Chapter 7: The Lonely Elephant

General, Satara, Skukuza

When you live in Kruger you go through an unofficial “Kruger boot camp.” You get told all kinds of valuable information by locals, which might come in handy when encountering animals. Sort of like a Kruger 101.

For instance, to never get in the way between a hippo and the water.

Or if you get attacked by a croc, try to poke it in the eye.

If a lion charges towards you, try to stand still and do not run.

The list goes on and on and I can keep you busy for a while with these.

I can write an entire chapter on elephants alone.

Here are a few rules relating to elephants charging while you are in a car:

Rule #1 (the most important rule)

DO NOT REVERSE, DO NOT BACK UP – the elephant will know that you are intimidated by it. In most cases it is only a mock charge and it will stop if it sees you are not afraid of it.

Rule #2

In the case of an elephant charging towards your car, try to rev the car – the sound may intimidate it.

Rule #3

If rule number 2 does not work, roll down your window and tap on the roof of you vehicle – this sound may also scare the elephant.

Rule #4

If none of the above work – pray to the gods and hope you live to tell the tale.

With this information in mind, picture the next chapter of my untold tales:

It was a sunny day in Kruger and my dad was out working. On this day he was on his way to work in the field again.

He had two men with him to help him with the workload. They were driving in a trusty single cab bakkie that belonged to the park. The bakkie had a canopy at the back. One of the men was sitting on the back of the bakkie and the other was with my dad in front.

They were driving on the road between Satara and Skukuza. As they were passing Tshokwane, a picnic spot in Kruger, they saw a few cars and a huge tour bus at a complete standstill. As they approached the tour bus indicated to my dad that he should pass it.

My dad took the opportunity and passed the immobile cars and bus full of tourists, not noticing the concerned looked on their faces.

Just when my dad and his colleagues passed the bushveld traffic jam, the reason became clear why these vehicles were at a standstill. A few meters away from them, in the middle of the road, was a humongous elephant bull all by himself.

My dad did not realise that this fella was in must.

Must is a period condition in elephant bulls (usually over 15 -20 years old) when their testosterone levels are much higher and are usually accompanied and characterised by highly aggressive behaviour and large rise in reproductive hormones. This period usually lasts about a month. The first sign to know if an elephant is in must is to look at the side of their head where their temporal ducts are located. Here one might find a thick tar-like discharge called temporin.

This was also the reason why the other vehicles kept their distance because the elephant was in a very bad mood.

However, my dad had to pass him to tend to his work to ensure he gets back to Satara in time, so he approached with caution, thinking he might sneak past it after it crossed the road.

But Mr. Elephant was livid. He had no time for any cocky tourists or park employees. And seeing the small bakkie approaching just rubbed him the wrong way.

This is when he lost it completely and started to charge.

My dad, being about 60 meters (197 ft) away, came to a halt.

Rule #1 Do not reverse, do not back up popped into my father’s head.

But this fella came a-running. Not looking as if he is going to stop anytime soon.

My dad moved to Rule #2. Putting the car in neutral, stepping on the clutch and increasing the engine speed by stepping on the accelerator – on and off, making the car roar with high revs.

This also did not stop the big guy, still coming at them.

The distance becoming shorter between the bakkie and the elephant.

My dad rolled down his window and banged on the roof of the bakkie and still the elephant kept charging.

My dad was thinking that there was a flaw in what he was taught in Kruger 101, disregarding all the rules. My dad was about to break the most important rule. My dad was about to reverse

cue the dramatic music

But before he could do this, the irritated elephant reached them. My dad was concentrating on what was about to happen next.

The elephant now took his trunk and wrapped it around the bulbar of the bakkie shaking the small truck with all his might.

Immediately my dad started to apply rule #4 – praying to the gods above.

My dad, being concerned about his colleagues, looked in his rear-view mirror to see what the oak at the back was doing in this situation. However, my dad could not see him because he was lying as flat as possible on the bottom of the bakkie’s floor.

