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June 2002

Southern Africa - An adventure in living

By Karen Krimberg,
Resident, Cape Town, South Africa.

Elephant with trunk reaching in through truck window.

Photo: A very very inquisitive Thembo (Elephant)
from Tshukudu Private Game Lodge.

I have seen the Empire State Building in New York. I have stood at the base of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. I have craned my neck at Nelson's Column in London. But I did not hear the song of creation anywhere.

I have travelled through most of this beautiful country of mine with a sort of smug pride. This, I have told myself, this is where God started when he created our world. Which probably explains why, when he made some other countries, he ran out of perfection.

No other continent sings its being as well as Africa does. The song of Africa rises out of the quiet, a chorus of creatures awakening to the cool of the night. Nowhere else are the tribal people born with choral voices that transcend that of the animal kingdom in their praise of Africa. Nowhere else does a camp fire come so to life, or the heavens reach quite so high or where you soul can fly so free.

So, you ask me to tell you of my African adventure with Epic Enabled and why I saw everything with such new eyes? And you think I will only tell you about the lion, the giraffe, the leopard and the elephant. Or of rock formations, billions of years old rising from the plains. Or of grass so high and so green because this summer the rains came. And then you will ask me about the violence in South Africa and question your safety. You will call up media images of strife. But I will tell you about the laughter and the freedom instead.

But mostly you will tell me that African bush adventures are not for the disabled. You will look at the restrictions of your daily life and not even dream of hearing the African heartbeat. You will know how alone you sometimes feel in your physical limitations. And remove from thought those dreams you consider impossible.

Karen (left) and friends with Savanna Cheeta.  The Cheeta is half way to being rehabilitated back into the wild.

And then I will tell you that I was in a place where my crutches did not impede my being able to touch a cheetah. That I stroked him until he purred. That then, in that moment, I heard my own song, felt my own heart lift and laughed the laughter I left behind in childhood. Or I can tell you about the tiny dung beetle, scuttling through life pushing a burden much larger than mine. A ball of dung to house his young. A ball many times larger than himself.

And how did I come so close to the unimaginable? I rode off into the red African dawn in a truck so imaginatively and ingeniously converted that every disabled person on the tour wanted one.

Mercedes Benz truck fitted with a hydraulic passenger lift.

Photo: The truck was such a marvel of engineering
that people, wherever we went, came to admire it.

Imagine a truck that made them all envy us our transport. Imagine a truck being the best icebreaker ever for strange people to come together.

And envious they should have been. Not for us the hermetically sealed and artificially cooled luxury bus that seems so foreign to Africa, and where not a breath of our air gets in. For us the sides opened wide all around, letting us into the very bush and allowing a butterfly to land on someone's knee. A vehicle so sturdy that we could take the paths less travelled following the game, banging and crashing past bushes and trees, getting so close to a crocodile that we could probably have smelled his breath. We rolled over boulders that made the truck lurch and lean, while helpers dived for wheelchairs [already well secured], while their occupants shrieked in merriment. A giraffe was so near that we could see her eyelashes.

Photo of Giraffe.

And a man from Newcastle in England
could only whisper, "Wow!"

A truck built so high that we had our own movable watching tower. And how, you ask, did we get in and out of this mechanical wonder to enjoy our unimpeded view? With an electric lift is how. It lifted us from the ground, rose smoothly and silently so that we could step or wheel effortlessly into the truck. No huffing, no puffing, no nervous sweat while someone else has to get you over an obstacle.

And you came to realise how simple it is to make life a little less complicated, and how that small freedom allowed us to be more aware of our surroundings and each other. And how the able take things for granted.

This vehicle gave us everything except a place to sleep, although no doubt we could have done that too. Given how this trip freed us from all the impediments of our daily lives, setting our minds and imaginations free, I wonder that no one thought of it. Things with wheels free people anyway, but this truck epitomised the independence we all strive for. A part of our experience and us. If we needed it, it was part of the truck. Countless hatches opened to reveal tables, chairs, stoves and water tanks, crockery, cutlery, pots and pans. We even carried our own firewood and liquid refreshments. Under the floorboards nestled our own grocery store. In short, we could have been stranded in the Namib desert and been self sufficient.

