Challenger Logo by Alan White   A Science Fiction Fanzine   Spring - Summer 2008

 

Truman in trouble.

James Bacon

During our three week trip to South Africa for our wedding and honeymoon, my wife was quite insistent that she arrange as much as possible in a very structured way. This is good, I would have done the usual things. Not her, being a local she was keen that I got to see the best of South Africa while meeting my own personal requirements of seeing the locals, and how things are and the bookshops, she also wanted my experience to be at the top end of what is possible.

Our Room

She was keen that we finished in style and had booked us for three nights into the Thanda game reserve. Now I wasn’t sure what to expect. I am very ignorant of these things and how they work. The game reserves essentially are huge tracts of land, where animals can live freely, scientists work out how much land each herd, or pack of animals need and so the reserves are thus sized.

Reserves are quite massive. Thanda is about 9,000 hectares, and they have purchased another 5000. Within this there is a lodge and accommodation and then one heads out from the lodge into the reserve and you have a tracker and a guide and they show you things.

Gosh. It’s so much more. The reserve was massive. It had its own mountains, its own low lands, and everything in between. We were transferred from Thonga Beach to the reserve and met Paul, one of the guides, he was very nice and cool, but worried we might miss the evening drive, we got there just in time and met our team. Truman was our Guide and Musi was our tracker. So we boarded their landrover, greeted two Irish girls, two Londoners, two Germans and off we went.

The drive was superb, we saw giraffe, zebra, gazelles all types of creatures. Then we saw Rhino. Gosh, they are such a fantastic beast, so big, very gentle, but they have a temper and of course are heavy, low set and fast and if they charge you, it’s not so good, you could be in real trouble. I just wish we could tame them like a horse, I know that sounds terrible, but they are so powerful and prehistoric looking and armoured. As we go along, we meet a Bull Elephant coming down the dirt road we are going up. I am shocked by the silence. There is no noise to this beast as it walks. It’s like confronting a double decker bus with ears. Truman explains that the size of their feet mean they spread their weight and they don’t make the noise people expect at all. He comes lumbering towards us, walking steadily and we reverse. Truman explains this male is one of two, he is the lesser of the two males, the other one is with the breeding herd probably. There is expansion planned for Thanda and much land has been purchased, so Truman explains they have some females already in another area, and he ‘talks’ to them. He seems lonely, but this is the way. We reverse out of his way, Truman shows respect, he explains and it’s wonderful as he passes quite close to us, occasionally stopping and we reverse giving him his due space.

Wild Dogs

Then it’s the sun downers stop. This is where we stop, the box on the back of the land rover is opened and all type of drink is produced and we relax and watch the sun go down. Then it’s things in the darkness, Musi’s light catches the eyes of animals and we get to see a wide variety of nocturnal creatures.

Truman explains everything, in a relaxed way. We even stop and he shows us the stars. It’s great – the sky is so clear and so black and the stars so bright. He makes learning easy and we just lap up everything as we look skywards. It’s a wonderful introduction into the pleasure that is Thanda. We learn how the owner, a Swede originally was a hunter, and how hunting has actually contributed hugely to conservation and the spread of reserves, but he saw the light and he now has the reserve for just viewing. He is a relative of the King of his country and as one can imagine the lodge is just incredible, the king’s family has stayed and the Zulu King opened it. We are in our own private house, a massive traditionally styled building. It has a sitting room, a massive bedroom, a showroom and toilet and a bath room that opens out. There is a decked area, a private plunge pool, a garden eating area, and an outdoor shower. All private, all just for us. There are about 20 of these buildings, and they are set quite high, so the side with the plunge pool and decking is about ten feet off the ground, which is good as beyond is the reserve. It’s a dream come through.

There are two drives a day. One in the morning and one in the evening. We are here for six drives over four days.

The next day is the last for the two Irish girls, they are keen to see the cats and Truman is keen to show them the cats. So we head out at about 6am and it’s nicely cool and we again see birds, and spring bok and impala. It’s nice and relaxed. We find some water buffalo. They kill more people than any other of the big five animals in South Africa. They seem OK, rather like big cattle, but are quite protective and can be really aggressive, they are much bigger than I expect.