The elephant was still shaking the bakkie like a Polaroid picture. (Heeeeey yaaaa!)

My dad now turning his attention to the chap next to him to see how he was doing.

To my dad, it was clear that he reverted to rule #4 a long time ago, because all he could see was the white of the poor man’s eyes, while he was apparently praying in a loud African language which my father did not understand.

The agitated elephant kept at it.

The next thing my father saw in his side mirrors made him smile.

While this near-death experience for him and his two colleagues was taking place, the gigantic tour bus he passed earlier, had tourists leaning out of the window by the dozens, taking pictures and making home videos of what they saw. To them, it was something they would cherish forever and tell their loved ones.

The elephant now felt like he made his point. He let go of the bulbar and of he went into the veld. As if nothing has happened.

My dad’s last thought while watching the elephant disappear into the bushes “Easy mate, if you keep up that temper, you would forever be alone.”

 

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Chapter 3: Our first night in Kruger

General, Skukuza

While my dad had his interview we had the chance to explore Skukuza rest camp. My mom gave Susan and myself money to buy our self a little souvenir. We were both amazed by these tiny figurines with fur and feathers. Susan picked a baby vervet monkey and I got an ostrich.

After dad’s interview, the family spent the day exploring the park, always on the lookout for animals. We saw a lot! Elephants, various antelope, zebras, buffalo, wildebeest, crocs, hippo, and baboons.

Every time we sighted an animal, my gran would roll down the window and greet them as if they were old time friends.

“Hello Mr. Elephant!”

“Oh hello there Mr. Wildebeest!”

This was hilarious to me and Susan.

As this continued my mom got irritated with gran’s shenanigans My mom would lock her eyes with my father and determinedly roll her eyes. My dad would smile in return, with only his two front teeth showing, enlightened by the situation. According to mom, this was not etiquette when visiting Kruger. It upsets the animals. (Take note Emsie Schoeman and Ace Ventura!)

After being out the whole day, we drove to Granokoppie, a granite hill where you can get out of the car and admire the beautiful view from the hill. This hill is also known as Mathekenyane.

Pronounced mat-tek-en-yaan, meaning sand flea

We drove up the hill and just as we reached the top Susan announced that she desperately had to go to the bathroom. This was problematic due to the lack of public bathrooms in the wilderness. The closest bathroom was 15 kilometers away and for a three-year-old holding it in for that long would not do the trick.

Luckily we were alone on the hill. My mom and Susan got out. I was instructed to close my eyes as Susan then picked one of the tiny craters on the hill to do her business in. In Afrikaans, we call this taking a “veltie” since you do your business in the veld.

This made me laugh uncontrollably. When my parents interrogated me on why this so funny I exclaimed:

“What if a baboon comes along and thinks it is Oros and drinks it?”

To those not familiar with Oros – It is a South African orange juice concentrate. When you prepare it, it has the same colour as urine.

(Please don’t judge me for this. What do you expect from a 6-year-old – toilet humour is gold!)

Me being hysterical about this made the grown-ups laugh as well. Susan was not very impressed with the fact that a baboon might drink her pee.

To this day when we visit Mathekenyane, we recall this memory.

All the campsites in the Kruger have a strict timetable, where the visitors have to be back at the campsite before a certain time (usually just before dawn depending on the time of year). We stayed out of the camp the entire day and only returned just before the gates closed. I asked what happens if you do not obey the gate times. Mom told us that then you have to sleep in your car in the middle of the wilderness. I think she tried to scare us with this statement, but to me, this sounded pretty exciting! I begged them to turn around. Dad said that if they find you outside the gate after closing time, you need to pay a big fine. He mentioned something about using my savings to pay it. This made me change my mind in an instant.

The next mission was to find our chalet inside the camp. We drove around for a quite some time. Skukuza’s layout can be confusing, especially if you are not familiar with the camp. Eventually, we found our chalet – and to by this time, we all just wanted to eat and go to bed. Also, we were bound for Welkom early the next morning.

