South Africa: Day 1

Johannesburg to Kuruman


March, 2019


My first look at the Dark Continent was from the air, high above the deserts and patchwork forests of northern Botswana, revealed by a parting blanket of clouds that had covered the land since the Sahara. From altitude, it looked barren, empty, crossed by roads seemingly spread hundreds of miles apart from one another, pocked with craters and dry lakes. I looked out from my window seat at the land I'd wanted to see since my childhood, about to embark on a trip I'd spent the past six months planning and perseverating over, hours away from stepping foot into a truly foreign land, and realized I had no idea what I was getting into.

Part of this feeling was my lack of sleep, admittedly. Over the previous 48 hours I'd managed roughly six hours of interrupted, restless, and not at all satisfactory sleep. I felt punch drunk, hazy, and my eyes stung from being open far too long. The land below looked distant, mysterious, not only literally, but in concept. I'd pored over maps for months, analyzing landscapes from satellite imagery and topographic overlays scouring all of southern Africa for the best photography opportunities, but maps and research can only tell someone so much. Their failings spread out beneath me from my 30,000ft vantage point, and the breadth of the mysterious land below seemed unimaginably daunting.

As the plane crossed the border into South Africa and started its descent, the land turned greener, more lush and vibrant than I'd imagined the country being. We passed over the what seemed like the rims of vast craters, and farms, towns and cities became more plentiful, creating a familiar patchwork quilt I recognized from rural flyovers back home. Soon, as the plane began its descent into Johannesburg, farmland transitioned to vast swaths of homes and suburban development. Distant cooling towers marked nuclear power facilities, and red-earth roads crisscrossed through huge townships along the edges of the city, standing in stark contrast to the pools and dark pavement of wealthier, likely whiter suburbs.

The plane circled and landed, passing over the neighborhood of Soweto and it's colorful Orlando towers, and across lush green wetlands that I scoured with my eyes for signs of wildlife, finding none. We landed with a shudder and taxied to the gate, and the butterflies in my stomach fluttered as we stopped and started disembarking. I grabbed my carry-on and stepped off the plane into the airport, noting the heat that permeated the air inside the terminal.

••••

I got in the long line for Customs, and hurriedly worked on filling out my declaration card, before stepping up and handing my passport to the agent, who paused and did a double take at my passport photo.


I have a beard now.” I said, anxiously.


He frowned and did another double take.


I'm going to have to ask you to shave that,” he responded, so straight-faced.


I paused before laughing. He glared at me and reached down into a drawer.


Seriously, the bathroom’s behind you. Here's a razor, please shave then come back.


The smile melted from my face and I reached my hand out, all of a sudden prepared to cut off the beard I'd taken months to grow out.


He placed a small blank piece of paper in my hand and laughed. “Welcome to South Africa, enjoy your trip.


I sighed and let my nerves dissipate before grabbing my passport and moving toward the baggage claim carousel.

••••

The main area outside of baggage claim was, for all intents and purposes, a bustling shopping mall filled with tourists and locals alike. I weaved my way through the throng of disembarking travelers and taxi drivers trying to lure them into rides, ignoring a dozen offers for assistance with my bags, toward the rental car counters.

It took an hour to get my rental, between the rental agent losing my reservation and waiting for them to ready my car. Stepping out into the parking garage, I was assaulted with the African heat, and instantly burst into a sweat, regretting not bringing an accessible change of clothes in my carry-on.

The car was exactly what I expected a rental in Africa to look like. The white Nissan pickup with its covered bed looked the quintessential African vehicle, and an odd kind of excitement built in me for my upcoming adventure. I rigged a go-pro in the front window and oriented myself to driving on the right side of the vehicle, and slowly pulled out of the cramped garage, making every wrong turn on my way out.

••••

I felt overwhelmed. My planning had been limited when it came to my first day. Not knowing how much time I'd have to explore after my flight, I'd left a big blank spot on my agenda for the day, only knowing as much as I had a five hour drive to make it into the town of Kuruman, at the southeastern edge of the Kalahari desert, where I'd booked a cheap room for my first night.

As I navigated my way out of the garage, I scoured google maps for some marked locations I wanted to see, and settled on an area just north of Johannesburg called the Cradle of Humanity, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the location of several important early man archaeological discoveries. It seemed a good place to start, and one that would give me a chance to get some fresh air and clear my head after 36 hours in the air and on layovers.

