Some hotels are situated in dangerous neighborhoods. If you venture down the block, you risk getting mugged. But when you go on safari, stepping outside your bungalow can get you eaten.
My South Arican safari adventure took me far outside my usual comfort zone. As you’ll see, the perils that I faced did include the possibility of becoming fresh meat. But the discomfort started before I even arrived. It began with the airplane I needed to take to get to the safari.
One thing you need to understand about me: I hate flying. I don’t mean that I dislike it because of the delays, or the hassle of going through airport security checkpoints, or the poor customer service that has become all too common (although none of those things thrills me). What I mean is that flying scares me. It absolutely terrifies me.
This might seem surprising for someone who travels as much as I do. Obviously, I don’t let my fear prevent me from doing what I love. When I’m on holiday I force myself to board airplanes, because the rewards of reaching the places to which they whisk me are so substantial. But during much of the time that we’re airborne, I’m a nervous wreck — especially during turbulence. Yes, I know how statistically safe commercial air travel is; and I know too that turbulence usually poses no danger to the safety of the flight (although there may be occasional exceptions). But that intellectual awareness is of scant comfort when my aircraft is being tossed around in the stratosphere. I’m somewhat calmer when I’m riding on one of the jumbo jets that are typically employed for long-haul international flights; but even then, bumpy air unsettles me. Perhaps the most terrifying hour of my life occurred during a flight from Sydney to Hong Kong in January 2010. The plane was shaking so violently that I had to hold on to the tray table in front of me. I kept wondering how close we were approaching to the plane’s stress limits; and until we emerged from whatever horrendous weather we were bouncing through, I was convinced that a plunge into the badly-misnamed Pacific Ocean was imminent. And that frightful episode happened aboard an Airbus A340-600, among the largest airliners ever built.
So when I was making plans to go on safari in September 2011, I became very, very nervous upon learning that the only way I could reach my chosen location (the Elephant Plains lodge at the Sabi Sands game reserve in South Africa) was to hitch a ride on a tiny propeller plane. That was my only option for transit from Johannesburg to Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport in Nelspruit (well, my only option unless I wanted to show up at the Johanesburg airport at 6:00 am for ground transportation all the way to Sabi Sands. And I am so not a morning person; even making it to Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International Airport for my 9:00 am depature to Nelspruit was not easy for me). While Mpumalanga has a cool name, you’re forced to strap yourself into a perilously small aircraft if you desire the privilege of landing there.
As the date and time of my white-knuckle flight approached, my apprehension soared, based on a combination of two factors: the plane would be minuscule, and it would have propellers instead of jet engines. Small planes just provide less of a feeling of security — it’s like the difference between driving onto the autobahn in a SmartCar versus a tractor-trailer. As well, you tend to feel turbulence more in smaller planes. And in case I haven’t mentioned it, I hate turbulence. 🙂 Propeller planes terrify me for the additional reason that I’m always fearful the propellers will stop spinning. Hey, I didn’t say my phobia is rational.
My stay in South Africa began when I arrived at Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International Airport on a Saturday morning. Two days later, I was back at the same airport for my flight to Nelspruit. Shown at right is the actual plane that I was forced to climb into. I might as well have just been wearing wings on my back. After we’d been seated for takeoff, I turned to the passenger beside me and told her I was nervous because I had never flown on a plane as small as the one that we were now on. “I’m scared too,” she responded. That was reassuring . . .
The flight on that little puddle-jumper actually turned out to be remarkably smooth (an example of the very common phenomenon of the apprehension turning out to have been much worse than the thing that was feared). Even so, I was on pins and needles until we touched down at Nelspruit.
The next phase of my journey to Sabi Sands consisted of ground transportation. This involved a roughly three hour ride in a minivan. The distance that we covered was not nearly as vast as the duration might suggest, but much of the drive was over bouncy dirt roads that could only be traversed at a low rate of speed.
It was a huge relief to be securely on terra firma, but a new issue had arisen. I was sick. Beginning the previous day, I’d felt intermittently feverish; now my condition was steadily deteriorating. By the time of my van ride to Sabi Sands, I’d developed full-blown flu-like symptoms. Continue reading