We all got out of the car to see our room for the night. My dad unlocked the door and the rest of us followed him promptly, suitcases by our sides. All of us stood in a straight line marveling at what was in front of us. We immediately realised we might have a difficult night ahead of us.

In front of us, we saw that in this chalet there was only one double bed. There were five of us. This was due to the fact that we planned to travel back to Middelburg the same day. My father’s interview was longer than anticipated and they insisted that he sleeps over.

My mother encouraged him to go to the office and ask if they can make rearrangements, however, my father felt like that might leave a bad impression. So we decided to leave this problem for later and first go grab a bite at Skukuza’s restaurant.

When we returned, I started to admire the curtains of the chalet. It is a thick Sound of Music-like curtain with various pictures of animals on it. The wooden bed stood in the middle of the room with its headrest against a ledge. Luckily we each traveled with our own pillows. No blankets and linen were needed since it was so hot and humid.

All five of us stood beside the bed, planning how this is going to work. My mom suggested that we all sleep sideways, then we would all fit in. Since we all knew from the start that it was going to be an uncomfortable night, we went in with the right mindset to bear with one another. One by one we got into bed in this order: Me, gran, Susan, mom, and dad. All of us just barely fitting in. We tried to make the best of the situation. We laid there, had a brief discussion about the day and how my dad’s interview went. (Spoiler alert: he got the job. But we did not know this yet.) We said our goodnights and the tiny chalet went quiet.

I remember it was so dark that you really could not see your hand in front of your face.

Suddenly a sound filled the air. High pitched and ominous. Susan and I both shot up. What demon was this? What on earth could make such a sound? Mom calmed us down and explained that it is a hyena. Just like Shenzi, Bonzai, and Ed from The Lion King. However, this time The Lion King did not cut it. We were scared.

“Hello Mr. Hyena,” Gran said in an attempt to calm us down. Susan and I did not think gran’s greeting was so hilarious after all.

In our minds, the hyena would find some way into the chalet, crush our bones and rip us apart. At this point, I think my dad regrets telling us that they have the strongest jaws in the animal kingdom earlier that day.

(Follow this link to hear what it sounds link http://ow.ly/QQGB30iIbME)

The lights came on.

We switched places so that Susan and I could be in the middle.

The lights went out.

The hyenas continued.

Then, another animal joined the hyena choir. This time the sound somewhat of a baby crying. Again Susan and I shot up.

The lights went on.

“It is a Bush Baby,” mom explained.

(Follow this link to hear a bush baby: http://ow.ly/MKvx30iIbXE)

The lights went out.

The sounds continued.

Then my father started to complain that it was too hot and cramped.

The lights went on.

Time for a new plan. My mom suggested that one of the kids sleep on the ledge on which the bed was against. Since I was the oldest, it was decided that I will sleep on the ledge. My mom took a sheet and made a little bed for me on the ledge. Now I was sleeping higher than the rest. Now there was a bit of more space for them on the bed.

The lights went out.

The sounds continued for a while but then faded out. A few minutes passed.

A new sound then filled the air. This one was different. It was soothing.

“Did you hear that?” mom whispered, “It is lions roaring!”

The bush baby and the hyena were gone now. Only the lion filled the air with its mighty roar.

I don’t know how long my family was still awake and if they were, like me, listening to the sounds of the marvelous lion. All I can remember, at that moment I was on my back looking up into complete darkness, listening to one of the best sounds in the world. It was calming. It made me smile. I was thinking: “I could get used to this…” as I drifted away into a deep sleep.

(Check out this link to listen to how a Lion’s roar sound: http://ow.ly/HrES30iIbkL)

Chapter 2: The Journey Begins

General, Skukuza

My first ever VHS videotape was The Lion King. I received this as a gift on my 5th birthday. My sister, Susan and I watched this over and over. Non-stop. When the movie was over the VHS machine could not rewind fast enough for us to watch it again. We knew the words dialogue of Nala and Simba by heart and could sing along to every single song.

