Former Bethany Beach lifeguard Logan Burke has saved a panicked young girl from being raked over a jetty and potentially drowning during a nor’easter. He's woken up in the middle of the night to two Indonesian intruders standing over his bed in Bali, demanding money — and he's been forced to fight them off to save his possessions and probably his life.
He’s slept scared and alone on a desolate beach in New Zealand, relying on his trusty pocket knife to becalm his restless mind at every unfamiliar noise in the night. But never have his senses ever been on higher alert than on his recent seven-week excursion to South Africa.
“You don’t know what’s around the next corner,” Burke explained of what it feels like to be engulfed by uncertainty. “There’s just this ever-present feeling of danger that comes with the fear of the unknown. You’re not supposed to drive after dark. There’s potholes everywhere. There’s goats in the street. There’s people in the street. It’s just a constant elevated state of awareness.
“There’s signs that say ‘Do not stop — High carjacking area.’ If you’re stopped at a red light after dark, there’s a pretty good chance that someone’s going to come up and smash your window and take what you have. This was stuff people were telling me before I even got there.”
Despite the adamant warnings from his friends, family and even a few concerned strangers in the airport in London, Burke charged on to begin what was unquestionably his most contestable venture of his 22 years of traveling.
After all, he had already surfed world-class waves in the most shark-infested waters along the Gold Coast of Australia, until the sirens screamed for him to paddle ashore; relied on complete strangers as he hitchhiked from France to Spain in the darkness of the unfamiliar European night; and marveled in awe at the beauty of the Egyptian pyramids as the sun set and he rode across the desert on a sickly horse for $30.
Throughout all of his past experiences as a solo traveler, he had certainly stumbled across his fair share of potential and even imminent danger, but this was different. This was the motherland. This was Africa. This is where apartheid divided a country. This is where HIV was born and they spilled blood for diamonds. This is where they spoke Afrikaans and built houses out of whatever they could find. This was the land of lions, and tigers — and ruthless bloodthirsty warlords. This was crazy, but still he went.
“People would say, “You’re crazy! Why would you go to South Africa?” Burke claimed. “My parents didn’t want me to go because it was dangerous — but I work in the worst parts of Baltimore City. I told them there’s no way it could be any worse than working in one of the worst parts of one of the worst cities in America, in regards to violence and poverty.”
Upon landing in Johannesburg, after taking the night flight from Heathrow, his nerves still rattled with visions of carjackers and tumultuous streets as the plane touched down.
“As soon as I got in my car, the GPS I brought from home didn’t work. It didn’t recognize any of the addresses or anything. I was just afraid, because I didn’t know where I was going, and I’m thinking, ‘I wish I would have paid the $7 for the GPS,” he explained with a laugh. “It was $7 a day and I wouldn’t have had to worry about it — but I wouldn’t have done the same things I did if I had known where I was going every day.”
Unplanned experiences are the main reason for his frequent travels — and this trip in particular, according to Burke. And the surprises that would come along the way may have been frightening — but they were what he was searching for.
“I wanted to experience something that was really going to shake me up,” he said, justifying buying the ticket. “The whole trip was an adrenaline rush. Every day I had to be on my ‘A’ game. I kept saying in my head, ‘I’m by myself. Nobody is going to help me but me.’”
Aside from the plane ticket, the only thing Burke had planned in advance was his initial two-night stay at “The Cradle of Humankind,” which lies about 50 kilometers northwest of Johannesburg. After that, it was back on the unfamiliar and unforgiving dirt roads of central South Africa.
“One night I got lost and couldn’t find my way back,” he recalled. “I remember thinking ‘I should go home, but I don’t know where I live from where we are right now.’ I ended up sleeping on the street. I would crash on someone’s front porch for a while, and they would wake up and tell me to get the [expletive] out of there.”
After making his way toward Cape Town, he found that losing his way and being kicked off front porches in the middle of the night became one of his least concerns. Upon leaving alone one night from bar in a beach town called Table View, he was jumped by two attackers who wanted money.
“I was in a little beach town, no different than Bethany or Fenwick — a couple bars on the beach, restaurants, surf shops, that kind of thing,” he described of the strange familiarity of the area. “I was walking home and out of nowhere these two guys pop out and try and drag me down into this ditch.”
After freeing himself from the struggle, he re-centered himself and faced his attackers head on.
“All of a sudden, it was like God had put his finger on my head. For a couple moments, I felt like I had superpowers. I opened my arms and just freaked these two guys out.”
The two men went running away in the night.
“If they had been carrying a weapon, I probably wouldn’t be sitting here, telling you this story,” he emphasized of how the situation could have gone tragically different.
Despite witnessing some of South Africa’s more common dangers firsthand, Burke continued on with his journey, unfazed. In fact, he seemingly sought to push the limits even further — as if his previous brush with disaster had sparked an underlying and unresolved need for more.
He went cage-diving with massive great white sharks in freshly chummed waters off Seal Island. He bungee-jumped off Bloukrans Bridge — the highest commercial bungee jumping bridge in the world. For $3, he had his picture taken with lions. And he fulfilled one of his lifelong dreams in surfing what is considered one of the greatest breaks in the world, in the shark-infested waters at Jeffrey’s Bay.
