Story - Magic Carpet Ride in Mpumalanga
Updated: Jan 26
The car, a white BMW 850i, wasn’t mine. The alcohol in my blood wasn’t mine either. Well, I didn’t pay for the alcohol. The fact that someone else bought the two bottles of Pinotage I drank was all I needed to convince myself that my space-twisting buzz wasn’t mine either, and therefore driving Tinus’s car all the way to Graskop wasn’t a big deal.
The playlist wasn’t mine as well. A bunch of hippie-dippy songs from the 1960s. Tinus’s attempt to convince himself that he was cool once. Maybe BMW’s in-car entertainment system is designed for people so old that a 23-year-old like me stood no chance of figuring out how to change the music. Maybe it was my borrowed alcohol.
Ten kilometers north of Graskop a song I actually liked finally came up in the rotation – the gentlemen of the band Steppenwolf urged me to come with them on a Magic Carpet Ride. That moment - the point at the beginning of the song where the trippy sound effects end and the singing comes in - was perfect. In those few seconds, everything was right. The entire universe was working for me. I thought of the tens of thousands of hours of engineering work it took to make the 850i – all of those experts in manufacturing and engineering working to build this car, just for me. The section of R532 I was on had been repaved last week. The macadam was a flawless black ribbon laid delicately over the hills overlooking the lowveld. Fifty workers struggled in the summer sun every day for weeks, just to lay this asphalt for me to drive on. I could almost feel every inch of the infrastructure to put petrol in my tank, from the pump at the Engen, all the way back to the sand in Saudi. All of those wells and ships and pipes and refineries and fuel trucks existed simply to put gas in the tank of this car. The entire world had been working for decades just to build this perfect afternoon drive. How could I let them all down? Suddenly, this section of R532 seemed like a great place to see what the BMW engineering team had in mind, performance-wise, when they designed the 850i.
I accelerated to 160 kph and everything was still solid. Any place that car went on the road was right – I flew to the opposite lane to pass a slower car, then switched back to the left lane instantaneously - like a bad special effect in a B movie.
Let the sound take you away…
I turned the volume up and squashed the gas pedal into the floor. The road made a tight turn – no biggie for the 8-series, no need to slow down. The road crested a hill - a logging truck in my lane, going maybe 10 kph - something else in the right lane - I don’t know what. I had to pass the truck on the shoulder. Loose gravel, no friction.
I must have been going over 200 kph when I left the road. The hill dropped sharply immediately past the shoulder, and because of the ludicrous speed I was going when I left the road, I was airborne long enough to hear Steppenwolf sing:
Why don’t you come with me, Lizelle, on a magic carpet ride…
Those lyrics weren’t right. My name isn’t in the song.
Time passed. I still existed. I spent a minute, or maybe days, trying to comprehend the pattern of dark shapes silhouetted against a bright backdrop. It was abstract art. It was too intricate to understand. It was random noise. I eventually realized I was facing up. This bit of information was what I needed to sort out that I was looking up at the canopy of an Acacia tree.
The tree was framed by the broken windshield. A few pieces of glass still clung to the rubber gasket that held windshield in place, but the rest was gone. I was twisted and crumpled into the irregular, awkward space formed by the driver’s seat, the steering wheel and the pedals. I smelled a mix of radiator fluid and petrol.
There was no sound. All that existed was me, the ruined car, and the tree. It was a perfect meditative moment. I closed my eyes and checked in with myself. There was pain. Something was wrong with my hips and legs. I tasted blood in my mouth. I opened my eyes.
There was something in the tree directly above me. Something looking at me.
You can live your whole life in Africa and never see a leopard. I guess I'm pretty lucky to have seen two. The first time I saw one was on a game drive in Pilanesberg, where I caught a quarter-second glimpse of the hindquarters of a leopard as it ducked behind a tree two hundred meters away. My second leopard was in the tree above my crashed car.
It was crouched on a limb that hung directly over the car. Its claws were extended. Its hind legs bent into a ready-to-pounce pose. Its eyes were the eyes a killer – an animal that knew no distinction between eating and murder. For the leopard, being hungry means it’s time to kill. It looked hungry. It met my gaze and coolly assessed me, unblinking.
