By Cindy Tyrrell
My first confrontation with how easily one can mess up in the bush – if one does not consider the possible mistakes they can make, happened when I drove off in the cool, early morning light to deliver a thank you present to the hostess working at Vundu camp, a short drive west from our camp. Elated by the delight of driving out alone, on a glorious morning, all senses being assailed; the sounds of early morning bird song, the smell of the dry dust, the sights of the majestic Leadwood and monolithic stumps of pachyderm ravaged Mopane trees, I smiled at the sheer delight being alone as I took this all in, augmented by driving ‘The Beast’, which is what our ancient land rover was named. This reminded me of the extraordinary times past I had experienced, driving a similarly ancient landy, when I volunteered at a mission hospital in rural KwaZulu-Natal, at the age of 17, having come out from England, ready and willing to do whatever job was needed. One of my myriad roles there, was that of an auxiliary ambulance driver, the aforesaid vehicle was a 1960 Land rover, so ‘The Beast’ felt like a recognised friend. After a brief visit to Vundu, I returned, heading eastward back to camp. My eyes scanning right and left as I slowly drove home, taking in the amazing essence of my surroundings.
All of a sudden, I caught a glimpse of something moving a hundred metres or so away to my right, it was a lioness slowly walking through the mopane stumps, in the direction I was driving. What a privilege to watch this beautiful creature in the glorious, early morning light, as she slowly padded on seemingly unaware of me. I thus slowed down and admittedly kept my eyes more on her than the road – (first mistake!) After a few minutes, she slunk off into the thicker vegetation and I carried on my way, back to camp, (or so I thought), ecstatic to have had a few minutes watching this magnificent cat. However, soon after losing sight of her, I began to notice the vegetation was becoming much thicker on either side of the road – something that I realised was quite different to what I had seen whilst driving to Vundu. I obviously was now on the wrong road! and by the time I realised this error, it was impossible to turn around as the trees were right up against either side of the very narrow road, leaving no room to turn. No worries I thought, I will drive on a bit until I can find a place to turnaround and then get back onto the correct road. However, after a kilometre or so, having still not found a place where I could easily do this, there in front of me loomed a fairly significant, deep and very uneven sided donga!
I would be lying if I said this did not fill me with more than a slight anticipation and dread, as I was very aware that I could seriously damage the sump of the landy if I did not negotiate this massive chasm very carefully to get me to the other side and hopefully to a spot where I could turn around and head back to camp. Gingerly negotiating this significant hole in the track, I eased my way out of it only to find that the road was still tightly lined with trees to the right and left. Time to stop and take a breath, on doing so, I happened to glance at the fuel gauge and it was on empty! (Second mistake– always check on the fuel gauge before venturing out anywhere, especially in the bush!) I also realised that I had foolishly driven out with no water, thinking I would be back at camp very soon, third mistake – do NOT EVER drive anywhere in the bush without water, however short the anticipated journey might be!)
Taking stock of the situation, about to run out of fuel and having no water, I considered my options in attempting to get back to camp and decided I would have to try and get as far as I could in getting back to the correct road but still acknowledging that I would have to walk the rest of the way if I did run out of fuel.
I stepped down onto the rutted track and sat for a while, taking in the contrasting emotions I was feeling: the elation of being on my own in this remarkable place, feeling the dust on my face and clothes, smelling the gentle morning air, seeing the stunning mopane woods on either side with their glorious coloured leaves, hearing the first early morning flock of Lillian’s Love Birds fly past and realising I had made one too many errors of judgement, which could be serious. After trying a nine point turn to head back from whence I had come from, I had to renegotiate the massive donga, which now seemed to be the least of my problems. Heading back, with both eyes now wide open, I finally found the previously missed fork in the road and managed to return to camp, with the landy fuel gauge on empty. On arrival, I asked Leon, the wonderful caretaker and fixer of all things: vehicles, tents, water supplies etc, why he had not put fuel in the landy tank, knowing I was going to drive to Vundu, although I of course should have checked this myself. I was then laughingly informed that he had indeed done so, but the fuel gauge had not worked for years! Needless to say, MANY sobering lessons were learned on this trip of initiation. Somehow, when we find ourselves in a potentially challenging situation, one gains access to the elements of self which have long remained dormant. This trip was definitely a stimulus, albeit a somewhat sobering one, which unlocked a long forgotten self and I celebrated the delightful sense of an emerging re-discovery of a me that had become lost in the freneticism of city life, where we all can unconsciously surrender our true identities without realising it. Having a couple of weeks at camp, where we had no guests, we all busied ourselves with preparing the tents and the kitchen caravan, which was a beyond challenge. This kitchen caravan was a misnomer of note! The oven had no thermostat, every single knob for the gas plates had broken off, forcing one to use a pair of pliers to turn them off and on, so as not to burn one’s fingers when adjusting the intensity of flame. The kitchen had one shelf, so cooking meals for up to up to 18+ people or keeping food warm for guests returning late from game drives was often a hysterical balancing act, with one dish on top of another and having to turn the oven gas on and off in an attempt to keep the food hot, yet not burn it!
