Despite heroic sleep deprivation and a very loose game plan, I was ready. I had just submitted what felt like my life’s work condensed into six months researching beauty pageants in Cape Town and successfully hopped on a plane to Durban International Airport. I had my well-worn copy of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, my tried and true fleece pants purchased circa 1995, and directions—printed out! What more could I need?

For those more familiar with my past antics, my decision to spend a week trekking South Africa’s Drakensberg Mountains by myself was par for the course. After all, just a few weeks prior, I spent my weekend bungee jumping off Victoria Falls with a 101-degree fever. This time, however, I was taking more precautions than usual. For one, I had decided to fly to Durban from Cape Town and splurged on renting a car to drive to/fro my hiking destinations. Second, I had reserved a spot at an adorable lodge tucked in central ‘Berg, that would serve as my base camp for the next week.

Soon after arriving in Durban, I weaved my way through a sea of rental companies to find my prepaid Fiat, ready and waiting. With months of cramming onto already overflowing minibuses on my daily commutes in the city and long meandering bus rides accompanied by the finest R&B throwback jams, this car signified ultimate freedom.

Before laying eyes on my new dream machine I couldn’t stop beaming. What an adventure ahead! Eager to connect with people along the way, I shared my hopes and fears with my newly acquired rental car friends, bode them farewell and scampered curbside, keys in hand. This was it. I flung open the car door, threw my backpack inside, immediately secured my seatbelt, and faced forward.

Oh no.

Though I had yet to be in a car that wasn’t stick shift in my six months spent in Africa so far, somehow it was beyond me to think that this could be the case for my grand solo excursion. Suddenly in fight or flight mode, I decided my first option was to casually ask if they had any automatics lyin’ around and if not, I would get my head in the game and teach myself.

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No luck. I left my new friends at the rental car company nervous laughing and crying at the same time. I guzzled the nearest RedBull in sight to counter my delirium that was finally setting in, bought extra Airtime for emergency phone calls, and decided that the real obstacle wasn’t the stick shift but in fact driving on the opposite side of the car and road.

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Amazingly, my estimated four-hour journey only took me two additional hours and included minimal life-threatening stalls (stay tuned). I arrived at Lodge feeling like a total badass, apt for whatever was to come my upcoming week of exploring.

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Experiencing place on my own two feet has always been my way of carving out familiarity and establishing a sense of grounding. Everywhere I have landed, walking or running through bustling neighborhoods or on quiet dirt roads, learning the sounds and smells of the early morning or sunset, reaffirms that I can see as much as I allow myself—and that familiarity and comfort can be found in what seems unknown. My time in Drakensberg was about returning to the simplicity in this process, adventuring into the unfamiliar while also solidifying my sense of self and what I am capable of finding.

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I experienced my best and most terrifying moments in this week. Each day I embarked on 15-20 kilometer hikes, wandering up snow-caped, knobby mountains hugging the Lesotho border to scrambling up river gorges in the Northern Royal Natal National Park. Never quite getting a handle on downshifting, I became a terror on the road for all parties involved. My incidents ranged from stalling in the middle of a two-lane highway—ultimately evacuating the car to avoiding getting hit by oncoming traffic—to fending off a mob of school kids who swarmed my car and climbed into my backseat after getting lodged in a pothole on a dirt road.

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While traumatizing, each moment that I felt stuck behind the wheel or lost on a trail challenged me to laugh and to come back to the set of questions that had led me to where I was. Why did I feel compelled to experience this all on my own? What would be translatable when I attempted to share my experiences, the ordinary and the grander tales, and was that the point? How could I feel completely okay with being alone? I resigned to live these questions and to trust that the non-knowing is what it’s all about. 

Guest Contributor

bronson1About Our Contributor

Olivia Bronson graduated from the University of California, Berkeley in 2013. In the past few years, she’s travelled Kenya, Zambia, South Africa, and she’s plotting to get on another continent again soon.