I have now been at the farm for 15 days. I’ve swung my leg up and over 7 different horses, just over a third of the horses on the farm. I’ve hiked into mountains that I thought would only exist in my dreams. I’ve watched the sky explode with color as the sun set behind the valley amongst a herd of horses. It still feels like a dream that I’m here and this is my new life for a little while until the chaos of the world slows. Before telling the stories of the adventures of this place though, I think I can finally reflect and laugh about the journey it was from the desert to the mountains.
Leaving the research station was a mission, as I had expected. I was told it would never work – which made me more determined to do it. I acquired the necessary permits, contacted every potential car rental and hotel company in Joburg, and researched what provincial border crossings would be like. I’m in a bit of a tight spot with my bank – my credit and debit cards will expire in June and the replacement cards never made it in the mail to the Kalahari. So I asked to be paid in cash (SA rand) for my last stipend, which would be for the last 4 months of work – around $1600. But $1600 is worth 21,000 Rand. I sealed the stacks of 100s in a ziplock bag and packed it under my clothes in my duffel bag – if I did get stopped I would surely look suspicious.
The morning I left, I swapped some snot and tears onto another pair of shoulders of someone who I wish I had more time to get to know. But as it goes, it was a premature goodbye. I passed on the best lab coat to my replacement as lab manager to my coworker, and friend. I took one last lap through the cell lab where I had spend so much time looking at meerkat and molerat blood, and through the genetics lab that I built from nothing. I loaded up my bags into the project manager’s car heading to Joburg and gave one last hug to my closest friends. As we lapped the farmhouse, they mooned the car. I had seen so many people before me saying goodbye but it felt surreal when it was my turn. We talk about time here as if we were in prison – how long have you been here/how long do you have? But unlike prison, you are never really ready to leave.
We passed through 2 police check-points on the 6 hour drive to Joburg. I watched how my manager presented his permits behind his buff (in place of a mask) and took mental notes – it was easy to be in the passenger seat, accompanied by a man, but soon I would be on my own. The news portrayed accounts of police brutality and people abusing their power during the lockdown, I hoped everything would go smoothly.
I was dropped off at a hotel near the airport in Joburg, after being lasered for my temperature and a sticker stuck to my shirt with 36.5 deg scrawled onto it. I shared a quick hug with my manager and hauled my bags into the hotel. I had a suite – a bedroom, kitchen, bathroom with a tub, and a living room with a TV, and most impressively unlimited wifi. I didn’t know what to do with the space but I used the wifi to phone some friends and family back home.
The next morning I arranged for a car to bring me to the Bidvest car rental at the Joburg Tampa Airport to pick up my car. But when he dropped me off with my bags, I found a desolate airport with no-one in the car rental terminal. I walked the halls looking for someone, anyone while hauling my bags that I wished I had emptied more back at the project. I thought I had left a lot of clothes and extra stuff but my bags still felt heavy. Eventually I made my way to the parking-lot of Bidvest and after knocking on the office door a few times, someone opened it. I had gone to the wrong place – I was supposed to go to the car rental depot, not the actual rental company. Cars were not being rented as there were no flights coming in or out of the country. I couldn’t help but laugh as I tried to explain my predicament and showed my permits to the kind woman working for the company. She arranged for someone to come and pick me up from the depot, for free.
The roads throughout Joburg were dead, no one was driving or walking or biking. The depot was located behind the airport. Two men stopped us and took our temperatures and gave me another sticker to add to my collection on my shirt. I was tired and a little stressed, and wasn’t feeling so great, so my stomach flipped each time my temperature was taken. If I had a fever, for some reason, all of my plans would fall through and I would be stranded somewhere between Joburg and Winterton.
I filled out the paperwork for the rental car, luckily my credit card still worked and all went smooth. I didn’t bother to ask, though I was curious, if I would be getting an automatic or manual car. I figured in the end it didn’t matter, I’d have to drive whatever they gave me anyway. I saw the little Datsun Go cruise up to the front of the building and saw the woman yank the parking brake shortly after she stopped – I guessed a manual, which would be interesting. The cruisers I’ve been driving around the desert and on the Bots-Namib roadtrip were nearly impossible to stall, they worked themselves into gear so I didn’t have to be careful with the clutch. This little tin can of a car looked like it would be an adventure to drive.
I thanked the workers for all of their help and unnecessary generosity and kindness. People talk about Joburg like it’s this dark, scary place but in a time of actual chaos in the world, it seemed friendly and helpful. I squished my bags into the boot of the car and took some time to get myself sorted, after walking to the wrong side of the car to get in the driver’s seat. I pretended just to be checking the car while they watched from the building. To my surprise, I didn’t stall as I rolled out through the gates, past the guards, and through the winding roads behind the airport. The highway South, N3, left straight from the airport and soon I was in high gear listening to Sigur Ros flying down the empty highway. Being on the road again felt good. Being on my way to a new adventure felt great. The feeling of freedom pulled at the corners of my mouth until I couldn’t stop smiling.
