In the matter of sensible choices, I could only see two for our four-week elective period. Either accidental death by boredom, or a jam-packed adventure in an exotic location. Our medical school training ran over the course of seven years—with the requirement of completion of an elective period—of one’s own design—at the end of the fourth year. André and I opted for the latter—the adventure option—but without the need for crossing an ocean or leaving the country.
The seasoned sedan, crammed to the roof with luggage, as if heading on a four-year cross-African safari, staggered up the mountain path, which was clad on all sides with mountain cedar, yellow-wood and red pear. Clinging to our vehicle, was a billowing trail of red dust. And far back, the endless grasslands rolled in perpetuity into the far-off horizon. We headed into northern KwaZulu-Natal, on our way to the Bethesda Hospital, near Ubombo. So close were we to the Indian Ocean and the Mozambique border—I was convinced it was the ocean breeze we inhaled as we reached the top of the pass. But it must have been fatigue. Once over the ridge, we descended toward the Station with caution.
It wasn’t difficult to see why the local Zulus gave Ubombo its name: “big nose.” A snout-shaped rocky outcrop towered above us. From the moment we stepped out the car that first afternoon at the mission station, we were surrounded by joviality and warmth, received with open arms as would befall long lost friends. The plastered walls of the hospital—in practical brown-at-the-bottom with white-above, spread like spider legs beneath ancient fig trees—the wide porches gave shade and comfort to its staff and patients. It did not take long to find our rhythm in the mountaintop mission station—a utopia in the Lebombo mountains.
It was late 1979, and the settlement on The Nose took us under its wing, pulled us into its bosom—a living example of how harmony, coherence and mutual respect made a community work. Race did not exist there; color separated no one. In contrast to the rest of the country, where color mattered. There was, however, a subtle nuance—around status and clan—but only observed by a handful. To us, as outsiders, it was both strange and ironic. There was little time to give it much thought—we were thrown in at the deep end.
André and I shared a bedroom in the guesthouse—which soon became our second home. During our month at Bethesda, it was only us, two medical students, and a Zulu registered nurse that took our meals in the guesthouse’s dining room. A young lady, who doubled as the cook, also served us our meals, but never joined us at the table—even though she was a Zulu, like the RN. Upon our inquiry about this arrangement, the sister replied, “This is the local custom. She’s only a servant—her place is over there.”
Following an early breakfast, we attended morning rounds, each one of us trailing a physician, observing and listening, and only during the second week did we join in actual work. Toward the end of our elective, we were allowed to scrub in as second assistants during operations and learn the basics of suturing wounds, suctioning, dabbing and control of bleeding.
The wonderment of birth, of a little head crowning, only intensified during those weeks—guiding the slippery body through the birth canal, unwrapping the cord, drying the grimacing purple-pink face, clearing the airway and listen for those very first cries, all the while drying and warming the wriggling bundle. Later, watching the tiny one, safe in mom and dad’s arms—was compensation enough for all the hard work, often at impossible hours.
But reality sunk in soon enough, when the mother hemorrhaged and the fetal heart grew faint. Then every action became critical, each time-consuming step had to be measured—it became a battle for life and death. The outcome was usually victorious and the satisfaction was sweet, in spite of the struggle. But it was bitter and hard when one of them couldn’t be pulled through. It then became a shared pain.
In the afternoons we attended outpatient clinics, followed again by rounds before five p.m.; then and only then could we head outdoors—to explore the station. And explore we did—always armed with a sturdy walking stick—to fend off curious animals and slithering things like mambas and cobras and puff adders. On a good week, usually during broad daylight, one of the staff-members would triumphantly hold a clobbered snake up high. It was usually a poisonous one—like Moses in the desert—a sobering reminder to everyone, but especially to the two city dwellers, to keep their eyes wide open.
At night our bedroom door was closed securely, after each corner and square inch of the room had been inspected. A flashlight was beamed under the beds and the bedding was carefully shaken out to rid it of unwelcome slithering reptilians, spiders, and scorpions.
The weekends were our own—this was when the staff spoiled us with mini-safaris through the nearby Mkuze game reserve. It spanned from the Lebombo foothills far into the surrounding grasslands. It was when leaving on these trips, just before descending the mountain, that we remembered to pause and peer straight east, always competing to first see the ocean. If it was a clear day, it did not require much to imagine the infinite skyline to be that of the sea. Neither of us ever won that contest.
