Afoot in the South African bush

A New Yorker ventures on a walking safari into the wild world of wildebeest, Cape buffalo and dung beetles.

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“Do you know why I smoke in the bush?” asks Leslie Brett, a South African safari guide, as he takes a lethal drag on his harsh Lexington cigarette.

“To scare dangerous animals away?” guesses Jane, one of the students in his outdoor classroom.

“Nope,” he says, fiddling with the rifle strapped across his back.

“To see which way the wind is blowing the smoke?” I offer.

“No,” he says, exhaling a substantial cloud and pausing in this Socratic dialogue. “The reason I smoke is because I’m scared shitless every time I come out here.” He breaks into a naughty schoolboy’s giggle.

His students laugh, too, savoring a light moment in an otherwise terrifying nature walk. Just an instant later, our guard is back up — we’re about to sneak past an active hyena lair as the nocturnal creatures sleep. The collective heart of our single-file line skips a beat as Les sharply rebukes us, “Be quiet!” Creepy whitebacked vultures circle high above us. Fresh lion tracks on the trail hint at what may lurk beneath the waist-high reeds. Even ticks, sensing our exuded carbon dioxide, leap onto our socks.

So this is what it’s like traipsing through the African veld — unequivocally frightening! It’s our fourth day in the bush, but our most forbidding so far, as the lion spoor is our first sure sign of the king of the jungle’s presence. It’s not like I’m unprepared for a chance encounter with a lion — I do have a notebook. Oh yes, and a blue Bic pen. It’s just that, well, lions and other members of the cat family have yet to familiarize themselves with the intimidating potency of small, hand-held writing instruments.

The loud crack of a rifle — that they know. And yet even though Les has a gun, somehow I can’t help but think that hiking through the South African bush with only a pen and paper for a sword and shield has to be one of the most insanely scary things I’ve ever done. And it’s only going to get worse: Tonight we are scheduled to sleep under the stars — sans tents.



Oddly, we are not prisoners banished to this sub-Saharan Siberia — we’ve paid to be students in this wilderness course, “Secrets of the Game Ranger.” Our group of seven consists of bush guide Les, his deputy Kevin, and five students: me, a 33-year-old writer from New York; Stephen, a middle-aged architect from Kent, England; Alastair, 20, a windshield manufacturer from Liverpool; Jane, a thirty-something actress from London; and Pietro, 53, a nasty little South African white supremacist who thinks his country would benefit from a reinstitutionalizing of apartheid. We are all attempting to earn our game ranger certificates, and to do so, we have to pass Les’ exam at the end of the course. Hence our studious note-taking.

We first caught up with our hosts in the Johannesburg airport. It was hard to miss them. Among the many international vacationers and domestic business travelers, Les and Kevin were the only ones wearing khaki safari shirts with matching shorts. Their ensemble also included important-looking black business briefcases — they described themselves jokingly as “bush executives.” With their trim haircuts, clipped mustaches, mirrored shades, muscular builds, brown uniforms and no-nonsense expressions, they looked more like L.A. cops on vacation.

For three days, we acclimated to the ways of the wild — sleeping in the bush; eating ostrich steaks and impala stew; learning faunal factoids such as the fact that herbivorous giraffes will chew on bones to get calcium. Now we’re ready for a more intense wilderness experience. It’s our fourth day, and we’re trekking in the Timbavati, a private game reserve in South Africa’s Mpumalanga safari area, through thorny acacia scrub that tears at our clothes. We come to a dry riverbed, nervously spinning as we walk to preempt a blindside attack. The air is rife with the putrid smell of a rhino calf’s remains. Nothing is left of him but a few bones and the remnants of his hooves — our friends the hyenas and vultures have disposed of the rest. Any sane trekkers would vacate the premises immediately, but we’ve paid $1,500 to have such terrifying encounters. We press on.