It was the year 1996. Our lives were about to change forever – yet we did not know this at this point. My father was working at one of the mines in Welkom in the Free State. I know, I know – if you are South African you are probably cringing right now due to the fact that Welkom is not the fabulous city that it used to be. But none the less, this is what we called home. At this time mining companies were closing down all over the country and there were rumours that the company my father was working for will soon go down the same path. My parents had to make a plan. Fortunately for us this was the big nudge that the world wanted to give my family. My mother picked up the newspaper and started to look for a new job for my father.

When my mother was a little girl, she and her family were well acquainted with the Kruger National Park due to frequent family holidays in their caravan and tents. The Kruger was also part of my parents’ honeymoon tour across the Transvaal, now known as Mpumalanga. So when my mother saw the ad in the newspaper for the position of an electrician in Skukuza, in the Kruger National Park she basically begged my father to apply. My father, being a bit sceptical of such a faraway move, did not understand my mother’s obsession with this job. Being a wise man, like my father is, he did as his wife asked and applied for the job.

After a few weeks my father got invited for an interview. Dates were set and plans were made. Best of all, our family will be joining my father on the trip to the Kruger National Park when he is going for the interview! My mom was over the moon. She now had the chance to introduce her children to a place that she was crazy about.

So we had a little family meeting – useless in the sense that my parents already knew the plan and me being the only child in the family understanding full grown up sentences (and my sister only knowing the dialogue of Nala). But this was the time that my sister and I was informed of this interview that my father had in the Kruger National Park. I don’t think that I really paid much attention to the nice comforting words of my mother when she started out with “Daddy needs to look for a new job and he applied for one in the Kruger National park,” This was gibberish to me and even more so to my three year old sister. It was when my mother came to the good stuff that it grabbed my attention. She informed us about the great animals that we were going  see and being fans of The Lion King made this so much more exciting.

Now at this point I must tell you that we have never visited the Kruger National Park before. We have been to a few zoos in South Africa but my sister and I were very small when that happened. So we did not really know what these animals look like in real life. We have seen pictures and postcards but didn’t have a clue about the real deal. Our main reference being the wonderful singing menagerie of The Lion King.

We use to have this jar in our house filled with beer and glass cold drink caps (my mother had these from a church project). My mom will fill this jar with a number of bottle caps before we leave for a family holiday. The number of caps inside was the number of days left before leaving on holiday. Each morning I had the privilege of taking one cap out of the bottle.

In the days leading up to our departure, my mom shared childhood stories of their visits to the park (which I might include later on in the blog).

The day arrived when there was only one bottle cap left. That night we were put to bed with lots of questions and excitement. When the kids were asleep my mother, being a proper Afrikaner lady, prepared us some padkos, which is basically snacks for the road. This usually involves cheese and tomato sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs and frikkadelle (meatballs).

I might share my favourite frikkadel recipe with you later on the blog

We got up early, packed the car and got in. My dad, my mom, my sister, my gran, myself and the padkos. As is tradition the padkos was opened when we hit the highway and we were ready for the 8 hour drive to Skukuza, where my dad had his interview.

Luckily we didn’t have to do the whole journey in one go. After a 4 hour drive, we slept over at my aunt in Middelburg and got up early the next morning to complete the rest of the journey.

Between the usual children fights (“are we there yet?”) and cassette tapes with children songs we had a lot of questions about this magical kingdom of animals we were about to enter. My mom still telling stories about the Kruger as we went along. At one point when Susan started to become a bit irritated, my mother comforted her with the following words: “Don’t cry. Just be patient we are almost there. And maybe if we are lucky we will see Simba and Nala and all their friends!”

These words had our immediate attention. The comparison with the on screen cartoon animals from Disney that we know was enough to keep us busy for the rest of the road.

Every now and then I would prompt a new question:

“Mom, will Zazu also be there?”

