The road was rough. The land rover bounced around a corner and there he was, a South African White Rhinoceros, standing guard in the middle of the rutted road. I lurched forward as the guide stopped the vehicle abruptly. The Rhino’s ears twitched. He watched from immovable feet. I held my breath. I could hear a huffing snort and the buzzing of insects.
The guide spoke, “Perhaps we will find another way.”
The land rover jerked in reverse. The Rhino stared at us, unblinking.
The Range Rover bounced through the trees like the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland, then, mercifully, stopped. Our guide shut off the engine. I could hear the ticking of hot stressed metal. My body was just as stressed. I may have developed a tick.
I could see him, hiding, a giant bull elephant, trying, it seemed to me, to be inconspicuous.
I began taking photographs. Through the lens, the elephant looked annoyed. With crunching footsteps, he lumbered out of the trees into the open, staring at us. We stared back at him. He came closer. Closer. CLOSER. I reached for a wider lens.
Hold very still, our guide whispered. He reached for his rifle.
The giant elephant stopped, three feet away. I could hear him panting. Snorting. I could SMELL him. VERY BAD BREATH.
From my open seat in the Range Rover, he was massive. His tusks were stained red near the sharpened points. He looked down at me with huge, tired eyes.
What are you doing here?
I came to see you.
He sniffed, his snake-like trunk sampling the air around me. His giant eyes blinked. I could see myself reflected in their rich, deep brown. He looked…sad, maybe. Resignedly tolerant, perhaps. Proud, certainly.
He moved on.
I realized that the pounding I could hear was my heart, not his footsteps.
Our guide put down his gun and started the Range Rover. The roar of the engine shattered the quiet surrounding us and we moved on.
A thirsty African elephant takes a healthy drink from his own personal well.
I thought, since it is New Years Eve, I would post a photo gallery of shots from some of the places I’ve been around the world. Sort of a “Best of” gallery from previous posts. I’ve been only blogging since August, so I have yet to post shots from everywhere I’ve been. And, I have yet to even start posting video from all of these places. That is what 2014 is for. Resolution 🙂
The world is a big, beautiful place, filled with interesting people, amazing sights, random coincidences and occasional tender mercies. I have been blessed to travel. I have been blessed to make friends on every continent. I hope to keep the friends I have made and make more as time goes by. However, my greatest blessings are found at home, with a warm fire, a good meal and my family, who love me.
Joseph. Our driver. He was a large, jolly man in his fifties. He had dark chocolate skin with curly, salt and pepper hair. He looked at me and the smile lines around his eyes wrinkled.
Not just a chuckle. Joseph burst into a full belly laugh. He had lived through it. He was 33 when Apartheid ended.
“You would not believe me if I told you,” Joseph said. “My children do not believe me when I tell them.”
At first, I didn’t understand why he was laughing. I didn’t understand how he could laugh. It wasn’t funny.
I pressed him.
“It was horrible. No freedom. No jobs. We had no hope.”
He drove us to a township just outside of Johannesburg.
“Three-thousand people live here,” he said. “They have no running water. They have no electricity. They share three water taps. They share 20 portable toilets.”
He introduced me to the people. They were quick to smile, but their eyes were guarded, skeptical. I couldn’t understand their words. Joseph translated.
Who is this white face with a camera?
Why does he take our picture?
Joseph told them I was there to tell their story. I was. They were glad. They were friendly. They wanted me to understand. They wanted others to know of their struggle. For them, Apartheid was not over.
I was stunned. They had so little.
“Get in the car.” Joseph said it was time to go. It was no longer safe.
I got in the car.
Joseph did not laugh.
“Apartheid ended in 1994. Those were difficult times. I lost my best friend to a gunshot. I cannot describe…I will not describe those days. We did not know if we would live or die. We had no hope.”
“But, Apartheid has been over for 27 years.”
“These people believe the government will take care of them. They think the government will educate them.”
Joseph laughed. “They say apartheid is over. It is not. But at least now we have hope.”
Having recently visited South Africa, I was reflecting on my experiences there in light of Nelson Mandela’s passing. A courageous, inspiring leader, he had an influence on a people, a country and a world. As I met the people, talked with them, broke bread with them, photographed them, Nelson Mandela had an influence on me. I came to admire his commitment to moral principles which elevate the human condition. I found, in Johannesburg, a complex and complicated city with contrasts not entirely in keeping with Nelson Mandela’s vision for how things ought to be. In other parts of the country these contrasts were even more apparent. Things are not how they should be. Yet, I also saw hope, commitment, energy and progress. I’m sure Nelson Mandela didn’t accomplish all he hoped to accomplish in his long and influential life. Yet, his vision took root. His commitment and perseverance inspired others. Nelson Mandela made a difference. South Africa made a significant impression on me well beyond the images I took.
From a distance, Alex looks interesting. The closer you get, the harder it is to see. It can be beautiful, in a flowering African Thorn Bush kind of way. The flowers are pretty–sort of. The thorns can do some real damage. Among the thorns in Alex, there is an energy, growing, changing. In spite of the harshness of conditions, there was a softness in the faces of people. Not all were willing to let me take their picture. Some approached with angry words. Others turned away or hid. But, for those who stood their ground or gave permission, I could see a light, hard light perhaps, in their eyes. The noon-day sun did not make for the best photographs. However, in the hard light of the noon-day sun, when I put on my sunglasses, I could see hope.
It was noon and the sun was directly overhead. Hot. And Humid. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. The hard light cast hard shadows. Appropriate–in Alex, life is hard. One of the poorest urban areas in South Africa, Alexandra Township is part of Johannesburg and is home to nearly 200,000 souls. Many do not have running water, or proper sanitation. Many live in informal shacks made of corrugated metal or cinderblock brick. Unemployment is high. Drugs are rampant and gangs compete with law for control. When I entered Alex to take pictures, I stood out dramatically–white on black, with hard shadows. The harsh light was not what I would have chosen for good pictures. Nevertheless, the time of day was a metaphor for life in Alex–harsh and hard. In this post I wanted to show some of the conditions inside. Partial understanding comes through knowing. Tomorrow I’ll show their faces.
Built in 1951 as part of the Orland Power Station serving Johannesburg, South Africa from the South West Township of Soweto, the Soweto Towers have become one of the most recognizable landmarks in the world. The power plant was decommissioned in 1998 after 56 years of service. Now, the towers are used for art, and advertising. One tower serves as a giant billboard. The other tower contains the largest mural painting in South Africa. But, even cooler than the art, is the action. You can bungee jump or base jump from a platform bridge between the Two Towers.
Lions, Leopards, Water Buffalo, Wart Hogs, Rhinos, Elephants and Zebras–they all drink from this river. The Mala Mala Game Reserve in South Africa was established in 1964 and is a protected wildlife sanctuary. Situated in the midst of a much larger protected area, Mala Mala is an unfenced reserve where wildlife roam free. In spite of the location, poachers still manage to kill a significant number of animals each year. Mala Mala Rangers are working tirelessly to prevent and eliminate the senseless killing of protected species such as the Rhinoceros as well as preserve an environment where wildlife may enjoy living waters. And, it really is this cool 🙂
There are numerous cross-cultural references to the Tree of Life. I don’t know the actual name for this tree, but the symmetrical shape reminded me of drawings I’ve seen from many parts of the world. In a land teeming with such diversity of life, the symbolism was not hard to find. Africa is an amazing place, bursting with life, much of it tenuous. This tree, thriving amongst the harshness, was an inspiring reminder of my own mortality.