Driving through the Transkei and a Route 56 Trip
Updated: Dec 4, 2021
After our time in Chintsa and the Wild Coast, we continued northeast towards our friends in Durban. To get there, we had a few route options. Due to its history and natural beauty, we opted for a trip through the Transkei along South Africa’s Route 56.
A History of the Transkei
The Transkei played a central role in Apartheid. More precisely, it played a central role in overcoming Apartheid.
During the 20th century, the South African government implemented a “homeland” policy. Rather than integrate non-whites, the government opted for a flawed compromise, a policy of creating separate homelands - known as Bantustans - for Africans. At face value, this policy gave black South Africans “independence.” In reality, it was a way of punting full representation in the South African government down the line.
From 1976 to 1994, the Transkei existed as one of these Bantustans. The Transkei is also the historical homeland of the Xhosa people, Nelson Mandela being one. Mandela and many of the most prominent anti-Apartheid activists were adamentaly opposed to the homeland policy, seeing it for its true colors - segregation by a separate name. In this respect, the Transkei region raised the most vocal opponents of Apartheid while concurrently existing as a testament to the South African regime’s oppresive policies.
Transkei means “beyond the River Kei,” the geographic feature that separated its western borders from the Cape Province. Today, the former Transkei has been rolled into the Eastern Cape province. But, regardless of name or official borders, the area remains a region of agricultural abundance and beauty. Driving through there, rolling, green hills, pastures, winding streams, and grazing livestock stretch for as far as the eye can see.
And, these countless livestock lead to a local tongue-in-cheek saying. On African safaris, guides and - formerly - hunters, refer to the most aggressive beasts as the “Big Five” - lions, leopards, elephants, Cape Buffalo, and the black rhinoceros. As Tobz explained, due to the frequent livestock-induced traffic jams throughout the region, people refer to the “Transkei Big Five” - cows, pigs, sheep, donkeys, and goats!
Route 56, Stop One: Maclear and a Very Loud Parrot
N2 - one of South Africa’s national highways - takes you on the most direct route through the Transkei. But, it also passes directly through Mthatha, the area’s largest city (and former capital of the Transkei). Talking to locals, livestock in the roads and general city traffic could lead to hours-long traffic jams passing through Mthatha - no thanks.
Researching alternate paths, we stumbled upon South Africa’s Route 56, a provincial route through the mountains of the historic Transkei region. Dotted with picturesque villages, B&Bs, and scenic look-out points, Route 56 - if you have the time - is a far prettier and more laid-back option for heading up towards Durban.
Plotting our course, we basically threw a dart at the town of Maclear, nestled in the foothills of the Drakensberg Mountains. Jenna read about a cool-looking inn - the Alpine Bed and Breakfast - that seemed like a perfect first stop.
The rooms were great, and what really sold us was the awesome restaurant (and bar) on site. As the B&B title suggests, breakfast is included in all stays, but the restaurant also serves absolutely delicious dinners. After a somewhat stressful drive through a mountain hail storm, grabbing a beer and hot meal here was like manna from heaven!
Alpine also happened to have a fairly unique “alarm clock.” The next morning, we awoke to quite the shrieking. Somewhat startled, we pulled back the blinds and saw a massive parrot perched outside the window, something we’d failed to notice the night prior. What a wake-up!
Route 56, Stop Two: An Unintended Stay at a Gospel Camp
Jenna refuses to admit it, but Chipp’s pretty sure that the place she found for our second night along Route 56 was actually a gospel camp - not the wilderness resort she’d pitched it as…
Built in a stunning log-cabin style and surrounded by pine-lined mountains, the ANEW Resort Ingeli certainly looks like a wilderness resort. And, in fact, it is. But, when we arrived and checked into our room, we took a stroll around the grounds. With a big swimming pool, Chipp was pretty convinced there’d be a pool bar. Nope, instead, there’s a chapel.
ANEW bills itself as a wedding venue, and the chapel supports that angle. Not knowing this background, Chipp, however, immediately thought Jenna had roped him into a night’s stay at a Christian retreat. Naturally, he was quite relieved to find the full bar inside the hotel. And, it turned into an ideal evening - delicious fireside dinner, good South African wine, and a great night’s sleep curled up against the cold mountain air.
“If It Was Easy, It’d Just be the Way”
Next stop, Durban’s South Coast to meet up with our friends - an easy, hour-ish drive from ANEW. At least, it should have been an easy, hour-ish drive.
Jenna doesn’t like to drive - especially with a manual transmission on the other side of the road. So, Chipp drove, and she navigated.
Jenna, uttering those famous last words: “It looks like there’s a faster route if you take this next right.”
Chipp, subtle alarms ringing: “Okay… You sure it connects?”
Jenna: “Yeah, definitely.”
An hour of driving on dirt roads, through dry creek beds, and at least one too-close-for-comfort actual river crossing later, we arrived at St. Michael’s on Sea. Adrenaline slowly easing, we took inventory of the car. It didn’t look damaged, but it was tough to be sure through the caked mud covering its side.
As they say in Road Trip, “It’s called a shortcut for a reason. If it was easy, it’d just be the way!”