On Trail: Brain Damaged in Borakalalo

Sunset at Borakalalo

Borakalalo was another gem established by the Bophuthatswana government. It surrounds the Klipvoor Dam and is now part of the National Park’s portfolio controlled by the North West Province. The dam was originally built for agricultural purposes and it became a favourite fishing spot for many years.

When it was established, the senior ranger, Louwyn van Velden, was tasked with clearing fences, building staff homes and the entrance, and establishing walks, drives and campsites. Borakalalo means “the place where people relax”. One Sunday morning I was forced to do just that. My head was wrapped in bandages with a twelve centimetre laceration extending from my forehead to my occiput and I had a pounding headache.

We were up at the reserve clearing old farm fences on Saturday that would allow the rhino to move freely through the 14 000 hectare piece of beautiful bushveld.  Some of the fence poles were really stuck in the ground and the easiest way to removed them was with a push pull action, using your body weight to pull towards you and then push away from you. As I was getting into rhythm on my umpteenth pole the pole broke at the base and I pulled it onto my head. I was covered with blood instantly and tasted the metallic salt in my mouth. It was easy to stop the bleeding: we wrapped a turban of towels around my head and I applied pressure with my hands. I lay down in the middle seat of the trusty kombi and Allan drove me to Brits, about eighty kilometres away. We passed the old lady’s spaza shop in the late afternoon, as I was in no mood and had no appetite for a delicious mince filled vetkoek. Further on the road, which was covered in thick sand and driving the kombi was a bit like surfing with the wave action, we saw a lone man weaving on the side of the road. He was looking for a ride to the next town, now forty kilometres away. Against our better judgement we stopped to pick him up. He was dead drunk and the fumes emanating from all his skin and his breath were enough to anaesthetise me. He turned out to be quite entertaining and we had a good laugh and we laughed even more when we stopped to let him out and he fell out of the front door of the kombi.

We found a doctor to suture the wound. I seem to remember a real pretty “poppie” assistant nurse who helped and impressed both Allan and I, and then we returned back to camp and I did the relaxing.

The funny thing is that Sunday evening my parents were leaving for Greece and I promised to meet them at the airport to say goodbye. I was still in my khakis with dried blood patches and had covered my clot matted hair with my khaki hat. My father was so caught up in the airport buzz that he instinctively took my hat off and raffled my hair when he saw me. It must have felt really dirty and spiky, but he said nothing and the next day I had bruising around my eyes and had less of a headache.

The trusty kombi

On Trail: Leave only Footprints, Take only Memories

Sweeping camp

This picture shows the Wilderness Leadership School camp on Driefontein in the Pilanesberg. The big rock is on the north of the camp. Whenever we left camp we would bury the ash away from the camp, cleared all equipment and then sweep the site with branches of Euclea. We always left the camp the way we wanted to find it, as if no one had been there for ages and it was another special find.

I was out on trail almost every six weeks or so and the camp remained a special find: it was like coming home. Some of the trails I ran, some I was second in charge or backup and some were training camps where a group of field guides went out to sharpen their skills and improve their knowledge. I worked in the smaller Northern Transvaal reserves of Nylsvlei and Doorndraai for a year before graduating to Pilanesberg with the big four. Lion were only introduced in about 1987. But we still needed experience with big game: buffalo, elephant and rhino. Pilanesberg had restocked with white rhino from Umfolozi and in the early eighties they were thriving: numbers were around two hundred and they were breeding well. Many cows had two generations of calves accompanying them.

We spent quite a few weekends in Pilanesberg assisting on work parties: we took down old farm fences, rolling bales of barbed wire down koppies leaving a swath of destruction in their wake. We also demolished a few of the old farmsteads, cleared the rubble onto parks board trailers drawn by comfortable drivers on new tractors. These work parties allowed us to get comfortable with the lay of the land and explore for trails. When the reserve finally opened all I needed was formal training to handle the .458 rifle and rhino.

So one weekend Arnie Warburton and Laurie Wright, the two senior guides and great men, took Allan and me into a valley where we found a lone rhino. Arnie and Laurie climbed a nearby koppie and made themselves comfortable. They were sitting downwind. Arnie had a mischievous smile as he lit his cigarette. “Right boys, stalk the rhino and see if you can touch its tail. Remember, while it’s hanging down loose there’s no worry. If you see it curl up get out of there!”

Come to think of it, I cannot remember if Arnie or Laurie even had the rifle with them at that stage. There is no way they would have shot a rhino chasing a trainee field guide doing such a stupid thing! It was nerve wracking manly stuff, and made for great story telling that evening around the fire. Both Laurie and Arnie were consummate story tellers. So many of the little events, like this one trying to pull the rhino’s tail, stick out because of Arnie.