I immediately took a wrong turn upon leaving the airport, and began heading south, away from the Cradle of Humanity, toward the looming Orlando Towers just barely visible in the distance. I was not ready for a Soweto adventure, having read several fear-inducing stories about the townships in general. I quickly had my gps reroute the drive, and started a long loop around the southern edge of Johannesburg.

Google’s reroute soon took me off the bustling freeway and into some neighborhood streets, and I got my first taste of South African society and the disparate and still separated nature of the country’a economics. The road took me through plush suburban neighborhoods that seemed plucked straight out of American or European towns, and some of the poorest, most ramshackle shanty towns I’d ever seen. The cars on the road were a wide ranging mix of polished luxury vehicles and barely operational rust buckets, and everything in between. Along the sides of the road, people walked or stood or setup rickety stands with fruit or clothing, almost all of them visibly poor looking black Africans, some without shoes or shirts. At one stop light, while I sat behind a loitering box truck, a dozen men ran from the corners of the intersection and jumped into the back of the truck, hitching a ride to who knows where, likely without the permission of the driver.

It seemed entirely too chaotic, and a creeping nervousness set in as I drove, doors locked and windows up. Prior to leaving on my trip, I’d read accounts of robberies and mugging, car-jackings and assaults, and all of those warnings echoed in my sleep-deprived head and set off my thinly buried anxiety about the trip in general. I grew anxious about stopping at all, or leaving my car in any circumstance, given the amount of expensive photography gear I was hauling in my back seat. I felt unprepared and vulnerable, feelings I'd never felt in my prior international travels. I needed to decompress, to get my head right so I could actually enjoy my trip, rather than dread every turn.

Soon after leaving Johannesburg and its surrounding townships, I eventually passed into rolling green hills and farmland along the outskirts of the city, and onto well maintained roads that signaled the transition into the world heritage site. I needed something to settle my nerves, to take a moment to decompress and take some photos and know that I could be comfortable and in my element in such a distinctly foreign place.

••••

I followed signs to a private game reserve called the Rhino and Lion Nature Reserve, and payed the small entrance fee to enter the park. The gate attendant told me they were feeding the lions in the park shortly, and that if I hurried I could watch them eat. My interest was immediately piqued, so I thanked the attendant and started off up the red dirt road, exhilaration overcoming exhaustion and apprehension and calming my somewhat frayed nerves.

As I drove up the narrow, well worn road, past makeshift wooden signs pointing directions or warning against getting out of the vehicle, small groups of animals came into sight. Here a small group of warthogs rooted around in the long grass, there an ostrich walking to a watering hole surrounded by wildebeest and zebra. This was the Africa I'd hoped to see, and even though it was clearly contained, manicured and controlled, I felt my creative energies refilling after too long laid dormant.

Ostrich

Rhino and Lion Nature Reserve, South Africa

I didn't pause for long, the promise of lions spurred me on, and I navigated my way through poorly labeled turns and roundabouts to a large gate on top of a hill, guarded by rifle-holding park rangers, like something out of Jurassic Park. A trio of handwritten signs pointed in three different directions, proclaiming “Cheetahs,” “Wild Dogs,” and “White Lions.” To the right, a long line of cars parked around a green, close-cropped grass clearing, where the lions could be seen through the fence of their enclosure

Despite my eagerness to see them, I turned first toward the Wild Dog enclosure, and was quickly greeted by a long legged brown shape emerging from the long grass not a dozen feet in front of my car, loping up through a stand of trees toward a hidden rise around the next corner. My heart leapt and I drove forward until I could see the whole pack, fighting and chasing each other around their meal, an indistinguishable carcass that had been thrown out to them some short time before.

I took a few photos and watched the melee for a short time, but their activity was too distant to capture to my liking, so I pulled away and drove back to the gate, taking a turn toward the Lion enclosure. I followed the cars in front of me around a long exterior loop before reaching the green clearing I'd seen in the distance, and miraculously found a parking spot immediately in front of the feeding pride.

Their white fur shone in the noonday light, and the red blood from the carcass that they were feeding on glistened on mouth and mane. One of the males had taken over the food, snarling and swiping at any who dared approach. I leaned out of my car window taking photos, nervous to be even that exposed to these huge predators, far bigger than I’d even anticipated them being. Several cars down a family of tourists were taking turns standing up through their rental car’s sunroof, either unaware or uncaring of the danger they were putting themselves in.

