s rands, they should have taken a lesson from neighbouring Bethlehem, which routes traffic through a clean, well-kept town, using huge signboards and on clean, wide, well-paved streets. As it is, Harrismith is a place you want to get out of as fast as you can, not a place that encourages you to linger a while and leave a little money behind in the bargain.

Finally, we got over the bridge and, taking direction from a small yellow sign (unlit) propped up in a gutter, we made a right turn onto a paved town street. This worked well for about two blocks after which the paving disappeared. Literally. We were suddenly clunked off the pavement onto a rocky, rutted, uneven mishmash of gravel, dirt, holes, and bits of old pavement still clinging to the original roadbed. The gravel road out to my father’s farm is better terrain than this! What little ambient light remained was weakened by the choking cloud of dust that boiled up around us and the oncoming traffic…a few cars interspersed with a lot of really big trucks…and we decided to take a break from the confusion and have dinner. There was a Spur dimly visible to our right as we finally punched through that cloud of dust, and Hubby was starving.

I don’t know what we were thinking...that the traffic would melt away during our break, perhaps...but Hubby and I had a quick meal and returned to the fray. The situation had not improved in our absence, and the ratio of trucks to cars seemed to have increased in favour of the trucks. But we knew where the entrance to the N3 was and, fortified with a hearty meal and the happy knowledge that we were but three hours from our destination, we again braved Harrismith’s incomprehensible traffic plan and set out to hit the Escarpment and wend our way down to the Indian Ocean.

It wasn’t as easy as we expected. Dodging and weaving between the huge commercial trucks, we got across the street and headed to the on-ramp only to discover that the road that lead to it had disappeared! In its place was an unlit rubble-strewn construction yard littered with stacks of cement pipe, piles of gravel and sand, and construction equipment. We could see the freeway overpass and the opening beneath is that used to be the on-ramp to the N3, but it was on the far side of the construction yard and the signage was gone. Where was the entrance to the N3? Had they constructed a new one? Just exactly how in the hell were we to get to Durban?

Hubby followed a truck, hoping it would be en route to the elusive N3, only to find himself piloting Bertha into a truck yard. Bless his heart, Hubby is not one of those guys who refuses to ask directions…he pulled right up to the truck boss and asked him how get onto the N3 to Durban and, to our horror and surprise, the man pointed to the construction yard!

By now it was full dark and that construction yard was unlit. The only light was a feeble spill over from the truck yard’s overhead lights and the intermittent illumination provided by the vehicles that braved the rutted darkness. Hubby saw a truck turn into the gloom and quickly pulled in behind it, using its tail lights as a guide through the plumes of dust churned up by countless wheels rolling through the dirt and gravel. At the last minute our headlights illuminated a sign that directed us under the overhead bridge and Hubby swung Bertha to the right and we plunged into absolutely pitch black hell, the road no more than a series of holes, gravel and a swirling haze of dust. Eventually the road smoothed out, but there was no light save Bertha’s headlights, and so it was with sudden surprise we found ourselves merging into the seething tide of vehicles hurrying their way down the N3 to Durban.

We heaved a sigh of relief at having been safely delivered from Harrismith, and I remarked that I had always disliked the town, that I found it scary. Hubby shook his head slowly and replied that, after navigating this outrageous debacle of disgracefully poor planning and execution, he was afraid of Harrismith, too!

* * *

Our sigh of relief was premature. As we exited the labyrinth of Harrismith and headed towards Van Rienen’s Pass, a bright flash of light off to the right caught my attention. Some kind of beacon, I reasoned, perhaps something to alert aircraft. A few moments later it flashed again but the third flash did not come at the regular interval one would expect of a beacon.

“What’s that?” I asked Hubby, pointing out the window.

“What’s what?” he asked, eyes glued to the dark curving road.

“That flash of light over to the right.”

He rolled his eyes briefly and then fixed them back on the road. “Lightning,” he said, a tinge of exasperation in his voice. How, after all, could I not recognize lightning?

“You’re kidding,” I said. “It had an orangey-red centre…lightning doesn’t have an orangey red centre.”

“It’s lightning, I tell ya,” he said, squinting into the gloom.

“Well, if it is,” I replied, “I hope it doesn’t mean a thunderstorm.”

There is a belief that to name something is to make it real. You do not speak the name of the devil or his minions lest your naming them opens the gates of Hell and releases the little beasties upon you. That belief should be expanded to include weather phenomenon.

The treacherous trip down Van Rienen’s Pass in some serious darkness was accomplished with a minimum of knuckle biting. But when we arrived at the Mooi River toll booth, it was apparent that rain had recently visited the area. Hubby made some comment about the storm being past…a mistake of matchless proportions since it opened those gates a second time. Before we knew it, we were hurtling down a steep winding road in darkness relieved primarily by the blinding high beams of the oncoming traffic…with rain splashing on our windscreen.

“Looks like we are driving into the storm,” I commented innocuously.

Mistake number three…within seconds, the rain was pelting down in sheets and the windscreen wipers, turned up full, could barely handle the downpour. We went on a while, driving through various intensities of rain and I found myself thinking ‘As bad as this is, at least it’s not foggy!’

Yup, you guessed it...within seconds we swopped rain for fog! At first it was ragged little swirly bits that flirted with us, momentarily blanking out the view but then coyly retreating, but it soon tired of the game and attacked us with a vengeance. My lead-footed Hubby actually slowed down after turning on our fog lamps and finding the fog no less impenetrable. At some points we punched through the fog into a mercifully clear patch, but only just long enough to catch our breaths and plunge right back into the all-obscuring wall of thick, opaque mist.

Eventually we got far enough down the mountainside to escape the fog, only to find the sheets of rain had returned. It poured on us all the way into Durban, where it finally let up only minutes before we reached our destination. It was 10:30, we were exhausted, and we were so relieved to have finally arrived that it took a moment to register that the parking area of our B&B was full and there was no place to put Bertha! The night guard came to our rescue and directed us to an alternative, a single garage just a few metres up the hill. It was so narrow that I had to get out of the car before Hubby eased it inside, and he even had to fold up Bertha’s mirrors to make it, but finally we had her ensconced in her snug little berth and we trudged wearily to our room and collapsed into exhausted heaps on the bed. It was morning before I realized that the storm that had dogged us from Harrismith all the way to Durban had spared the Morningside area. Our Bertha, steaming and sodden from her trek through a wet Hell, had deposited us in an area that, despite the humidity that fogged my specs as soon as I exited her air conditioned interior, had received not even a passing nod of acquaintance from the storm that had dogged us for the better part of two hours…Durban was bone dry!

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