On one such trip, our Zulu guide—a gentle giant, pulled the vehicle to the side of the road as soon as we entered the game reserve. In hushed tones, he instructed us to follow him. Pointing across the road, he whispered, “Umkhombe—Rhino, a mother with calf.”
There were five of us—the guard led the way. We tiptoed across the gravel road—single-file. I didn’t think crossing the road was a smart idea and formed the rear guard. I wasn’t scared, but we were on foot and I could now discern the vague shapes of the colossal creatures—only forty feet and some sparse shrubbery separated us.
Just how close does one need to get to a live dinosaur?
I had no desire to be able to tell the folks back home: “I got to play tag with a white rhino!” As inconspicuous as possible I held a wet finger to the wind—realizing the guard already knew the answer. The mother couldn’t smell us. He raised his hand and we froze—in mid-stride—before he allowed us to cautiously crouch closer, taking care where we placed our feet.
The guide held his hand a second time—apparently even he felt this was close enough—at twenty-five feet. I silently gave my blessing for the smart decision. The hair in my neck, standing at attention, were in total agreement. He stepped aside to let us get a better view. One could see the color of their eyes! Mother and baby were grazing, contented, grunting noisily as they tore grass, slowly moving away—oblivious of their visitors. However, I was certain she only ignored us.
All the physicians on the station were remarkable; but one, Dr. Pat Garde, resident Obstetrician and Gynecologist, was also the flying consultant for northern KwaZulu-Natal. She was an astute ornithologist. So much so, that her house had an unusual design—built with birds in mind, right on the edge of the forest. A vast slanted window—formed both roof and sidewall to the living room. It placed the observer, right inside the bush, so to speak: A birdwatcher’s paradise!
She took it on her the next weekend, to show us the game reserve from a bird lover’s perspective. André sat in front, armed with her binoculars, and I crouched in the back, peeking between the two front seats. How she managed to see the birds while driving, never-mind identifying them by their Latin names as well as English ones, plus giving us the sounds they made, before pointing out the next one—stumped us. She knew them all. As we proceeded through the reserve, along the winding dirt road, the kind doctor became progressively invigorated—steering, spotting, identifying and calling out their names.
When a tiny yellow bird, startled by the vehicle, suddenly took flight in a panic, barely missing the windshield—Dr. Pat again called out, wind-milling with both hands but lost her hold on the steering wheel. We were craning our necks to follow the little bird as she grabbed the wheel again and hollered, “Look over there! … There it goes, the yellow-breasted roller!”
Dr. Pat was also the one who taught me how to use a dental elevator correctly, to remove broken roots of teeth, after freezing the gum. We had to be able to extract a painful tooth if no dentist was available—which often was the case in remote areas.
As our time on the station wound down, the observance of the caste system by the registered nurse still bothered us. Andre and I decided, as a token of our appreciation, to bake French crepes for the staff one rainy evening. We invited them all to the guesthouse—everyone—servants included—to say, thank you, and perhaps make a point.
In South Africa, French crepes are called pannekoeke, pancakes, a traditional delicacy in the Afrikaans community. It gets sprinkled with cinnamon-sugar, before being rolled length-wise into a soft sausage. We lost count of how many we baked that night. There were two stacks, reaching toward the ceiling—and as long as the people kept coming and eating, we continued baking them.
Everyone took turns of sitting at the dining table—there was no servant or mistress or master—not while the two “elective students,” were in charge of the kitchen and doing their spiel in the heart of Zululand.
Late into the night we visited, laughed and told stories and eventually shared with our curious new friends, the astounding simple pannekoek-recipe. We even gave them a go at flipping a pannekoek, which required vigilance, lest it ended up against the ceiling or flat on the floor.
We said our goodbyes, but Bethesda hospital beaconed.
We returned the following year for a further two weeks to be in the shade of the big Ubomo. Once more we stood atop the Lebombo ridge, peering straight east, concentrating much harder this time. We carefully inhaled the mountain breeze. For a brief moment, sky and horizon separated—showing us the ocean.