We are learning those intangible facts that separate experts from neophytes, men from boys. The data to which we are suddenly privy are the trade secrets of safari-meisters: the fact that termite mounds always lean to the northwest (useful if you lose your sense of direction), or that, in a pinch, the leaves of the African wattle tree can be used as toilet paper. But I’ll let you in on the biggest game-ranging secret of all: The master key to the closely guarded mysteries of the wild is dung.

Bathroom habits of the indigenous fauna are an integral part of our course. Yes, modern-day Doctor Doolittles don’t bother to talk to the animals — it’s the other end that fascinates them. Rhinos, for example, will always defecate in their own personal lavatories, called middens. Ostriches, like other birds, will drop a double-dynamite combination by always defecating and urinating at the same time. This information is invaluable when tracking these creatures, or just for keeping tabs on which ones are lurking in your immediate vicinity. Dung is really quite a revealing byproduct.

But it is the animals themselves, of course, that are the main
attraction of any nature walk, and the most prized sightings are, in the
vernacular of the safari business, the Big 5. The so-called Big 5 — lion, leopard, buffalo, rhino and elephant — are so
named because they are the five most dangerous animals to encounter on
foot. On our second night, when we first arrived in the Timbavati, we
had our first Big 5 sighting in an open-air jeep — a herd of about 400
Cape buffalo. We would learn later just how dangerous these can be: A
lone male buffalo is also known as a “dagga” bull, dagga also being
South African slang for a potent home-grown marijuana. If a dagga bull
sees you on foot, we are told, he will chase you and kill you. But on
our second night, still rookies and more interested in big cats,
elephants and rhinos, we didn’t appreciate the rarity of the moment.
Besides which, the buffalo is by far the least cool of the Big 5. It’s
like getting excited to see a member of the Rat Pack in concert and
then getting Joey Bishop.

The next morning, our first on-foot animal sighting gives us students a
short scare: The dagga bull we think we see skirting back and forth
across the plain, trumpeting a warning sign to his companions, turns out to be a wildebeest. As the wildebeest scampers away and we breathe a
sigh of relief, Les gives us instructions on what to do in case we
actually do encounter any of the Big 5 on foot. “If you see a lion,”
Les instructs us, “lock arms with each other and hold perfectly still —
don’t crouch, and certainly don’t run.” Running, we are told, will only
trigger the lion’s predatory instincts, and get us killed.

“If, however,
we see an elephant, rhino or buffalo,” Les goes on, “and they should
charge us, then run like hell and climb up a tree.” In my neurotic New
York mind-set, I ask, with Oliver Stone-like skepticism, “What if you
start running from the rhino or elephant, and then a lion sees you and
starts chasing you?” Dismissing the possibility that the animals could
be in any kind of Big 5 conspiracy plot with a snort and a roll of his
eyes, Les repeats his emergency contingency plans. Of course, when the
contingency plan involves running and climbing, I wish I was back in the
friendly confines of, say, the South Bronx.

Moving forward after the wildebeest incident, Alastair spots a black
object just up ahead of us on the trail. It turns out to be a half-eaten
black and white Converse trainer. Les explains that the shoe almost
certainly belonged to a Mozambican refugee, eaten by a lion. Mozambique,
just now recovering from a ruinous two-decade civil war, borders South
Africa to the east. Thus, Les explains, it is not uncommon for refugees
from Mozambique to avoid customs and attempt to cross into South Africa
through Kruger National Park and the Timbavati. There are no statistics
kept on this, but Les estimates that seven Mozambicans are killed by
lions every month.

As we approach a small watering hole, the overcast skies open up and we
take shelter under a jackalberry tree. Large golden orb spiders
patiently await their next insect meal on webs that are 17 times as
strong as steel. Already thoroughly soaked, we decide not to wait out
the rain any longer and we push ahead. The trail turns muddy as our walk
takes us remarkably close to seven jackals, some zebras, wildebeests
and giraffes. The rain finally lets up as we pause on Jackal Plain for a
brief lunch of cheese, crackers and apples. We are careful not to let
fall any apple seeds, which could introduce an exotic tree to the area
and wreak havoc with the present ecosystem. Even though it’s winter in
Africa, the sun is still strong enough to quickly dry the wet clothes on
our backs.

