Up early on our second day, we had breakfast in the hotel lounge and I was granted an eyebrow lift when I asked a waitress if she could kindly fill our coffee flask for the road. I guess Bloemfontein, third capital of South Africa, gets more business travelers than off-the-beaten-track explorers – the latter, it is well known, drinking coffee by the flask rather than the cup.

When I carried our bags out to the Landcruiser, a precocious dawn was upon the city and the night had been chilly. There was frost on some windshields. A heavily-dressed parking attendant was walking around with a smoking metal jug and I thought he was bringing someone warm coffee. It turned out to be hot water he was pouring on frosted windshields. I almost burst out laughing thinking of my frigid Québec winters.

But Marie has a beautifully abstract image of the frost on our spare tire cover here! I made a point not to read her post before writing mine and it is fascinating to compare our experiences after the fact…

Approaching Johannesburg

Bloemfontein left behind, we headed north a bit apprehensively towards one of the 50 largest metropolitan areas in the world, strongest economy in Sub-Saharan Africa. We had climbed onto the Highveld, highest portion of the South African plateau and a rich farming area. To my surprise as I had imagined the altitude yielding a change in vegetation, unrelenting dryness remained. Johannesburg is perched 1,753 meters or 5,751 feet above sea level. It has a population of four million souls, but the metropolitan area is calculated to be home to seven to ten million people, depending on the areas and former townships included in the count.

We had plotted our route through the ant colony with the help of Google Maps in order to keep mileage, delays and trouble at their lowest. I think that Johannesburg might be intimidating for most visitors, and taken seriously by even South African nationals. At a refueling stop some 30 km before the city, Marie reminded me solemnly: “If we get highjacked, never mind the car and our stuff. We give them away. They’re not worth it.”

Lacking cultural and historical references, I was not feeling so tense about the crossing and took the wheel. However when I started the engine and did my usual check, I noticed a light had come on. “T-Belt”.

Oh boy, I thought, this could complicate things. I grabbed the vehicle’s manual and quickly flipped through the pages, looking for details of the timing belt indicator light. There it was. It came up every 100,000 km. The owner’s manual said something like: “If the timing belt warning light comes on, take the car to the nearest and most expensive Toyota dealership and have it serviced immediately. Driving the vehicle without replacing the belt could result in serious engine damage and severe psychological trauma.”

Marie and I looked at the mileage indicator, then at each other. We had just hit 100,000. We were almost 2,000 km from home, needing service and driving a borrowed Landcruiser, the owner of which  – her father – feels obsessive passion for his vehicles that are kept in top shape, protected from rain, serviced regularly and buffed.

I reasoned with my conscience inwardly, and with Marie outwardly. “This is a routine check,” I said, “They had to pick a mileage for belt replacement and they chose 100,000 km.” She nodded, unsure. “I mean, they could have chosen 50k or 150k. It just means the belt must be replaced at some point.” She was still unconvinced. “Look,” I said, “Toyota doesn’t want people breaking down the minute the light comes on. These things must have a huge safety margin.”

Our minds raced, analyzing multiple scenarios as the engine idled. The belt had to be replaced, there was no question about it. We could turn around, cancel months of planning and waste the money already paid on park bookings. We could get the job done right there in Johannesburg, with a huge impact on the trip and our bookings. We could wait until our return to Jo’burg after the park, still a worrisome stop but worse, delaying our return and cutting short the few days we had left to enjoy at home in Constantia. Or we could just wait until we got back home, almost two weeks and 3,000 km later.

It was a very difficult choice, considering what was at stake. We finally chose the last option. For better and for worse, we decided to push on, crossing our fingers very hard.

Jo’burg suburb transit

The Johannesburg crossing was a bit of a blur. We were in unknown territory, on high-traffic highways – five lanes wide at times – and in a flow of cars and trucks that were driven really, really poorly. To make matters worse, Gauteng must have rather loose emission control regulations because most trucks were spitting dense clouds of nasty black exhaust fumes. We had noticed a low layer of smog long before arriving in the metropolitan zone, and now we were submerged in it.

I spaced myself as best I could in the traffic while keeping up with the fastest flow. The Landcruiser doesn’t have much kick for a sudden speed burst to pass or change lanes, but once established in the right lane (remember South Africans drive on the left), it coasts happily. We trusted Google, followed road signs and confirmed directions on the GPS app, and sooner than expected, the city was behind us. We had ricocheted on the eastern side of Soweto and off the southern suburbs, and not really seen anything of interest.

The air was still thick with smoke and we pondered bush fires burning right on the side of the road. Enormous trucks began monopolizing traffic; they transported some kind of loose content in tarp-covered hauls. They were hard to pass and struggled overtaking each other, endangering all around them. There was much commotion at one point around a recent wreckage involving three of these Goliaths, two of which had probably collided head-on. Eventually, we figured out the cargo must have been mining residue being taken to immense open-air dumps outside the area.

It was a bleak drive. Gigantic smoke stacks punctured the horizon and drew dark streaks across the smog. I could not help but to think of Frodo and Sam walking hopelessly through Mordor. This was not where we wanted to be but it helped put things in perspective and reminded us of the stark contrast with the Western Cape and our privileged coastline.

