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.

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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…”