On Trail: Chasing Rhinos in the Dark

In 1983 the Environmental Club at Michaelhouse (they were amongst the first to move away from calling the school club a “wildlife” club) won an award and part of the prize was a five day trail in Pilanesberg with me over their April school holidays.

I cannot find my trail report for those days but a few things do jog my memory:

The first was that I was impressed with these sixteen year olds.  They were well spoken, well mannered and well read. They were interested in the bush, but also had a good view of the bigger picture of environmental issues facing our country, continent and world. Some of them were well travelled, being sons of rich and famous fathers. One or two of them were on bursaries, and the school trips were the limit of their travel.

The second thing I remember about this group is that there was one Mad Hatter (besides me, of course). We were lucky enough at that time of the year, late autumn, to have the stream behind our Big Rock koppies flowing. It was about a two kilometre walk from camp but it made for a fun outing after a long day’s walk. The first afternoon we all walked down with our toilet kits and had a refreshing wash and lay drying on the rocks in the afternoon sun. The next day one of the bursary chaps walked the two kilometres there and back stark naked. Which was fine, except one of the game rangers drove past in that valley and the youngster had to leopard crawl to avoid embarrassment.

The last thing I remember about the trail is that was the time I started wearing shorts in my sleeping bag. I used to sleep naked and before sliding out of my sleeping bag I would get slip my shorts on and be ready for action. I am not sure why I slept naked. I think one of the senior guides did this too, someone like Arnold Warburton or Howard Geach, and I identified with them so I followed suit. In the winter months it used to be warmer in my down sleeping bag without any clothes.

As always, the participants had to stand guard for about an hour at night. Part of this ritual was a safety issue: by keeping the fire going and having some movement around the camp we hopefully kept all the beasts at bay. The second reason was to have some quiet time, a time of introspection and to catch up on some goodness for the soul. Incredibly, this was before life got even busier with mobile phones and the internet. So that hour was wonderful.

Except that night, as the Mad Hatter stood watch, he heard the old lady in nylon stockings swish by down the path just south of our camp. But instead of walking by she turned straight into camp. He woke me and in the moonlight I saw the rhino right at the edge of the fire. I jumped out of my sleeping bag, grabbed the rifle and made a lot of noise to scare the rhino away. It worked without me having to fire a shot, but it also had all the scholars laughing at me in my birthday suit.

Mudfight in one of the dams (not on this trail)

On Trail: Spring in Pilanesberg

I took a trail into Pilanesberg on 24 September 1984. It must have been varsity holidays and I was three quarters of the way through second year medicine.  It was a joy to leave the dissecting halls and the ingrained smell of formalin for the bush. Fortunately I kept copies of the trail reports I submitted to the Wilderness Leadership School. The opening paragraph of the report makes nostalgic reading for me:

The pickup went off well, and we drove via Hartebeestpoort. We arrived at Pilanesberg at about 6 p.m.”  Friday afternoon pickups were always stressful as trailists had to rush from work to get their kit and make their way to the Parktown Offices or WITS University Planetarium, where they left their cars and piled into the old blue and white Volkswagen kombis that the school owned. These vehicles probably did more off road work than most modern 4×4’s do!

“A few kilometres from Manyane Gate, having seen kudu and wildebeest, we saw tow cheetah. The light was not so good so we couldn’t make out if they were at a kill or not. We saw about eight rhino on the way to Driefontien, as well as sable and eland, with a lone sable running parallel to the kombi for a few hundred meters – quite a show.”

We would have arrived at out campsite in the northern wilderness area of the park and unpacked all the equipment and luggage. It was always a crazy time, with the trailists like children at a fun fair: bouncing all over the place. I would drive the empty kombi away to park it out of sight and then slowly unzip the rifle bag from under the second row of seats and load the magazine with three cartridges, thumb sized .458 soft tip bullets to stop a rhino or elephant. I would lock up the kombi, leave the key on the top of the driver’s side front tyre and walk back to camp in the darkness with a torch lighting my way. That walk was my treat for the weekend. After that it was fun, but hard work.

We slept in the open under an ouhout tree at the foot of a koppie, with the northern side of the camp defended by a large rock that was often still warm at night after a sunny day. The fire was made on the eastern side between the rock and the tree, looking out over a beautiful valley of grassland and bush higher up. There was a shallow nek in the lay of the land on the southern side that was traversed by a well established rhino path. On some nights you would hear the rhino walking past, hearing what sounded like the nylon stockings on an old lady’s legs rubbing together. It was difficult to see the rhino in the dark, except if there was a moon. Then the veld took on a shimmering silver appearance and emanated a sense of peace beyond what we deserved.

My trailists at the end of the trail at Manyane gate.

Conversations about Not Writing

Its 5:30 a.m. and I am at my computer writing. I have woken early to soft rain dribbling down the gutters and sheeting the veranda. I have started the coffee machine to warm it up, and am drinking a cup of hot water and lemon.

