The thought of going someplace I’ve never been before always excites me. So when we boarded the plane for Umtata in Johannesburg I was feeling on top o’ the world. I had the row to myself, which meant I could move back and forth between the aisle seat (my preference) and the window to see what South Africa looked like from on high.
All clear – lovely scenery. Until we neared Umtata itself. A solid floor of clouds set in, but I didn’t think much about it. The PA system on the small airplane was virtually – no, actually – incomprehensible, but I gathered we were getting ready to land. The plan got low enough to see the ground, but it was obvious that fog had set in . Still, I could see the ground and prepared for touch-down.
All of a sudden the plane shot straight up into the clouds again. Hmm. That’s not right, sez I to meself. Bad PA announcement again, but word was passed back that the pilot would go around and try it again. Round and down we go, but ooops! Nope, back up. The flight attendant came back to inform us that we couldn’t land in Umtata – fog and (get ready for this) the likelihood of animals on the runway.
Great. Now, on any other airline the pilot would decide where to land and off we’d go. Not on this South African Airlines flight. The flight attendant polled all 25 of us to see whether we wanted to a) go back to Johannesburg, or b) land at East London. According to the map East London looked a lot closer to Umtata than Joburg, so all except one opted for that. We were told that SA would provide a bus to take us to Umtata, a 2-3 hour ride. The monkey-wrench, however, was that after dark the road was very dangerous – winding, foggy, and the ever-present animals-outta-nowhere. An Indian man, who claimed to have lived in Umtata for 20 years, kept yelling “We will all be killed! We will all be killed!”
Now, I gotta tell ya’, this was a new experience for me. I believe the moment the guy started yelling “We will all be killed!” is when I knew I was in a whole new dimension. The prospect of being killed notwithstanding, we all boarded the van provided - in the dark, in the fog. You know that scene in the Azkaban Harry Potter movie when he boards the Knight Bus to London? Well this was exactly like that.
Evidently, the bus driver wasn’t aware that we were all about to be killed, because he lit outta the East London airport like a cat on fire. And rarely slowed down afterward, I might add. Luggage and passengers flew around the inside of the van for two harrowing hours. Once in a while the hint of lights bore through the fog, but most of the time we traveled fast and furiously through a shroud. I was darn glad I couldn’t see what was going on. I flipped back and forth between terror and too-tired-for-terror.
But we made it, even though my hands still bear the pain of gripping the armrest and a suitcase for two solid hours. The driver even delivered us to the MacConnechie’s door, where the doctor/nurse missioners greeted us with tea and lasagna five hours after we were due to arrive.
Though the wild bus ride proved near-coronary inducing, in retrospect, my experience in Umtata with the MacConnechies and time spent with Monica and Heidi in Isibindi were the best of my Africa trip. Helping out in the clinic sorting and packaging pill doses, meeting the AIDS orphans and watching them laugh and play, watching the compassion and dignity of all concerned. Humbling, yet hopeful.
And I survived the ride to Umtata to experience it.