Chapter 9: The toddler and the frog

Satara

For a young one in Kruger, it is expected of you to entertain yourself. Yes, it is exciting to go on wildlife safaris, but this can only happen when mom and dad could come along.

Luckily for me, the camp was my playground. And as mentioned in one of the previous chapters, I loved riding my red and white BMX bike around town. Collecting seeds, feathers, and dung.

Sometimes I would join my dad when he was working in the field.

I had a deal with my dad that if I behave and don’t get into any mischief,  I would be rewarded with an Energade energy drink and a Bar One chocolate bar after lunch. This soon became a tradition and one of the men working with my dad would always tease him if he forgot my chocolate.

These men, along with my father, used to teach me a lot about the bushveld. Animals sound. The names of animals in Shangaan. Bird calls. Tracks. And even shared knowledge about the plants and trees.  While they worked, I got to wander around. Obviously not too far from them. In my mind, I wish I had a dog like Sir Percy Fitzpatrick’s Jock of the Bushveld. Or sometimes I would play the game in my head that my dad would forget me in the field and that I would be raised by a group of Vervet Monkeys.

I always picked up dung and had one of the men identify it for me. As soon as it was identified, I would store it in a little silver container my mom gave me. On this, I used Tip-Ex to draw a snake and skull and wrote a clear warning that no one was allowed to peek inside.

Soon I would also go to school in Skukuza during the week. And there I had friends to play with.

My sister, on the other hand, was not as fortunate. She was too young to go along my dad’s field trips, so she stayed at home with mom. Luckily, she loved playing with our set of plastic animals, watched The Lion King from start to end (sometimes 3-4 times a day) or play other pretend games in the garden.

She and mom soon figured out their little rituals and traditions like going for a walk in the camp, having a plate of chips at the restaurant for lunch or driving to a close by watering hole, Nsemani dam, and just sitting there.

It would however not be fair to say my sister didn’t have any friends. You see, the choice of friends she had was just a bit unorthodox for a little girl.

One day, on one of their walks, my sister came across a few dung beetles. She immediately adopted them. Picking them up and carrying them home with her. Mom tried to persuade her to leave them alone. She told her that they collected dung and rolled them into balls and that this was very disgusting and unsanitary. My sister was in awe, but for all the wrong reasons. She was worried because her pet dung beetles did not have any dung. This actually became the reason for my mom having to drive to the watering hole each morning. My sister demanded fresh dung for her six-legged friends. So my mom prayed that some elephant did their business close to Nsemani dam. My mom would stop. Pick up the fresh, warm elephant dung. Put it in a plastic bag and drive back home. Here it would go into the ice cream container the beetles lived in. My sister would squat by the container and watch the beetles do their business while talking to them, encouraging them to roll their balls of poo.

This continued until gran visited again. She was repulsed by this and could not believe that my mom allowed this disgusting practice. Gran could only stand this for a few days. Then one day she lost it. One morning when my sister was crunched over the container encouraging here friends to roll their balls, Gran swooped in and picked up the container.

“This has to end! It is disgusting!” she said and with these words flung the dung beetle family over the fence. Poo flying all over the place and dung beetles screaming their goodbyes to my sister in a shrill voice. My sister was hysterical, and mom and Gran did not speak to each other for a while.

Luckily these weren’t my dear sister’s only friends.

Another ritual that happened daily was just after bath time in the early evenings. The bathtub had a pipe that ran out in the garden. We soon discovered, that in this pipe lived two frogs. As soon as the water ran out, both frogs would hop out and sit outside the pipe. When all the water ran out they would return to their penthouse pipe home.

Every evening after my sister had her bath she would announce that she would now be visiting her friends. She would put on her PJs and slippers and go sit outside – once again in squatting position.

“Hello, you two!” she would start

“How are you two today? Did you have a nice day? Did you miss me?” were the questions she would start the conversation with. And here she would sit talking to them as if they replied.

Soon this was not only an after-bath time ritual but became a thing that my sister would demand.