I looked at my writing folder and saw that I had not written since 29 May 2012. I have reposted my essays from my photography site and have published some of those, to keep the blog ticking and I think they are better suited for the blog than the photographic site.

I suppose some feedback is due after I spoke with my grandfather. The episode of losing my patient so soon after surgery unfolded in an emotional turmoil. After just less than two weeks the pathologist informed me that he had died of a heart attack and there was nothing unnatural to record on his death certificate. Common things occur commonly, and that was my first thought when he died but with all the medication we use I needed to know we had not been negligent. We were not.

I was touched by the emails and sms’s many of you sent. I’m not always as sensitive as that episode exposed me, but it has realigned my values into a more simple view of the privilege I hold in treating all patients. Thank you one and all for your feedback.

But that is not why I have not written. I had became a victim of writer’s block. As in all instances in life, claiming to be a victim does not absolve us of any responsibility to a task or in fact life itself. There is no such thing as writer’s block. There is just a fear to write, a fear to tell the truth, a fear to experiment with concepts and stories. A fear that people will laugh at you, or that it may not be good enough. Then you become eligible to claim status as a political victim of writer’s block.

The good thing about claiming victim status is that it is easy to lose that status just by waking up and sitting down and writing. Each moment of each day is a new opportunity to create.

It is with sadness that I have to write about another death, this time in the family: Jako, my brother’s parrot who lived with my mother, died this week. He was over forty years old and was a bigger part of our family than we realise. I did mention him in a previous blog, but there is so much more he could tell. Imagine being a blue and gold Macaw from South America that gets captured in a culture warp of a Geek immigrant family in Alberton, South Africa. There is a real story in that. Jako has been buried in the garden near the house my father built for him, in his dazzling kingly robes. He only knew two words. He could call “Zorba”, one of our dogs and say “hello”. Now he has said “goodbye” at last.

Lunch at my father’s 70th Birthday in 2006. Jako’s house lies on the left behind the olive tree.

Mia Xara 1 September 2009

The year my father died my cat TK died first. Tutankhamen was a king of cats. He started out as a nervous black Oriental kitten that shied from noise and people and ended up as one of the main characters at Sunday Lunches. He owned the house, hunted the suburb and when he died, I received cards of sympathy and gifts that emphasized the effect his life had on many people.

I really missed TK when he was gone. I was heart-broken. And inside I knew his death was a reflection of something much bigger. When my father died later in the year I knew then what TK’s death forebode. My heart was already broken and was turned to stone.

Between the deaths I went Greece with my father. As he walked through the village and Tripoli  he greeted all and sundry with a hearty “Mia Xara” . The Greek equivalent of “ciao”, I knew then that I would get two cats and call them Mia and Xara. I just couldn’t think of who they would be or where they would come from.

Over the year of TK’s illness I confided in some of my patients. Roy and Carol touched a cord within me. Roy has diabetes, and had to be transferred to St Augustines Hospital one day when I was on call and Kingsway was full. He had fractured his tibia and was treated by a colleague. Roy always confides in me, “not that I want to bad mouth another doctor”, but my colleague did not give him full attention or care and sympathy. He went on to develop a non-union of the tibia which I decided to treat with a Physiostim ( an electromagnetic device that stimulates bone healing) and a cast and eventually it healed. We had regular monthly visits over 18 months, and they talked about their cats, Russian Blues, and slowly started a marketing campaign to win me over. They brought little pictures, told me of their habits (head butting is a classic) and then invited me to see some of their kittens. I visited their little house full of cats with big hearts, but really did not have the heart to want new kittens. I was worried about the two old cats I had, Stormy and Servie, at home, about being responsible for the new ones, about all sorts of things. And would any cat measure up to TK?

Eventually after a few visits and meeting the sire and mother Russian Blues I chose two that I could take at the end of December, when I would have some time to be at home, and after Christmas at Mbona.

Just after paying for Xara and acknowledging Mia as a gift from Carol in thanks for my treating Roy, we went to Johannesburg for George Bizos’ 80th birthday celebration, where my father was the master of ceremonies. He had the time of his life, but definitely was tired. I remember at the end when 2 young girls sang traditional Greek songs he glowed from within he was so happy. Maybe it was something else…

Early the next morning he died.  I hadn’t told him about Mia Xara; how it reminded me of him in Greece, and how happy a greeting it was. Directly translated “Mia means “one” and “Xara” means happiness. Mia Xara.

They were named Mia Grisha and Xara Shura, as they had to have Russian names for their legacy. Grisha means ‘watchful” and Shura “defender of man” in Russian. They were brothers and are the closest of friends.

