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THE sun trying to brighten and warm the day, the lawn carpeted in a thin layer of frost, the first Saturday of the June holidays dawned on us. After weeks of campaigning and many false promises, Mom and Dad allowed us to make our annual pilgrimage.
Frantically and with last-minute baggage checks, we were off to the railway station. Mom joined the queue, reserved for locals, labelled “Non-Europeans”. The foreign queue for “Europeans” was rather benign. Mom bellowed out: “Two tickets for under 12s to Umzimkulu please!”
The maroonish, reddish Pullman stood idling in the designated place. The engine purred and white smoke like morning mist exited from the rear exhaust, little drops of water falling on the tar beneath. Mom stood with us, waiting patiently for the conductor’s call to board.
The roll call was made. Mom led us to pole position on the bus. With, a stern face, and a strong left pointing finger, final instructions were blurted out. “Behave yourselves.”
The Pullman filled up noisily, each passenger with Umphako; they were well prepared for the journey. A few passengers carried their pets, chickens, perfectly tucked under their arms. What did Mom put in our Tupperware for padkos? I thought as we anxiously waited for takeoff. One passenger, with a huge, bright-yellow jukebox, headed for the rear of the Pullman. My brother whispered to me: “Eish, I wish I could sit at the back of the bus.”
A wrinkled, grey-haired old man with a contoured back joined us in the aisle seat. Like a baby holds on to his bottle, he clung onto an aesthetically designed stick in his right hand and a rusty old cake tin in his left and accompanied us in pole position. In a gravelly, low voice: “Molweni,” was bestowed on us. “Ewe,” we replied in unison.
The Pullman was abuzz with noise, like mynah birds coming home to roost. The conductor forcibly closed the doors with a loud thud. The driver, with a huge pipe in his mouth and velvet tattered hat on, leapt into his seat, thrust the gear lever into action, and the engine roared off. The Pullman bullied its way through the city traffic, slowly dragging itself to the R103. With Fox Hill in sight the Pullman gracefully wandered along.
The noise in the rear was overlaid with a rhythmic Afro-jazz sound from the yellow jukebox. The crackling of paper and shingling of skaaftins adulterated the percussion, the horns and the strings. The aroma of grilled meat, mielies, pap and offal filtered through.
First turn left, Thornville. Brightly attired, tangerine-faced women, carrying enamel bowls and tin buckets filled with delicacies to tempt the pilgrims, raced towards the Pullman. After a short wait, a few passengers boarded and the journey continued. In the distance, flames leapt into the air, as cane fields were set alight.
The chatter and smooth jazz continued to surround and fill the Pullman. The descent down Baynesfield was swift as the Pullman approached the Bull station. In sheltered stalls like little bus stops stood huge bulls of different breeds advertising their crown jewels which looked like XL avocado pears. The humidity in the bus increased and the windows misted up.
My neighbour, Mkhulu, with long nails and coarse hands, snapped open the rusty old cake tin to reveal its treasure. The huge roast chicken and two loaves of white bread would have sufficiently fed the rowdy masses in the Pullman. Mkhulu, with raised eyes and withered hands, gave thanks. My brother opened up our Tupperware and offered Mkhulu and I a vienna roll. Mkhulu gratefully accepted and reciprocated. Jawbones and teeth in action, we contentedly chewed. Mkhulu’s jawbone was hard at work as he crushed every chicken bone that his mouth came into contact with. I recalled Mom’s words at dinner table: “Do not eat chicken bones as they will come out like concrete.” Mkhulu, with belly full, shining lips and eyelids growing heavy with each kilometre, dosed off. My brother laid his head on my lap and joined Mkhulu in dreamland. The Pullman swaggered and laboured along, and Mkhulu burst into a loud staggered snore. The jackhammer breaking the concrete, I thought.
The odour of cheap tobacco tickled my nose and with a loud sneeze I abruptly woke the two dreamers. The road cut through heavily laden citrus orchards and a right turn led us towards Richmond. The driver guided the Pullman towards a demarcated spot. The conductor, like a mole, popped up from the front steps and announced: “Chama Station, and there will be a 20-minute stop.” The driver dashed off to the toilets marked for foreigners.
