Our idyllic summer adventure has been full of many wonderful moments, when my children’s joy made my heart feel as if it would burst. My one-year-old discovered the ocean and insisted upon charging into it again and again, laughing gleefully when waves knocked him down. My three-year-old has really gotten into the safari mindset, and orders my husband to stop the car whenever she sees an animal, be it a giraffe or a pigeon. My five-year-old and I went zip-lining over waterfalls and when I asked him if he was enjoying it, he replied, “This is more fun than I ever imagined it could be!”
But the downside of a three-month vacation is that it can’t all be fun and happiness, something is bound to go wrong from time to time. For example, my eldest was bit by a tick and developed a high fever, leading us to rush him to a late-night clinic (it wasn’t tick bite fever, just a 24 hour bug caused by some other bug). My baby fell down some concrete steps and got badly scraped up. My daughter got lost at a gas station and when a kindly stranger brought her back, she denied my husband was her father. These rough times will fade from our memories of this magical summer. However, there are two days that I will carry with me like painless scars; reminders of close calls where terror turned to triumph.
The first day started wonderfully. We woke up in the cozy riverside cottage we’d rented near the Adoo Elephant Park (where we’d seen dozens of the magestic creatures and lots of other animals on an 8-hour game drive the day before). A friend of my in-laws gave us a tour of one of the citrus packing plants where he works and we marveled at the degree of scrutiny each orange or lemon received (as well as the human-heavy tasks in a country where labor is still cheaper than machines). We stopped at a cheetah rehabilitation center for lunch and to meet some big cats (who were hoping my kids were their lunch). We were all tired and happy as we set off on the two-lane highway through the bush.
I was reading a brochure about a nearby town I hoped to visit when what felt like a jolt of electricity went through my body. Everything was a blurr when I looked up and I realized our car was spinning in the lane of oncoming traffic. My dad and I had a scary spin-out when I was a teenager, and I remember him saying, “Everything’s okay, don’t panic, we’re going to be fine.” Those same words came from my mouth as our car spun off the road, down an embankment, and crashed into a fence at the bottom of a ditch.
My husband and I turned to see the three stunned faces of our small children in the back seat. After determining that everyone was (miraculously) okay, my husband (a certified Emergency Medical Technician) went into fireman mode and climbed out his open window with our first aid kit to attend to the people in the other car, which was upside down on the other side of the highway. My one-year-old burst into tears, and I carefully maneuvered him out of his carseat (being careful not to jostle the car, which was teetering at a precarious angle). After a short nursing session to calm himself, my baby was delighted that I let him sit in the driver’s seat and make “vroom vroom” noises. As rubber-neckers slowed to gaze down at our sideways car in the ditch, I smiled to myself to imagine their surprise upon seeing a one-year-old at the wheel.
My daughter starting peppering me with questions, trying to process what had just happened. I explained we’d been in a car accident and launched into a lecture about the importance of carseats and seatbelts. My three-year-old was more concerned with liability. “It was just an accident, right? So it’s okay, you’re not mad at me, are you?” I assured her the accident was not her fault (all involved agreed the blame rests squarely with a driver that lost control trying to pass three cars at once) but reiterated the importance of car safety. My eldest child was silent.
There was a blur of well-intentioned strangers after that, usually speaking Afrikaans, the first language of most white South Africans. They helped me and the kids out of our car, one woman endeared herself to my chatty daughter who was thrilled to have a captive audience. By contrast, my boys clung to me silently. As a farmer volunteered his pick-up truck to try to pull our car out of the ditch, my five-year-old finally piped up with a bit of trivia he’d learned just days before, “Lucky for us, white cars are the easiest to fix.”
My eldest was also the first to volunteer to enter the ambulance (which looked like a WWII relic to me, the equipment seemed similarly ancient) for a check up. He looked so small on the stretcher, putting on a brave face as the medic took his blood pressure, temperature, and other vitals. We were both glad when the check ups were over and we could cuddle each other again. All five of us slept in the same room that night.
