Under South African Skies

Leap of Faith | September 14, 2009

Sometimes I catch myself saying things that suggest I’m in the running for the Manliest Man Alive title. I think it’s out of some misplaced desire for everyone I encounter to think of me as the type of guy who does all of his shopping at Gander Mountain, only eats beef jerky, and listens to the Ozark Mountain Daredevils as he prepares to eat the bear he just shot with his bow and arrow. Unfortunately, cracks generally appear in the façade pretty quickly. It comes out that I suck at hockey, think Sleepless in Seattle is pretty good, and failed in my single attempt at catching a fish bare-handed because I got scared when the fish swam forward and bit my nipple.

Once in awhile, however, I wear the self-proclaimed Mr. Balls to the Wall title so proudly that I have no choice but to buck up and try to prove said manliness. A pretty good example was that time two weeks ago when I acted like jumping off a 216m bridge was no sweat. It actually turned out to be a pretty big sweat.

I had known I would be bungee jumping before I even left the states; the jump from the Bloukrans Bridge was our first stop on the pre-scheduled mid-semester trip that would take us to backpackers’ lodges along the eastern coast of South Africa, with stops in major cities and sites like Johannesburg, Durban, Port Elizabeth and Kruger National Park.

Our group of 12 was picked up from Wild Spirit, the beautiful, forest-surrounded lodge we had stayed at the night before, early on the Saturday morning we were scheduled to jump. Though we were packed into a van like cows being taken to the slaughterhouse, I found a comforting sense of solidarity on that ride, as Grease was pumping through the van’s stereo and I learned that someone else’s chills were multiplying.

When we arrived at Bloukrans, most of us wisely made one last run to the bathroom before strapping on our harnesses and making our way towards imminent death. While most of the group opted to walk to the center of the bridge, I joined a few others in taking a zip line to our jumping spot. This was very fun but also pretty stupid. As I hung from a rope and slid out to meet my friends at the bridge’s center, I looked down to see what I would be jumping into. Trees. Water. Rocks. That would hurt if I hit those things falling from a high distance, the voice of reason that was growing quieter told me. I would definitely be dead, it added. Really dead. And I was about to jump off a bridge situated right above those very trees, water and rocks.

I got to the takeoff point to find that two of my compatriots had already jumped, leaving me on deck. I was soon led to a chair where a member of the bungee staff connected my legs with two cushioned pads. As he wrapped bungee chords around them, I asked him if they were really tight enough. He looked at me with the eyes of someone who is used to people questioning him daily on whether or not he is doing his job of keeping them from death. He assured me that my legs weren’t getting free.

With one bungee staff person on either side of me, I was lead to the edge of the bridge like a prisoner being taken to his execution. I muttered a quick prayer and promised Ryan Corr my Pokemon card collection if I died. As the two staff people moved away from my side, they began to count: “Five, four, three, two, one…BUNGEE!”

 

Trying on new duds

Trying on new duds

IMG_9453

 

 

 

After the fall

After the fall

I bent my knees and hurled myself head-first from the bridge. I had expected to feel the greatest adrenalin rush of my life (which I did) but surprisingly found it kind of peaceful. I had never felt so light or heard the wind so clearly and as I neared the end of my five seconds of free fall, I felt myself pulled back towards the bridge as if by the will of some invisible hand.

This process of bobbing up and down eventually ended, leaving me hanging upside down over the aforementioned trees, rocks and water, blood rushing to my head all the while. I don’t really remember what I thought about as I was dangling, but I remember getting the kind of relief I hadn’t felt since Toaster Strudel announced its wild berry flavor when the bungee staff person came down on a harness to bring me back to the bridge.

I joined the group in cheering as each jumper stepped to the edge of the bridge but was caught in a perpetual daze the rest of the day, from swimming in a forest pond to exploring Port Elizabeth’s night life at the end of the day.

Though nothing else we did that week matched bungee jumping in terms of providing a pure, unadulterated rush, we did get to see and do some pretty spectacular things. At a backpacker called Buccaneers in Chintsa, I made the Indian the third ocean I’ve swam in, making my way out far enough to allow large waves to carry me back to shore. In Durban, we visited a market consisting primarily of Indian vendors who provided us with shirts, hats, necklaces, spices and whatever other trinkets we wanted to bring home to our families. And in Johannesburg and Soweto, we visited a church, museums and Nelson Mandela’s former home, all of which to some extent documented yet kept alive the stories accompanying the South African struggle against apartheid. As we saw the site where the first student was killed in the Soweto Uprising against an exclusively white government that planned to force black Africans to speak their language in school, saw the horrendous conditions at the Constitution Hill prison where many anti-apartheid activists had been kept along with common law criminals and looked at the bullet holes that had interrupted a struggle movement meeting in a church, one began to get a small sense of the incalculable sacrifices of many of those who opposed apartheid.

