The weekend started at 5am on a Thursday. It wasn’t a long-weekend, really, but Thursday was a public holiday, so one day off turned it into one. I woke up anxious. I’m always anxious before travel, worried I’m forget something, scared I won’t wake up on time, nervous bookings haven’t been made, even when I’ve sorted them out myself. None of it ever happens, but the anxiety wakes me early. By the time my alarm goes off, I’m wide awake.
6am. Dawn is breaking over Durban as we speed towards the city. It takes half an hour to reach the bus station. 40 minutes really. It’s the first time I’ve taken a bus from the Durban station, I realise. The first time I’ve been since I arrived by bus, just over a year ago, moving to KZN.
Check in, stow luggage, climb onto the bus. In a curious (and pleasant) twist, I find myself not squashed into an aisle seat next to an oversized mama with fried chicken or, worse, a someone with a baby, but right in front, looking out at a waking city from huge front windows.
We leave almost on time, just as the sun is rising. Through Durban, past landmarks and familiar places. Two of the craziest weeks of my life happened in this part of the world, one at the Expo Centre, one at the ICC. I’m thinking about those weeks as we pass the ICC, Wilson’s Warf, the restaurant where I first tasted sushi. I got a message that morning from an old friend from those crazy days. The memories make me smile.
From Durban, we head south, towards Port Shepstone. This stretch of road I know well from travelling down this way for work. I watch the familiar river-mouths, the clusters of huts, the little towns. The bus drives on and on, gobbling up the road. I’m sitting there with my headphones in, my feet up and my seat reclined. I feel happy. Happy about the coming weekend, sure, but mostly just happy in that moment. Sitting there on that bus, with my music, watching the world go by, I am happy.
Just north of Kokstad, we reach the snow. A heavy cold-front hit the country a few days before, causing snow in all 9 provinces, I read somewhere and bringing traffic between major cities to a standstill. Now, the sun is shining and it’s beautiful. The snowy hills go on for at least half an hour.
We travel south after a stop in Kokstad: Mthatha, Qunu, Dutywa, Butterworth. We stop and pick up passengers. At Butterworth, we get out and walk around. The wind is still snow-cold. Somewhere on the Kei cuttings, a police van passes us going in the other direction and flashes its lights, warning the bus driver about a traffic cop hiding around the corner catching anyone who might be speeding. On and on.
It is dark when we reach East London. The windows of the bus keep misting up. It is cold outside. I rush into the ticket office to pick up another ticket for Saturday but they warn me that those buses are running late. I’ll have to make another plan.
That evening, I have supper with my family in East London and then head home to Stutt for the night. I haven’t been home for ages. It’s great to be able to spend a night at home. Home with the family and a fire and the cats.
The next morning, back to East London. Saturday is out, so I’m travelling on Friday afternoon. We pick up the ticket at a Checkers and head back to the bus stop. Rushed goodbyes and I climb aboard another bus. This time it is a Translux bus. It looks newer than the Greyhound I took the previous day. The bus is almost empty. The stewardess tells me to sit where-ever I like. I find a window seat and settle down. Their sound system is, mercifully, broken. The trip will be peaceful.
Along the beachfront, the sea a perfect blue that day, then out of the city and away. We take the same road as the day before but in the opposite direction, towards King William’s Town. This time, my mind is drifting. I’m miles away as I stare out of the bus window at the country-side that is so familiar.
In King William’s town, the bus fills up, but I still have an empty seat beside me. I put on my music when a baby begins to cry. Children so often disturb the beautiful peace of travel.
I barely see the countryside passing as we head on towards Grahamstown. I know this road so well. I drift in and out, sometimes noticing where we are, sometimes not. The landmarks pass, the familiar curves and twists of the road. How many times have I travelled here? How many trips to and from varsity? How many since?
In Grahamstown, the first thing I notice is that Birch’s is still open. It’s a Friday afternoon. How often I have arrived at or left from this stop. Never while I was at University here. For some reason, I never took the bus then. Since graduating, nearly ten years ago, I have been back so many, many times and each time this is where I arrive, where I leave.
I gather my bags and set off up the familiar hill, familiar streets, familiar houses. It’s a long walk, but a peaceful one. I turn down a quiet street and pass a man walking his dogs. He looks like a professor.
