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Her voice has a thick French purr. “So this is your first time in Kruger?” she asked incredulously.
“Yes, it is,” I reply, immediately embarrassed as I realised that I, the only South African among the group of seven comprising Belgian and French tourists, was the only person who had not visited the country’s largest natural heritage site, Kruger National Park.
Dominique Crespin wouldn’t be the first or the last person to ask me this question with eyes that seemed to pop out of their sockets at my response, and to follow it with the even more daunting demand, “Why?”
It was clear when I arrived at the meeting site at Berg en Dal rest camp that sunny Sunday afternoon that I was out of my league in terms of wildlife and camping expertise.
For starters, while the seven others were kitted in durable neutral coloured trousers, padded ankle boots, fully-packed hiking bags complete with binoculars, sunscreen and top-of-the-range cameras, I looked the exact opposite of a person about to go on a wilderness trail camp.
“Are those your walking shoes?” ranger Rangani Tsanwani asked politely.
“Yes, yes they are,” I said, smiling coyly as I stared down at my “urban-chic” sneakers.
After getting acquainted with one another, we set off with our rangers, Rangani and Moses Mokansi, for what would be a three-day adventure, 15km from Berg en Dal in the southern part of the park.
The Wolhuter Trail, one of seven wilderness trails in the Kruger National Park, seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. It was named after one of the first rangers to have been appointed after the Sabie Game Reserve was established in 1902.
Legend has it that the ranger, Harry Wolhuter, once killed a lion single-handedly with his hunting knife while on patrol on horseback.
“Look, right there by the hill, there’s a group of white rhinos,” Moses said, stopping the 12-seater safari van as we neared the camp site.
Out came the binoculars. “Ooh, yes! There they are,” the group remarked excitedly at our first spotting of wildlife.
“But they look like big rocks to me… how do you know the difference between a rhino and a big rock if you’re this far away?” I remarked in a slightly sarcastic tone.
“Don’t worry, you’ll start noticing soon enough,” Moses said, restarting the vehicle.
We arrived at the camp just as dusk set in and the sky was transformed into an arresting display of orange and red and the nippy breeze cooled the sweat from the afternoon heat.
The camp has four bungalows arranged in a circle. Each bungalow has two single beds, a paraffin lamp, a wash basin and mosquito nets. That’s about it.
The two communal showers outside, adjacent to the bungalows, get water pumped from a borehole less than a kilometre from the camp. We all breathed a sigh of relief when we learnt that the water was heated in generator-powered geysers – warm water is just about the only luxury at the camp, but then again, who comes to a wilderness trail to experience luxury?
Dusk was soon replaced by night as the group gathered in the communal hut for some tea and coffee while the rangers went over the dos and don’ts for the trails the next morning.
“We will wake you up at 2am and leave at 3am for tomorrow’s walk,” Rangani said with a straight face.
I was relieved to note that my eyes weren’t the only that nearly popped out of their sockets after he announced our early wake-up call.
“I’m just kidding,” he said, stifling full-blown laughter at our pale faces. “We’ll wake you up at 5am, and meet by the fire at 5.30 to get ready for the walk.”
Rangani explained that should we encounter a “hostile” animal and it threatened to charge, we were not to run.
As we “debated” the logic of not running away from, say, a rhino in full charge, the camp cook, Johan Khoza, appeared as if from nowhere with pots brimming with warm rice, marinade chicken and green salad.
“Bon appetit,” my Belgian counterparts said, grinning… “Bon appétit,” I responded, tucking in.
It was 5.30am Monday and after a cup of coffee, we shouldered our small backpacks and were off on the first walk of the week.
Silence fells over our group as we walked in a single row behind our rifle-carrying rangers.
“We have lots of elephants in the park. Our carrying capacity is 12 000, but we have more. We stopped culling them in 1994. We tried birth control pills to control their births, but stopped that too… elephants can be destructive,” Rangani said.
We soon passed what was left of a Weeping Wattle tree, mowed down by an elephant. Rangani noted, rather humorously, that Weeping Wattles are nature’s own three-ply toilet paper.
“The leaves are soft enough so that when nature calls and you are stuck.” Rangani didn’t finish his sentence, but we got where he was going with it and laughed.
At 7.25am, we made our first spotting of the day… an elephant merely 200 metres away flapped its large ears as it turned towards us.
I quickly moved behind Rangani, forgoing the ranger’s first rule – do not run or make sudden movements.
Luckily for me and my foolish haste, the elephant was forgiving and walked away.
As we continued our walk across thick patches of dry brittle grass, thorn trees and shrubs, I soon understood the need for thicker walking boots.
For the record, the rangers know a lot about animal poo – the different shapes, sizes, textures, everything. Moses enlightened us on some zebra poo wisdom after we encountered the small round droppings.
“After mama zebra gives birth to the baby, the baby eats mama’s poo to help their digestion and to get their essential bacteria into their systems. Soon the baby starts developing a lot of gas so once a zebra gets scared, they f*** a lot,” he said.
To their credit, Rangani and Moses know a great deal about everything. They boast 10 years’ experience on the trails. From trees, to each individual animal and bird, to the weather – you name it, they know it.
We spotted five more elephants, a pile of rhino poo which Rangani asserted was from the pack’s dominant bull… and at 8.20am, we spotted it. Big, grey and with a sizeable horn we couldn’t have missed it. This time there was no mistaking that what we were seeing behind the thick bush was a white rhino.
All nine sets of eyes were glued to the majestic animal as it grunted and paced from side to side. We did not move. We just stared. It walked closer towards us, the rangers stood in front of us. And almost as though something quickly changed its mind, the rhino retreated.
The park has 12 000 rhinos, the majority being white rhinos. But, these creatures are under a severe, and growing, threat of poaching.
Last year, 252 rhinos were killed for their horns, this year the number already stands at 187 and the year isn’t even over. At that moment, I finally understood the nation’s uproar against poaching.
We walked 10km that day. Ten kilometres in rough terrain, walking steep hills, navigating the rocky ground as the cool morning breeze was replaced by sweltering heat.
The second day was the same. Another 10km traversing vast open spaces. The great thing about the trails, aside from the animals and the vast knowledge of the rangers, is the freedom of it all.
On those trails one is concentrating on two things, your safety and your thoughts.
I found myself thinking, “Why have I never come here before?” and other philosophical questions about life. Each night as we sat next to the open fire, I’d find myself musing at how a diverse group of people could find commonality even though we came from the opposite ends of the world.
And as we’d stare at the star-filled sky, our easy conversations would be replaced by something even better – peace.
Much to the dismay of Crespin’s husband, Michael, we didn’t get to see a lion on our walks. But we did see plenty of everything else.
As we drove back to Berg en Dal camp on the Wednesday morning, at 7.45am I shouted, “Hey, a rhino!”
Moses stopped the van as the group turned their attention to my spotting.
“I’m impressed, good spotting,” Moses said.
“Well done Vee (my new nickname),” the group cheered.
I smiled as I realised I had graduated from wildlife novice level.
“Aah… finally!” I said to Moses, “I know the difference between a rock and a rhino.” - Saturday Star
l For bookings visit www.sanparks.org