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Airless in Hlabisa
13 Feb 2012

IT was dark and misty with a visibility of less than 50 metres as I made my way to Nongoma. All of a sudden a big yellow-and-red billboard loomed large across the road no more than 30 metres away from me.

From earlier that day I could not remember a billboard along this stretch of road and a glance at my GPS confirmed the correctness of my memory: this part of the R 618 between Hlabisa and Nongoma was supposedly dead straight. The realisation sunk in quickly that this was not a sharp bend, but something altogether different.

It had been one of those days. I had been inspecting community projects with contractors arriving late on site. Also there had been long discussions with project beneficiaries who wanted to delay the funding sunset over their projects. It had been raining, the roads were slippery and it was close to dusk as I arrived back in Hlabisa.

Good Samaritan that I was, I offered to pull my colleague Nyembe’s bakkie afloat which, he told me, had run aground just outside his freshly built home. We ended up at a single track footpath down a slippery grassy slope. At the bottom we spotted the stranded vehicle just outside the gate of Nyembe’s new home. My rescue instincts kicked in and down I went, slip-sliding away over the rain-hit clayey hillside, taking care not to end up in the lurking wetland just below it. I wasn’t too worried, after all what could a wet grassy slope throw at me that a robust 4x2 Isuzu double cab couldn’t sort out?

I would soon find out.

Nyembe’s bakkie had slid down that morning to almost against the fence that surrounded his still concrete scented home. Optimistically I took my heavy-duty tow strap out of its box only to realise that there was no place from where I could pull out the grounded bakkie. But we were lucky: I climbed behind the wheel and started to rock the car to and fro in a nice rhythm. Nyembe pushed at the right time and le voila: no more than two minutes later we were afloat and a precarious 10-point turn later he had negotiated the sharp turn into his gate. He thanked me and offered to accompany me up the hill. That wouldn’t be necessary, I said confidently. I’ll manage.

Two hundred metres further I realised I had been too optimistic. I tried to avoid the slippery track, but slid into it, shot out of it again on the other side and ended up on the wetland side of the track. I found myself now within jumping distance of the marsh and decided to get help before ending up entirely among the frogs.

Nyembe and a friend pushed from the side while I was reversing and sowaar: we got back on the track. I kept very close to a bramble bush this time to find some grip, and came to a stop 30 metres from the road, my back wheels removing grass and top soil in a desperate attempt to find some grip.

The first curious onlookers started to gather. There was a lull in the rain, and what better afternoon entertainment than a mlungu trying to make his way up their rain-soaked meadow? A few branches were offered to put under the wheels, but to no avail as black clay had mercilessly filled the tyres’ profile.

Why don’t you let me have a go? Nyembe asked. I am used to this.

It had started to drizzle again, the dusk was closing in on us and, desperate now and with no agreeable bed or breakfast nearby, I conceded. He climbed behind the wheel and reversed to before the bramble bush. Before I realised his plan he took off and went straight through the bramble bush which doubled up as a low- key dump. Waste shot up and I feared broken glass and flat tyres, but was powerless as Nyembe flattened bush, bottles and buttercups and roared up the hill. He did come closer to the road than I did, but still 20 metres short.

Encouraged by the result and not even waiting for my approval he shouted: I’ll have another go!, and rolled back to the bramble bush. The crowd, recognising the familiar pattern of a roaring engine, waste compaction and slipping wheels, was getting into the swing of things. They had given up looking for wood and were reconsidering their assistance, in order to rather watch the live entertainment. Their local rally hero was showered with encouragements as he took on the elements and readied himself for a second attempt. Under the accompaniment of applause he once again ploughed through bush and bottles, and reached even further, agonisingly close, yet still 10 metres short.

A Toyota Camry stopped by and with it came another offer of help. Frankly the man did not look entirely trustworthy and I hesitated. If he did make it up the hill would he actually stop and hand me back my bakkie­? I consulted Nyembe. Do you know this guy? I asked him. Nyembe nodded. Yes, he is from here. I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. After all, he had arrived in his own car which made an involuntary transfer of ownership less likely.

