For years afterwards, the Xhosa herdsman talked about the night he saw the ghost truck in the hills on the Flagstaff road to the Wild Coast. It made him famous locally and he would take pleasure from terrifying his children with the story. By the time the herdsman’s children had their own offspring, the tale had passed into local legend.To this day the Xhosa regard it as a haunted stretch of road.
It was Easter 1965. The fog was thick and the herdsman could hear the noise of an approaching truck. Then he could see headlights, yellow eyes in a wall of mist. It did not sound normal and he felt fear gripping him. The labouring engine was rising and then falling back, as the accelerator was applied and then released.
The apparition approached at a slow speed – not much greater than the jogging pace of a man. As the Xhosa stepped aside, a horse that had been hidden in the mist reared in fright and the cream-coloured Dodge truck swerved to avoid it.The herdsman peered through the windscreen and muttered an oath, his heart beating faster, his feet welded to the spot. He wanted to run away.
The truck had no driver. All he could see was a small pair of white hands gripping the steering wheel.The man’s gasp of alarm went unheeded in the wilderness. He ran terrified to his kraal. The Xhosa had witnessed the supernatural, and this was not a good omen for his family.
What the Xhosa didn’t see at the wheel of the Dodge was a diminutive girl of less than five feet, in her early teens with cropped blonde hair, wearing yellow shorts, and a hand-medown white T-shirt belonging to an older brother. She was slightly chubby with sad brown eyes, and a determined jaw. Fourteen-year-old Heather McLellan had never driven any vehicle in her life, but she was at the wheel of one now, on one of the Transkei’s most dangerous roads. It connects Kokstad with Flagstaff in Pondoland and has claimed the lives of many people over the years with its sheer drops and unguarded sharp bends. Its worst hazard, the 5,285-feet Brooks Nek Pass, is well known.
Heather could hardly reach the pedals of the truck from the driving position; her head was level with the bottom of the windscreen. After the Flagstaff turning to the Wild Coast, the road becomes a dust track and is much narrower. There are hairpin bends and sloping drops. Untended cattle, horses,
donkeys, wander the mountain passes at night, creating further sudden hazards for the unprepared. As she drove, Heather prayed for guidance and protection. She was praying when the horse reared as she passed the Xhosa, but never noticed his presence. Her eyes were fixed on the dangers ahead. Beside her, asleep on the seat, was eleven-year-old Basil. Next to him sprawled John McLellan, drunk and oblivious to anything going on around him. The constant pleading of the engine for release into a higher gear filled Heather’s ears.
Twelve hours earlier, the two youngsters had broken up for their Easter holidays from Kokstad High School, where they were boarders.They should have been home hours before. For years the McLellan children had dreaded the end of term. They feared it because their father regarded the occasion as an opportunity to meet up with his old comrades at the bars of various hotels. By the time he arrived at the school he was more boisterous – and much louder – than the sober adults who had also come to collect their children.
The McLellans were never teased about their father, but his behaviour was an embarrassment to his daughter. It had always been the same at the end of term over a period of seven years. In daylight it should have been a two-hour journey. The route would take the truck about fifteen miles through the tarmac mountain road from Kokstad, a further 22 miles after turning left at the Flagstaff turn onto the dirt road towards the Wild Coast, and then a further 16 miles along a narrow track to a dead end at the remote trading post at Madada.
Under normal circumstances, the youngsters should have been eagerly anticipating the delights of home and a welcome cuddle from Mum. But it never turned out like that. Once John McLellan had driven away from the school in late afternoon, he never had any intention of getting back home as soon as he could.Without exception the war veteran would want to play snooker with his old comrades – usually winning round after round. He would find old pals in the hotel bars of Kokstad, then he’d insist upon driving to another small town called Mt Ayliffe, and there join a second group of snookerplaying veterans to drink until one or two in the morning. He would leave the depressed children in the front cabin of the Dodge to await his drunken return, returning only occasionally with some money to send them to a tea room, or enable them to buy a glass of lemonade and a packet of chips.
The problem at Easter 1965 was that Heather’s older brother and sister, who had usually shared her misery and long hours of waiting, and who always took over the responsibility of driving home, had now left the school. This time Heather was shouldering the responsibility for getting young Basil and herself safely back to the Madada trading post. Her father had promised their mother he would not go drinking, but he had forgotten that promise many hours before the Xhosa herdsman saw them. After drinking until eleven o’clock that night in Kokstad, he was drunk but wanted more.
“Please, Dad, let’s go home. Please, Dad, please, Dad, don’t drink any more,” Heather pleaded – but he ignored the Flagstaff turn and began the long and dangerous ascent through the mountains to Mt Ayliffe.The children waited outside the small town hotel for a further two hours while their father drank with the other customers inside. At one stage a young policeman wandered out of the hotel and stood on the veranda, looking with interest at the teenager in the Dodge. For a moment the girl thought she could ask him to help her extract her father from the bar. Perhaps he might issue a stiff warning to him about the dangers of drinking and driving.
“Hey, could you tell Uncle Mac we want to go home now?” she asked him. However, as he sauntered back towards the bar with a grin on his face, Heather was old enough to sense that the policeman’s motives had more to do with sexual opportunism than the call of duty. She became more frightened as he pestered her on several occasions. “Just go away and leave us alone, please,” she eventually snapped. He lost interest and wandered back to the bar.
At last, John McLellan staggered out of the hotel. He slumped inside the cabin of the Dodge, stupefied by alcohol, and was soon losing consciousness. Heather shunted the big man to the edge of the bench and got behind the wheel herself. She knew where the pedals were, and what they were for, but couldn’t reach them. She was too small to shift the gears in a normal way.The girl at length managed to start the vehicle and moved off, lurching forward in second gear, where the truck stayed for the rest of the journey.
At five o’clock in the morning, after more than four hours at the wheel of the Dodge, Heather finally arrived back at Madada trading station. Brenda McLellan was waiting by the gate as it pulled up. She opened the door and gasped with astonishment when she saw her daughter at the wheel. “Good God!” she said.“We’re going to have to give you some driving lessons! I think we’ll start tomorrow.”
The children walked with their mother into the house. John McLellan was left to snore the rest of his night out in the Dodge. The following day he didn’t ask how he’d got home, and the subject was never mentioned afterwards.