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.
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.