Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Another Adventure in South Africa

Most of my friends and acquaintances know that I like adventure. I like interacting with nature and hanging from cliffs over deep canyons and diving around reefs in the ocean. Maybe I should amend my joy of adventure to only natural adventure, because I obviously don’t like the kind of adventure we ended up taking in South Africa.

My husband, Maurice, excitedly applied for his international driving license before we left the US. As we packed and prepared for our trip, Maurice and I perused maps and discussed driving from one township to another during our 2-week visit to South Africa.

Upon arriving in Johannesburg’s airport, we went to the car rental and retrieved our Kia minivan. We stuffed our bags in back, got my mother and kids situated in the middle, and climbed into the driver’s and passenger seat on opposite sides of the car from what we’re used to doing in America. We were fine until we looked down…

“Is this a stick shift?” I asked him cautiously.

“Uh huh,” he answered me tentatively.

It’s not that he couldn’t drive a manual shift, it was simply the odd feeling of shifting with the left hand while also getting accustomed to driving on the left side of the road that was concerning us. So he spent a few minutes playing with the gears, adjusting his mirrors and getting his mind right.

Eventually, he looked at me and we held hands for a minute – he said a prayer for our safe travels. Little did we know how much we would need that prayer before the night was over.

Tentatively, he put the car in first, released the clutch and we crept forward a few inches. We turned into the left lane and slowly started to move forward. Maurice and I smiled as he successfully maneuvered out of the rental parking lot.

“Stop by the booth and grab me a map, Maurice,” I said as I played with the GPS monitor.

“No problem,” he replied.

Problem number one: no booth to check out; therefore, no map.

Okay. No problem. The GPS was working and Maurice was handling the road well. We followed the road signs onto the “motorway” and onto the various side streets indicated by the GPS. Thirty minutes later, we were at the Holiday Inn Express just outside Johannesburg.

We unloaded, unpacked and changed to prepare for the United States vs. Ghana FIFA match in Rustenburg, a nearby city. The game was scheduled to start at 8:30 pm. Maurice had timed the drive from Johannesburg to Rustenburg to be about 2 hours. So, at 6:00, we piled back into the van, Maurice programmed the GPS and we pulled out of the Holiday Inn’s parking lot.

Everything was fine for the first 30 minutes until Maurice realized we were avoiding the motorway N4 that he had seen several times and we were on several streets with lights. We stopped, reprogrammed the GPS and agreed to take tollroad N4, which would be a direct route into Rustenburg.

Problem number two: toll roads in South Africa are not like toll roads in the United States.

We drove for several minutes, then smiled and congratulated each other as we merged onto the N4. Immediately, we saw a pair of highlights headed straight for us. Uh oh.

“Maurice! You’re not in the lane! Go left, go left!” I shouted.

“I’m in my lane, I’m in my lane!” he shouted back, but he swerved out of the lane and the path of the oncoming car.

We rode on the dirt shoulder, spitting up dust for several yards while large trucks and miniature cars zoomed past us in the lane where we originally were.

“Get over Maurice. This isn’t a lane.”

“I’m trying! I can’t get back in now!” Maurice yelled back at me in frustration, as he leaned forward over the steering wheel. I could see the intensity in his face.

Maurice was gripping the gearshift so hard, I could see the skin stretched over his knuckles. My palms were moist with perspiration and under my arms was suddenly wet. The spot on the inside of my elbow where my nervous rash pops up when I’m stressed started to itch. My mother began giving directions and suggesting things from the middle of the back seat.

Eventually, Maurice was able to get back in the lane and we all calmed down a little. We nervously giggled and joked about the confusion of the lines on the road as we moved forward.

Suddenly, a slow moving truck swerved to the dirt shoulder, kicking up rocks and dirt onto the windshield. Oh $#!&.

“What’s he doing?” I shrieked. Maurice started gripping the gearshift again and sat up straight.

“I think he’s letting us pass,” Maurice whispered, more to himself than to me. He swerved quickly around the car, and as we looked back, the truck smoothly moved back into the lane behind us.

Hm. Okay. We got it. There was only one lane going in both directions, so if you were going slow, you pulled over onto the shoulder and let a faster car pass you. Cool.