“Mom, I want to chat with my friends,” she would say to mom. Mom then had to go and open the faucet and let a little water out. Susan would run out and after a while, my mom would hear

“Hello, you two…” and then the conversation would start.

To this day my parents never wanted to listen to me when I said they should’ve had my sister tested.

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Chapter 8: The Lion, the boy and the doorway

Satara

So, if you live in Kruger you quickly get to know the family you never knew you had. You see, during this time we (all of a sudden) had so many visitors. Your cousins twice removed sister’s child will phone and swap out old stories from their youth, revise some family recipes and eventually tell you how they would love to come and visit you. This however is all code for “Hey, we heard you are living in Kruger, meaning we get to live for free under the name of family.”

Luckily this was not the case with everybody. My mom’s sister had a visit planned from the get go. They said that they would come during the first long weekend on the calendar. And so they did. They were on their way and we had to get our new house ready for the visit.

As soon as they arrived we had to organise the sleeping arrangements, since we have a three-bedroom house, and there are six people visiting. My two eldest cousins would sleep in my sister’s room, while my aunt and uncle would stay in my room. And the rest of us (my sister my two cousins and myself) would share the living room – sleepover style. We had the mattresses ready for us and we were planning on watching late night movies and staying up as late as we could.

We soon had the chance to show the family around. We showed them the camp, we went for a drive to the closest watering hole and by dawn we lit a cozy fire in our back yard where we listened to the sounds of the bushveld in between the crackling fire.

The wind started to become a nuisance and we went inside to have dinner. Soon everybody was retiring to their rooms. The smaller cousins were all in the living room fighting on who gets to sleep on which mattress. For some reason my mom convinced me to sleep closest to the door to the backyard.

“You are the only boy! You can protect the girls from any mean old lion that try to come in,” she joked. A joke she would soon regret.

Everyone was exhausted from the eventful day, so it did not take very long for most of us to fall asleep. Everyone, except me. The wind was still acting up. Creating an earie ambiance outside.

To be quite honest – I was a bit scared. In Kruger there are no streetlights, so when the lights are turned off it gets so dark that you cannot even see your hand in front of you. Even after your eyes have adjusted to the low light. I was on the edge with the howling wind outside and the fact that it was so dark.

And then it started…

From out of nowhere came a growl. So loud and clear. I shot up. Like a meerkat I looked at the area of where the door is. Then nothing. Only darkness.

I breathed deeply and slowly and tried to go to sleep.

But before I could even think of it, the growl was there again. I glanced over at my sister and cousins. How could they not hear this?

It kept on going.

It was so loud that the windows in the house vibrated. I kid you not.

It felt like it was coming closer and closer to the door.

The door that I, the only boy, was supposed to guard. From lions.

Louder and louder it became and the more hysterical I became on the inside.

And then the door began to rattle. And the growl went hand-in-hand with it.

I believed I was brave. I know I am strong. The lion will go away now. Just be brave. You need to protect them.

I took a deep breath.

Go away, go away, go away. I prayed.

Then it came again. The door rattling and the terrible growl. Any moment now that lion will burst through that door.

Then I thought, no boy my age should be expected to fight a hungry lion trying to enter your house. In my mind he was about to eat me and my cousins. This was a job for a grown up.

I shot up and ran through our long hallway to my parents’ room. Tears of fear now pouring from my eyes.

“Mom?”

“Yes, dear?” my mom replied.

“Mom, there is a lion in our yard. Trying to come in and eat us!” I said through the crying.

“It is all in your imagination dear,” said my mom.

“No, it’s not!”

And then it came again. The growl. Loud and clear for me and my mom to hear.

“See! There it is!” I said relieved.

And then my mom started laughing.

“My dear boy, that is your uncle. You know he snores like he is imitating a Massey Ferguson”

I have to admit, my uncle does not snore like any other person. It is as if you are starting up a diesel tractor but in intervals. Loud and clear. Making windows vibrate. No one knows how my aunt can sleep next to him.

