If I were asked to design a crest symbolizing my adolescent years, I’d be tempted to include an outstretched arm and raised thumb as a central feature, though the thumbs-up gesture might delude people into thinking I was a happy, balanced and upbeat person, in harmony with my surroundings – which I unequivocally wasn’t. On the contrary, those formative years included a painful hodgepodge of confusion, conflict, discord, discontent, self-doubt, and bitter loneliness. I rebelled furiously against the establishment, injustices, educational systems, and societal-political norms and expectations, though my protests were mostly fueled by anger. That said, the open road was my escape route from all the proverbial teenage angst; it was my elusive key to relative liberty. In truth, the times I thumbed along the highways and byways belong to some of the happiest and most meaningful swaths of my life, even if it felt and appeared otherwise. While hitchhiking, I got to know myself, others, and the world, albeit through a naively youthful lens. Those meandering roads merged into one vast gastrointestinal tract that helped me to digest the vagaries of life. And in retrospect, no matter where I went, I felt myself trailing clouds of glory. Viewed in that context the thumbs-up sign does coincide aptly with the symbol of the free and easy rider – if somewhat parasitic.
The first time was as uneventful as it was short-lived, though the measure of guilt I experienced from doing something sinful and illicit – like taking drugs, stealing, or cheating – more than made up for it. I was about twelve at the time, living in Empangeni, Zululand. A group of us were walking along the road when one of my friends suggested we hitchhike into town. Full of bravado, we stuck out our thumbs. To my relief, the cars passed us by. You never know what kind of psychopath might pick you up. We’d heard stories. The moment we spotted our 7th grade teacher, Mr. Botha, drive by on the other side of the road, we dropped our thumbs, hoping he hadn’t seen us. He’d be sure to lecture us on the evils of the world, and probably “cane” us on our buttocks to let his homily sink in. Safely out of sight, we started up again and seconds later a bakkie skidded to a stop. We whooped at the unexpected success – it really works! – and sprinted to the white pick-up truck. The father of a classmate who’d stopped for us shouted, “Hop on,” and we scrambled into the back of the bakkie. Two minutes later he dropped us off at the town center, near the corner café: my maiden voyage with the humble help of my digitus pollex – the first of hundreds, maybe thousands.
I can’t recall hitchhiking again till my fifteenth year: short innocuous trips to the movies, shopping malls, or to the occasional party in our immediate suburban surroundings in northern Johannesburg, mostly with a friend. That changed when I turned sixteen, responding to an inexplicable urge to get out and experience the world. From then on, hitchhiking became a serious mode of transportation. It coincided with my transferal from the local high school in Bryanston to Damelin College, a “cram-college” located in the center of Johannesburg. That alone felt liberating. I let my hair grow (in vindictive defiance to the short back and sides of public school), roamed around town during breaks and free periods, hung out in Wimpy Bars, record stores, or slipped into the Wellington Hotel across the road for a beer. Mostly, I took the bus, but as time went by, I began to hitchhike more often.
That summer I crossed the Rubicon and became a bona fide hitchhiker when I decided to thumb my way to the coast, instead of playing it safe and taking the train (a unique experience in its own right). My parents vehemently opposed my plan and forbade me to go, but the next morning – seeing my insistence – they acquiesced, and I departed, promising to call.
Blessed by beginner’s luck, I caught a ride all the way to Durban with a salesman in a dusty grey Datsun, who barely uttered a word for the entire six-hour drive. That night I slept on the beach near Umhlanga Rocks, just north of Durbs. I woke up in the middle of the night hearing voices whispering nearby. Shadowy figures approached and chucked sand on my sleeping bag. I ignored them, but they inched closer and threw more sand. I had no idea who they were, and I already saw myself getting jumped. When another chunk of sand hit my sleeping bag I instinctively jumped up and shouted, “Fuck off, before I blerry bliksem you! Voetsak, you hear!” putting on a heavy Afrikaans accent to sound more aggressive. Instantly, I regretted my impulsive outbreak, bracing for a pummeling. Instead, they retreated, mumbling, Sorry man, we thought you were someone else. Apart from that incident on the beach I remember little from that trip, merging as it did with all the other hitchhiking trips through South Africa over the next five years.
Initially, my prime motivation was to get around for free, but with time I discovered that there’s a whole ethos around hitchhiking, which increased in import the more I unfurled my thumb. The unknown became part of the thrill: Who’s going to stop? How long will it take? How far can they take you? What kind of car, vehicle, or mode of transport will lift you to the next leg of your journey? Will it be comfortable? Safe? What conversations will emerge? What lessons learned? What hurdles overcome? Each trip became a pilgrimage of sorts. I went so far as to consider it a form of initiation, spiritual awakening, a rite of passage. Then again, I was and remain a romantic at heart. The open road was my holy land – à la Sainte Terre – and, in the alleged spirit of John Muir, I became a Sainte Terre-er, sauntering along the myriad roadsides with my magic thumb, instead of a hiking staff.
The risk factor is ever present and all one can do is Trust. A friend of mine (drummer in a band I played in after the acrimonious breakup of Tokolosh), who’d missed his ride and hardly ever hitchhiked, was killed instantly when the car that had picked him up rolled over and crashed into a ditch close his home. The driver got off unscathed. We’ve all had our close calls.
Once, I hitchhiked with my good friend Pierre through the Zulu highlands when an Indian from Durban picked us up. He was in a foul mood, complaining about his job, his marriage, the apartheid system, the weather, and whatever his associative thinking chanced upon. And the more he vented, the faster he drove. Pierre and I looked at each other, not daring to utter a word. The winding roads through the steep hills narrowed, but instead of slowing down he took delight in swerving round the corners, the tires screeching, while his vitriol against the world escalated. To underscore his venomous remarks he lit a cigarette, puffed loudly, and stepped on the accelerator. We knew it was serious when he yelled, “What’s the use of living? We’re better off dead! Can’t trust anybody.” We held on tightly as he screeched through the hairpins. Why had he even picked us up? Was it so he could release his ire openly? Get back at some white boys? The sheer drop to my left appeared increasingly perilous as we sped up the mountain – certain death should the car plunge over the edge. Instead of slowing down after reaching the summit he accelerated, racing downhill toward the next bend in the road. The inevitable happened: the car slammed into the guardrail and spun into the opposite lane, tailspinning up onto the embankment, barely missing a tree. “Fuck-fuck-fuuuuck!” he screamed as if it were our fault. He swerved wildly and headed straight toward the next twist in the road. At the last moment he veered, skidded, and bashed into another guardrail. I thought we’d roll over, but miraculously he steadied the car, slammed on the brakes, came to a stop, and shouted, “Get out.” We were only too happy to oblige. He didn’t bother to assess the damage to his car, but sped off, the back bumper dangling like a broken limb. As we traipsed along, we noticed that not all the hairpins had guardrails, and without them we wouldn’t have survived.
Then there was the close call on one of my return trips to Jo’burg. I’d just met another hitchhiker who wanted to tag along for the rest of the trip, which tends to happen (not always welcome). It was a rainy day, and we stood under a bridge outside Laingsburg (Cape Province), when a convoy of brand-new Isuzu pick-up trucks appeared. We stuck out our thumbs out of habit, not expecting that they’d stop, but to our surprise they did – all five. Never have so many vehicles stopped for me. The convoy was on its way to Johannesburg. The chances of ever getting a ride for a distance of over 700 miles are slim in the best of circumstances. What a lucky break. We’d be as good as home. All the African drivers were forthcoming and friendly, assuring us we’d help them stay awake if we joined them. The plan was to rotate from truck to truck every hour or so. I let my thumb-buddy choose with whom he wanted to drive with first and he chose the pilot truck. I climbed into the truck right behind.
