Gary Wandel lives life on the edge. Make that the edge of a 220 foot water fall in Costa Rica. It’s a little something he repelled down right after descending a 150 foot waterfall. But it wasn’t the feet this retired math teacher was adding up as he was going down. It was just another great adventure.
The kind that gets the adrenaline going.
Like the bungee jumping the 63 year old did in New Zealand; the helicopter he rode in Alaska that landed on a crevasse-laced glacier; and the zip line he took through a rainforest in Africa.
These are the vacations Gary and his wife, Patti, have been taking for the past seven years. It started with a phone call from a former student, John Kostik – a world traveler, who invited the couple to join him in Fiji, Australia and New Zealand.
Life hasn’t been the same since.
Thanks to the excursions they have taken with John, Gary has ridden on the back of a wild Ostrich and had an elephant charge after him. And then there was the time a baboon jumped in their car and stole a garbage bag of discarded food.
But maybe, just maybe, the biggest adventure that Gary and Patti experienced was when their van was totaled after colliding with a donkey in the middle of nowhere – with 1,000 miles to go. It happened in 2007 in Botswana, South Africa as they were making their way to Johannesburg along a two lane dirt and desolate road.
Yes, that was a day things took a decidedly different turn.
The couple had left Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe and was making the long trek to the airport. They were joined by John, his parents, his 17 year old nephew, two close friends, and their 17 year old nephew.
Gary remarked, “John was driving and all of the sudden we felt a slight jarring and heard this loud boom. The airbags deployed, the windshield shattered all over the vehicle, and the horn started blaring. We all got out of the van and saw the donkey.”
It wasn’t a pretty sight.
“And it wasn’t like we could call AAA to come rescue us!,” Gary remarked.
Gary said as they had been driving, hours would go by before they would see another vehicle on the road. But just as the accident happened, a woman passed by in a car and called the police for them.
“The police came and took us to the station. They found two hotel rooms for all nine of us and the hotel sent vehicles to pick us up. When we arrived there, we sat in the lounge and said, ‘OK, what are we going to do now?’ John suggested we split up in two’s and hitch hike.” Gary said.
The group didn’t go for that idea.
The next morning the lodge provided transportation to a bus station one mile away. The group boarded a hot, crowded bus with no air conditioning. At least they were going somewhere. But, as it turned out, the bus would only be taking them 100 miles.
After being dropped off at a strip mall, John sprang into action to find someone to drive them on their rest of their journey.
Gary commented, “After a little time, John returned and said, ‘I’ve got somebody! But before he can take us, he has to go get new tires put on his car and he has to pick up his cousin to come along.’ So we waited.”
A wild ride
They were still hundreds of miles away from the airport. After two hours of waiting for the driver to return, John decided it was time to ask someone else if they could give the group a ride.
He found someone who had a small Toyota truck.
“All nine of us piled in the truck with our luggage. We were crowded, but glad to be on our way. Then just as we were about to drive off, the first driver pulls up and yells, ‘Hey, where are you going! I got new tires!
We stayed put and our driver kept going. It was getting dark. I looked out the window and saw smoke coming from the vehicle’s wheels. The brakes were burning up! The driver pulled over and we got out of the truck,” he said.
A former Boy Scout leader for 29 years, Gary was prepared.
“I was the only one with a flashlight, so it was my job to hold it while the driver tore the wheel apart. While I’m holding the flashlight, I see every one filing out and heading up the road. John had spotted a bus that came out of nowhere. He came and got me and so I ran too. All the while, the truck driver is yelling, ‘You owe me money!’
We were on the bus and the driver pulled into a rest stop. Then he disappeared. It was dark. The police pulled up and asked, ‘Where’s the driver of this vehicle? We want this man.’
After a while, the police car left. The driver returned, but he was in a different van. He said, ‘Jump in!’ and we did,” Gary said
“We made it to a hotel at the border of Botswana and South Africa. This was as far as the van could take us. This hotel was run down and one of the rooms had a rat, but we had to stay there. There was no place else to go,” Gary said.
The next morning, John found them a ride to Johannesburg, but before the group would arrive at the airport, he had arranged a visit with an 80 year old woman who was a friend of his. She was expecting them for tea.
“We finally made it to her house, which, like all the houses around hers, was surrounded with walls of concertina prison wire and shards of broken glass still present from the apartheid rule,” he said.
After entering through the gate of her residence, the group rode through a scenic court yard. Inside the home, they were greeted by John’s friend, a lovely woman who Gary described as coming from aristocracy and having a British accent. She had prepared a special meal for them in her formal dining room, which was decorated with antiques.
It was a very leisurely lunch. The clock was ticking. The airport was just one hour away. Their flight back to the United States was within reach – if they could get there in time.
The woman’s son had been on the phone during lunch and managed to find the group some transportation to a bus stop 30 minutes away, where they would be taken to the airport. The entire group couldn’t fit in one vehicle, though, so the son and his elderly mother both used their cars to transport the rest of the group.
Gary commented on the thoughtful, but memorable ride. “She was driving slowly and as we rounded the bends, we were going over curbs and sidewalks,” he said.
Three days after the group’s run in with a donkey, they finally made it to the airport – and just in time to catch their flight home. They boarded the plane and Gary headed to the back where there were four empty seats.
“I grabbed four pillows and stretched out across the seats. We took off. A big guy walked to the back and kicked me. ‘I want to sit there’, he said. ‘I’m not moving,’ I answered as he stood over me. Then I got the stewardess to intercede and slept the whole way home.
When we got off the plane in New York, I said to the customs agent, ‘It feels so good to be back in the USA’. He answered, ‘I hear that a lot!”
Gary and Patti continue to travel domestically and abroad to experience the adventure they call life. When they travel, they go with no itineraries and leave with no regrets.
Over the years, this former high school teacher taught his students more than math skills. Through a Venture Club he moderated, many students have gone whitewater rafting, repelling, and backpacking through the mountains of Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Along they way, they have learned not only how to survive, but how to live.
Gary is proof that a positive attitude and an adventurous spirit can take you anywhere you want to go.