Wonder in the Wild Coast

I have only ever been to the Wild Coast once, and I can never ever go again.

This is not because I am officially unwelcome or because the authorities have banned me (that is only true of Sun City, Thailand and the SABC building). No, I can never return to the Wild Coast because what happened there was the sheerest, purest kind of magic, that can’t possibly be repeated. Some experiences are so splendid that you should just leave them intact and unspoiled.

I grew up in Durban and in standard nine my school decided to send ten of us to the Grahamstown Schools Festival. There would be plays and culture and suchlike, but the main thing is there would be girls. For a whole week, unsupervised except for Mr Hutchison and Mr Sjolander, we would be on the loose in an exotic distant city with girls: it was like going to Las Vegas. There wouldn’t be much difficulty in giving Hutchison and Sjolander the slip: Hutchison was about a hundred years old and blind and deaf, and Sjolander would spend the whole time trying to give Marco Bernardis a shoulder rub. Bad news for Marco Bernardis, but the rest of us would be free as air.

You must understand, I’d never left Durban before. I couldn’t wait to see how distant horizons, but I was also excited because my girlfriend would be there. I say “girlfriend”; I mean she was a girl at Durban Girls’ College that I met once at an inter-schools debate, and we’d spoken on the telephone a couple of times and I’d written her long letters full of passion and undying love. I even wrote her a sonnet. Yes, a sonnet.

Her school was wealthier than mine so they were traveling in a luxury coach while we had to cram into our tatty old weirdly small school mini-bus, which had only springs where seats used to be, and patches of the floor where you could see the road, but that didn’t matter. Soon, at last, we would be together!

Perhaps I was a little too eager about that, because the day we were due to set off, she called and said that maybe it would be better if we weren’t girlfriend and boyfriend after all. I was a nice guy and all, but that sonnet was a bit intense.

This is not the news you want to receive just before a long car journey. I folded myself into the mini-bus, the open road under my feet, crammed up in the corner between the suitcases and my friend George, with my knees up around my ears, as miserable as ever a miserable, moody 16-year-old has been.

For some reason – this was the late 80s, when you didn’t need reasons – we were leaving Durban at 6pm and driving through the night, through the lightless reaches of the Transkei, arriving the next morning in the Eastern Cape. Hutchison was the deaf and blind one, so of course he would do the driving. All the other kids went to sleep, with Mr Sjolander peacefully spooning Marco Bernardis, but I was too unhappy for sleep. I leant my pale forehead against the window and watched us weaving across the road and onto the shoulder of the highway as Hutchison nodded off and reluctantly woke again. I didn’t care. I wouldn’t have minded if we’d crashed.

This was my first time leaving Durban and already I knew this was how my life would go: disappointing and lonely, without magic, without wonder, never catching a break. I’d never escape Durban and even if I did there was nothing out there: life would go as it always had for me, grim, grim, grim, a grim repetition of the same grim dismay.

As I sat there stewing in teenage sadness, the sky began to lighten and the air turned from black to grey and I began to make out the sights of the Wild Coast. But there was something unusual. What was this strange light? Why was everything so white? Behind the wheel, Mr Hutchison slowed down and rubbed his eyes and blinked through the windscreen.

“It’s snowing,” he said. “It’s snowing!”

We stumbled stiff and dazed from the mini-bus, open-mouthed into a white silent landscape, snowflakes drifting down like they did in movies and picture books, the crunch under our feet, and I had my first inkling that sometimes I am wrong in my worst predictions, and my heart opened to take in a world that suddenly, like a gift, revealed itself so much larger, so much more surprising and generous and so much more beautiful than I could ever have imagined.

December 2017