I’m still sleepy eyed on the descent into Johannesburg, making our arrival seem dreamlike, ethereal; the red dirt roads of the eighth continent being replaced with clean paved highways, muddy rice fields with pristine blue backyard swimming pools. Its just a small section of the country, but I can’t help feeling excited at the suburban utopia–what was once mundane, uninspiring, and now familiar and comforting.
We check into the Sheraton Pretoria, a chain resort I would have shrugged at six months ago. Now I am grateful for the luxury of a deep-seated bathtub and soft elevated bed, a view of an elegant church overlooking a lush park, world news on a flat screen and a sun-warmed swimming pool, chocolate truffles on pillow tops and real cheese for breakfast.
Passing McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken on the left side of the road, past expanses of open field, Jack Johnson and Adele guiding our journey with their ballads of love and loss, soothing and evoking, on the way to Kruger National Park. We ponder at times, to each their own thoughts; close our eyes at others, with the interruption of a passing word, joke, or pop culture comment.
Its a windy two lane country road, and we’re flying on it, racing to get into the park’s gates by sundown, past the farce of “security checkpoints” and men with raised thumbs walking lone along the shoulder. We make it by dusk—just in time for the impala and giraffe and zebra to be seen by roadside. We giggle like schoolchildren at the zoo for the first time, cooing at the beasts, and gasping in wonder of it all. Something about being in the wild and so close to life—that is the fascination of being in this country, this continent.
As we drive the 50km/hr speed limit to our first camp, the sun sets a gorgeous gold and crimson incomparable to anything any of us have seen before. Excitement, relief, contentment resonates with us; we have arrived. This is Africa.
And as that realization hits, so does hunger. Our first dinner, like our chic bungalow accommodations, is simple but satisfying. We eat quietly, exhausted from the drive, returning back to our huts for a hot shower and a full night’s rest. Cheetah spotting comes with dawn the next morning, followed by road run-ins with more animals—more giraffes and elephants and zebras, herds of impala and other kinds of antelope, warthogs.
The next five days at Kruger are a blur of animal fur. We spend the early mornings and late afternoons squinting bare-eyed into the bush searching for leopard spots, scanning the watering holes for hippo heads. We stop alongside and making small talk with the other cars we pass, following the lead of those with binoculars and massive zoom lenses, and at seeing something unfamiliar, the glimpse of a tail or a subtle motion in the brush, there is a whirlwind of camera clicks and hushed whispers commentating the animals’ movements.
There are distinctive moments at Kruger, memories never to be forgotten. A giraffe bending gracefully to reach leaves from a tree right off the main road, just steps from our car, staring gently, curiously at us before batting its long eyelashes and resuming its meal as the sun sets behind it. Getting an up close, roadside glimpse of lion life—the lazing of the pack in the brush, the prowl of one lioness hunting a herd of antelope, the strut of the proud lion, true king of the jungle. The barbeque “braai” with our young Dutch and German friends—vegetable skewers, wildebeest sausages, vinegar chips, and the local brew, Castle Lager; conversations about lion sightings and life back home. Refreshing with mint Magnum ice cream bars while looking out on a gorgeous golden river vibrant with African bush wildlife. The sunsets each day, as we make our way back to the camps before the gates close at dusk—the vivid colors and odd cloud shapes same as the first, but each day’s special in its own way; like the sunset from the bridge leading to our last campsite in the park, breeze and birdsong in the background, crocodiles and hippos below.
We leave the park feeling like explorers of the wild, venturing into the lesser-traveled world of beast and primal beauty, waving goodbye to Kruger with one hand, the other one holding an ice-cold Magnum ice cream bar.
The leopard was the one animal of the Big Five that, in the end, Mom and I didn’t see, and on leaving the park, we also miss the mating lions that were rumored by other guests to be next to the main road. Stuffed in our rented Toyota minivan with bags of Black Label and biltong and a heavy yet unspoken disappointment, our unmet expectations stacked high behind us and weighing our journey toward Swaziland, the four of us ride in tense silence; waiting, almost, for something to break it.
Then, the screeching of brakes. The crunching of metal and shattering of glass. Disbelief, shock, and later fear of the yet unknown surrounding, like the curious unfamiliar faces of passerby now crowding around us.
I had read about moments like these. Moments that change, in seconds, the entire course of one’s life. The tragic direction all our lives could have taken, as we talk about later, if all or one or some of us had not made it, if the rental car had flipped onto oncoming traffic and in the face of high-speed semi trucks. If the right people had not been there, the people who led us through the teary and fearful haze of a tragedy that would have, could have, should have, but by the grace of God wasn’t. Those same people who transported and guarded our luggage, called the police and ambulance and rental car company, made reservations at a nearby guesthouse for us, gave us cold drinks, shooters of whiskey “for later that night,” and most importantly, genuine hugs and words of comfort. Those same people, those angels God sent to remind us of how it could have been, with stories of daughters and sisters killed, and sons with severe spinal injuries, wounds still fresh, cutting to the quick.
After and the next day, we’re still picking shards of glass from our hair, from our clothes and luggage, from even our ears. Sleep eludes while random bouts of tears pervade. The shock of it all resonates with all four of us. The replacement rental car, the same make and model as the last, is haunting to drive and ride in. We never make it to Swaziland on this trip. But the kindness and generosity of our new friends is like salve to our aching necks, open cuts, and broken bones.
Now, for some reason, Mumford and Sons’ “After the Storm” keeps resonating with me. I remember listening to it poolside at our posh resort in Isalo in the southwest of Madagscar, before South Africa, pre-accident, doodling my feelings on paper. Now hearing the lyrics not for the first time, but for the first time for real, and I am awed by the power and relevancy of it.
And after the storm,
I run and run as the rains come
And I look up…
on my knees and out of luck,
I look up.
Night has always pushed up day
You must know life to see decay
But I won’t rot…
Not this mind and not this heart,
I won’t rot.
And I took you by the hand
And we stood tall,
And remembered our own land,
What we lived for.
And there will come a time, you’ll see, with no more tears.
And love will not break your heart, but dismiss your fears.
Get over your hill and see what you find there,
With grace in your heart and flowers in your hair.
And now I cling to what I knew
I saw exactly what was true
But oh no more.
That’s why I hold,
That’s why I hold with all I have.
That’s why I hold…
The night before the car accident, our last night at Kruger, mom and I had had our mandatory at-least-one-in-a-trip argument, going to our separate beds on opposite sides of our dorm-style family room, stubborn and silent. But I couldn’t sleep. There was a violent storm that lasted late into the night—lightning that flashed through the windows and projected across the walls, bright and angry; thunder that rattled our bungalow and my bones with such force that I thought both would shatter. And all the while a storm of guilt and self- resentment stirred in me, kept me uncomfortable, cold, frightened.
It seems I was the only one who experienced this storm; the next day, not Mom nor the boys seemed affected by the unearthly downpour. God’s voice, I say at dinner a few nights after, while we are still decompressing the recent events. It scared me into speaking, to expressing those often suppressed feelings of love and gratefulness towards my family. God’s blessing after the storm.