Our route turned northward from the end of the wine route toward Underberg near the Drakenberg Mountains.  Since the drive there was over 10 hours we decided to split the distance, so as not to drive in the dark.  Therefore we chose to overnight in the city of Mthatha.  A funny name for a city, I thought.

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The dirty roads of Mthatha

Mthatha, at first glance, appeared unremarkable. Our booked accommodation, located in a supposedly nicer area, resembled a converted house. The first red flag? A message popped up on our phone upon arrival: “The hotel is full. Please proceed to a different location.”

Since we were already in front of the huge gate of this booking.com listing, we replied, informing them of our presence.  A few long minutes passed.  Finally, the gate groaned open, and a woman named Sonia, showed us to our room.  The house/hotel did not look full.  Not at all, as we passed room after room that were unoccupied and open.  It was already late in the day, so we doubted that these rooms would be full by the end of the day.

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The river in Mthatha.

The lingering unease intensified when Sonia, insisted on adding her WhatsApp number to my phone.  Why, I thought?!  We were just staying for the night. And her room was downstairs in the house. Why would I need her phone number, I thought?  She snatched my phone from my hands and started doing something to it.  Shrugging it off, we settled in for the night.

The morning dawned, but the strangeness lingered. Sonia’s cold stare as we left sent shivers down my spine.  Rob didn’t even notice, focusing on navigating away from this strange accommodation, through the heavy iron gate and onto the main road.   About a minute after we left, a  dark grey sedan sped past us like a bat out of hell, blowing through a red light.  How odd, we thought.

Rob continued down the road (which was the only main road running north/south through Mthatha).   As soon as we got to the next traffic light we were flagged down by a man in a green fluorescent worker’s vest. He directed us to turn left off the main road, claiming the “President was in town and all out-of-town cars had to go this way.” Something didn’t feel right.

Rob glanced back – no other cars were following us. We made a quick U-turn, and immediately behind us, saw what seemed like the same grey car screeching to a halt.  The car was full of men and passing the car, we saw the man in the green vest hiding between other men in the back seat, trying to hide. Another car, packed with men, followed close behind. They weren’t happy we disobeyed.

Adrenaline coursing through our veins, we raced back towards the main road and the northbound exit. We weaved through traffic, the grey car and its companion in hot pursuit. Thankfully, a yellow light allowed us to shoot through an intersection, leaving them stuck behind a red light and a slow-moving truck. They were momentarily out of sight.

Rob made a right turn away from the main road towards the small downtown of Mthatha.  The streets were very full of people crisscrossing the street in front of the car.  I  scanned the road to figure out where to hide, what to do, how to get out of this place?!

We knew fleeing back towards the main road was risky, but staying put felt like a death sentence.  Turning back onto the main road, Rob sped up the car.  About 2 minutes from the turn off we again saw the dark grey sedan trying to hide on the side of the road.  Without hesitation, Rob slammed on the brakes and swerved into a reckless U-turn. Tires shrieked in protest as we narrowly avoided a head-on collision with another car. The driver, a man with wide, terrified eyes, slammed on his brakes just in time. A wave of guilt washed over us, but it was quickly replaced by a surge of adrenaline. We couldn’t afford to stop.

Our hearts hammered in our chests. Should we go to the police? South African police have a reputation, and trust wasn’t exactly overflowing.  Plus, according to our Googlemaps the police station was a long 14 minutes away,southbound.  In the wrong direction of our escape route!  But we were trapped.  To top it off, we were running low on gas.  Hoping for a safe haven, we decided to take a chance and aimed for a gas station perched on a hilltop over the main road.

As we pulled in, the feeling of safety evaporated. Our car was immediately swarmed by people. A man demanded we purchase a permit from him to drive on the road – another scam concocted due to the supposed “presidential visit.” Another claimed the credit card machine was broken, forcing a cash transaction for gas. Panic gnawed at us.  Rob looked down the hill and immediately spotted the green vest guy (now vest-less) talking on his phone – clearly tipping off our pursuers. The two suspicious cars were parked strategically below, the net closing in.

A man pretending to be a manager of the gas station ordered me to go to the ATM to pay for the gas.  Apparently their credit card machine was not working.  Stupidly I got out of the car to pay.  I was told that the ATM was broken and that I needed to go to the office behind the building.  Knowing that this was another dangerous proposition, I ran back to the car.

Thankfully, Rob had managed to pay the gas attendant with his credit card.  It was obvious the man pretending to be the manager was also scamming us!   The man demanding the fake permit continued to bang on the hood of the car, harassing us.

We were cornered, feeling like prey surrounded by predators. A desperate gamble – the police station. Rob drove slowly down the ramp, hoping to gauge the location of our pursuers. They were waiting, of course. With a heavy foot on the gas pedal, Rob launched into a heart-stopping chase. Red lights became mere suggestions, turns were taken with reckless abandon. We weaved through traffic, buildings offering fleeting moments of cover. Finally, we spotted a police car. Honking like maniacs, we practically forced them to pull over.

Gasping for breath, we explained our ordeal. The police officers – to our immense relief – confirmed our suspicions: the men were criminals. They offered us an escort 25 minutes out of town.  Only later did the full gravity of the situation hit us. Google revealed Mthatha’s horrifying secret: This little town is one of the world’s top 5 murder capitals!  Their MO is to first rape their victims then murder them and take their possessions.

As we drove towards Underberg, and our amazing Airbnb stay there, we took pictures of the license plates of any cars that passed or would follow us.  Next, we would send those pictures and our whereabouts to Rob’s brother in Vancouver through What’s App.

Lessons Learned in South Africa

There are a few lessons learned in South Africa during this trip.  Most importantly, that there are cities to avoid in South Africa – and other parts of the world!  Of course we knew about Jo’burg, Durban and Cape Town…but we never thought that a small town in the middle of nowhere could be this dangerous.

Nowadays, we always research a town/city where we will stop for a night, in advance.  Particularly in a country that is not considered to be a secure one.  And only then do we actually book an accommodation.  If there are any concerns, we find a way around it.  We are now a lot more suspicious about our reservations, even if they are through a well known platform like booking.com.

In addition, we now share our route, accommodation details, car information, tour guide information and flights/transportation information with someone we trust.  This way, as we check into a place,  arrive somewhere, etc., we let that person know that we are safe.

Wrap Up – Scary Road Trip in South Africa

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Plettenberg Bay on the wine route in gorgeous southern South Africa

It took me over 2 years to be able to write about this road trip in South Africa.  To this day, I still have PTSD about what had happened.  What was going to happen to us when they cornered us? Was Sonia part of this scheme?  Should we have let booking.com know about our suspicions?  We did not have any proof and really wanted to forget about the whole terrifying situation.

What would you have done?  Do you have a road trip in South Africa story or for anywhere else in the world?  We would love to hear from you!  And if you like other scary stories, read about our Scary Malaria story in Africa.