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)

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