Between tiaras and tears, I have probably done little to promote myself as being that hard-core, rugged, stereotypical ‘game ranger’ with a big gun, short shorts, and the world’s most impressive sock tan; which I guess is not the end of the world, as that would be a lie…well, except for the short shorts.
As a guide in the lodge industry in South Africa, there is one person that you spend more time with each day than you do with anyone else, and that is your tracker. For around 8 hours a day, you are in one another’s company; I am totally reliant on my tracker to find me animals that easily evade my city-trained eyes during those 8 hours, while at the same time, by sitting on the front of the Land Rover exposed to potentially dangerous situations each day, he is reliant on me to keep him alive…so in an attempt to avoid tears and tiaras, this blog is about the times I have almost failed to keep my end of the deal!
I guess I should start out by introducing you to the man I have almost killed several times, Petros Molobela. At only 32 years old, he is a young, timid man that doesn’t look a day over 31; his small stature belies his big heart and bigger talent, and I have been privileged enough to have spent more than four years working with him, watching him grow not only as a tracker, but also as a person and an upcoming guide himself; in fact, the main reason I am writing this post is because today is the first day in almost 4 months that I have worked with him, as he has been off doing an intensive field guiding course at the South African Wildlife College most of this year. And after reading this blog, I am sure that you will, like me, be wondering if he is as excited to be back on the front of my Land Rover as I am to have him there!
I like to think his answer would be a resounding YES! I mean really, what is not to look forward to about sitting totally exposed to the wind on the front of a Land Rover, driving around in the blistering cold of an early winter’s morning while your guide, i.e. me, sits comfortably in the driver’s seat with the heater on full blast (and I know most guides won’t admit to doing that either!)? I am sure though, that once Petros has thawed off, he will start enjoying it again as we really have developed a fantastic relationship. Its developed into a real friendship and an understanding with one another, where we will both burst out laughing at the same things; arbitrary one-liners exchanged between the two of us, in our half-English, half-Shangaan language soon have us both in stitches, whilst probably leaving our guests as confused as a chameleon on a box of Smarties, not having a clue as to what is so funny!
There have, however, been moments that have left neither of us laughing…well, not immediately anyway! Petros has been at the lodge for ten years, so he is more experienced than I am, and I am humble enough to appreciate this, and to use him as a gauge should I ever end up in situations that I am not too sure about; and this was particularly true in my earlier days of guiding. Petros joined me after I had been working for less than a year, and had joined me from our then-head guide who had a very healthy respect for elephants. Perhaps I was blaze, inexperienced, or just overly confident – like many new guides are – to think that elephants will never do anything to a vehicle, but luckily Petros was always on hand to tell me when I needed to move back – a stark contrast to my first tracker that would barely pay any attention to elephants, even when they were looming, quite literally, centimetres from him (and no, that is not the reason I needed a new tracker!). Slowly we came to an understanding of how close I could get, keeping both Petros and I happy…then one day an elephant threw a tree at us!
It was my first lesson in “Elephant Bulls in Musthe 101: don’t stop to watch an elephant bull in musthe!” The bull had approached us from over 100m away, making a slow-but-steady beeline straight for our parked Landy. When he got to about 20m away and hadn’t stopped, I started the vehicle and revved to stop him, and it worked – he began “feeding” on the grass in front of him, although we all noticed that he never actually grabbed anything in his trunk…that was until he picked up the massive dead tree that had been sitting in front of him and decided to toss it in our direction. This would not have been a problem had he not been an elephant and thus, by definition, strong enough to actually lob the whole tree some 20m through the air straight into the side of my Land Rover! Had I been parked a couple of metres further back, that tree would probably have done a wee bit of damage to Petros, whose body I suspect is not quite as sturdy as my nice new Land Rover, which was now sporting a massive dent in it!
After that, Petros realised he was probably safer off my vehicle than he was on it, and would willingly walk off, unarmed, into the bush tracking rhinos, leopards and lions. Some days it would take him hours of tracking down lions and before he would almost get eaten (go see this blog post for one such account of a lion encounter), whilst other days it would only take him seconds! I wont forget one day how he thought he saw some fresh lion tracks crossing the road to the east, and jumped off to walk to the back of the vehicle to check them out, only to have all seven lions sit up in the long grass about 15m away the second his feet hit the ground…guess he was right, they were fresh! A much longer day was when he and another tracker had been following a male leopard’s tracks for about 4km or so and it was getting late in the morning and more difficult to see the tracks but they persisted, and eventually found the leopard…when they almost tripped over him!
Back on the seat then, and I have had lions and leopards literally brush against Petros’s boots as they walk past the Land Rover; although my favourite boot-related sightings involve young hyenas persistently trying to bite his leather boots while we have been sitting watching them at their den sites. All quite harmless games really, unless you are a boot…or Petros.
But without doubt, the closest I have come to getting Petros quite permanently off the tracker seat happened one hot summer’s day, and nothing but his amazingly acute eyesight saved him from what would most certainly have been a very close call on his life. Unlike his brother Jacky, also a tracker, who has had even closer encounters with elephants and lions, Petros’s near-death experience came from something much smaller, but infinitely more deadly. I had decided to go check up on a few of the mud wallows in the dense mopane woodlands on the eastern side of the reserve, hoping to get lucky with some buffalos or rhinos cooling off in the mud in the 40-plus degree heat, and being mid-summer, the mopanes were lush. Very lush. The road I had chosen to drive hadn’t been driven for months, and it was horribly overgrown, and I began to tire of swerving out of the way of every single branch that encroached on my path. I had just swerved out of the way one branch on my left (Petros’s side), then back again to miss another one on the right, and as the next branch on the left was a leafy mopane with no thorns, I was prepared to sacrifice some of Petros’s comfort and partially drive him through so that the branch brushed against before again swerving to ensure that the same branch missed the guests on the left hand side. Usually, Petros doesn’t mind taking one for the team, but today, something was different. And he did mind.
As he was approaching the tree at about 20km/h, he suddenly flung up his arm with a great deal of urgency, and I knew I had to stop quickly, although I didn’t know what for – but from the way he was trying to crawl backwards into his tracker’s seat, I had a pretty good idea that whatever he stopped me for wasn’t good. Then the words “nyoka” came out of his mouth. Rough translated, that means “back the #^!& out of here, there is a freaking snake in the tree”. It took me a few seconds to register, but there, little over a metre away from his chest, in the extremely soft, leafy branch that I was just about to drive him through, was a frighteningly well camouflaged black mamba. Still. Silent. Deadly.
Had Petros’s eyes been anywhere closer to those of “normal-human standard”, like mine, there is no way in this life, or the next, that he would have picked up the mamba in that tree. But thank the Lord, he has a gift, and I am quite certain that this is what saved him – whatever shape or movement he picked up the instant before I plundered him into the branch, it was his enough for him to realise that it was not good and I needed to stop. Had he not seen the snake, and had I driven him into the snake at chest-high, there is no telling what the outcome could have been. As a young mamba more prone to dispense with larger quantities of venom than a fully grown adult, this snake would likely have injected enough venom close to his heart to be pumped around the body in a matter of minutes, slowly shutting down the very organs that were now beating extremely quickly in his body; no doubt the helicopter ride to hospital would have been a first for him, but I am quite sure he was happy to end off that drive on the tracker seat…and breathing!
Maybe it was the realisation that there is no hiding from potential dangers either on or off the tracker’s seat that led Petros has decided to branch out and pursue the possibility of becoming a field guide instead; after all, once in the driver’s seat, the only dangers there involve bursting into tears in the middle of giraffe sightings.