| We parked the car in the underground parking in the center of Durban, and rushed to catch the bus. This was our annual Christmas trip to the Wild Coast Casino organized by one of my service providers. The company I worked for was the client but I was the liaison person so I cracked the nod to go. We'd travel the two hour trip down by coach, have a Christmas dinner, then everyone would veer off to either go gambling, or watch a show, and then we would catch the bus back at 1am. And best of all I could take Paul with me.
Paul's my fiancÚ and I love him with all my heart. We're getting married next year and then we're going to live in Tzaneen, where he has a job lined up as a game warden. He's just finished his Degree in Nature Conservation, and Languages, majoring in South Africa ones. We have eleven official languages in South Africa. Crazy I know but that's the way it is. Most people don't learn more than two or three but in Paul's job he could be moving all around the country and so it makes more sense for him to know all of the black languages as well as English and Afrikaans.
We settled into our seats and soon we were off.
"Our driver's spot on time," Paul said as we passed the city hall, the large clock showing 5.30pm exactly. We didn't really know anyone on the bus except for some of the staff from Grimtek that I dealt with occasionally, but once they started offering drinks, and having lucky draws, it got a little more festive. I was lucky enough to win a bottle of champagne and clutched my prize triumphantly until we stopped for a loo break. We were soon on our way again but within a couple of miles, we stopped again. There was an ancient truck broken down ahead of us and taking up the road. Cars could get by but a bus couldn't. After twenty minutes of our irate drivers arguing in Zulu with the driver of the offending truck, he climbed back into the bus and we backed up about 100 yards and then turned off onto a sand road, amidst groans and moans from the passengers. Mr Lloyd, the host for the evening, after chatting to the driver walked down the aisle telling all of us not to worry
"We're just taking a minor detour and will soon be on the main road again - probably about twenty minutes of sand road," he said, "In the meantime let's have another drink, we have packets of peanuts and some more prizes to give away."
After forty minutes the passengers were quiet again. We had been thoroughly jostled and bounced around and the road seemed to be rougher, narrower and less used now. It was almost dark and we still weren't back on the main road. Every now and then Mr Lloyd would go to the driver and he would shake his head and say “Ai aikona, aikona”, then rattle off in Zulu which Paul told me he meant he didn't know where we were, or where he was going. Now South Africa is a country where you don't walk around at night, you drive in a locked car, you keep your doors locked and windows closed at home, and you NEVER drive around in the bush after dark - unless you're in a secure game reserve - which we weren't!
So the passengers kind of fluctuated between scared silences, and agitated bursts of anger. We'd peer out of the windows into the dark night, the headlights of the bus our only illumination and all we could see was the bush on either side of the sandy road.
"Hey, I just saw a Tokoloshe." someone called out.
"And there's a tribe of Zulus," shouted his friend and they both collapsed in a frenzy of drunken giggling while the passengers nervously strained to see out the windows
"That's not flipping funny! " A huge man stood up in his seat, "Do you want me to chuck you off this bus so you can go find those blerry bushmen?" he roared with a strong Afrikaans accent. The two guys shut up quickly. Like I said, tension was starting to rise high. I clutched Paul's hand, the excitement of the evening now well and truly over.
Suddenly the bus driver slammed on brakes, shouting loudly in Zulu, and we skidded along, the bus broadsiding off the road and down an embankment, amid screams and yells from the passengers. After the loud bang, for a moment there was deathly silence, then everyone started shouting at once. I could hear crying and others comforting those crying. Someone had the foresight to switch the light on in the bus and we could at least see what was happening. Mr Lloyd and Mr Jones went to each passenger checking for injuries. Someone called out from the front she was a nurse. Paul went up to the front of the bus to talk to the driver in Zulu and I comforted an old lady sitting across from me.
"I'm so nervous, my dear. One hears all kinds of stories these days," She said, her fingers shredding the tissue I had just given her to dry her tears.
