Sunday, November 25, 2007

...into the fire

11 November 2007
So, we decided to avoid Harrismith on our return journey. We sat down with a map and Hubby, Mr. Precise Engineer, mapped us out a route that would take us around Lesotho on its west side, meeting up with the N1 in Colesberg. We know the road and the scenery and the landmarks from Durban to Colesberg (via Harrismith) already, we reasoned, so why not kill two birds with one stone…see some new countryside and avoid that nightmare of road destruction in Harrismith?

I have to admit I was a bit reluctant. I’m not ordinarily inclined favourably towards long stretches of road that don’t have regular rest stops or petrol stations with ultra-clean bathrooms. Like most women, if I am to drop my drawers and expose my delicate bits to strange porcelain, I have a very strong preference for that porcelain…and its surroundings…to be immaculately clean. But Hubby was keen on taking a new route and after seeing the myriad of little towns…most of them no more than 50 to 75 km apart…I agreed to his plan.

So, we had our breakfast and hit the road. After filling Bertha and making sure our padkos and cool drink keepers were full up, we got out onto the N2 headed towards Port Shepstone. At Sheppy, we turned north towards Kokstad, a town I have never seen and Hubby hasn’t been to in 25 years. The adventure was on.

I must say, it was a learning experience.

The first thing I learned is that making the assumption that all those little towns would have petrol stations was a grievous error. The second thing I learned is that it was also a mistake to assume that a major brand petrol station…like Shell or CalTex…would have clean restrooms. My third lesson was that pay toilets actually exist in South Africa…I have never seen one before in this country and today I saw three! And finally, I learned that, as bad as the road conditions at Harrismith were (and they were really, really bad), those conditions were not as bad as they could have been.

I quickly discovered that on a road trip, I get very thirsty. Probably the drying effects of the air conditioning in the car (it also gives my hair static electricity, to Hubby’s never-ending amusement and my everlasting annoyance). So, we keep a cooler box of iced drinks in the back seat where I can easily reach it. We pack it full of Sprite Zero and Coke Lite and guzzle our way across country.

En route to Durbs we stopped at Ultra Cities and Star Stops and whatever Engen calls their mega petrol stations whenever Bertha started looking thirsty, when it was meal time (diabetics have to eat regular meals, even on the road), or when one of us needed to find a loo. On the N1, N5, and N3, that was just not difficult. On the R56 and R58, it was virtually impossible!

Because we were unsure of petrol availability along the way, we stopped for fuel when the gauge hit the halfway mark or lower (depending on where we could find a station). At Kokstad we filled up the car and emptied both of us out and got on the road to parts unknown…at least to us…confident that we would encounter multiple petrol stations along the way…doesn’t every rural town have at least a one pumper? Those farmers have to fuel up their cars and trucks, too, after all. Every thing was fine until all that Coke Lite I drank decided it needed an exit. Unlike Hubby, who can pull off to the side of the road and make an acquaintance with a local bush or tree, I require technology for such an event, so I said “Pull in at the next station you see, I need a loo.” He nodded while I consulted the map…maybe 20 km to the next town, so not to worry.

Yeah, right. The next town consisted of several hillsides full of rondawels, a bottle store and a tavern. As did the next…and the next…and the next! A hundred kilometres down the road and there’s no petrol, no loo…and no bush big enough to hide my glowing white moons! We did wend our way through one scabrous town…Mt. Fletcher, I think…but the Engen station (the only one in town) was so filthy and dilapidated I was unwilling to risk it. Dirty is one thing…dirty toilets are something else again.

But I’m experienced and I’m stoic. I know if I adjust my posture just right I’ll put a minimum of pressure on my bladder and I can wait it out. “Just take it easy on the bumps,” I told Hubby. “There’s got to be a place ahead with a relatively clean loo.” And Hubby, bless his empathetic little heart, tried to avoid the potholes and go gently over the unintended speed bumps, and on the map I saw another town just a few kilometres away. Hope was born anew.

We came around a bend in the road and saw a flagman waving us off to the left, off the road. Ahead, on the right, stretched a beautiful ribbon of newly tarred highway, inaccessible. Instead, we bumped off onto an unpaved track reminiscent of Harrismith…and it went on forever! The next time some smart-mouth bunny hugger superciliously finds fault with my choice of an SUV for my personal vehicle, I’m going to whip out the pictures of this abomination that passes for a road and ask if she would like to drive a Prius or some other trendy little pseudo-car over it. It damn near killed Bertha, an SUV built on an honest-to-god truck chassis by none other than Mercedes Benz. I’m sorry, but if my ML, sturdy road warrior that she is, can be brought to a shuddering, beeping, squealing halt by this piece of road, exactly what kind of namby-pamby town car would do better?

The ruts and bumps and rocks and holes were so bad that at times we were literally airborne. On one of those leaps, when we came down, Hubby’s left foot (which had also been airborne) came down on the parking brake pedal. This car is engineered such that, when you try to set the parking brake while your foot is on the accelerator and the car is moving forward, it will emits a series of shrieking beeps and, if the offence is sufficiently egregious, it will simply shut itself off. Which is exactly what happened. Except that we didn’t know what happened at the time. All we knew was that the car was dead, we were somewhere in the middle of the Transkei on a road that would have done a 4x4 challenge proud, and I had to pee so bad my eyes were turning yellow. I started scanning for a likely bush, but there was nothing but rocks…too big to drive over easily, but far too small to conceal anything like my overly-generous backside.

Hubby quickly figured out what was causing the lack of forward motion, restarted the car, and put us back on the trail. Fortunately, we were nearly back on the tarred road…I am sure my bladder would not have taken much more abuse, and within a few minutes we were in a small town that actually had two petrol stations! We pulled in to the first station, only to be told they didn’t have a loo, but the gents at the CalTex cheerfully pointed us around the corner.

They neglected to tell us it was a pay toilet…and why was only the women’s toilet fitted with a coin operated lock?? It took Hubby a full two minutes to get the stupid thing to accept the damn R1 coin (I couldn’t figure it out…I’ve never seen a coin op box like it in my life!) and let me in.

OK…it was clean. But there were three stalls, two of which lacked paper, and the third lacked a functioning lock. By this time, I did not care. I grabbed a wad of tissue and took it with me to a stall I could lock and found heavenly relief.

After stopping to get lunch at the hot food counter at the local Spar (not a restaurant, fast food joint or takeaway in town), we hit the road again, headed inexorably towards Colesberg where I sit typing this.

Looking back on today’s experience, I have come to the conclusion that, between Port Shepstone and Colesburg there are a total of three clean public restrooms: one in Kokstad, one in Maclear, and another in Lady Grey. That’s it. So, unless you have an iron bladder, I strongly suggest that if you are driving from Durban to Bloemfontein or points west, brave the construction debacle at Harrismith…the alternate route not only had worse roads, it had no toilets!

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