Gone Away ~ The journal of Clive Allen in America

Hymn to Hendrina
(This is one of a series of articles I wrote dealing with memories of an African childhood. To read the first of these, click here)
The car slowed and stopped just before a dirt road that left the main highway. Two young hitch-hikers clambered out and dragged their backpacks from the car. With a wave the driver moved off and turned left to follow the dirt road. The young men watched him go, his dust trail marking his progress all the way to the empty horizon.

Up ahead on the main road were two buildings, the only ones to be seen on that flat and featureless plain. The two now hefted their packs and began to walk towards them. As they drew near they passed a sign that announced the name of the town; Hendrina. No comment passed between the two friends. They had both hitch-hiked this road so often that they knew every tiny dorp* and every town of any size along the way. And neither of them had ever thought that they might one day be stranded in tiny Hendrina. Who would possibly make such a place their destination?

The two buildings so visible from afar on the plain were the sum total that comprised the dorp. On the left stood an old gas station, still in operation, its two pumps attended by a Zulu employee and his friend. On the other side of the road stood a seedy motel. Hendrina, the fundament of the world, for everyone was just passing through.

Kim stopped and ventured a comment. "Who on earth is going to stay here in a place like that?" He indicated the motel with a jerk of his head. His companion just shrugged and carried on walking, his goal the gas station.

It was evening and the sun had set; already the gloom of night was looming over little Hendrina. For an hour the two friends stood outside the gas station, hoping against hope that a late traveler might come by and pick them up. But this was the empty stretch, the hundred miles of nothingness between Middelburg and Marble Arch. Hendrina was no more than the halfway point on that straight and empty highway. The likelihood of a lift had disappeared with the sun and both hikers knew it.

With all light gone from the sky and the chill of a Transvaal night settling on the plain, the hikers considered their options. They looked longingly now at that motel they had scorned so recently but knew there was no chance of succor there. The cost of a bed for the night was far beyond their means.

They faced the inevitable, shouldered their packs and walked into the light of the gas station. The attendant and his friend, locked out of the tiny office, had started a fire in a rusty 44 gallon drum with holes punched in it. This was their brazier, their means of providing heat for the long night ahead. The hikers greeted them and asked if they could share the heat. With outstretched arm, the attendant indicated that they were welcome.

He was old, this attendant, the gray beginning to speckle his short, black hair and the wrinkles of good humor etched into his face about the eyes. The deep civility of the Zulu was ingrained in both him and his friend, for they made no comment upon what strange circumstances brought two English boys to their company. A few comments passed between the group, appreciation of the warmth from the fire and a joke or two about the cold of the night; but this trailed away into silence as the language barrier became too great. The Zulus knew only their own tongue and Afrikaans, the hikers had little enough of either.

The night grew colder and the hikers inched close to the brazier, their faces ruddy and burning from the heat of the flames, their backs freezing from the icy air that surrounded the little group. Kim rose and took the sleeping bag from his pack, stepped into it and sat down on the earth again. His friend followed suit.

Deep into the night the hikers lay down on the hard ground and tried to sleep. Now they found that the gravel of the forecourt made a poor bed. The small stones were knife points that dug into the body wherever it made contact. No matter how they shifted, the two found it impossible to get comfortable. But they tried.

Through the night they lay, changing position every few minutes, while the cold bit harder and the night rumbled to the deep, quiet voices of the Zulu companions in their occasional, brief comments to each other. Occasionally one or the other hiker would doze for a few minutes but it would be true to say that their night was spent in cold and discomfort.

As dawn began to paint the sky with a faded light in the East, the hikers emerged stiffly from their sleeping bags. The Zulus had lain down at some time in the night and were now asleep, their thick layers of clothing apparently making them oblivious to the stones. The hikers stretched and rubbed aching bodies in the biting cold and gathering light. The sky grew molten with gold at the horizon, the black night at last yielding to the advent of the sun.

Kim walked to the water butt by the office door. The water was covered with a layer of ice and the friends inspected it in wonder, never having seen such a thing in their tropical Zimbabwe homeland. They tapped it, trying to estimate its thickness. It did not break. Then Kim turned from the ice and looked at the motel.

"That's it," he said, "I need a wash and I'm going to ask."

They re-packed their sleeping bags and headed across the road. The door to the motel's reception was unlocked and they opened it quietly, now a little surprised at their brazen-ness. A stout mevrou** rose from her seat behind the desk and sang out, "Goeie more, menheere."***

Kim launched into his request for a bath. He was good at this; his cheek had carried him through more than one crisis in his life. His companion merely stood and watched in admiration. The whole story came out, their journey, the unplanned halt in Hendrina, the tiredness and dirt that now occasioned his request. He did not omit mention of their inability to pay.

Before he had finished, the lady interrupted, switching effortlessly to a strongly accented but clear English. "You spent the night outside?"

As the two friends sheepishly nodded their confirmation, the lady burst out in indignation. "But you pair of poops, you should have come in and asked me. The motel's empty and I could have given you rooms for the night. Ag, you English, what's the matter with you - you think I'd care about the money?"

And she was true to her word. The two hikers enjoyed warm baths and a huge breakfast that morning, better than they were used to on the road. In little, forsaken Hendrina the true spirit of Afrikaaner hospitality was not dead.

* Dorp: Afrikaans word meaning small settlement or village.
** Mevrou: Afrikaans that means, as close as I can approximate, good wife.
*** Goeie more menheere: Good morning gentlemen.

(to read the next of the African Memories articles, click here)


I'll never forget the hospitality of my afrikaans friends Seef and Johan in Bloemfontein. The table was bowed down with food whenever we ate with them and they were proud to ferry us all over their fascinating country. it was lekker man, bai lekker.
Date Added: 12/01/2005

Gone Away
In my years of hitch-hiking in South Africa, it was always the Afrikaaners who gave lifts, never the English-origin ones. And they would happily put you up for the night if they thought you would be benighted.
Date Added: 12/01/2005

I not only tasted dust, I felt each of the taunting stones, and I shivered as well before the dawn broke. And being a traveler of little means, that sense of loneliness that can crop up in small dorps hit home, too. A vivid and poignant story, Clive.

"Sala kahle, hamba kahle"
Date Added: 12/01/2005

Gone Away
Way, where did you get that from? The man quotes Zulu back at me! In your honor, sir, I attempt its pronunciation: "Sah-lah garsh-lee, humber garsh-lee." Meaning, of course, "Stay well, go well", a most civil salutation. Thank you, Harry, both for the Zulu words and your kind comments.
Date Added: 12/01/2005

Since my Zulu's a bit rusty, I'll just leave it at "that was an incredible story".
Date Added: 12/01/2005

Gone Away
Thank you, Actress. What more can I say?
Date Added: 12/01/2005

Date Added: 17/01/2005

Gone Away
Thank you, Hannah. :)
Date Added: 17/01/2005

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