There was a time when I didn’t believe in fate. I used to think life was one big coincidence. Then I came to Africa and changed my tune.
Five years ago, if I had visited a psychic and she had predicted where I would be today, I would have laughed in her face and walked out without paying. The life I’m leading now is so extraordinary — so utterly impossible — that I don’t believe it could be a coincidence. There must be some reason, some explanation. There must be some plan, of which I’m not yet aware.
A month ago, I wrote a blog post called ‘Land Rover on a Swazi Mountaintop‘. The post was about a photo I took three years ago in Swaziland’s Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary, at the top of Nyonyane Mountain. I visited Mlilwane with Jon in June 2008, and it was a very special place for us.
Here is the photo.
That’s Jon’s Land Rover.
Three weeks ago, through a series of ‘coincidences’, I was hired to go to Swaziland in the first week of February for a freelance writing and photography job. I knew what I had to do while I was there: Go back up to Nyonyane Mountain and say a final goodbye to Jon.
Before my trip, I didn’t give much thought to how I would get up to Nyonyane Mountain. I just boarded the plane to Swaziland and figured things would work out somehow. I was right. Here’s how it happened.
After my freelance gig finished, I spent a couple of days in Swaziland with a woman named Dawn. I had never met Dawn before, but her son Stanley is an acquaintance of mine. Dawn is South African but has lived in Swaziland for most of her life. She welcomed me into her house, spoiled me with home-cooked food, attended to my every need, and drove me all around Swaziland for two days. She also offered to take me up Nyonyane Mountain. Dawn is actually an angel.
We set out for Mlilwane, which is less than half an hour from Dawn’s, at 8:30 Friday morning. Unlike the previous two days, which were sunny and blazing hot, it was cloudy and gray outside. We were meeting a friend for lunch and figured we would have plenty of time to get up and down the mountain before noon. It’s a small park and I remembered the drive up the mountain being fairly straightforward.
Actually, it was more complicated than we thought. When we arrived at the ticket office, Dawn and I stopped to help a woman traveling alone who was suffering from a terrible migraine. We got distracted and forgot to buy a map of the park. We took off into the sanctuary, thinking we’d find our way without a problem.
I didn’t intend to shoot wildlife but couldn’t resist these waterbuck.
After 40 minutes of driving around, we were no nearer to our destination. We hadn’t even found the road up the mountain. We stopped at Reilly’s Rock, a beautiful old colonial lodge inside the sanctuary, to ask for directions. The staff recommended we backtrack to the park’s main camp to get a map. Suddenly I realized how anxious and emotional I was. I burst into tears as we walked back to the car.
We found a map at the main camp. We also found two zebras manning the fuel pump.
This cheered me up a little.
Map in hand, we set off in the right direction. It was 11:30. I nearly wept for joy when we found the entrance to the mountain road.
The drive up had seemed easy in Jon’s mammoth Land Rover. In Dawn’s little Volkswagen Polo, it was harrowing. There were several points when I thought we would have to turn back. But Dawn, my guardian angel, knows how to drive on tough Swazi roads. She steered around boulders and maneuvered through deep ruts in the muddy track. My nerves jangled. Dawn stayed cool, patting my hand periodically when she sensed I might lose it.
Finally, finally, we drove through a grove of gum trees and rounded a sharp bend. The vegetation cleared and I could see we were there. Dawn stopped the car. ‘Thank you for bringing me here,’ I sobbed. Dawn hugged me. I gathered my things, trembling, and got out to walk the rest of the way alone.
The road ended and I turned up a footpath. I couldn’t remember exactly what I was looking for but I knew I would recognize it when I saw it.
I climbed over a little rise, and there it was.
A man-made pile of rocks, called a cairn.
Three-and-a-half years ago, I climbed up to this cairn with Jon and our friend Bi. I took a video clip that day.
Sorry, I’m a terrible videographer.
And now, here I was again, on top of the world in Swaziland. There was no sun this time, and almost no wind. Just heavy clouds and ominous rumbles of thunder.
I sat down next to the cairn, pulled out my camera, and took photos.
