Monday, November 30, 2015


Maletsunyane Falls.
-Semonkong [Lesotho]

There is no mistaking Lesotho; it is a completely mountainous contradiction to the South African topography.  Immediately upon reaching the border, the mountains begin.  These are real mountains, not the hills that so many places of the world call “mountains”.  It’s incredibly dramatic to travel for hundreds of kilometers across the arid flatlands of the veld of South Africa to then see these gnarled peaks shoot-up from the horizon.  These impressive geologic structures are precisely the reason that Lesotho exist.

Lesotho literally means “kingdom of the sky”.[1]  As a landlocked country, completely surrounded by South Africa, it was the mountains of this region that offered refuge for the Basotho people who fled first from the mighty Zulu and then European settlers.


Before we go any further into this story, let’s take a moment to define some important travel words from South African English, learned from many rather confusing conversations.

Important travel words:
Taxi:  These are not the vehicles I would call a taxi... ya know, the kind where you hail the cab and tell the driver where you want to go.  No, these are actually a a mini-bus/van.  And, there are two different types depending on the number of people that the vehicle can hold.  A “12-person taxi” is like a stripped-down van that have benches in it to actually hold a minimum of 15 people, sometimes more.  A “big” taxi is like a mini-bus that is actually designed to hold 20 passengers.

Metered-taxi:  This is what I call a “taxi”.  You jump in and the dude tells you a price to go somewhere.  Although, in this case, this usually involves finding other people to also join you on your trip, accomplished by a lot of horn-honking and yelling and using specialized hand gestures depending on the place that you may or may not be going.

Bus:  Ahhhh... finally a word that means the same thing... but, there are also two different types of buses, the nice ones and the not-so-nice ones.  The nice ones (also called sleep-liners or intercapes or greyhounds just to keep the words confusing) are usually a double-decker vehicle with a toilet.  One must purchase a ticket in advance.

The “regular” bus has quite a range of specifications, but the general rule is you can hail them from the side of the road and directly pay the driver.  The other general rule is that there will be a lot of people and supplies and other things.

Hike:  What I call hitchhiking.  This one always gets me... and has caused much confusion on my part and on the part of others.

Trek:  Hiking, people.... this is hiking!  Where you actually walk around in mountains and other natural-seeming places.

And now, armed with our new vocabulary, we can begin our trip!


As so many of my undertakings, this was a spur-of-the-moment decision.  My plans had suddenly changed and I found myself in Johannesburg with nothing to do for a week.  So, I looked at a map and said to myself, "Lesotho."

After a gander at a few maps, I decide to head to Maseru, the capital city of Lesotho.  Once there, I’ll make a decision of one of three possible routes…. after all, I wouldn’t want to make any rash decisions and possibly limit my options.

I embark with a fairly straight-forward trip to the main bus station of Johannesburg.  The two sets of escalators aren’t working, so I wander around for a few minutes until I find some seldom-used stairs that now serve as a giant human funnel.

As this was spontaneous trip, I do not have a bus ticket. So, I begin speaking to the several different bus operators.  There isn’t a centralized system, rather different guys each doing their own thing ranging from big operators to single-bus guys.  This means walking back-and-forth across the terminal and waiting in line to first find if there is a bus leaving and then a price.  All this becomes more complicated by the fact that there are not direct buses to Lesotho... one must take a bus to a nearby South African town and then procure other means of transportation to reach the border.

After speaking to seven different bus operators each with different times, prices, routes, options... I settle on the company that has one of the better prices largely because the sales lady, upon hearing my surname, spends ten minutes talking about Dawson’s Creek, the TV series.  After she got several minutes into eighteen different plot twists, I had to sheepishly explain to her that though I did indeed spell my name that way, that I have never actually seen any of the episodes.  She immediately stopped mid-sentence and gave me one of those looks that only a black woman can conjure, a panic-inducing mix of “what u talking’ ‘bout?” mixed with “you call that dancing white boy?”.

What to do?  I can only shrug my shoulders and promise that I will watch an episode as soon as I return from Lesotho while handing over my ticket fare.  She doesn’t acknowledge that I’ve even spoken, just points and says “Gate 5.”

Self-conscious about having taken so long at the ticket counter I look back at the next person in line to offer an apology, but it’s not needed.  Long, slow-moving lines are not unexpected and no one even seems to notice our lengthy TV sit-com discussion.  I exhale a sigh of relief and quickly move on, looking at different shops for wet wipes[2], one of the staples of my travel equipment.  No luck... No problem, I’ll keep looking for them en route.

I pass through the gate and hand a man my backpack to load the bus.  It’s a proper double-decker bus with reclining seats and a toilet!  Great news!!!  No need to worry about doing the pee-pee dance while waiting for the bus to stop.

Things looking as luxurious as they were, I expect to make the 250+ km trip in 3ish hours.  Nope, this bus stops at every little town and intersection along the way, more than doubling my estimated time.  I arrive well after dark in a strange town and without a plan.  I walk into the nearly vacant bus station and again exhale a sigh of relief to find that there are still two people at the ticket counter.  Great!  I can ask some locals for suggestions on places to stay.

The two young guys prove to be very helpful and begin making phone calls to some cheap hotels on their personal phones... another bullet dodged... as I’ve also run-out of phone time.

One of the guys finds a place and also tells me that he can call his friend that drives a “metered-taxi”.  I make it to the place for 20 Rand and proceed to enter through three different security gates... it’s nearing midnight and caution is wise at this time of the day.

I secure a room and ask how to get to Maseru.  The man responds that he’ll tell me in the morning.  I explain that I’ll be getting up early and wouldn’t want to bother him.  He gives me a look that says “don’t mess with me” and tells me that he doesn’t sleep.  “Fair enough,” I think to myself and thank him for his help.

Morning comes early, but I’m excited to be traveling.  I go to the converted tool shed that serves as a reception and hand my key over.  I smile and ask the receptionist/security guard for directions.  He thinks for a moment and then tells me to sit... it’s a little complicated and he’ll take me there himself in 30 minutes.  “No problem.”  I put my backpack down and begin stretching my legs, more to waste time than to actually stretch.

An hour and two taxis and some walking through morning markets later, I find myself at the “taxi rank”, the spot were mini-buses embark from, and return to, for nearly everywhere.  I ask around to find a vehicle to the border.  I find the stall on the farthest side of the rank, but I can’t pay here, as in most places.  I need to go back across the giant parking lot to a little shack to pay there.  I do as instructed, but ask the lady in the shack three different times if this is actually where I pay and if I would indeed arrive to the border... what can I say, it just didn’t seem right to me...

I get back to the taxi, but there are only four other people.  Taxis don’t leave until they are full.  So, one just waits until people show.  Today, it proves a long wait.  One hour... two hours...  three hours... I laugh to myself as I think, “Man, I just should have slept in a little...”  Just as I’m about ready to pull the plug and opt for the hitchhiking option, the last six people show-up and we’re off!

This proves to me a rather short ride to the border.  "Man, I should have just hitchhiked," I think as we make the final turn.  "No problem, I wasn’t in a hurry anyhow."

I quickly cross the border trying to avoid a woman that keeps trying to start a conversation with me in Chinese.  She noticed that I have a multiple Chinese visas in my passport while the immigration officer was looking through the pages.  I really don’t want to speak Chinese, so I shrug and walk away...


After completing the necessary immigration paperwork, I walk out of the gate.  I manage to avoid being harassed from the long line of taxi drivers by crossing the street and slinking into a gas station (called a “garage” in the local vernacular).  I ask the lady at the register how to arrive to Semonkong.


“Semonkong,” I say slowly, careful to enunciate all of the letters.



“I don’t understand.”

“Sem On Kong?”  which comes out more as a question than a statement.

Lucky, the man behind me is fluent in Foreign Accent and he quickly mumbles “Semonkong”, more to hurry the process than to actually help.

“Oh, Semonkong…” the lady repeats, giving me the “why didn’t you just say that” look.

She points back across the street to the taxis that I just escaped and says, “Take a taxi to Maseru.”

I look for more explanation, but she has already moved on to the next customer.

I walk across the street, glad that I didn’t say anything unacceptable to the taxi drivers the first time through.  I really don’t like be harassed by the drivers, and sometimes I get a little too feisty... but, even worse that the verbal harassment from the taxi drivers is having to go back to somebody that I’ve just told to leave me alone.

I avoid the “taxi” driven by a late-teen with a crooked ball cap rocking out to blaring dance club music.  However, he is the first in line and the other taxi drivers point me back to him.  I jump into the front seat of an unknown-brand-but-smaller-than-a-Volkswagon-beetle-vehicle and we shoot-off.  Along the way, we drive down several different side streets looking for more passengers.  We add one, then one more, then two more, then one final person until all of us are sitting on each other’s laps... nowhere else to put seven people in a car with only four seatbelts.  Now, we are ready to go to Maseru.  The taxi driver stops after ten minutes at his friend’s street-side food stand and points down a rather busy street.  “You go there,” he says with a strong accent while pointing down a very busy street.  “Close.”

I begin down the street, a very obvious foreigner.  I don’t tend to blend-in in most places, particularly when I’m wearing my backpack.  But here, I’m about as discreet as a flashing neon sign in a church sermon.

The “bus” station is not close and I stop to ask for directions three different times.  The first person asks me why I didn’t take a taxi.  I just smile and shrug my shoulders while thinking, “I did, but the dude dropped me off way too early.”  The last person gives me a strange look and points across the street to a large open dirt area swarming with people.

Taxi rank.
-Maseru [Lesotho]
I enter the area and I am immediately surrounded by several young men.  Each asking me where I’m going.  The taxi drivers will give these guys a few Rand ($0.10 to $0.20 USD) for finding people for the taxi.  For many of these guys, the $1 USD they make each day is the key to their survival.  Even though I don’t like the attention, I know that its impossible to avoid and tell the gathering crowd that I’m going to Semonkong.

Two of the young guys each reach to grab one of my arms.  I lift my arms to avoid being grabbed... I’ve learned to tolerate the harassing and haranguing, but I can’t tolerate being grabbed.  Now that neither has an advantage, they begin tussling with each other.  What begins as pushing and shouting quickly becomes a headlock.  I keep walking, not wanting to get involved.  Once the “headlocker” sees me walking away, he quickly releases the “headlockee” and runs to my side to direct me where to go.  He is clearly the victor and his spoils are to personally lead me to the place for Semonkong taxis.  After a few minutes, we arrive to a rusted out taxi that is half full.  The young man collects a few coins from the driver and moves down the way yelling, “Semonkong”.