I squirmed to free myself from my twisted, compressed position rammed into the space in front of the driver’s seat. This struggle revealed the extent of my injuries. My right ankle was shattered. The socket of my right hip felt like it had been stuffed with broken glass. No matter how I tried, my left arm would not function. There was no pain there – I simply couldn’t use any part of my arm below the elbow.
I screamed from the pain in my legs and the terror of the leopard. The leopard answered with a snarl. I twisted through the pain to look back up into the tree. The leopard wasn’t looking at me. It was staring directly out of the tree, looking at something I could not see behind the car. It snarled again.
A massive, dark shape crashed through the tree canopy, smashing through the branches with dozen nearly instantaneous gunshot-like cracks. I clenched my eyes shut and shielded my head with my good arm. Shattered branches fell onto the car. Splinters and leaves fell like snow through the broken windscreen. Something heavy landed on the passenger seat next to me with a heavy, wet thud.
I carefully opened my eyes. Small leaves and dust still softly sifted through the windscreen. I painfully squirmed to see what fell onto the passenger seat. I moaned from the pain that shot through my hip when I sat up a few centimeters. Then I screamed with shocked fear. The leopard lay on the seat. Dead. Its body was twisted into a shape that would be impossible to achieve with an intact spine. Its hind legs were soaked in its own blood. It still stared at me, but the hunger and strength was gone from its lifeless stare.
There was no time to celebrate the death of my would-be predator. Whatever killed the leopard was still active. The dark shape smashed through the tree again, dropping arm sized branches onto and into the car. This time, though, I got a better glimpse of what it was that slammed through the acacia canopy. The leopard killing and tree smashing was done by two giant spiral horns.
Except for their size, the helical shape of the horns was familiar. I struggled and failed to recall what kind of animal they belonged to. They’re too big, they’re too big, was the only thought my addled brain was able to come up with.
The horned creature gave a bellowing snort. It was an angry animal sound, deeper than any grunt or growl I’ve ever heard. It was like the lowest notes of an organ in a cathedral – a sound you feel as much as you hear. Whatever made that sound was big.
It started walking, moving around the tree. Like its bellow, I simultaneously felt and heard its footsteps. I struggled to fit further into the space in front of the driver’s seat, trying to hide from whatever this thing was that was circling me. A blinding flash of pain shot out of my left calf and my lower leg bent sharply in a place where there is no joint. I involuntarily arched my back and pressed my head into the steering wheel. The car horn sounded. The animal stopped walking.
I twisted my neck, careful not to sound the horn again, straining to get a glimpse of whatever was out there. I couldn’t see anything from where I was stuck except the damaged canopy of the acacia. I breathed deeply, through my wide-open mouth to avoid making any kind of noise. Could whatever was out there hear my heart beating like a drum? After four breaths and what felt like a hundred pounding heartbeats it started moving again.
It walked around the right side of the car and I briefly saw part of it in the passenger-side rear-view mirror. It was enormous. It had short brown fur, decorated with a narrow, vertical white stripes. I craned forward to try to keep it in the mirror as it continued to move around the tree. My head pressed into the steering wheel and the horn sounded again.
The animal stopped and bellowed. Then it charged. It closed the distance to the car so quickly I only got a brief impression of an impossibly large muscular mass and a pair of black corkscrew horns longer than the car flying towards me.
It rammed its giant horns into the car. One ripped through the passenger seat, and the other rammed into the hood. The car rose up on the two passenger-side wheels, then crashed back down when the animal pulled back.
For an instant the animal stood still next to the ruined sports car, temporarily striking a proud pose, as if it wanted me to be in awe of it. I finally got an unobstructed view of the enormous thing that was terrorizing me. It was an … antelope? A kudu, to be precise. An impossibly large kudu.
A normal male kudu can grow to be almost the size of horse. This kudu was bigger than an elephant. It was the size of a two-story tour bus. How … how? The question bounced through my mind, displacing all other thoughts, including my fear. This was like finding King Kong on the side of the highway to Graskop. But instead of being a six-meter-high gorilla, it was an equally gigantic kudu.