“It can’t be! The lion is at the door. It is trying to claw the door open with its huge paws!” I said now hysterical due to the fact that my mother thought a lion eating her son would be funny.

My mom got up and walked with me to the living room. She opened the door and showed me that there was no lion to be afraid of and that it was just the wind making the door rattle.  We also peeked into my room where my aunt and uncle was sleeping, to witness the horrible sound up close.

Moral of the story – never tell a boy that he needs to guard the door from hungry lions.

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.”

 

Chapter 6: Lost in translation

General, Satara

Being new in Kruger we were as curious as a wildcat! We could not help asking other staff what they have seen recently or what encounters they had in previous situations. We loved spending time with rangers and tour guides and tap them for the latest happenings of the bushveld.

I must say, we’ve been living in Kruger for over 20 years and we are still this way.

I must take the time to tip my hat to my parents. Since I could remember they have always cared a lot about the people around them. They will always go the extra mile to make sure that they have a good chat with an old-timer or make sure a young adult who is far away from his parents, has a warm meal. This is just how they are and I can only wish to be like them.

It was in this short time while living in Satara, where my parents befriended a young guide. He was a good chap with splendid manners and (of course) he loved nature. He was the type of guy that you would want your daughter to marry. But with this said and done he was as Afrikaans as can come and terrible in the English language.

At this time the Kruger still had Night Drives that could be led by an Afrikaans guide, however, in some cases this young man (let’s call him Jan for the sake of his identity and to make the tale flow better) had to do a Night Drive in English.

The struggle was real, people!

Jan was quite a talkative guy, but only when he could do it in Afrikaans. When someone spoke to him in English the cat would gobble up his tongue and he would struggle through the conversation.

However, he was our number one entertainer when it came to the latest happenings in Kruger. We often consulted him before going on family drives. He told us where we were most likely to see cheetah or where the lions caught a buffalo. He would let us know where we could find rhinos and shared interesting tales about dung beetles and shongololos (a type of millipede).

The time came where he told us an epic tale that made my parents laugh uncontrollably and to this day one of their favourite tales to share with friends.

One night Jan was getting ready to go out on a Night Drive – one he thought would just be in Afrikaans. However, when he pitched up for work he was informed that all the people in the truck were tourists from overseas. Jan immediately realised that this is a disaster waiting to happen.

Unfortunately, there were no other guides to take over, so Jan was stuck to do the Night Drive – in the best English he could muster.

He decided that he would do the bare minimum. He would only drive and point out the animals that they see, and name the animal.

He thought it would go like this. He would drive. They see a leopard. He says “leopard”. They watch the animal for a few minutes and then drive away. He drives further. Spot an elephant. He announces “elephant” and off they would go again. Plain, simple and foolproof. Or so he thought.

Little did Jan know that the tourists on the Night Drive truck were of the inquisitive kind.

Jan’s plan worked well up to a certain point.

It was when he saw a spotted eagle-owl high up in the tree when the trouble started.

He could correctly identify and pronounce the owl’s name in English (with a heavy accent) but then one of the tourists asked for more information about the owl.

Everyone went quiet with anticipation, waiting for more information.

Jan wanted to explain that most owls can rotate their necks to a maximum of 270 degrees without breaking blood vessels or tearing tendons.

The pressure was on and all poor Jan could get out in a heavy Afrikaans accent was:

“Owls can almost screw their heads right off.”

After that comment, Jan knew he was in more trouble than he had signed up for. He just went on with the drive praying that there would be no more questions.

But we all know that would make a boring story. To be honest the worst was still to come.

After a while, one of the tourists on the truck spotted an interesting looking shrub. The tourist asked Jan to stop and asked the obvious question: What is the shrubs’ name?

The shrub the tourist was pointing to was a Wild Gardenia.

Gardenia thunbergia.

A forest Gardenia.

A White Gardenia.

umKhwakhwane.

umKhangazi.

All these different names for this shrub, however, Jan only knew the Afrikaans for it:

A Wilde Katjiepiering.

