– After several more driving successes in and around Acornhoek, I was ready to test my newly acquired skills in real combat. It was time to drive to Kruger.
– Kruger National Park (which covers a land area the size of Israel) can be accessed via several, scattered gates, the closest of which is a two-hour drive from Wits Rural. However, an entire hour (or more) can be shaved off this time frame, if you’re willing to take the short cut.
– The normal route from Wits to Kruger (or put another way, the route recognized by google maps) forms three sides of an erratic trapezoid. In comparison, the “short cut” is a schizophrenic straight line that gets you from point A to point B across unmarked, unpaved, unmaintained, godforsaken, yet more or less scenic dirt roads behind every village in the greater Limpopo region. From the description, you can probably guess which route I took.
– Originally this wasn’t going to be a problem. Hloniphani was coming with me, and he had taken the short cut numerous times before. But then his committee meeting got rescheduled at the last minute. Goodbye Wendy, have fun with the mermaids.
– No, no, he didn’t just abandon me. In fact he employed some rather clever lateral thinking and sent his girlfriend, Rejoice, to show me the way instead. Rejoice was a pro. She had been to Kruger before. One time. Several months ago.
– Ok, yeah, he did just abandon me.
– You might be asking yourself, why was it so important I take the back way? Why couldn’t I just use the long way around on the main roads and rely on my google maps? The answer is mildly complicated but can be summed up thusly: I needed to get to Kruger before 8:00am for a very important meeting. The gates at Wits and Kruger are not open 24-7. They have very specific opening and closing times. Before or after those times you cannot get through them. My itinerary was such that, in order to work, I needed to get from Wits Rural to Kruger in as little a time as possible, given that my leaving time was restricted both by the opening of the Wits Rural and Kruger gates. Bottom line:
– I needed to take the short cut.
– “Short cuts make long delays.” – J. R. R. Tolkein
– I’m not giving Rejoice nearly enough credit. Quite frankly she blew my mind. This was not an easy route to remember, not by any stretch of the imagination, and after being taken to Kruger only once she was able to recall almost every car garage, crooked tree, discarded tire and ambiguous blue roadside arrow that pointed the way. That’s not to say that we didn’t get lost or make wrong turns. They happened occasionally and I would have the pleasure of becoming acquainted with yet another bumpy village road that was not on the original itinerary, but each time she realized we had gone astray in a more or less expedient fashion, would have us turn around or ask for directions or, if all else failed, called Hloniphani. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I would not have been able to manage any of these by myself, except for maybe calling Hloniphani, in which case the conversation would have gone something like: “Where are you?” — “Driving toward this big mountain that looks like the one from Rescuers Down Under.” — “What was the last turn you made?” — “… there was, a, tree?” — “What do you see now?” — “… A goat. This is fun. Ask me another one.”
– Besides the stress of needing to hit a schedule and not knowing where I was going, I actually found the drive quite enjoyable. There was the novelty and the intellectual challenge, as mentioned previously, but in addition there was the pure, defiant satisfaction that comes when men gape at you as you pass them by.
– A brief aside to explain this: Rejoice and I had been getting to know one another a little better, and aside from telling me about her educational and vocational plans, she also shared some of the frustrations of being a woman in rural South Africa. They are not encouraged to drive, for one. A woman behind the wheel is met with derision and ridicule, and if an accident or a mishap should occur, the fault is invariably blamed on the incompetence of her sex. However, the best way to sum up the situation is to relate a conversation she had with Hloniphani: She was trying to explain to him the importance of Women’s Day in South Africa; why the gesture is worthwhile and necessary and an important observance of all that women contribute to the country. Hloniphani replied with skepticism and incomprehension. ‘There’s no point to this Women’s Day. If we have that, then why don’t we have a Men’s Day?’
Because every day is Men’s Day, you bastard.
– But such is the cultural reality, and I’m just here to sample trees, not fight the good fight on the gender front. Doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy it when the men we pass have to eat my dust, though. Which is satisfyingly literal on these dirt roads…
– So an unexpected benefit of my clunker truck, it can handle these rutty streets a lot better then the sedans and vans that we were passing. Another source of enjoyment was waving at the kids who were on their way to school. Or I should say returning their waves, as they were very enthusiastic about getting our attention. I wanted to pull over and give them all a lift. I made a special point at waving at the girls we passed. ‘You can do this to,’ I sent to them, as they peered around each other in their nicely pressed school uniforms. ‘You can do whatever the hell you want, and don’t let anyone tell you differently.’
– We didn’t quite make it in time, but my meeting happened anyway. The rest of the day was spent in the normal bureaucratic haze, the same the world over, and I won’t waste time on relating the particulars here. I will say that everyone I talked to was wonderfully pleasant and helpful (misleadingly so, as it turned out), and I had an incredibly productive talk with Michele Hofmeyer, who runs the nursery at Kruger. She took me around the facility, showing me diagnostic traits for my species and shouting at every worker we passed that the trees needed more water. She had this fascinating way of saying, ‘please,’ where from the tone you might better substitute the words ‘you moron,’ and achieve the same effect. It was especially incongruous because of how sweet and friendly she was otherwise, giving all but the clothes off her back (which included the ID book off her desk, which was exceedingly more useful). She invited me to help on a tree survey along the Sabie river and I readily accepted. Ahh, plant ecologists, my people.
– The drive home was even more exhilarating as I discovered that, counter intuitively, the roads were less bumpy the faster you went. The relationship between speed and bumpiness is inversely proportional, who knew? At any rate, we were going, as Rejoice put it, and we made the trip back in half the time.
– I’m sure that the enjoyment and sense of power and self-sufficiency I feel while driving is related to the powerlessness that comes with moving around in public spaces otherwise. I’m short, small, ‘white’ (at least in South Africa), and female; this makes me a target of interest, and not all of it good. In supermarkets I’ve had men reach out and stroke my face and hair before I could move away, and this bothers me far less then when they laugh about it with each other afterwards. It has nothing to do with intent, I’m sure they think they’re doing nothing wrong or threatening; it’s about their access to me or any woman, physical, social and cultural, and the unthinking abuse of this access that happens day after day. This isn’t a South African problem, it’s just more explicit and unchallenged here, but the attitude itself is sadly universal. When this happened when Rejoice and I pulled over to get dinner, neither of us looked at each other, or said anything about it. The words from my study abroad pamphlet floated up out of my memory: If a man accosts you, find your nearest male friend immediately. Do not smile, but do not make the man feel unwanted. Do not do anything that could be construed as an invitation. So practical, so necessary, so damaging. I kept my face locked up in stony silence until the men left, then continued chatting with Rejoice as if nothing had happened. Nothing had happened, after all. This was reality. Her’s, and mine for a time. Nothing to do but get back in the truck, and try not to run anybody off the road.