The rains worsened and the roads got increasingly slick. Yet, the lead car barely slowed down, which meant that the rest didn’t slow down either. The loss of traction was obvious. On a number of occasions, I noticed the truck in front slipping and sliding precariously. “Did you see that?” I asked, hoping my driver would slow down, which he did, but only for a while, before speeding up again to catch up. Suddenly, the lead truck aquaplaned. In the driver’s futile attempt to gain control, the truck swerved and spun off the road into a ditch, rolling over onto its roof. I feared the worst – blood-spattered bodies slumped over and mangled in the cab. I couldn’t help thinking that I’d almost sat in that truck. We all came to a stop, jumped out, and ran to help. To our amazement they both clambered out the shattered windows unharmed, except for some minor scratches and bruises. The visibly shocked African who’d stopped for us, apologized profusely, urged us to move on, and implored us not to tell anyone that they’d picked us up, least of all the police. I felt guilty and sorry for him and the others. Maybe nothing would have happened had they not stopped for us. We promised, bade them a glum farewell, and continued to walk down the rainy road till we lost sight of them. I cannot recall who picked us up next, but what I do recall is that we spent an uncomfortable night beside the road and that, on the following morning, as we scouted around for the most optimal place to stand, we came across a body lying in a shallow gulley. We both convinced ourselves that he was breathing, and not seeing any signs of violence, we left him there. In retrospect, we should have checked on him. Maybe he was wounded or sick, in need of help. And yes, maybe he was dead. Guilt in all shapes and sizes builds up over the years.
Close to a quarter of the rides I got in South Africa were in the back of a bakkie. I didn’t mind. It saved me making conversation, and I could enjoy the scenes unimpeded – the smells, the temperature, and occasional cloudbursts. Some drivers picked up other hitchhikers on the way, which made for some jovial times, swapping stories of the road and exchanging travel tips. Sundry memories rise of happy times sitting on the wheel-humps or standing up front, holding onto the bakkie’s bulkhead, letting the warm winds rush through my hair and enjoying the landscape flitting by. On cold days I’d slip into my sleeping bag, hugged up against one of the sidewalls or wedged comfortably between other hitchhikers. I only recall one unpleasant bakkie ride.
It occurred while thumbing through the Swartkop Mountains. A slow-moving bakkie stopped right next to me, saving me the usual run. As far as I can remember I have never rejected a ride (hard to believe), but I almost declined when I saw a newly slaughtered cow sprawled across the back of the pick-up truck, its legs dangling out the side and back. I couldn’t spot a place to sit, except on the carcass, and the nauseating stench made me want to retch. Reluctantly I clambered on, my tyre-takkies sullied and slipping in the coagulating blood. Moreover, it was chilly, uncomfortable, and each time the Boer turned a corner I had to steady myself, gripping onto the tail, the rope tied around its legs, or the bakkie’s bloodied reinforced railings. Throughout the undulating drive my gaze kept on fixing on the wide-eyed stare of the dead cow.
Over the years I’ve enjoyed all sorts of vehicles, though they were mostly the run of the mill sedans, coupes, hatchbacks, station wagons, and other compact cars. Convertibles and super swanky models were a rarity, though it happened on occasion, such as when Pierre and I got a midnight ride in a Rolls-Royce, or many years later when my future wife and I angled a luxury Bentley on our way up to London. Other vehicles also stick out, like when – on one of my numerous trips through the Karoo – a black hearse stopped for me. The undertaker was on his way to a farm to collect the body. It was a pleasant and comfortable trip, but there was something macabre about driving through the semi-desert in a hearse with a coffin in the back. Part of me wondered whether there actually was a body in there. On a trip to Cape Town with my friend Fuzz (a bass guitarist with whom I often played music), an 18-wheeler stopped for us. The fatigued African truckdriver asked us to drive the rest of the way to Cape Town. Fuzz jumped at the opportunity, though he’d never driven such a massive semi before. “It’s easy, the road goes on straight through the Karoo for hours,” the truckdriver assured us (the Great and Little Karoo have played a major role in my hitchhiking ventures). “No bends, no turns, just straight. And instead of four, you have eight gears.” With that he crawled into his sleeping cab behind the front seats and only reappeared when we arrived on the outskirts of Cape Town.
On another occasion, while camping in northern Zululand, a bus filled to capacity with rural Zulus stopped for us. The jovial driver and conductor tied our backpacks securely onto the roof, together with other precariously placed pieces of luggage, and invited us on board, free of charge. We joined the Zulus and a menagerie of goats, chickens and other livestock inside. No “white” bus would ever have done the same for a couple of young Africans during those apartheid days. It left a lasting impression of gratefulness. Then there were the odd rides on motorbikes, tractors, and yes, a squad car, though that does not count, because Pierre and I got picked up against our will – only to be dropped off beside the road like garbage after their futile search for drugs.
Though I did get a car when I was eighteen – a vintage 1964 cream colored VW Bug – I still hitchhiked to the University of the Witwatersrand at least half the time, mainly to save on gas money. For a while I also got a motorbike (200hp Suzuki twin), but it was no fun winding my way through the congested morning traffic along Jan Smuts Avenue, and when it broke down and needed major repairs, I didn’t bother to get it fixed. Once again I resorted to my fallback thumb.
It became a routine. I’d walk up to the top of Peter’s Place (the road), stick out my thumb, and within minutes had a ride that more often than not shuttled me all the way to Wits. It was preferable, faster, and more interesting than the tedious bus rides. I had my regulars: There was the judge, who drove a spiffy Jag, who didn’t say much, but had a sonorous voice and spoke with an English accent. I always wondered how many people he’d sentenced to death by hanging. During my freshman year a TA from the engineering department often gave me a ride. We laughed a lot and fell right into discussing a wide range of subjects from politics to literature to religion. I missed her when she graduated. For a while a taciturn psychology major with dark intense eyes picked me up. A voluminous moustache hid his pronounced cleft lip that revealed itself when he spoke, which was sporadic. The only thing I recall him saying was that he’d once lost his memory for three days. When it returned, he was lying naked and bloody on a beach, hundreds of miles from home. “Yup, never did find out what happened during those three days” adding after a lengthy pause, “Since then I’ve been watching myself go mad.”
Then there was the bank clerk whose first words were, “I’ve just farted, so you’ll want to roll down your window,” lighting a cigarette to hide the smell. He turned out to be my most reliable ride. His rundown Toyota was littered with garbage and smelled of stale cigarette smoke, mold, and spoiled milk. Then, after almost two years, he didn’t show up anymore. Months later, just before the end of my third year, he picked me up again. I barely recognized him. First off, he was driving a spiffy new BMW, and he’d permed his hair. In contrast to the inaugural day of the fart, the AC cooled car smelled fresh and new, with a waft of Old Spice aftershave – no trace of cigarette smoke. Not one soiled wrapper, pizza box, paper cup, girly magazine, or beer bottle littered the floor. He even spoke differently: slower, softer, and with greater articulation. He wore a three-piece suit with a pressed shirt and golden cufflinks. He explained that he’d worked his way up in the company, saved money, and bought “this here BMW,” lightly tapping the steering wheel. Furthermore, he’d married and was expecting. I still remember him saying, “I never thought I’d make it this far, but it goes to show what hard work and determination can do.” He gave me a patronizing look. “Look where I am now,” and he patted the steering wheel again, smiling smugly. “Maybe one day you can get to where I am now. You’ll have to work hard. Remember that.” He never stopped for me again, passing me by without the slightest sidelong glance, now that he’d stepped up in the ranks.