Again the whole truck went quiet waiting in anticipation for Jan’s answer on this.

A million things were going through Jan’s mind. He did all he could to think of the right name for it in English but just could not think of the name for this damn tree.

Jan, being a man who is proud of what he does, and also having his own pride did not want to say, “I don’t know,” so he did what he could. He inhaled and gathered all the confidence he could and directly translated it to:

“Sir, that is a Wild Pussy Saucer Tree.”

And that was the end of it. He sat back down and knew he had to return to the camp as soon as possible.

Chapter 5: Water for Elephants

Satara

Fast forward a few weeks. After my dad completed his probation period we finally moved to Kruger for good. As mentioned in the previous story, we now called Satara our home.

Early in Kruger history, before it was proclaimed a national park, the people of the Transvaal Republic divided the region for human settlement. One of the servants, a Hindi chef to one of the first game rangers of these parts, was sent to divide the region. He marked Satara on his map with the Hindi word ‘satra’ meaning seventeen. Some also say that it was named after Satara a district he was from in West India, Maharashtra.

We found ourselves in a very small community in Satara with about 10 houses for staff members to live in.

In my personal opinion, we had the best house out of all these houses in the small staff village. It was situated right next to the border of the camp and was great for viewing wildlife from our garden.

As we were unpacking, we got to plan what goes where and how we would like things to be. My mom being very fond of gardening (which nearly caused her death! Keep on reading this blog and you will find out why) already started planning the garden as well.

We had a beautiful garden rich in green grass and great tall trees supplying us with shade. At the front door, there was a huge wild fig tree. In the backyard, there was a braai area (South-African BBQ and the best you will ever have) under a big Knobthorn tree. This was situated against the fence of the camp. And a few feet from our yard, outside of the camp there was a tiny watering hole.

We all couldn’t wait to have our first braai and view the potential nightlife that might come with it, literally right in front of our doorstep. However, mom said we would do it at the end of the week when we have settled in.

Our house was a spacious three-bedroom house. My parents’ room was situated on the corner looking out at our backyard. Soon, mom and dad would wake up, pull open the curtains and they would see a bushveld scene every morning filled with the iconic Satara grasslands where wildebeest and zebra grazed peacefully.

My room was small, but to be honest, it was all a little boy of my age needed. Susan’s room was a bit bigger and had the view of our backdoor leading to the amazing braai area.

Upon our arrival, we met most staff members who also lived in Satara. Most people would introduce themselves and tell us what they do in the camp. This ranged from tour guides to restaurant managers to shopkeepers to rest camp managers.

The rest camp manager explained to us that living in a smaller rest camp has its benefits. It is a tight-knit community, it is peaceful and it is like being on holiday all the time. He also told us a few tales about things that happened in the camp and about some of the wildlife we might see while sitting in our backyard. As he was telling this he highlighted that every Sunday at 14:50 a group of elephants will swing by and have a drink of water at the watering hole near our backyard.

My mom was very skeptical and thought that this story was just a way to get us excited to live here. I mean, do the elephants have a daily schedule? How would they know what time and day it is and when they needed water? Imagine Mama Elephant: “Come now kids – it is Sunday and almost 14:50, we need to get some water! Let’s go to that place at the corner of Satara. Yes – that’s the one! The one with the sweet water.”

The days went by and my dad went to work and my mom spent the day unpacking, Susan and I helping in some cases but most of the time we stayed out of the way by playing or watching (you guessed it) The Lion King!

We had a few lunches and dinners at the restaurant thanks to our new neighbour, Marco Homan, who was the restaurant manager at the time. He was very old but I liked him a lot. He was Dutch and known in Satara for his short temper. However, I never understood why people complained about his temper. I would regularly go and visit him when I was exploring Satara. We never really spoke much but he always offered me some Dutch candy. I accepted it and then went on my way. In my mind, the scenes that played out between us was kind of like the Disney Pixar movie, Up. It was a Carl Fredrickson and Russell type of relationship.