We start our return journey back to camp. Les stops suddenly and
pulls his rifle off his shoulders. “We’ve got a problem,” he says.
About 150 yards in front of us is a lone Cape buffalo — a dagga bull.
“If he sees us,” Les says gravely, “Kevin will lead you out the way we
just came. And you’ll run. I’ll stay here and try to distract him.”

Fortunately, Mr. Dagga is too engrossed in grazing to bother with a
bunch of tourists, but his presence forces us to take a different route
back to camp. We proceed without any further incidents. Home in the
dining hall, with fruit bats sleeping upside down above us and a family
of dwarf mongooses darting about our feet, the property manager, Happy,
serves us a leftover lunch of impala roast.

Happy is a character too clichéd even for central casting. A lithe, loopy
soul with a quick laugh and a Zen spirit, the guy never speaks unless he
is asked a question directly, and even then he is likely to answer back
in the form of a question. Happy has no TV or radio and doesn’t get any
newspapers, and he’s been managing the camp for nine years. Where “camp”
ends and the bush begins is actually a debatable point — animals
certainly act as if they didn’t get the memo, as they wander through the
camp with impunity. Last night at dinner, Stephen and Alastair reported
excitedly that a giraffe came thrillingly close to their cabin’s terrace.
The bungalows are built on stilts, making them more difficult for
predators to access — still, each terrace is adorned with a giraffe
femur, useful to smack a hyena on the noggin if he gets uppity.

Our cabins are situated along a riverbed, one that flows full in the wet
season and becomes an animal highway in the dry season. There is no
plumbing in the camp; the adjacent shower operates on a
rope-pulley-bucket system. We are each rationed a bucket of hot
water in the morning; we lower the shower bucket and fill it with hot
water, then hoist it back up. Farther down the road is the loo, which,
like an experimental drama, has broken down the fourth wall, allowing
one to sightsee wildlife while one takes care of other business. But
going to the bathroom suddenly takes on a Clint Eastwood quality: Do you
feel lucky, punk? Each trip to the loo has to be weighed against a
potential predator encounter, one in which you could be fatally caught
with your pants down.

By our fourth evening, we are ready for the biggest challenge of our
course — the overnight camp-out. Our safaris have been relatively
fruitful up to this point: We have seen impala, hippos, warthogs,
waterbucks, duikers, bush babies, genet cats, chameleons and scores of
bird and insect species. But aside from the two separate Cape buffalo
sightings, the closest we have come to Big 5 has been the spoor of a
lion and the dung of elephants and rhinos. Tonight we are going to see
if our dangerous animal hosts are as elusive at night as they are from 9
to 5.

We head for a spot that we had scouted yesterday, where plenty of
zebras, giraffes and vervet monkeys had congregated. Les likes to
establish a civilized ambience in his wilderness outposts: He brings
lawn chairs, silverware and dishes, little buffet tables for our dinner
and even a washbasin on a small night stand. And, of course, tons of
booze.

We set up our sleeping bags on a filthy blue tarp as Les and Kevin —
whom we have dubbed “the Khaki Brothers” — prepare a gargantuan feast:
scores of impala kebabs, lamb chops and boerewors (sausage),
accompanied by pap (a lumpy but tasty potato mass), baked potatoes
and a huge salad. A South African cookout is called a braai, and
clearly this is a braai of epic proportions. We take turns scooping
burning embers from the bottom of the fire pit and putting them on a bed
of sand, on top of which the meat sizzles on grills.

Everyone in our party, with the exception of Pietro, has bonded
extremely well up to this point. Pietro is a complete nuisance, like a
little Napoleon school prefect. Though he is by far the oldest of our
group, he is constantly kissing up to Les. The question he asks before
we go on every field trip is, “Les, should we bring our notebooks, Les?”
Another favorite pastime of his is “Wanker One-upmanship.” When Michael
Jackson’s name comes up in casual conversation, for example, Pietro
notes how Jacko had expressed interest in purchasing Pietro’s Cape Town
manse. Same with Princess Di. And when Margaret Thatcher is mentioned,
Pietro notes how the Iron Lady had been subject to the same weapons
search as all his other guests at a party in, what else, his Cape Town
home.