I’ll turn off your diff lock, he said with the confidence of a mud expert. It won’t help you here.

He started spinning the wheels and a grey smoke formed, enveloping the whining bakkie. I ticked him on the shoulder, shook my head in disapproval and pointed to beyond the bush. He complied and rolled back. With the courage and zeal only found in one not driving his own car, and to the delight of the sell-out crowd he raced up the hill. Up and up he went, wheels spinning but still climbing. Fifteen­ metres to go. Ten metres.

But it was not to be. He stranded 10 metres from the summit.

Dusk started to descend upon us and it had started raining again. What were my options? A tow truck, even if available, would struggle to get here. Sleeping in Nyembe’s furniture-scarce house? Dossing in the bakkie? The green slope had by now turned black from our earlier attempts. What was the likelihood that we would make it the seventh time around? We decided to deflate the tyres at the back. Considerably. In fact they looked decidedly pap before Nyembe offered to have a go himself one last time.

This time the bramble bush was roaring like a lion, waste was flung into the air and the locals were running for cover. Those in the crowd not ducking the bottles and nappies were cheering and clapping as their modern­-day Tenzing Norgay climbed the slippery slopes of our Hlabisa version of Mount Everest.

Beyond Base Camp our sherpa went, beyond camps two, three and four, losing grip, however, with the summit in sight. Then the extra tyre width kicked in. Five seconds of wheel spinning and with a little hop the Isuzu­ had summited.

No time for planting the flag or taking pictures as Edmund Hillary shook the hand of his successful sherpa and colleague. It was off to the filling station to inflate the tyres and on to Nongoma and beyond for a bed. After another precarious kilometre I arrived at the Hlabisa Caltex for air. Alas, the only garage in Hlabisa did not have pressurised air.

So we descended to Nongoma 50 kilometres down the slopes, and gasping for air. It was dark by now, the mist had closed in and sub-zero temperatures and blizzards, it felt, were just around the corner. And then, two kilometres away from our rescue point, there was this billboard, like a wall of ice just behind the crevice­ that would take us down to icy depths.

Of course it was neither.

Only after I had started braking did I see the warning torch of the co-driver who had remained in the truck because of the rain. I was aiming for the left-hand side of the truck to slip past it in case my breaking distance wouldn’t suffice. Then I realised that there, in my headlights, was a bakkie parked pointing with its nose to the road. No way could I pass there.

I did not have to. The ABS kicked in and I managed to come to a standstill a metre away from the truck cabin­. My relief and tiredness won it from my anger. I reversed and passed the truck without lambasting the driver. Airless I might have been, but certainly not luckless.

Having arrived safely back into civilisation­, in my case Ntibane Bushveld Hideaway, a stunningly beautiful farm between Nongoma and Louwsburg, I thought of my gentleman’s agreement with Nyembe.

Basking in the glory of a successful summiting and in the style of Tenzing and Hillary, he had sportingly offered never to reveal who drove the car and got there first, on the top of that slippery slope on Mount Hlabisa. But, as it is said, never is a long time, and considering the local spectatorship our secret would eventually leak out, even from Hlabisa. So I concede.

In the words of Norgay in his autobiography Tiger of the Snows, and allowing for some poetic licence and role reversal: “And then we were there. Nyembe stepped on top first. And I stepped up after him.”

About the author

ROBERT de Neef first set foot on African soil in Harare in 1984 and fell in love with the continent. Gone were his teaching days in Holland. A refused South African work permit for Namibia allowed him to meet his future wife in Nigel. She followed him first to Holland where he completed his study, and later to Togo. They returned to South Africa in 1998 with a son and a growing faith. Daily bedazzled by his new homeland, De Neef spends his working days as an engineer with one of the provincial departments.

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