On Trail: Playing in the Bush

The second time I was in the Timbavati I was very lucky. The Timbavati River was flowing clear in parts, and submerged in other sections. It was April, with warm days and cool nights. Unlike my first trail which was with fellow school friends, this was a mixed group with adults. I was in my last or second last year at school, well over thirty years ago as I write.

It was great to have access to so much water. Washing up was easy: we just scooped pots and bowls through the wet river sand and rinsed off in clean water. It was also good to be able to sit in the water and have a bath, girls first, then guys.

One day we were having lunch on some rocks in the bend of the river. The water had been channelled into a narrow fast flow for some length and as we were relaxing after lunch, someone threw a leaf into the water and we watched it bob and tack as it flowed down the river. I looked around and broke off a frond from a reed and lowered this into a fast flowing section. “Mine’s faster” I said. “Let’s have a race.”

So we did. All of us including Alan Shore, the field guide, chose their “boats” of leaves and we started the regatta just as the river entered the channel. We were oblivious to everything around us as we ran barefoot along the river sand and over rocks to follow our leaves to the finish. We did this over and over again. It was just so much fun. At the end, when we had finished racing and splashing in the water, Alan said “so, you see how important it is to play?” We all nodded. Some of the adults even mentioned things like stress and big city pressure.

But it was an important lesson: remember to have fun in what you do. It was easy to have fun on foot in the bush. It was easy to be enticed and excited by the wonders of nature. But how difficult is it to have fun in your daily life? Being at university and studying had some fun aspects, but it was hard work. Working itself has some fun aspects, but that’s even harder work than studying. So how do we recapture that lunchtime game chasing leaf boats in a clear river oblivious to the big five that wandered around us?

I am not sure. I still do not have the answers. Perhaps one of the ways to recapture that fun is to tell stories. Our ancient forefathers would have sat around the fire at night telling stories, recounting hunts or seasons or people they had met.

Now we sit around glowing screens at all times of the day or night reading words that sometimes do not even tell a story.

Early morning mist at a dam in Timbavati

On Trail: Chinese,Japanese, Oh! Taiwanese

In the old days under the Apartheid government South Africa had few state friends. Indeed, the only three were Paraguay, Israel and Taiwan. There was a program to teach their diplomats English by inclusion, so they lived in Johannesburg for 3 months and attended adult English classes at WITS. Somehow someone (and I think it was Fran) thought it would be good for them to spend five days in the African Wilderness on trail.

So I picked up six men in their thirties and forties who were all shorter than me and walked with small incisive steps and as the week unfolded kept repeating “Ah, so” in unison at the marvels of the bush.  We spent the first two nights at the Big Rock Camp in Pilanesberg and then walked up to Bailie Loop and camped on the escarpment at the small waterfall, safe from the rhinos that loved that plateau.

There were two memorable moments. The first was up on the plateau, once camp had been set up and we were relaxing. Arnie Warburton (my second in charge and senior) called me to come have a wash with him in the stream. I went reluctantly but he cajoled me, and as we sat drying in the dying sun on the still warm rocks he handed me a cool beer that he had secreted in his pack and on the way down to the camp had left to cool in the stream. Arnie is long gone, but he was a wise and impish at the same time kind of guy. It was a great treat to have that beer and escape the intensity of the Taiwanese trailists for a few minutes. He complimented me on the trail so far.

The second was after we had our Indaba after the return. We were still at the old Parktown house under the big tree in the garden and I remember the translator/teacher being there as well. They were all filled with a spiritual gratitude for the time spent in the big open space. They told us of how and where they lived in Taiwan and what little of nature they saw, and how being at one with the wild animals had elevated their sense of living. One of the trailists, a gentle soul, almost had me crying when he commented on how beautiful it was to see the grass waving in the wind like the waves on the sea. His eyes really appreciated the simple beauty of Africa.

Arnie looked after me. From when they chose me to run trails to accompanying me on that five day trail. He tried to make a manly man out of me without changing who I was. I cannot remember him ever being negative or unhappy, expect once when I saw him say goodbye to his children and go back to his girlfriend, Theresa.

For the Taiwanese it was good for them to spend five days in the African Wilderness. Absolutely.

Arnie Warburton in the Bush October 1985

On Trail: Teutonic Design

I remember one trail with German, Swiss and Austrian exchange students: they were all young adults at university who were brought out by The South Africa Foundation to spend three months in our country and see what makes us tick. In the eighties the only ticking was that of the time bomb waiting to destroy the government in power.

They were an energetic and keen group. They walked fast and asked lots of questions.  And they just wanted to see big game. The small interesting things were not that important to them. We had good views of three white rhino and a calf driving in on the Friday night and the Saturday walk was filled with all sorts of antelope, including eland, wildebeest, hartebeest and impala. It did not keep them happy, and they were looking for confrontation with the big five. In the afternoon on Bailie Loop we found a mother white rhino and calf.

From a distance I explained our policy and protocol again for viewing dangerous game on foot: they were to stay behind me, stay in single file and follow my hand instructions. Everyone was excited, because seeing a rhino on foot adds another dimension: their huge bulk and tends to make you feel small and respect nature. I also explained to them that in the open veld with no cover we would not approach the animals closer than one hundred meters. As we got close and stopped, I knelt down so the others could see over me. The rifle butt was in the dust and the barrel was cradled on the side of my neck. The next thing I saw out of the corner of my eye was a tall German walking out sideways and moving forward with his camera to get a better shot. The rhino sensed this and I hissed at him to get back in order. He did, with a long face. I lifted the rifle onto my thighs, so that I was facing the rhino, but I should have shot the German. I was so angry with his attitude.

Back at camp toward evening he tried to make amends and was over keen to assist with the meal.  He had his own ideas on how the food should be cooked, so I left him to it. Then he needed a break and went to the loo, armed with spade and toilet paper. On his return he spoke. “Why don’t we dig a trench over there” he said pointing down the valley to a clearing behind some scrub, “and then everyone can relieve themselves in the trench and will need to cover up only that section they have used.”

I went to pick up the rifle to clean it. “That’s not how we do it. This camp is used three or four times a month and the place would be filled with trenches like the First World War before we knew it. Animals will be attracted by all our waste protein and dig it up, anyway.” I raised the rifle to the dying light to check the barrel. Then I sighted a tree in the distance away from the group. I should have shot him, he was a real pain!

The dawn watch on trail: waiting for the sun.

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.