The waiting game! When I read, then saw Beckett’s play, Waiting for Godot, I had to smile. I understood that play at its most basic level; I’d experienced it at its core – the waiting. Getting stuck in place for interminably long stretches of time – that’s a huge slice of the thumber’s life. Hitchhiking schools patience, willy-nilly. I am by nature an impatient person, always in edgy pursuit of purpose. Any impediments to my goals are cause for deep-set frustrations. Then again, the best things in life come with patience. Furthermore, you’re never in full control, always at the mercy of chance or luck – though providence plays a part, of that I am convinced. Be it as it may, waiting beside the road for that goddamn car is part and parcel of the hitchhiker’s waiting game; and there’s no other way to see it – or treat it – but as a game (with benefits). Every time you hear or see a vehicle it’s like the ever-elusive Godot sending signals that he’ll appear, though he never does – just like those Godotian cars that never stop. Even a short wait can feel eternal, and one starts to have increasingly inane internal conversations like Vladimir and Estragon. I have often wondered how many hours of my life I’ve spent beside the road, waiting out the abominable stasis, experiencing the push and pull between serene acceptance and maddening frustrations. It’s a constant tension that easily leads to inner conflict, let alone debilitating anxiety. But patience is a virtue, and letting go and practicing divine tolerance help – as does singing; there’s nothing like belting out a song in the middle of the bundu, with not a soul for miles around. We have to learn how to make light of that inescapable shadow. It accompanies us every time we stick out our thumb – our Siamese twin that easily turns into a predatory doppelgänger. It’s ever-present, no matter if the wait is short or long. Bottom line: we have to come to terms with waiting.
Apart from waiting, the situation often demanded as much time hiking as hitching, like when people dropped me off at the outskirts of a town or far from my destination. Or I simply got bored with waiting around and moved on just to get a change of scene. A representative incident happened early on in my hitchhiking days after a sharp confrontation with my high school English teacher who had the audacity to cut my hair for circumventing Damelin College’s hair regulations. Nowadays I could have sued him. Though we could grow our hair longer than in public schools, it could not go beyond the collar. I had evaded the issue by curling my hair to make it appear shorter, but was finally caught out at a random hair inspection. “What have we here?” he’d asked sarcastically, unfurling my hair, after which he sent me to his office where he grabbed a pair of scissors and butchered my locks. Needless to say, I walked right out of school, caught the next bus home, packed my backpack and hitchhiked to Tonquani Gorge in the Magaliesberg, where I stayed the night in the company of a troop of noisy baboons. On my long walk back along the twenty-mile dirt road, I didn’t even hear or see a car, except for a brief glimpse of a tractor turning into a driveway. I passed the time reading The Catcher in the Rye, identifying with Holden Caulfield, the protagonist, especially against the backdrop of having had my hair chopped off by a person of authority – a teacher who should have been a role model. That was the first time I spent more time hiking than hitching. From then on walking became standard practice, which also relieved the tedium of waiting.
Another time, one late afternoon, having found an appropriate place to stand at a crossroads outside a town somewhere in the Cape Province, a group of young brightly dressed “coloured” girls and women walked by. As soon as they saw me, they warned me that the men would soon be returning home from work and if they saw me, they’d not only rob me, but beat me up, maybe even kill me. “Keep moving as far and fast as you can from here, because you’re standing at the crossroads to the township,” and they pointed down the dirt road that forked off the main road. “You’d better hurry.” I saw real concern in their eyes. I immediately followed their advice, putting as much distance between me and the “coloured” township as possible, walking till a car finally stopped for me. I’ve never forgotten those women, sent by Hecate, Goddess of crossroads to protect me. I’m a firm believer that hitchhikers have a deity that takes care of them.
Over time I’d devised a little game, which I mostly only played late at night when I was desperate. After hours of waiting I would set myself a limit: If I’m not picked up by the tenth car I will give up and sleep beside the road. And then I’d count, one set of approaching headlamps after the other. This method has worked for me on numerous occasions, which underscores my belief in the hitchhiker’s deity, who protects and cares for the car-angling ramblers, emphasized by the number of times the tenth and last car stopped for me. Granted, sometimes I did extend it to 15 or 20 cars. Nonetheless, I did have to sleep in a ditch or under a bridge a few times.
Twice I had to wait for longer than a day, and both those times occurred in the Great Karoo. The first time happened on my return journey with my friend Fuzz (who drove the 18-wheeler). We’d already spent one night next to the road in the semi-desert terrain. By midday we were still stuck in the same spot. During the long wait he clued me up on the fundamental aspects of Buddhism. In turn I told him of the insights I’d gained through my studies of Madam Blavatsky, theosophy, and anthroposophy. In between we brewed rooibos tea on the blue Cadac Cooker, ate stale bread, shared a Milo bar, and counted ants. A bakkie did stop for us in the early afternoon. The farmer explained he was only going a few miles down the road, but we hopped on anyway, just to get a change of scene. The place he dropped us off was indistinguishable from the previous spot, ants and all. More endless hours elapsed and we ate the last remnants of our meagre victuals. By now we wondered whether we’d ever get out of there. To pass the time we fantasized about the future, dreaming up outrageous scenarios of all the things we’d do, which turned into mawkish confessionals about our secret desires and the bad things we’d done, after which we lapsed into sullen silence. A quick but stunning sunset broke the monotony, though the cold and darkness set in almost immediately. When night descended around us, we could see the headlamps from miles away. Luckily, I usually wore a white shirt, so I stood in front of Fuzz and waved my arm to be noticed. We’d already resigned ourselves to spending the night beside the road when a Volkswagen Kombi stopped and a friendly young couple invited us aboard. From one moment to the next we’d stepped from the desolate, silent and empty Karoo into a party in full swing. Music blared; drinks, joints, and food made the rounds; and for the next few hours we became the best of friends with the other hitchhikers that lay sprawled in the back of the bus. For a night we became a likeminded fellowship of hitchhikers, something that I’d never experienced before nor would again. Eventually, we dozed off till we reached Johannesburg in the early morning hours. I think fondly of that night.
The second time took place during my first year at Wits University, exacerbated by the vow I’d taken to walk barefoot for a year. After watching the Zeffirelli film Brother Sun, Sister Moon about Saint Francis, I had decided to unfetter my feet in emulation of that compassionate Saint. Now, close to a year later, and during the three-week winter break in June/July, I decided on a solo trip down to Cape Town – all barefoot. An unlucky star accompanied that trip. The first mishap ensued within the first hour. I got dropped off near the main highway, southwest of Johannesburg in proximity of Soweto Township, morning smoke rising from the shacks. As I walked toward the highway’s entrance ramp I inadvertently stepped into a pile of broken glass. A piece got stuck in my left heel. In between waiting for cars, I tried to extract it with my pocketknife, but it only lodged itself more deeply. I gave up my useless attempt when a bakkie stopped for me. I hopped on, hoping the shard would naturally expel itself over time.