“Yes, Zazu is called a hornbill,” my mom would reply.

A few kilometers would pass and the next question would come up:

“Mom, will we see Pumbaa?”

“Yes dear, you will see them kneel on their front legs when grazing,”

A while after that I would ask about Scar. My mom told us that Scar is like Nala and Simba, and also like Mufasa and Sarabi. She explained about Bonsai, Shenzi and Ed being nocturnal animals. She also told us that apparently Timon can also be seen in the Kruger (although to this day I haven’t seen him). And so the grownups in the car soon realised that to keep the boredom at bay they can enchant our imagination with the colourful world of Disney’s Lion King. During the ride this world came to life with blue hornbills, colourful jungle scenes and images of our favourite Disney movie coming to life!

We reached the gates very early. At this point, my mom took the liberty of explaining that the Kruger National park is not like a zoo. You cannot get out of your car. You cannot walk up to the animals. The animals do not live in cages, or enclosures, they roam around freely. Sometimes you might see them all in a very short period of time and there might be a chance that you do not see any animals at all. For this, we did not care. We were excited to meet our television friends that belt Hakuna Matata and I Just can’t wait to be king.

That day fate introduced us to Kruger in a way that is so set in my mind, when I close my eyes I can immediately travel to that moment. I can see the exact position we sat in: My dad driving, me sitting behind him. My mom in the passenger seat, my gran behind her, and Susan snuggled between me and gran.

We drove through the gates. The universe conspiring for the first time to give us an introduction to the place we would soon call home. It was still early morning, therefore not being very hot and humid (yet). The air was still crisp and clear. We drove for about five kilometers and didn’t see anything. My mom mentioned how strange it is because you usually see Impala after entering the park. My sister and I was very disgusted because we haven’t yet seen any of the Lion King cast that was promised to us. Lies I tell you! They tricked us!

No, the universe had something else planned for us.

After another kilometer or so my mom exclaimed “Here we go,” and my sister and I sat up straight. Little did we know that our lives were about to be changed forever. About 300 meters in front of us stood something. Something not resembling anything from the Lion King. However, my mom turned around to us and with big wide eyes and an ecstatic smile she announced: “It is Simba!”

The car went quiet. My dad approached slowly.

This animal who was supposed to be Simba was in the middle of the road. Laying there without a problem in the world.

As we got closer, it got up.

“The rest of the pride is supposed to be around here somewhere. Everyone, be on the lookout,” mom whispered.

It gave a yawn. Stretched. And then started walking our way.

The car was now at a complete standstill. You could cut the air with a stone knife of a bushman.

Our family sat there staring in complete silence as this animal came closer.

The grownups in the car had smiles on their faces and wonder in their eyes. My sister and I, on the other hand, did not quite understand.

The beautiful male lion walked past my father’s side of the car.

I can still remember getting up on the car seat standing on my knees for a better view. I was glancing out the window fixated on this creature. And then when it reached my side of the car it stopped. It glanced over at me.

Time stopped.

At this moment, for a split second a five-year-old boy and a mature male lion had a stare down.

It looked me straight in the eyes.

It didn’t blink.

I didn’t blink.

In this paused scene between me and this beast, time and space and matter did not apply.

As if the king of the jungle said in an Aslan type of voice: “Welcome young one! You are going to have a great time.”

This moment was broken when my sister started to cry. She was afraid of the animal.

The stare was broken and the lion continued on his path. I had one last look at him through the rear window of the car. The lion did not look back – as if he knew about all the encounters with its kingdom that is still to come.

My dad started the car. My mom was calming my sister with the help of my gran. I, on the other hand, realized then and there that this would be nothing like The Lion King…

Chapter 1: The Introduction to the Untold Tales of a Bushveld Child

General, Skukuza

When people ask me what it is like growing up in the Kruger National Park in South Africa, I usually mock and tell them that they can wait for my book to be published. A book full of stories about growing up in this wonderful place. A book full of laughs and tears about the place that I call home. A book that can give a little taste of what it is like to grow up in the Kruger.