Eventually, we had to fuel up again. We stopped at a large complex in the middle of harsh fields. Above the sky was blue, but we were within a layer of yellow haze. The place was surreal. An enormous control tower-looking structure dominated a large parking lot. Inside, a perfectly modern assortment of fast-food joints, ATM’s and a bathroom with a panoramic view stranger than I have ever seen. The urinals were mounted on a glass wall and faced a fenced enclosure in which roamed rhinos, buffaloes, zebras and antelopes. The rhinos had been dehorned, a sad reminder of the on-going poaching crisis.

The parking lot was patrolled by a guard with a bulletproof vest holding a scratched up shotgun. The gas station attendant told us it was for petty crime prevention. We were not so convinced.

The Alzu highway service station

Back on the road and having crossed into Mpumalanga, we finished the eastbound drive and finally turned north again, away from traffic and into the real road trip, and rolling hills. Everything from then on would be scenic and remote. Dullstroom was reached in mid-afternoon. We first stopped to fetch the keys to the house Marie had rented for us for the night. Then we drove down the main street, puzzled by the signs and realizing that everything, in Dullstroom, revolved around trout fishing.

Our strange rental house was inside a fenced compound on the edge of a secluded dam, part of the town’s nature reserve. I triggered the alarm by getting into the house through the wrong door and after everything had settled down, we toured the premises and our jaws dropped a bit.

This place could easily have hosted ten people. It had four separate bedrooms, a bathroom in each, an immense living-room with a fireplace, a vast terrace opening onto the dam – and it had plaque-mounted fish on the walls. Marie was unsettled. She did not like the vibe. “It’s all fake,” she complained. “But it’s a fishing lodge,” I answered. “That’s how they are.”

The call of the nature reserve and a beautiful hill across the dam was strong and I decided to go for a run to clear my head. Poor Marie was left on her own and opted for a quick ride back to town – more of a village, really – to get dinner. She had had lamb in mind but Dullstroom prevailed and she came back with two trouts.

My run took me around the dam, where I was able to cross the water tip-toeing to the hill side. I launched into an easy run uphill on a narrow rocky path. Five minutes later, I had to stop and catch my breath. “OK,” I said to myself, “So you haven’t been running much lately, cut yourself some slack.”

I ran towards the top of the hill again, and again had to stop and rest after a few minutes. By the time I reached what seemed like a summit, I could not believe how hard it had been. As I panted watching the evening light slowly coating the fields below with gold, like honey dripping on a world marbled with dark shadowy patches, I suddenly remembered the altitude. I glanced at my watch. It read 1,948 meters (6,391 ft). I had forgotten that while Mpumalanga is on a high plateau, most of my running is done at sea level.

Reaching the top on a Mpumalanga trail run

The view was idyllic; a rolling countryside of immense dry fields in the golden hour. No one in sight. The air was mild. I was on foot but highly mobile and the familiar sense of freedom, as always on trail runs, was upon me. I could go anywhere I wanted, choose my path, go left or right, or both. Every step was new, each look around me a discovery. The worries of the day were forgotten. I used my camera as an excuse for more short breaks.

Then I decided to cut the run short as I was still on a ridge, headed away from the house, and the evening was closing in. Unfortunately, there were no trails going down where I was and I had to run through the veld, a kind of low but scratchy vegetation, careful to avoid stones and quite worried about snakes. There are a few, in that part of the world, which would have made my day take a very bad turn.

When I got back, Marie had been unpacking our portable kitchen and discovered in horror that we had forgotten our Bialetti stove-top espresso maker in Cape Town, in the confusion that had surrounded the power failure. It was an utter catastrophe and while the timing belt had not managed to hinder our determination, the missing coffee-maker almost did.

I could already see us returning home defeated, telling our story to a mournful audience, putting the emphasis on the coffee crisis to explain our failure – just as a juvenile Marcel Pagnol had once blamed the limited water flow of a mountain stream for his failed attempt to avoid school by becoming a hermit, explaining he could not possibly have washed away the microbes (which Pasteur had just invented) while keeping enough water for drinking…

But in the end we realized that giraffes and lions mattered more to us than breakfast and we would have to figure it out. Besides, I was pretty sure we would find some coffee making instrument in town in the morning. So Marie cooked our trouts and we had dinner at a long candlelit table. I shot a few exposures of stars over the dam and we went to bed, having chosen one of the four bedrooms as our own.

Star trails over the Dullstroom Nature Reserve

The following evening was going to be our first in the Kruger Park. We knew SANParks well already and had always enjoyed their parks and camps. But the Kruger was so vast that I wondered if we would be lucky enough to actually see in the wild some of the large animals that populate my wildest dreams: elephants, giraffes, hippos, buffaloes, and the big cats of course.

I had no idea that within a few days, we were going to evade a herd of charging buffaloes, worry about being crushed in the darkness of our tent by an elephant, suffer from Predominant Mopane Syndrome, find comfort in the loud nocturnal roaring of hippos and have dinner with hyenas.

I was still a Kruger neophyte.

«Slingshot to Kruger» Series

Want to read the entire series of stories? Start here

Marie’s recount: Kruger National Park