Kindness of Strangers

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It could have been much worse, maybe given the nature of the accident it should have been. It all happened so quickly – a slight application of the brakes, car starts to slip to the right, maneuver to avoid the oncoming vehicles and try to recover and suddenly we were flying sideways, upside down, right-side up, upside down and finally right-side up. Is everyone ok – please say something, Eliav is crying, Karen is in pain, Avital says she is fine. Everyone’s talking, that’s at least a good start.

Avital on the Dunes
Avital providing the classic dying of thirst in the desert pose on Soussevlei Dune
The car that started to slow down in front of me and the two coming the other way stopped and are there. I can’t open the door but I can slip myself out the front where the windshield once was. I go around to check on everyone, Avital does seem fine, Karen is holding her arm and it hurts but otherwise she is okay, Eliav has some blood on the head – we need to keep an eye on that. We are on a gravel road between the isolated outpost of Solitaire and the town of Walvis Bay – it will be a while before we get sorted.

This was supposed to be about the sea of sand that is the Namib and how much we enjoyed climbing its massive sand dunes (we did); about riding ATVs over them and sandboarding down them (we didn’t get to). But brought on by a simple twist of fate it is instead about the most serious incident we have had in our 18 years of travelling together. We are all okay, and to no small extent that is due to the kindness of strangers and old friends who have helped us over the last few days.

Aardwolf's last campsite
Aardwolf’s last campsite at Sesreim
The manager of Solitaire Guest Farm was called, he acts almost as a mayor in these parts and is often called when someone passes the all too often accidents on this road (we heard there were at least four flips over the past week). He has already called the ambulance from Sesreim (at least an hour and a half away), the local police and the tow truck from Walvis Bay. By now many people have stopped to offer help, I’m shuttling between Eliav, Karen and the wreck to organize and secure all of our stuff. In short time we have no less than five doctors and two nurses; including an Orthopedist from Cape Town, Dirk, and his mother-in-law, a pediatrician, who are not only able to look over Karen and Eliav but will continue to be incredibly helpful for the next couple of days, and a German doctor who also will help us throughout the day.

Duwiseb Guest Farm
Aardwolf’s next to last campsite with Duwiseb castle right behind us
The wave of thoughts skirting through my mind were overcome by the adrenaline and extreme focus on the moment. Consoling my crying son and monitoring him for head trauma and shock, reassuring my hurt wife and maintaining some control over the scene. Where are we going to go now and how are we going to get there – there is a hospital in Swakopmund (where we had accommodations reserved) but others are suggesting Windhoek would be better. Eventually the ambulance arrives, as we struggle to get an IV in Eliav, we discuss where they are taking him and Karen – apparently they can only go as far as Rehoboth which has a small hospital, from there they can be transferred onward if needed. The German doctor is talking about airlifting to Johannesberg, the South African doctor (who also practices in Namibia) assures us that Windhoek has world class facilities. We sent them on their way with the kids bag and Karen’s and the expectation that they would be passed to another ambulance at Rehoboth and taken to Windhoek.

Avital and Eliav Climbing
Avital and Eliav climbing the desert sand dunes of the Namib
Next is me and Avital, where are we going tonight, how are we getting there and how are we getting our gear and the vehicles gear somewhere. Are we going to Walvis Bay with the truck? Swakopmund where we have accommodation waiting? Windhoek? I know one couple in Windhoek, Jackie and Bossie organized and led (at various moments) our first African safari here in 2001 – we had stayed connected a bit over the years and I knew they were following our travels. I gave Jackie a call, she immediately responded to me as she would any old friend – it was comforting. I explained what had happened and our situation, told her I didn’t know what we may need but asked if she would be able to help us make arrangements when the time came and without hesitation she agreed, though she was away in the desert Bossie was in Windhoek and could help. The support and hospitality we would receive from them over the coming days has been invaluable to us.

Aardwolf at the End
In the end Aardwolf protected us at her own expense
While I had been working on this, talking with the police and gathering the gear that needed to come with us versus the truck, the two sets of holidaying doctor families had already been working a plan. Dirk put his kids with his mother-in-law and he would take Avital and myself to Swakopmund, the Germans would pack up our stuff and we would bring it there for us. Total strangers, our only connection being a disrupted holiday on this isolated strip of road, and they didn’t hesitate to do all they could (some have noted the karma of it – as we did stop to help an overturned vehicle in Lesotho). Swakopmund was still three hours away, about the same as Rehoboth, and while I engaged in small talk and pointed out the milestones to Avital I had planned to I was anxiously waiting to hear from the ambulance. A couple of hours in, since we left later than them, we started calling the hospital for any updates – they still hadn’t arrived. We would learn later that the first ambulance could only take them as far as Rehoboth if there was not another one available on the way – so they were in fact transferred on the way from the well-equipped ambulance out of Sesreim to a poorly equipped one from Rehoboth – the Sesreim ambulance had to lend them their stabilizers as they lacked even that basic first aid equipment.

Aardwolf Crash
After two complete rollovers, we were more or less okay – Aardwolf will be missed
Dirk drops us at our accommodation in Swakopmund, Alte Brucke, but that certainly wouldn’t be the end of his help. I explain to the receptionist our situation and she lets us know they will only charge us for what we use (two people instead of four, however many nights it is) and will do what they can to help us get to Windhoek if needed. When I finally hear from the Hospital they are there waiting the results of Karen’s x-rays, Eliav seems okay (though they lack the ct machine to image his head). The x-rays come back and, though the clavicle is fractured, it doesn’t seem that bad, they put Karen in a splint and believe that will be all that is needed. It’s a relief and has me thinking of just a short near term interruption – how can we reunite here in Swakopmund? Rehoboth is on the other side of Windhoek from here and has no regular transport – if I can get them to Windhoek it would be most advantageous. I asked Karen to see if they would do this but they wouldn’t since it wasn’t considered an emergency. At this point Avital and I, having not eaten since the Moose MacGregor Bakery this morning in Solitaire, were on our way to dinner at the pizza joint we had planned to go to as a family that night. Karen and Eliav are also having pizza, the nurses at St. Mary’s in Rehoboth went out and picked it up for them.

