Setting off on the big, red Avis bus
09.11.2008 - 12.11.2008
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If I had a dollar for every time someone asked us that--sometimes with horror and disgust written all over their face--I'd have paid the trip and had enough left over to pick up part of next month's rent. But, no matter! It was actually secretly pleasing, knowing so many people thought we were partly odd and slightly crazy. I pictured them lounging on some Cuban beach for their honeymoon, red as beets and on their 4th mojito before 10 in the morning. And here we were off to Africa, someplace unknown, not quite sure what to expect. It was exciting.
But my goodness was I scared.
I'm not even sure why. I just sat on the front porch—waiting for the taxi to the airport—and realized we were off to the most dangerous city in the world followed by 3 weeks with 13 strangers on a bus through god-knows-where. That's when—after 3 years of breaking the habit—I started to bite my nails.
And so we were off: Montreal to Paris, wait an hour and a half, then a long flight down to Johannesburg where we arrived, tired and travel-smelly, to a 2-hour line-up at customs, where 2 agents (one on the phone to her boyfriend the entire time) processed 2 full planes' worth of passengers. Welcome to Africa—and Africa time!
We had 2 days' of pre-tour time off, so we booked an organized trip through Jo'burg and the Apartheid museum, accompanied by Sasha (from Toronto) and Bill (63 and on his gazillionth trip)—both on our upcoming GAP tour. It's hard to say if Jo'burg was what I expected—dirty, crumbling, a miss-loved relic. Not somewhere I'd feel safe on my own. Yet in the middle, erected amongst in the ruins of an old prison, was the new court—designed to be fair and representative. A true reflection of South Africa and its people. It's hard to wrap your mind around South Africa, a constant tug of war between dirt and hope and poverty and reconciliation. It pulls you in so many ways.
Entrance to the Apartheid Museum
That night we met our group: 11 people from all over the world, plus Priscilla our guide, and Jimmy the bus driver. Jimmy elicited fear and respect in all of us from the get go (although we would eventually discover the pussy cat hidden beneath) and Priscilla gave us a taste of what was to come: 3 weeks of travel in some of the most beautiful scenery to meet some of the world's most wonderful people. She had a knowledge of everything botany and a spirit of utter kindness and goodwill (which never wavered once the whole trip).
We also met the grand dame of our trip: the big, red Avis bus we would be travelling on. The rolling cash machine, as we came to call it. Jimmy's pride and joy. Never in my life have I seen such a clean, well-kept, ship-shape shiny bus. No matter where we were, Jimmy would find a second to polish her here, wipe her down there. If Avis ever wants a spokesman for their company, they've got a prime candidate in Jimmy, sporting his Avis cap at all times and keeping us safe and secure.
The trip started bright and early with breakfast and a run through the rain to pack the bus. Then we found our seats for the trip (a weird habit, that—coming back to the same seat again and again) and we were off. Around Pretoria, through the downtown, with bits of history on this building and that street, seeing dilapidated shops and pristine squares, then off to stock up on missing supplies, food for Mozambique, and the all-important liquor run (where I spent $20—$20!!!—on 4 bottles of wine that would have easily set me back over $100 here).
Then we were off—through the incredible countryside, the bus whizzing through Mpumalanga province, our big, red road machine turning heads wherever we went. A quick nod to the small city of Belfast—shacks out there to the left, with dirt floors and tin roofs—had Neal running for the camera. It all looked so peaceful and green, interspersed with more of those little ghetto-like towns, where, Priscilla told us, people use their homes for sleeping and little else. No need for a mansion here. The land is their home.
Then came my internal tug of war again. A huge sign, with flashing lights, warning drivers not to stop. In fact, warning them to not stop under any circumstance, as wherever we were was apparently notorious for highjackings. As in, shoot-now-ask later highjackings. And the bus went silent, and the signs passed, followed by more green, more mountains, more shanty towns, more people waving, people staring, women carrying impossible loads on their heads, children with big smiles.
Hours and hours and many bathroom breaks later, we were in the Drakensberg escarpment, rolling through the mountains and turning such steep angles along the fenceless roadway that I closed my eyes and held my breath. A quick stop at God’s Window, with a view of the whole world, was more than worth it—along with a quick hike to the edge of Blyde River Canyon, a 250-million year-old canyon carved by the slim river below. We spotted out first dung beetle—a hard-working thing with his days’ work rolling along in front of him—an endangered and protected insect bigger than I’d care to meet in a dark alley.