On the third day and about twenty cars later I reached Cape Town. At Clifton Beach, I bathed the gash and tried once more to pry the shard from the wound, but without success. Tired, despondent, and hungry I walked to the apartment of an old friend nearby whom I wanted to look up. I secretly hoped to stay with him for a few days. Hearing music, I knocked, opened the door, and shouted, “Howzit Daniel, guess what?” A pretty thirty-something woman and her young daughter and son looked up at me from the sofa, taken aback by the sudden intrusion. I apologized profusely, hearing that he’d moved away months ago. Not knowing what else to do I hitchhiked to Sandy Bay near Llandudno and hobbled along the narrow trail for about 20 minutes to the nudist beach where I wouldn’t be arrested for vagrancy. I’d stayed there before (and would again). I kept to myself, convalesced, and after a couple of days felt fit enough to see if I could locate some of my other acquaintances from the time when I’d lived in Cape Town, but to no avail. So much for my plans to go clubbing, visit old haunts, discover different places, climb Table Mountain, and make new friends. But the weather was good and I enjoyed some relaxing hours on various beaches, frequenting cafes and looking over the ocean, my left heel throbbing throughout. At last I succumbed and hit the road home.
The return trip turned out to be even more miserable than the journey down: got soaked with heavy rains, slept in a trench and under a bridge in the Hex River Valley, and once again got stranded in the endless expanse of the Great Karoo, except this time it was winter. Not only was it a particularly cold midwinter’s night, but the constant gusts of wind chilled me to the bone. At a forlorn and littered rest area I found a modicum of relief under some scraggly trees, blossoming with flapping plastic bags. The next morning at dawn I took up my position next to the road again, the flimsy blue sleeping bag wrapped tightly around my frozen feet. During that frigid night I decided, once and for all, that I’d had enough of going barefoot. I wasn’t a Saint. I had nothing to prove, and – it must be said – almost a year had elapsed since the day I ceremoniously unfettered my feet in holy emulation. I’d kept my promise for the most part, but as yet, I was barefoot still and needed to get home.
It took another five hours before a young Boer with a crew cut on his way to Bloemfontein gave me a ride. To escape the boredom of the wait I started walking, mile merging into mile, the Doppler effect of the passing cars and trucks feeding my melancholia. One car did stop, but when the man saw that I wasn’t a luscious girl, he shouted, “Cut your fokken hair,” speeding off with squealing tires, leaving me in a cloud of dirt and dust (not that that hadn’t happened to me before or would again).
After that I flopped down on my backpack and no longer bothered to get up when cars appeared on the horizon. I just stuck out my thumb, halfheartedly. I was beyond caring, and didn’t even notice that a car had not only stopped but was reversing toward me, saving me the run. The short unshaven man was visibly tipsy, but was heading straight for Jozies, which, in effect, would end my long wait. I did, however, wonder about my safety, since we still had over two hundred miles to go, and he kept swigging from his bottle of whisky, smoking one cigarette after another, Texan. And when the bottle was upended, he stopped and bought a bunch of tiny liquor bottles at a gas station, throwing them like candy on the dashboard. “Help yourself, my china.” Though I wasn’t much of a drinker, I thought, what the heck, and downed a Smirnoff vodka, which dispelled my melancholia immediately.
His driving became progressively erratic the closer we got to Johannesburg. I offered to drive, but he simply laughed, shook his head, and wrung the neck of another micro bottle. He told me that he’d grown up on a farm in the Karoo and had just come from a family visit. “Jy weet, I was going to stay for two weeks, but after three days, s’truths, I got so gatvol bored…had to waai right out of there and get back to the city.” Like him, I’d truncated my trip, but for different reasons. As we approached the city, he got increasingly excited. “See the smog over Jozies…it’s a regte welcome home flag. Look at the skyline – it’s like the arms of my bokkie reaching out to me, singing, ‘come lie in my bed.’ Ag, man, I love the smell of the city. I love its pollution. I dinkum do. It’s like smelling the sweaty armpits of a woman, the swamp between her legs. That’s what I’m going to enjoy tonight. Can you smell it?” and he grabbed the last of the little variegated bottles.
That evening, when I eventually made it home, I extracted the glass with the help of a box cutter and pincers, wondering whether the trip had been a colossal waste of time. No, if nothing else, I’d had an indelible self-confrontation. On the road, we are thrust together with people we otherwise would never meet or choose to be with. That much is clear. In short, more than getting around, it’s about the people we meet on the way – a pertinent metaphor for life. It’s about the intriguing diversity of humanity. And we meet all sorts, good and bad, though in my experience, the good hold sway.
When I hitchhiked to and fro between Randburg and Johannesburg, I generally made it in two or three stops (unless I got rides with my regulars to Wits University). The first, starting from Bryanston, took me along William Nicol Drive to Hyde Park Corner (a small but cozy little shopping mall); then down Jan Smuts Avenue to Rosebank; and from there past Zoo Lake to Wits or the center of Johannesburg. I must have done that trip hundreds of times. Apart from going to Wits, there were the trips to Hillbrow or downtown to the Carlton Center, which was the place to go to in the seventies. Clubs, bars, movies, eating out, concerts, ice skating, or just hanging out – there was always a good reason to head into town. Those trips were mostly uneventful, but a few stand out.
While standing at my usual corner in Rosebank, a dilapidated old rusty black sports car stopped for me. The front passenger seat was loose and whenever he accelerated or put on the breaks I shot back or forth, forcing me to grab onto the sides.
After that kinetic introduction he asked, “Where to?”
“Hillbrow, huh?” He paused, stepped on the gas, causing me to lurch back. “Do you take drugs?” I hesitated, not knowing whether he wanted me to say yes or no. He had scraggly oily hair, wore a stained and shabby leather jacket over a torn T-shirt, and his jeans were faded. I decided on no, not wanting to get involved in any kind of drug consumption with him, not that I partook much of anything. “So, you don’t have any drugs on you.”
“No, nothing,” and to make myself clear, I said, “I’m not into that sort of thing.”
“Well, you’re lucky, because otherwise I’d have arrested and clobbered you, eksé. You know why the seat is broken?” and to emphasize his question he slammed on the brakes so that I slid forward into the dashboard, saved only by my quick reaction.
“Because last night I whacked the guy so hard that it broke the seat – and his nose. He was stoned out of his mind, so he didn’t feel much, but he’s hurting now,” and he laughed. “I’m an undercover narcotics officer. I clean up Hillbrow, but it’s a losing battle. It makes me so kwaai, that I fokken have to donner them. They blerry deserve it.” He gave me a sideways glance. “You look like you take drugs.”
“I know. It’s annoying. I hate being labelled.” He dropped me off near the Hillbrow Tower.
At another time, I was hitchhiking at the same place in Rosebank when a biker walked up to me in full “Grim Reapers” regalia. His bike had broken down and he had to get to town. “Can I join you?” I wasn’t going to say ‘no.’ “Hey, look at my tattoo.”
“Wow, what happened?”
“Got fucken infected.” He laughed. “But she’s crazy sexy. Check her out. She’s my cherry,” and he pointed to the curvy big-boobed beauty squatting naked on a motorbike, her curvaceous booty popping into the sky, her long hair streaming in the wind. He flexed his arms so that she appeared to move. But his upper arm was red, swollen, and yellow goo and puss oozed from her orifices, breasts and hair. “She’s got a bad case of syphilis,” and he laughed at his own joke.
“You should get that seen to.”
“For sure. Today…so, how long before we get a ride?”
“Depends, a few minutes, but never more than half an hour.”