Not as beautiful as the last time. But I’ll take it.
Nyonyane, also called Execution Rock. According to legend, Swazi warriors would march their enemies up here and make them jump to their deaths.
I tried to think of something to say to Jon. I closed my eyes and tried to feel his presence. To be honest, I don’t know if I did or not. I’m not very good at that kind of thing. But as I sat there, three sentences went through my head.
‘I love you.’
‘I’m a photographer.’
I didn’t know what to make of it at the time. But now it makes sense to me somehow.
I fumbled for my notebook and tore out the letter that I’d written to Jon that morning. I scribbled a couple more sentences. Then I folded up the letter and stuck it between the rocks.
Is it weird that I took a photo of myself? Whatever, it’s what I felt like doing. I’m out of focus and have a weird grimace on my face. Still, not bad under the circumstances.
After about 20 minutes, I felt ready to leave. I packed my things and brushed myself off. Then I took a deep breath and pushed the letter in between the rocks. I heard it drop into the middle of the cairn.
Before I walked down, I decided to take one more photo.
You might remember this picture from an earlier post. I brought it up with me so I could look at Jon while I sat there. I took the photo back after snapping this frame. I figured leaving the letter was enough.
Dawn was waiting for me at the base of the hill.
Dawn (hiding under a sun hat) and her trusty Volkswagen.
Dawn said a prayer before we drove off. I don’t blame her, and I’m glad she did. We made it down safely and the moment we exited Mlilwane, the heavens opened and it rained torrentially. Lightning streaked across the sky and the roads filled with water. We never would have made it down the mountain in that rain.
Coincidence? I think not.
Really beautiful and touching. Serious case of the goosebumps. I suppose what occurred to me first when I read this is how if I died, how much it would move me to somehow know that my loved one had gone on this journey a second time without me, to say goodbye.
Thanks so much, Cecelia. It’s so nice to know you that thought about that as you read. I know that Jon would approve 🙂
That story was heart-wrenchingly beautiful and connected with me at such a primal level. You need to put this story into a book. I really mean it. The world needs it. I am so touched by this post.
Oh. Thank you so much Todd. Luckily I have your wonderful wife to help me with that very project.
Such a touching post Heather, you have a way of saying so much in so little words.
I’m glad you got to say good bye to Jon in a place so special to you both, I’m sure he was there with you in some way.
Thanks Jenna. I’m glad to hear you say that because I was thinking this post was too long 🙂
I agree with Jenna, so eloquent and succinct. Really touching Heather, I’m glad you were able to go up there and say goodbye.
Thanks. It was very fortuitous timing.
Beautiful post Heather.
This is a really, really powerful and touching post, Heather. I don’t believe much in coincidence myself. This I doubt was coincidence.
Yeah, it’s impossible, really.
Very touching post Heather. I’m glad you got to return and attempt to say goodbye. Although I’m sure you never truly will and Jon will always be a part of you.
Thanks Nicole. Yeah, I had hoped to feel some sort of ‘closure’ after doing this. I guess I do, sort of, but I am no less sad. Guess that’s just the way it is. I’m really glad I did it though.
Truly beautiful and stunning…these photos are amazing, you know?
Thank you! They turned out better than I expected under the circumstances.
Made me cry. Wish you could have all the good without all the pain. Jon would be/is so proud of you. xoxo
Thanks, Shelly. I think you’re right.
Moving, anxiety-provoking and characteristically honest.
Practically a pilgrimage, and you did it!
Well done and Happy V’s day tomorrow.
Thanks Yashik. You too.
Good for you. The healing process is a winding road with miracles along the way. Enjoyed your post.
Thank you – glad you enjoyed it!
Beautiful Heather – you have such a way with words.
Thanks so much Jane. I hope you’re doing well 🙂
well done, beautiful post. That’s an amazing mountain I lived below it for a year, powerful place. Best wishes, Chris
Thanks Chris. Did you live at Mantenga? I’m sure you’ve told me this before but I must have forgotten.
This is a beautiful post. What a lovely way to be with Jon again.
On a lighter note, I wish I had Zebra to attend to me at the service station.
