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.