When a group of Osoyoos Rotarians travelled to South Africa in January, to visit their development project, they didn’t anticipate they’d also have some hair-raising adventures.
The local club’s project was to donate waterless toilets to a daycare centre, known as a crèche, near Franschoek outside Cape Town.
But the group of 11 also visited several South African Rotary Clubs and journeyed to Kruger National Park in the northeast of South Africa, which is teeming with exotic wildlife.
It was there that several of the Rotarians took a wrong turn and their vehicle got stuck in a river as darkness descended and hungry lions and other wild creatures prowled out of sight in the bushes.
As if that wasn’t enough, the trip included a dramatic car chase when thieves made off with a bag containing a computer, camera equipment and almost all the photographs taken by the trip’s unofficial photographer.
The South African connection came about thanks to Osoyoos Rotarian Marieze Tarr, who along with her husband Garnet, is originally from South Africa and still has family there.
The Rotary Club of Osoyoos focuses on raising funds for community projects in the South Okanagan.
But they also support some international projects that fit within their mandate. And promoting clean water, sanitation and hygiene, as well as education, are part of that mandate.
When Tarr spoke to the club in 2015 about the squalid conditions in some of the poor daycares, the Osoyoos club was enthusiastic about the toilet project.
The innovative toilets cost around $800, explained Brian Rawlings, president of the Rotary Club of Osoyoos, but they require no plumbing. When the seat is lifted, it turns gears that mix the human waste with sawdust or ash to bind it. The final product is compost.
Rawlings says the Rotarians were enthused to see the toilets in action because they wanted to know if the concept would work elsewhere.
“I’m always looking for a cookie cutter thing,” said Rawlings. “Why do we have to reinvent stuff?”
But unbeknownst to the Osoyoos Rotarians, the project had hit some snags after the toilets were purchased. The partnering Rotary Club in Franschoek was going through some internal problems. The toilets were in storage somewhere and never installed. Meanwhile, children at the daycare were using pails for toilets.
When Rotarian David Perehudoff arrived ahead of the group and discovered the situation, he realized the rest of the Rotarians would have nothing to see when they visited the project. So he set to work, trying to install some toilets.
“David being David got in there and shake rattle and roll,” said Rawlings. “He got two toilets physically installed at the crèche.”
It turned out that particular daycare would be getting plumbing, so a decision was made to relocate the three toilets to another daycare, but at least the visiting Rotarians got to see how the toilets worked.
Perhaps the biggest adventure came at Kruger National Park, where the Rotarians saw lions, giraffes, elephants, buffalo, leopards, impalas and numerous other wild animals big and small.
That was fine from the safety of a vehicle, and visitors were warned always to remain in their vehicles.
But at the end of a long day of wildlife viewing, a vehicle carrying Rawlings, Perehudoff, their spouses Diana Rawlings and Leahann Nordin, and Debbie Dow, a Rotarian from Prince George, took the wrong road.
Thinking they were returning the way they came, Rawlings thought nothing of driving across little dips in the road where small streams crossed. But suddenly they hit one that was especially deep and the car wheels became stuck in a concrete trough.
“David says ‘give her’ and I can’t give her,” Rawlings recalls. “We’re not going anywhere.”
Then water started gushing into the vehicle. Diana reminded her husband that she’d told him they should have stayed with the rest of their group.
“I said Honey, you’re absolutely right,” Rawlings said. “But right now we’ve got to focus. We’ve got to do something, or we’re not going anywhere.”
When Rawlings recounted the story recently to the rest of the Osoyoos Rotarians, he took a bit of poetic license.
“We were in the middle of a frigging jungle,” he said. “There’s lions, hyenas, jackals and mad dogs and whatever. We’re sitting in the van and it’s stuck and the sun is going down. And we can’t get cell connections.”
Rawlings says Perehudoff set about “doing his MacGyver thing” to try to get the vehicle out of the water, putting rocks under the wheels and trying to pry it. But nothing worked. And it got darker.
The park gates close at 6:30 p.m. They were supposed to be back in their lodge by then.
The rest of the group was already back and worrying. The manager at the lodge was upset, but he radioed a ranger before he left for the night.
The stranded travellers found a fire, apparently made by the last group that got stuck, and they built it up and piled grass on it to send smoke signals.
Finally, another vehicle came along the road, but the driver didn’t have a winch. He did, however, apparently send for help when he returned to civilization.
At last another vehicle with a winch came by and pulled the van out of the river, but its front fell off in the process. There was no room for it, so they had to return the next day for it.
At last, around 8:45 p.m., long after dark, the van, missing its front, drove up to the gate of the lodge where the rest of the group was waiting in worry.
The last big adventure came at the end of the trip when the group was back near Cape Town. They were moving luggage between two vehicles.
Dow, the Rotarian from Prince George, had meticulously documented the trip with thousands of photos, bringing along three cameras. Her bag contained all her camera gear, her laptop, glasses and most important to her – the photos she’d taken.
A hotel surveillance video shows a man and woman standing and talking next to the vehicles for a while. Suddenly, the man grabs Dow’s bag and runs to a getaway vehicle and the woman follows.
A taxi driver, Shepherd Dewa, saw the theft and alerted Victor Crouser of the host Rotary Club and the two of them jumped into Crouser’s brand new Land Rover and gave chase.
“They chased them across four lanes of traffic and went down a one-way street (the wrong way),” Dow said. “The thieves turned around and they collided. Then the three thieves took off running.”
Dewa and some bystanders chased the thieves on foot, caught them, recovered the bag and held the thieves until police arrived.
Dow, who arrived at the scene about 20 minutes later, calls Crouser and Dewa her “heroes.”
At the police station, Dow had a chance to speak briefly with the woman.
She told her that she and God can forgive them, but what she did was wrong because the Rotarians were there to help people in the shantytowns.
The woman cried and apologized.
The thieves, who were repeat offenders, were subsequently convicted.
And the Osoyoos Rotarians had more than a few stories to tell.
By Richard McGuire