No walk in the park

After their car flipped over in the Kruger, they had no choice but to walk, injured and bleeding, for almost four hours through dangerous lion territory at night, surviving thanks to a chain of miracles

By Chandrea Serebro

The Kruger National Park is renowned worldwide for its excitement and adventure and the chance for a real bush encounter, up-close-and-personal. Millions visit the Park every year, but I am sure that few have experienced this promise so literally as Rabbi and Rachel Ehrman and their children. Very few people can say that they were lucky to make it out of the Kruger National Park alive, but, for the Ehrmans, there was never a truer word spoken.

What began as an exciting family outing into the Kruger National Park for a few hours to experience the authentic, proudly-South African bush experience turned into a nightmare, and ended in miracles. Their story begins in October 2000 when the Ehrmans and another couple stopped over at the Kruger Park, arriving just after lunchtime to drive through the park and take an exit further down at a different gate en-route home. Rabbi Ehrman and his four children were travelling in one car, driven by his 23-year-old son Dov, and Rachel was in the leading car with their friends.

Before they looked around, they realised that it was almost closing time and so they began to make a beeline for the Malelane Gate, driving in convoy. “I told Dov to leave quite a large following distance in order to escape the trail of dust that followed in the front car’s wake,” said Rabbi Ehrman, but still to keep pace with them as the time until the gate would close was closing in on them. Unused to the dust road that he was driving on, Dov found that he could not control the car when he braked on a steep downhill, and suddenly the car overturned, spiralling on the road before landing on its roof. When the car came to a stop, all that followed was a silence so characteristic of the bush experience, yet so unnerving to Rabbi Ehrman when he processed what they had just experienced.

The youngest of the Ehrmans, eleven-year-old Chanan’el, who was sitting next to Dov in the passenger seat and who was uninjured, managed to jump out and try to free the rest of the family. Rabbi Ehrman, who was also uninjured, ascertained very quickly that his 12-year-old daughter Menucha was bleeding from some cuts on her forehead, and that Dov was lying, unconscious. “I immediately thought the worst.” Dov regained consciousness and reassured his father that he was okay. Rabbi Ehrman couldn’t ascertain the extent of Menucha’s injury, as all he could see was that her hair was matted with blood.

As he was bandaging Menucha’s head with a shirt, the extent of their predicament began to crystallise in Rabbi Ehrman’s mind. There they were, stranded in the Kruger Park, the gates closed, night falling, and their injuries and the smell of blood would be alerting every predator near and far to their predicament. The car’s windows were all broken, and so would not provide them with any safety from the wild. The injured children needed medical attention, and no one would be able to enter the park now and come to their aid. He realised that, by now, his wife would have exited the park, that she would be beside herself with worry, and that they had no way to contact anyone from the outside world. The only way for Rabbi Ehrman to get his children to safety would be to walk the 13km to the gate!

“While I could see the gravity of our situation, I also realised that we had been granted a great miracle. Firstly, I was not injured and I could help my children, as well as the fact that my children’s injuries did not seem to be too great. Secondly, the fact that just minutes before the car overturned I had looked at the map so I knew exactly where I was and what direction we needed to go in. And then there are the small things that were as great a miracle as the obvious ones. There was shattered glass everywhere, but my spectacles were intact, which was a miracle as I would need my eyesight in order to lead my children to safety. The fact that my son had a lighter in his pocket also helped us to navigate in the dark and read the signs to the gate. A bottle of water which had been flung from the car had landed nearby, which gave us water to drink. There were so many ways that I could see the hand of Hashem.”

“We were in a lion area, yet we tried not to focus on the sounds and the flash of eyes that surrounded us. I davened mincha, praying for a full and speedy recovery for my children and for Hashem to protect us and help us to carry on to a place of safety.” Meanwhile, Rachel knew nothing of the ordeal that her family was experiencing. The plan had been for the two cars to meet up at the gate, daven mincha, and then begin the journey home. But, when the Rabbi’s car never arrived, Rachel knew immediately that something had happened. “I went to the guard at the gate as he was closing it and implored him to help. I explained to him that my family was in the car that had been following close behind us, but had not arrived. He had only one response, which he answered on repeat, ad nausea: ‘It is a lion area. It is a lion area.’”

