When I cycled from Cape Town to Durban in May 1982 I carried a tent, sleeping bag, cooking utensils and a few changes of clothing that I would need for a holiday in Natal and Sun City with the sexy girlfriend who was flying to meet me at the end of the bicycle leg.
The camping gear came in handy at the caravan parks where I spent my nights in South Africa. But when I got to the independent state of Transkei there were no caravan parks. At my first hotel stop, in the one-horse town of Butterworth, I learnt that I had left a vital item behind. “We require gentlemen to wear jackets and ties for dinner,” I was informed by the severe-looking elderly female receptionist. My plea that I wasn’t really a gentleman was not accepted. She said that she could lend me a tie, but that I would have to find my own jacket.
Later that evening, as I tucked into the substantial hotel dinner, I looked around me to see if anyone was staring at me, because I was quite sure that I was the only person in the whole world wearing a tie and pyjama jacket. Fortunately the diners at such an upmarket venue were too polite to stare. Instead I stared at them; and reflected that, after dinner I would have a slight advantage over them: I merely had to change my trousers, but not my top when I got into bed.
My next stop, at the Holiday Inn in Umtata was unremarkable. But the clientele at this one was far more mixed than at any hotel in South Africa.
My final Transkei stop was at the New Carlton Hotel in Mount Frere. A glance through the register revealed that I was the only paleface to have stayed there in yonks. Nevertheless my bike and I were made very welcome by the locals. Almost too welcome. One fellow was most insistent about buying my bike for R100 and putting me on the bus to Durban: “Come, let us go to the bar and discuss this deal.” Fortunately these negotiations were cut short when the pretty receptionist announced that my room was ready.
At dinner that evening nobody wore a tie. I watched the next table with interest as a hip fellow with a fuzzy-wuzzy hairdo sat down next to a large great-coated baldy from the Transkei. After a while their talk drifted into silence, and the fuzzy-wuzzy announced loudly, “You know, I seem to be the only one making conversation around heah.” Baldy muttered, “You people from Joburg make us nervous.”
After dinner I decided to absorb some more local colour in the TV lounge where I was joined by Baldy and Fuzzy. Baldy thought we should go to the bar to get drinks, but Fuzzy (who turned out to be a lawyer from Soweto assisting in a local case) cut him short: “No – one of these boys will bring us a drink”
He dashed out into the passage and came back with the 70-year-old waiter who had earlier brought me afternoon tea in my room, and who had told me that he had worked at the Arthur’s Seat Hotel in Sea Point. He courteously took our orders of a Carling for Baldy, a Castle for me, and a gin and tonic for Fuzzy.
The total bill for the drinks came to about R3 (things were a lot cheaper in 1982). Fuzzy handed the waiter a R10 note and said grandly, “Keep the change.” Need I add that the service remained top class after that?
There were a few subsequent shortcomings such as three power failures, a cessation of the water supply after my morning bath, and a few weevils in the breakfast Weet-Bix. But I wouldn’t have missed my stay there for anything. Incidentally, the lack of cold tap water when I needed to fill my three water bottles for the next leg of the journey caused some concern. But the clever 70-year-old solved the problem by getting water from the hot tap and mixing it with ice from the kitchen fridge.
When I hauled out a credit card to pay the bill (I think it came to R15) there was some consternation. Eventually a dust-covered credit-card machine was found, and a long-handled feather duster was used to clean it. The machine went flick flack and I was sent on my way with beaming smiles and enthusiastic waves.