Johannesburg Mpumalanga South Africa
Thursday, March 20, 2008
Today we arrived at Johannesburg airport at 6:00am after
a hellish 11 hour flight. The plane was filled with crying children, old men
coughing up lungs, and the foulest smells drifting around; I cannot
recommend Thai Airlines. Julia and I both got only two hours of highly
uncomfortable and disturbed sleep. It was another hour in a taxi to the
Rivonia Road Lodge in Rivonia; and outer suburb of Johannesburg. This is the
hotel we are to pick up our safari tour group. We arrived a day in advance
of the tour so we could get over the journey from Thailand and this was a
very good idea. The hotel gave us an early check-in which we used to shower
and then sleep until 12:00 noon. We slept like logs and rousing ourselves
was tough but we did and headed out to locate lunch. The Rivonia Road Lodge
is like so many small roadside hotels I have encountered. Typically these
types of hotels are far from any amenities as the assumption is you have
driven to the hotel and therefore have your own transport. However, in our
case this was not true. A block away from the hotel we found a small
shopping village which had many places to eat and where we could did some
shopping for our safari. We returned to the hotel very happy campers.
Friday, March 21, 2008
One of the many beaches we saw there.
night we went to bed at around 8:00 and we did not stir until 8:00 the next
morning; dreaming only of white sand beaches and the aqua blue waters of Koh
Yesterday we arrived to blue skies and sun shine which
lasted all day. This morning the blue sky was replaced with a dull gray one
but the temperature was still very mild. The southern hemisphere is moving
into autumn as the northern moves towards spring so I expect the weather to
get colder in Johannesburg. However, our tour takes us north where I imagine
the weather to be sunnier.
Saturday, March 22 2008
The tour bus, It's really quite interesting as it was
purpose built for safari tours around South Africa. It looks a bit like the
It was fantastic to wake up this morning and meet Mary
and Dave at breakfast. We hadn"t seen them since January and they were
married in the meantime. Yes, after 10 years of protracted engagement they
decided to tie the knot. It was so good to see them. They introduced us to
meet Max and Brian, old travel companions of theirs. We
ate our breakfast, received our briefing from the tour guide, made several
wise cracks, and loaded our luggage into the tour bus.
What we saw a long our way.
We were soon on the freeway heading out of Johannesburg.
We were glad to leave it behind us as it seemed to generate a field of dread
for us. The
countryside in this part of South Africa is truly like California and parts
of Australia: green rolling panoramic expanses, dotted with lilies, and
fields of other brightly colored flowers. Intermixed with these views were
paddocks of maize and vast manmade forests of pine trees.
A photo of Mac-Mac falls.
We soon arrived in the Mpumalanga area and stopped for
lunch at Long Tom Pass, where the vistas were outstanding. From
here we headed to Mac-Mac Falls and then on to our accommodation at Graskop.
Good fortune shined down upon us as we were scheduled to
stay in a quite dreary motel this evening. But, instead we found ourselves
in a relatively luxurious hotel for the next two nights. Apparently the huts
had been over booked for the Easter weekend.
Sunday, March 23 2008
We were up bright and early at 6am this morning after a
very good night's sleep. Last night Julia and I wore our kimonos, which we
had bought in Kyoto, to dinner and caused quite a stir. Sorry, we didn"t
take a photo. So people were surprised this morning that we didn"t come down
wearing our kimonos for breakfast. After breakfast we walked out of the
hotel to a walking trail from Graskop where we encountered mist covered
valleys, centipedes, and a waterfall.
An interesting creature we discovered on our walk today.
Our walk turned from wide access roads into a tropical
forest with a winding and slippery trail that followed a river's path
closely. Eventually we came out of the forest and arrived at a beautiful
green park where our tour van and lunch were waiting for us. It
was great to be able to have lunch in the park after our walk. After lunch
we all headed out to the Gold Rush town of Pilgrim's Rest, where we sat in a
saloon chewing the fat. Julia and I abstained from alcohol because of our
Monday, March 24 2008: The Robbery
Here is a shot of the suspected sabotaged drive shaft.
We left the hotel, bags packed into the tour bus, for
God's Window. Once there we had wondrous views of the whole Mpumalanga area.
It was a bright and sunny morning so the mountains, pine forests, and green
rolling pastures were amplified in our eyes. After walking down from the
summit we returned to the tour bus ready for the next leg of our journey
which, as it turned out, was never to happen. About 10 minutes after leaving
the parking lot I heard an unusual noise coming from the transmission of the
bus; then suddenly bang! The bus rolled
to a stop at the side of a lonely road. I suspected, from the sound, that
the drive shaft had come away from the transmission and this is what had
Breaking drive shaft bolts is such an unusual thing I
should have suspected foul play then but, I mistakenly put it down to bad
luck as did the driver and tour guide. The sun rose higher into the
cloudless sky and the day got hotter. The tour guide asked everyone to walk
back down the road to try and locate the missing bolts with the excuse we
might be able to make a field repair and get back on our way. While everyone
was occupied the tour guide phoned his organization and requested a
replacement vehicle. He also called a mechanic to come out to us. When
everyone returned from their fruitless search for bolts the guide suggested
we walk back into town; this decision turned out to be a big mistake. The
driver would stay with the vehicle and wait for the mechanic to arrive.
