We left Kruger on June 10th and began our drive to St. Lucia. Because it takes around 12 hours to get there, our destination for the night was the one-stop town of Piet Retief on the N2. Don’t ask me what our exact route was, it was complicated and I don’t remember. All I know is that we drove from the Lower Sabie out through the Crocodile Bridge exit of Kruger and spent all day on the road.
The drive was half incredible and half scary. The scary part was once again the two lane roads with no dividing barrier. We were trying to get to Piet Retief before dark because who wants to drive at night with unlit roads and lots of locals walking on the edges, plus cars overtaking you or vice-versa? Also, you had to watch out for stray cows and goats and at one point there was a sign that said, “High Crime Area, Don’t Stop.” Great. But we arrived safe and sound in Piet Retief just as it was getting dark – phew!
But the incredible part of the journey was the beautiful and varied countryside. One minute you’d be driving through brown hills of scrub and low trees that looked like the chaparral covered hills of Southern California, the next you’d be driving through fields of sugar cane and green mountains like in Hawaii, then you’d be in golden hills like the gold country of Northern California. It was amazing and wonderful.
But it was also an eye-opening drive. I knew we’d see poverty in South Africa but I never imagined the scale of it. In 2015, 55.5% of the population (that’s 30.4 million people) lived below the poverty line and most of them were black. On our drive (including from the Joberg airport to Kruger), we passed a great many rural communities where the people lived in ramshackle dwellings, haphazardly crowded together. The homes were made of various materials, some were brick and adobe, others were made of wood, some were in the traditional round hut style with thatched roofs and adobe brick walls, but the worst were made of scraps of metal.
The people mostly walk on the edges of the highway. Our proprietor in Piet Retief called them “human animals.” He said he called them that because “they all walk on the highway like animals.”
I said, “Well, they don’t seem to have any other roads.”
He said, “They do! There are roads on the side of the highway, they just don’t use them!”
So I looked carefully the second day of our drive and only very occasionally did I see another parallel road and it was almost always dirt and didn’t last long. Many of the people were wearing nice clothing, like they were walking to work, and some were riding in taxi vans that picked up and dropped off on the sides of the highway.
I think they use the roads because they want to stay clean and of course it is much easier than walking along a dirt road that would also get muddy in the rain. They have to walk for miles to get to jobs and children often have to walk miles to get to school. We spoke to a wonderful, unprejudiced couple later on our trip who said that sadly, many of the locals, including children, get hit by cars on the roads. Many of them don’t drive and try to cross the road, not realizing how fast the cars are really going.
Later during our trip, I spoke with a teacher who answered some of my questions about the living conditions of the rural people. I will include that in a future blog – stay tuned.