“Look out!” I braced against the dashboard with my right hand and held firmly to the passenger door handle with my left as Kurt swerved quickly to the right, briefly crossing the center of the two-lane highway before correcting back to our lane.
We were dodging potholes on a small highway in South Africa, northbound toward The Panorama Route for a long-weekend getaway. I had second-guessed our GPS when it wanted to take us a different way, having forgotten our good road atlas at home. I tried choosing the correct route from memory, and now we were paying for it.These were not the potholes we came to see. Our destination on The Panorama Route was Bourke’s Luck Potholes, a special geological formation where the Treur River empties into the Blyde River, in what is considered the start of the Blyde River Canyon. Those potholes were named for a gold digger who had unsuccessfully searched for gold nearby (it was later discovered near where he was prospecting.
These road potholes were named for nobody, but I was pretty sure one of them had our name on it! No sooner had we returned to our lane than we saw the next pothole, directly in front of the right tire. It’s amazing how much the brain can process in a split second: can’t swerve right, because traffic is coming from the other direction; can’t swerve left because there is barely any berm on the side of the road and the road itself has worn away, leaving jagged drops between asphalt and dirt; we are going to have to drive into this one; brace.
Some of them knock the wind out of you. Others will pop your tire. On our white-knuckle driving along Route 36 we passed an SUV and a car, each in the process of changing a flat.
We hit the pothole, head on. Gratefully we realize this one was an optical illusion. It had been patched but the color of gravel and patched asphalt makes it impossible to know how deep it will be until you’re on top of it.
Heavy rains and flooding in March had pitted many of these roads in Mpumalanga Province. Since moving here we’ve heard jokes about Mpumalanga potholes. They are often used in hyperbole, such as: “Man, that hole is as deep as an Mpumalanga pothole.” Many have staged jokes about the potholes here, particularly along this section of road. There is a Photoshopped image of a giraffe head peeping through a pothole, and this year a woman from Mpumalanga staged a social media protest to fix the roads by having photos of herself taking a bath in one of the larger craters.
I want to call those March rains “spring rains” but keep reminding myself we’re the flipside of home, and March signals the change from summer to autumn. Or, if you consult the locals, it’s more that summer simply gives way to winter, and autumn doesn’t really happen.
But even for the rains that signal the change from summer to winter, this year was extraordinarily heavy, they tell us. Rains have gouged miniature canyons in the thin, hastily laid asphalt, through to the dirt beneath. If, like this year, the rain and flooding are relentless, some roads, like this weakened Route 36, become a minefield for cars attempting to risk it. The road, in fact, was not recommended for anything but local use. But we didn’t know this as we traveled. We only knew we were now experiencing the infamous Mpumalanga potholes everyone was joking about. Only this drive was no joke.
“At least it isn’t raining.” I said to Kurt, as he made the choice to drop down onto the berm of the road to avoid a large pit toward the center line. We drove nearly half a football field straddling the berm as we avoided more potholes and a tractor-trailer passing the other direction.
“Boy you got that right.” He also knew that potholes in the rain were the worst. The hype about potholes in South Africa isn’t without merit. This spring I watched a video on a local news site where a woman crossing a highway stepped into what seemed to be a puddle, and immediately dropped from sight. The rain-filled hole had started as a pothole, but the earth beneath had worn away so deeply and quickly that it was literally a pit. She quickly scrambled out, trying to recover any dignity she had. If our car hit that, we could become one of those on the side of the road, changing a flat, or worse.
We at least had a guide for our potholes…sort of. We were following a tandem truck which seemed at any moment like he would go rolling off into the bush. He was swerving left and right around the holes, frequently crossing the center line to avoid them. The second part of his tandem trailer seemed always on the verge of wrecking, but he never broke his speed. We, in turn, kept up our speed behind him, believing it was better to use the trucker’s vantage point of height to see and avoid potholes, and follow his careening, swerving path down the highway to avoid them ourselves.
It seemed to work frighteningly well for a while. He swerved, we swerved. In the dwindling daylight, with shadows playing tricks on what was or wasn’t a pothole, following this truck’s path seemed so far to be the most helpful way of avoiding the biggest craters; the tire-poppers.
“Oh my God!” I followed Kurt’s gaze to the road ahead. We had reached a long stretch of straightaway, and could see beyond the truck in front of us. Several cars and trucks on both sides of the road were swerving back and forth, crossing the center lane at what seemed like near-misses at each point. Nobody was driving slowly. Everyone kept up speed, probably also chasing daylight to avoid this road at night. Quick whips and turns and center-line crosses seemed to weave in and out of each other like a well-choreographed, but horrific, ballet. I did not want to be around for the climactic scene.
I sucked in my breath and gripped the door tightly. The truck in front of us was still swinging crazily back and forth, and I watched in disbelief as its whipping rear trailer came back to our side of the road just as another tractor-trailer passed us in the other direction. Slam. We had no choice but to hit that pothole, but thankfully our tires were still holding.
We quickly made it through the remainder of the opposing traffic. Kurt made the call again to ride the berm as we refused to engage in the center-line game of chicken-pot-pie, hitting several more holes in the process.
That line seemed to mark the end of the worst section of road and we were soon breathing easily as we finished our route to the lodge. In the morning we drove to Bourke’s Luck Potholes, one of the highlights of the Panorama Route. This was the kind of “breathtaking” I had been looking for. Also gouged by heavy rains, but for thousands of years, this geologic wonder spiraled downward into swirling potholes. Some were dry, others filled with water. A waterfall was thundering into the start of a few more. Along with water, sand and rock barrel over the cliff’s edges, pummeling and grinding to create the great, gouged potholes we were staring into.
We stood on the bridges spanning the chasm and simply stared into the sandstone bedrock walls with their charming shades of red and brown. Dark orange streaks stained the canyon walls. The rushing whitewater created a perfect contrast to the streaks and swirls of the rock. Whirlpools churned furiously in some, while others held still water that sparkled in the sunlight and reflected the wavering images of tourists standing on a bridge high above. The roar of the waterfall filled our ears, the sun heated our skin and we just stood at the railing looking down into the gorge. I snapped a photograph of our shadows looking like rock art against the distant canyon wall.
The trauma of the evening before was behind us. We were here, looking at landscape that seemed out of time and place.
The moment seemed perfect and I was lost in the wonder of it. Kurt squeezed my hand and I looked up at him. “Honey…” he smiled at me sweetly and I smiled back. “I love you” I said to him, hurrying to say it in case maybe we would say it at the same time. He smiled wider, “I love you too, dear… But I’m not driving back that road again. We need to get a map.”
An American Expat in South Africa, Marla is a freelance writer and global explorer. She creates travel adventures for herself following in the footsteps of her favorite authors. An American expat, she currently lives in Pretoria, South Africa, where she blogs her adventures on travelingmarla.com and is revising her first manuscript.