I hit three police check points on my way South. The license plates in South Africa are marked for their provinces, similar to the states license plates in the US. When I left Gauteng (province of Joburg), I was flagged to the side of the highway at the checkpoint. About half a dozen police cars were parked along the road and at least a dozen police milled beside them. I presented my documents, passport, and license to the officer looming over my tiny car. Wrong permit – he said behind a mask and I couldn’t read his eyes behind his dark sunglasses. I explained again where I was going, why I was traveling across the provinces, and that I had gotten this far without an issue. He didn’t like my license from WA since the machine in SA couldn’t read it. I hadn’t been stopped in Botswana or Namibia so I wasn’t aware. Some of the volunteers at the project had gotten international driver’s license but I had been told it was because their license weren’t in English. After explaining all of this to him, and discussing how I couldn’t go to an embassy for an international DL anyway since they were all closed, he tossed my papers back into the car and waved me along. The next police check point went smoother, the policeman asked about Trump when I handed him my passport.
Driving through the Free State province was quick and soon I could see the mountains growing up out of the endless miles of farm fields. The Free State is primarily agricultural land – I saw fields of sunflowers, corn, hay, and oats. About an hour away from the rendezvous point where I would meet the host of the Workaway, I finally stopped to pee and grab some food. The gas station was ghostly and I wasn’t sure if they were even selling petrol. I pulled up my buff over my face and went to investigate, pleased to find the snack shop was still open. I grabbed some bananas, chocolate, and an energy drink and paid the lonely woman behind the counter. I thought about how much at risk she would be cashing out people traveling through.
As I neared Kwazulu-Natal, I left the N3 and weaved up roads that led to the mountain pass at the border. Mountains of all shapes and sizes broke apart the horizon. I drove slow to feed my hungry eyes after they had scanned the flat sand dunes for the last year. No one else was on the road anyway. Just before the border a large dam paralleled the highway and the mountains reflected crisply in the stagnant water. My host had messaged me that there was a police check point at the pass just before the border, but that they were friendly. He would be waiting just beyond them for us to caravan the rest of the way. These police men were more heavily armed and the remoteness of the checkpoint felt eerie, but the men were in fact very friendly after I explained I was moving to work on a farm and had been living in the country for the last 12 months. I’m sure being a bubbly blonde helped me at least a little bit. I lurched away as the checkpoint was up a hill, and continued to crawl my way to the top – this car had no power whatsoever.
As promised at the top, Karl was waiting in his Volkswagen truck. We exchanged a quick hello and a few words before setting off. I followed him down the other side of the pass and through the nearby towns to his farm. I burned out once passing down and through a recession where a stream crossed sometimes – I guess I was too aggressive with the clutch and the tires shrieked as the car climbed up and out. I stalled at the end of the driveway to the farm. I realized just how tired I was and tense I had been as suddenly every joint cracked and popped as I got out of the car.
The next morning we would drive together to Pietermaritzburg to return the car, so the adventure wasn’t quite over yet. We ate dinner and I learned about the farm and what I would be doing for the next couple of months. During the week, every morning I would be riding and training the horses with Nathi, a Zulu man employed by the farm. We would groom and trim the horses’ hooves, then take a tea break, and be in the saddle by 9:30 AM. We’d return around noon where then Nathi would brush-cut on the tractor in the hay fields or help Karl with projects, and I would find things to keep myself busy and help out where I could. I’d learn over the next two weeks the different odd jobs I could do around the farm – garden, chop firewood, oil the saddles, pick pecan nuts, clean out the algae from the dam, conservation work with the nearby parks (like building bridges, trail maintenance, or cave checks), or more training with the horses. Karl and I would rotate who cooked dinner and there should always be a large salad in the fridge from the vegetables in the garden. Two big farm dogs would guard the farm – horses had been stolen in the past and though the valley was safer than surrounding areas, there was still a risk of crime. I’d be staying in the large guest house, since tourism had been completely halted in the country due to the pandemic. So instead of a small house with 4 bunk beds where Workaway volunteers usually stay, I’d be living in a large 4 bedroom house with a living room, dining room, kitchen, and my own bathroom. There’s a large porch that wraps around the front of the house with beautiful orange, purple, and yellow flowers and a fire pit. It feels way too nice for me, especially after the concrete single room I had made my home in at the research station and the shared bathroom with cold water and mosquito swarms.
The next morning went smoothly returning the car and I felt a huge sense of relief when I dropped the keys into the key box at the desolate rental parking lot. I had made it. We stopped at the grocery store on the way home and I couldn’t help but gape at the amount of fruit he was loading into the cart. Oranges, pineapple, apples, grapes, papaya – I had missed fresh fruit so much! The Workaway is a volunteer position with food and accommodation covered – this fruit was free. I’m still not sure how this all happened, how I got so lucky.
But even if it’s just luck, I’ll take it. Waking up in the mornings feels like extensions of my dreams. Life is good.
Stay tuned for tales from the saddle, mountain adventures, snake encounters, and general shenanigans in the Drakensberg.