I open the back gate of the van to put my backpack under the seat.  Now that I have secured my passage, I realize that I haven’t eaten anything for nearly 24 hours (except for a orange in the morning during the “big taxi wait of 2015”).  Turning to the driver, I make a eating motion with my right hand and say, “No go.  Eat food.”  I continue by holding up all ten of my fingers and saying, “Ten minutes.”  He responds with a “shop shop” the local word for OK.

Feeling a hundred pounds lighter without my backpack, I begin wandering through the maze of people.  Vendors and taxis and travelers and children and unemployed youth mix and mingle, each moving to their own pace and in their own direction.  The clamor dies down as I move through; people stop their conversations and vending to look at me with surprise.  I’m the only white person for quite a while and it’s safe to say that not many venture into the taxi ranks.  Following my nose, I end up at a grill made from a ten-gallon metal bucket under a well-used tarp.  I point at a piece of chicken and smile at the lady.
Chicken and pap.

“How much?”

“20 Rand.”

I think it's more than other people would pay, but even if I’m paying the “foreigner” price, this is less than a dollar and I’m hungry, very hungry. I agree to the price which causes a small flurry of action. Shorty, I am returning to the van with a hot plate of pap[3], relish, and some roasted chicken on top... I don't want the van to forget about me.

I quickly attack my plate of food while standing outside the van. It is quite interesting for many people to see the "tall, white guy" eating pap and chicken with his hands. In short order, I have quite a crowd watching me eat, or perhaps better stated, devour my food.


I climb into the back of the van, ready to begin the trip. I climb all the way to the back seat and sit in the rear corner, next to the window. A young lady sitting on the bench in front of me succumbs to curiosity and begins speaking with me, asking me questions of where I'm from and what am I doing in Lesotho.

After several minutes, she moves to the back bench to make it easier to talk.  There are three of us in the back seat now and it is quite cozy.  I'm completely surprised to eventually see a "fourth" person, a young man, make his way to the back to seat.

To create a space for him, I have to turn legs to the left side, while moving my "back end" deep into the corner of the van.  I then rotate my torso to the front of the van while leaning over to my left.  I must put my left arm behind the "curious woman" and the "newly arrived young man" and my right arm out the open window.  This is the precarious position that I must take anytime I ride in these buses/vans.  Not entirely comfortable.

As we drive, Ms. Curious, points out landmarks to me.  The national cricket stadium, national nurse training center, universities, cities, etc.  Her English isn't perfect, but very understandable.  This is why I'm surprised when, at one point, she gets a little tongue-tied.

She tries telling me something in English, but doesn't know how to.  So, she repeats the word in Sotho, letswele, while holding both of her hands in front of herself, chest height, in a cupping motion, moving them slightly up and down.

"I don't understand."

"Famous place." she continues, intent on showing me what is outside the window.

I'm still confused, but don't look out the window... it's difficult to get in that position due to my current contortions.

"Woman.  Look.  Woman.  This..." she says making the same cupping motion.

I still don't understand.

Frustrated, she continues.  This time she holds her right hand in front of her while putting her right thumb on the first knuckle of her little finger, then putting her hands in the same cupping motion. "Ingono," she says in Zulu.  "Ibele.  Woman.  Ingono."

By now, the rest of the van is also looking at the window and talking.  A few are pointing out the windows to the left.  I decide that I should look.

I begin the new contortions to get my head below the level of the window.

"Ohhh...." I finally understand the hand motions.  Everyone is looking at two mountains that undeniably resemble two breasts.

I laugh to myself.  "Nothing like real-life language learning..."

I take a quick glance at Ms. Curious, hoping that she isn't embarrassed.  She doesn't appear to be phased at all.

-Semonkong [Lesotho]
After another couple of hours, we arrive to Semonkong[4].  I say farewell to Ms. Curious and take a look around.  This is definitely a one-horse town.  Hilariously, everyone here are straight-up cowboys and there are horses everywhere.

It is dusk and people are returning to their homes before night sets in.  It is chilly and the men, all on horses, are wrapped in a blanket in a unique style.  The women have their hands fulls, either with bags of groceries or holding the hand of a child.  I start looking for a place to stay for the night


It's time to go.

I still haven't quite decided how to return to Johannesburg.  I could backtrack.  It is more straight-forward and a guaranteed option.

The other option is to go south.  With this option, I know I can get to the border at Qachas Nek, but none of the locals can provide me with any information past that point.  On the map, it looks like the road just stops.  It looks quite remote and could add 3-4 days of travel, especially if I can't make it across.

I decide to see what transportation is available.  I'll go either way depending what taxi is waiting, but I'm looking for the road "untraveled".

I walk to the taxis in Semonkong much later than I should.  It's very unlikely that I'll find something today, but I feel like moving.  Besides, the cheap hostel where I've been staying isn't particularly friendly and the ex-pat woman in-charge told me, quite rudely, "This isn't the first-world.  You won't be able to find anything today."  Out of spite, I decide make a go of it.

As I walk towards the only "taxi" that is left at this time of day, I'm approached by an obnoxious youth asking me where I'm going.  I tell him "No thank you." and continue to the "taxi".  I tell the driver that I want to go to Qachas Nek and he motions me in.  The obnoxious youth, grabs my arm, demanding money.  I shake my arm loose and tell him "NO."  He keeps insisting, but I climb into the taxi.

He walks angrily away, then comes back.  He connives a cigarette from the driver and then tells the driver that I will pay for the cigarette.  The driver looks at me and I refuse to give any money.  The driver isn't entirely happy that he's out a cigarette, but it's none of my concern.

While we're waiting another young man walks by to ask me where I'm going.  I tell him Qachas Nek.  He laughs at my pronunciation and explains to me how to say the word.  The "qa" is made with a clicking sound that ends with an open mouth to give it an "a" sound.  This is followed by the word "chess".  The second word is "just like neck" he says, while point to his throat.

I spend the next several hours practicing how to say Qachas Nek to no avail.  It proves to be very difficult and I don't quite get it until several weeks later, much too late to be any good to me.

We close the van doors and drive two kilometers down the "main" dirt road of Semonkong, taking a right to go to "the" store.  From there, a dude loads a large sack of grain and even larger sack of cabbage.  Then he closes the door and we return to the original spot.  We repeat this trip three times in the next 50 minutes.  I'm not really sure what is happening, but every possible bit of space in the taxi is packed with something.  Items precariously stacked and loaded so that nothing, and nobody, can move.  At this point, we turn onto the paved highway; we are underway!!!

We bounce along the roads.  Barely crawling up the steep uphills and dangerously screaming downhill.  People get in and out along the way.  After an hour, the dude with the big bags of food gets out creating some space for everyone in the van.  He throws a bag over each shoulder and starts walking into the bush as we drive away.

I'm still don't know exactly where the van is going and nobody seems to speak English.  We are headed in the correct direction and that will have to suffice for the moment.

We arrive at the final stop.  I know it's the final stop because the driver tells me and the three remaining ladies to get out.

We are at a house on the side of the road.  But, there is a turn-out... must be an important place...

I jump out and put my backpack on.  The driver shouts something at me and points to a passenger car that is across the road.  The driver of this vehicle gets out and walks towards me and the three women.  He motions for me to follow him.  I follow. I watch the women and following their example, put my backpack in the open trunk.  The front seat has been reserved for me.

I tell the driver "Qachas Nek."  I try to do the clicking, but just give-up and say it like a gringo.

"Yes.  I know."  he tells me.

"Great!  You speak English!"

He explains to me that he can't take me all the way to Qachas Nek, but he can take me to the village where his house is.  From there I should be able to catch a ride.

"Take that,"  I think to the woman at the hostel.

We drive along for an hour before we drop the women.  They load their bags on their heads and begin carrying the buckets down a trail.

"They walk four hours to their home."  the driver tells me pointing to some mountains in the distance.  I can't believe that they will go that far.

"Really?!?!?" I ask.

"Yes, they walk until dark."


We arrive, and drive past his village.  He decided to take me to Seforong.  It's a bigger town and I have a better chance to catch a taxi.  It's getting dark and it's not looking likely that I'll find a ride.

We stop in the town and look around for a ride.  It's pretty windy and getting cold, so we both get back into the car.  A couple of semi-trucks drive past.  When they do, the driver jumps out of the car and looks at them, but nothing...

It's been about 45 minutes and the driver is getting anxious.  I've told him several times that he can go; I'll find a ride or a place to stay.

A bus drives past, but it's empty.  Looks like they're going home and not taking any passengers.  It stops about 200 meters down the road and the "bus assistant" jumps out to buy a few drinks.  I walk down there and start talking to the driver.

He doesn't want to give me a ride.  I say "OK" and walk away.  After a few minutes, the assistant tells me that it's OK and they will give me a ride.  I'm grateful and jump into the empty bus.  I still can't figure out how the buses know when to stop or when they give people rides or why a driver would say no and then yes... travel here is all a bit of a mystery for me.

Snake park.
-Qachas Nek [Lesotho]
Without the necessity to stop for people, we make good time.  Still, it is well after dark when we arrive to Qachas Nek.

I start looking for a place to sleep.  Nothing is open but a few "bars".  The bars are rough... a bunch of very drunk dudes in poorly constructed carport looking shelters.  I ask a few places and I'm finally told to go to the bakery.  From there, go two more stores and the lady that owns that "café" also has a hostel.

It takes me a little while to find the location.  The "café" is closing.  The owner is counting the money and two girls are cleaning the pots and tables.  I walk in and explain that I'm looking for a place to sleep and I've been told that the owner has a hostel.  The girls look at me like I'm a ghost.  It takes the owner a minute to gather her wits before she tells me that she does have a hostel.

She sends the two girls with me to show me the way to the hostel.  They are dumbfounded and don't know what to say.  I try to talk to them, but it becomes easier to walk in complete silence and absolute darkness.

We arrive to the hostel and the manager shows me the deluxe room that has four queen-size beds and quotes me a price.  I explain that the price is quite high for me and that I only want a single bed and a simple room.  She tells me that she doesn't have anything...

I explain that I just spoke with the owner and that I'd been told that there were simple rooms available.  After this, she remembers that she has a simple room in one of the out-buildings, but it has a shared bathroom.

"That's good for me." I tell her.

I drop my bag off at the room and ask if they have food.  They don't.  Then one of the girls tells me there is still food at the "café".  We call the owner and she tells me that she'll save me some food.

I walk back to the café with the girls and take the leftover fried chicken and fries.  They are quite greasy after sitting around for the several hours, but I gulp them down while they finishing cleaning.  We all finish at the same time and they give me a ride back to the hostel.


I wake up early and quickly pack.  I have a long way to go and I'm not entirely sure how to get back to Johannesburg.

I start walking towards the border, not knowing how far it is.  I walk about 10 minutes when a car stops to offer me a ride.  It's 20 Rand and I decide to go for it.

