The header photo, above, shows what the sky looked like at the very beginning of this final chapter of our story. It is also the very last photograph we took that night, because the rain was beginning to fall harder than ever and we didn't want to risk damaging our camera. The lack of photos doesn't bother us, though, because every single second of what we saw and did that magical night is forever burned into my memory.
And so, without further ado, we'll be picking up our tale with your two hedgehogs (and their friends Loes and Peter) standing just after sunset in a remote South African village, as their bakke taxi drives off into the distance.
We all feel very alone all of a sudden, listening to the raindrops patter against the grass as we do our best to "walk straight" per our driver's instructions. There's a little path he seemed to be indicating, just a line of mud a couple of inches wide running through the grass, but we're doing our best to follow it. And as it approaches the trees, though, it forks into two identical paths: one headed to the right, and another to the left.
Okay, maybe panicking just a wee little bit right about now.
Fortunately for us, we are not in fact alone. One of the women from the taxi is heading the same direction as us. Jessica smiles at her and points to the two paths. "Eskepeni?" she asks. "Which way is the ferry?"
The woman nods to us, smiling, and beckons for us to follow her. "Eskepeni," she says softly with another nod as she passes Jessica. The woman (whom we begin to refer to as "our guide") slips her shoes off into her hand and patters off along the left-hand path, with us in hot pursuit.
Our guide is able to make it look incredibly easy as she glides along the path and into the woods, but the four of us are slipping and sliding every which way, trying as best we can to neither fall behind nor fall over. The trees envelope us as we all disappear into the forest, tracing this narrow muddy line in the grass through the growing darkness. I find myself wondering for the first time whether eskepeni really does mean "ferry" after all. Could we be pronouncing it wrong? Have any of the people we've asked actually known what we meant?
And, of course, two questions ring loudest of all in my head. Is the ferry still running, now that the sun has gone down? What will we do if it isn't?
We're emerging from our brief passage through the trees now, and in the growing darkness the world around has taken on an unearthly beauty. The sky is losing color now, sliding from psychedelic splashes of pink and purple into a cool dark blue-black. Around us are a knobby jumble of grassy hills cloaked in thick white mist, dotted with rondavals that we can just make out in the dim evening light.
And then a lightning bolt arcs across the nighttime sky, and it's just beautiful. I've never, in my life, seen anything like it – lightning just doesn't look like that when you're not out in the middle of nowhere, hours and hours away from the nearest streetlight. It snakes across the sky in slow motion, spreading out in every direction like an spider's web and bathing us all in an all-too-brief white glow. These petty words are just not enough to describe how unreal it looks. They don't even come close.
Something glows with a weird, unnatural brightness in that flash of the lightning: a ghostly, luminous figure is approaching us. A moment later we realize that it's a teenaged girl, clad from head to toe in a brilliant white outfit, somehow devoid of even the tiniest spot of mud. Like our guide, she's carrying her shoes in her hand, and after they share brief conversation in Xhosa she joins us in our journey.
Another mind-boggling display of lightning spreads across the sky, once again briefly illuminating the countryside around us. And at last I see it – there is distinctly a river ahead of us, off in the distance. And holy cow, is it bigger than I'd expected. Any idle thoughts I may have had about us crossing it without the ferry are vanquished in an instant. All hopes are now pinned to the quasi-mythical eskepeni.
There are more and more rondavels around us now. Our guide turns around to us, and with a bit of pantomime indicates that one of them is hers, and she is going home. Nothing to fear, though, because it appears she has appointed the teenaged girl in white as our Guide Number Two. And so with a graceful wave, Guide Number One disappears into the mists, and we all continue on towards the river. (Or at least, towards the spot in the misty darkness where the river was the last time lightning illuminated everything.)
The rain is falling more steadily now, but thankfully it's still a gentle rain. My clothes are already soaked through to the bone, and with the heat of the day a distant memory I'm starting to get downright chilly.
And remember, poor Jessica is sick.
