IT WAS New Year’s Eve and day 13 on the trip of a lifetime for a bus load of mainly British tourists looking forward to the stunning scenery, flora and fauna of the Royal Natal National Park.
The group comprised eleven holidaymakers aged between 30 and 70 who had paid 1,735 each for a 17-day walking safari tour organised by Exodus Travel, of London.
Royal Natal National Park is home to the dramatic Drakensberg mountains, including the Amphitheatre, a rock wall approximately 5km long and about 1km high.
But as the Mercedes Sprinter van negotiated the steep and twisting turns on the R74 road near Bergville - a route often shrouded in mist - a pedestrian said to be intent on committing suicide wandered on to the highway.
The minibus - which was pulling a trailer loaded with luggage and camping equipment - swerved and overturned. Six people died instantly and two more were later pronounced dead in hospital.
Two other British tourists, a Canadian, the South African driver and a tour guide were also hurt in the accident.
Last night, police began an investigation into the cause of the accident. This will include testing the bus for mechanical failures.
Witnesses described yesterday how a male pedestrian - named as Pelepele Miya - had tried to kill himself earlier in the day by walking in front of other cars driving through the village where he lived. It was not clear last night why no-one had tried to stop him.
A local resident, Buyisiwe Miya, who witnessed the crash, said the driver had done all he could to avoid hitting the apparently suicidal pedestrian.
"A man was walking around telling people he wanted to kill himself but no-one took him seriously," she said. "Suddenly I saw him in the road walking in front of cars. Most cars were stopping or going round him. The bus tried to avoid him but the trailer hit him."
Logan Maistry, a spokesman for the KwaZulu Natal department of transport, said: "People are saying the man wanted to commit suicide. This is still being verified. The weather at the time was said to be clear. There are lots of bends in the road and mountainous terrain, but we are still investigating."
Relatives of the British victims were last night believed to be making their way to South Africa, assisted by the travel company. David Gillespie, the managing director of Exodus, flew out to examine the crash site yesterday.
Among the victims were Roger and Linda Pearce, from Rickmansworth, in Hertfordshire. Family friends last night said the couple had been on holiday to celebrate Mr Pearce’s 60th birthday.
The couple’s three daughters Nicola, 18, Claire, 23, and 25-year-old Victoria linked arms as they spoke of their grief at losing their parents.
Mr Pearce’s brother, Geoffrey, said: "He was in South Africa with his wife where he was taking a vacation in celebration of his 60th birthday on 23 December, so it is tragic that it has ended in this way. He’s left three daughters and their grandpa absolutely distraught by something that’s happened so suddenly. They will all be sorely missed."
Amid the wreckage of the minibus was a camera given to Mr Pearce as a retirement present from colleagues at Watford General Hospital, where he worked as a surgeon.
They clubbed together to buy the gift because they knew the father of three would use the equipment to capture his passion for wildlife and the outdoors.
Neil Pike, 35, and Christine Rowe, 30, a couple from Preston, Lancashire, were also killed in the crash.
Mr Pike, from Freckleton, near Preston, was known for his love of the outdoors, said his next door neighbour, Robert Baurn.
Mr Baurn said: "He was a really lively bloke, always busy doing something.
"They had planned this as an adventure - the holiday of a lifetime and it has ended in tragedy.
"Everyone is very shocked."
WHILE South Africa has the continent’s most extensive and modern road network, its road casualties are among the highest - in 2000 some 15,000 people died on its roads.
In September 1999, 26 British tourists and their African guide were killed when their bus skidded off a wet road and down a mountainside.
The bus overturned several times, ripping off its roof, and came to rest about 35 feet below the narrow road on the notoriously treacherous Long Tom Pass near Mpumalanga.
An inquest in November 2002 held in Britain recorded an open verdict but the bus driver, who suffered a broken spine in the accident, was jailed by a South African court for six years after admitting culpable homicide.
The accident followed a crash in 1999 when five British tourists were among ten people killed when a bus skidded off a rain-soaked road at Piet Retief, run by the same company, Springbok Atlas.
And this accident had come just days after an almost identical crash which killed 16 people in the same area when a bus slid down a river bank.
After each incident, the South African government pledged to introduce safety reforms such as regular vehicle checks and reduced speed limits.