To my chagrin, it's less than 2 kilometers to the border... about a 10 minute walk.  "Oh well," I think as I hand the man his money.  :"The dude is the early bird and made full advantage of it."

I enter the building and start the paperwork.  I'm the second one to cross the border today.

I exit the chain-link gate on the South African side and there is nothing... I've never seen a border crossing like this. There isn't anything, just a dirt road that goes for quite a while.  I start walking, determined to hitchhike.  I walk for about two kilometers when I see a white truck parked on the side of the road.  After I pass, the driver asks me where I'm going.  I tell him that I'm going to the nearest town to find a bus.

"I can give you a ride."

"No thank you, I want to hike (meaning hitchhike)."  I respond.

"It's not possible."  he tells me.

"How far is it to the next town?"  I ask.

"30 kilometers."

I'm beginning to rethink my idea of walking until I can hitch a ride.  That's really far and involves more possibilities of undesired outcomes than I had previously calculated.

"When will you leave?"


"I will wait.  Let me know before you go and maybe I can go with you."  I tell the man.  I want to keep my options open.

I climb up the hill a little way to have a vantage point of the border.  From here, I can see any vehicles that are coming and still make it to the road in enough time to catch a ride.  I take off my backpack and enjoy the early morning sun as it rises over the distant hills.  It feels warm and good.

There isn't any traffic from the border.  After half an hour, another truck comes and stops, talking with the current truck.

I wait for about an hour and a half in total and decide that it's time to move.  I walk down to the truck, but the driver is gone... "How did that happen?" I ask myself in surprise.

As I stand there, another truck pulls up and tell me to get in.  He explains that the other driver has gone and he will drive me to town.  He's a little upset because even though he takes the money, he has to pay the first driver.  I don't understand how all that works, but jump in the back of the truck.  I run the calculations through my head, still trying to find a possibility that makes sense, but nothing does.

I'm offered a seat on the "bench", a 2x4 board that is on two bricks.  I decline.  I'm told that I should sit there because I'm white; I just can't tolerate that.  So, I sit on the floor.  The metal floor beats my behind into a pulp with each of the many, many bumps on the way.  "Nothing like a massage..."

We arrive to town at the "taxi ranks".  I ask around and find that I need to go to Durban before heading to Jo-burg.  I find a ride in one of the "nice" taxis, a newer model that seats 22 people.


I don't sleep much... I wanted a cheap place to stay and that's exactly what I found.  It is a shared-bathroom hostel with an open window to the street.  To top it off, my window is directly above a taxi stop meaning that I hear yelling and horns all night long.  It's noisy as hell.

I jump out of bed and take a cold shower, the only option.  I have to take three taxis and backtrack before I get to the taxi rank that will take me to Jo-burg.  I find a new taxi that is just a few people short and will leave in a few minutes. "Score!"

I pull out my wallet, but I'm a hundred Rand short for the fare... "Damn it all."

I start asking around for an ATM that will take my chinese bank card.  I found out last week that my US credit card had been automatically canceled from lack of use.  Needless to say, it's not straight-forward to find a bank in South Africa, really, anywhere in the world, that will interface with the chinese banking system.

I walk to a grocery store that has four different ATMs.  All are out of money.  It's Monday morning and all the cash has been withdrawn over the weekend.  It's too early for the machines to have been restocked.

I try another store, but my card won't work.  I try a bank, but it also won't interface.  I know the bank name that I have used before, but can't find that particular bank.  I randomly walk for another 20 minutes asking people along the way before I'm given directions to the bank that I need.

I make it to the bank and withdraw enough money for the next week, then turn around to head back to the taxi rank.

I arrive for the departure of a larger taxi and jump in.  I have the seat next to the door which provides me more leg-room that the typical seat, definitely much more than my usual spot in the deep, dark, back corner.

We leave Durban around 10 am.  I make some quick calculations and figure we should arrive to Jo-burg between 4-5 pm.  That gives me enough time to get another taxi to the suburb where I've been staying well before dark.  Jo-burg after dark is not the place to be, especially as an obvious tourist that doesn't know the city.

We continue for about an hour when the entire van begins to convulse, dramatically.  The driver pulls over, bangs around on a engine, and then starts the vehicle again.

This happens two more times before the van dies on the side of the road.

The passengers of the vehicle start becoming quite agitated.  There is a lot of talking going around the taxi amongst the passengers and between the driver.  After several minutes, I ask the young woman next to me what is going on.  She acts surprised that I don't know, but I remind her that everyone has been speaking in other languages and I only speak English.  She begins to understand when I tell her that I'm from the US.  She explains that the van is stopped for an indefinite amount of time.

"Well then" I tell myself, "I may as well get out and stretch my legs."

I open the door and a few of the men step out with me to make phone calls.  I pick up some rocks and throw them at fence posts on the side of the highway.  I hit the posts several times which impresses some of the men.

Some of them start talking to me.  One complains that his battery is dead and he needs to make a phone call.  My phone battery is also dead and I don't have any phone credit left.  But, my portable charge has enough charge on it to make maybe a 10 minute phone call.  I offer it to the man and he's quite happy.  His name is Lordsburg.

The driver has been banging away on the motor and making phone calls.  He tells us that the company has decided to send another van and will have one there in about two hours.  Not bad, considering that Durban is about one hour and forty minutes away.  However, there is a slight problem.  Our current van has 18 passengers and the one they are sending will only hold 15.  The other three will have to wait indefinitely for another taxi to arrive.

There is an immediate outroar from the passengers.  Everyone starts making claims to the importance of their prompt arrival, explaining why they should be on the next taxi.  I keep throwing rocks, waiting for things to cool down a little before I approach the driver.

He thinks he anticipates what I'm going to say before I open my mouth.  "You will be on the first person on the next van.  You're white and should be on it."

"Actually, I wanted to volunteer to be on the second van.  I'm not in a hurry and have the time to wait."

The driver is quite taken back.  I also tell him that I'm hungry and I'm going to walk to the store that we saw about two kilometers back.

"I'll be gone about 40 minutes.  Please don't leave without me."

The driver asks me to borrow any tools if they are available, specifically some big wrenches.

I start walking down the highway and Lordsburg hollers at me to join.  Looks like he is also going on the late van.  We dart across the three lanes in each direction.  There is a garage at the gas station and I ask to borrow some tools.  They look around, asking other mechanics and attendants, but with no luck.  I walk to the shop and get a meat pie with cider, also buying some phone credit.

After I finish my lunch, I return to the van.  The other van has arrived and now it's just Lordsburg, me, the driver, and another passenger.

We wait another hour for the next van to arrive.  This van is a rusted-out, beat-up 14 passenger van.

We jump in.  The other two guys talking to the passengers of the new van.  Finally, we're moving again.

We continue for a few hours when we are stopped by a police check-point.  These are quite common.  Six to eight police are on the side of the road and wave over vehicles.  I've accidentally driven through two of these and I've been stopped several times while riding in taxis.

The process is the same.  The taxi driver jumps out and talks to the police officers for 5-10 minutes.  Papers are waved around, there is some yelling and screaming, then the driver walks back to the back of the van and somewhat discreetly hands the police a few bills and then we continue on our way.

However, this time is different.

It all starts out the same.  But, it is taking a long time, a really long time.  After about 30 minutes, the driver enters the vehicle and slams the door.  He is pissed!  Nobody in the van says anything.  Instead of continuing to drive straight, he turns the van around and starts following the police car back the way we came from.  What is going on?!?!?

Again, nobody says anything for about 10 minutes before a brave passenger asks what is going on.  The driver goes off for about five minutes.  I only understand the swear words, and there are a lot of them.  Shortly, the whole van is in an uproar, everyone is pissed-off!  I wait until it has quieted down enough for me to ask Lordsburg what is going on.  He explains that we have to return the town we passed 30 minutes back.  It isn't really clear what has happened, but we are definitely not going in correct direction.

We arrive to the town, the taxi driver swearing the entire time, and drive into the parking lot of a government building that is surrounded by razor wire.  There is a gate that must be opened for us to arrive and is closed after we go through.  Our driver gets out of our van and into the police car, then they all drive off.  I look around, then to Lordsburg, who just shrugs.  None of us have any idea what is going on... we've just been locked in a big parking lot behind razor wire and left there, possibly for the night.

I open the door and get out... "May as well stretch my legs."  I laugh to myself.  "Stuff like this can only happen to me... only me."

I start kicking a rock around the parking lot while my mind explores options.  I have to say that they appear to be quite limited.

Lordsburg and a couple other dudes also get out of the van and stand around.  We talk for a while before I have an idea.

I start walking towards the guard station at the gate.  En route, I put my phone to my ear and begin talking like I'm an important person making an important phone call.  I raise my voice to sound upset and shout a couple of times.  After I finish my pantomime, I knock on the door of the guard booth.  I act like I'm very upset, but controlling myself and demand to know what's going on.

"Nobody told you?" he asked.

"No," I reply curtly.  "Nobody has told us anything.  There are women and children in the car and none of us know what is going on."

He explains that there has been an infraction.  That the van is only supposed to have twelve passengers and is carrying fourteen.  So, the van was impounded.

"Impounded?"  I demand. "That's ridiculous."  And, given all that I've seen, it is."

"When will we leave?"

"I can't be sure.  I think that an agreement will be made."

I'm not sure exactly what that means, but it doesn't sound good.  I tell him that I'm a traveling writer (what the hell, I'm already acting... may as well go with it...) and that I don't believe this will reflect highly on his country nor profession.

He apologizes and repeats that everything will end well, even though he can't tell me when.  I explain that the sun is setting and it's getting dark, in addition, the government building is closed and nothing can be done tonight.  We should be informed what to do so that we can make the appropriate plans for the night.

"We are free to leave, correct?"  I ask, making sure that I'm not being held captive.

"Yes, you may leave, but I don't recommend it.  They will find a solution."

"Will be leave tonight?"

He just shrugs.  I figure that I've gotten all the answers that I'm bound to get and I've pushed my luck as far as I can.  I curtly thank the guard and walk away, reminding him that this isn't how things should be done nor how people should be treated.

I transmit all the information to Lordsburg, who then passes it to the rest of the passengers.  Nothing to do now, but wait.  I turn on my phone, using the last of the battery to send a quick message to my friends that I'm safe and will be arriving late to Jo-burg.  "Don't worry, I'll be careful." is the last thing I can send before the phone dies.

We wait until after dark before the driver returns.  He enters the building with the policeman and another guy.  Me and Lordsburg also walk towards the building, entering through the same door.  The driver is waiting in the lobby.  We ask him what is going on.  He explains that he didn't want to pay the bribe that the police man was asking, so they made him return to the impound yard to pay a fine.  He didn't have money, so they took him to the bank and then they had to find the correct person to open the building.

I pat him on the back and tell him that I'm glad he didn't pay the bribe.  Even though its been a hassle, he had my approval.

