Nelspruit wasn’t far, only about a half hour ride in a shared taxi. Sun came through the window roasting me like a sunstroke mongoloid. I listened to music from an MP3 player, watched South Africa pass by. The road was lined with an endless stream of bicyclers riding in the middle of the road with supplies on the back of their retro rusted cycles, women carried loads of laundry and sacks of rice on their heads.
As it often had before on trips like this, my means of transportation was a mini bus, the work horse of transportation in the Third World. I had been warned in Sabie, where I was coming from, that the mortality rate of passengers on mini buses in South Africa was so high, you had a better chance being involved in an accident (or machine gunned by a rival taxi business, which had been happening) than coming across an IED in Iraq. With that in mind, the idea of traveling by an actual work horse was more appealing than the driver of the van I was riding in. He had bloodshot eyes, sign of inebriation and drifted in and out of the traffic lanes.
I was lucky enough to have a window, unlucky to be sitting by the only fat man on the continent. Drops of sticky sweat rolled off his bald black head into my lap. I could feel every breath the man took as his body expanded against his wheezing lungs. His ribcage pressed against my arms and elbows all the way up to my shoulders, like a penguin keeping its young warm in arctic winter. The minibus pulled into the Nelsprite taxi rank. A line of sheet metal shacks selling mobile airtime minutes and wooden stalls giving haircuts, wrapped the fences and walls around the taxi rank. Young men sat idly in the shade drinking bottles of black label beer.
When the minibus came to a stop under a large steel covering, I quickly grabbed my bags, walked through the maze of motorized mayhem and touts selling plates of nuts and tomatoes. Everywhere, people bumped and grinded into each other as they made their way to different taxis heading for far reaches of South Africa and its neglected townships. There was a distasteful fragrance of overheated bodies, rotting fruit and hot rusted metal roofs. Then there was the overpowering smell of dry urine and a foul stench of feces, the constant attention of hawkers shoving fruit and nuts in my face, and unbearable heat bearing down on my shoulders from what felt like a dozen suns. I walked quickly, bypassing men trying to stop me in my path, to sell me something or to shove me into a taxi.
It was my third day in Africa and I wanted to walk the streets, get a taste of the smells and delicacies of this new world, the spice of culture that was southern Africa. I had yet to see or feel anything that was recognizable to the pictures and books focusing on the continent.
Heading to the town center to find an accommodation, I came to a shopping center. The colorful markets of southern Africa were represented by walking billboards for M-cell airtime, KFC restaurants, and American sized supermarkets. Signs advertised quick, pain free, same day abortions in the same fashion a struggling musicians advertises guitar lessons. Walking briskly, wearing a stern and hostile look, I followed a sidewalk until I reached the main street. Traffic moved slowly in the early afternoon due to power cuts that kept the stop lights from working. I observed a number of fixed eyes on me. Young men walking with plastic ShopRite bags were transfixed by my presence. I noticed tall, dark, black men patting their heads as they passed me. Young men stood around idly wearing wool hats, their hands buried deep in the pockets of their thick jackets even though it was well over 90°.
Those hiding in the corners and doorways had a way of communicating without speech, a underhanded, and sly method of whistles and calls. Despite the red flags, I remained confident I was safe. What could possibly happen in the middle of the afternoon, two blocks from the town center.
Standing behind a small crowd waiting to cross the street, a man aggressively tapped me on the shoulder, saying "You dropped something, check here you drop something," pointing his finger back down the sidewalk. Naively concerned I took a few steps backwards trying to find what I had dropped. Too late, the trap had been sprung. Before I could turn around, the man clamped his hand around my arm tightly grasping below the elbow with one hand. He pointed a knife into my chest. As I reached around with my free arm to push him away, I was grabbed on the other side by another man who wrapped his fingers tightly around my forearm. In less than a second I was lying on top of my backpack while 6 men violently tore into my belongings. Desperately trying to escape, I found myself gazing down the chamber of a gun, shrouded by a dirty rag.
"You move we shoot! You move we shoot!" said the gunman. Strangely, a calmness came over me when I saw the gun. My body relaxed. I watched the thugs take my possessions. I stopped all resistance convinced that at any moment there could be a hole where my face once was. This happened in about 20 seconds.
The men ran down the street. I was unhurt, but upset. Some man who had been standing in front of where I got mugged got my attention. He looked Arab, he was holding my wallet above his head. He had grabbed my wallet after it had been pulled from my back pocket, contents pillaged. I ran over to Steve and thanked him. He was an illegal immigrant from Algeria who owned a shop in Nelsprite outside where I was mugged. He handed me my wallet, took me into his shop and invited me to stay in his place for a night. I agreed. At least I wouldn’t need to walk in Nelsprite after dark.
When he closed up shop, we went for a few drinks, at a classy bar. A group of Afrikaans sitting at the bar introduced themselves. I told the men what had happened, they offered to buy me a drink, like a kind of plea for forgiveness on behalf of their homeland. This was really my first impression of Afrikaners. Needless to say an entire bar wanting to buy me drinks was a lot better than what I had recently experienced.
I was wondering why I had come to South Africa when I met Will Laine. I found out he was born in England, had moved to South Africa to run a safari tour business in Kruger National Park. We discussed details of a safari. The next morning Steve and I waited for Will. Within an hour we were in front of one of the most famous wildlife parks in the world.
Will had a vast knowledge of wildlife and an outstanding guide. He told me that a zebra is white with black stripes, an adult lion’s roar can be heard up to five miles away, it warns off intruders or reunites scattered members of the pride. Elephants communicate using sounds that are below the human hearing range, giraffes are more than six feet tall at birth – one fact after another.
Game watching starts off slowly. Often when you enter places like Kruger National Park, you expect to be caught up in the middle of a discovery channel event. Actually, you are lucky to spot anything in the first hour. You’re fixed on the landscape, hoping to see a lion or a leopard. You gaze upon vast herds of gazelles and water buffalo. I became more entertained by the people watching for game than the game itself.
Just before sunset we had a great front seat to a pride of lions napping. The mugging in broad daylight had faded away. This was what I had come for. Beyond chaos, violence and poverty, there were other lessons of humanity and one of them was the wonder of nature.