For me, as a boy, Satara was like a huge playground with loads to do and to explore. I use to ride around on my red BMX bike – pretending to be The Great Outdoor Adventurer of my time. Indiana Jones style. Collecting seeds and wild animal dung, visiting Marco at the restaurant, swinging by the shop to get a treat from the people working there, going for a chat with the petrol attendants at the petrol station. It was great. Even in the first week of living in Kruger I discovered that my bike can get me where I need to be in the camp.

Every evening just before the sun set we would take a break from unpacking and sit outside in our backyard. The last sounds of the day would fill the air and soon overlapping with them, the first sounds of the night. You could hear the amazing sound of partridges being upset about something, or the cheer of the Bushveld kingfisher, and then came the Black-backed jackal in the distance accompanied by a choir of crickets. Later on you could hear the sound of an African drum announcing the restaurant was now serving dinner. These were the sweet sounds of Satara. Of Africa. It made me feel at home. It made me feel at one with the earth and this amazing continent. We did this every night of our first week, however the first week was soon coming to an end.

The unpacking was going well and, as promised, we had our first braai in our back yard on the Saturday night. We heard tons of nightlife but unfortunately the animals were not as welcoming as the people of Satara. We wished that they would come to the fence. We went to bed that night a bit disappointed. Although we love our new home and could not wait for what was still to come, we really hoped that we could see some animals from our back yard.

The next day came and the last unpacking had to be done. My mom wanted to finish up so that we could relax. We all worked hard to accomplish this goal but as the afternoon crept in my dad decided that he wanted to go for his ritual Sunday afternoon nap. My mom thought it would be a good idea for Susan and me to join him while she continued unpacking the last items. So Susan went to bed with my dad and I went to my room.

My mom continued with the unpacking but after a while also wanted to take a break. However, she was not in the mood for a nap. So she decided that what better way to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon by being under a tree in nature. She grabbed a quilt and went outside to our backyard.

There she spread the quilt on the grass and laid down on it with a magazine she could page through. After a while, this led to her being drowsy, due to the relaxing sounds of nature playing the best piece of music that has ever been written. She struggled to keep her eyes open and after a while gave in. She dosed off. Taking one of the best naps she has ever taken.

The sound of a twig breaking in a nonchalant fashion woke my mother up.  She gathered her thoughts to understand where she was. As she opened her eyes and gained her vision she saw the gentle giants right in front of her. While she was asleep the famous herd of elephants approached the watering whole without making a sound. There they were in full majestic glory, quenching their thirst about 40 meters (131 ft) from where my mom was. My mom marvelled in complete awe of the amazing creatures that has come to brighten her day. It was the first great memory of our new home that was being made.

And as my mother realised this she looked at her watch. She smiled because it was 14:50 on the dot.

Every Sunday thereafter our initial welcoming committee would come for their drink and soon became friends who became family.

Chapter 4: Just another day at the office

Satara

Okay enough with the airy-fairy stuff! Let’s get down to business with an exciting story. Oh, you are gonna love this one! Bear with me as I set the scene (even if there are no bears in Kruger):

A few weeks passed and my dad found out he got the job in Kruger. However, before we could pack up and move to the Kruger, my dad had to work a probation period 3 months in Satara. So my mom, Susan and I stayed behind in Welkom while my dad set out to work at his new job.

During this time mom had to pack up our home in Welkom and we had to live with close friends of ours. Every night mom would phone dad to check in and see if he is okay and if he hasn’t had second thoughts. This was before cell phones and my dad had to go to a payphone for this ritual. Each night at 19:00 sharp my mom would phone to the number and my dad would answer.

My mom took the time to tell my dad what we were up to and what she had to keep up with. This involved the packing, the moving company, cute things that Susan did, me wanting to run away at one point and various other stories.My dad not being a man of many words just listened and answered in short sentences on all my mother’s questions.

This changed one night. Mom didn’t have a chance to tell any of the cute stories or give moving arrangements to my dad. Something happened to my father and he had to tell my mother.

