ZULULAND LETTER: The day Durban almost killed my family

Oupa said the Voortrekkers only survived Natal because they stuck together, so we shall do the same.

At least until we reached the safety of higher ground, which was the top of Van Reenen’s Pass.

That’s how, in the winter of 1986, we formed a three-car convoy on our way back to the Free State.

We, my parents, grandparents, uncle and aunt and two cousins, had just spent 10 lovely days in Margate squabbling over whose turn it was to slog five beach umbrellas, three cooler boxes and six camp chairs down to the beach.

We were all tired and severely sunburned and just wanted to be back home. I opted to ride with the two pensioners, having chosen seven hours of Nana Mouskouri’s moaning over the torture that was sharing a backseat with my little sister.


The night before the big trek back, Dad, Oupa and Uncle Elmo discussed tactics over some double Klipdrifts and coke.

The most treacherous part was getting past Durban and onto the N3 west.

While Natal – except for Margate’s main beach – was considered a dark and dangerous place, Durban of the late ’80s was where people disappeared without trace.

It was a city full of communists and hippies.

There’s opium in the curry and, once your brain is an empty bottle, they start filling it with the star, sickle and hammer, so the plan was to keep visual contact at all times.

Should there be some kind of in-transit emergency, a set of signals were devised – two flashes of the headlights if someone wanted to urinate (no Ultra Cities in those days), and three flashes for diarrhoea.

The latter was for Ouma who was feeling a bit fishy after mistakenly making herself a pilchard sandwich with leftover bait.


It happened at Prospecton, there where the Toyota factory still is today.

Oupa pointed out the thousands of Corollas and when we looked again we were alone, surrounded by communists in Peugeot 505s and rusty Fiats.

After driving on for another 5km without any sign of the other two cars, Oupa came to the conclusion that Dad and Uncle Elmo surely must have taken the wrong turn-off.

Ouma said if they venture into the city they will surely die in a terrorist attack – the Magoo’s Bar bombing had happened two weeks earlier.

Oupa considered that a blessing in disguise because death will be instantaneous and not as horrific as what will happen to them if they end up in KwaMashu.

He said if they went to the townships they would probably end up doused in petrol from head to toe and with tyres hanging around their necks.

I decided that having to listen to Nana Mouskouri wasn’t so bad after all.

Possible death

Oupa made the call to turn back and go look for our missing family members.

He subsequently dropped me and Ouma off next to the busy highway as lookouts and also as a reference point of some sort.

He instructed us to keep an eye out for the two missing cars and to flee into the bush if a Peugeot or Fiat pulled over.

He left us with a bottle of water and a roll of toilet paper.

The water turned out to be seawater and totally useless, but at least the toilet paper came in handy as Ouma had to answer the call of nature behind a tree three times.

We saw Oupa going by twice and waved.

He waved back and blew the hooter, as did some other motorists.

After four hours at the roadside he returned to pick us up.

He said even though he fearlessly cruised the Marine Parade for two hours he didn’t find my parents.

He then headed out to find KwaMashu, but got lost himself and ended up in Stanger.

He claimed Stanger was even more frightening than Point Road.

On Van Reenen we found a payphone and called home to inform what’s left of our family about the possible deaths.

Dad answered on the third ring.

Val van der Walt

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