Gold town: New Year’s in Johannesburg

Gold town: New Year’s in Johannesburg
Gold town: New Year’s in Johannesburg

originally published April 25, 2023

Continuing stories of my Christmas travels

My friends Petra and Eloise transformed a four hour trek from Vleesbaai to the airport, from a chore to a bonus. We set out early in the morning, bidding the beach farewell as the highway unwound across plains and mountains, carrying us west towards the city of Cape Town.

Our road trip ranged from a rest stop petting farm to a local farmer’s market. The enterprising rest stop featured a picnic area, obstacle course, and selfie stations. I sampled a ‘roosterkoek‘ – a pastry whose baffling name initially led me to tentatively inquire why only male chickens featured.

A short flight found me in Johannesburg, a city I had as yet only transited through at top speed – from the infamous Park Station to the Gautrain, which would carry me safely to Peace Core headquarters in Pretoria. Now I anticipated a short week with American friends turned locals.

We had first met as the father Steve led a Bible study for college students. Now he serves at a Bible college for local pastors, with the typically marvelous language mix that favors South Africa.

With everyone on holiday from school and work, the family piled into a car for a sightseeing. It commenced in a kind of “little Paris,” complete with Eiffel tower replica.

“Is this your first time in Europe?” I asked the children, who grinned in reply. After the obligatory picture-taking, we gloried in a generous gourmet lunch at a nearby restaurant. I tentatively ordered smoked trout and rejoiced to find it virtually indistinguishable from my longtime favorite, smoked salmon. We split a plate of brioche and swapped stories of coming to faith in Christ.

Then we hopped on the highway for a more quintessentially African experience: a visit to the elephant park!

I had snapped shots of elephants on safaria drives, but this excursion promised a closer encounter. The trainers eased us into contact, beginning with a quick snack delivered straight to the inquiring snouts. “Watch out,” the trainers warned, “from here they can reach that tree you’re standing next to.”

We settled in with an afternoon stroll — which, I theorized, encouraged our mountainous rear guard to welcome us into the family. Apparently, elephant instinct dictates that the weaklings of the herd march in the middle, while the bruisers follow behind. Our path ended in a clearing that played host to part photo shoot, part anatomy lesson: the trainers talked us along the elephants’ bodies – feel the elbow; see how wiry the tail hair is? – culminating in a jaw dropper as the stars of the show flipped up their trunks to receive a healthy helping of treats.

My friends and I posed together between two bulls, grinning from a giddy combination of delight and nerves. As marvelous as it was to lay my hand on an elephant’s flank, the small mammal part of me breathed a sigh of relief when we recovered a safe distance.

Q&A with the park guide concluded our elephant excursion. He taught us the anatomy of the tusk, young male social dynamics, and warning signals that an elephant has decided to charge. Afterwards, when we approached to thank him for the insights, he confided that he had left law school to rescue elephants. He realized the animals needed an advocate, he said.

We whiled away a brief intermission admiring a cluster of meerkats before joining a second tour, this time in the monkey enclosure. Some of our new furry friends moonlighted as pickpockets, warned our guide. Clutching our valuables, we advanced cautiously along wooden walkways into the artfully arranged sanctuary. Puzzles for curious fingers adorned the ropes, while branches twisted overhead.

A bucket of tantalizing offerings, like puffed rice cereal and mango peels, broke the ice: soon we were rubbing shoulders with lemurs, capuchins and even a solitary spider monkey.

All week the family spoiled me with some seriously good food. Avocado and bacon on waffle restored me after the high excitement of the animal excursions. Later, in celebration of my upcoming birthday, Tanya delivered a feast with divinely seasoned lamb cutlets, cashew-mandarin rice, silky chocolate cream pie, and homemade coconut ice cream.

After the birthday banquet, the company graced me with an impromptu worship session — such that I hadn’t enjoyed since Hillsdale days. With a hand-crafted marimba, electric guitar, bass, recorder, and Tanya carrying the vocals while I road-tested the singing lessons commenced last year on Tokunoshima, we hailed God’s goodness and laughed ourselves silly.

Above all, I reveled in fellowship with friends who shared such an unusual intersection of experiences with me, from Michigan to southern Africa. We compared notes on culture shock, and we studied the Bible together before breakfast. On my last evening, they treated me to their favorite Greek restaurant (lamb kebabs and halloumi – definitely not available in my island grocery store).

We had spent the day in souvenir shopping, at a wonderfully outfitted, two-story extravaganza of a shop. I stocked up on souvenirs for my teachers and friends back on the island, including carved wooden pens decked with an elephant and rhinocerus.

We topped the day off with a surprise trip to their rock climbing gym. My friends strapped me into a climbing harness and let me loose on the walls. Keep to one color for a challenge, or “skittle”: fitting fingers and toes wherever you can reach.

Scaling one of the easiest routes boosted my confidence, but I wouldn’t have made it past the next level without Tanya’s help. She hoisted me ever higher, shouting encouragement as I sweated and trembled a few feet from the top. At last, a shout — possibly meant for someone else — “You can do it!!” propelled me to leap the last few inches and slap the bell. Then I sank gratefully into the sustained descent.

I wished the few days would stretch into a few more weeks as I packed my bags once again. Visiting Steve’s Bible college and meeting the multilingual staff only catalyzed my enthusiasm for finding my way back someday soon.

For now, I was bound for Asia — with one more stop before I returned home…

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