••••

I knew nothing about white lions going into the encounter. I’d heard the term before, but didn’t know that they were a unique subset of African lions found primarily in the northeastern corner of South Africa. White lions are not a distinct species from more commonly seen yellow or black-maned lions, their pigmentation is merely a recessive mutation in their genes that gives them a distinctly white or blond look. Though first officially documented in 1938, legends of white lions had permeated native cultures for centuries and they were considered divine to many of the people of these lands prior to European colonization. For over a decade in the late 1900’s, however, these lions were considered extinct in the wild, due to trophy hunting and relocation to zoos, but conservation movements over the past twenty years in places like the Rhino and Lion preserve have made great strides in reintroducing them back into their native ranges. Learning this in retrospect gives me an even greater appreciation for seeing these animals so close, and in such a relatively natural state. It’s one thing to read about and know the challenges African wildlife faces, and will continue to face in the future, but it’s another to see the work done on the ground to make sure these beautiful animals have a place in the world.

••••

Soon another male worked up the courage to challenge for a spot at the table, and moved a little too close to the dominant male’s reach. With a roar, they leapt upon one another, rolling and biting angrily as they fought over the half-antelope. It was epic and intense and mildly terrifying, but so many levels of exhilerating.

Gladiators

Rhino and Lion Nature Reserve, South Africa

A half dozen female lions surrounded the fray, hoping to sneak in for a bite while the males were preoccupied fighting. Blood flew, from the carcass and from the lions themselves, as their claws and teeth rent fur and skin in their struggle, and grass and dirt was kicked up into the air all around them. The carcass, chained to the ground by the game wardens, strained against its bonds as they fought with each other. Somehow, a lone female snuck into the chaos, and emerged with a leg in her mouth, quickly running a good distance away from the fight, and straight toward me.

She lay down not ten feet away from me, gnawing at the leg bone and growling at any other lion that even looked her way. She was so close, I suddenly felt very concerned about my window being all the way down, but I couldn’t bear to pull my camera inside the vehicle.

Licking her Chops

Rhino and Lion Nature Reserve, South Africa

Soon the commotion died down, and the lions spread out across the field, bellies full, ready for an afternoon nap. The whole encounter had lasted maybe 15 minutes, but as they padded off across the grass, I knew I had seen something special.

  • White Queen

    Rhino and Lion Nature Reserve, South Africa

It was my first wildlife experience of the trip, and one that made me feel like I’d truly arrived in Africa. For the rest of my travels through South Africa, it would stick with me as a special experience, and made me yearn to see more big cats wherever I could find them.

••••

I did another pass through the Wild Dog enclosure, where the dogs were now fighting over scraps of whatever remained from their lunch. Most of the pack lazed beneath the overhanging branches of a large tree, or fornicated near the small waterhole, their lust fueled by the bloodlust they had just overcome.

In the field, two dogs played tug of war with a scrap of skin, picked clean of any meat. It was a different kind of viciousness than the lions had exhibited, more animated and playful, and there was less concern that one of these dogs would end up dead at the end of the struggle, but there was still a level of raw viscerality to it, a primal roughness that I’d never seen from American wildlife.

Wild dogs too face a tough road in the wild. In what would become a theme of my travels and wildlife encounters throughout my exploration of South Africa, I would soon come to learn how few of these animals remained. Disease and contact with domesticated dog breeds has been winnowing their population considerably over the past few decades, and they now stood as rare and endangered in the wild. Watching them run and play in the long grass, I wondered how long before they were gone. It was a sobering thought, and unfortunately, was not the last time I would wonder that before the trip was done.

••••

I pushed on, catching a fleeting glimpse of a cheetah ghosting through the grass in it enclosure before looking at the clock and pushing on.

I left the Rhino and Lion Nature Reserve later than I’d hoped to, but felt rewarded by the extent of things I had seen there. Nearby, I was tempted to take an hour or two out of my afternoon to explore the early-man sites of the Cradle of Humanity, but time was not on my side, sadly. Looking at my hotel reservation, I noticed check-in closed at 9pm, and my GPS was telling me I only had 45 minutes of buffer in order to make it.

••••

The land I drove through as I passed through the Gauteng Province into the Northwest Province reminded me of my time growing up in Iowa. Farmland stretched as far as the eye could see, as the hilly country of the Cradle of Humanity shifted into vast swaths of corn that looked so like midwestern America that it was only the occasional man or woman walking alongside the road that signaled I was far from home.