Throughout his travels, he began to appreciate the pure, raw beauty of the country and its people. One of the key turning points, ironically, came from his blatant disregard of one of the most common forewarnings he had received, when he went driving well into the night.
“I was sitting in traffic in the middle of nowhere,” he recalled of the night that he first saw a very different side of South Africa. “It was pitch-black darkness, and one side of the road was shut down. I was sitting there for 30 minutes, freaking out, and I just remember thinking, ‘There’s nothing I can do. What looks the most expensive that means the least to me for when I get carjacked?’
“All of a sudden, these women all jump out of this van in front of me and start dancing and blasting music. Instantly, I’m just like, ‘Alright, everything’s going to be alright. I feel OK now.”
Burke’s tensions continued to fade when he was greeted warmly by a farming community outside of Kruger.
“I had gotten pretty lost, and the sun was going down and I was running out gas,” he described of one of the many points of desperation that he experienced throughout his trip. “It was all farmland. And then I eventually see a huge factory with a pretty rundown town next to. I asked the gas station attendant if he knew anywhere to sleep and, smiling, he says, ‘Yes. Right up here.”
A wave of relief rushed over the lone traveler, as not only had he found a clean bed for the night, but he was welcomed with enthusiasm by total strangers.
“South Africa is great, because they’re one of the only countries I’ve been where the people immediately like you because you’re American. I told them I was an American and I was on a road trip. They grabbed me as if I was a 12-point buck and pointed to me, shouting, ‘We’ve got ourselves an American here!”
For the rest of the night, he didn’t pay for a single drink as he entertained the locals with stories of life on the road. The braii — a cookout, South African-style — roared on, and soon a farmer and his girlfriend offered to take him into town for the night.
“I was pretty nervous. I remember asking him, ‘Isn’t it super dangerous?’ The guy pulled his camouflage jacket to the side and pointed to a handgun and said, ‘Bru, if we have any problems, I’ll shoot that [expletive] right in his head — bang!”
Despite not knowing whether that made him feel more nervous or safe, Burke accepted the invitation. After all, unexpected experiences were the reason he was there in the first place.
“The whole night, everyone was just awesome. After beers and stories and pictures and dancing, they insisted that I stay with them. So I did. I woke up in the morning with slips of paper with numbers and names and braii invites and people wanting to show me their farms. I could’ve stayed there for a couple days, but I was anxious to make it to the coast.”
Taking off on yet another uncharted road, he watched as his newfound friends faded from his rearview mirror. So far, South Africa had scared him. It had thrilled him. And now it had surprised him. On that same day, it would also change the way he saw everything.
“That’s the day I saw the kid riding the bike with no handlebars, pedaling his way into town. He was holding it by the frames that wrap around the wheels, and he was determined to get to town. I think it’s a great representation for the entire country. You basically do what you can with what you’ve got, and they do more with a lot less than we have.”
He looked further into the true soul of South Africa the day he saw what he now refers to as “the boy with the bucket.”
“I was driving, and I see a bunch of kids that were probably about 8 or 9 years old, and they’ve got these sticks fashioned to these clear gasoline tanks on each side of the stick. What these kids were doing was going to get fresh water, because the village or the house they lived in didn’t have running water.
“What’s burned in my brain is just the image of the ‘boy with the bucket.’ There’s people out there with real problems. They have so little that they don’t even know what they don’t have.”
Burke eventually returned home to where he now works, in Baltimore, but the “boy with the bucket” still crosses his mind.
Sitting in traffic on I-695 and listening to the frustrated honks of frustrated people driving frustrated cars, he thinks of the night he was sure he’d get carjacked and the fear of the unknown riding next to him in the passenger seat, only to have that wiped away by a wave of joy of women dancing in streets that were no longer unfamiliar to him.
He thinks of the night he fought for his life against two attackers and walked away not only alive but with a new sense of pride for himself. He thinks of the night where desperation became relief as he made friends with complete strangers and fascinated them with his tales of travel. He thinks of the boy riding the bike with no handlebars as he sits in his car, knowing at any moment he can pull over and buy himself a bottle of clean water.
“You see these kids in Baltimore or D.C. or wherever, and they have their iPad or their iPhone, and they don’t know what the majority of the world is living like. It’s just like, when’s the last time you were thirsty?
“We have it really good here, and people complain because they don’t know how bad it can really be or how much harder other people’s lives are. If I could get a job there, I’d move there tomorrow. Everyone there is in it together. There’s no room to have a chip on your shoulder, because they’re dealing with stuff that actually matters.”
Despite his new appreciation for what he already has and what he now knows he will never even need, it’s hard to say whether or not Burke found what was looking for — whether it was danger, solitude, beauty, enlightenment, or just to test his own personal strength. Unplanned experiences had shaped his trip, and his character.
If you ever cross his path, perhaps in an unplanned experience of your own, he will tell you of his tales — and his words will ring emphatically in your ears: “Buy the ticket. Buy the ticket.”