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Walk in the Wilds

There would be no mambas or puff adders at this time of year, or hardly any, they said, and mosquitoes were also less prevalent, so it would be the perfect time to go to the Kruger National Park.1  Prophylactics were nonetheless recommended.  It was cooler and the walk through the wilds would be more manageable.  I was also looking forward to what the French call Le droit à la déconnexion – to be out of the tyranny of obligated cell phone contact for a while and avail myself of a little space from constant connectivity.  I had been to the Kruger Park once before and one is not allowed to get out of a car during drives.  Also, the camp curfews were to be strictly respected.  But on this trip we would actually be walking through the bush for fifteen kilometers a day on foot behind experienced rangers.  Rangers who had guns and on whose knowledge but ultimately on whose fire-power we depended for protection.

We were picked up at Pretoriouskop camp and driven by our rangers to the Napi camp.  It houses eight visitors, two rangers and a cook.  Nothing luxurious, all was rather Spartan but clean and efficient.  Julius, the chief ranger, briefed us before the walks.  His tone was neither collegiate nor chummy but quietly authoritative, the kind of authority exerted by one who knows he is responsible for your safety, even your life.  Julius and his fellow ranger Philemon would walk ahead armed with .45 caliber rifles.  We were to follow in Indian file and especially in silence behind them.  If we chanced upon a dangerous animal, we were not to run but were to take instructions unquestioningly from them.2  That way, we would survive. If an animal charged they would handle the situation, or so we hoped if all went according to procedure.  Charming.  And no bright clothing else you would walk fifty metres behind the group.  That put paid to the Spanish matador’s raiment I was planning to wear as a fashionable variation, cape and all, diverting charging buffaloes to the left and rhinos to the right as they might have come.

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And so it was that in the pre-dawn of a fresh Monday morning we set out with tense muscle and nervous disposition behind the rangers and their guns.  Nothing much to report over the first thirty minutes or so, during which the initial tension drops somewhat, until one of the group suddenly raises his hand and points towards something.  We are hastily beckoned to retreat behind a fallen tree.  Un-coordinated positioning ensues.  So much for impulse control.  I huddle behind the trunk joined by others, and there, in the bushes a mere twenty metres in front of us, a rhinoceros faces us head-on, horn on high.  It moves closer.  The rangers split.  One of them picks up a piece of dead wood.  The other lifts his rifle.  The wood gets thrown in front of the rhino.  The other ranger starts emitting intimidating noises and the rhino, bemused, turns around and trots off.  That seemed easy but it didn’t settle us down.  We look at each other relieved and I wonder why I signed up for this.

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The good thing about the walking tours is that the curfews do not apply to them.  At dusk on the first day, when the last day-travellers left the Transport dam, we are called out of the safari vehicle by the rangers for sundowners.  Hippos, crocodiles, elephants and buck are all at the water.  After ten minutes or so of game-watching the rangers say they are hearing lions, and that we were to go in search of them.  The rest of us had heard nothing.  Rangers are amazingly bush-fit and hear things the rest of us don’t.  They’re also good at recognising partial shapes of animals hidden by rocks and trees that would be lost to the layman.  We get into the open vehicle and drive off to where the lions are.  I train my binoculars in the direction where a lion is supposed to be, and after a minute or so they reveal a lion’s mane sticking out of a thicket.  He emerges later in full glory, and a lioness joins him.  She rubs herself against him like a playful kitten and he soon reacts to her teasing.  They’re a mating pair in full amorous mode, and I witness my first spectacle of mating in the wild.  Noisy, raw and powerful.  These are not kitties you want to pat.