Here is a photo of the group looking for the missing bolts; a dangerous task
given the speed of traffic on these roads.
We all naively took off through one of the numerous pine
forests following our young inexperienced guide. I was in good spirits and
happy to be walking again. Eventually we left the pine forest and came back
out onto the road; our second big mistake. The group stopped for one of
several breaks, most of us sitting on a railing at the side of the road,
talking, laughing, and drinking water. From what seemed like nowhere a car
pulled up with four black men in it. We paid little attention and just kept
enjoying our break. The guide went over and began talking to the driver. The
guide quite suddenly and sharply instructed us to continue walking. I was at
the front of the group and so walked past the guide first. The driver of the
car, now out and standing beside it, gave me what I thought was a smile as I
passed him. At that moment I heard a hubbub behind me so I stopped and
turned. It was then I saw the rifle in the driver's hands. It was a hunting
rifle with a telescopic sight on it but, the barrel was cut off to make it
shorter. The driver did not look at me directly and seemed to be looking
everywhere all at once but, he did raise the rifle to ensure I saw it. I
looked at the front of the car and saw that the passenger had gotten out and
was brandishing a shotgun. The driver was saying something to me but, I did
not hear him. The sun was shining even harder now. People from our group
were scattered all around the car. I moved back closer to the rear of the
car which is when I heard a banging sound coming from the trunk. This noise
was followed by a muffled woman's voice pleading for help.
Everyone seemed to be moving in towards the car now. I
too, unthinkingly, automatically was drawn closer to the car. I found myself
standing by the back passenger window when I finally heard and understood
what the gunmen were saying; they wanted us to put our belongings into their
car. How slow I was to realize that we were being robbed. Not only robbed
but robbed at gunpoint. At that instant I realized I could be shot; I mean
for real. I felt a wave of terror pass through me. I heard the gunman at the
front of the car, now just a few feet from me, shouting to the group; "put
your stuff in the car, now! Why are you taking so long do it, now!" The
muffled cries for help from the trunk continued as I took off my backpack
and slid it into the open rear window of the car. Someone had moved next to
me so I helped them put their backpack into the car. The soul wrenching
sounds from the trunk got louder. Finally I understood that someone was
locked in the trunk. I guess it was my fear that made me so slow in
We were so happy before the robbery.
Just as quickly as they had arrived the gunmen sped away
in their car. We were alone again under the hot midday sun. All we could do
was mull around stunned not saying a word. The guide instructed us to leave
the road and to wait in the grass at the side; we did this gladly. As we
walked the true feeling of loss, danger, menace, and peril came on us. Some
of us cried, others stared into the distance, and some, like me, just
remained stunned. None of us had been shot or hurt.
In time we began to talk about it. Each of us had seen
different things. Each of us had done different things. But all of us felt
violated and terrified. Not everyone had heard the cries from the person
trapped in the trunk. But, as it was explained to them we became unified in
our worry and concern for her. The police were called, but never arrived at
the scene while we were there. A family of locals stopped their utility
truck and offered us all a lift back into town; we took it gladly. A local
family took us to their home in Graskop in the back of their open truck;
dangerous in itself. They really looked after us giving us drinks and a
place to sit in the shade. The next worry for us all was the driver of our
bus. She had waited with the bus for a mechanic to arrive as we set off on
our walk back to town. We were concerned that the gunmen would go back to
the bus to continue their robbery, and that they might harm the driver. Our
guide called the driver on her cell phone and instructed her to hide in the
forest until the police arrived; she did this.
Eventually the police arrived at the house to take our
statements; about three hours after the robbery. All 12 of us plus the two
guides gave statements to police. They spoke only broken English and did not
seem to be too concerned of our plight. There was a rumor that the car had
been spotted in a parking lot but this turned out to be false. We found out
from the police that two men had stolen a car on Saturday and kidnapped a
woman the same day. It must have been her cries I heard. The police also
told us they suspected the drive shaft on our tour bus had been sabotaged by
the same men that robbed us. They believed we had been set up to be robbed
as the two gunmen having kidnapped the woman needed money to continue their
escape. Of this I am not sure, but it sure was a coincidence if not true.
Later the police told us the woman that had been
kidnapped was a lodge owner. The gunmen had robbed the lodge on Saturday and
taken her; she had been their prisoner three days. We were all very worried
about her. The now repaired tour bus arrived to pick us up and took us to a
not very nice motel back in Graskop; the one we had evaded the previous
night. After settling into our motel cabins we had dinner as group. This
dinner was very odd as most people got very drunk, not all but most. They
sat around making jokes and laughing hysterically but, it seemed to me to be
a thin veneer covering their pain and worry. We had all lost many valuables
this day. Some had lost money, passports, equipment, cameras, but none of us
had lost the most important thing, our lives; for this we were grateful.