The Richmond station was abuzz with trade. The livestock pens were crammed with huge beasts mooing and groaning, frustrated with their confinement. The smell of fresh dung filled my nostrils as I made my way back to the bus. Men with square and tubular “gifts” wrapped in newspaper slowly embarked and took up their seats. The driver blew his horn, and the conductor screamed for his crew. Last-minute passengers scrambled in and the conductor, with an eye looking out for any latecomers, lazily slammed the doors shut. The driver swung the Pullman into action.
With seats squeaking and passengers bouncing, the Pullman was back on the R103.
Mkhulu rewarded himself with a nip of brandy found in his inner coat pocket. The square and tubular newspaper gifts were never wholly unwrapped. Instead the tops were neatly torn off so as not to infringe any consumption laws.
The engine in full thrust and the gift bearers more raucous, the ascent of the Umkomaas began. The driver dropped a gear and with a sudden jerk the climb began. The engine whined and winced. The Pullman danced and turned up every corner, hidden by thorn trees, with branches reaching out, as if to embrace the vehicle.
The driver relaxed, steadied his huge frame back into his seat and with a gentle wipe removed the beads of sweat from his brow. The dreaded climb was over. The heavens above us and below, the majestic Umkomaas River, slowly and sluggishly journeying towards the Indian Ocean. Huge rocks glittered and baked in the sun. The crude, tawny, beauty of the Umkomaas Valley in the dry cold season. A beauty that whispers to your soul: “slow down”.
The driver prepared for the descent. The brakes hissed and puffed. Like a fat hairy worm we swivelled down towards the river crossing and thudded across the bridge. The climb out of the Umkomaas Valley is quick, and without any drama or hassle. The road levelled out, flanked by women cutting the dry grass for thatch.
Twenty kilometres to Ixopo. Petite thatched huts fill the landscape. They are painted in a light-green colour and face north. Goats and dogs move between the homes. Chickens scratch in the dirt. The bus passed a beautiful twin-towered red Catholic Church standing silent as a graveyard.
Mkhulu and my brother were back in dreamland. Ixopo drew closer, and picture-perfect farms came into sight. Speckled painted black-and-white cows, with huge udders, stood side by side, foraging on the green lucerne. We made a right turn into Ixopo.
A few passengers said farewell, and a few greeted us. Hooray, no more stops. We headed towards our destination, Umzimkulu. The sun heading towards the west, we passed huge tracts of eucalyptus, pine and wattle trees. My heart raced, and I grew excited as the forests were a sign that we were getting closer.
The Pullman crossed the great Umzimkulu River. On the right stood the hotel freshly painted in white, flanked on the left by well-manicured bowling greens reserved for foreigners. The Pullman made a sharp left turn, and caused an eruption of dust.
I woke my brother up, we had finally reached our destination.
Mkhulu, with the stick as an aid, staggered off the bus. I grabbed my brother’s hand, and waited patiently for our luggage to be retrieved from the top.
With my old tattered black suitcase in my left hand and my brother’s hand in my right, we strolled along a dusty road towards a corrugated-iron house. A few pit stops were mandatory as the suitcase was extremely heavy. As we approached the galvanised gate we were given a royal welcome by the mutts and cousins. There stood the corrugated home, grey paint peeling. In the back the great Umzimkulu River, where all our activities took place.
A fusion of Xhosa, English, Zulu and Afrikaans would be our dialect. We would be free for three weeks.
• The winners of the True Stories of KZN competition will be announced in early December.
About the author
BURL Samuel is a Catholic, capitalist, coffee-coloured, conservationist, camera- clicking, cycling, cheerful geek.
An IT specialist, he is married to Anita and has two boisterous sons, Quinn and Lee.
He enjoys reading and a good hike in the Drakensberg.
His ancestral home is Umzimkulu, his physical home, uMgungundlovu, and his spiritual home, UKhahlamba.