“That long. Shit. I crashed my bike two days ago, totaled.” At that moment two other hitchhikers stuck out their thumbs up the road from us. “Hey, they’ll get a ride before us. Let’s go and fuck those poepols up.” I had no desire to get into a fight. Besides, they looked really friendly.
“This is a much better place. Trust me. I stand here all the time. They’re standing just below the robots*. Nobody wants to stop when they turn green, and besides, there’s no good place to stop. Down here the road widens.” At that moment the lights turned green and two lanes of cars rushed forward, passing them by – and us.
“Why don’t the fuckers stop,” and he flipped off the cars and shouted, “Go fuck yourselves.” At that moment a car sped through the yellow light, passed the other two but screeched to a halt for us.
“See, told you,” I said, more relieved than triumphant. I jumped out early in Braamfontein to escape his company.
You meet all types while hitchhiking but some people stick to you like burs. South of Durban on my way down the coast I met a guy heading for Margate. Over his baggy green dungarees, he wore a vintage British army trench coat, which made him look even more massive than he was. He had a round freckled face with a tousled beard, wispy hair, and a perpetual smile. And he talked incessantly. After an exhausting hour on the road with him I knew I had to get away from him, fast. He, on the other hand, took a fancy to me. As we reached Port Shepstone, I told him that I was actually going to Plettenberg Bay and not to Margate.
“Kiff, I’ll come with you. I’ve always wanted to go there.” I should have known.
“You know that we’d have to hitchhike all the way through the Trasnskei, yeah? It could take days.”
“Who cares.” He shrugged and laughed. “I’ve got time. And don’t worry, I’ll look after you,” and he whisked out a pair of nunchakus and began to twirl them around at a tremendous speed and too close to my head for comfort. “I’ve watched every Bruce Lee film many times over. I can use these fuckers,” and he whacked a nearby STOP sign, leaving a dent in the letter O. “Nobody messes with me. Some have tried…they’ll never walk the same again. I’ve got another pair and can use them both together,” and he whacked the STOP sign again in fast succession, making the battered O look like a grimacing smiley face. “So, Plettenberg Bay? Cool.” So much for my attempt to get rid of him.
We got to Kokstad with ease, but only made it to Umtata by sundown. No use to continue hitchhiking at such a late hour. I recalled the comfortable night I’d spent at the Royal Hotel the first time I’d passed through Umtata and the Transkei when we moved from Cape Town to Empangeni. Had I been alone I would have splurged and stayed there the night, for old time’s sake. But Nunchaku Man had barely any money and I already paid for a liter of milk, jam donuts, and a few strips of biltong that he just plonked on the counter.
“We’ll sleep at the Police Station,” he said. “I’ve done it before. Come on.” I’d also done it before, the time Pierre and I had hitchhiked back from our memorable trip to Blyde River Canyon, in northeastern South Africa. Though the canyon is spectacular, I didn’t have good memories of staying at the police station in Lydenberg, mainly because I’d suffered through the worst case of diarrhea ever, without the benefit of a toilet in our cell. Nonetheless, I tagged along, swayed by the big man’s enthusiasm. It worked. We got a cell, though it only had one bed (and no toilet). “First dibs,” and he flung himself down on the creaky mattress. I made do on the hard cement floor, wondering whether it wouldn’t have been better to spend the night in a ditch.
Next morning, we got a ride in a Chrysler Valiant, filled with other Africans on their way to work. They didn’t seem to mind making room for two more white boys. The driver, as huge as Nunchaku Man, had the aura of a chief. I offered him some money, but he declined. He dropped us off in a beautiful area of the Transkei, with rolling hills all around. I don’t recall the other cars that picked us up, but I do recall hours spent beside the road with him trying to teach me how to use the nunchakus, which resulted in me getting bruised all over to the delight of Big Boy. Once we’d reached Plettenburg Bay, I hoped that he’d finally move on. I said that I was going to get a room at a bed and breakfast, explaining that I didn’t have enough money for the two of us. He accompanied me anyway, and when he found out that they charged by the room and not the number of people, he joined me. He wasn’t so stupid after all. I inquired discreetly what his plans were after Plettenberg Bay and he said that he’d go back home to Pietermaritzburg, inviting me to join him. I declined and the next afternoon I bade him farewell.
“I thought we’d stay here for a few days.”
“Changed my mind.”
“So, where are we going?”
“Not we. Me!” I was miffed. “You’re going home to Pietermaritzburg, and I’m…well, I’m not sure, but I’ll most likely head south along the Garden route for a while, maybe all the way to Cape Town.”
“Sounds like fun. You’re in luck. I don’t need to be back home yet. I’ll just join you.” To my chagrin he joined me all the way to Cape Town, and I had to continue putting up with his constant jabbering, his silly ideas, his nunchakus that kept whirling around my head, and the loud childish laughter. In Cape Town we made for Sandy Bay again, which delighted him, immediately doffing all his clothes and jumping into the waves. Spotting some seals at the far end of the Bay he returned and said, “I’m going to clobber a seal. Want to come?”
“You can’t do that! Not in front of all these people. It’s cruel.”
“So what! It’s only a seal. And I don’t have to kill it, just whack it a few times. Practice my nunchaku skills.”
“Okay, you do that. I’ll just hang out here.”
“And why are you still dressed? You gotta get in the nude, dude.” The naked giant laughed at his own rhyme and trotted off, swinging his nunchakus, while checking out the naked chicks. After ten pulsing seconds, I jumped to my feet, grabbed my backpack and ran off up the trail. Before turning the corner, I looked back. The seals had already swum out into the ocean as Big Pink stood walloping the incoming waves with his nunchakus. There was something pathetic about the sight, and I felt sorry for him on some level. I hitched a ride into Cape Town and straight on to the N1. It was eerily reminiscent to my previous departure from Cape Town, only that I didn’t have a glass shard stuck in my foot anymore. I would have stayed a few more days in Cape Town, but I wasn’t going to risk crossing paths with Nunchaku Man again.
One gets an almost clairvoyant ability to “read the cars”: what kind of vehicles will or won’t stop. It’s a given that Government vehicles will pass you by (unless the police apprehend you for vagrancy or suspicion of carrying drugs). The same holds true for swanky Mercedes roadsters, E-type Jags, Porches, or other luxury models (young pretty women have told me otherwise). Company cars, older couples, families, are still infrequent stoppers, but you never know. Your appearance and who you are makes a difference too. Because of my long hair I had more trouble than the ubiquitous army recruits with their duffel bags, desperate to get home for their weekend pass. Whenever I saw one of these national service peeps, I patiently stepped aside, knowing that I’d only have to wait a few minutes before someone would stop to give them a lift. No use competing with them. Everybody wants to pick up a troepie. Yet, I looked quite harmless – as some people told me when they picked me up, though I never knew whether that was a compliment or not.
It became a habit to peer at the initials on the number plates, depending where I was headed and where I stood. The first letter stood for the province: N for Natal, O for Orange Free State, T for Transvaal, and C for the Cape. Thus, ND stood for Durban, NUF for Empangeni (Natal, Umfolosi), NZ for Mtunzini, NP for Pietermaritzburg, OB for Bloemfontein, TJ for Johannesburg, CA for Cape Town, and so on (of, course that’s all changed now). If you were trying to get to Johannesburg and you were standing outside Lydenburg in the Transvaal, you’d basically ignore the TAE (Lydenburg) number plates and focus on the TJ plates. Or alternatively, you could write the initials of your destination on a piece of carboard, such as “TJ,” something I rarely did, because I’d heard that it was off-putting to some people and could potentially limit the number of cars that might stop for you.
