Dakak isn’t such a shitty place


Dakak isn’t such a shitty place

There are destinations HERMAN LATEGAN loves precisely because of their shortcomings. Beautiful places can be ugly and vice versa, and memories made there never fade.



“I LOVE you, I hate you, don’t leave me” is the type of relationship some people find themselves in, but it is what I have experienced in many places around the world and here at home.

Years ago, I went to Lagos. Friends asked me if I was sure I wanted to go. One woman held my hand and almost tearfully asked me not to.

I went. It was midnight when I arrived, and hot. A kind of humid heat that leaves you feeling battered.

The roads were congested. About 15 million people live in this sprawling city. Long lines of cars moved slowly in the dark. Traffic lights didn't work, and what should have been an hour-long journey to Victoria Island took twice as long.

At the hotel, I looked out over a dark city. The next morning at dawn, it was already a smouldering 30°C. I took a tour to a botanical garden. Once again, the traffic was bumper to bumper. Occasionally, there were tyres burning with black smoke swirling in the air. Bicycles and mopeds rushed past us.

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The garden was lush, with colourful birds and their graceful flights. In the minibus, the man behind me told me not to move. There was a spider the size of a hand on the back of my head. All I need is to die in the heat in Lagos, I thought. He took a newspaper and gently flicked the potentially deadly creature away.

It ran out the window. Later that day, we travelled by boat over a lagoon to a restaurant. Things that looked like crocodiles floated in the water.

The food consisted of lamb with pepper sauce and a local lager to combat the heat. I enjoyed the encounter with the locals so much that I decided to go out to experience a bit of nightlife.

As I walked to the hotel gates around 8pm, the guard advised me not to go. I walked out anyway. A guy on a scooter stopped and asked where I was going. I said I was looking for a bit of nightlife, not too far from the hotel. Just then, the streetlights went out.

Everywhere, I saw people lighting candles. I hopped on his ride and off we went. He dropped me at a pulsating club full of flickering candles and people drinking and dancing. The music was Fela Aníkúlápó Kútì's distinctive Afrobeat sounds. Hours later, I found my way back to the hotel; the streetlights had come back on.

Beautiful city, ugly city, but Lagos will never let me go, even if it was only a one-night stand.

Dakak, Philippines


When our plane flew from Manila over vast tropical forests, I looked down at Mindanao island and Dakak beach. The latter's name amused me, but when I thought of Kallie and Monique I remembered a teacher who often said, “after laughter comes tears, brother".

About 7,600 islands form the Philippine archipelago. This is one of them and it is well-known for its holiday resort, Dakak, where you can sunbathe, dive, ride horses, practise archery and a host of other things. There are flying frogs, snakes, crabs and other critters.

Unfortunately, it's not my idea of relaxation; I seek big, loud cities with dark pubs and fully unbalanced people.

Think Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway in Barfly. Even as a guest, I had already announced that I was going to do my own thing.

Someone working at the resort gave me a chance on a moped. “Pub, please, a pub," I begged. We raced through a tropical rainforest and over large bodies of water. Warm rain poured on us and we ended up in Dapitan City. The architecture was grotesque, the heat like a thick wool blanket folding around you in a sauna.

I was dropped off at a bar, stumbled in with a burning thirst, asked for a beer. I struck up a conversation with a stranger; after a few drinks, we became best pals. He invited me to eat with his family; they lived in a cottage in the heart of the forest near Dakak. We hopped on his motorcycle and sped there as if hyenas were chasing us.

Upon arrival, the children and his wife greeted me. We sat outside; pots clattering. Brightly coloured insects came to rest on my sweaty forehead and I brushed them off. For plates, she used flattened banana leaves.

A monkey jumped on the table; they shooed it away. Somewhere, I heard a rustling that sounded like a snake, but I was too scared to look.

The beer flowed, everyone laughed heartily, the branches started to sway. Dramatically, his wife arrived with a platter full of large eggs.

They were balut, fertilised duck eggs that had been incubated for a few weeks. The little duckling was clearly recognisable. Thankfully dead, although the face looked lively.

The family started to eat; you could hear bones crunching, salt and vinegar thrown over them. They peeked at me. “It’s good for a hangover," his wife said, tilting her head back and quacking. Here, I might still be murdered, I thought, panicking.

He placed another cold beer in front of me. Well then, I wanted to be a barfly, now I have a cure for a hangover. Dakak wasn't exactly what the name suggests.

Paarden Eiland


This large neighbourhood in Cape Town has always been fascinating. At least for me. Jan van Riebeeck allegedly referred to hunting in the area, and the rivers were inhabited by hippos. In 1935, it was declared an industrial area.