The Brits, on the other hand, in spite of the cliché, are politeness
personified. Steven is a proper English gentleman — so proper, in fact,
that earlier he had prefaced a mild rebuke of Ronald Reagan by first
obtaining my permission to make a possibly offensive remark about a
former American president. Alastair is a thoughtful young lad who enjoys
wildlife and photography. Jane is perceptive and insightful, and brave
enough to spend 10 days in the wilderness with six men.

When done eating their lamb chops, Les, Kevin and Pietro — the native
South Africans — chuck the bones cavalierly over their shoulders. If I
am concerned that the refuse will attract predators, I am flat-out
petrified by what transpires next. Les, clearly sloshed out of his mind
at this point and having some good fun at the city folks’ expense,
stands up, grabs his own throat and delivers his impression of the
wildebeest distress call, which to humans sounds like rapper Biz Markie
on helium getting a wedgie — but which
predators hear as a Pavlovian dinner bell. We all sit frozen in terror,
mouths agape, as Les bleats his wild, inebriated message to our
free-ranging animal audience. Seconds after he finishes, hyenas howl
their approving response. I stand up slowly from my lawn chair and try
to position myself between the chairs and the fire, wheeling around in
full circles with my flashlight.

I momentarily regain my calm center by staring up at the gorgeous full
moon and the constellations — Orion, Scorpio, Southern Cross — that
are not easily visible in, say, Manhattan. But when it comes time for
bed, my apprehensions sit in my stomach like a lump of pap. Les
divides the night into shifts of half an hour each, from midnight until
6. Needless to say, there are only seven of us, so when Les is awakened
at 4 in the morning, he falls victim to his own mathematical miscalculation. My
shift is from 2 until 2:30, but when I go to bed at 11:30, all I
can think of is that either a hyena is going to bite my face off or a
crocodile is going to bite my entire head off. I place my shoes between
my head and any approaching intruder — yeah, that ought to stop him.

The next thing I see is Alastair’s face, waking me for my shift. He
stokes the fire while I get my shoes on. And then it is just me and the
wild. I’m so scared that I can’t even move from my chair for the first
three minutes, but somehow, after those three minutes are up, soothed by
the crackling of the fire and the enormity of the southern sky, I relax
and roam the camp a little. I munch on some leftover food sitting on the
buffet table. I stoke the fire. I shine my flashlight. There are
absolutely no animals to be seen. It is a tremendous relief, and yet
also a bitter disappointment. And before I know it, my shift is over. I
am enjoying it so much, and my adrenaline is pumping so thoroughly, that
I momentarily consider not waking Stephen, but at 2:35, drowsiness kicks
in. I wake the architect and drift off to my hyena dreams.

The next morning we awake to find we are still alive. We pack up as Les
tells us to leave nothing behind but our footprints — those and the
17,000 cigarette butts that he has tossed into the fire pit. So we leave
the Timbavati having seen only one of the Big 5. It is disappointing,
but Les tells us that is the nature of this kind of tour. There are
private parks, he explains, that tag leopards with radio collars, so
that when guests arrive, the rangers can pinpoint the leopard’s
location, and then all the park’s jeeps will converge on the surprised
cat. Les’ tours are much more authentic, a genuine “what you see is
what you get” experience. Plus, the element of surprise is always with
us — we never know what we are going to see.

To make ourselves feel better, we congratulate ourselves on having seen
the Little 5, our own designation consisting of four wildebeests and a
dung beetle. We have learned in our course work that the dung beetle
plays a critical role in the ecosystem, not only in removing dung, but
also in returning it to the earth, thus giving the soil invaluable
nutrients. About 30 seconds after we enter the property of our next
camp, Moholoholo, I see a dung beetle on the side of the road rolling a
ball of dung — the stage just before it plants its eggs in the dung and
buries the ball in the ground. It is a quintessential Little 5 sighting
and, believe it or not, for an urban boy from the wilds of New York City
more familiar with cockroaches and large rats, it is genuinely exciting.

