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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.

Last 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 Samui.

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 Pope Mobile.

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 malaria pills.

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 happened.

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 realizing this.

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.

Mpumalanga robbery


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