For the most part I was a decent denizen of the road. Once, however, while hitching in the Free State, a convoy of army trucks passed me by. I didn’t bother to stick out my thumb, and just remained perched on my backpack. The last truck, filled with recruits, started jeering at me, calling me a long-haired hippy, poesie papgat, moffie, and other nasty things. On impulse, I got up and flipped them off, igniting an immediate and explosive roar of cumulative anger, some jumping up, and others banging on the window for the driver to stop. What the fuck have I just done! I thought to myself, looking around and realizing there was no place to hide – nothing but a wild expanse of dry flat grassland. Besides, they’d outrun me within minutes. I resigned and braced myself for a vicious beating. Unbelievably, the brown army truck just kept going, most likely not wanting to be left behind in the convoy. I was so thankful that I almost flipped them off again in triumph, but refrained from tempting fate.
Minutes later, an archeologist who’d studied at Wits University stopped and gave me a ride in his Kombi Bus for a few hundred miles. He was listening to a tape of Leonard Cohen and began to tell me all about that Canadian poet and singer-songwriter, which helped me to regain my inner equilibrium after that close encounter with the SADF – South African Defense Force. There was something immensely comforting about listening to the soothing and sweetly melancholic songs, while attending to the soft-spoken archeologist expounding on their meanings. To this day, whenever I hear or listen to “Hallelujah,” “Suzanne,” or “So Long, Marianne,” I also have to think of him.
When I finally got my military call-up papers and could no longer defer my national service, I decided to take one last trip before skipping the country. That summer, early December, I hitched down to Port Edward, south of Margate, where I met up with James and his girlfriend, Jane, with whom I’d studied at Wits University. Every part of that trip was a moment of farewell. I even took pleasure in the prolonged waiting periods along the road. The three of us hiked the approximately hundred miles south to Port St. Johns. Jane had lost her shoes, and in empathy with her Keith and I unfettered our feet and walked the entire stretch barefoot, something I was used to after my year of walking barefoot. Most of it was along the beach, though we braved rain, rocks, and murky rivers – becoming one with nature and the unique mood of the coastal Transkei, conscious, all the while, that I most likely wouldn’t set foot on African soil for many years to come. Arriving in Port St. Johns about ten days later, we stayed the night in the local hotel before parting ways.
I took the bus north to Lusikisiki (only white person) from where I hitchhiked back to Port Edward, up to Durban, and inland to Johannesburg. It went relatively smoothly, except when four guys, drunk and stoned out of their minds, picked me up near Ladysmith. The car was a “hothouse” of intoxicating fumes, and I got high just sitting there. They lit up one joint after another (Durban Poisons), laughing, roaring, and singing off-key throughout, while passing bottles of whisky, gin, and beer around, all of which I refused. They didn’t hold it against me, but their erratic driving through the mountainous terrain worried me. Luckily, an unexpected traffic jam, forced them to slow down. Traffic jam, out here in the bundu? As we crawled along and rounded a corner, lights flashed. “Fuck! Cops,” the driver shouted, coming to a stop. “Snuff the zols, hide the dagga, stack away the booze.” I already saw myself busted for drugs. As we waited, one of them got out to investigate. He returned, quipping, “No worries, they’re just looking for someone.” It didn’t change the fact that the car was stashed with illicit stuff, and that they were clearly wasted, including myself to some degree. When we finally reached the cops, they peered through the window and waved us on without a second thought. Farther on, we passed a group of Africans handcuffed and huddled together beside the road, guarded by more cops. I felt sorry for them, wondering what they’d done, if anything. Had we been black, they’d have arrested us for possession of illegal drugs and driving while intoxicated. Apartheid was alive and well.
Feeling nauseous, I made some lame excuse to be dropped off at the next intersection. They obliged and roared off. For a long while I stood alone and motionless on the deserted road, met by the tremendous stillness all around. Gradually I lifted my head and stared up at the starry southern sky. The light of the half-moon augmented the magnitude of the mountainous region around me. The silence and fresh air stood in stark contrast to the frenetic hour spent in the hothouse car. As I peered up into the night, recognizing the ever-reliable constellations, I felt my soul responding to its creative power, and I was overcome by a rare sense of comfort and self that I’d never experienced before – a liberating epiphanic moment where I realized I was indeed a microcosm of the all-encompassing macrocosm. Instead of feeling like a dust mite in the vast expanse of the firmament, I felt my entire being as an integral part of the All.
I experienced that nocturnal moment – standing there alone on the road between the coastal lowlands and the interior highlands – like a baptism of my fledgling Self. I was 21 at the time and my life was about to change irrevocably. I did not expect anybody to pick me up at this late hour, stuck in the middle of the escarpment to the Highveld, but somebody did, and I made it back home. That ended my last tour before I absconded to Europe.
During the first few months in Basel, Switzerland, I did no hitchhiking at all. My foremost focus was to get an apartment, find a job, make money, and get acclimatized. Besides, the public transport system was excellent. Soon enough, however, I resorted to thumbing around locally. The first major hitchhiking trip happened on impulse.
More than a year had passed and I’d moved to the Black Forest, Germany. That summer I hopped on a train to pick grapes in Southern France. However, arriving in the Côtes de Provence wine region where I’d planned to meet a friend, I discovered that I’d lost the exact address of the vineyard. Without my friend, the idea of working on a vineyard lost its appeal, though I had no desire to return home immediately. The warm and inviting Mediterranean stirred my sense of adventure and I decided to take advantage of the situation and hitchhike along the coast all the way to Portugal. Besides, I’d saved some money to keep me afloat for a few weeks, and I’d only wanted to work on the vineyard to get to know the girl I’d met while still living in Basel.
While spending the night in the park in St. Tropez, I met up with a short and stocky hitchhiker from Canada with black unkempt hair, who sported a large Canadian Maple Leaf and a lightning bolt Kiss logo on his backpack. He was a “Hey Dude” kind of guy, relishing his first trip through Europe, eager to “taste” the mademoiselles. He wore tight-fitting faded jeans with a metal studded black belt. He’d discovered Gauloises cigarettes, and every time he lit up, he’d spread his legs, take a match and strike it on his zipper, singing, “Come on baby, light my fire.” We thumbed along the coast for a couple of days before we split ways somewhere around Toulon or Cassis.
Shortly after, somewhere beyond Marseilles, a German in a corroded green Volvo stopped. “Where are you going?” he asked.
“Don’t know, maybe Portugal. You?”
“Don’t know, maybe Portugal.”
“Great.” In that moment we’d made a tacit agreement to travel together and I helped to pay for some of the gas. Henning and I were the same age, had a lot in common, and always found something to talk about. He had a small suitcase full of cassette tapes, and introduced me to the music of German musicians and bands such Udo Lindenberg, Konstantin Wecker, Grobschnitt, Amon Düül, Can, Steinwolke, Guru Guru, and more. I had heard of some of the bands, but had never listened to them extensively. Of course, he also had a great many other British and American bands, all of which added to the backdrop of that trip.
We drove over the Pyrenees through Andorra: the micro European state with impressively steep valleys and ravines. Entering Spain was like stepping into another century or returning to a past incarnation – initially, at any rate. We first stopped off at a little medieval village growing out of the flat expansive terrain like a coral reef, the narrow alleys strung with flappy laundry.