Problem number three: There is not enough room on the shoulders of the N4 for a car to pass without going into oncoming traffic.

Considering the fact that there was not enough room on the shoulder for a car to pass without heading into oncoming traffic, your pass had to be timed perfectly. This wasn’t easy on a toll road as busy as GA400 in Atlanta.

How much longer would we have to be on this road? I glanced down at the GPS. 89km. What?! Oh no, I wasn’t going to make it. It was pitch black, the road was packed with cars, and my husband was determined to get to the Royal Bafokeng Stadium to see the kickoff of his team, Ghana, against my son’s team, USA. He swerved around a slow-moving 1984 VW Golf barely missing an oncoming minivan. This was going to be a long trip.

Problem number four: wild fires are purposely burned intermittently along the roadsides of streets, motorways and toll roads throughout Johannesburg and the surrounding cities.

About 20km down the road, Maurice sees a faster car coming up behind him. As he decides to pull onto the dirt shoulder to allow the car to pass, he sees one of the wildfires up ahead. At the same time, a line of cars is coming toward us.

I’ll spare you the details of the remainder of this trip. Just know, we eventually made it safely to Rustenburg and found a parking lot several kilometers away from the stadium. I scrambled from the van, thanked the Lord for our safe arrival and happily joined the other people walking toward the shuttle bus.

Problem number five: after the match, 35,934 people had to take shuttle buses back to their cars all at one time.

At the end of the game, my mother, husband, two children and I left the stadium in high spirits. We’d had enjoyed the game, made friends with people in the crowd and danced in the stands. We continued to be excited as we filed out into the field outside the stadium gates. We were still feeling good as we moved past crowds of people to the gate marked M104 North. The happy feelings ended as we queued up with about 800 other people to get through one small opening big enough for about 5 people to pass at once.

We were pressed tightly together with diverse people speaking many different languages, some drunk and high. Others were angry that the US had lost. One group of men started arguing with another group of men about whether it was nicer to live in America or England and why. 45 minutes later, my family squeezed through the opening and made it onto one of the shuttle buses.

I was happy until I remembered – we had to drive back home.

Thankfully, God heard my prayers. The GPS brought up a totally different route to return home. Even better, it allowed us to bypass all of the stadium traffic that was completely stopped on the N4 (remember it was only a one-lane road with toll booths). We could see it from the access road we were coasting on.

Just as we were getting comfortable with the drive, we noticed the road we were on was winding, twisting and going up.

Problem number six: South Africa is a mountainous country with small windy, unlit roads that go on for 100s of miles.

I have a problem. My problem is that I love to drive. I love to drive because I like to be in control. In control of when I go and when I return. In control of how fast or slow I’m driving. In control of which lane I’m driving in and when I’m going to switch. I love driving fast and weaving in and out of traffic on freeways.

This is a problem, because when someone else is driving, I feel like I have no control. And I didn’t have control over how Maurice was driving on this dark, winding, hilly road. Sometimes, I felt like he was driving too fast, or passing unsafely, or too close to the left side. I kept telling him, “you’re not in the lane.” But I’m not sure he was really listening to me.

Earlier that day, a brick wall was right on the line of the left shoulder. I tried to tell Maurice that he was too close, but he wasn’t listening to me and… grumprhhhtwphhh. The van slid along the brick wall. I didn’t have to tell him again after that.

But now, we were way up in the South African mountains at midnight. And all of a sudden, we were heading straight down, coming out of a curve at the same time, and there was a huge body of water lit by the moonlight in front of us. I couldn’t help but yell out.

“Oh my God! Maurice, you’re making me so nervous!”

Maurice yelled back at me that I was making him nervous by yelling at him that I was nervous. He wanted me to BE QUIET. So, I sat on my hands, prayed, and bit my lip for the next 1.5 hours. I have never been so happy to see a Holiday Inn Express in my life.

I’ve always respected my husband. He’s a wonderful person, man, son, husband, and father. But after the death-trip of SA2010, I hold him in a new level of esteem.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like you had a true adventure in SA! Thanks for sharing Althea. Praying you and the fam have a safe return to Atlanta! ~ Julye