Rugby lock's lockdown with leopards
Against a backdrop of hundreds of chirping crickets, the former Western Province and Stormers rugby player is seeking the strongest phone signal so that he can share stories of his remote lockdown on the South Africa/Botswana border.
“I’ve had about 1900 hectares all to myself,” he says.
“Most of the time I’ve been on my own, living off the land. It has been pretty raw, pretty cool and, at times, pretty scary. It used to be a cattle ranch but there were too many leopards.”
With only a small rucksack filled with clothes and a passport, the Gloucester lock arrived back in Limpopo two months ago. He has been cut off from humanity and his most loyal companions have been three wild meerkats. The harsh realities of Covid-19 have been a distant concern, but mother nature has posed altogether different challenges.
“I’ve been cut off from it all,” he said. “I caught the second-last flight out of the UK in March with some hand luggage - three pairs of underwear, two pairs of shorts - and I haven’t left since.
“The nearest place you can do shopping is about 65km away but I’ve not been there for three weeks. You live off the land. I shot a kudu and an impala for meat. One or two neighbours grow vegetables so we help each other out and exchange.”
But how far away are they? “About 16km away - they won’t hear me if I scream!” he says, laughing.
“My best friends at the moment are my three meerkats. They got lost from their family so I picked them up and I’ve been trying to reintroduce them to the wild. They follow me around wherever I go.
“I try to go for a long walk every morning to explore. You see the odd buffalo or hyena. I’ve seen one or two leopards, too. I walked up to this little ridge, sat down and had this weird feeling that something was around. On the opposite rock, about 30m away, there’s this male leopard whipping its tail back and forth, staring at me. I casually stood up, walked around the corner and then ran like hell.”
The economic downturn has exacerbated poverty levels in an already poor province. It is hand-to-mouth desperation - and Grobler has witnessed the side-effects.
“People here are having to defend their land,” he says. “There are guys illegally poaching for bush meat and selling it for a lot of money it’s becoming a regular thing.
“The other night, at around 12.30, I heard this commotion outside. Voices, dogs barking and a pig squealing. I put my shoes on and went out with my pistol. There’s three guys with spears trying to slaughter this animal. I ran at them and fired a few warning shots into the air. They dropped their s*** and ran. I went back in the morning and you could see their foot tracks in the dirt; one of them was wearing six-stud football boots.”
As for Grobler lacing up his own boots, the immediate future is uncertain. He was due back in Gloucester on Monday but all flights have been cancelled.
A host of South African players are struggling to return for training, which is set to make a staggered return and a number of clubs could be left without significant firepower.
“We started talking about it but no one can leave the country,” he says. “There are repatriation flights but they’re for UK citizens only. We’re trying to get letters from the club that would allow us to buy tickets. But tickets cost around £2500 for a one-way flight and we’ve still got to get clearance. There are probably enough of us here to fill a whole plane but South Africa is so big that it’s difficult.
“Akker van der Merwe is up in George, Franco Marais is in Durban, I’m in Limpopo. With the lockdown, you need a special letter to drive between provinces.
“When we do get back there’s a 14-day quarantine.”
Nor does Grobler know what he will return to. His head coach at Gloucester, Johan Ackermann, announced last week that he had accepted a new job in Japan. And no date has been set for a return to full-contact training or matches, with players left largely responsible for their own fitness.
“I’m quite active on the farm,” Grobler says. “I don’t really have a gym here but I’ve been using a tractor tyre and one or two old gas bottles that double up as weights. It has been good to have a mental break.”
Yet the thought of rugby restarting is met with anxiety, as well as excitement.
“Don’t get me wrong, I miss playing rugby. It’s not a safe game, you can break bones, but you want to play it in a safe environment. I can’t wait for rugby to return but you don’t want to put yourself at unnecessary risk. It’s a contact sport. So how does social distancing tie in with 16 guys in a scrum?
“We might be doing things that the general public aren’t allowed to do, on a reduced salary, to entertain people on their couches. For what gain? If you say ‘no’, will they cancel your contract? Players are just assets.
“There’s a lot of questions to be answered. Maybe they’re already being addressed and I just don’t know. I’ve been off grid a little.” - Mail On SundayThe Independent on Saturday