After what is probably only a 30-minute walk in total (but certainly seems like far more than that) we come at last to the riverbank. Guide Number Two walks to the edge and then appears to just leap over the side, much to our general astonishment. Approaching closer, we see that she has actually jumped down the steep three-foot embankment down to the muddy shore itself. And somehow, she still has not a single fleck of mud on her.
In the distance to our right, I can just make out a boat. Hallelujah.
Clumsily, the four of us scramble down the slick, mud-soaked hill onto the spongy sand below, and follow Guide Number Two to the ferry.
Somehow, when I'd imagined this ferry, I'd always pictured it being... larger. In actual fact, our ferry is just a rickety old rowboat, piloted by an ancient man with a long beard, a deeply lined face, and a broad smile that seems almost to glow in the dark. He harasses Guide Number Two playfully, and we don't need to be able to speak Xhosa to tell that he's noticed her mud-free white clothes and is threatening to dunk her in the river. Chuckling, all of us (including Guide Number Two) clamor aboard the boat.
It's astonishingly unstable, and with each step I take it jerks and rocks backward and forward, so much so that I'm just sure I'm going to capsize it. The floorboards aren't nailed down, so that if you don't step on each one in the dead center you'll flip it up on the other side. The four of us provide great amusement to Guide Number Two, the ferryman, and the other passengers.
Yes, other passengers. Two old woman are already sitting on the boat, and I wonder how long they've been waiting. Presumably they all heard us coming and held off on crossing the river until we could join them.
Jessica sits on the bow of the boat, facing backwards, next to the old women. The one closer to her is wearing a dress of such brilliant red that I can still make out the color even in this dim light, and she pats her hand reassuringly on Jessica's knee. She and her companion flash me enormous smiles as I lumber up and sit against the raised wooden center compartment, facing them. Peter and Loes are sitting behind me somewhere, as is Guide Number Two. The ferryman pushes the boat back off into the river easily and leaps aboard with an agility that belies his advanced age. Then he wraps his long fingers around the ancient wooden oars, and begins to row us across the river.
The world has gone nearly silent now. I'm aware of the sounds of the two old women murmuring and chuckling to each other, and of the quiet splashing of the oars in the water, but everything else is preternaturally still. In the misty night, the receding shoreline is now just a patch of slightly denser darkness against the slightly less dark sky. I can't make out the opposite shore at all. The rain patters down on us endlessly, and it feels like a baptism.
Our passage across the river is not a quick one, but that's okay. We've made the eskepeni, and we're not on a schedule anymore. Floating out in the middle of the river is a dreamlike experience, and I almost don't want it to end.
Behind me, Peter and Loes have taken a pair apples out of their bag. The crunching of each bite they take sounds oddly magnified on this quiet night, and for some reason reassuring, almost nostalgic. They're leaning against each other, smiling contentedly, and I can see that they're being affected by our river passage as much as I am. My eyes meet Jessica's, and we share a smile of our own. "Cheesesteaks and ketchup," we murmur to each other, our little codeword for those moments of perfect happiness we know we'll be remembering fondly for years to come.
When we reach the other side of the river, the ferryman hops out and drags the boat up onto the shore. The two old women manage to climb down easily, even though both are leaning heavily on their walking sticks once they're on the ground. Jessica and I climb out next, distinctly less elegantly, and then we're followed by Peter and poor Loes, who falls into the mud as she climbs down off the boat. Finally, Guide Number Two is the last to exit the boat, and she climbs from the muddy shore up onto the wet grass embankment still without being splattered by a single droplet of mud.
The ferryman drags the venerable boat further inland, and rolls it upside down. Clearly, we have managed to catch the very last ferry of the night. That thought gives me pause. I gaze out into the darkness where I know the opposite shore is, and briefly imagine us huddled over there, shivering in the cold rain, waiting for the ferry. Shaking my head, I banish the thought from my mind.
A path leads off to the left from the shore, and one of the old women starts down it with the ferryman (whom we've all just paid), and they're followed a moment later by Guide Number Two. We all start to follow her, but a bit more pantomime quickly makes clear that we're not meant to. We're being handed off again: the old woman in red, the who had patted Jessica's knee reassuringly, has now become Guide Number Three.