"I'm sure it'll be fine. Paul, my fiancÚ has gone to talk to the driver. He speaks Zulu so that's a help," I smiled reassuringly at her, though that was entirely not how I felt. I had a whopping headache from hitting my head on the window when we had the accident and my elbow was throbbing. Still, we were lucky the bus hadn’t toppled over.
"It was a buck," Paul said as he came back, “A springbuck. He missed it but that's why he slammed on brakes. Damn idiot, he could have killed us all. Anyhow, he gave me the company's telephone number. The trick is to see if someone has a strong enough signal on their cell phone. We tried calling it in on his radio but there was no response so we don't know if they heard us.”
“Why didn't he contact them when he first got lost. Then we wouldn't be in this predicament now.” I said aggrieved.
A man in the row ahead interjected, “He probably didn't want to admit he was lost. So what’s the plan now?” he asked Paul.
“Find a cell phone that works," Paul said grimly. A scream silenced all of us. A different kind of scream, high pitched and terrified. Our heads all swivelled to the front of the bus. There in the headlights stood at least a dozen black men. They looked like warriors, tall, shirtless, black skin shining with perspiration, and wearing loin cloths or tattered khaki shorts - taken from their victims? The thought flew wildly through my mind. They carried spears or short daggers. Oh God no, I thought as shivers ran down my spine.
Perspiration immediately trickled down my forehead. It was already hot – mid-summer - even at night. But this was pure unadulterated terror that coursed through my body now. I thought everyone else on the bus must be feeling the same way. But not the Afrikaans guy.
“They won't have me!" he said, "not a damn. I'll go down fighting. They won't use me for their blerrie potjiekos.” There was a trickle of laughter – and a tiny, a very tiny, release of tension.
“Just stay on the bus everyone,” Mr Lloyd said, “Paul, can you give us a hand. I know you talk Zulu and it might make all the difference. Our driver’s English is not that good, and I’d hate him to say the wrong thing.”
“No Paul, you can’t go out there.” I pleaded, holding onto his arm, “They might...” I stopped mid-sentence, tears filling my eyes.
“I have to babe. I’ll be back. I promise.” He kissed the top of my head and gave me a quick hug then moved up the aisle with Mr Lloyd, and the driver joining them. There was silence as everyone watched the three men leave the bus. I wiped the tears streaming down my face and from my eyes - they were blocking my vision of my beloved Paul, so strong, so brave standing out there. He walked up to the group respectfully his eyes downcast, the other two trailing behind him. They gathered around him talking and gesticulating loudly until both he and the driver were totally surrounded, Mr Lloyd left on the periphery of the circle.
I couldn't see Paul at all! My body clenched as if I could feel a spear driving though his body and I started towards the front of the bus, hands pulling at me to stop. As I reached the front of the bus ready to get out there and do who knows what - I hadn't thought that far, there was a roar of laughter from the men outside, and I could see white smiles splitting their black faces, and thankfully Paul's answering grin. He waved to me and then I burst into tears and sank down on the driver's seat.
He came on board to tell everyone that the group had heard the sounds of the bus crashing down the embankment and had come to investigate. They had been out hunting, hence the spears and knives. Already, they had sent a runner back to their village to bring food and poultices in case we were hungry or injured. There was a huge cheer from the passengers and everyone was smiling, as the tension was finally broken.
Everyone crowded off the bus and stood in the beam of the headlights; white men were shaking hands with the black men who were trying to converse in broken English. A line of Zulus, both men and women, with children scampering in between, came along the road, carrying pots on their heads, blankets, grass mats for us to sit on. We gathered around, sitting on the ground or the grass mats, even in our Casino finery, and we drank soup which was strange in these weather conditions but so filling. After all, we were missing our dinner.
While we were eating, we heard the rumble of a bus, and as it came over the hill, we all cheered again. Clearly, the radio message had been received. But no one got up, no one went rushing to climb on that bus and rush off to the Casino. Something very special was happening here. These civilized “Whities” from the city were sitting in the dust on a sand road in the dark, sharing a meal with their fellow countrymen. Where were the TV cameras now?