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.

Advertisements

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 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 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…