He's pays the man his silly fine, and we all get back in the van, screeching out of the parking lot.

Our delay of several hours has caused me a bit of a problem.  We are now due to get back to Johannesburg around midnight... this is not the place for me to be wandering around in the dark AND it will too late for me to take a bus/taxi back to my friend's house.

I delicately ask Lordsburg what I should do.  He doesn't know and asks the driver.  Soon, the whole van is discussing my problem and exploring different possibilities.  I love how quickly everyone is involved and trying to help me.  There is a lot of chatter and I don't understand the majority of what is being said...

After several minutes, a plan has developed.  Apparently, we will drive right past the suburb where my friends live.  The driver doesn't know exactly where, but one of the ladies does.  Another lady is certain that there is a gas station right off the highway that I can walk to to make a phone call.  Someone offers to let me use their phone to call my friends, but I can't turn my phone on to get the phone number.  Lordsburg knows which overpass we should stop at.  Another guy makes sure that my friends have a car to pick me up because they live on the opposite side of the town from where I'll be dropped.  Everything is coming together.

It's a moment of perfection.  This day has completely gone to shit.  Lordsburg explains to the rest of the van what had happened to us in the other van.  There are gasps for the other passengers.  The driver laughs and starts swearing again as he talks about the policeman.  Everyone understands that this can, and does, happen.  There is camaraderie in the craziness and support to make the load lighter.  This is Africa at it's absolute finest!

We stop at an overpass, but one of the ladies shouts that it's the next one.  We slowly cruise to the next overpass and I jump out of the van, making sure that I have the correct directions to the gas station.  I close the door to the van to cheers and the entire van telling me goodbye.  The driver honks as he drives away.

I climb over a small wall and walk up the side of the overpass.  I follow the directions and find the gas station in a matter of 15 minutes.

I must have been quite a sight as I walked up to the gas station because all the attendants stopped and stared at me.  It was after midnight and I'm sure I was quite unexpected.  I began explaining my story and asked if I could plug-in my phone to call my friends.

I went inside to buy a bag of popcorn and big soda to share with the attendants.  We sat around eating popcorn and drinking soda while I told them all the stories of my day and trip.  We all laughed and joked and kept saying, "This is Africa."

And so I waited for my phone to charge and then for my friends to arrive.  Before I got in the car, I gave the gas station ladies a hug and fist-bumped all the dudes.  I opened the car door and sat down as my friend laughed and said, "you've made quite an impression..."

"Ya, you know that's how I roll."  trying to sound much more dope than I really am.

"Whatever... So, tell me about your trip..."

"Letswele" mountains.

1.  This modern kingdom has the highest low point of any country in the world and the tallest mountain in Africa south of Mount Kilimanjaro at 3,482 meters (Thabana-Ntlenyana).   -return to the story

2.  Wet wipes are quite possibly the best invention for traveling and are my constant companions, right after my headlamp.  There's nothing quite like the wet wipe shower with its own little rhyme that emphasizes the importance of order: face, pits, tits, then nasty bits.   -return to the story

3.  Pap is a maize porridge with a thick consistency that accompanies most meals.  It is eaten with the hands.   -return to the story

4.  Semonkong means "Place of Smoke" in Sotho.  The name is due to the mist in the air from the nearby waterfall, Maletsunyane Falls (also called Lebahane Falls).
   -return to the story


Mist-covered mountains.
-Piggs Peak [Swaziland]

“You go back now?”  came the question

I knew better than to answer the question directly.  Life is simple here, but answers very complex.

I am a guest and have stayed for several days.  I have been welcome, but perhaps the welcome is wearing thin.  I’m also starting to feel restless and would like to get moving.  However, I can’t fully understand what social obligations I still have and definitely can’t answer that question directly.  I’m still a guest and know that the man I’m speaking with is an elder.  It is my role to be patient.  Plus, I know that he already has thought of two or three scenarios and he will know best how to handle social requirements.  I only need to relax and trust.

“What do you think is best?”  I respond.

The man begins talking with his “brother” in what I presume to be Shona… it’s difficult to really know as everybody speaks several languages.  After a few minutes, the talking stops. There is a pause for a few minutes, and I get an answer.

“It’s too late this evening and my brother is tired.  Tomorrow morning he will drive you early to the bus stop if you can help pay the gas.  It will be early.”

I wanted to go to the taxi stand that evening and stay in that area to have less travel the next day, but this is more than a fair trade for me and could possibly save me several hours of bouncing around between different mini-buses.  I don’t mind riding the mini-buses, but I have a lot of traveling to do to return from Harare, Zimbabwe to Johannesburg, South Africa.  I estimate that it will take 15+ hours of “less than comfortable” bus rides to arrive.

“I am happy to help pay.  I will be awake early and ready.”

And I am.

US dollar on it's last leg.
After a pre-dawn breakfast of toast, we begin driving, but don’t go far before we stop at a petrol station.  “Brother” knows that its better to get the goods before he commits to the service.  I hand the pump attendant $10 US dollars[1] to put petrol in the old Isuzu Trooper.  In true shock, the brother states that he can’t remember the last time he had so much gasoline in his car.  Money is scarce in this country and two and a half gallons of gas is a luxury that very few can afford.

On the way to the city, the elder from yesterday calls and asks us to meet him in the city.  The brother puts the phone to his shoulder and asks me what I would like to do.  Again, I know better than to answer directly... get moving and quickly.  I know that a phone call, though only a few cents in cost, is a relatively significant amount of money and would not be placed unless there is a reason.

“I’m happy to meet him.”  I respond.

The brother conveys the message.

After he hangs up, the brother tells me that meeting the elder in the city will delay my trip and he doesn’t think it’s a good idea.  I respond, truthfully, telling him that I’m happy to help in any way I can.  And so we arrive at the prearranged location and begin waiting.

We wait for several minutes as the brother grows increasingly impatient.  I offer to go buy some breakfast.  The brother agrees.  Food and gasoline in the same day is too luxurious of an offer to pass.  I know that it will buy me another 15-20 minutes of wait-time before the brother becomes impatient again.

I take my time to maximize the distraction before returning with oranges and crackers.  While we eat, I ask if there is a route from the South African border to Swaziland without going all the way to Johannesburg.  I’ve looked at the maps and I’ve asked several people, but all of them tell me that it’s not possible.  I have to believe it is possible, because I can see a route on the map.  But, I also know that there are too many unknowns to really make any kind of decision.

“No,” he responds.  “You must go to Jo-burg (the name that locals use for Johannesburg, South Africa).”

We wait another ten minutes before the brother checks his phone and subsequently starts the car.  “We have waited an hour.  He hasn’t arrived.  You must go.”

I’m not entirely disappointed that we are moving.  It is getting late and we did wait for quite a while.  I feel that I have met my social obligations and truthfully, we could wait all day and he might never arrive... after all, this is Africa.

We drive another 40 minutes across the city.  We stop at two different taxi stands where the brother asks if there is are taxis to Beitbridge, the border crossing on the Zimbabwe side.  Both times we are redirected to another stop, just as we had supposed.  Around 11 am, we arrive at an intersection of two major highways, a “guaranteed” place to catch a bus to the border.  The brother rolls down his window to ask a couple people about buses.  I have my backpack in my lap, ready to go.  I’ve learned that patience is a virtue for me, not necessarily for the drivers that don’t like to wait.  A man points to a bus in front of us that is honking its horn and has started to move.  The brother looks at me and yells, “Go!”

I know the routine.  I immediately jump out of the Trooper, slinging my backpack on in the process, and begin running and waving my arms.  The brother honks the horn and starts driving around the bus to get to the driver.  Several bystanders join in my cacophonous arrival and also start shouting.  Soon the “doorman” on the bus, the dude responsible for yelling the bus’ destination into the crowd and finding passengers, sees me... it really can’t be too difficult to see the tall, white dude with a big backpack running in front of a shouting crowd...

He says something to the bus driver as I approach the doors.  The driver doesn’t slow down, but does accelerate less quickly, allowing me to jump into the open door.  The brother has pulled up alongside the moving bus and we wave to each other.  I thank him again through the open, moving door and climb aboard the bus.  Deep down, I feel that an arrival like that should warrant some type of applause or perhaps a cheer, but it doesn’t.  I evoke a few semi-interested looks, but I think it’s due more to the fact that there’s a white dude on the bus than my spectacular entrance.

I look down the aisle and see all the seats are full.  I turn to the doorman, trying not to knock anyone/anything over with my backpack in the process.  He points to the engine cover, next to the driver, giving me a look like, "Well whitey, you wanted on the bus, let’s see what you’re made of".  I nod my head and plop on the the improvised seat.  I’m happy to take the engine cover.  Though it’s hot and there isn’t a backrest, I do have plenty of room to stretch my legs, a rare commodity for me on any bus.

After about 40 minutes, the doorman makes it back to the front of the bus.  He’s been collecting fares and it’s my turn to pay.

“Beitbridge” I tell him.  I’ve practiced the word a hundred times so that I can say it somewhat correctly.

“Masvingo” comes the response.  This is another city about halfway to the border.  Luckily, I’ve also practiced this word so I have somewhat of a clue of what’s going on.

I nod.  There isn’t much else I can do at this point.  I hand the doorman some money as I begin saying Masvingo several times for practice.  The bus driver shouts that I can catch another bus to Beitbridge from Masvingo.

We continue for several hours on the old school bus.  After a few hours, I’m told that I can’t sit on the engine cover any more.  I’m not sure what has changed, but I'm told to sit on a seat... no more leg room...

We arrive to Masvingo as the sun sets.  I’m quite hungry, but there isn’t time to buy food.  I see another bus in the parking lot that serves as a psuedo-bus station.  I’m told that this is the last bus to Beitbridge and I hustle with a few others to catch the bus as it leaves.  On this bus, I’m lucky enough to get a seat in the very back row.  I can sit where the aisle meets the back seat and put my legs in the aisle for more leg room.

This doesn’t last for long.  After 30 minutes, a family of three comes to the back.  There is an empty seat on either side of me.  The man points for me to move to the side.  I point to my legs.  He points to himself, a woman, and a child.  He wins and I move to the side.  I cram my legs into the small space and the child sleeps on my shoulder.  On occasion, so does the rather plump woman.

Several hours like this.  I can never sleep while traveling, much less on a bouncy bus with the radio blaring.  More people are getting off the bus than on.  Eventually, the bus driver decides the time versus money ratio isn’t worth it any more.  He stops and all of us transfer to another bus with more people.  Two more times we make similar impromptu bus transfers.  The last time, only six of us remain on the bus before we get off.  As I paid the full fare to Beitbridge, I ask the previous bus driver to please pass my fare to new bus driver.  He does for everyone but me.  This causes a bit of a problem when the “new” bus driver asks me for money.  I initially resist, but it’s past midnight and I’m tired, so I just pay the man.