Neal and I at Blyde River Canyon
Sunset at Blyde River Canyon
Then off again, though the last bit of sunset and into the dark, heads lolling on the bus, now into our 12th hour or so of travel, half delirious and half asleep. At some point, the Afrikaans-mixed-with-English whispers at the front of the bus let us know we were lost, out here in the dark. And on go the lights inside, down some dark dirt road, and suddenly we were exposed in front of so many dark figures walking alongside the bus. Thirteen whiter-than-whites, faces half-frozen in the windows. Thirteen potential paydays on a big, red rolling cash machine.
But it was our fear, our imagination. Because a quick call to the lodge and a bus back-up in the middle of nowhere, with hands outside the window waving us cheerfully on, and we made the right turn, hours and hours late, into Shalati Bush Lodge—somewhere in Limpopo province on the edge of Kruger park.
So we unpacked, dragging our packs and weary selves though the dimly lit front gate, in the middle of what seemed like nowhere. The electricity was virtually shut off, the owner told us. A product of being in the middle of nowhere. Still, the bit of light showed the bar, the outside restaurant, the fire pit keeping supper warm, and the pool.
And the scorpion in the pool.
“Um...” I asked the owner. “Is that, a…um... scorpion?”
“Yes,” replied the Dutch Crocodile Dundee.
“Don’t they, um… bite?”
“If you step on one, yes.”
And that’s when fear bordering on delirium set in. Not helped one bit by a giant, hairy tarantula-like spider stalking a tiny frog on the edge of the pool. Something in the back of my head went into panic mode and stayed there.
Neal braving the dreaded pool of scorpions!
We were guided to our hut by one of the local guides, holding a kerosene lantern to light the way. I was busy studying the ground, watching for everything—spotting 10-inch centipedes, giant snails, flying bugs the size of mice. My brain in overdrive. Opening the front door, the guide lit another lamp and left us, me searching frantically in every nook and corner for things that could sting, bite, badger, or scare us to death in the middle of the night. The geckos on the wall even scared me, although not as much as turning back around and finding them gone.
Supper was delicious, the walk back anxious, and the entire night sleepless—at least for me. Neal snored on like always, while I tucked and retucked the mosquito net, with visions of malaria dancing though my head. I had to keep pulling Neal’s hand away from the edge, where he’d flop it against the net in his blissful sleep (no use—he got bit anyway). Then, at dawn, I heard it. A rustle. A loud one. Over our heads. Running across the inside of our thatched roof. And without light or contacts, I could only imagine it. A snake. A flying rat. World’s largest malaria-infected mosquito. Torture. Torture. And still no sleep.
We were up ridiculously early, quickly showered and looking for people—anyone, just people. A quick breakfast, and David—from the local Mnisi village—took us all to see his home. A long, hot walk up a dusty road to a tin-roof village, and the local school where the children rushed inside at the sight of us, sitting in polite rows and ready to show what they know.
“This is my head!” they said at the top of their lungs, clutching their heads.
“These are my eyes!” they yelled loud and clear, pointing.
“This is my stomach!”
So loud and confident, in a language not their own. And so polite, and smiling. I asked if I could take a picture, since it seemed almost cruel to capture them like a souvenir. But David said yes, please do—and I realized they were proud to be so good and smart, to impress. Proud to have people walk up the dusty road to see what they’d learned to do.
Children at the local school
On the way to the village
Back down we went, though the cattle and the meager shade and the waving people.
And back into another Tina nightmare. Outside Priscilla’s guide’s hut, there was a squiggle in the sand.
“A puff adder!” the she said, which meant nothing to me.
“No,” said David. “The line would be straight, not curved.”
And then I started to catch on.
“I think,” said David. But I didn’t want to hear it.
“I think it was a spitting cobra.”
And so I slipped a little further into delirium. How could I possibly take 3 weeks of this? My mind was a mess, I couldn’t sleep, and every step was terrifying. Potential death. Terrible pain. Around every corner. Priscilla brought out books on insects and I read though them all, seeing my imminent death on every page.
That’s when we saw them—the Dutch. The big, white coach full of travelling Dutch. They pulled up like we did the night before, spilling bags and people (and one very done-up guide in heels and mile-high hair) all over the entrance.
And it was the Dutch that saved me. Because if Granny Klumpen can think nothing of hairy spiders and spitting snakes and god-knows-what-else lurking in the corners… If this bunch of suitcase-toting, hairdryer-packing visitors from the homeland can step out here without a flinch or a squeal, well… who was I to worry over scorpion in the pool?
Plus the lights finally came back on.
Our hut of sleepless nights.
And that’s when I started to love Africa. And I mean really love Africa.