In The Press

 

Get on the bus

Africa Geographic – Ericka Hamburg

In the world of travelers, says Ericka Hamburg, there are those travel light. And then there are those – such as middle-aged, camera-and souvenir-laden New Yorker who choose that backpacker institution, the Baz Bus – who defy classification.

On this, my second South African visit, I was to cross from Durban to Cape Town in elaborately choreographed segments, using both public and private transport. Some would simply have rented a car, but the price of this freedom is social isolation. I had heard about Baz Bus as a safe, economical way to get about, and dropped into their office for a look. Their route map enticed with destinations still unfamiliar; the Drakensberg, Pretoria , Swaziland –I had just scratched the surface of Southern Africa . The price and flexibility seemed right, so I bought a ticket as far as Cintsa, in the Eastern Cape .

That past week I had crisscrossed Durban New York style; a pedestrian on speed. Worn street map in hand, I surveyed the city's historic buildings, parks, and the working life of downtown. Exhibits at the Kwa Muhle Museum brought insight into Durban 's social history. I saw my first (and last) dodo at the Science Museum , and contemporary works at the Durban Art Museum . Time at the African Art Center enriched my knowledge of rural craft cooperatives, and thinned my wallet.

Hopping coastal railroad tracks brought me to the small craft harbor, the Maritime Museum , and the BAT Center for a peek at their resident artists' programme. A day with Ethnic Tours opened my eyes to Durban 's Indian culture and history, with visits to temples, mosques, markets, and naturally, shopping and (delicious) eating.

o when the Bus honked its arrival, I was ready to kick back. I found a seat next to the driver and loosened my sneakers. We circled ‘round to nearby Banana Backpackers for more riders, then uphill to the leafy. gentility of Morningside – a bonus city tour! At Tekweni, flocks of glossy ibis surrounded the bus, picking through tall grass for breakfast.

Putting Durban behind us, our driver Sam Goge laid out the rules: no smoking or loud radios, rest stops as needed, pick-ups as scheduled. With a policy of “plenty of room for surfboards and guitars,” our group appeared to be less encumbered. All gear was safely tucked in the trailer, and we stretched out, ready for the open road.

Traveling solo is a mixed bag; the rewards of freedom measured against the prospect of loneliness. For the moment, I was more tuned in to the crackling of the dashboard radio, the evolving roadside scenery, and Sam's life story. For better or worse, I commenced my ritual of drive by photography.

We soon arrived at Umzumbe, where Sam stopped the Bus at Mantis & Moon lodge. Two loping, affectionate Rhodesian Ridgebacks, particularly keen on our arrival, became our welcome committee, and led us through the gate down the jungly path.

Four, no, six, or maybe it was nine of their offspring; cat-sized chestnut brown puppies, formed a warm squirming carpet of fur on the veranda. Lunch was just ending. A soccer game on the TV had the attention of some current guests, and a line of empty hammocks swung about in the warm breeze. Brochures at the front desk touted a wealth of local activities as well as other backpacker lodges. Here I was, a middle-aged woman with bad knees, briefly tempted by surfing lessons.

We had enough time to stretch our legs, attend to necessities, glimpse the glinting azure sea from the sloping lawn, and have a tumble with the puppies.

With a new rider onboard, we resumed our journey west through a transforming landscape. Rocky riverbeds, too long without water, cut through scratchy pea soup-colored hills. We sped past multihued patches of laundry, draped across shrubs for drying. Empty cinder block houses, dotting the parched landscape like square little ghosts, returned our stares from gaping glassless windows.

By now I had learned some of the Eastern Cape 's part in South Africa 's history, both as a harsh showcase of apartheid and a cauldron of social ferment. Tooling through this treeless countryside past carcasses of cannibalized cars, I felt my privilege of mobility and fortune, the parallels in our countries' histories, and optimism.

At a roadside stand, we stopped for petrol and snacks, glad to unfold and stretch our limbs. Some joined the queues for fried this and fried that, others prowled the aisles for sundries, munchies and drinks. I discovered some mixed nuts and returned to the van with a plan.

OK, Sam, I thought. No more regurgitated American pop; let's hear some African music! (It sustains me at home in New York ) If I bribed him with cashews, would he let me fiddle with the radio?

Well, the frequency stayed the same, but our vista grew more dynamic. Vibrantly painted Xhosa villages, a mix of traditional rondavels and newer boxy homes - nestled among undulating hills.

n Umtata , as we circled Nelson Mandela's presidential compound, the radio took possession of our attention. With the announcement that South Africa had won the bid to host the 2010 soccer World Cup, I found myself quite weepy. From front seat to back, we toasted with phantom glasses of champagne.

Dusk was settling in as we neared Cintsa, exiting the N2. The ocean's salty intoxication beckoned through open windows. Sam found the narrow turnoff through dense vegetation and brought us to a stop in a clearing near the lodge. Tomorrow Baz Bus would continue west, with a change in vehicle, driver, and passengers.

Perched on beach dunes overlooking an inlet, Buccaneers Backpackers was abuzz. An international array of guests draped themselves on the moonlit decks, swapping travel tales and playing music. Later we would gather for a special buffet of native Xhosa dishes. I sprang from the van, hitting cool sand with shaky knees, and was reunited with my carryon.

The next morning, after a hike on the beach at dawn, I joined other guests at breakfast.

In the light of day the stunning paintings, heirloom furniture, and fresh flowers defied any preconceived notions of a backpacker culture still stuck in the muck of 1960's grunge. With one hand massaging the resident canine and the other gripping my steaming mug of tea, I am neither young nor old, but an ageless, happy traveller.

 

THE BASICS

Backpacking is an affordable way to travel around and have fun, but if you're up for something less frenetic than a seven-day party, something with a little substance, something cultural, then that's also there for you. The following will help you on your way:

  • Coast to Coast: The Backpacker's Guide to Southern Africa. Available free at backpacker hostels in your city or from travel@coastingafrica.com There is also a website www.coastingafrica.com with online bookings.
  • www.alternativeroute.net also does online bookings
  • For getting around the Baz Bus has five different routes. For information see www.bazbus.com
  • Hostels off the main route such as The Coffee Shack on the Wild Coast
  • ( www.coffeeshack.co.za ) have set up shuttle systems from nearby towns to get you there.
  • Really off-the-beaten places like the Owl House Backpackers in Nieu Bethesda
  • ( www.owlhouse.info ) and Away With Fairies in the Hogsback www.awaywiththefairies.co.za will pick you up from the nearest town if you call in advance.

 
 
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