We finally arrive to Beitbridge, but several kilometers from the border crossing.  I’d been told that the bus would leave me close to the border, but...  I get out of the bus, into a mud parking lot.  Even at this late hour, I’m instantly barraged by taxi drivers.  I don’t like being harassed and it’s late and I’m tired and I’ve been on buses for the last 14+ hours, and I haven’t eaten since the orange and crackers this morning.  It’s not a good combination and I impatiently walk through the taxi hawkers to figure out what’s going on.

I arrive to a portion of the dark parking lot that has a light.  There is another man standing there who I fail to realize is a policeman.

“It’s late.”  he says.

“Ya.”  I respond.

“Are you going to the border?”

I hesitate for a moment.  I really don’t want to be harassed nor harangued, but this guy does seem different.  “Ya, to the border.”

“Oh, that’s far.  You can walk, but it isn’t safe at night.  I’ll find you a ride.”

It’s then that I realize that he’s wearing a uniform.  I ask him if he is a policeman and he tells that he is a night policeman.  I thank him and explain that it’s been a long day.  “I would like a ride, thank you.”

The original harrasser from when I got off the bus comes again.  He really wants me to go with him in the car.  I ask him to go away as politely as I can.  The policeman is silent as this conversation takes place.  “No good,” he says.  “He takes people to bad places.  He does bad things.”

Not sure what that really means, I begin asking discreet questions.  It seems that this man helps people illegally cross the border, amongst other things.  Now, I don’t feel so bad about refusing his offers.

I continue to wait as the policeman just sits under the light.  It starts to rain as another taxi driver approaches, offering me a ride.  I take a quick glance at the policeman who discreetly shakes his head.  I reluctantly turn down the ride.  It’s late and I would like to get across the border.

“Trust me,” the policeman says somewhat angrily as the second taxi driver drives away.  “I told you that I’ll find you a ride.”

So we stand.  I make some small talk with the policeman, not sure how he will find me a ride as he stands under the light... I had envisioned a more pro-active approach.  After another 30 minutes, a beat-up two-door something-or-other drives by.  The policeman waves to the driver, who stops.  After a couple minutes, the policeman tells me, “go with him.”

I jump into the car and we slowly make our way to the border.  It only takes 15 minutes.  We arrive to a dirt parking lot and the driver points to a gate that is a few hundred meters away.  “You go there,” he says.

I point to the gate and ask, just to make sure “There?”


“It’s safe?” I question.  It is after 2 am and it’s dark and it doesn’t look very inviting.

“Yes.  Safe.  No problem.”

My taxi fare is $1.25.  I give the man $1.50.  He is immensly surprised and happy beyond belief with the extra money.  He thanks me profusely as I get out of the car.  I’m amazed how so little can make such a huge difference to someone and brighten their day.  Something I would just throw away and think nothing of...

I quickly walk toward the border, glad that there a few women that are also walking quickly towards the gate.  “At least I’m going to the correct place and the women think that it is safe enough,”I think to myself.

I continue walking, following what seems to be the natural flow.  There aren’t many people and shortly, I find myself alone. I continue walking across a long bridge crossing the river that forms the border between Zimbabwe and South Africa.  As I come to the end of the bridge, there is a makeshift shelter on to the side of the road made of a tarp and a few sticks.  Inside, there are 12-15 young men in their twenties.  A quick calculation of darkness + poverty conditions + agitated young men + me + perceptions of my wealth add up to a very uncertain conclusion.  "Well," I think to myself as videos of riots and civil unrest begin playing in my head.  "This is how it ends... not a bad way really."

One of them says something to me.  I keep walking as if I didn’t hear anything.  Then, I have an idea, not a particularly good idea, but an idea. I pull out my phone to make it look like I’m talking to someone... "Maybe they won't think I'm rude and ignoring them and I'm talking to someone important and won’t do anything..."

After 5 minutes of quick walking, my heart rate slows to a more normal pace.  Then, I see THE line.  It snakes back and forth, like game in kindergarten.  There are people everywhere, women with children, youth with bags perfectly balanced on their heads, men with hungry looks on their faces.  I quickly surmise that there must be at least a 3 hour wait to go through South African immigration.  "Wow," I think to myself[2].  "And it’s 3 am... this place must be crazy in the day!"

I continue walking past the line, confident that there must be another place to go through immigration.  I put on my best “I’m a lost and confused foreigner” look and begin somewhat innocently meandering.  I find a different line that is intended for bus passengers.  I point and give a questioning look to one of the guards at the door, careful not to ask any questions so that I can presume that this is the place to be.  He gives me a nod and I enter a rather small room that also has a long snaking line.  Looks like an hour wait, "better than three hours..." comes the thought.

I’m the last person in the line and there aren’t more people coming in behind me.  This makes me question whether I’m in the correct line or not.  I decide to gamble and stay in the line.  I’m tired and very hungry and really don’t want to wait 3+ hour in the other line.  Eventually, after about 45 minutes, more people begin coming in behind me, giving me confidence that I’ve chosen correctly.  I continue to wait.

When there are three more people left in front of me, a guard comes and starts moving people to another line.  There are protests from the crowd, until the guard shouts something.  Then, people begrudgingly move to the other side of the hall to join another line.  The guard inevitably comes to me and points to the window.

“You with them?” he questions.

I nod and say, “Yes sir.”  This prompts him to end the line with me.  "Whew!"  I’m quite sure that the sound is audible... the person in front of me gives me a glance after the sigh.

I quickly pass through immigration and make my way to the gate, glancing at my phone.  "4 am... damn, I’m hungry!"

Luck is with me, sort of... there is a gas station/KFC combination store 50 meters pass the border gate.  I quickly pass the gas station.  The only food possibly worse than KFC could only be a gas station.  I walk in and give the lady behind the counter a big smile and ask for a liter bottle of Sprite and two orders of fake chicken pieces.

“You hungry” she half states, half questions while smiling back.

“Yes ma'am, I haven’t eaten for a long time.”

“Good.  I hope you enjoy.”

She is friendly and we begin talking.  There are only a few people in the store and most of them are sleeping.  Things aren’t busy and I’m most likely a welcome distraction.  I take advantage of the opportunity to ask if it’s possible to arrive to Swaziland from the north, without going to Johannesburg.

“Maybe” she says, “but I don’t think so.”  This is more welcoming of an answer than I’ve found yet.

“How might I go?”  I question.

“The only possible way is to take a taxi to Pretoria.  From there, you can take a bus to Swazi.”

That doesn’t really help me.  Pretoria is only 80 kilometers north of Johannesburg and would still include a lot of backtracking.  I show her the map on my phone and ask her how to get to Nelspruit (just north of Swaziland) and if I might get a ride from Nelspruit to Swaziland.<

“Maybe,” she says, not wanting to dissappoint me.  “Either way, you must wait for the taxis (meaning mini-buses).  They start at 8 am.”

I glance at my phone again, 4:30 am...

“OK.”  I smile and thank her again.

“You can wait inside.  It’s warmer inside.”  She smiles and I thank her again.

I wait for an hour and then decide that it really isn’t that cold and if I wait on the road, maybe I can hitch a ride a little bit earlier.  I go outside and stick my thumb out.  I’m not sure if it’s the correct sign to make to ask for a ride, but "What the hell?!?!?"

I wait for about 10 minutes and it begins to rain.  I wait a few minutes, hoping that the rain will pass, then put on my rain jacket and continue to wait.  After another 15 minutes, I still haven’t seen a single car and decide it isn’t worth it to get soaking wet.  I go back inside and smile at the KFC lady.

I wait until 7:30 and then go back outside into the rain.  I only wait a few minutes before a mini-bus stops and asks where I’m going.  I decide to go for it and say, “Polokwane.”  This is a fairly big city and I think that from there, I can go find a way east to Swazi.

“We’re going to Pretoria.  Get in.”

I jump in, glad that I’ve found a mini-bus this early, and even better, only half full!  I grab a single seat directly behind the sliding door that will give me more leg room.  I sit down, take off my wet jacket, and put it over my knees.  It doesn’t matter much, I’m wet and cold and the window doesn’t close... this is gonna be a bit of a cold ride.  I put on my black fleece beanie to help keep me warm.

We continue like this for a few hours.  I’m surprised that we aren’t stopping for more people.  Something isn’t quite right... and everyone seems particularly quiet.  I surmise that this isn’t a normal mini-bus ride.  It seems that the driver had to go to Pretoria, maybe for repairs, and decided to pick-up a few people, but only if it was convenient.  He’s clearly in a hurry, "probably doesn’t want to refund money if the mini-bus breaks down".  I stop my thoughts there and wait, hoping to arrive quickly to Polokwane.

After shivering through the two-hour ride, they drop me off on the side of the road in Polokwane and quickly go without wasting any words.  I see a gas station a couple hundred meters down the road and decide to go there; gas stations always know how to get places and usually help to find rides.

I begin explaining to the attendant that I would like to go to Swaziland and that I think I can make it from Nelspruit.  He tells me it’s not possible, just not possible.  This starts a bit of a heated discussion amongst the gas station dudes.  I'm sure these types of discussions take place all day, but it's still fun to watch the energy they guys put into it. Finally, one of the attendants confidently tells me that it is possible to go to Swazi from the north.  He begins giving me directions.

“First, go to Mokopane.  Mokopane, go to Bursfood and take taxi to Nelspruit.  It is possible.  Go to Bursfood.”

“Bursesfood?” I question.  I’m really confused and don’t understand this name at all.

“Yes, Burlesford.”

“Buyersfood?”  I ask again, trying to decipher the name.

“Yes, Bulersford.”

I ask him to write it, to try to understand, but we can't find anything to write on...

“OK.  Thank you!”  I smile, realizing that it is very unlikely that I’ll completely understand the name of the place.

I walk down the road, deciding to just go to Mokopane.  "I’ll figure things out from there" and stick my thumb out.  In a few minutes I have a ride with a trucker.

It doesn’t take long for us to make it to Mokopane.  He asks me where he should drop me.

“I don’t know.” I respond.

“You don’t know?” comes the question.

“No.  Where are the buses?”

This seems to confuse the truck driver.  He’s the one asking questions, not me.  He tries one more with some anger in his voice, “Where are you going?”

“I don’t know.” I respond as neutrally as I possibly can for traveling well over 24 hours in buses without any sleep.

“I’ll leave you here.”  he says angrily while stopping at a gas station.

“Great.  Thank you!”  I like be dropped at gas stations.  These dudes have a way of getting things done.

Again, I begin my story.  This time I get very positive results.  “Yes, you can hike (meaning hitchhike) to Burgersfort.  Go to the robot (meaning stoplight) and turn right.  Go on that road.  There you hike to Burgersfort.”

