I've Been on the Road to Hell

Sep 26, 2022

I’ve been on the road to hell. I can tell you how to get there. I can attest it isn’t paved with anything, including good intentions.

Outside Gqeberha, South Africa, sits the nation’s third largest wildlife conservation area: Addo Elephant National Park. Six hundred and thirty square miles of diverse micro-climates house a magnificent assortment of creatures. Flightless dung beetles labor to remove huge piles of elephant dung from the roads while zebras, lions, rhinos, Cape buffalo, warthogs, and an array of antelope lumber, sprint, and hide amidst tall grasses, short scrubby fields, and groupings of squatter trees. Smaller insects, birds, snakes, and mammals scamper, flit, and slither amongst rocks, bushes, and cacti.

The paved park roads meander past watering holes, through deep valleys, and atop rounded hill ridges. On my trip there earlier this year, many stops were made to view ostriches, mongoose, jackals, monkeys, and zebra parades. On our final drive an enormous bull elephant crossed right beyond our small rental car.  One warm night we stopped to watch and listen to hyenas ripping apart the remains of a hartebeest. Think of the sound of a packed football stadium where everyone bites into a handful of Fritos at the same time.

It was a memorable experience. As was the drive getting there.

The GPS of a well-known map app, which may or may not begin with the letter “G”, directed us onto a gravel road. A few potholes appeared. No problem. One can’t expect perfection. We were intent on getting to the main gate on time to not miss the morning game drive we had booked.

As is true in life, sometimes what seem to be exceptions turn out to be indicators.

Soon, like chickenpox on a toddler, these depressions spread across the narrow street. Surely, it was just a rough patch. We’d get through it.

Again, like life, sometimes what passes for a life season turns out to be a life sentence.

We’d been up since 4:00 AM to ensure sufficient time to make the long drive from the south gate to the north gate where the safaris began. Now, only able to drive at speeds a sloth could outpace, it was like the car was playing Whack-A-Mole. Only instead of popping up, the holes teased with how far down they could go.

In the blackness, with headlights barely penetrating the pre-dawn darkness, it was impossible to see just how deep a hole was before being right up on it. Or in it. I couldn’t remove my eyes from the road for a second. Off-roading was impossible. Huge fences sized to keep out land mammals taller than houses surrounded us. We were far enough down the “road” there was no use to turn around and hope a different route would get us to our destination on time. Surely, if we persevered, something different had to be ahead.

And there was.

The GPS directed us to make a left turn. Finally! We’d be on a decent road and, if we pushed it, retained the chance to reach the ranger station before the clock struck 6:00 AM.

No brakes were required to make the turn. I could only drive at “turn-left” speed already. But brakes were quickly applied when I recognized what was in front of us: black water. Filling the road from one side to the other. It even had waves. No chance existed of being able to make the crossing.  

The tiny map on the phone screen showed if we reversed and continued a little farther on the pockmarked path, we’d connect with a major highway. Okay, Steph, grip the steering wheel, say goodbye to the sunrise adventure in open jeeps, and head for pavement.

Bump. Bounce. Bump. Bounce. Bump, bump, bump, bounce, bounce, bounce. Ah, house lights twinkled faintly in the darkness ahead. We were getting close to a tiny village and a real road!

A dump began to emerge on the left side of the pothole path, composed of trash bags, twisted metal, and exhausted mattresses. A huge, half-burned tree lay in the road, and I gingerly worked my way around it. A person emerged in the inky early morning, and we made sure windows were up and doors were locked. Was this a set-up site? A place where exhausted drivers had to slow from five MPH to zero, making them vulnerable to carjacking, theft, or worse?

(Continued next week)

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