I met a guy at a party.
You may think you know where this is leading but, rest assured, that’s not where it’s going. For starters, the party was in Cape Town, South Africa, and the guy, whose name I’ve long since forgotten, was about to drive home. He offered me a ride but said I would have to keep my head down if I journeyed all the way with him because the moment we crossed the border the bullets would start flying. ‘Home’ was in Rhodesia back when it was Rhodesia, and there was a brutal guerrilla war raging. British control and white dominance were about to go the way of all flesh, possibly taking our flesh with them.
Still, I saw it as a free ride up the Garden Route and along the Shipwreck Coast. Why not? Free is free. Adventure is adventure.
Before I left for South Africa I was given a cautionary warning from my father: write your will. I was 27. All I owned was a bicycle. A will seemed just a tad over the top. But he was serious and consulted Thurston Morton, our US Senator, on the subject of my travel in southern Africa for three months on my own. He gave a wobbly green light to apartheid South Africa itself (it was, after all, just a year after the riots in Soweto) but a stark red one to Rhodesia. No embassy, he advised; no consulate either. If I got into trouble trying to see Victoria Falls, it could be the nasty variety. My father conceded on the will but insisted that I promise I would not, under any circumstances (including free transportation), go to Rhodesia. He was a career negotiator, and those were his terms. Not that he could stop me. As an adult, I was under no obligation to pay the slightest attention to his worries. But I did. Because we had a mutual admiration society that was going strong.
But here I was at a party with a nice guy willing to give me a lift to . . . Rhodesia. The next day we were off. Not long before I’d seen David Lean’s film Ryan’s Daughter with its spectacular headland scenes shot along the same stretch of road we would take in the morning. I wasn’t thinking Rhodesia and neither was my new friend. He said he had some business calls to make along the way and, if I’d just bear with these delays, he’d do his best to show me the sights up the coast.
And that is how I came to ride an ostrich and, in so doing, defend America’s honor. Turns out there were several business stops along the way and to make up for the hang-time I’d had to accept, he suggested we visit an ostrich farm. Why not, I thought, in the when-in-Rome spirit. The long dusty road into the compound took us by a corral of ostriches, some of which were saddled. I’d never seen an ostrich before, much less a saddled one. My curiosity was piqued.
At the barn, one thing quickly led to another and the half dozen local workers asked my friend in a suspiciously casual way if he’d like to try to ride one of the birds. A gauntlet is a gauntlet, and we both recognized the nature of the offer. It took all six men to hold the ostrich in place while my friend climbed the mounting platform and took a seat on the bird’s back. There was no saddle; there were no reins. The instructions were simple: hold on tight to the bird’s wings at the armpit and wrap your legs around his middle. Then they let the ostrich go. The bird shot forward — turns out ostriches can hit speeds up to 40 land miles per hour; roughly the top speed of a thoroughbred racehorse — and right out from underneath my Rhodesian pal. He dropped like a stone into a pile of ostrich poop with a discernible plop, a fistful of feathers in each hand.
The six South Africans slapped their knees and double over with mirth. The set-up had worked. They laughed and danced and hooted, and then they looked at me. Did I want to try? A Yank. A woman. A white woman.
How could I say no? So, up the platform I climbed and waited for the six guys to rustle up another racing bird and line him up for me. Then I was aboard. Again, no saddle, no reins; and now I could report first hand, very very slick feathers. So it was just me, my wits and an angry bird dueling to the death. Or at least to the far fence. Witnessing my friend’s mortification had armed me with secret knowledge — and resolve. Upon release, the bird broke like a stone out of a slingshot. And I stayed on! My secret weapon, besides the fear of personal humiliation in a pile of dung? Very very long legs. It was a thrill, all right. To ride an ostrich bareback running at full and frantic speed.
At the far end of the corral, he inserted himself into a herd of his fellows and I slipped off, upright and triumphant, my friend avenged. Those six guys were some surprised and equally as delighted.
It was an unusual way to defend America’s honor. And the honor of women breaking glass ceilings, albeit an odd and little known ceiling, and not just because it was on a horizontal plane. You might say, the experience was a feather in my cap.
That was 1977 and I was not yet politicized as a feminist. But now as we approach the first woman president of the United States, I’m proud to have done my bit to advance the cause.
— Belle Songer