A rainy night kombi ride through the South African brush

The town of Phoshiri where the Peace Corps assigned me to live is only reachable by bus.  There are no paved roads in or to the village.  The kombis (South Africa taxis) don’t run to the village and it’s not reachable by foot as it sits away through the bush on the side of a mountain over a river and 12 kilometers from the nearest ‘town.’

                My first three months in South Africa, it never rained.  Not once.  I have never gone so long in my life without seeing rain.  (Actually I’m not sure that that is entirely factual but it definitely seems plausible).  Lately however, rain has been a daily occurrence here.  Last Friday I got to experience what a lot of rain does to the transport situation of a tiny village reachable only by bus and only over unpaved roads.  As I waited for the 2 pm bus to Phoshiri in the town ofSeleteng on Friday afternoon, it began to rain.  I waited under a small tree with about five other people all waiting for the bus.  I had struck up a conversation with a young girl from the secondary school whose English was nearly impeccable and whose friendliness was engaging.  She was on the way to visit her grandparents in Phoshiri for the weekend.  She asked if I wanted to run across the street to the small spaza where we could wait under the shelter for the already-late bus.  I happily obliged and off we ran.  At the time I didn’t realize that I would be spending the next 5 hours with this girl, Dineo, but looking back I should have realized that it was unlikely that we would reach Phoshiri any time soon.  I had heard stories of the people in the village being stranded for weeks when it rained because the river levels surge and the ground saturates.  To this end I had been told to stock up on food since there is virtually nowhere to buy food in Phoshiri but until this point I had not taken the advice seriously because the rain has been little and infrequent. 

                Sure enough, the 2 o’clock bus never arrived and the rain continued. After talking with Dineo about her family, my family, South Africa, America, School, Teenage Pregnancy, Barack Obama, public drunkenness (we had an encounter with two stumbling drunken men in the spaza), school principals, the history of Seleteng, mangoes, and politeness, the rain stopped.  It was now just after 3.  Clearly the bus was not coming.  The next scheduled bus would arrive at 5.  We found some chairs from the kind woman at the Sephatlo stand and continued our conversation.  When it reached 5 o’clock, we decided to head back to the bus stop.  When we approached the bus stop we were told that the bus had stopped in the nearby town after getting stuck in the mud.  This was amusing to me but a bit disconcerting to Dineo who rolled her eyes and looked rather frustrated.

As our luck would have though, A kombi pulled up near to the bus stop. It was packed with people and either recognizing me or Dineo it stopped and asked if we were going to Phoshiri.  Of course we were but Dineo said that the kombi looked full and indeed it did appear to be at (or over) capacity. Furthermore, kombis never run to Phoshiri so the entire concept seemed a bit unusual.  But we were stranded at this point and our options were few. 

This is when the real part of the adventure began.  As I made my way over people (literally) with suitcase in hand to the cleared-out space in the very back right corner of the kombi (all while giving the Sepedi greetings), the rain started again.  I crunched into the corner behind Dineo and the kombi rattled off.

                Now I know the route from Seleteng to Phoshiri as I’ve ridden the bus dozens of times over the past two months.  However, the kombi was taking a distinctly different route.  I asked Dineo what was going on and she shrugged and said that she supposed that we were picking up more people.  The kombi stopped several times on the trip but they weren’t regular stops to let people off or pick up people as the bus would have done.  They were turn-off-the-engine, driver-is-having-a-cigarette, WTF-are-we doing stops.  Moreover, nobody was getting off the kombi but more people were continually cramming in.  The kombi had a sign that said it was authorized to take 16 passengers but I counted 19 (plus the driver) as the rain continued to fall. The man next to me unzipped his bag and pulled out a Smirnoff Ice bottle.  His friends laughed and said something in Sepedi which I did not understand but his reply included “tonya” meaning cold and so I figured out that he was realizing that we would not be going anywhere soon and he wanted to enjoy his beverage while it was still cold. 

                Occasionally Dineo would turn around to me and explain what was going on for which I was grateful.  During one of the driver’s smoke breaks, it occurred to me that had she not been on the kombi, I would have been bewildered with exactly what it is I was getting myself into.  I would have had no idea if we were still going toward Phoshiri or if I would be sleeping on the kombi overnight.  She explained that since it was Friday evening and the bus was not running (because it was stuck), they had organized a taxi to go to Phoshiri to take all of the weekly workers back to their homes for the weekend.  During our longest engine-off stop, she explained that our driver had gotten word on his cell phone that a woman who lives in Phoshiri was on her way from Cheunesport and we were to wait for her since we were her only possible means of transport to Phoshiri (kombis run from Cheunesport to Seleteng).  I found this simultaneously to be both wonderfully heartwarming and ridiculously inefficient.  All of these people were waiting cramped on this kombi in the rain waiting for one person while it rained more and night approached.  The more I thought about this, the more incredible it seemed.  Here we were on a dirt road covered with pools of standing water in the rain at night waiting for a 20th passenger who was coming within an hour.  It definitely was not for the money as the entire trip was to cost 8 rand (about 80 cents). 

