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South Africa:

Land of beauty and danger

Mac-Mac falls

There is no doubt about it; the natural splendor of South Africa is hard to surpass, its fauna and flora unique in the world. However, the dangers there are great and many. All travellers face risks when they travel; risks to themselves and their belongings. These risks are disproportionally high when traveling in South Africa. The risks are not from the wildlife as you might expect, but rather from the people in South Africa. Here is a personal tale of traveling in South Africa.

Traveling on a tour bus with twelve others our first stop after Johannesburg was God's Window. The place offered wondrous views of the whole Mpumalanga area, which is in the north central part of South Africa. It was a bright and sunny morning so the mountains, pine forests, and green rolling pastures seemed 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 ten minutes after leaving the parking lot, we 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. We 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 we should have suspected foul play then, but we mistakenly put it down to bad luck. 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 to locate the missing bolts with the hope we might be able to make a field repair and get back on our way. While everyone searched 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 Graskop (a little town not too far away) while the driver stayed with the vehicle and waited for the mechanic to arrive. This decision turned out to be a big mistake.

We all naively took off through one of the numerous pine forests following our young inexperienced guide, mostly in good spirits and happy to be walking again. Eventually we left the 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. He 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 with the barrel 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 understand 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 that is when I heard a banging sound coming from the trunk. A muffled woman's voice pleading for help followed the banging. 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 also 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 her put her backpack into the car too. 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.

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, but the fate of the woman in the trunk was unknown.

South Africa is a beauty-filled place, but make sure you are fully aware of the dangers of traveling there.


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