The N14 is a narrow two lane highway as it passes through the Northwest Province, and traffic is easily choked by lines of cars waiting for the opportunity to make a daring pass of a slow moving long-haul truck. Driving the road on next to no sleep, with decidedly strong energy drinks fueling my anxiety and heart rate, was needless to say a nerve-wracking experience. My little Nissan pickup had next to no acceleration, and it strained every time I floored the pedal to pass a truck, many times barely avoiding a head-on collision with a large truck barreling down the road toward me. Numerous broken down cars littered the side of the road, and men and women and even a few children used the narrow shoulder as a sidewalk, further limiting my ability to bail out of a dangerous situation. In my many years of driving in questionable situations, this was the one that made me the most concerned for my ability to get out of it.

••••

Shortly before the small town of Coligny, I was pulled over at a police checkpoint, for what I would learn was a routine check of my license. The officer who pulled me over was very patient as I handed over my license nervously, and he calmly explained that I had done nothing wrong, before noticing I was from the US.


“Are you here on holiday?” He asked.


“Yes, I just got in today.


“Where are you headed?”


“Kuruman tonight, then Augrabies Falls in the morning.” I said, likely mangling the pronunciations.


“Are you traveling alone?” He asked, concerned.


“Yep, just me.”


He handed my license back to me, and leaned in. “Just be careful, ok? Don't get out of your car and keep your door locked, especially in the small towns. It's a very dangerous country.”


My energy drink saturated veins coursed with fear induced adrenaline. It was bad enough to read these kind of warnings, but to hear it from a police officer, I began to wonder if I was going to be safe anywhere during my wanderings through this increasingly foreign and hostile-feeling place.


“Thank you for the warning, I'll be sure to be careful.” I responded, and he nodded before signaling me to move on.


I resumed my drive, suddenly very aware of the sinking sun and the dwindling fuel tank as I checked my eta at my hotel for the night. The delays in the drive, the trucks and police and misdirections, had pushed my arrival back well after dark, and these new warnings spurred me on to get to Kuruman as soon as possible.

••••

My mind was working in a dozen directions, calculating all of my risks and vulnerabilities for the next three weeks. I began to doubt my plans and second guess all of my choices in what I had brought with me for what was supposed to be a month of non stop photography and exploration. The thoughts and doubts and nervousness spiraled in on each other, and I needed something to break me free.

The low-lying sun on the horizon ahead of me provided me with the excuse I needed to decompress and distract myself with some photography. I reached a small nature reserve as the red gold sun touched the trees ahead of me, and I pulled over along the boundary fence to try and capture it.

My first sunset in Africa absolutely lived up to my expectations, as the dusty sky turned red as the ball of light dipped behind a broken tree behind the fence. Several cars drove by as I shot, one even pulled over and asked if I was ok with a concern that suggested I shouldn't be doing what I was doing. I said I was fine and returned to my car some short time later, pulling away into the gathering dark of the night.

••••

I had an hour and a half more to go until I reached my hotel, but my dwindling gas tank forced me to stop earlier than I had wanted in the town of Delareyville. As I entered town, the first thing I noted was how utterly dark it was. There were only a few streetlights, and almost all businesses had shuttered up some time before sundown. The people who had previously wandered the shoulders of the highways now assembled in small groups in the middle of the street, forcing me to slow down to avoid hitting them. The scene felt lawless, a frontier without rules or safety standards, like something out of a Mad Max movie.

I cautiously pulled into a gas station and let the attendant fill my tank and work away at the smearing of dead insects plastered across my once clean windshield. I grabbed a few snacks for the final push and a jug of water in preparation of my desert adventures over the next few days, and returned to my car. Darkness once again enveloped the road as I left the station, and soon the town was lost in a sea of black behind me.

I drove the remaining hour and a half filled with a mix of nervous energy and sheer exhaustion. I passed through the city of Vryburg, once again dodging people wandering down the center of the unlit city streets, and, soon after, arrived on the outskirts of the city of Kuruman.

Once more Google Maps led me on a circuitous, confusing route along back roads through a mix of walled compound-like homes and seemingly open fields, pitch black in the nighttime gloom. I found the hotel and called the front desk clerk, with whom I had arranged a late check in. After a few warnings to avoid the more populated area of towns, his warnings thick with a barely disguised racial tone, he showed me to a lovely rondavel with pristine white sheets and a thick steel gate covering the doors. I unpacked all of my gear from the car and plugged in my myriad electronics to charge, even editing a few photos before my exhaustion caught up to me and I allowed myself to pass out. Sleep overcame me as dark and devoid of dreams as the night I had just passed through. I hoped my second day in Africa would bring me some peace and calm that I had not felt that first afternoon, but worry had settled in.

I wasn't sure what was ahead of me, or what to expect from the rest of my trip in general.


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