“Oh...... Burgersfort.  Ya, that’s where I want to go.  So, I go to the robot and I can hike from there?”


It’s still pretty vague and I’m not sure what that means exactly, but it’s progress and I quickly go on my way.  I turn at the stoplight and walk about 2 kilometers down the street to what seems like the correct amount of distance.  It’s started to rain again and there aren’t many people out.  I find a woman with a bag of groceries and ask her where I can hike to Burgersfort.  She tells me that I have to go back to where I came from and turn on another street.  It doesn’t make sense and is completely different directions than the gas station attendant told me.  I’m a little confused, but begin backtracking.  I go about 20 meters when she yells at me and tells me that it is actually in the direction that I was originally going, I just need to cross the street.  I thank her, guessing that she didn’t understand me, or maybe this whole Burgersfort thing doesn’t really exist... it does sound a bit strange for the name of town... a fort made of hamburgers or something...

I cross the street in front of an abandoned real estate building that at one time, also served as a medical clinic of some sort.  I see a homeless-looking guy standing in front of the building and ask him from where I can hike to Burgersfort.


“Here?”  I question.  It doesn’t look like much of a landmark, especially one that would be a meeting place for rides. And... this dude has a strange look in his eye, the one eye that seems to be functioning properly. My spider sense is tingling...

“Here.”  he tells me.

“Burgersfort?” I question again, not sure if I’ve entered some type of other dimension or not... perhaps it’s the lack of sleep and food and I’m hallucinating...

“Wait.  I find you ride.”

And so, I wait.  I keep my backpack on, just in case I need to move quickly, and lean against the building, under the slightly overhanging roof, to avoid as much rain as possible.  After a little while, two separate women come and stand in the same location.  I discreetly ask one of them where she is going, not wanting the one-eyed dude to see me and potentially get angry.


“Whew...” I think to myself.  “I am at the right place.”

“I’m going to Burgersfort also.”  I say out-loud.

She just looks at me and slightly nods, then turns away as if I made some major social faux pas.

With nothing else to do, I return to my overhang.  Meanwhile, a couple walks up just as a car stops.  The driver shouts Burgersfort and the two quickly jump in.  Me and the two ladies were too slow and none of us are happy that we just got sniped by the newcomers.  Things go like this for a while.  People come, cars stop, people go.  Me and the ladies wait for several minutes until a white delivery van stops.  The one-eyed homeless dude acts as an intermediary.  The driver is going to Burgersfort and the two ladies quickly jump in.  Another group of three has managed to get in front of me and starts to get in the van.

“Looks like I’ve been too slow again.”  I think, not ready to start a confrontation.

But, justice is no my side.  The homeless man stops the group of three and tells them that I’ve been waiting longer than anyone and it’s my turn.  The group gives me an embarrassed look and steps out of the pseudo-line.  But, the tables have turned against me... there aren’t any more seat left in the van.

I start to back-up, not wanting to turn and inadvertently hit something/someone with my backpack[3].  As I turn, a few words are said, and the driver points to the empty back of the van.  "Sweet," I think to myself and I thank the driver.  "I’ll have leg room!"

I open the back door, drop my backpack on the dirty metal floor of the van and sit down on the wheel hub.  There are a few scattered boxes for different alcoholic beverages and some posters announcing a party.  Looks like this dude has been a promoter for a party or booze company and now that the party’s over, he’s headed back.

I sit on the wheel hub for several minutes, the metal hitting my tired butt with each bump.  It isn’t very comfortable so, I sit down on the floor to see if it might be any better.  It’s not.  One section of the road is so bad, that one of the ladies looks back at me.  She doesn’t say anything, just gives me a quick glance. She seems scared of me and I'm not quite sure why...

We bound along for a while, when I have a marvelous idea.

"Maybe..."  I think to myself.  What the hell..."  I realize that I can’t really get any dirtier and decide to lay down on the floor.  "Maybe I can get a little sleep..."  I’ve been awake since 5 am the previous day and I’m tired.

I lay on my side, using my left arm for a pillow.  I put my back against the wheel hub and bring my backpack close to me and put my right arm over it so that if anyone tried to take it, it would wake me.  I try to make it look like I’m hugging the bag and not defending it.  "Better to look a little weird than to be robbed."

Sleep is futile.  The roads are bumpy and my head keeps banging around. Plus, the driver is listening to a dance party mix, presumable from last night. &nbspI sit up again.

It’s mid-afternoon and I’m starting to feel the pressure.  It’s quite common for the borders to close down around 5 or 6 and it looks like I might not make it to Swaziland.

We’ve arrived to Burgersfort and I ask the lady in the seat how to get to the mini-bus stop.  She tells me that she is going there, but nothing else.  I take that as I should just get out where she does.

After a few minutes, the van stop and she starts walking.  I follow her, trying not to be a creeper, but not really knowing where else to go.  I follow her to a dirty parking slot that has a fence on one side and a couple of little food shops made from pallets.  One is covered with a tarp and sitting on over-turned buckets in the dirt wait the drivers of the three mini-buses that are in the slots.  As we approach one driver stands and gets in the mini-bus, starting the engine.  "Damn, I’m going to miss it!"

I quicken my step, as does the lady I’ve been following, but to no avail.  The mini-bus is full and leaves as we arrive.  I walk to the next mini-bus which already has three other people waiting.  With me and the lady I’ve been following, that makes five.  "Well, we won’t be leaving for a while..."

I am starving.  I’ve only eaten once (if you can call KFC food) in the last 34 hours.  The pallet food shops look a little gamier than I’m willing to try before getting into a bus for several hours.  I look around and see a grocery store and start that way.  I find my way to the back of the store where there is a “deli”.  They have pap and meat pies.  I take two pies, careful to avoid the steak and kidney pies that are common, and grab an apple soda.  I can barely restrain myself from devouring the food before I’ve paid for it.

By the time I return to the mini-bus, both pies are gone.  The shock of food and drink to my system remind me that I should also use the bathroom.  I stop by the fence about 20 meters from the mini-buses and relieve myself.

I optimistically open the door of the rusted mini-bus.  It’s still drizzling and people shiver as I open the door.  We have gained three more passengers, bringing the total to eight.  Somehow, I always manage to enter a bus with only the back seat vacant and this is no exception.  I squeeze into the corner seat of the back row, knowing that it will be very uncomfortable for the next few hours.  I put my backpack on my lap, blocking my view to the front and sit with my torso facing forward, my legs to the side... its the only way that I can possibly fit into these seats.  "At least the window opens."  and I crack open a bit to have some fresh air.  It isn’t long before someone asks me to close the window, it’s too cold.

After 30 minutes, we are full and the driver begins our trip.  We bounce along.  I’m surprised by the mountains that we cross and I’m stunned by the beauty of the region.  We drive through pine forests and rocky outcrops.  There are a lot of clouds and mist from the rain, but I’m still able to enjoy some of the vistas.

We continue for more than a couple hours.  A couple times, I lean my head against my backpack, still in my lap, and doze for a few minutes.  There is barely enough space in the mini-bus for me to breath, let alone move.  The heavy backpack on my legs doesn’t help... the trip is just long enough for my legs to experience the full-range of travel sensations, moving from pain to shooting sensations to numbness.

Finally, we to Nelspruit.  I get out and take a few minutes so I can walk correctly.  This is a substantial transport station.  There is a cement parking area and a metal roof to protect against the elements.  There are also many options of transportation: actual buses and mini-buses and real taxis.  I ask around about transportation to Swazi and I’m directed to the “international” section of the station, a dirt parking lot at the end of the road.  I make my way through the mud puddles and piles of garbage, trying to maintain some cleanliness.
Taxi ranks.
-[South Africa]

After ten minutes I arrive.  As is typical, a young man approaches me and asks me where I’m going.

“Swaziland” I respond.

“Oh, that’s not possible.”  He says it with an unmistakable surety.

I’m devastated.  It’s been several hours of brutal travel and it looked more and more possible as I got closer.  This is the first time in several hundred kilometers that I’ve been told it’s not possible.

“Not possible at all?”  I manage to ask.

“No.  You can go to Mozambique.  It’s less than two hours away.”  he says.  He can hear the disappointment in my voice and is trying to be helpful.

“No, no I can’t.  I can’t enter Mozambique.  I can only go to Swaziland.”  I don’t really want to get into time-frames and visa problems and anything else.  “There isn’t any possible way to go to Swaziland?”

“No.  There aren’t any buses to Swaziland from here.  And the border from Barberton (the crossing I had been aiming for) is closed.”

“OK.”  I know there really isn’t much else to do.

“Just a minute.” he says as he begins dialing on his phone.

He makes several phone calls.  Every once in a while, he looks at me, then says something into the phone, and then holds up his hand in a “stopping” motion to signify that I should wait.  I patiently stand in the mud, trying not to be the angry, demanding foreigner guy.  Eventually, I take advantage of the rest and buy a soda and relieve myself.

It’s been fifteen minutes and it’s not looking very promising.  I begin getting restless knowing that its after 4 pm and time is important.  Finally, he puts his phone in his pocket and approaches me.  I prepare myself for the bad news.

“OK.”  he starts, “you can cross the border from Malelane.  It closes at six, you have plenty of time.  Go back to the transportation station and take the bus to Malelane.  From Malelane ask to go to Piggs Peak in Swaziland.  It is different than you wanted, but you can go.  You must pass before 6.”

“Great!”  I shake his hand.  “Are you sure?”  I have to ask... so many times I’ve been told the wrong thing.

“Yes, I called my friend... he knows.”

“Well, that’s good enough for me.”  I say to myself as I thank the young man again, still shaking his hand.

I begin running, as best as I can with a backpack in a muddy parking lot while both hungry and tired, towards the covered buses.  I just miss the bus to Malelane, but the following bus is already over half-full, and...... the front seat is empty!!!

I quickly jump in.  This is a new bus and the front seat is very comfortable bucket seat (as opposed to the typical bench seats) that has enough room for me to put my backpack on the ground AND still move my legs.  I roll down the window, very tempted to buy some food from one of the many vendors, but not wanting to jinx anything.  Hunger prevails over prudence and I quickly purchase a chocolate bar that is more wax than coco.  Within a few minutes, the bus is full and we are moving.

Unbeknownst to me, this is the state that is the home of Kruger National Park.  As such, there is quite a bit of money and the local government has made significant investments in transportation (ohhhhh, that’s why there are new buses and nice stations…).  The roads are all multi-lane and wide and travel is fast.  It’s the end of the day and the driver is in a hurry.  I look at the signs and calculate that we should arrive to Malelane about 5 pm.  That should give me enough time to make the 30 minute trip to the border.  "This crazy idea just might work out!"