Dirk checked in and I gave him an update. He suggested it would be a good idea to get Eliav a CT scan and went ahead to take it upon himself to convince the doctor in Rehoboth that it was a necessary emergency and to send them to the Medi-Clinic in Windhoek (where he also knew the orthopedist on call and would like him to look at Karen). Karen and Eliav were sent in yet a third ambulance for the hour drive to Windhoek. They are admitted (at least Eliav was) and we all went to sleep thinking about reuniting in Swakopmund the next day.

The next morning, after Avital and I had breakfast, Karen calls my cell. She is in pain, the CT machine wasn’t working and they want to hold Eliav for observation (though he is acting like himself and continues to show no signs of head trauma). We need to figure out how to get to Windhoek – the morning shuttles had already left and anyway, being high season, were all full. It’s Sunday, the receptionist starts calling rental car companies but many are closed and others booked out. I call Bossie to see if he has any ideas or can help and he activates his network to see if he can find us a way to Windhoek. I also post to the South Africa 4×4 community to see if they can help. Both networks would land in the same place and, shortly after noon, another stranger (screen name Benson) was taking us, our stuff and his family to Windhoek. Around this time Dirk calls to check in, he noticed that Karen was only x-rayed laying down and thinks they need to look at her upright – he offers to call the hospital and make sure it happens, and despite her not technically being an admitted patient he does.

It turns out it was a good thing he did, her fracture was worse than it looked – the recommendation from them is surgery. I get them to send the x-rays to Dirk and he concurs; that night I would also ask my sister’s father-in-law (also an orthopedist) to take a look and he also concurs that the best course for her would be surgery. By now we are in Windhoek, Chameleon Lodge was full, and Bossie graciously opened their home to us – as I said above, the hospitality they have shown us has been invaluable. Avital and I dropped our stuff, thanked Benson for the ride, and were off to the hospital.

The next day, Monday, they would discharge Eliav (who has never wavered in being his ever engaging self), we needed to arrange the surgery and figure out both short and long term vehicle replacements. Another member of the 4×4 community, Pierre, had reached out to help in anyway – he had one appointment in the morning but otherwise would be available to drive us if we needed it. In the morning, Avital and I took a cab to the mall for some provisions and then onto the hospital. Pierre would pick us up there and volunteer his time waiting as we got discharged, taking us up the block and waiting as we spoke with the orthopedic surgeon and scheduled the surgery and ultimately taking us back to Jackie’s and Bossie’s. The surgery was scheduled for Wednesday, I arranged for a local rental car starting Tuesday, and we slowly settled into our extended short stay here in Windhoek.

The end of this adventure isn’t yet written, Karen is having surgery today, and based on her recovery we will figure out what our next destination will be. Our intent is to continue our travels for the time planned – just adapting how we go and where we go. Though we have a car for now, a vehicle replacement for us to head out again is still up in the air. The kids have been great and are taking it in stride. Dirk continues to check on the situation and others have reached out through the various communities here and at home to see if/how they can help. We will move out of Jackie’s tomorrow and into a flat at the mall – though I’m sure we will continue to use their support for which we will always be grateful. If I had to sum up my thoughts, other than how lucky we are this didn’t turn out any worse than it did, it would be the lesson of that classic Springfield musical ‘Oh, Streetcar!’ – “You can always depend on the kindness of strangers… A stranger’s just a friend you haven’t met!”

7 Responses

  1. Ruthie
    | Reply

    I have been following your beautifully written and “imaged” posts with relish- vicariously enjoying your adventures and now sharing in some of your pain. We are relieved to hear that so many people have been there for you and that Karen’s surgery has gone well.
    Paul and I wish her a speedy recovery and hope that you will able to resume your travels.
    Much love to all of you,
    Ruthie

  2. Annie Boyd
    | Reply

    Hi, My husband and I are doing a similar trip to yours in 3 months so we have been following your trip with avid interest, really appreciating your information and details. Devastated to hear about our accident and hope your wife’s surgery has gone well. Looking forward to an update. We did 3 months travelling Nairobi to Jo burg in 2004 with 3 young children. Going back to see all the many things we loved and plenty we missed. Namibia was a favourite pace for us and Solitaire a great rest stop for us. Take care. John and Annie Boyd New Zealand

    • Avi Alpert
      | Reply

      Annie,
      Thanks for the well wished. Karen’s surgery went well and she came to our current home (a flat in the Mearua Mall) today. We are expecting to head back out on the road next week after her follow up visit with the doctor – with a modified itinerary. We also have enjoyed Namibia, both now and when we were here n 2001, it is a great country to travel in even with the challenges.

      I wish I could give you some grand lesson on driving the gravel roads here, but from everything I have heard since the accident it really is just the way it goes on those roads – anytime you hit the brakes there is a meaningful risk of losing traction.

  3. Michelle
    | Reply

    Hi Avi, Michelle here from Bulembu. Have been following your journey as well – so pleased to see that you are all okay! Please convey our well wishes to Karen. May the rest of your trip go smoothly!

    • Avi Alpert
      | Reply

      Michelle,

      Thanks. We are doing well and ready to hit the road again tomorrow.

      Avi

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