Water Buffalo

Truman knows the lions are about, himself and Musi inspect tracks. Musi sits on a seat that is welded to the bonnet of the landrover, he has incredible eyes and scans the dirt as we pass over. The reserve is criss-crossed with a variety of tracks and roads, varying in condition. Truman decides he will go on foot. He tells Musi to take us for a spin, while he looks for lion. He has a radio, his rifle and off he silently disappears after his quarry into the bush.

This is a picture of Musi at work

We drive on seeing more animals including a herd of giraffe, then the word is on the radio. Cheetah. Gear changes happen in quick succession. We are suddenly propelled into the seats as the land rover which has been steady so far lurches into speed. Cats are the things people like to see, I don’t mind to be honest, for me it’s all wonderful. So we pick up speed at an incredible pace. The landrover is new, it’s a long wheelbase model with a frame attached behind the driver, with three rows of seats that can accommodate a total of nine people. The seats are nice, but it’s exposed and we feel the speed. We hit the dirt road at a shocking speed and in the distance another land drover is also vectoring in on our destination, the dust rising in its wake, we scream forward as the converging point nears, I wonder who will let off and allow the other way, neither it seems as timing is impeccable as we hit the junction just ahead and maintain pace and fly down a better road now.

Soon we see another landrover near a solitary tree, and we cut power and coast in towards the scene, Musi guiding the landrover around the tree and we gently stop.

And there in the shade are two beautiful cheetah. We are very hushed but I can hear the pumping in my ears. That was a rush. We sit and watch and take photos and Musi whispers that they are a pair of Cheetahsmales who have done a deal to hunt together, but will separate at mating time. They look hungry he reckons, and are resting in the shade. It’s incredible. They get up lazily, stretch and start to wander a bit but not much.

cheetah

Then more radio. Truman has found the lions. We back away gently, do a swing about turn and the Landrover we beat is already speeding away, and the one behind us now that it’s clear of the cheetahs is also revving up. We belt along, the wind and dust flying. We are at some speed. Musi is determined and we leave the road and head on dirt road our speed is surprising, next we hear more talk on the radio, and something is wrong.

Musi tells us. Truman is in Trouble, please hold on. Hold on I think, holy Mary mother of god, but this is serious now, Truman is in trouble, the accelerator is pressed to the floor and the landrover earns its money as we power ahead, my arse leaves the seat and meets it repeatedly, we are now all white knuckled, urging Musi onward, we hold on as tight as we can and the land drover flies from good road to rough dirt track and then through the bush. We get to another junction, but the other landrovers are now holding back, they understand that Musi must go to his guide, his partner, his mentor and that this is not a race to see an animal anymore. We take some awesome corners, bouncing and bounding along, my wife hits her bum off the seat rest quite nastily, but we all urge onward.

We see Truman ahead, he is low, quiet and we slow and swing in front of him, and all is OK. He explains there are lions very close. He hops in, and guides Musi forward. There is a massive gully, a drain that is occluded by trees and brush, and in the drain we see two females, I just make out a male as he gets up to wander off and then we see the cubs. WE watch for a long while. Taking photos, the Irish girls are ecstatic.

We then reverse out allowing the other vehicles in, and as we head off at a relaxed pace, Truman explains that he was scouting around the area, and saw nothing in the drain, and then next thing not ten feet away a cub popped through the bush to look at him, followed by another and then by their mom. Hence the call. Not a good situation. He backed away calmly quietly, and they retreated back into the drain, under some bush.

On our third day, something really amazing happened. Truman reckoned we should revisit the drain and we did, but this time the lions were in the open and we got really quite close to the male, he was awesome but on one side of a bush in a group of trees. It was very slow and careful, as we got close to him, squeezing through a gap and at one stage he gave the landrover a real look of disdain, but he didn’t move. It’s amazing how the landrover can be manoeuvred around obstacles, and suddenly there is the King of the Jungle.