It loomed over the car, looking to me like it was contemplating what to do next. It took only a second for it to decide what to do. It decided to attack the car again. It dropped its head, like a charging bull, and leapt forward. This time, it worked its horns under the car like the tines of a forklift. With an effortless shrug, it sent the car flipping into the air. This was what it took to finally dislodge me from my post-crash position wedged under the steering wheel. I saw sky and ground and sky again, then landed on my back, staring up at the Kudu’s belly. I heard the car crash onto the ground somewhere in front of the kudu.
It started walking. I shut my eyes. If it had decided to crush me, I preferred the last thing I saw to be nothing instead of its massive hoof descending on me. Fortunately, the kudu, despite its impossible size, was as poor at reasoning things out as a normal kudu. Like most animals you encounter while driving in the bush, it made no distinction between car and driver. The car was its enemy. I was just a piece of the car that fell off in its last charge. It stepped over me and lunged at the car again.
The house-sized kudu flipped the car again. The mutilated BMW landed on its wheels. Its driver-side headlight was smashed. The passenger-side headlight bravely continued to shine even though it hung outside of the car, dangling by a pair of wires.
The kudu pranced about in front of the car. Its speed and agility were terrifying to see in something so large. Elephants, the largest of which were considerably smaller than this antelope, lumbered about, even when most aroused. The kudu seemed to have no idea of its incredible mass. It jumped and strutted and bowed in front of the car with the same quickness you would see in a normal-sized example of the species.
Even though it was ignoring me, focusing all of its animal rage at the car, I was still in danger of being trampled. Twice its hind legs plunged into the ground less than a meter from where I lay. It showed no signs of declaring a cease-fire in its war against the BMW. Sooner or later, I was going to be crushed.
My left arm was still useless. aI tried to roll from by back to my stomach, hoping that I could crawl to safety with my still-functioning limbs. I pushed with my left leg and tried to twist around. I made it as far as rolling onto my right hip before the pain became too intense. I screamed.
The kudu froze. Shit.
The kudu spun sideways to get a better look at me. I tried to roll over again and failed. I screamed again.
The kudu jumped backwards, startled by my shrill cry of pain.
I screamed again. It took another step back. It exhaled with a low, deep rumble.
I screamed again. And again. And again. This time my cries had no effect. The kudu stared at me. What was going on in its mind? Was it “doing the math,” trying to figure out if I came with the car or was something else? Was it confused? On the fence about whether I was a threat?
I had to do something. So I did.
“I LIKE TO DREAM!” I shout-sang.
“RIGHT BETWEEN THE SOUND MACHINES!” The Kudu looked … amused? Enraged? Who the fuck knows what an antelope is thinking. I upped my own volume and kept singing.
“ON A CLOUD OF SOUND I DRIFT IN THE NIGHT! ANY PLACE IT GOES IS RIGHT!” It took a step backwards. I took another breath and kept singing
“GOES FAR, FLIES NEAR. TO THE STARS AWAY FROM HERE!”
I heard someone singing with me! Someone else was there, next to the tree, singing Magic Carpet Ride to a giant Kudu with me! The Kudu turned halfway around. Was it getting ready to run away?
“WELL, YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT WE CAN FIND!”
It was the car. Something somehow activated the sound system. Right when I started singing, the car started playing. I looked to the car. Nobody was there. The Kudu bolted. Blasting its way through the bushes and tiny trees of the veldt. I started to cry. The car kept playing the song.
“Why don’t you come with me Lizelle, on a magic carpet ride?”
Wait, those weren’t the right lyrics…
Months later, the prosecutor brought in an expert from the University of Cape Town. A physicist. He explained to the magistrate how I managed to survive the crash. He talked about ballistic motion and the aerostatic properties of the BMW850i and fifth derivative of deceleration due to interaction with vegetation. He played a computer simulation illustrating how a BMW 850i could, under just the right conditions, bounce, slide, and roll two thousand meters from where the skid marks show I left the road. He said – no he proved – that my account of what happened after I left the road was not possible.
But his computer doesn’t simulate a magic carpet ride.
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