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The next morning the rangers go straight to the place where the lions were last seen.  Of course.  The idea is to go right into their den so to speak.  We are to track the lions on foot in the tall grass of the river bed.  I must say, it requires a type of daring.  Enlightened circles have a term for it: eco-tourist stupidity.  It’s the most tense I’ve been on the trip.  I’m glad for the sturdy pair of CR7 Cristiano Ronaldo underpants I bought at Edgars at the Tygervalley Centre, in unmarking black.  Look, if Cristiano Ronaldo were here, he’d kick these kitties into touch.  No he wouldn’t.  As it happens the lions have gone, and instead we’re regaled with facts about termitariums and the healing properties of certain plants.  I can settle for that.

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Sad was the sound of the anti-poaching helicopter flying in the vicinity.  The unit is having a busy day.  The rangers tell us they had been hearing muffled rifle shots in the area of late.  This battle to save the rhino is far from won, if it can be won at all.3,4,5

Spotted Hyena and Cubs

The next few hours pass uneventfully, apart from a tree trunk or two bent ninety degrees by elephants.  More walking.  All of a sudden a commotion breaks out with those in front scattering hastily towards us at the back.  One of the party trips and falls.  The rangers rush back in torrid silence and take up position behind some low bushes.  One of them is sweating, the beads of sweat breaking over his features in shimmering sunlit silver droplets.  It turns out that those in front practically walked into the trunk of a massive bull elephant which had been hidden in the thick bush in front of them.  Everyone’s on alert.  My CR7 underpants hold, just, as do my sphincters.  My breath holds itself of its own volition, easily.  We see the elephant off in a huddle, or rather, it mercifully chooses to ignore us.  We’re later told, after the fact, that unlike rhinos, elephants at least react to warning shots.  This, dear friends, is reassuring information.

Tree BenderElephant Tree Bending trick

That was perhaps the scariest moments we witnessed.  Indeed, the wilds are still to be respected.  But, what really turned out to be scary was the conversation around the camp fire at night.  Most of the men there were fathers who spoke about their sons’ schools and their respective rugby teams.  There was also school’s hockey and water polo and stuff.  School topics occupied around 70% of the fireside conversation with politics making up the rest.  It was as though some of them had been re-living their school days through their children.  On the second night, when the conversation again geared up to the previous night’s schools topics, I got very afraid.  Frightful beast, this.  My lips started to quiver and shivers broke out over my back, so I excused myself and left early to bed, quite weakened, but not before I gazed for a few minutes at a resplendent night sky, showered with stars you can’t see though city night light.

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  1. The Kruger Park is situated in South Africa’s North-Eastern region. It was proclaimed in 1926 has an area of 19485 km2, which compares favourably to Wales (20761 km2) and Israel (20770 km2).  On the 9th December 2002 it formed part of the Great Limpopo Transfontier Park, which straddles parts of Mozambique and Zimbabwe.  The Great Limpopo Transfrontier park has an area of 35000 km2.
  2. Fat chance one has of running. Humans are puny little things.  A rhinoceros weighing 2400 kg can outrun the fastest human being.  A seemingly sluggish hippo weighing up to three tons can outrun most humans.  The energy transferred by the momentum of charging hippo doesn’t warrant speculation.  Stay well away and stay clear.
  3. The recorded number of rhinos poached in South Africa in 2015 was 1175, slightly down from the 1215 recorded in 2014 but way above the 122 poached in 2009. For more information see the Save the Rhino website at https://www.savetherhino.org/rhino_info/poaching_statistics
  4. “US$60,000 (September 2014) is the estimated per-kilogram worth of rhino horn on the black market, according to a report by US-based strategy and policy advisory firm Dalberg. That sizeable sum makes it a commodity that’s much more lucrative than gold and platinum – and more valuable on the black market than diamonds and cocaine. The price tag is even more shocking when you consider its rapid upsurge in recent years: in 2006, the value stood at around $760. The same Dalberg report puts the total value of illicit wildlife trafficking (excluding fisheries and timber) as between US$7.8 billion and US$10 billion per year.” – Earth Touch News Network, September 16 2014.  The poachers themselves get R1m ZAR per horn, which weighs around 9kg.
  5. Special surveillance drones are now being deployed in the fight against poaching.