This is a picture of the king of a lion

Later that day, it just got better. We were along a road and Musi spots something, it was luck mixed with his skilled eyes. In the deep thick foresty bush, he saw a cat. We could see it, barely, fortunately the lodge has binoculars and I had borrowed a set, so we could see through the foliage, a cat. Initially I wondered if it was a cheetah, it was on its side a bit, with light fur exposed. It was a leopard I was told and I could see it was stockier and had a different upper coat and bigger head. But more movement, it was suckling its cub. We just sat in silence. I tried to take some pictures, I had my wife’s Nikon digital SLR, but the auto focus wasn’t having it, and of course I stupidly didn’t put it into manual. It was awesome. The little one got up and looked out at us.

Here is a leopard if you can see it

After a while, Truman called it in and the other landrovers arrived, engines off, coasting, just the sound of tyres on stones. Everyday was like some sort of movie. I had never ever imagined that these animals would look so prestigious and mighty as they do in their natural surroundings. They are in charge here. The owner interestingly has never seen a leopard in the reserve, something that does upset him, but Truman who has been at Thanda since it opened and a guide for many years and a game warden chasing poachers before that, found a leopard for the owners mother and wife, which apparently was some bet, but has yet to do so for the owner. We are congratulated Musi. As did other guides and staff upon our return, this was no luck, it was a really big deal.

The last day came too quickly. We were departing in the morning. But the reserve manageress who was just so beautifully wonderful to us, helping us incredibly as we had some major car issues. I drove it into a hole, hence the transfer, had sorted out our situation. We had dinner in private and she arranged for a bath with eucalyptus and everything and it was service to die for. Anyhow Bianca the manager had said we could stay for lunch and take our time leaving on the last day.

The wife who has been on over 150 drives, as she is a local after all, was wrecked, such is the honey moon, and decided that she would lie out the last drive, although she told me her luck would work against her and that I will no doubt see some amazing things, how right she was. The day before, we had had a walking part, Musi dropped us off about 2 miles from the lodge and we walked back, it was excellent to see things up close, spiders and small animals and burrows and giraffe and it was just great. So the wife had had enough. I was cool with that and I joined the men.

It was a good start to the drive, at this stage there were just the two London men and myself, and off we set. We saw an impala after a few moments, so that was a good portent.

We saw buffalo, and got word that the pride of lions was at the dam, where there was a small lake. A watering hole. So we go down to the dam and surely enough there they are, two lioness’ and the Lion and they are obviously setting a trap. As we approach from one direction many animals are keeping well away. We get to the watering hole and we wait. As we do, Truman points out blue wildebeest coming in, and we see the lioness pop up into a heavily leafed tree. Unfortunately the lazy male is not so good and he is seen, and it unsettles the wildebeest who gather and make much sounds of unhappiness and generally they are not going to the watering hole, the sting having failed.

So we head off again. One group of animals we haven’t seen has been the mating herd of elephants. We had heard much about this group and also the Bull with them. Apparently he had killed a person once, in anger while he was in must, this is a heightened state of arousal and aggression, at certain mating times. Interestingly although he is dominant, if the submissive male is in must, he allows him to be with the herd. So this elephant is drugged occasionally when in must, as it is a dangerous beast. But it is ok at the moment we understood he may or may not be with the herd.

Much tracking takes place and we are stopping and looking at signs. At one stage we go off round into very thick bush and just sit silently. Eventually we hear snapping of trees and that’s the herd, but we go around. We meet Paul. He said he has failed to find the herd, he saw some females and they disappeared as soon as they heard him, so he was off to another dam with his clients for morning drinks. Paul had a whole family of French people with him, about 12 in total, three generations and many kids a lovely bunch. So off he went, but Truman was sure we would find the herd.

Off we go and again it’s off road and over some interesting obstacles, and then in the distance we see the huge flapping ears of an elephant, an immature male Truman tells us. That’s good, so we turn and start to travel in a parallel line to the one which the elephant was going.