We also had an opportunity to take a tour of the Zulu village Emaphephethieni. Though the word “tour” seems to drip with connotations of Americans walking around, cameras snapping and brochures waving, we had no need to worry.  Nogu and Thami, our two guides, showed us around in a way that taught us about Zulu culture while also opening our eyes to some of the things Zulu people do in their daily lives. The two showed us the bracelets girls make for male suitors before the males embark on the long process (sometimes ten years) of making four payments including cash, goats, calves (11 of the girl is a virgin, ten if she is not; to receive only ten calves is very embarrassing in Zulu culture), and general gifts the girl’s family requires. Only after that can the man and woman wed. Nogu and Thami also took us to see a sangoma, a traditional healer. The sangoma did not speak English, but through translation, she told us that sangomas do not seek their profession but are called, sometimes through physical pain inflicted by their ancestors. This particular sangoma was called around the age of 15 back in the 1950s. Because her mother was also a sangoma, she did not need to go through the typical training.

The highlight of our time in the Zulu village, however, was lunch and dancing in a large, open hut-like structure. The meal, which we ate with our hands, consisted of maize, spinach, tomato, onion and squash. While fantastic, it was no match for watching little Zulu girls kick their legs frantically to the beat of a makeshift bucket drum. Thami and Nogu soon had each of us on our feet, embarrassing us as we tried to keep up with their killer dance moves. If bungee jumping was the adrenalin high of the trip for me, experiencing the culture of new friends in Emaphephethieni was the spiritual and emotional apex.

 

Zulu girls got the beat, what what?

Zulu girls got the beat, what what?

Because our Zulu guide Nogu liked my Livestrong bracelet so much and looked considerably better wearing it than I did, I decided to part ways with the Lance jewelry.

Because our Zulu guide Nogu liked my Livestrong bracelet so much and looked considerably better wearing it than I did, I decided to part ways with the Lance jewelry.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Any of these experiences would have been great on their own, but we topped the whole trip off with a safari in Kruger National Park. Kruger is not like visiting a zoo in the states, where one is guaranteed to approach a given cage and see a given animal that might occasionally scratch itself in between nap breaks. There are no guarantees on safari; visitors might get lucky and see all of South Africa’s Big Five (cheetah, lion, elephant, rhino and water buffalo). On the other hand, they might only see the boring, deer-like impala.

Our group got lucky. Split into two jeeps with the unforgettable guides Marcus and Verner, we began to drive through the park at 6 a.m. the two mornings we were at Kruger, scanning both sides of the road in the hopes of seeing something extraordinary.

Even Kruger’s normal was extraordinary for us. We watched elephants dipping their trunks into a huge, man-made trough, giraffes feeding from the top leaves of tall trees and a warthog darting out of its sanctuary hole. We also got to see things that our guides told us were particularly unique. Half of our group saw a cheetah lank across the road, mere feet from the jeep. We saw two wild dogs of which there are only about 300 in the entire park. We saw an outcast lioness lurk by two giraffes before she decided she was no match for them. And we even watched from a bridge as two crocodiles did the dirty deed in the murky waters below. Nature sure is beautiful.

 

They had the right of way.

They had the right of way.

 

It was impossible not to feel satisfied with our trip as we flew from the Kruger area back to Cape Town.  But I felt more than satisfaction; I felt a strange sense of relief and encouragement. Though studying abroad in Cape Town, even on the most responsibility-filled days, is really like a perpetual vacation from what we are used to in Milwaukee, Wis., our semester trip was, for me, a much-needed getaway from what had started to sometimes feel like a routine. Even more than that, however, it provided a new sense of direction for our remaining months in Cape Town. The irony of that new sense of direction is that it actually provides no direction at all. As a man who loves a plan, I find it difficult to get into something with very little description, structure or goal in mind. I’ve realized that that is probably the source of some of my greatest frustrations at my work sites. With no directive for how exactly I should measure the reading, English and guitar levels of my students, no indication for how I am expected to teach my classes and often lacking self-assurance of my abilities to teach anybody anything, it is helpful to learn that great things can be done and great experiences can be had in moments of total uncertainty. You might never see a lion at Kruger, but you’ll never know if you go out and try to find one. Sometimes you have to take a leap of faith and trust that something good will come from teaching a child to play Every Breath You Take on guitar, taking an AIDS and Development class or reading Twilight with a group of 12 and 13-year-olds. Though the proof of the success of these endeavors may not be readily available to us or may be seemingly small and insignificant, we often might be surprised by what we can learn from taking a chance. So if your friend tells you to jump off a bridge…think about it.

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About author

I'm a 20-year-old Marquette student currently studying abroad in Cape Town, South Africa. I like to play the guitar and piano, watch the Mighty Ducks trilogy, read, travel and write. My favorite Judd sister is Winona, and I share a birthday with Dan Quayle.

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