This was about a month into my dad’s probation period. The payphone rang in Satara and my dad picked it up.

“You would never believe what happened to me today!” he said to my mother.

My mother, being surprised to hear more than five words out of my father’s mouth was immediately hooked and encouraged him to tell the tale.

Being an electrician in the Kruger not only involved all the technical work in the campsite, but also some work in the field. So my dad was responsible for a certain area in the Kruger and if something went wrong he had to go fix it. He also had to do maintenance rounds in this same area – this due to the fact that our laughing friends the hyena sometimes dug up some cables and chewed on them.

On this day my dad had to go to one of the private camps, Talamati.

Talamati meaning place with lots of water. Ironically the river that runs close by is dry.

My dad’s mission for the afternoon was to check in on the solar panel station that supplies the electricity for the pump of a close-by watering hole.

So my dad set out with his bakkie (a small truck every South African man dreams of driving) with a few men that worked with him. This was about an hour and a half’s drive from Satara.

Close to Talamti camp stood a small enclosure in the middle of the field. You gain access through a small locked gate. Inside the enclosure, the solar panels were set up. The maintenance work that had to be done took up a great deal of the afternoon. By the time my dad and the workers were done, it was late afternoon and they had to return to the camp because even official vehicles were not allowed to drive after hours (well only on certain designated roads).

So the team started to pack up and load all the tools they used onto the bakkie, that stood about 50 meters (164 ft) away from the enclosure. When the loading was done my dad went into the enclosure where the solar panels were set up just to make sure everything was fine, while the workers are waiting for him at the bakkie.

At some point my dad had a cold chill running through his body. Something told him to turn around. As he did he saw that he left the gate open to the enclosure. In his defense, he did not think that the check-up would take this long. This was a stupid mistake – the reason being he wasn’t alone anymore.

Joining him for his check-up just outside the enclosure were two large lionesses. However, they were not practicing good electrician skills. They were ready for dinner and already in hunting position.

There was no room for escaping. The only way out was through the gate of the enclosure. My dad had to act quickly.

He dashed and closed the gate of the enclosure. However, the lionesses did not mind. They had him trapped inside the enclosure, waiting for him outside. As if they knew it was only a matter of time.

My dad did not want to make a sound.

They kept lurking around the enclosure. As if waiting for a mouse to come out of its hole.

The bushveld tango, ladies, and gentlemen!

My dad did not lose eye contact with them. And then as the two were dancing the dance of death my dad’s heart sank. Checkmate.

The lionesses were not in a hurry and like cats kept on playing the game with their pathetic little mouse.

My dad now turned to the Big Guy upstairs as his last resort. Praying uncontrollably that in some way a massive phoenix from the heavens could come down and pick him up. However, most religious people pray to a god that is realistic and do not believe in fancy gestures like sending fiery birds from the sky to save you. In my dad’s case, it was the same.

Luckily for him, one of the workers started to wonder what was keeping my dad so long and he got out of the bakkie to check on him. He saw that my dad was about to be dinner.

Thinking quickly, the man asked the other men to help him. They took out all the shovels they had in the bakkie and started banging the shovels against one another.

Clank, clank, clank they sounded.

The lionesses got a fright and ran away as fast as they could. The day was saved! (Thank goodness! Obviously – otherwise there would have been only 4 Chapters to my blog.)

My dad sighed with relief and then walked out of the enclosure, closed the gate, thanked the men and they all drove back to Satara in quiet.

As my dad finished his story over the phone there was a complete silence on the other end of the line.

My dad could not figure out if my mom was still there or if she was crying or maybe even praying.

“Hello, are you still there?” he asked

“Yes,” replied my mom

“Are you okay?” asked my father

“Yes, yes. I am.” assured mom.

“So what do you think about all this?” asked my dad with hesitance that my mom might say that the move to Kruger is not the best idea for our family.

Another long pause over the phone.

“I’m just glad…” my mom started on the other end followed by another pause.

“I’m just glad that I am not the one that has to wash your underwear tonight…”

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…