In addition to being a private game park, Moholoholo is also home to an
animal rehabilitation center, one that nurses injured or abandoned
animals back to health. Here we actually do bag some Big 5 sightings —
lions and a leopard — as well as a variety of raptors, such as the
dangerous martial eagle. But seeing a lion or a leopard in a zoo-like
rehab center as opposed to in the wild is kind of like seeing Iggy Pop
in concert in 1996 as opposed to 1976 — equal parts exciting and
pathetic.

There is also a bizarre interactive element to the rehab center. Our
party is encouraged to enter the vulture cage with 12 birds, and we take
turns lifting them up with a falconer’s glove. For some reason, four of
the vultures take a keen interest in relentlessly pecking at Pietro’s
socks, much to everyone else’s amusement. We are then invited to stand
inside one end of the martial eagle cage while the bird is perched on
the opposite end. The property manager, Brian Jones, stands between us
as the bird flies onto his glove, allowing us to take photographs of her
in flight. Our next stop takes us into the lion cage, where a young
female cub called Sara can be stroked by careful visitors.

Later that night, I have a few beers with some of the staffers, and I
ask what the likelihood is that, one day, Sara will get confused over
who is a guest and who is a meal. One of the staffers takes a deep
breath and says, quietly, that that day is now. Sara can easily kill a
man. Same with the martial eagle and the vultures. The martial eagle is
familiar with only one human — Brian Jones. When one of Jones’
assistants performed the mid-flight photo trick, the eagle became
confused and, after landing on this poor kid’s arm, put her talons in
his face — one each in his lip, ear, skull, and eye. And this
unfortunate mishap occurred only two weeks before we arrived! I meet
this fellow, Greg, that night at dinner, and his scars are still fresh.
He notes candidly that his mother implored him not to work in the
martial eagle cage anymore — and he doesn’t have the heart to tell her that
he’s working half the day in the lion cage now.

Also at dinner, we get a taste of just how far South Africa has to go in
racial relations. A 21-year-old white girl joyfully tells a tale in which
a “little pickaninny” is almost poisoned to death by a deadly snake,
much to the delight of the dinner table’s other white diners. In fact, I
have been in Africa for about a week by this point, and have yet to have one
significant interaction with a black person. And not only have I been shocked
by Pietro’s boorish behavior, but I’ve also been blown away by the manner in
which our white bush guides, normally very good blokes, change
behaviorally when interacting with South African blacks. In one incident, I was unsure whether it was
proper to take a photograph of a black parking lot attendant. I asked
Kevin if he thought it was within the realm of politesse, and he assured
me it was OK. “Besides,” he said, “if he gives you any shit, we’ll
just shoot ‘im.” Clearly, political correctness is not yet even a
twinkle in some white South Africans’ eyes.

After a few more days in the bush, firing guns, identifying bird calls
and drinking many more beers, we are ready for our final exams. Alastair
wins the student Rumble in the Jungle, scoring an impressive 90 on his
test. I earn the second-worst tally — a 78 — but at least I have an
excuse. It’s difficult to keep notes while walking, especially when your
eyes are looking up every few seconds to see if a leopard is about to
maul you into next week. Trying to decipher his notes one evening,
all Steven could make of one passage was “bent parrot pie.” Still, I
receive my game-ranger certificate from a generous Les.

He may have
created a monster. Now, patrolling the concrete jungles of Manhattan, I
tell any and all Gothamites who will listen about how lichen always
grows on the east; how plants can warn each other about approaching
herbivores by releasing tannin, a bitter hormone picked up by the wind;
and the wonderful world of dung. And believe me, there is no shortage of
that in New York.

Lance Gould is a deputy features editor at the New York Daily News. He is also the author of "Shagadelicaaly Speaking: The Words and World of Austin Powers."

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