Recently I was asked what was the bravest thing I’ve ever done. Most people who know me would probably say me moving to South Africa was very brave. To that I would say that are right in some ways, but I don’t think I’d consider it the bravest thing I’ve ever done. However, for anyone who’s ever lifted off the bowlines and set sail, by car, plain, train, boat, horse or foot to a new destination, I’d say they certainly have at least one brave bone (if not an entire skeleton of them) in their body. It takes a lot of guts to change your life so dramatically.
But for me, bravery is about staying strong even when you’re feeling so very small. And this story is about one of those moments.
South Africa, though very cosmopolitan in places, and with most of the modern conveniences first-world countries take for granted, is still very different than those same countries. For one, crime really is bad here. Many South Africans have told me otherwise, but everyone I’ve met here has experienced some sort of crime, whether it was a mugging, car-jacking, house break-in, and in some cases, even gone so far as been a victim of rape and/or some other physically violent crime. The taxi drivers carry guns here, and I’ve been warned more than a dozen times to not honk at them or they might actually shoot me. I’ve been told this by people I trust, and who said it with no hint of irony or humour. They don’t honk at the taxi drivers either.
When I first started driving in South Africa, my fiance told me I must never stop at a stop light or stop sign after dark, and that if I see police lights behind me, to not pull over, but to instead drive to the nearest police station. Certainly didn’t make me feel comfy and cozy driving around, and certainly not something I expected to hear about a place known for its tourism, world-class hotels and restaurants, and reputation as the ‘Rainbow Nation.’
I’ve been told by many South Africans that the US is much more violent than South Africa. I feel the need to set the record straight on that. Yes, the US has plenty of crime. But in terms of levels and percentages, it isn’t even close to that of South Africa. I lived in three major cities – New York, Washington, DC and Los Angeles. In none of those places did I ever have to live in a compound brimming with video surveillance cameras and locked down with fences and metal bars on every possible window, door or small opening. While I did live in what are considered nicer sections of those cities, even the nicest sections of Cape Town and Joburg have considerable crime, both non-violent AND violent. In South Africa, we live in walled compounds surrounded by home security systems and the alarm company not only on speed dial, but offering patrol cars that constantly monitor the streets. My friend’s sister was mugged right outside her house the other day by a kid who wanted her cell phone. It’s not pretty. To be honest, I’d rather take my chances in the bush than in any city in South Africa. I’ve never met a lion who’d pull a knife on me over a laptop or an iPhone.
But the bush DOES have it’s share of human dangers. In fact, the reserve I worked on up in Limpopo had apparently seen a few murders committed by the two-legged primate known as man. I’d go so far as to say the most dangerous places in the world are the ones inhabited by people.
The following story is one of the few instances in my life where I was truly afraid. And it was one of the few times in my life when I also felt truly brave. Funny that they often go hand in hand like that.
When I was living on the reserve out in the Karoo (an arid region north/northeast of Cape Town), I lived in a small house by myself. It was connected to another little row of rooms/houses, none of which were occupied while I was there because they were under construction. My kitchen opened into one of the cheetah enclosures, so I always knew I’d be safe from that side of the house (provided the cats didn’t break down the door, which they did threaten to do every morning when they saw the lights come on in my kitchen and they thought I had breakfast for them). However, the front of my house faced another empty house and an unlit walkway, and the other side faced the very empty and open Karoo. The fourth wall was connected to another house, so it didn’t actually ‘face’ anything but a lot of concrete)
People walk off into the Karoo and disappear. The landscape is like an infinite horizon that doubles back on itself, with a stubble of low shrub and hardy grasses and a terra firma sea of dusty mirages and dried up dams. On moonless nights, the sky is a blanket of stars shimmering like sequins against a silvery satin dress. On cloudy nights, blackness envelops you like a velvet curtain and you can’t see so much as your hand in front of your face.
My cell phone had no reception at my house; I had no landline. I didn’t have a working two-way radio. The reserve had yet to provide me with one (which was one of the first indicators that my employers did not give a whit about their employees – they made no effort to get me one for the first few weeks I was there, and not even after this incident, or the one when I was bitten by one of the cheetah and couldn’t contact anyone for help). I was therefore alone in the equivalent of a desert, with no way to call anyone if anything were to happen to me. In fact, my best defense might have been simply letting the cats into my kitchen so they could attack whomever came after me.
I kept a Bowie knife under my pillow alongside a massive Maglite torch (aka flashlight). And every night I listened for the squeaky gate that led to my front door, the telltale sign that someone or something was prowling around my house. The gate was too high and too flimsy for anyone to jump over, so I had some peace of mind knowing that if anyone tried to break in, they had to go through that crappy gate and alert me of their presence. One of the few times I’m glad my ex-employers took care of nothing on the reserve – in a better lodge, the hinges would’ve been replaced and I would’ve never heard a sound.
When I first got to the reserve, my house wasn’t ready. They still hadn’t cleaned it up from the previous tenant and the miserable blue macaw that lived with her and left several months’ worth of bird shit caked into the ground around his stoop. So I stayed in a tiny but well-lit and secure rondavel near the field guides. I ended up moving into the house a day earlier than expected, which is what probably caused the incident. I think people figured no one was in the place yet, and they could take advantage of the empty house full of goodies like tableware and bedding. I’ve realised that people, when they want to and think they can get away with it, will steal just about anything, including a spatula.
At any rate, at around 12:30am, I heard my front gate scrape, soft footsteps padding across my little yard, and then the front door rattling. Someone was clearly trying to get in. I then heard some muffled and disgruntled whispers as they tried again. At this, I turned on the flashlight. Alarmed by the light, my potential intruders immediately scuttled away through the gate. I heard their car doors slam shut as they got into a car and drove off.
I immediately checked the area around my house, and then booked it to the closest neighbor, who happened to be one of the lodge managers. I relayed the story and we got into one of the lodge’s trucks and drove around looking for suspicious cars in places they shouldn’t be. It probably wasn’t the brightest idea for two women to be speeding around the reserve in the middle of the night, but we did need to get a read on where everyone was, and if anyone or any cars where missing.
While we were driving, the lodge manager informed me that quite a few of the workers were very disgruntled, did not like the owners, and were plotting on robbing the lodge blind any chance they got. I think they were hoping tonight was one such chance, and that they could take advantage of whatever goodies were in my place while it was still empty. After realizing the empty house wasn’t so empty, though, they tucked tail and never came back.
The next day I checked the tracks left by the night visitors and their escape vehicle. They hadn’t bothered to try and cover them up. It was easy to identify the type and size of the shoes they wore by their tread. The same goes for the truck they drove. There was enough evidence to figure out who my ‘guests’ were – and they were indeed people who worked at the lodge.
We called the lodge owners the next day and told them what happened, but did not mention any names or point fingers. I thought, given what happened and how vulnerable we were, that it would be more appropriate for the owners to initiate a real investigation so there was no bad blood against either the lodge manager or myself. My employers were so clearly concerned about us that they blew it off. Couldn’t be bothered. They told us we were overreacting. Nothing was done. And as I found out, that was how they handled everything at that lodge. The employees don’t matter; we can always find new ones.
That was the second mark against them. The cheetah bite would be the last and final blow against that shitshow.
When I returned to my house that afternoon, I checked my bedroom window, which another employee told me didn’t lock. It hadn’t locked for two years. My employers insisted it was fixed. When I checked, it was still broken. No effort had ever been made to sort out the lock or the window.
I slept with the knife and torch under my pillow until the day I left that job, only a few short weeks later.
All rights reserved. ©2014 Jennifer Vitanzo