Suddenly up ahead an elephant appears through two trees, for a moment I wonder if it’s the same beast, but this one is huge, and it’s … er ... running towards us, it all happens very slowly, but we are thrown forward as we go into reverse, and the landrover flies backwards, meanwhile, Musi is smacking and banging his hand against the door of the landrover, the elephant is gaining on us at an incredible pace, I say “That’s the bull!” and the London gents look at me equally aghast. I just take photos. We stop and Truman makes noise as well banging the door and shouting. It stops in its tracks and wonders what exactly we are and wanders off.

Chased by an elephant

That’s the bull says Truman and he is in must can you smell it, and there is a very strange smell now. He explains that the last dart of drugs must not have worked or may have fallen off as he is really very aggressive. This is not good and he reports it in immediately. I consider myself lucky to have two such excellent men guiding me.

It was truly scary.

The radio is going. All communication is in Zulu and we do not understand, but Truman tells us, the herd is heading towards the Dam, we need to raise Paul on the radio.

We are now moving at quite a disconcerting speed on very rough ground, and we hit a road, and suddenly its high speed again. Truman apologises, he warns us, that he cannot raise Paul, base cannot and everyone is trying, that the herd are heading for the dam and that there is now a very dangerous situation in the offing. He explains we must now try and distract the bull in an effort to delay him getting to the dam.

The Radio is alive, no one can contact Paul. We fly along and there is the bull, he is in an open area ahead, but our road ends in a T Junction. We fly up and the Bull sees us. He is enraged I think and spins towards us. Truman does some manoeuvring in between shouting and we are lined up for a quick getaway, the men then shout and bang and again try and distract the anger, again the bull slows on approach after building up a charge and turns away. This is a tactic I understand.

This is a photo of the bull elephant charging

Still no Radio contact. Truman is apologetic, we must take some drastic action (jeez) and get a chase out of the bull, in a particular direction, but which will allow us to then curve in towards the dam and warn Paul. Again we get its attention and it is angry now, it trumpets at us in warning and charges towards us, its huge, I would be less scared of a one hundred ton train, its monstrous, the noise the dust, the bloody speed it’s so big and getting bigger, we goad it into a chase, and it chases us and we pace a while and then pick up speed and then it’s gone, in the distance behind us, and we do a couple of turns, and follow the line of a road in a circuitous way and we are in bush and on a dust road and then we see Paul and the family, all standing around, spread out at a waterhole.

Our pace is indicative and kids are natural survivors, as we careen towards them a few of the younger ones are already dropping cups and heading for the landrover. We have barely stopped and Truman is calling out to load up, waving hands, Musi is out, Paul looks very surprised, he doesn’t understand, he hears Bull and Must and then it’s into action, as he two is sweeping the family up into to the landrover, Musi fires the drinks into the lock box and kids are flung into the safely of the vehicle, it takes seconds, but Truman is armed and ready, should anything come through towards us, time seems so slow, we had seen how quickly these animals could traverse land and they were just moments behind us, Truman was obviously prepared to do what was needed to protect us, but that is something he wants to avoid at all costs, and again, at last everyone is back in and we are flying away at speed and Truman explains that that is the end of the drive and we head back to the lodge at a more genteel pace.

This is a picture of Truman

I cannot explain adequately the respect I have for these men. I asked them to join us for breakfast which they did. I never mentioned how during drinks I would quiz Truman about politics, South Africa and himself. A family man, who went towards the ANC when he maybe should have been inclined to vote for the IFP and who was as equally well read as a hobby as he was qualified. A studious man who loves to learn and pass on that experience, which excited him, I found him to be more than just a guide. He offered so much about the wild, but was also happy to be frank and explanatory about the realities beyond the reserve.

Breakfast was equally an amazing experience in the men’s company and too soon we were leaving.

My heart still pounds when I think of it, it was more adventure than I had bargained for, fair play to the wife for arranging it.

 

 

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