They spent their days in my study. Mom was with us for that week and spent time with them. They were soft and cuddly, and so playful and confident. In the beginning they slept on the bookshelves and nothing was safe. Books and ornaments went flying at night, waking us. Covers were torn off as if they were the skin on the carcass of a dead animal. Page corners were eaten.

Always near each other, on the lookout and more often than not ambushing each other, they had arrived at their home forever . Mia watches out for Xara, and Xara defends all of us from being too serious. He is a complete hedonist, happy to stretch out on a bed, couch table or anywhere. Ecstatic in the morning when he gets his fix of catnip. Bounding up onto the bed to get a hug and scratch. Purring in contentment. Mia is lively. He eats more but is thinner, his taught muscles rippling under his blue fur.

Russian Blues are not blue, but  silver grey, with a double layer of shorthair. Never tell an owner that they are grey! They may be Royal cats from Archangel in Russia, with lines unchanged since the made their way to England before the turn of the last century.

They love company; often I look up from where I am sitting, working or eating, and find them under my chair, or on the couch nearby or the chair next door. Sprawled out elegantly.

More than the technicalities, they are a legacy of a home of cats, filled with memories.

Mia Xara as kittens on the shelf

Gl’Uomini Degli Dei – The People of the Gods 4 July 2011

Last year we did an amazing walk above the Amalfi coast, Il Sentiero Degli Dei, “The Path of the Gods”. This ancient path was used by shepherds and traders from a mountain top village called Agerola (where, you ask?) to Positano (everybody knows where), a picturesque seaside village on the Amalfi coast and setting of the beautiful film, “Il Postino” , about a postman in love who is counselled by the greatest love poet , Pablo Neruda. The walk ends with two thousand steps descending into the village.

The views along the way are breathtaking, as your eye corners cliffs and swoops down like an eagle to the bay five hundred meters away and seven hundred meters down.  Along the slopes are olive groves, vineyards, vegetable patches and patios that absorb the light showered down by the gods. The path is marked by some CAI (Club Alpino Italiano or the Alpine Club of Italy) Rosso Bianco markers. CAI members express their individuality by making new, and I am sure they think better, paths with some other combination of Bianco Rosso.  You can easily lose your way at some intersections, so you have to pay attention to commune signs and old hand carved signs in wood, hung framing the island of Capri in the haze.

Everyone knows about the Amalfi coast. Everyone knows of the jewels that sparkle in the stunning vistas. But the real treasure is hidden. Walk through the arches into the main piazza of Amalfi. There is a church to your right with high steps and the large tourist outdoor cafes. I was there last year and my eye caught a young Italian beauty dancing through the crowds holding a tray of three espresso cups. I rushed to follow her under an old arcade and walked into Titziano’s pasticerie. Last year his sister was helping out as his wife had just delivered twins a few days earlier. He baptised us as travellers, not tourists, a badge we proudly wear. His miniature tarts and sweets exploded with flavours as big as mountains in your mouth. His coffee made with old plunge pressure espresso machines announced that this was historic for its difference.

Look skywards from Amalfi after a ride by tragetto (ferry) from Positano and you catch a glimpse of San Lazzaro and the edge of an old Saracen fortress. San Lazzaro is a frazione of the rough diamond of Agerola. Although it is only 5km away as the eagles swoop, they town lies 25km away by hairpin bends and narrow tar road. Last year we arrived in the pouring rain and eventually made our way to Da Ginanino’s, a restaurant just down the road where we stayed at Il Principe, a refurbished floor of rooms in an old apartment block. Named after Toto, a famous Italian comedian with a long nose and longer list of comedies, including one called “Il Principe”. At Da Gianino we met Salvatore, the son of famous Gianino, the chef who has appeared on RAI (Italian TV) cooking shows. He has designed his own special pasta, a rotella. The rotella arrived, a Swiss roll of double pasta with mozzarella and bathed in a chunky vegetable broth .Last year Salvatore would not accept a tip, and gave us a whole lot of local cheeses, including fior di late from his brothers cheese farm, and this year he just served us a meal we did not order and then the next night took us out to a slow food restaurant in Sorrento where he learned to make pizza.  And drove us back home.  And delivered even more cheese to Il Principe the next morning while we slept and he started his cheese delivery rounds along the coast on a Wednesday. A package of biscotti, bagels, cheese and his own aromatic and not too sweet limoncelo from trees in his own garden. His wife Monica popped in and out of our lives in Agerola, bubbling with joy and passion, adding colour and laugher to a memorable visit to the Amalfi coast.

As you enter Sorrento there is a viewing pint over the Gulf of Naples. We watched a stunning sunset and focussed on the padlocks fixed to the railing engraved with the names of couples, engaged, married or in love. Sometimes all three. I felt like leaving one there, from us to them. Instead I wrote this to let you know about these incredible people and this amazing place.

The Power of Love: Padlocks on the Bay of Naples