                The Northern-Sutu chatter increased and laughter broke out.  The driver finally got into the taxi and turned the engine without Ms. 20th passenger aboard.  I asked Dineo what was going on and she said that word got out that the 20th passenger for whom we were waiting had lied and was actually in Polokwane which was considerably further than Cheunesport.  So much for the heartwarming part of the waiting – a lie is a lie – we were off.  As we drove off, Dineo said “I hope we don’t get stuck.”  I knew that this was actually quite likely as the roads were saturated and the rain continued to fall (not to mention the fact that the bus had already gotten stuck).  Furthermore, night had descended and obviously there were no street lights.  It was then that I realized that power was out in the entire village.  As we left the final houses comprising Seleteng and headed into the brush that separates Phoshiri from the rest of civilization, the magnitude of the adventure I was embarking on started to sink in.  I looked around at the 18 other passengers whose heads were bobbing with every bump in the road.  The Smirnoff was gone but the man next to me showed no signs of it as he sat in somber silence.  The driver turned on the common club music and the remaining voices drowned out.

I laughed.  I had to.  This was a pretty absurd ride.  My suitcase on my lap riding in the back right corner of a packed taxi at night in the rain heading into the brush of a remote South African village.  Definitely never could have imagined this situation six months ago.

                Then the taxi sputtered.  I pressed my face against the window and looked out.  We had become entrenched in a puddle.  Dineo glanced at me with a bewildered look.  Without speaking, her eyes said “of course we’re stuck.  You didn’t actually think we’d make it did you?”

                The driver continually turned the engine and tried to propel the machine forward but it was seemingly futile.  He would go in reverse just to get the momentum to move forward but the water was too much.  It was dark now and I my imagination was alive with just what was going to happen out in the middle of the South African brush in the rain at night in a stranded kombi with 18 strangers (well 17 as Dineo and I had become quite good friends over the previous 4 hours).  The driver then opened his door and I was presuming that he would be checking the tires and I was hoping that he wouldn’t be requesting that we all exit the kombi.  Instead, however, he inserted a metal rod into the pool of water and pressed down forcefully.  He was using the rod like an oar or a pole vault and as he pushed it into the soft mud under the tire he cranked the engine.  Hard. The tires rotated quickly and we lunged forward as he slammed his door shut. He had done it!  We were out!  Initially I was surprised but then realized that I shouldn’t be.  I mean – 5 minutes earlier I was imaging standing behind the kombi in the pool of water pushing the car so was it really surprising that the driver had used a make-shift javelin to hoist us out of the water?  Dineo’s eyebrows were raised as she turned to me.  She wore a small smile but she wore it with caution.  Clearly we were not home yet.

                As the kombi bumbled on down the dryer sections of the muddy road, I noticed it beginning to gain speed.  I then remembered the small river that we would have to cross to enter into Phoshiri.  The driver was gunning the engine so we would have enough momentum to make it across the river!  For the first time in the trip, I felt a sense of fear.  Surely he couldn’t be taking a kombi carrying 19 passengers across a flowing river.  Could he?  I tried to look between the passengers’ heads and out the front of the kombi to see the approaching river. The roller coaster feeling had set in and I felt like we were about to spin out.  The driver was continuing to increase the speed.  That is when I noticed two cars parked on the side of the road with their headlights on.  They had pulled over at the river because they were clearly not going to attempt to cross flowing water at this time of night.  Would we pull over too?

                I tapped Dineo and said “really?  He’s really going to try this?!”  I saw the water flowing as the kombi descended down the small slope and into the water. Luckily, the only stretch of pavement from Seleteng to Phoshiri occurs under this river.  Someone paved this crossing for, I presume, situations such as these. The kombi slowed immediately upon reaching the water.  I gripped my suitcase and looked out the window.  The tires were nearly entirely submerged.  The driver revved the engine and the kombi teetered laboriously through the water. Although it struggled it never stopped moving.

                When we ascended the other side and climbed onto the dirt roads of Phoshiri, I looked at Dineo and said “this is incredible.”  She looked at me and said “I know.  You will have many more rides like this.” 

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