The bus stops directly at the next bus station, a detail that is wonderful, but somehow doesn't happen in so many places.  I jump off the bus, ask a quick question, and find myself on another new bus to the border, just like that!  Within five minutes, we are cruising towards Swazi!

We drive through mist covered hills as the sun is setting, creating dramatic scenery.  It’s hard to believe that I’m actually in Africa and have been tromping through deserts for the last several weeks.

We arrive to the border crossing at 5:30.  It’s been over 36 hours of travel in over 15 different vehicles without sleep and with very little food and I’ve finally arrived.  I am energized with success and confidently walk through the exit gates of South Africa.

This is a small crossing, so small that is doesn’t have a name.  There is little to even indicate that this is the intersection of two different countries.  I walk into a little shed, the only thing around and begin filling out the entry paper for Swaziland.

“You don’t need the paper” the man behind the desk tells me.

“Great!” I say as I hand him my passport.

He takes a few minutes to enter my information and then returns my passport.

Border crossing.
-Jeppes Reef [Swaziland]
I exit just as the other people on the bus are entering the immigration office.  I turn right, walk through the gates, and take a quick picture.  I’ve made it to Swaziland!!!!

Time is still important.  I hope to make it to Mbabane, the capital of Swaziland, spend the night there, and see some of the sites tomorrow.  Then tomorrow evening, start towards Johannesburg for a flight on the following day. I need to get a movin'.

At the rusted out mini-bus parked just outside the gates, I ask how to get to Mbabane.

“No Mbabane, you go Piggs Peak.  Piggs Peak, you go Mbabane.”

I point to put my backpack under the back seat and one of the guys standing around quickly tries to open the overhead door in the back.  It proves to be a bit tricky...

The van is old and the outside handle doesn’t work.  The guy takes my backpack and I climb in the van to open the door from the inside.  I can’t figure it out.  So, I get back out of the van, take back my backpack and the dude goes to the back seat.  He fiddles around for a few minutes, talking to the people in the van, until he has success.  I put my backpack under the back seat, being careful to note how to open the back door.  There is a wire in an opening in the panel that you have to pull...

I climb into the back seat as the sun finishes setting in the west.  We immediately leave even though the van is only half full.

The old van creeps and crawls along.  We stop at every little intersection and pick-up every person we see.  Some get on for only a few hundred meters.  People are laughing and talking amongst themselves.  Of course, it’s in another language and I understand next to nothing.  At one point, the sliding door comes off the track and has to be put back on.  I see road signs and quickly calculate that this is a slow way to travel.  No worries... I’m in Swazi and I’m enjoying the slower pace.

After two hours, we finish the short trip.  The van stops at perhaps the only gas station in Piggs Peak.  The few remaining people in the van get out and walk to other vehicles that are waiting for them.  Even though it’s not quite 8 pm, the town looks like it has shut down for the night.  I put on my backpack and talk to the gas station attendant.

“Not possible.” comes the response to my question.

“No bus?” I ask, point to the three buses that are parked near the pumps.

“No, no go tonight.”

“What to do?” I ask shrugging my shoulders and lifting both of my hands, palms up, towards the sky.

“You wait.  Maybe ride to Mbabane.”

“OK.”  I have no choice but to once again put my trust in fate.

The gas station attendant talks to a few people as I walk inside to buy some crackers and juice.  I’m very hungry and thirsty.  Luckily, I can pay in South African Rand.  The cashier has trouble making change, even the little amount that it is.  She has to ask another guy for a few Lilangeni (the currency of Swaziland).

I thank her and take my crackers outside.  I inhale the food, barely pausing long enough to slurp the juice in a few gulps.  There isn’t much traffic and it looks like my might be here for quite a while, perhaps the night.  I’m starting to wonder about the thoughtfulness of coming to Swaziland.  In less than 48 hours, I have a flight, a flight that I really shouldn’t miss as there are several plans pending on my timely arrival.

As I stand, leaning against the building with my backpack on, the attendant talks to a four-door Toyota truck that is filling up with gas.  After a few minutes, he approaches me.  “They go to border, close to Mbabane.  They give you ride for 80 Rand.”

“That’s good!”  I tell the gas attendant, while smiling to the driver.

Now, I must wait for attendant to speak to the driver.  This is the process.  The gas station attendant does these negotiations.  It’s natural for him to ask drivers where they are going and then he can facilitate transportation.  He waves me over, it’s been a successful deal!

I climb into the back seat of the truck, happy that I have a ride, and even happier that the truck is clean and I have plenty of leg room.  I shake the hand of the driver and introduce myself.  There is a another passenger in the front seat.  I try to introduce myself to him, but he’s not in a full state of awareness.

We begin driving toward Mbabane and the border.  They are listening to a football (soccer) game on the radio in a mix of languages.  Swaziland is playing someone else and is getting trounced.  It does make conversation difficult, but I keep trying.  Every so often, between sips of some sort of drink, the passenger makes, what I can only expect to be, completely random comments in what sounds like at least two different languages, slurred together.

The driver is happy to go slow, to be careful, he tells me.  Along the way, I find out that the driver is the Minister of Health for the entire country of Swaziland.  He laughs as he tells me he is in charge of the current family planning campaign.

“Why is this funny?”  he questions me.  “This is funny because I have 14 children.  Me.  I have 14 children and I do family planning!”

It is funny, but not nearly as funny as me hitching a ride with the Swaziland Minister of Health with his drunk assistant listening to a football game and being politely lectured to on the virtues of sportsmanship, family planning, and driving the correct velocity.  It’s a moment that I pause to relish.

“Why you go Mbabane?” comes the question.

I explain that I wanted to see a few things there, but have limited time.

“Better you go to the border.  Too difficult.  You go to Johannesburg.”

And you know what, I agree.  I decide to take the ride all the way to the border, after all, he IS the Minister of Health.

“What time does the border close?” I ask.

“It’s open late.”

“Well, OK then.”  I think.  “Late is good for me.”

We arrive to the border and I give my phone number to the Swaziland Minister of Health, he wants to check on me in the morning.  I quickly go through the Swazi side of things.  I walk towards the next set of buildings, but miss the appropriate door to enter.  I have to turn around a few times before I find the correct place.  The South African side takes a bit more time; they are always a bit more careful with their paperwork.

I finish the papers and go to the window.  The woman gives me a strange look.

“Where are you going?” she asks.

“Johannesburg.”  I know that’s not was a local would say, but she has my passport and already knows that I’m not local.


I’m a bit set-back by this question.  I’ve left and entered South Africa several times now and I’ve never had a problem.

“I have a flight in two days from Jo-burg.” I answer, using the local terminology.

“Why are you crossing?”

“To find ride to Jo-burg.”

“But you can't go to Jo-burg. There aren’t any taxis from here.”

I’m not sure where all this is going.  She is still holding my passport and hasn’t stamped it.

“You should stay in Swazi.” she says.

"I’m being denied entry into South Africa. I can't believe this is happening."  The thought keeps racing through my mind.

"I don't understand. I can't enter?".   I ask.

“You should stay in Swazi. It's not good here.”

“But I can’t...” I politely remind her that I am currently stuck in-between the two countries and I can’t return to Swaziland.

“You can’t sleep in South Africa.  There aren’t any hotels.  It’s not good here at night.”

“OK. So what should I do?”  I ask.

I understand that she’s trying to help me, but this is becoming more difficult and complicated than I would like, especially when an immigration officer is holding my unstamped passport.

We go back and forth for a few minutes.  I tell her the only thing I can do is enter South Africa, then turn around, leave South Africa and re-enter Swaziland.  It’s 9:40 pm and the borders close at 10 pm.  Then I would have to sleep in Swazi and re-cross in the morning after the border opens at 8 am.  Even then, there still aren’t buses in the morning.  No matter what happens, I need my passport to be stamped so I can enter South Africa.

This is as far as the conversation can go.  She stamps my passport and reluctantly hands it back to me.  “It’s not safe.” are her final words to me.

All this seems like way too much hassle.  I decide to tempt fate even further than I have in the last two days and quickly walk along the dark streets to the only store.  The store clerk gives me an incredibly suspicious look as I walk in the door.  I get the distinct feeling that I’m the wrong dude in the wrong place at the wrong time.  I don’t like how this is looking.

I ask about transportation to Jo-burg and hotels.  I’m curtly told that nothing is available.  Not feeling any love, I thank the clerk and walk out the door.  I don’t know what to do.

I stand outside the door, which still provides some light on the dark streets, to collect my thoughts and see what options I have.  I have to say, there aren’t many...  I’m stuck in a border town in the dark of night without a place to stay, without a ride, and without food.  Several locals have told me this is a dangerous place and I haven’t slept in nearly 42 hours, which doesn’t help with my reactions and mood.  It looks pretty bleak.

I see a couple of guys in uniforms about 100 meters away and decide to ask them about options.  I get the same response and same reminder that this isn’t a good place.  As they turn to enter a building, one tells me that I might catch a ride at the store.  I explain that I was just there and he only shrugs.

Without any other options, I walk back to the store.  I feel like a complete idiot, waiting for a ride at a closed border crossing, but don’t really have many options.  I stick my thumb out to a truck that passes, but he drives past me and then parks on the opposite side of the road.  He's stopping to sleep.

Another car, passes, but they are local people.  Another car comes through the border gates.  I glance at my watch.  The gates should have already closed and that must be the last car for the night.

I stick my thumb out, but the driver ignores me.  He stops in front of the store and enters without saying a word to me.  Another guy walks out of the store and stands on the other side of the door.  This all has the feeling of a gang movie that goes bad and I’m in the role of idiot traveler that is making all the wrong decisions.

The gentleman from the car leaves the store and gets back into the car; the other dude standing by the door also enters the car.  They both wait for a few minutes before the passenger rolls the window down.

“What are you doing?” they ask me.

“I’m looking for a ride.” I respond.

They both just look at me.  Nothing is said and this is all quite bizarre for me.  After a few minutes, the passenger gets out of the two-door car and pushes the seat forward.  He looks at me and say, “Well.”

Not sure what to do, I get into the car.  I’m sure that this will someday be shown as a public service announcement to school children around the world about what NOT to do when a stranger in a “bad” area of town somehow offers you a ride in the backseat of his car in the middle of the night.  But, I figure, if this is going to go bad, let’s just get it over with.  "Anyway, I’m too tired to fight."

I start making conversation to build the human connection between us.  I want human connections with these guys.  The talk is really slow and I’m not getting much of an answer to anything.

After 10 minutes, the car stops and the passenger gets out.  He leaves the door open.  I still don’t have any idea of what is really going on nor where I’m going with the gentlemen.  The driver looks at me and tells me to get into the front seat.  I do so, leaving the door open.  I still don’t know what’s going on.

