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.

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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 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…