Photo: And from this very truck came meals to die for.

Lunch stop first day.

But mostly it gave us a sense of belonging, a feeling of ownership, and the sure knowledge that we were safe. Only when you are that safe do you realise how often you feel threatened. Only when your needs are that well catered for do all your senses come alive, and then the wonders of your world are there for you to appreciate.

But I have only told you what I saw and how I came to go where I did. I have not told you what I felt, or thought or brought home with me. I know next time I see a dusty Land Rover on the streets of Cape Town I will smile with a sort of secret knowledge. I will look at those tanned young travellers with their muscled thighs and know that my experience, sans youth or muscled thighs, was deeper and more meaningful than theirs could ever be. It will be because their horizons are limitless, while I can see mine clearly.

They will not discover, as I did, that my journey had shifted my perceptions of myself and my boundaries further than I had ever dreamed possible. And I have lived a life filled with impossible dreams coming true. And I watched it do the same for my fellow travellers, a pleasure almost greater than my own. These youths will not have negotiated a rocky and slippery path in the black African night behind a young woman also dealing with recalcitrant legs and unwieldy crutches. They will not have seen her victorious smile when she reached the top. And they will not know that only a few days before she would not even have attempted the walk without help.

But, down the years, if ever again something seems beyond my capabilities, I will hear her say, "Jis! Did you see what I just did?" I know I will reach higher, because I met a woman with the heart of a lion.

They will not have known a man left with only his mind, his voice, his sense of humour and his eagerness to do and experience everything, while all the while chuckling in delight at his good fortune. And they would certainly never have stopped to talk to him and so missed the man within.

You see, we didn't just drive hundreds of kilometres and buy some curious. We weren't spoiled or pandered to and we certainly weren't patronised. No one did anything for us that we could not do for ourselves. We did not have the tents or cottages nearest the bathrooms, we simply had accessible bathrooms. No one tarred or paved every path we walked, much as life cannot do that.

And all because someone cared enough to remove some of the obstacles we cannot overcome, no matter how hard we try. And left us free to tackle the hurdles we had not even noticed before. There is little time for creative thinking when you are always negotiating stairs, revolving and swinging doors, lift doors with minds of their own, toilets too narrow for even a monkey to turn in and doors with no wheelchair access.

Once the impossibles had been removed, quietly and without fuss, we were left to find our own way, because they knew we would get there. And we knew we could. And God bless the three who knew that.

Our last night back in civilisation, dicussing the memories and highlights, was spent at Dullstroom with fully accessible facilities.

We keep asking society to take us in and make us a part of the whole. Some well-meaning souls try to help us. Mostly it's a losing battle. They will not come to us, we need to draw them to us. I have always known that. But this time I saw a group of tanned, happy and laughing people filled with the joy of living, and the people came to us to learn the secret of our happiness. For once we were more free than they could ever be. And all because someone had removed a few needless obstacles for us and taken us out into the world.

And we flew high and far and wide. And the smile will stay on my soul for a long time to come.

The Epic adventure will not heal you or enable you. But it will empower you. And that is a priceless thing to have - empowerment. And that empowerment will help you heal and enable yourself so that you too will find your own song of life. If you have to come to Africa from the far corners of the world to do it, or even if you live right here. Do not let anything stop you from finding the music that will change your life.

And which memory will be with me the longest? The morning I stayed in camp suffering from an experience overload while everyone else went on a dawn game drive. The day the sound of a woman's joyous laugh preceded the sound of the truck. And perhaps that is what we should do: put our laughter ahead of our problems.

Thank you, Epic Enabled. Thank you.

Editor's note

Epic Enabled is an overland tour company, specializing in group adventure travel for people with disabilities, in and around Southern Africa.

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