Today, it pulsates feverishly with big barking Mad Max trucks, MyCiTi buses travel through it, people load and unload provisions, there's smoking on street corners, scuba tanks make noise; the whole place rocks and shakes with productivity.

There are takeout shops where you can order viennas and chips, curry samoosas, Fanta and polony sandwiches. Yellowed newspaper pages flutter in the wind, the smell of petrol and diesel hangs over the place.

The buildings are monolithic temples to hard work with bare hands, sometimes bent and old but they put food on the table for generations.

Yes, the architecture is cruel, brutal, an assault on the retina, almost uncouth. The walls are merciless. When the southeaster blows, the wind howls around the sharp corners like a butcher's knives cutting through bones.

There are a few hidden pubs such as The Dry Dock Taverna (the name!), where you won't hear people engaging in polite conversations. One evening, I saw a woman of a certain age with a large white cake there. Her lungs were raw from years of smoking; she struggled to blow out the one big candle.

Eventually, when she succeeded, a few men in dirty blue overalls sang, “Happy birthday dear Moira, happy birthday to you." Moira then burst into tears and put on her large sunglasses with white frames. It reminded me of verses from an RK Belcher poem: “Hoit, hoit, kappit, kappit eit / want more is jy alles kwyt / spoeg in die lug en sing, jong sing / want die lewe is 'n bitter ding.”

Paarden Eiland, you delightful thing. 



There are two things in Trompsburg that I remember vividly. One day, I was walking down the street with a friend who wanted to check out the butcher's shop. While he was inside, I decided to take a stroll. The street was quiet.

A man shuffled towards me with a walking stick, leaning forward. As he got closer, I become increasingly anxious because I could see who it was. Karel Schoeman was about to walk right past me, and like a typical fool I wanted to talk to him.

I stopped him with a “Hello, Mr Schoeman". He glared at me and I thought I needed to be quick on my feet. I was good friends with the librarian Penny Sonnenberg, who worked with him for years at the National Library of South Africa. I mentioned it to him and his demeanour softened. “Yes, Miss Sonnenberg," he replied. “Send her my regards." She told me that he always spoke Afrikaans with everyone, liked flowers, and was always friendly with the brown and black workers.

We talked about this and that and mutual friends. As I left, he said to me, “Listen, it's terrible to get old, really." He looked at his walking stick, looked at me, lifted it, pressed it against my chest, and theatrically said, “Your time will come!"

He shuffled away, those last words lingering with me. How can one forget something like that?

The second event that stood out was actually a place, a motel. It's in the past, so I don't want to mention the name because it may have changed, but my memories of that place are still vivid. A motel is, for me, an ecosystem of deserted places like the one in Bagdad Cafe, people and their stories coming and going, a feeling of an Edward Hopper painting, the atmosphere of a Johnny Cash song sung when he was at his most broken.

It was a cloudy day in the Free State and the clouds were dark. Earlier in the day, there had been thunderstorms, lightning. If you opened the car window, you could smell the unrest. I was looking for a drink and heard about this motel in a village outside Trompsburg, just far enough that it could be described as secluded.

I drove through open gates and parked in a large, empty area. When I got out, I heard the gravel under my feet, the eerie silence of the afternoon. The motel's door was slightly ajar. Inside, I found a 1970s time capsule. Very brown.

I saw a dining room full of tables, white tablecloths, glasses, set for dinner. Still silent. There was something macabre about an empty dining room in the middle of nowhere. At the counter was a bell that I tried to ring, but it didn't work. I called and called. Eventually, I heard soft footsteps. A woman looked at me in horror.

“Where is the bar?" I asked. “The bar is that way, sir," she pointed. I walked in; on the walls were signatures, including that of the writer Alexander Strachan. What the hell had he been doing here?


I asked for a glass of wine and the woman looked at me as if I'd ordered  caviar. “We only have sweet wine, sir," she said. The bar looked somewhat like a hospital. There I sat, alone, no one outside, nothing inside the bar either.

“Is there music?" I asked. On a crackly speaker, I heard Etta James, I'd Rather Go Blind. Her voice full of melancholy. She sang, “Something told me it was over / When I saw you and her talkin' / Something deep down in my soul said, ‘Cry girl' / When I saw you and that girl walkin' around

A sad feeling came over me. Outside, the thunderstorm grumbled again, lightning flashed, windows rattled and the rain fell.

I paid and decided to leave. By the time I reached the car, I was already wet. I switched it on and pressed the pedal. Just as I drove out of the gates, I saw in my rearview mirror curtains opening in a room on the top floor. A woman peeked through.

As I hit the asphalt, steam rose from the road. The Overlook, the hotel in The Shining, became a speck.

  • Other places that I find beautiful in their ugliness include Hillbrow, Fish Hoek and Ysterplaat. But those are stories for another day.

♦ VWB ♦

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