Leaving Johannesburg, Part II: Breakdowns and Bonding

In addition to having some stellar personalities on board, we also experienced a few events on the first day that probably contributed to creating such a cohesive group. The first, and possibly the most integral, involved our bus.

We set off from the hostel at 5am, bleary-eyed and sleepy, for a full day of driving from Jo’burg to Oliphant River, our first campsite. It should have been a quiet bus ride ending in polite, unremarkable conversation at the campsite, but fate had other intentions.

We hadn’t been on the road long – maybe four hours – when our bus, a cramped and sputtering vehicle, gave up on the side of the road.

G informed us that another bus was being sent, though no one knew where it was coming from.

“No one wants to ask because no one wants to hear that it’s coming from Johannesburg,” someone said.

We were told not to sit on the bus, as it was possible a car might sail by and crash into it Kamikaze style. And so, four hours into the trip, we resigned ourselves to the South African roadside for an hour and a half.

RIP

Teambuilding in progress

Later in the trip, Dave mentioned an interesting fact about teambuilding. According to research, groups create stronger bonds over shared experiences, especially if the experiences involve emotions or, in our case, some form of peril or distress. He turned to G.

“That first group that bonded, did their bus break down, too?”

“Yes.”

“Maybe you should make that an activity on the first day.”

It wasn’t the most exciting experience, but it allowed us to get past the formal, introductory questions and chat instead about shark attacks, fatal animals, and our dreams. There, between a dusty road and a gnarled barbed wire fence that did nothing to detract from the bucolic scenery around us, we weathered out the wait.

There are definitely worse places to break down

“TIA,” G muttered with a shrug.

Once we’d gotten into a newer bus, we were transported to a scenic overlook, Blyde River Canyon. This was exciting not only for the aesthetic view of the canyon and rock formations but for the simple fact that it was the first taste of real Africa.

I was wandering through the African market on the street, dazedly examining wooden masks and spoons and bangles when I heard a clear, mellifluous voice rising up from the bathrooms, the sound of Nkosi Sikeleli Afrika echoing among the merchants. I took a minute to gather myself. This was the post-apartheid national anthem of South Africa. For decades, it had been banned and those who sang it were considered terrorists. When Nelson Mandela was elected president, he lowered the apartheid flag during a final singing of the old anthem before raising the new rainbow flag amidst a moving rendition of the new anthem. And here it was, being sung casually, not in Cry Freedom or on the rugby pitch, but outside a bathroom stall.

I didn’t think it could get any better when a man approached me, pointing eagerly at the road ahead.

“Bubbin!” he cried.

“What?”

“Bubbin!” he pointed more vigorously.

Confused but intrigued, I walked in the direction he was pointing and came across Shannon, a look of pure rapture on her face.

“A baboon!” she whispered. And there it was, emerging lazily from the reeds into the road.

I wasted no time. In seconds, the camera was on and I was snapping shot after shot of the animal. It didn’t matter if the shot was focused or the baboon was actually in the shot at all. I captured everything. The baboon in the road. The back of the baboon’s head. The baboon’s backside. An unrecognizable part of the baboon’s face. A shot of baboon barely visible among the reeds. And when it disappeared into a massive field on my right, I joined the rabid throng of tourists, pointing my camera and aggressively photographing the monkey. I think we would have followed the baboon out into the Kalahari if G hadn’t been urging us back onto the bus.

But I wasn’t alone. Shannon stood beside me. Aussie John was knee deep in the grass with Malcolm, John, and Dave filing in behind him. We all feverishly photographed until it was truly gone and we all stood exhausted and exhilarated on the roadside.

“So it begins,” one of us keenly observed.

Why did the baboon cross the road?

To get to this

One of the other elements that worked as a sort of adhesive in our group was our mutual love of danger. Danger first made itself mildly apparent to us when we reached Oliphant River that night. It was after dark, which meant we’d be pitching our tents in the moonlight on the verdant rectangle of grass nestled softly between the long river and a low stone wall. Overhead, the southern hemisphere scattered billions of stars and constellations in new and curious patterns, among them the bright Southern Cross and my favorite, Scorpio, the long sibilant arthropod undulating across the sky.

Now, I’ve been camping a few times before. Family camping trips began a few years ago in the Pine Barrens where we’d have to contest with the occasional thunderstorm and the Jersey Devil. Year by year, the trips gravitated away from the woods and finally into a trailer park, where the only real danger was buying a trailer of your own and setting up permanent camp.

But even the Jersey Devil didn’t stand a chance at Oliphant River. Between our tents and the river was a sign casually mentioning that the area was home to a few dangerous animals that could kill you in numerous and creative ways. It’s a far cry from your typical campsite warnings, which usually include a picture of a bear and instructions to seal up your trash. This sign didn’t even need a written warning. A simple kindergarten illustration of a crocodile head would do just fine.

G instructed us to pitch our tents close together against the wall in case a hippo or an elephant stampeded through the campsite. A long row of tents stood a better chance than the random lone structure.

Two men stood by observing us, shaking their heads over two bottles of Castle.

“You’re brave to camp out here,” they said, regarding us as one might view a mentally unsound group of individuals who were shoving potato chips into each others’ ears.

“Right here, a few months ago, a girl was taken by a croc,” one man continued. “Just like that.”

No one else camped outside that night. Our tents were the only ones on the lawn. And it was pretty damn cool.

We laugh at danger (and break all the rules)

The last unifying element was the honey badger. I don’t know who bought up the honey badger first. I think it was Dave, when he was listing hypothetical animal battles and asking G which creature would win.

“Lion versus honey badger,” he’d say, and we’d all bet on honey badger.

If you don’t know what a honey badger is, look it up. It’s so badass. The honey badger has been featured on Animal Planet’s list of fiercest animals and in this epic Youtube video that I assumed everyone had seen. There’s even a Tumblr petition dedicated to creating a honey badger week on Discovery.

From then on, the honey badger became an obsession. We were told by an employee that there were honey badgers that frequented the campsite by night eating food out of the rubbish bin and maybe we could see one. This had the same effect as telling a child that Santa was downstairs eating cookies in the kitchen: we were beside ourselves with excitement.

Long after the bar had closed, when the employees had gone to bed, we stumbled out to the garbage and sat in the back of a pickup truck hoping for a honey badger sighting. We were disappointed, but a strange bond had formed among the five of us, and the prospect of spotting a honey badger quickly trumped the traditional hopes of sighting the Big Five.

How could there be an ‘upgrade’ option to this?

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