The back cab of an 18-wheeler was not the transportation I’d imagined for the evening; but i hadn’t foreseen an armed driver chasing me down the street either.

Shannon and I were supposed to be heading to a gathering of friends in…wow…I don’t even remember where, South Africa. Contrary to our actual knowledge of maneuvering in South Africa, we’d dilly dallied the morning away. It was Saturday and we must have forgotten, despite more than a year in country, that transportation slows to nothing by two o’clock, earlier depending on how big the town or city you were in.

We left Pietersburg around noon I think. Stupidly, neither of us was concerned, not even when the place where our first khumbi (picture a beat up minivan with 15-25 people and animals shoved into it) dropped us off, was almost empty and the few khumbies idling there were empty of passengers.

The thing about khumbies is that they don’t care what time it is. Time is not of the essence, money is. And so a khumbi driver will wait, and wait, and wait…and wait, until his vehicle is full – whatever his definition of full is (recall the 15-25 people/animal range). On a busy day in a busy hub like Pretoria or even Louis Trichardt, that could be a few minutes; in Lebowakgomo, the township closest to the village I lived in, it could be hours.

The sparsely populated hub, so late on a Saturday afternoon, should have been a blaring warning sign to us but we assured ourselves it would be fine- we let ourselves be assured.

Every taxi rank, as the khumbi hubs were then known, had a Taxi Marshall. This was the person who knew where every khumbi was going and how much it would cost to ride. They couldn’t tell you when you’d depart – let alone arrive- but even in a parking lot filled with hundreds of khumbies they could point you to the overcrowded death trap heading in the direction you needed it to go. This taxi rank had no easily identifiable Marshall –warning number two. Instead Shannon and I were met with a khumbi driver headed where we wanted to go and eager for our fare. His taxi was empty but he smiled and directed us inside assuring us that it would soon fill and we’d be on our way.

An uncertain look around the quiet town and sparse parking lot did not yield any alternatives and so Shannon and I settled into our favored seats and fell into conversation. It was hot but it wouldn’t stay that way, the altitude was high and the temperature would start dropping by nightfall. Nightfall was still a long way away though – it hadn’t crept into our minds.

An hour passed, two. At the three o’clock mark I remember Shannon having to pee but refusing to go, garnering her the nickname Camel. I remember the first true doubts crossing our minds and our first attempt to get out of the khumbi.

See, what I neglected to mention is that one thing not really allowed is getting out of a khumbi to attempt a different mode of transportation. I don’t know if it is because we were foreign or if that translated to all passengers but in the two years I lived in South Africa it was not something I remember seeing. And so when we attempted to disembark, backpacks, sheepish grins, and excuses at the ready, we were rebuffed. A tight smile and a stern assurance, again, that we’d be leaving soon. Only now darkness was less distant stranger and more inevitable visitor. We let some more time pass, the sun making its journey across the sky and hatched a plan in the meantime.

I would get off without our stuff, head to the bathroom and then circle back when the driver was distracted so that Shannon could feed our bags through the window and she could ease out. Everything went more or less according to plan except…

…except our driver saw us.

He and another man spotted us as we neared the edge of the parking lot – the street stretched before us filled with the possibility of escape from eternity in waiting– we hoped. The driver yelled and screamed at us as we crossed the street at a near run, panting, with our bags in to – fearful and giggling because it all seemed surreal.

Now we were stuck. There was no going back and only hitchhiking leading us forward, the sun daring us to beat it to the finish line. We sat on the side of the road, cattycorner to our previous parking purgatory, waiting for cars to pass, hands outstretched to demonstrate our need for transportation. Observing our attempts to hitchhike the khumbi driver and another man came running towards us, gun waving.

What they were yelling I couldn’t tell you, my eye was trained first on the men, then the gun, then the houses and streets and cars blurring past me as Shannon and I ran. In retrospect they probably wouldn’t have shot us. Less a threat for us, it was an effective deterrent to any passing car that appeared sympathetic to our plight. Still, fear is a great motivator and Shannon and I were motivated to move on down the road.

Much further down the road, away from businesses and caught in a stretch of road canopied by houses closed up for the night, fear and panic were tap dancing on our hearts. The cold rolled in with the darkness and we realized we had no safe place to sleep. This was the part of our story when a crazy but workable plan was supposed to descend upon us so we could save ourselves, or where someone else emerged magically to save us.

The 18-wheeler eased to a noisy stop right about then. I don’t remember it driving up – which is hard to believe given the sheer size and noise of an 18-wheeler. Still, there it was, like some mythical beast descending to save us, right on schedule.

Desperation prevented Shannon and I from judging the situation too critically – to judgmentally – as daylight and the absence of a gun toting khumbi driver might have. I am thankful for that. The driver stuck his head out of his window and asked, with a rather soft voice, where we were headed. We countered with, “Where are you going?” It was too late to make our event and the novelty and anticipation had long since evaporated. We wanted out – wherever out might be. We could figure out the rest later.

Nelspruit? Nelspruit sounded beyond wonderful to us. One of the border cities to Swaziland, we’d been there before. There was a hostel and a mall. Sleep and food were almost within reach.

Our rescuer proved more kind and gracious then my critical eye could have imagined. He was thin and white with mousy brown hair and was smoking a cigarette when he stopped. The shadows cast from a setting sun or too much time watching scary movies could have colored my impression of the driver – any other day he might have been the source of my fear. But Shannon and I eyed each other skeptically as he tidied the space behind his seats, the place I imagine he usually sleeps; we eyed each other skeptically but climbed in anyway.

Turns out he was the most genteel of people, putting out his cigarette as soon as he heard me cough (he didn’t light another one the entire drive through the winding mountainous drive) and silencing the music he’d presumably been listening to before to put in a Whitney Houston tape (he looked back at us and smiled when he pressed play).

His final act of kindness was in the drop off. He wasn’t heading into Nelspruit, he had to continue on his way, but instead of simply dropping us on the side of the road in a location similar to where he’d picked us up, he dropped us at a well-lit gas station, leaving us with a bright smile illuminated by the harsh lights of gas station and “safe journey” mingled in the air with the sound of his roaring engine.

*this is part of a month-long Indie Travel series.

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