Taking a ride on the wild side - local taxis in South Africa
Squashed up against the window of the run-down minivan, I am hurtling at terrifying speed down a potholed road, our driver dodging random livestock with worrying regularity. Suddenly the deafening gospel singing from my fellow passengers makes a whole lot more sense.
I am en-route between Port Edward to Port St John’s on the Wild Coast of South Africa, travelling on one of the many local taxi mini-buses serving the severely underdeveloped road network of the Eastern Cape. According to my local friend Nonhle the journey will take us half a day. If we’re lucky.
Nonhle is petite, beautiful and beyond lovely - unless provoked of course. If that happens, good luck to the antagonist who will have wrath of a wicked woman to contend with. An unlikely body guard perhaps, but I feel totally safe in her company.
We set off at the crack of dawn, in torrential rain. I am soaked to the skin in seconds as we start our 2 mile walk to the main road. Lady luck is out and about this morning however and we get a ride to the local taxi terminal in Port Edward. It’s a great start and our spirits lift.
The taxi station-cum-market has a distinct final frontier feel and is a chaotic place for the uninitiated. As if touched by magic, we quickly find a taxi heading to Lusisikisiki, the unofficial capital of the Wild Coast and our waypoint. “This is a doddle, I even have a good seat” I think to myself as I settle into the empty minibus.
Two hours later we haven’t moved an inch, my mood is a little less buoyant and my bum is numb. What is going on? It slowly dawns on me that as privately run enterprises, economics dictate that a taxi has to be fully loaded before heading off. And when I say full, I mean bursting at the seams. With people, luggage and shopping of all shapes and sizes. I sorely regret my “clever” move of bagging the back seat as I gag for air, knees whacked up against the seat in front. Claustrophobia rapidly sets in and it takes all my concentration not to launch into pure panic. It is of course way too late to back out now without becoming the least popular person in town.
We finally set off and I breathe a little easier. For a moment anyway. Crucifixes dangle from every available hook so the on-board hallelujah factor has not escaped me. As we pick up speed, the gospel singing intensifies in step with my terror and I almost wish I believe in god. Unable to join in, I resort to my Ipod - my own carefully crafted playlist the closest to divinity I can get right now. I knuckle down, head nodding, and hope for the best.
We reach Lusisikisiki and I hobble from the taxi into the still pouring rain. I feel transported to a third world monsoon film set, except I am in front of the camera rather than at home on my sofa. On foot and white, it’s all eyes on me. The legacy of apartheid still prevails in the transport sector and you rarely see a white person walking.
There is mud and puddles everywhere, piles of rubbish and a pungent smell invades my nostrils. I need the toilet. Nonhle looks at me, rolls her eyes, cocks her head and says “come with me, but roll your trousers up.” We slop through what is either sewage or mud but most probably a bit of both, to a little shack behind the taxi terminal. I summon up all my balancing talents to walk the single plank over a messy pit of something I definitely do not want to fall into, across to the tiny loo.
Safely back across the plank, we hunt for our next ride. I am dripping wet again, but beyond caring now. The next taxi is a world away from the last: This is a rasta wagon, with weed leaves as decorations and a heady hint of cannabis surrounding the dreadlocked driver. We even have our own impersonator, who insists on giving me his best Nelson Mandela rendition. In exchange for a small fee of course.
Seated at the window, I attract throngs of street hawkers, mostly selling crisps or brightly coloured hair accessories. The standard dress for this weather is a black bin bag, with some of the women accessorizing theirs with a nifty little belt.
An old lady behind me with no teeth, surrounded by a sea of plastic bags is tucking into some kind of orange concoction, a stew I think. Nonhle is next to me, wearing a white outfit. As the lady slops and slurps, msg-laden aromas of salty beef wafting, Nonhle’s facial expression becomes like a clenched fist. “You better not get that on me, sistah” she finally snaps and the lady’s eating instantly improves. I smile, knowing that Nonhle is meeting her boyfriend later. Looking anything but pristine just won’t do. How she is still clean, while I am covered in mud, I cannot fathom.
The scenery turns more mountainous on this last stretch, but the driving is less alarming. Maybe the weed has calmed the driver down. Whatever the reason, we arrive at our final destination, Khululeka Retreat, safe, if a little bruised and battered in body and mind. It’s a joyous moment when I sit down, drink in hand and watch the sun slowly set over the mangrove forest lined beach. I feel elated and blessed to be here, rather than lying in a mangled mess on the side of the road. We passed at least three car wrecks in ditches along the way.
The days’ journey has allowed me a peek into the lives of the people for who this is reality. Road safety is a ruthless joke, but the life force of people runs strong. I can’t help but admire the way they take adversity in their stride, mostly with a big smile, a song and a belief that everything will be just fine. It will not be the last time I take a local ride.
I took this journey a couple of years back, but thought I would share my memories with you to show that using local transport can be exciting, exotic, terrifying but above all an unforgettable experience. Treasuring real-life, gritty moments like these are a big part of why I travel.