Despite Rachel’s desperate pleas and begging for help, the guard would do nothing to help them. “He just refused, point blank.” For lack of a better option, Rachel phoned the police, but, when they arrived, they could do nothing, as the Kruger Park was not their jurisdiction. Rachel’s friend went to find the Park Manager who lived above the pay area at the entrance, and as she interrupted his night entertaining his friends with her agony, all he could say to her was this: “Your friend’s family will have to sleep with the lions,” after which he slammed the door in her face. “I felt so useless. I was crying emotional tears. I was in a panic, but yet nothing helped. Nothing could sway the guard at the gate to open up for us, nor the manager at his house. I cannot explain the feeling other than to say it was like being in a desert, with no one around, a feeling of complete helplessness and desolation, made worse by the lack of compassion and humanity shown by the guard and the manager.”

Rachel had nowhere left to turn. Night had fallen; it was well past four hours since they had lost contact with her family, and Rachel decided that they were not doing any good bashing their heads against the wall. Rachel suggested they go to the nearest petrol station to regroup and think about what their options were, hoping that the change in location would bring about a change in their situation too. It was at this time that the rest of the Ehrman family found themselves at the guard hut at the inner gate of the Kruger Park after a three-and-a-half-hour walk in the wilderness. There they found a tap with water to drink, and a public phone. Rabbi Ehrman remembered that the AA offered its members a 24hr towing service as well as medical rescue, and so he called them. The AA alerted Rachel that her family was okay, at which point she rushed back to the gate to find Rabbi Ehrman and her family on the other side.

But, instead of their salvation, all they found was a guard who would not allow them to exit because it was a lion area, a fact he repeated like a mantra without any consideration of the plight that the family was in. Still, it was only as the emergency paramedics arrived at the gate of the Kruger Park that the guard permitted the gate to be unlocked so that the family’s ordeal could end. Sadly, this was not to be. The AA took them to the nearest hospital which was a public facility. When Rachel heard Menucha start screaming wildly in the examination room, she rushed in to see what was happening, finding the nurse hacking away at Menucha’s hair with a nail clipper. In a quick decision, the paramedic decided to take the Ehrmans to Nelspruit Netcare, but as the only doctor who could treat them adequately was busy until the day after, the local doctor, together with close consultation with the Ehrman’s home doctor, Dr Michael Setzer, decided to send them home the next day to Johannesburg, where they could better receive the help they needed.

The social worker at the hospital agreed, and she told Rachel “that while she had never met a Jewish person, she had heard how they support each other”. “It made me proud to be Jewish, and so grateful to be part of this great community, one that even a person who had never met a Jew stood in awe of,” said Rachel. The next morning, the weather in Johannesburg took a turn for the worse and the plane couldn’t take off. After a big accident in Nelspruit, there were no ambulances available. When one finally arrived, it took over an hour to load them for their departure. But even these delays proved to be just another way in which Hashem’s hand was guiding them through their journey. Just as the ambulance was about to depart, the AA tow truck arrived at the hospital with Rabbi Ehrman’s bag containing his and Dov’s tefillin. Everything in the car thereafter would be scrapped and, had he not received them then, their tefillin too would have been destroyed.

Arriving at Linksfield Hospital was, indeed, like arriving home. Friends and strangers alike were waiting in the parking lot with a welcoming pot of hot soup, prayers, and ready to help in whatever way they could. “For us, it really was the epitome of Am Yisrael Chai, the nurse’s words from just a short time ago ringing true in our ears.” All through the next week, as the family recuperated in hospital, Rabbi Ehrman saw further evidence, gifts and food from strangers who had been there to offer their support in the Ehrman family’s time of need. “Sometime after our ordeal, I met with the Rabbinic leadership of our community and I passed on the Social Worker’s compliment to them for building so united a community.”

What the Ehrmans went through was what Rabbi Ehrman described as “a chain of miracles, from start to finish”, and each link in the chain, in hindsight, was just another way in which Hashem was there with them throughout their almost four-hour walk in Lion territory. “I really felt Hashem with us throughout the entire journey,” said Rabbi Ehrman. “With every door slamming in our face, I could only focus on the truth that Hashem is our only hope, and that everything is in Hashem’s hands.”

It took some time for the family to recuperate and heal. Sometimes, the children would dream about lions prowling at night. Sometimes, they wished that they could have been birds with the ability to fly to a safe place. But, for the most part, the Ehrman’s ordeal made them stronger. It showed them the magnitude of Hashem’s greatness, the potential for miracles in the modern world, and it gave them the chance to place their faith squarely in the hands of Hashem, and watch Him work wonders – even in lion territory.

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