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Today, Day 6 of our South Africa road trip, the Hectic Route, takes us from Durban to Mdumbi—and on an escape from (un-)civilization and into to simpler times.
Anxious to Escape
Waking up around 6 a.m., as we’ve made our custom on this road trip to get the most out of each day, we packed up and bade a hasty and not-so-fond farewell to urban Durban.
We were anxious to get out of town and get started on our 7.5-hour (according to Google Maps, so realistically more like 9-hour-plus) drive to our next destination: Mdumbi, a rustic backpacker accommodation 500 km away on the rugged Wild Coast of South Africa’s Eastern Cape province.
On the map, the first part of our trip from Durban to Mdumbi looked to go along the Indian Ocean coast, so we looked forward to some nice seaside scenery.
All we could see for the first hour and a half was monotonous suburban sprawl until passing Port Shepstone, where we turned inland and entered a thick mist—and the first stage of our escape from (un-)civilization and back to simpler times.
The Chaos Before the Calm
After an hour of seeing nothing but thick mist and the backside of the truck in front of us, the clouds lifted.
Shortly thereafter, we pulled off into a strip mall outside of a town called Harding for a bathroom break.
It was chaos.
Hundreds of people lined up to at ATMs and at a check-cashing counter to get money so they could join the thousands of others in the Spar supermarket who were piling their shopping carts with seemingly whatever they could get their hands on.
The frenzied mass of shopping carts was so gridlocked that we couldn’t even make it to the bathrooms at the back corner of the supermarket.
The whole scene is what I’d imagine it’d be like if an apocalypse was approaching and everyone was stocking up.
But there was no apocalypse.
It was just Black Friday pandemonium to an extreme we had never seen.
A Simpler Life
Back in the calm, protective bubble of our rental car, we continued along our Durban to Mdumbi route inland and up into the mountains.
There, through our windshield, we whizzed by people living a life that wouldn’t be much affected even if an apocalypse were to strike.
As far as we could see in every direction, the green, treeless hillsides were polka-dotted with one little homestead after another where people seemed to live a simple life of subsistence.
We had to remind ourselves, somewhat incredulously, that this region, where life looked to not have changed much in centuries, exists in the same country as modern, cosmopolitan Cape Town.
(Not Exactly) Hakuna Mthatha
Six-and-a-half hours into our Durban to Mbundi escape, we hit the city of Mthatha.
From a distance, Mthatha’s city center looked like that of any other mid-sized city, with a small downtown of mid-sized office buildings.
Up close, it was more like the chaotic Black Friday supermarket from a few hours ago—a hectic gridlock of barely-moving vehicles with pedestrians and street vendors weaving in and out of them.
Our anxiety rose up again, especially Kim’s, since she was driving.
Even Google seemed to want out of the mess ASAP. It rerouted us away from the epicenter of Mthatha’s madness, down a dirt side street, and the wrong way across a one-lane bridge.
Into the Wild Coast
After a quick lunch of a plain pizza and shitty schnitzel at a fast-food-style restaurant (because, sadly, only crappy fast food restaurants exist in the poorer parts of the country), we left (un-)civilization for good.
We even left Google Maps behind.
Our destination, Mdumbi Backpackers, warned us that, unless we wanted “a real adventure,” we should not follow Google’s directions. We took their advice and instead followed their written directions for the final 93 kilometers.
The road steadily devolved from pristine pavement, to perilously potholed, to dirt, to rough and rocky.
We had worried that our little, low-clearance sedan would have issues with the rural road, but it turned out to not be a problem.
Ten hours after setting out from Durban, at last we saw the ocean again and approached our destination.
As we entered the gates of Mdumbi Backpackers, we fully exhaled and knew we’d escaped to a simpler life once and for all.
We checked into to the safari tent we’d spend our next couple of nights in (no more electric security fences!), stretched our legs by exploring the cliffside views, then sat down for a cozy, communal, candlelight dinner.
Our anxiety vanished.
Next Up (South Africa Road Trip Day 7):
Slow But Spectacular Progress Along the Wild Coast
How to Have an Even Better South Africa Road Trip than Ours
For everything from safety tips to how to find the best rental car to what our absolute favorite experiences are, check out our South Africa road trip tips.