We barely stopped in Barcelona, deciding we’d sightsee on our return journey, which didn’t end up happening (I still haven’t made up for that loss). Instead, we searched for out of the way places, mostly beaches, where we cooked meals on his primitive cooker and brewed strong black coffee.
In Cartagena, while exploring the surroundings, we mistakenly drove into an army zone. Suddenly we heard shots, the bullets zooming over our heads in fast succession. Clearly, the army recruits took vindictive pleasure in shooting at us. As we sped off, they must have shot a cannon or some sort of ‘big gun’ in our direction because we not only heard the huge boom, but felt it whizz just above our car, causing it to rock.
That night, Henning was determined to get someone to buy us drinks. We went to one of the lively port restaurants and found a seat outside. Trying but failing dismally as a conman, Henning finally found a heavyset balding man who seemed lonely and in need of company. He welcomed our friendly overtures, though Henning only wanted to cajole some free drinks out of him. Henning complimented him on everything: “Ah wow, great; yeah, that’s so cool; hey, I really like your leather jacket; are you here on vacation?” He wasn’t making much headway, but he persisted. “You look like you’re famous? I think I’ve seen you before, but I don’t know where.”
“Really?” and he lit up. “Maybe it’s because of this,” and he pulled out a very tattered piece of paper. He unfolded it as if it was a precious document. “Look, it’s me in a Jägermeister ad. You know the ones that appear on the back pages of magazines – a new one every week.” And indeed, there he was (looking much younger), holding a Jägermeister bottle, with a toothy pinched smile and the ubiquitous statement underneath, starting with the words, Ich trinke Jägermeister, weil…“
“That’s it. That’s where I must have seen you. It’s from the Eines für alle campaign. Hey, you should order a round of Jägermeister for us all, so we can say we’ve had a drink with a person who actually appeared in one of those ads.” And, against my expectations, he did just that, and we toasted each other with a raucous “Eines für alle,” downing the incredibly bitter herbal schnapps in one go. Henning didn’t try out his con skills again after that.
Leisurely we drove along the coast, stopping here and there, meeting people, frolicking in the ocean, frequenting cafes and nightclubs, walking through towns and villages, eating out or cooking our own food. We slept mostly on the beach, but sometimes in the car. He’d sleep across the front seat (he insisted) and I in the more comfortable back. On the first night in the car I woke up to him shouting, “It’s mine…don’t steal my stuff. No, no, stop…” followed by unintelligible words. I sat up, wide awake, perplexed and anxious as to how this raving rant would play out. What had happened? Had someone tried to break in? I couldn’t see or hear anybody. Henning thrashed about as if warding off an attack. Midst his raving he bent down, retrieved a steel cash box from underneath the front seat, opened it, and fingered the bills, mumbling, “Still there, good, good.” He closed the box, placed it back under the seat and settled down.
“Do you ever talk in your sleep?” I asked him the next morning.
“Did I do that again?” and he laughed. “What did I say or do this time?
“Don’t worry, I won’t steal your money,” and I told him what I’d witnessed. “I was worried that you’d beat me up, really.”
“I’m sorry, I remember nothing. Really.” From then on, I ignored his mumblings and occasional ravings.
At a small place called Los Lobos, a few hours southwest of Cartagena, we realized we’d never make it to Portugal. Our money had eddied away. To mark our defeat, we bought a bottle of whisky at a trading store and drowned our disappointment right there and then. Within seconds our joint melancholia gave way to – what, me worry?
Realistically, with the money available, we wouldn’t even make it back home. We’d underestimated the cost of gas. “We’ll have to syphon off some gas from other cars,” Henning suggested.
“We can’t do that. That’s stealing.”
“Do you have a better idea?”
“Let’s just see how far we get. Maybe it’ll be okay.”
We drove through the night, aiming to return to Germany as fast as possible. “Give me all your money,” Henning said, driving off the highway late one night into a gas station. He counted all the money. “Well, with our combined funds we’ll get about half a tank.” He got out, adding, “You drive, I’m tired.” Shifting over into the driver’s seat, I waited for him to fuel up.
Minutes later he rushed back in shouting, “Drive, quick. Drive!”
“Don’t you have to go in and pay first?”
“Go, go, go,” and he punched me on the shoulder. I fumbled with the keys, trying to get it started. “Come on, let’s get out of here.” The Volvo roared to life. “Step on it!” I pressed my foot down hard and we burned right out of there, tires screeching, the attendant running out screaming in our wake. “Faster, faster.” Back on the highway, Henning yelled, “Now get out at the first exit.” Veering off we drove along byways parallel to the highway for about twenty miles.
“Okay, I think we’re good.” I didn’t feel too guilty, admitting that I rather enjoyed the adrenalin rush of our movie-style getaway. “Let’s find a place to rest for a couple of hours before moving on. Though we had a full tank of gas it still wouldn’t get us back to Germany.
By the time we arrived in Barcelona, we were down to a few pesetas. Enough for one last meagre meal. Henning suggested we go to the German or Swiss consulate. He’d heard that they sometimes help people out. Why not? At the Swiss consulate, I showed them my passport, explained our predicament (with Henning adding something about being robbed), and to my surprise, they handed me 200 Swiss francs worth of pesetas, no questions asked, except my word that I would pay the money back on our return. We promptly celebrated our success at the nearest restaurant, before returning to Germany. He drove me all the way back to Villingen-Schwenningen where I lived. Good old Henning.
During my time in Germany I played in a rock band: Tokolosh (without an E). We had dreams of stardom, composed, performed, recorded, accumulated huge debts, broke up, went bankrupt. During that long two-year stint, I hitched a lot – mostly local. I never did buy a car, spending all my money on equipment and recording costs. For sanity’s sake, I had to escape the Black Forest confines every few months: Italy, Greece, England, France, and that aforementioned trip to Spain with Henning. These trips were a combination of trains, buses, and some hitchhiking. The more money I earned the less I hitched, and truth be told, the thrill was gone. I didn’t plan any hitchhiking trips anymore, got increasingly impatient with the vagaries of the road, and only resorted to the thumb out of necessity. It became a burden. I got tired of the endless waiting, the running up to cars, the tediousness of making conversation, the mostly silent rides with people with whom I had little to nothing in common with, or having to listen to the incessant yakkety-yak of bored drivers. Though I still felt grateful, most rides were bland and uneventful. Nevertheless, a couple did stand out, such as the incident with the midges, up in Scotland.
Nobody was going to give us a ride anymore, that much was clear. Dusk slumped around us and the road yawned empty. No hotel for miles around, and we’d already walked for almost two hours, hoping to come across a bed and breakfast. We hadn’t intended to hitchhike (my partner at the time did not approve), but we’d missed the last bus to Iona. As we trudged past one of the few houses beside the road, a beagle, attached by a short black leash to a white-haired lady, interrupted his evening sniff to yap at us. Out of resigned desperation, I asked her whether we could camp in her yard.
“I suppose you can.” She paused, scrutinizing us. “But aren’t you worried about the midges?”
“No, we’ll be fine. Thank you.” I’d understood “midgets,” which I naïvely interpreted as little gnomes or pixies – a rather endearing thought. No sooner had we begun pitching our tent when the full import of her innocuous question became abominably clear. Swarms of the miniscule monsters appeared from nowhere, impeding our efforts to erect the tent at every turn. Our sorry shelter made for a flimsy and futile refuge. In fact, it increased their desire to feast on us, because they got attracted to the carbon dioxide in our breath like moths to light, something I only found that out much later. The tent was like a greenhouse of carbon dioxide.
