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South Africa

Port Elizabeth, South Africa: The travel is in the details

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Photo: Falco on Pixabay

A haircut, Iron Brew, and biltong in Port Elizabeth

It was raining still. Watery pellets pounded the windshield of our rental Volkswagen minivan as Pieter, our tour guide and professional hunter, searched the streets of Port Elizabeth for a barber shop.

“I need a haircut,” he had told us that morning when we left our lodge in Storms River. He rubbed his stubby fingers across his already short crew. “Yes, I need a haircut.”

After driving for an hour and a half, we had arrived in Port Elizabeth, a city of 312, 000 smack in the center of the South African coast. Back then in 2012, using GPS on a cellphone wasn’t as sophisticated as it is today, and driving up and down the streets of Port Elizabeth’s central business district was the more efficient way, apparently, of locating a barber.

Pieter peered left then right from the driver’s seat, pivoting his huge hunched shoulders back and forth. “I know there’s one here somewhere,” he muttered, careening around another corner. With each turn, my right knee pressed painfully again a white-and-blue striped plastic cooler wedged between the driver’s and front passenger seats. An empty can of Iron Brew soda rolled behind my ankle and into the well alongside the van’s sliding door.

“There she is,” Pieter purred seductively. “At last.” He pulled up to a dimly lit blonde-brick salon. A simple white sign hung squarely above the front door. A black curvy font in capital letters read: The Hairline. “At last we meet,” he shouted. The sudden burst of energy shocked my mother- and father-in-law, husband, daughter, son, and me to attention. It had been a long morning of driving in the mists of a typical South African winter, and we needed to get out.

An establishment called The Hairline was sure to offer a basic haircut, Pieter assured us, as he tossed my father-in-law the keys to the van. “Back in thirty minutes,” he called.

Through the foggy windows of the van, my husband noticed a drugstore five doors down.

“They’ll have a Sudafed equivalent, don’t ya’ think?” my daughter asked. There was only one way to find out, so we left my in-laws behind and ventured into the icy, blowing mist.

After purchasing our “Sudafed,” we lingered in the drugstore to peruse the variety of non-drug products: sunglasses, Cadbury chocolate, umbrellas, magazines, souvenir key chains, magnets. We analyzed a minuscule selection of locally-made biltong, a jerky-like snack, arranged in a red wicker basket on the cashier’s counter. The biltong seemed as out of place in a pharmacy as I felt on the side streets of a South African industrial port city, I thought.

I checked my watch. “It’s been thirty minutes,” I said, motioning that it was time to head for the van. Sure enough, Pieter and about three thousand very short hairs were waiting on us.

That was the last time I would see Port Elizabeth, perched along the very southern edge of the African continent. It was not an eventful visit, but it was memorable. After all, we should not underestimate the power of details, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant.

I’m sure many will scoff at our scant, all-too-brief encounter with the city now known as Nelson Mandela City. To be sure, there are many deserving and fascinating sights to see there.

As we left the city in the dim, rainy morning of middle June, I watched the ships, barges, and freighters skim over the whitecaps of the distant bay. The vessels resembled tiny dashes and dots. A bright white Morse Code against the waves, the vessels sailed steadily to their next destination.


This post was originally published last spring on Medium.com. Somehow, I never cross-posted it to this blog. Our trip to South Africa happened in 2012; it’s just now that I’m documenting some of our memories—both the memorable and the more forgettable ones—on my blog. Check out my South Africa category for more stories from this trip.

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South Africa

Why staying one night anywhere is never enough: Knysna, South Africa

 

Knysna wanted to tell us a story, but there simply wasn’t time.

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The Knysna Lagoon | Photo: Pixabay

We were nearly ready to leave when the winds began howling at 34 South, the seafood eatery where we had dined on oysters, beef, beer, and cheesecake. Raindrops swiped against the plate glass windows. A gust of wind rocked the rafters. The bartender looked up from his pour. A squall blustered through Knysna, “the jewel of the Garden Route” in the Western Cape of South Africa.

Locking arms, my daughter and I left the restaurant and headed out, hunch-shouldered, toward our waiting minivan that had been rented for our two-week tour of South Africa’s Garden Route.

Pushed by violent gusts of wind, bistro chairs scooted across the wide concrete sidewalks of The Waterfront of Knysna Quays. One flipped and careened across our path. We shrieked. Maritime flags above us whipped and ripped in the straight-line winds.

We found our van and climbed inside, allowing the wind to heave the doors closed. Rain poured and pounded against the roof and windshield.

Our host headed back to Leisure Island, an idyllic residential suburb surrounded by an estuary. We crossed the causeway and looked forward to the warmth of our hotel, Cuningham’s Island Guesthouse, one of many quaint lodges nestled along the isle’s manicured avenues.

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The estuary that surrounds Leisure Island in Knysna. | Photo: M. Yung

We climbed out of our minivan, splashing on the asphalt driveway. Lifting our jeans above our ankles, we bounded down the complex’s brick-lined paths through water four inches deep.

Once near our respective rooms, our party—my in-laws, husband, our daughter, son, and our professional hunter who had planned this portion of the journey as a prelude to an Eastern Cape safari—escaped the rain, retreating to our rooms without the customary pleasantries. On a calm night, we would have discussed the next day’s plans and determined a time to leave in the morning. However, not tonight.

The next morning we would breakfast on eggs, sausages, and tomatoes, and then emerge from the cocoon of Leisure Island.

We would travel the tidy streets of Knysna and notice the affluence of well-maintained homes surrounded by emerald green lawns.

Moments later, we would pass impoverished townships and notice women sorting through piles of clothing on dirt streets that stretched into the distance.

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Township in Knysna | Photo: M. Yung

We would wonder at the disparity. We would question the two extremes.

We spent too little time in Knysna back in 2011. One night anywhere is never enough. This beautiful city wanted to tell us a story—but there simply wasn’t time.

The next evening, we would be in Tsitsikamma, further east on our Garden Route tour. The forecast called for more rain and blustery cold, common for the winter month of June.


I visited South Africa in 2012 and now wish I had written more then about my experiences there. This post is my first attempt to record some details of what I remember. Follow my blog for more stories from this trip.