‘Hold on tight,’ they tell you. But do we ever listen when it matters most? Whether on the back of a horse or a motorbike, or fully seated on a game vehicle, some folks are more prone to the effects of gravity.
‘Don’t look behind you.’ The instruction came from the Australian traveller up front, the front of our little trio. Between us sat the Londoner on his gap year; I was at the back. We were three on one of those little motorbikes rented out in Greece during the summer, pootling around Paros.
We’d been at a beach party on the other side of the island, and they were giving me a lift back to town, where I worked at what was then the only hotel on Paros, a drop in the blue Aegean Sea.
My shift started at 4.30am with pressing the sheets for the daily linen change, before I moved on to serving breakfast and then cleaning rooms. It was not a bad summer job for a backpacker; I finished at noon and had the rest of the day and night for mischief.
And mischief is exactly what the Greek islands and summer are made for, fed on a diet of tomatoes, peppers, cucumber and feta, lashings of olive oil and the obligatory glasses of Retsina, ouzo late at night when the old men are playing at backgammon and gossip outside the glass café on the harbour.
Around every corner, there is another ancient ruin among the tiny whitewashed houses with their spreads of fabric taking up door space. Floors of cheap marble washed down with cooling water.
I was young and foolish and don’t tell 20-year-old me what to do.
And so I did look behind me, and waved goodbye to some Irish friends. And then we three spilled off the bike. Turns out, three people on a 50cc on soft beach sand is not stable at all.
It was the first time I fell off my transport, and it set a pattern for the next few years. But I was bulletproof, and – besides a few bruises and scrapes – not hurt. Just injured dignity.
Some years later, still young and foolish but this time running around the city of gold, and again in the summer. Johannesburg is unexpected: expect a city, and get a lush and green forest; expect sand and heat, and get rolling purple thunderheads, electricity in the air and rivers of rain in the afternoons; expect a city too preoccupied with going somewhere, and get the friendliest folk in a country mile. Still moving, though.
And we were moving, my brother and I, tourists back in the town where we grew up, in his 1958 Willys Jeep CJ5, his pride and joy. It had a 2.2l F-Head engine and a 3-speed gearbox. How do I know this? Because he told me, several times. All I could ever remember was that it was painted military beige.
And I fell out the side. We were on the way somewhere in the wild northwest of the city, likely the Magaliesberg, those ancient mountains among the oldest on Earth. Were we, however, on the right road? To the right, a large open field of veld, on the left, the road we wanted. Without warning, my brother sped up and turned. Sharply. It was a Jeep after all, and what was a bit of veld?
For those who have not driven in a Willys Jeep from 1958, let me assure you there is no suspension, no safety features, nothing to hold on to, and no doors.
He turned, and I flew out the side, pitching head-long into a patch of devil thorns and blackjacks. It took days to pick them out of my hair. And that highveld ground is hard, despite the frequent rain.
I like to think I was more circumspect after that. But I wasn’t. I found myself a beautiful wild man, and followed him to Eswatini, then called Swaziland, where he carved doors and, well, did not subscribe to the mainstream.
The living was easy in Eswatini, long hot days punctuated by petrichor and that peculiar nostalgia it brings.
Those were heady times, racing around the tiny kingdom on the wild man’s XT500. It had no muffler, apparently to warn people he was on the way across the hills. A cellphone would have been more user-friendly.
There were horses, though, for gentle outrides across the emerald valleys. I am not a horseperson. Yet he insisted on morning rides. Perhaps he was trying to tell me something, for he gave me Beelzebub’s own steed. It went blazing a trail, straight for the trees. Wild-eyed with fear, it was all I could do to stay on. Not for long.
Into the copse, under a tree, and me wiped off by a branch. A classic accident, yes, but also painful and undignified. It was only a pony but it was gigantic, and it hurt. No more horses for me, I limped home.
There were no real roads where we stayed, a still untamed land, hence the off-road bike. Late one afternoon, after a busy day of door-carving, we decided a beer was in order, hopped on the bike and sped off over the hills to the local watering hole. All good and well. A fine evening was spent in the little wooden pub clinging to the edge of a donga, almost hidden by the foliage, reggae playing softly on the ancient stereo.
A not-so-fine return much later on. I was on the back of the bike, arms outstretched thrilling in the freedom of it all. He drove up an incline. I fell off the back. My shouts were drowned out by the noise, and it was a good 10 minutes before he realised something was amiss.
The relationship did not last too long after that. Apparently, it’s bad mojo to fall off a bike.
The last time – or the last time so far – I fell out of my transport was in isiMangaliso Wetland Park, in the fecund reaches of northern KwaZulu-Natal. I was along for the ride in the World Heritage Site with a group of veteran hacks there to see the regeneration of the park from forestry plantations to indigenous flora and fauna.
Today, of course, isiMangaliso – which means ‘miracle and wonder’ – comprises five ecosystems, each with their own micro-habitats. There are 2 185 recorded species of flora in the park and 526 species of birds. Make sure to visit the raffia palm forests and look out for the rare palm nut vulture. Vultures are usually carnivorous, but not this one – a large portion of its menu is the husks of the raffia palm, dates, grain and acacia seeds.
Night drives in the bush are a special kind of wonderful. All the silent, hidden creatures come out to forage and play.
And if it is a quiet night, there are always the stars, magnificent and spread across the ink sky from horizon to horizon. It is a spectacle you never see in towns and cities, and I was enjoying it, looking for shooting stars and tracing out the constellations.
And then I made the stupid mistake. We were in a little Land Cruiser and I stood up to see further; the driver unexpectedly took off – and I flew out the back.
I did shout, quite loudly. I admit that. And I landed quite hard. It was quite sore.
Everything went quiet in a heartbeat. I know that because my heart was beating so violently I could hear it.
‘I’m alright,’ I managed, to much hilarity from the rest of the crew who did not fall out. I nursed my bruises and my pride quietly in the back for the rest of the trip.
And never fell out of a car again. Touch wood.
A version of this article appeared in the October 2022 print issue of Getaway
Words: Lorraine Kearney; Illustration by Jess Nicholson
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