I’m staying at a backpackers. I check in and settle down. The website said they served food. It turns out the website was wrong. It doesn’t matter. The deck outside looks out towards Makana’s Kop. It’s starting to turn towards dusk. I watch the fading Grahamstown sunset. This town used to be home. I wonder if it is anymore. I meet a Canadian who is here to figure out what he wants to study. He talks about his family. They’re coming over soon, to see this strange country that has bewitched their son. We talk of history and ideas and the contrasts between countries and of humour.
I plan to go to bed early but instead find myself reading and catching up on the ideas of my own academic world. The conversation with the Canadian has left me wanting to engage, to think. The others who are sharing the dorm eventually head out for the night and I put away the computer and head to sleep.
Saturday is an early start. I am the only person awake in the place except for a lady lazily cleaning the kitchen. She opens the door for me. I settle down on the veranda to wait for my lift. I’m travelling with two people I don’t know. I want to be ready when they arrive.
Bags packed we head off towards Nieu Bethesda. I’ve never been there before but I assume the driver knows the way. Strangely, it doesn’t bother me when he intimates that he’s not 100% sure. Someone these roads, this part of the country, feels familiar.
We take the Cradock road, driving along through miles and miles of countryside. My countryside. When I travelled to Kenya a few months ago and found myself nostalgically feeling like I’d come home, this was the home I was thinking of. At Cradock, take the road towards Graaff-Reinet, past the Mountain Zebra Park.
I’m jerked back from staring at the passing landscape by a sign for Colesburg. We’re on the wrong road. We turn back and find out way again. How did I know? Colesburg was the wrong way. I get strange looks as we head off again.
At the T-junction with the Graff-Reinet road, we see the first sign for Nieu Bethesda. A few km onto the final stretch and the road turns to gravel. I realise I’m not driving and it’s not fair to say, but gravel roads through this countryside in this part of the world feel peaceful. Perhaps it is because the gravel forces a slower pace. You notice more. We pass a beautiful antelope in the camp next to the road. There is snow on the mountain peaks.
Nieu Bethesda is a tiny, tiny town in a ring of beautiful mountains. It is well known for its more eccentric inhabitants, most notably Helen Martins who lost the plot after her father died and turned her ordinary, small-town home into a crazy place full of sculptures and stained glass and paintings, known as The Owl House.
We meet the groom at the pizza place. A place as small as this could only have a pizza restaurant because of the tourists. The pizza is good. We go back to the house where they’re staying, right near the micro-brewery where they will get married.
The rest of the day passes in a blur of laughter and getting dressed and prettiness. Everyone helps to get the place ready. The moment arrives. It is relaxed and beautiful and intimate. There is beer. There is crazy, intelligent, interesting conversation. There is cake.
It’s a lovely evening, followed by a gorgeous, crisp morning in Nieu Bethesda. The snow-topped mountains sit in the bright sun. The trees look wintery and beautiful. The houses are the settler houses I love, all perfectly maintained and whitewashed. We have breakfast at a place called The Karoo Lamb. A few of us take the opportunity to visit the Owl House. Nieu Bethesda is not what I expected but it is beautiful. Definitely worth a visit.
By 11am, we’re back on the road. On and on, past the Mountain Zebra Park, past Cradock, past Bedford. We are driving into heavy, dark clouds. It seems appropriate. I feel such heartache at leaving the Eastern Cape.
In Grahamstown, I stop at one of my favourite restaurants for a quick late lunch before heading to the shuttle and out of town. On and on. The window of the shuttle bus is broken. Icy-cold air howls through the vehicle.
It is a relief to get to PE. I take the usual quick lap around the PE airports, remembering all the times I’ve been here and, more often than seems fair, been stuck here. Through security and, unsurprisingly, the flight is delayed. Luckily, the delay is short and soon we are making our way towards the plane.
We land in Durban after 9pm on a Sunday night. The driver of yet another shuttle is there to pick me up. Just another hour and I’m home. I’m tired but happy. I get caught up watching the Olympics closing ceremony.
Walking home from work the next day, I realise what this feeling is: I feel peaceful. I have no doubt, in fact I am certain, that it will not last, but just for a while, just for now, for a change, I do not feel restless.