I’ve always wanted to go on a real, live African safari. Normal people would fly into the closest airport and have people who know where they’re going take you there, right? Fiddlesticks, I thought. Door to door service is for the soft. We’ll rent a car and drive ourselves. Then we can go where we want and stop where we want. What could possibly go wrong?
This is a story of fear, loathing, mud, cops, deprivation, negotiation, backtracking, driving on the wrong side of the road, and how when I return to the United States, I will go to Mountain View and personally pummel the putz in charge of Google Maps. In this missive there will be no food porn, and no whimsical tales of chance encounters with charming ladies of a certain age displeased with the weight of our footfalls (how quaint!). There will be no beautiful photographs of wild animals in repose, just stark, muscular prose. This is a story of an African safari in its purest form.
Our story begins in Buenos Aires, four days ago, although it feels like the time before disco. We had a midnight flight to Johannesburg. Thanks to the vagaries of international travel and the whims of United Airlines, whose miles we are using to traipse from one place to the next, we were routed through Sao Paulo, where we had a fourteen hour layover before our ten hour flight to South Africa. Normally, you would find a local hotel, maybe work out, take a shower, get some sleep, and head back to the airport refreshed and ready for your journey. Sadly, the nice people of Brazil require Americans to secure a visa the old fashioned way – in advance, through an embassy or consulate somewhere. Needless to say, we were not going to go to the trouble of getting a visa for a half-day layover, so we were stranded in the airport like Tom Hanks in that movie. Well, fine, we’ll just camp out in the Star Alliance lounge, right? Wrong. The Star Alliance lounge in Sao Paulo keeps hours better suited for bars or maybe brothels. It’s open from noon to 3 am, and we have arrived at, you guessed it, just after 3 am.
We espied a couch attached to a Starbucks, and for the price of a grande latte, were able to secure a place to park ourselves, but the spot turned out to be noisy and no terribly private, so we decamped to a distant corner of the airport, attempting to fold ourselves under the armrests of a disused gate seating area. But Janine was alarmed by the presence of an airport worker who kept ducking behind an opening in the wall near us, and besides, there was a funny smell, like we were downwind from a dog biscuit factory, so it was back to Starbucks. It was now about 8 am, and our flight wasn’t until 6:30, so something had to give. After a bit of research, I discovered that there was a layover hotel (of sorts) in the international no-man’s-land, about twenty minutes’ walk. After smacking myself in the head for a while for not figuring this out sooner, we made the trek to a teeny room with a bunk bed, which felt like a suite at the Waldorf.
We finally made our flight and arrived at Johannesburg on Thursday morning. We spent the next day recovering at a friend’s apartment (he was out of town), where we made the fateful decision to rent a car instead of having to get back to the airport to try to catch a 7 am shuttle bus to Kruger National Park. Our own car would give us freedom! Besides, we have booked at three separate places in Kruger and getting from place to place using drivers would be complicated and hellishly expensive. And besides besides, driving is fun! And our friend Francois, whose apartment we were staying in (and with whom I may now have to have a little talk) said that renting a car would be just fine. Nothing to worry about.
Who cares that we’re driving on the wrong side of the road and that we don’t know where we’re going? We’ll be fine! We’ve got Google Maps! What could possibly go wrong?
Next time – things go wrong.