We couldn’t escape the marauding mass. Killing the infinitesimal beasts was useless, and – as it turned out – so was everything else. They always found a way to feast on our flesh, suck our blood, inflicting severe pain. Susie took out cigarettes to smoke the critters out. I lit my pipe. The smoke simply excited them and the black plague continued – hour after hour after hour. We wrapped ourselves up entirely in our sleeping bags – to no avail. Throughout that sleepless night we endured the burning stings. Feeling like boiled lobsters we broke camp before dawn and set off down the cold dark road. Walking offered some relief, but no sooner did we stop for even two seconds, when a new wave of the dreaded plague engulfed us. “Just keep walking,” I muttered. Susie was close to tears.
We were on the Isle of Mull and had hoped to reach Iona the previous night. We’d bought a BritRail Pass, but, of course, there were no trains to Iona. So far, we’d visited Stonehenge, Tintagel in Cornwell, and Wales, where I had intended to visit the stone circle at Penmaenmawr. However, after a cold and rainy night, Susie rebelled, insisting we abort that part of the trip. Instead, we traveled on to Stratford-upon-Avon to pay homage to Shakespeare, after which we trundled on to the Lake District to honor Wordsworth, hitching the last part to picturesque Lake Windermere. While exploring the surroundings, we did chance upon a serene stone circle, which made up for the missed cromlech near Penmaenmawr. Then, after a short stopover in the walled medieval town of York, we headed toward Oban and sailed over to the Isle of Mull, between mist-veiled anthropomorphic rocks that jutted out of the mirror-calm waters. What we should then have done is checked into a bed and breakfast at Craignure and taken the bus the following day. My fault.
Instead, we’d spent a sleepless night with the ferocious and ravenous midges and were now tramping along this deserted road, with about another twenty miles to go. After an hour, a tractor stopped for us. We could have hugged the farmer for his kindness. He dropped us off at the bus stop, saying that no bus would stop for us otherwise.
Though we must have made a smelly and sorry sight as we got on the bus, we felt elated to be rescued from our plight. After a short wait at Fionnphort, we boarded a small, red ferry that took us and a few others over to Iona. As we approached the green and rocky isle, the previous night’s anguish dissolved and gave way to bliss, for me at any rate. “Let’s go get a bite to eat, shall we?” I suggested as we disembarked at St. Ronan’s Bay. It wasn’t much of a restaurant, but some hot coffee and a toasted cheese sandwich amounted to a feast. Though our episode with the midges marked the nadir of our trip through the British Isles, Iona proved to be the zenith. Not much happened outwardly, but the mood and quality of that mystical and mythical isle entered every pore of my being, allowing me to return inwardly to that hallowed place whenever I choose. Needless to say, Susie and I broke up shortly after that trip.
The last major hitchhiking tour happened unplanned. A few weeks before departing for Emerson College in England, I’d decided, on a whim, to visit a girlfriend in Geneva. I hitchhiked, wanting to save the train fare. Somehow the rides took me off-track and I found myself navigating the byways through Switzerland, arriving after sunset. Unfortunately, we quarreled, and I ended up spending the night underneath an upturned boat next to Lake Geneva. The next morning, instead of going back to Basel, I hitchhiked to the south of France, catching a ride with a Frenchman who spoke no English or German (or chose not to). He sped along the autoroute at over 200 km/h, only slowing down at the tolls, dropping me off on the outskirts of Marseilles. That evening I was comfortably ensconced in a medieval and beautiful coastal town near the Spanish border, still smarting from the painful parting. The next day, I suffered a fall while climbing up a stone wall, twisting and bruising my foot and heel: a fitting metaphor to my breakup. I stayed two more days, sleeping on the beach and bathing my throbbing foot in the Mediterranean Sea. Once again, I aborted a trip and started to hitchhike home.
With all my ill luck I did have some truly uncanny good luck. Not initially, though. After a long wait I finally decided to play my countdown game – to hold out for another 20 cars before catching a train back to Basel. No sooner thought than a green VW Kombi Bus stopped for me and ferried me all the way to Basel (yet another Kombi Bus savior). Furthermore, he was pleasant company. In between I even forgot the pulsating pain in my foot. Ironically enough, while driving through Geneva, he drove right past my newly lost girlfriend’s apartment, albeit at two in the morning – a quiet threshold moment that echoed on in the form of a resurfaced ache. Insignificant as it might have appeared, it marked a definitive moment between the last vestiges of my adolescence and the tenor of my future, based on a more conscious quest of values and the paths I would henceforth choose to pursue.
At Emerson College the hitchhiking days dwindled like falling leaves in late autumn. Yet, they were endowed with a sheen like the slow burning colors of fall, starting off with an unforgettable long weekend trip to the Isle of Wight, followed closely by a memorable trip to Brighton with Tina, my future wife, whom I’d met a few weeks into the semester. Whenever she was with me the cars stopped within minutes. I remember very little of the people and cars that picked us up, except for a trip to London when the seventh generation Mr. Macmillan from the Macmillan publishing empire picked us up in his luxurious Bentley.
Hitchhiking came to an abrupt and decisive halt, though in an anticlimactic manner. After Emerson College and before continuing my teacher education studies in Witten-Annen, Germany, I still worked part-time in Basel during the summer to fill up my coffers. In between I hitchhiked a couple of times up to Bochum to be with Tina, a five- to eight-hour trip, depending. On my return journey on my last visit, before moving in with Tina, I stood next to the entrance ramp of the highway for hours, cursing all the passing cars. Then, from one moment to the next I’d had enough; I simply turned my back to the highway, and caught the next train back to Basel. That’s it, I’m done. Never again. An era had come to an end.
Except, of course, never does not necessarily mean never. I did end up hitchhiking a few more times to and from the Institute before we purchased a car, which ended my hitchhiking days once and for all. I do, however, remember my last ride, though it was only a matter of a few minutes and miles. The guy who stopped looked like Ian Anderson from Jethro Tull’s heyday. He sucked feverishly on a self-rolled cigarette, and his long scraggly hair kept falling into his slightly bulging eyes and large-pored cheeks, causing him to shake and twitch his head and face to dislodge the offending strands. Recurrently he looked at me, smiling, which teetered at the cusp of a giggle, lending him foolish grin. It put me on edge. At length he blurted out, “We’re all in disguise!”
“What do you mean?” I wasn’t sure how to respond.
“I don’t know who you are…you don’t know who I am.” He tittered, his voice flitting up an octave.
“I suppose so.”
“And even if you did know me, and if I did know you, we still wouldn’t know. Not really.” He stared, gauging my reaction. I didn’t answer. “You seem nice…but you could be a killer. And you don’t know if I’m nice.” Did he have something sinister in mind?
He sucked and puffed loudly, nodding, smoke rolling off the front window in little mushrooms. I expected him to resume his weird talk, but he slumped into sullen silence.
“You can drop me off at the next corner.” I half-expected him to continue driving, but he slowed down and stopped.
“Thanks a lot.”
As I shut the car door he shouted, “We’re all in disguise.”
I don’t know why, but I nodded and gave him the thumbs-up.
Eric G. Müller was born in Durban, South Africa. After graduating from the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa, he continued his studies in England and Germany. He now lives in upstate New York, where he teaches music, drama, and English literature. He has published novels and children’s books. Poetry, articles and short stories have appeared in numerous journals, anthologies and magazines.