“Let’s go.” he tells me.

I finally get it.  We just dropped off the other dude and now we are going.  This actually isn't some elaborate scheme to kill me... I close the door and we begin driving.  On the way, he asks me where I’m going.  I explain that I don’t really know where I’m going.  I need to go to Johannesburg tomorrow and tonight, I’m just looking for a place to sleep.  I hoped to go to Ermelo to find a bus the following day.  It’s still on the highway and looks like it a good place.

He tells me that he has had an emergency and he can drop me in Carolina, a small city off the highway.  He assures me that there are some places to sleep there.

"Sounds good to me!"

We arrive and he drops me in the part of town “that has the hotels”.  The driver points me in the correct direction and I walk 100 meters to the house that has been converted in a bed & breakfast of sorts.  As is the custom, there is a cinder block wall with razor wire around the property; the only opening is a wrought-iron gate that moves across the driveway.

I walk all around the wall, trying to find a way to enter... looks like my only option is the gate.  I pull it back and it moves about half a meter and stops.  Only then do I realize that it is a mechanical gate and I probably shouldn’t have forced it open.  Opps... I enter the yard and walk to the house.  I can see a reception, but everything is locked.  I try the door a couple of times and then walk to the back door to see if anything is open.  It’s not.  "Damn it!"

Not sure how to find a room, I exit the lot and walk 500 meters down the street to a small, local convenience store that I saw while driving into town.  The shop is still open and there’s a man that looks like a large version of a red-headed Keebler elf, complete with one of those plaid Scottish looking golf hats.

I ask if there is anywhere to stay in town.  He is Afrikaans and speaks in broken English.  He struggles to direct me to the bed & breakfast that I just left.  I tell him that nobody was there.  He takes a few minutes to find the phone number of another hostel, across the street from the bed & breakfast.  He writes the number down on a piece of paper and hands it to me.  I explain that I don’t have phone credit and can’t make any calls.  He offers to sell me credit and I buy the smallest amount available.

I’m starving and look around the store for something to eat.  There is little available.  I settle on the last two “Russians”, some horrible-looking croissant things that apparently have a Russian sausage (meaning hot dog) inside.

It’s almost midnight and they are closing the store.  He tells me that it isn’t safe and I shouldn't be out.  I thank him for his help and leave, walking back down the street towards the hostel and bed & breakfast.  In the process, I add the credit to my phone and call the hostel.  I wake the manager and he tells me there aren’t any rooms available any more.  I ask if there is anywhere else to town and he also refers me to the bed & breakfast across the street.  I told him that I already checked there and nobody was available.

“You must call.”  He tells me with a thick Afrikaans accent.

“What is the number?” I ask.

“On sign.  On sign.”

I thank him and hang up.  “What sign?”

After further investigation, I find the sign in front.  I’m surprised that I didn’t notice it before, but then not really... its midnight and its been nearly two fulls days since I last slept and more than that since I’ve had a decent meal.  I feel like I’m one of the walking dead in a really bad zombie movie.

I hesitate to call the number on the sign.  I really don’t want to wake anyone, and I’ve possibly ruined their gate.  It only takes a few seconds for me to get over my qualms.  I call and wake a lady that sounds like a Dutch grandma.  It’s very difficult to understand her.  She is trying very hard to be polite, but I just don’t understand.  Eventually, I gather that she also doesn’t have any more rooms available.

“Shit...” I think to myself, almost saying it out-loud.

She continues talking.  After she repeats it three times, I realize that she is telling me that she has another hostel and there are rooms available there.  She tells me to walk straight for six streets and then turn right.

“But, how do you know I should walk straight?  That could be in any direction!”  I’m not trying to be difficult, but it is a good point.

“You only walk straight for six streets in one direction.  This is small town.  Walk towards the robot (meaning stoplight).  There is only one robot.”[4] this comes as more of a reprimand than advice, like I should know the layout of the small town.

I thank her, happy that we managed some sort of communication.

I cinch up my backpack and start making the 2 kilometer walk to the next hostel.  On the way, I see two guys walking towards me on the opposite side of a very dark and dirty street.  They cross the street towards me and my senses grow even more alert.

"Maybe they just want my two “Russians."  I laugh out-loud at my own joke.

I try to stop this train of thought and act calm, but it’s too late and I’m too tired.  Using humor as my personal defense mechanism, I continue, "I bet they do.  I hear they’re great!  They must of heard that I have the last two in town and are coming to politely ask me if they might purchase them.

I say goodnight as I walk pass them, grateful that I can see the sign in front of the hostel.

I arrive the hostel and ring the bell three times before the security guard opens for me.  We exchange a few words and then he shows me my room.  It isn’t much, but it looks wonderful!!!

I drop my backpack on the floor and start peeling off my wet clothes that I’ve been wearing for the last four days.

There's a shower!  And it has hot water!!!  I let the water heat up for a few minutes while I inhale one of the “Russians”.  I jump in the shower for the first time in four days.  It’s been over a month since I’ve had a hot shower and I thoroughly enjoy just standing there and letting the hot water hit me in the back of the neck.

After ten minutes, sleep begins to overpower me.  I turn of the water and dry off, collapsing onto the bed.

I wake in the morning unsure of where I am.  I love that feeling.  Those few brief seconds where I’m completely disoriented and could be anywhere in the world...

It only takes a second for my brain to start replaying the recording from yesterday.  I quickly realize where I am and decide to treat myself to the luxury of another hot shower.  This time I shave (I hate shaving with cold water).

My clothes have dried out enough to cram into the backpack.  I pull out a new change of clothes from my backpack and take a moment to enjoy the smell of "clean" before I throw them on.

Sunday morning church.
-Carolina [South Africa]
I do a quick check around the room for anything that I might have possibly forgotten and then head out the door.

I walk back down the street towards the only stoplight in town.  From there, I begin look for food.  Yes, FOOD!

There is an open door down the street that looks promising.  Well, let me rephrase that... it looks like they would have food.

I walk in the door.  They have previously-cooked food under a glass cover and there’s a microwave on the table against the wall.  "Beggars can’t be choosers."

I order the fish and chips for breakfast, not typically my first choice so early in the morning, but I haven’t eaten for several hours and there is really much else to choose.  The man pulls out the styrofoam holding the fried articles from the previous day and peels back one corner of the saran wrap before plopping it into the microwave.  The bell dings and the man hands me the reheated fish 'n chips that have been covered with a deep maroon Indian chutney. I shrug to myself and think, "Down the hatch." I devour the "food" in a matter of seconds, along with an orange soda.

The total is 31 Rand.  I only have a 50 Rand note.  The Indian attendant doesn't see the practicality of returning 9 Rand in coins and asks me twice if I have one Rand.  I don't.  He asks the person behind me, a complete stranger, who doesn't have one rand either.  I don't say anything, just shrug... I also don't like the idea of all the spare change either. It will only clank around in pocket and eventually fall out.  After a moment, he hands me a 20 Rand note and waves me away.

Not one to linger when fortune has come my way, I quickly exit to I walk outside and down the street about 20 meters.  I begin waiting to hitch a ride where the gas station attendant instructed me, next to the only stoplight in town.

This is a decidedly blue-collar town on a Sunday morning, and there are more semi-trucks than personal vehicles.  I wink at three black ladies riding in the back of a pick-up truck, bundled in blankets, and evoke a hearty laugh from one of them.  They are wearing the white head shawls of a local church that is a mix of traditional beliefs and what I'm told is Apostolic.  When I ask what that is, I get varying answers.

I wait for two hours, nothing...  Other people keep getting rides, but they are all going to another town.  I return to the gas station to speak to the attendant again.

“Am I doing something wrong?”

“Sunday” he responds.

“Oh,” I somehow understand.  “No traffic?”

He simply nods.  It still seems like there’s more going on than “no traffic”.

I begin contemplating whether I should backtrack, perhaps I'll have better luck going back to the border or highway.  As I sit in indecision, the unexpected happens, an Afrikaans man stops and rolls down the window of his truck.

“Where you going?” I ask.

“Get in,” he tells me. “this is not nice place.”

I begin to open the door, to which he responds, “bag in the back.”

I comply, understanding that he might take-off as soon as I put my backpack in the truck bed, but I do need a ride.

He immediately extends his hand and says, “Leon.”  It is one of the few times in the last several weeks that the conversation immediately feels natural.

“You look different, foreign, and you don't understand that this is a bad place,” he offers as an explanation for stopping.

We move through the rolling fields as he talks about farming, the history of his people, traditions, politics, the economy, the Black Empowerment policy (BEE), apartheid, and the removal of white people from the economy.  Much of it I don't agree with, most of it is incredibly racist.  I fight the urge to respond... I've learned that it's better to listen, only asking the occasional neutral question for clarity or to develop the conversation.  Eventually concludes that the Apartheid policies did some wrong things.  All people wanted was the freedom to be with people that they could communicate with and had a deeper understanding of.  I can finally agree, positively reinforcing an idea that I think is an important theme.

He drops me at an all-in-one truck stop/gas station/shopping center off the highway and instructs me that this road will go directly to Johannesburg. I'm back on the beaten path!  I offer to pay, as is my perception of the custom.  He matter-of-factly refuses, saying “No, no, this is my pleasure.”  Again, a natural response for me and where I come from.  I walk away glad that Leon has stepped out of his comfort zone to give me a ride and I've been able to hear another side of the story.

I go to the highway entrance and begin sticking thumb out and survey the landscape.  It's beautiful farm country with rolling hills.  The rain clouds from yesterday still fill the sky, to create a dramatic landscape.  There is an ostrich pecking the ground and several kudu relaxing next to a waterhole.  They have had their morning meal and are now digesting.  A group of eight rhinos are on the move.  Two adolescent males jostle with each other.  It's playful, but practice for deadlier moments later in life.

A group of bikers ride by, one points to the back of his bike and laughs.  I laugh also and give him a “thumbs up”.

I suddenly feel very “at home". This could be any entrance ramp along any interstate and I, any ordinary hitchhiker; not a strange man in a strange land.  The sun feels good on the back of my legs and my backpack has a good weight to it and sits comfortably on my back.  After 54 hours of non-stop travel, it’s 11 am and I’m waiting for a ride to Jo-berg, now only 200 km away.

-Carolina [South Africa]

1.  Several years ago, after devastating inflation, Zimbabwe changed their currency to US dollars.  Now, they use the dirtiest, most tattered and illegible dollars that you have ever seen.   -return to the story

2.  What can I say?  I think to myself a lot... and quite often find the conversations rather stimulating.   -return to the story

3.  Known as the backpack dance.
   -return to the story

4.  That sound like it should be a line out of a bad sci-fi movie... "Walk towards the robot... the only robot... that is the answer to save the universe."   -return to the story