Guide Number Three starts striding straight up the steep side of a hill, and the four of us scramble to try to keep up. She's not following any marked path, and I'm worried about possibly losing sight of her in the darkness, which is growing deeper with every passing moment. The thick layer of stormclouds overhead are blotting out any trace of moon or star, and if we don't get to our destination soon we'll be stumbling around out here in absolute pitch-darkness.
And holy cow is she ever fast! She's an old woman, picking her way along with a walking stick, but we're all almost running trying to keep up. Peter and Loes fall behind a few times, and occasionally Guide Number Three has to stop so that they can catch up. In his attempts to hold her brisk pace, Peter slips and falls in the wet grass, so that now his mud-soaked clothes match Loes's. I can't help but wonder if Jessica and I are next.
Jessica suddenly remembers that we have a little flashlight with us, meant more for reading at night than finding our way across a misty Afican countryside, but certainly better than nothing. It proves to be worth its weight in gold, and she spends the rest of our hike flicking it backward and forward so that it illuminates the path both for our guide before us and for Peter and Loes behind us.
Truth be told, though, Guide Number Three doesn't seem to need the light at all. She will occasionally stop and point into the darkness warningly with her walking stick. When Jessica sweeps the flashlight over to the spot she's indicating, we will invariably find some steep drop-off or barbed-wire fence that she just absolutely could not possibly have been able to see. Clearly, she has the geography of the entire place memorized.
The darkness is total now, and the only thing I can see at all is the little patch that Jessica illuminates with the flashlight. The rain has picked up again, and then the lightning comes out to play once more.
One moment, we'll all be picking our way along through the utter darkness. Then in the next moment, white lines of electric light will tear across the sky in that same glorious crisscrossing spiderweb pattern, and a world we didn't know was around us will briefly flash into plain view. It's a world filled with hills and valleys, bushes and trees, fields and fences and rondavals – all of them clustered around us and we never had a clue. The lightning displays just go on and on as we walk, a dazzling sight that I will never, ever forget.
Eventually, two things happen. The first is a low crashing sound that gradually gets loud enough that even I can hear it with my extremely untrustworthy ears. It's the ocean breaking on the beach, somewhere out ahead of us. We must be almost there now.
And then we crest a hill and can just make out some distant points of light. They keep disappearing behind other hills, and then reappearing ever closer as we crest those hills. Until at last, as we reach the top of one last hill, we can clearly make out Bulungula Lodge below us.
Guide Number Three points to us, and then to the lodge, and we all smile and thank her for her help. And a moment later, she's gone, headed back off in the direction she came from. How far out of her way did she walk on this cold, rainy night, just to make sure we got to our destination safely in the dark? I feel a tremendous surge of gratitude as she disappears into the mist.
Weary beyond words (and remember, poor Jessica has the flu), the four of us stagger down that final hillside and make our way over to the cheery main building of the lodge. Two young women are walking by on their way to the bathroom when we emerge out of the night, soaked to the bone, covered in mud, and looking rather lost. Seeing our confusion, one of them asks, "Are you looking for the entrance?"
We indicate that we are indeed, and she takes us over to the door.
As we approach it, I take one last moment to savor the darkness, the quiet, the cold splattering of rain on my face, and the vasty empty African night sky.
Then we open the door and step inside.
I'm overwhelmed at first by the light, the heat, and the noise. Dozens of backpackers are inside, milling around and engaging in loud raucous conversation. I'm blinded by the bright light of all the solar-powered lamps and all of the candles, and could swear we're all starting to steam slightly in the marvelous warmth. After the freezing cold of the last ninety minutes or so, I can't imagine anything ever feeling more welcoming.
Well, perhaps there's just one thing that could make it even better. It suddenly becomes clear that everyone's queuing up for dinner.
After enjoying the most delicious stew the world has ever known, we are all given the full tour by a young man named Lindile, and then shown to our rondavals.
Finally collapsing into bed some time later, Jessica and I look up at the circular ceiling above us. Outside we hear the plaintive bleating of goats and the relentless pattering of raindrops. Inside we are at last warm and dry, exhausted but happy beyond words.
Because it had been quite a day. Our very best travel day, ever.
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