The problem is this empty threat has always been a dream of mine but never becomes a reality because, well because life happens. So now this empty threat will be turned into blog posts.

A blog just seems like the best place where it is free for all to enjoy my stories. So, therefore, I can now finally share with you the confessions of growing up as a Bushveld Child.

So let me start out with the basics of living in Africa – We do not live in a mud hut and we do not ride elephants and lions to work (sorry for bursting your bubble). We also have internet (obviously, otherwise this would’ve been in book form).

So why do this blog?

While living in Kruger it is as if the universe conspired and made things happen to our family and friends. We have the craziest stories to tell. That is why I thought: “If you enjoy writing, why write fiction when you can tell stories that have already happened?” Stories that are not really part of everyday life. Stories that can be shared with family. Stories that can even be read as bedtime stories. Or stories that can be enjoyed with your morning cup of coffee. Stories that make you love Kruger even more.

So in these blog posts, I plan to tell you stories that would make you laugh. Or that would make you move to the edge of your seat. Stories that might make you cringe with suspense, or a story that might make you cry. I want to tell you about the good times and the bad times while living in paradise. I want to tell you about the place that defined me as a human. So that is why in this post I will start out with some background and take the journey from there. My stories might start in a chronologic order, but later they might jump around in time. So here goes nothing (or everything!). I hope you are as excited as I am about the journey to come. Feast your eyes:

We moved to Kruger in 1996 – a year before I started school.

The Kruger National Park is the largest National Park in South Africa while covering an area of 19 485 square kilometers (7 523 sq miles). It was also South Africa’s first National Park established in 1926. In the park, you can find 147 types of various mammals including the famous big 5 (The lion, buffalo, elephant, rhino, and leopard). About 253 bird species call Kruger its home. While 114 reptiles can also be found in the park – this ranges from snakes to lizards to crocs.

There are 21 rest camps in the park and a few tent camps and also a few private lodges. When moving to Kruger in 1996 we settled down in Satara but later moved to Skukuza. There was a lot of planning and adapting for a family coming from the Free State with kids aged 3 and 6.

As you can see we had plenty to keep us busy with when thinking of encounters and fiascos with animals. This ensured a very unique upbringing by my parents. They had to cater for different dangers and warn us about different things. While we received the speech about not taking candy from strangers, we were also told not to leave the gate open at night because a bushbuck or an elephant might pay your green garden a visit. Or to keep the doors locked – not because of criminals but because you may find a baboon joining you for breakfast.

That is why I invite you to take this journey with me, as I relive these moments on black and white. May this help you love nature more, plan a trip to Kruger or simply think back to the time you visited the park and had some encounters with animals yourself.

Although these stories may seem crazy and dramatic I can assure you they are 100% true.

I currently live in a town called Potchefstoom where I work at the North-West University. Sometimes I find myself waking up at night being sure that I heard the unique sound of a hyena or the roar of a lion. To this day I first think that I am approaching a leopard when it is a stray dog in the distance.  To this day when I see broken branches in the road while driving to work, the first thing that comes to mind is the fact that there might be elephants in the area and not that of the raging storm of the previous night.

My parents are still living in the Kruger, in the small staff village of Skukuza. With about 300 houses.  The village has a fully functional primary school, a police station, post office and a church. You can go for a swim or join the warthogs for a game of rugby or cricket on the schools’ sports ground. The staff village does not have a fence – resulting in animals roaming around freely and staff members living with them in harmony – well mostly.

When I get the time and have the courage for the six-hour drive, I go for a visit. When driving through the Phabeni gate, so many memories cross my mind. Memories of being chased by various animals, memories of the community, memories of being naughty while putting my life in so much danger. Memories etched into my mind. Memories of a place I will forever call home.

My childhood was very different from a normal child growing up in the city or suburbs. But it is a childhood that I won’t give up for the world.