My children don’t seem to have any post-traumatic stress from the accident. I never thought we would die and generally stayed calm throughout, but when I next got in a car about ten days later, every bump in the road felt like someone ramming into us. We drove past the crash site a few weeks later on our way to Cape Town. There was a sign reading, “Danger, High Accident Zone” and a big pile of dirt where our car had been that suggested plans to fill in the ditch. The pain in my neck from the whiplash I received has begun to fade, but the memory of my children’s frightened faces is still fresh. Still, a car accident has always been my greatest fear, so in a strange way, I am glad that it happened. My worst fear was realized and we are all alright. Hopefully, my children will remember the importance of wearing their seatbelts and paying attention when on the road but will not be as fearful of cars as I have always been.
The car accident was a terrible event that no one could have predicted or prevented. But tweeks later I unknowingly subjected my children to danger out of sheer ignorance. We were in Cape Town, my first time there since my husband and I visited as young lovebirds 14 years ago. We have fond memories of climbing the city’s iconic Table Mountain, so thought we’d do it again, this time with our kids. We’d done a lot of hiking during our Garden Route road trip, including some treks that might be considered “intense,” so I was confident our kids could handle it. I figured we’d just go nice and slow, with lots of rest breaks for snacks, and I imagined that my kids would feel so proud of themselves when they reached the top and beheld the breathtaking views.
We decided to park near the lower cable car station so we could take the cable car back down the mountain, which meant meeting up with the Platteklip Gorge trail that winds it’s way up a crack in the mountain through a series of steep switchbacks. Information we found online suggested the hike could take 3-4 hours, so we set off around 10am with lots of water and snacks on board. From the very beginning, the hike was steeper than I’d expected . The “trail” was just a pile of rocks that the hiker climbed like stairs, with some steps being 18″ high. That was a challenge for my three foot tall 3-year-old. My 1-year-old was strapped to me in his Ergo, and I’d assumed my husband could always carry my daughter if she got tired, but the steepness of the terrain meant that all of us needed our hands free for balance. I kept waiting for the path to level out, but when that happened, the trail took us right along the edge of the rock face towards the gorge. The path was less than two feet wide, with jagged rocks to our right and a vertigo-inducing drop to our left. “Hug the mountain!” I kept yelling to my 5-year-old, who was leading our little party. Whenever we passed other hikers on their way down the mountain, they looked at us like we were crazy at best and negligent parents at worst, but invariably wished us luck.
I hadn’t known we would need luck. I knew we might have to take a lot of breaks, tolerate some whining, and maybe take turns carrying our 3-year-old, but it had never occurred to me that a member of my family could get hurt on this day trip. About an hour into our hike, however, I began to wonder what would happen if a child slipped off the edge of the mountain. Or what if she got so cold that she got frostbite? Or so dehydrated that he passed out?
We were about two hours into our climb when it began to rain. This being the dead of winter, we knew it would be cold at the top of the mountain, so I did not want anyone to get too wet. My husband boosted us all into a crag on the side of the mountain where we ate peanut butter sandwiches with a rock overhang for shelter. No one wanted to turn back, so when the rain let up, we carried on. Water pouring from the top of the mountain created waterfalls across the path. I whispered prayers under my breath each time one of my kids skipped across the slippery rocks, giggling as the waterfall’s spray hit them in the face. Suffice it to say, as with our car accident, my children were not scared, but I was terrified for them.
It did get bitterly cold as we got closer to the top of the mountain, shrouded in mist so thick we could only see a few feet in front of us and everything was wet. Instead of the elation I expected we’d feel when we finally reached the top, by then, my children were freezing and I was eager to get off the mountain as quickly as possible. We made our way to the restaurant to warm up and then enjoyed the (overpriced but worth every cent) cable car ride back to the bottom. I was relieved that our five-hour ordeal was over, but insanely proud of my children. As we walked to our car, my husband told the kids that there’s another trail to the top on the other side of Table Mountain and asked f they’d like to hike that one tomorrow.
“Yes!” enthused my five-year-old son, to my surprise.
“No,” began my daughter, still bundled in several layers of sweatshirts, “why can’t we climb it again right now?”
My children will probably not remember these events for long. For them, these were just two days in a long summer in South Africa filled with far more interesting adventures (like their first waterslide park, monkey encounters, and cricket camp). However, what was heart-stopping to me at the time has become heart-warming in retrospect as I marvel at the resilience and positivity of my offspring. Our car accident and Table Mountain climb will become part of their life history through my telling of the stories, but I will recount them as triumphs. We climbed out of a ditch and up a mountain, and we are all – individually and as a family team – stronger for it.