What follows are the introductions – one of those moments when you try to look like you’ve kept everyone’s names in mind, but fail – laughter, and a first briefing with Takalani. He would hold one every other evening to explain the programme for the following day. By the third sentence of briefing session number one, it becomes crystal clear to everybody that we are heading for a long road with plenty of “Hakuna Matatas” and “fantastics” to spice up our taste for African adventure.
The group is not yet complete: two are joining in the morning, and one is simply unlucky, missed a connection and had to fly back again to catch a direct flight, or something “Hakuna Matata”. I am not so sure we are lucky either, since the weather is not “normal” for December: it’s cold and it rains with hale! On account of which I hardly sleep at night: storms with thunder and lightning are pretty impressive in South Africa.
But there’s coffee in the morning and the excitement of hitting the road in our military-style truck. We all try to hide that what we truly aim at is sitting at the window. Of course we all came to take awesome pictures! Takalani is an experienced man, so he tells us upfront that we must swap places every now and then, so we compose ourselves. He hits the gas and off we go, cutting through a landscape so wide and varied that we do not dare to close our eyes. We take Takalani’s saying “Blink and you miss something” very seriously.
It pours over Mpumalanga, although it is supposed to be burning hot at this time of the year. The concern about not being able to take pictures spreads among us like a virus. But as we reach Blyde River Canyon, the rain backs away, leaving us the time to enjoy a wonderful walk in the surroundings. It starts to pour again as we reach the side steps of the truck.
We cannot go out of the truck unless Takalani opens the metallic door. He also closes it behind us when we are “all in”, as he says. The door is always slammed, giving way to a spine-shivering sound that must not be too far from that of a prison cell being locked up. That adds up to the adventure. When we are released from the truck, it is mainly to go to the toilets or grab some coffee. Once the door opens, there’s always Takalani’s “Hé, guys!” and then instructions flood in.
Takalani is the man: he drives the big truck (on all weather conditions), he guides us, he buys the food, cooks and serves us tasty meals even after ten hours of driving, he repairs basically anything…He is a tough one. But most of all, Takalani has a difficult name for us to pronounce in the beginning: we occasionally go for Takalini, Takalina and variations. And “most especially” (another of his catchy phrases), he likes to listen to African house music. A lot. And since we cannot really get out of the truck…We do the best we can to convince ourselves that we like it a lot, too. After all, we came to Africa to practice open-mindedness.
He is also a very optimistic man: whenever he briefs us on what we do next, he ends with “if it’s possible, if it’s open, if the weather allows it, etc.” Basically, anything can happen. “This is Africa, my brother,” he says, counting us in on his long list of family members. As soon as we get this straight into our heads, we can then travel in a more relaxed manner. Or if there is no gas station for fuel, we do not travel at all. “Sit back and relax,” he says. Uwe from Germany takes this invitation for granted and his chair brakes with a crack. It will stay so until the end of the tour.
Taki (some of us gratefully embraced the abbreviation) also has a rather personal interpretation of the distance and a very African understanding of the time. Late in the evening, when we grow slightly tired of the ride and we feel that we are never ever going to reach any destination, we ask: “Takalani, how long?” “Eh, how long till what?”, he bounces the question back to us. “Till we reach the camp.” “Eh, the camp is at the end of the road, guys.”
The result was fourteen pairs of eyes staring into the distance. But after another hill, there came another, and another, and the end of the road was nowhere in sight. Sitting back and relaxing was not possible anymore either, because the road to the Balule camp got really bumpy. The lockers gave in, some of the luggage flew out, we were crashing into each another, uprooted from our chairs. No one threw up. It was getting dark when we heard “Impalaaaaa!”