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)

Conversations with Hippocrates

Long before I had an inkling that I wanted to study medicine and then be a doctor, when becoming an orthopaedic surgeon was still occupied in that part of my brain by a desire to become a game ranger, I dislocated my right shoulder. The injury dated back from primary school and was recurrent, popping out every few months. It was painful when it happened but my mother learnt how to put it back without hurting me, doing a gentle manoeuvre that engaged the joint and let it to slide back into place almost painlessly. Much further down the academic line and after putting other’s dislocated shoulders back I came to know that my mother was in fact using a well established technique, the Kocher Technique. Like all things in medicine, it was named after him because he published it in a journal, but in fact it was first described in Egyptian hieroglyphs 3000 years ago.

One year when I was fourteen I participated in the school gala. Everyone thought I should be a good swimmer as I was a good runner, but halfway down the lane at the municipal pool my right arm caught the floating lane divider and my shoulder popped out of joint. My father was there, talking to Rod Conacher, the principal of the school, but he was not watching. When my arm came out of joint it would stick up like I was asking a question in class. That is how I tread water in the middle of the pool. My mother jumped in to save me, because she was astute enough to see I could no longer swim and that my shoulder was out of joint.

As they waded toward me my mother later told me that Rod Conacher asked my father if Olga was also swimming in the gala. My father, who normally took every detail in at any function, had not noticed me floundering in the pool nor my mother wading toward me, clothes billowing in the water.

The worst part was when they got me to the edge of the pool and all the rescuers lined up, reaching to pull my dislocated arm that was asking the proverbial question in class. I screamed in pain and then remember resting against a small retaining wall, while my mother supported my arm. She was waiting for the spasm to subside before attempting a reduction, but before I knew it an orthopaedic surgeon, a big rugby type, a parent of one of the children, arrived. He promptly placed his foot in my armpit and pulled so hard I cried with pain and because of the spasm he struggled and worked up a sweat getting it in. He used the Hippocratic Technique but he had no feel for it. Normally the pain is reduced by some sedation. I heard the joint crunch into place and limped away sniffling with pain and from the near drowning.

Rod Conacher offered to give my mom a prize for life saving at the school prize giving later that year, but she declined. I thought they should give the orthopaedic surgeon a prize for butchery, but they declined.

The new Umhlanga Storm Water Pier

Conversations about Playing It By Ear

My father employed a lot of sayings, some of which are worth repeating, if not for their wisdom, then for their frequency of use.

He used to play the piano. He loved playing La Paloma, and sat a tall graceful player with just enough flair to show off and be a spectacle when playing. He went to piano lessons, and had memorised this and other pieces of music. Although he had a musical ear I do not think he could play by ear. None of his children inherited a musical ear, so none of us play a musical instrument.

But playing pieces on the piano by ear was not what he was talking about. He would play many other strategies by ear, and offer free advice to others when faced by co-ordinating events. I remember arranging holiday meetings and visits to Tripolis by ear with my father. Sometimes when events were not going to unfold his way he hid behind the saying allowing for fate to dictate events in favour of others.

So did he really mean it or was it just wallpaper over his face to hide his emotions if things were not going his way. When the dies were cast in important life decisions he never said “let’s play it by ear”. When we attended university our career choice was never left to the winds of fate. When we chose marriage partners he certainly did not anticipate anything else than love and hard work, with no room to play it by ear. He expected commitment in those matters. But once the foundation was laid and the roof over our heads, then I suppose, we could play things by ear.

If ever we faced a serious decision and I offered immature advice that “we can just play it by ear, like you always say” he would frown at me and I would wither under his bushy eye browed stare. So in fairness the saying had a place in playfulness, but not in serious times.

What if it was the other way round?  I might have been a game ranger who wrote books and sold photographs. I might have been a dope smoking Bohemian divorced and living with my fifth partner. I might not even be alive, although the serious path of life has its own price to pay in terms of personal health.

My father loved to fall back on Ancient Greek philosophy and he used Aristotle’s concept of achieving virtue by balance between excess and deficiency, to correct the path chosen by playing things by ear. Achieving balance is far more important than playing it by ear.

Both have a place in life. Balance in life allows for some things to be played by ear, and playing by ear allows for life to unfold as fate would choose.