I know! How cute was that?
Thank you Heather for sharing such a lovely write-up and tribute to the love that you share with Jon. It’s so real and reflects so strongly on how we all wish to be loved and remembered.
And just as at the 18/19sec mark of the video clip, your shadow wraps around Jon, I hope you feel the same way too.
Thanks so much, Stanley. And thanks for loaning me your amazing mom. She is one fearless driver!
Really good post in so many ways – the pictures, your words, it all came together in only a few paragraphs. Thanks for sharing.
Thanks Catherine! I hope all is well with you. Please say hi to your mom for me.
I don’t believe in coincidence. Thanks for sharing this moving story.
Thanks Jackie. Hope all is well in the Slowveld.
Heather, it is such an amazing privilege that we can share part of what you experience. Thank you. Such an inspiration. And real. Just amazing.
Thanks Jaco. For some reason, sharing this stuff on my blog makes me feel a lot better.
Well not only has your photography gotten better and better as I’ve been an avid reader, but so has your writing. This was brilliantly written and I felt there with you every step of the way.
Thank you for sharing another one of your personal experiences.
I have to laugh at the self portrait. It is very difficult to take a picture like that with a DSLR.
I love the picture with the note between the rocks.
Thanks Fidel. I’m actually lucky because my Canon 60D has a flip-around screen, so self-portraits are a little easier than they are with other cameras. This one wasn’t my best though, my concentration obviously wasn’t 100% 🙂
Hey, I just clicked randomly to connect to your blog. I don’t really enjoy reading ENGLISH stuffs but your words and pictures attract me so much. I can really feel your journey and somehow your feeling as well. I will keep on reading your stuffs.
p.s. I am a girl from Hong Kong, forgive my poor english 🙂
Hi Chacha, thanks so much for your comment and thank you for reading my blog even though it’s not in your first language. That really means a lot! All the best, Heather
It’s because you are a great writer that makes english easier and funnier 😛
btw, I read your blogs about those Chinese stuffs. They are really interesting! I hope you will have chance to travel to Hong Kong and China someday!
I hope so too! I’ve never been to East Asia but would really love to go. Hey, you might also be interested in my friend Karen’s blog. She is from Singapore but is also an expat here in Joburg. She visits Hong Kong frequently too. She writes in English too but there are a few words of Chinese! http://www.storyofbing.com.
Thanks so much Heather. I do love her blog ! She wrote about recipes and food which really makes me addicted. I will keep on reading until I find the articles about HONG KONG, haha!! p.s. I’ve been to America, I LOVE AMERICA as well as AMERICAN 🙂
Dammit girl, stop making me cry!
Oh Goodness – I’ve just realised that I totally put in the wrong emoticon. It’s a bad habit of mine to always type in a “smiley” or a “winky” – without even realising it. My apologies. What I meant to say was 🙁
Is there a “hug” emoticon? As I would like to send one of those too.
I didn’t even notice your emoticon error. I’m sure there is a hug emoticon out there somewhere. Thanks for the sentiment [insert proper emoticon here].
I’m with Todd, above – you’re such a good writer, everything just moves along smoothly and I’m drawn in for the ride, wherever it takes me. I hope you do publish a book about your experiences.
What a beautiful story. Your photography is stunning. I hope those three sentences became more clear to you in time. The story about the rain? Goosebumps. I’m not sure if you’ve heard the song, “Holes in the Floor of Heaven,” but the lyrics are very sweet:
“cause there’s holes in the floor of heaven
and her tears are pouring down,
that’s how you know she’s watching,
wishing she could be here now,
and sometimes if you’re lonely,
just remember she can see,
there’s holes in the floor of heaven,
and she’s watching over you and me”
Thanks Christy. I actually didn’t know that song before — sweet. Things have become clearer in time although I still have a long way to go. I was just back in Swaziland last week and I thought about going up Nyonyane Mountain again. But I decided against it. Wasn’t the right time I guess.
I just stumbled on this post by accident. Now I’m all teary (at work). Beautiful!
Thank you for the comment. Sorry for the tears 🙂