East from Durban

March 3, 2010
The 24 hours after our departure from Madikwe have to rank among the most stressful ones I’ve lived through in some years. Like the drive there, the return was hair-raising due to the narrow, decaying roads, speeding fellow drivers, and left-hand driving, but it got worse as we entered Joburg, where we were scheduled to meet a prosthodontist I’ve worked for (and hope to do more for in the future). Athough we met him in an over-the-top shopping mall that rivals anything in Vegas for showy ostentatiousness, we were flabbergasted by the huge potholes, lack of shoulders, and crumbling edges of the roads even quite nearby his tony enclave, as well as by how close it was (a 15-minute drive?) to shanty cities (towns is WAY too small a word) that looked straight out of the recent movie, District Nine.

Our B&B in Joburg that night was a sweet respite — quiet, immaculate, comfortable, with an enormous breakfast and excellent dinner with wine, all included in the $120 tab. And we got the car safely back to the airport without incident. But there we got the news about missing our flight. And once onboard the replacement flight, I realized I’d lost my beloved LL Bean jacket (either swiped by a larcenous security screener as it passed through the x-ray machine or simply forgotten by me on a chair, I’m not sure which.)

Because of the delays, we didn’t reach our backpacker lodge in Durban till 1 p.m. But the guide I’d found online and had arranged to give us a tour of the city wasn’t free till 2:30, so that was fine.

More disappointing was the fact that it was bucketing rain. And our guide, a professor of biochemistry at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal who apparently enjoys moonlighting as a tour guide, proved to be a mixed bag. Originally from Bangladesh (via Japan and Korea, where he got his Ph.D. and started his teaching career), he was a sneering fellow who lacked a lot in the guiding department, talking with a heavy accent and in a voice so soft Steve in the backseat couldn’t hear parts of what he said. He also was no expert on Durban, having lived there for only about 18 months. Worst of all, he wound up charging us about 3 times what he’d seemed to promise online, an annoying turn of events.

Still, thanks to him we did at least get glimpses of the city’s highpoints (through the pouriing rain). Otherwise we would hae had to hole up in our hotel and see nothing.
The hotel itself had only two black spots, in our book. One was the lack of wireless Internet and the other the fact that our room had no en suite bathroom, a detail I’d missed in making the reservation (and a level of basic service we haven’t stooped to in years.)

On the plus side, it felt like staying in someone’s home — a brightly colored and pleasantly decorated one with a lovely garden. Everything was immaculate, and Cyril, the (black) resident manager, was friendly and helpful. He even set out breakfast early so we could grab a bite before boarding the Baz Bus at 7:15.

The fact that the Baz Bus comes right to the front door of the Gibela Lodge was the reason I wanted to stay there. And the Baz Bus is one of the only ways to get to Bulungula, our next destination. The bus will drop us off at the Shell Ultra Station in Mthatha, and there we are promised that the Bulungula shuttle will pick us up for the 60 miles drive to the Wild Coast. Even though Bulungula is reputed to be the closest one can come to Paradise, it may have limited electricity (and if there’s wi-fi Internet, you’ll hear my whoop all the way in San Diego.)

Keep your ears open.

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