5 April 2020
One Tuesday morning, I got up when the alarm went at 5.45 am, completed the usual morning routine and was at my desk by 7.45 am. Not being a millennial, I hadn’t looked at my mobile phone once. I answered some work emails, had a chat to a couple of my colleagues and only then glanced at my phone – I had missed several calls, some text messages and an email to my personal account. They were all about the same thing – my brother Jo had gone missing. For several seconds I sat motionless looking at the small screen, then turned my attention to the email.
He had been tramping in the Drakensberg mountains in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa. He was last seen on a track leading down to a carpark. His car alerted the national park rangers to the fact that he hadn’t made it back and was, therefore, still out there. He had stayed at a hut in the park on the Saturday night, where he’d left some personal details. The manager of the hut was able to phone our older brother, who lives some 1000kms away in the Cape, to let him know, and it was he who had tried in vain to get hold of me.
Throughout the nightmarish days that followed, one of the worst aspects for me was that I was in a different time zone, so that when they were all up and the search was progressing, it was night here. And when they were asleep, I was getting on with my usual day, trying to keep my hopes up and thinking about Jo out there in the cold and dark, with nothing to eat and all alone. My colleagues were sympathetic and suggested that I go home. But being at work meant that, at least for some of the time, my attention was elsewhere. The nights were bad too – having learned my lesson, I kept my phone on the bedside table and woke up periodically to check messages. Sleep was of secondary importance so I got progressively more tired as the days went on.
The rangers searched the area around where he had last been seen and on the Thursday the search was scaled up to include two helicopters, 80 people, two dog teams and drones. But they were unsuccessful and we didn’t need to be told that the longer this went on, the less likely a positive outcome would be. By Friday, my brother and I were trying to come to terms with losing Jo forever and perhaps never knowing what had happened – a fall, a knock to the head, a snakebite?
On the Friday evening (morning there) we had finished dinner and tidied up the kitchen. I was about to head for bed but checked my phone one more time. Once again, I had missed a call but there was the almost unbelievable message: “He’s alive! Sunburnt and emaciated but alive!” What followed was chaotic – elation, relief, disjointed phone calls zinging between time zones and all thought of sleep banished.
Bad weather had come in suddenly on the Sunday evening when he was on the track back to the carpark. He got disorientated and instead of walking towards his car, he was walking away from it as it got colder and darker. As the days went by, he got further and further away from where they were searching. There was plenty of water to drink – it rained and there are rivers. He found a few edible berries and took shelter in caves. He is fit and obviously has great mental fortitude to survive for so long all on his own and through nights when it went below zero. He was found by a couple of trampers on a completely different track and so he emerged miraculously out of the bush.
He was very thin and had to eat very carefully in those first few days. He had infected scratches on his legs and one pretty bad wound on his left foot. My latest bulletin from him is that he’s fine, the scratches have all healed though the left foot is taking a bit longer. He is having trouble sleeping too. But worst of all he tells me is that, because of the COVID-19 lock-down, he can’t surf! I am just so glad that he is in one piece and can live to surf another day, even if that day is not now.