The dire lack of most modern day culinary gadgets in this ‘kitchen’, provided us with a significant challenge to be inventive when creating meals and made me realise that one can actually easily do without many of the items that clutter our kitchen cupboards at home. Whilst looking back on this rudimentary kitchen which we did improve over the months, it amazes me that our cooks managed to put out such an array of wonderful meals that our guests raved about. These early weeks without guests also allowed me to have some time to walk away from the camp to explore and take in the true magnificence of my new home. Looking back at these early times, I well recall thinking that as much as it is exciting to see the larger species of game, with elephants regularly meandering through the camp on their way down to the Zambezi, our resident lions often skulking past the gazebo in the early morning light, the plethora of hippos that wallowed and grunted throughout the day and chomped away at the grass outside my tent at night, it was the minutiae that I found most fascinating and entrancing. Each morning, on my way to the camp fire, for that essential first cup of coffee, I was enthralled to see the delicate filigree architecture of mud cases that had been made by tiny, nocturnal termites whilst I slept. Every morning produced a wonderful array of new and varied shapes. I loved watching the many multi-coloured lizards as they scurried up the bark of the age worn mopane trees. A shower in my tiny canvas outside shower tent was always made more enjoyable when it was shared by a frog or two, which it often was, unperturbed by me interrupting their hunt for supper.
The myriad butterflies, so varied and beautifully patterned, sadly flitted off at any attempt in me trying to get closer to identify them. At first I was frustrated, then realised the true beauty was in just seeing them, knowing their name did not really matter. The morning ‘oomph oomph’ of ground hornbills waddling past my tent down to the river’s edge at dawn, inevitably made me smile – a great way to start any day. Then came the frustration of trying to locate and identify the multitude of birds, whose calls began in earnest, once the golden, orange sun had risen, its gentle warmth infusing the dusty morning air. The various woodpeckers challenged me to correctly identify them on a daily basis initially, but I did get better at this! The most meaningful and privileged time I had during my entire 8 months unfolded. The camp manager left to guide elsewhere and 4 of the 5 staff members were given leave due to the camp having no guests. Thus I remained in camp with Leon, the wise and knowledgeable senior staff member and John Zinavashe, our beyond experienced and learned guide, with a sense of humour second to none.
I will always look back remembering the time spent with these two remarkable men listening to them both recalling their childhood memories, of learning from their elders and much more. As we sat huddled around the comforting, warm glowing embers of our evening fire, these two gentlemen spoke of what they had learnt about; the plants to use for various ailments, the special recipes their grandmothers had made for them and much more. In our huddled space of special connection one night, we heard the roaring of lions – that were close by. So I was escorted back to my tent by John, who gave me a radio, telling me to contact him or Leon if I was worried. As I snuggled into my camp bed, I smiled thinking of the special evening of wisdom I had been privileged to be a part of. I began to drift off to sleep but then heard the roars of the lions that we had seen earlier in the camp becoming louder and closer. I sat up hearing this spine tingling sound and heard footsteps coming towards my tent. A magnificent lioness padded right across the plastic ‘patio’ of my tent. I perhaps foolishly shone my torch to see more clearly, the torch beam caught her eyes as she turned to look my way. We stared at each other, I well recall that I held my breath for quite some time, knowing there was only a thin mosquito net ‘door’ between us both. The lioness slowly ambled past and settled down on a termite mound slightly to the east of my tent, where I could still see her clearly, but the roaring continued to the west, where two other lions were, right in the middle of our camp. I settled back down in my camp bed, knowing sleep would not come for a long while. I then heard what sounded like human footsteps, crunching through the dry leaves, coming towards me. I was aghast, thinking it was either Leon or John coming to see if I was okay, I realized I had not switched on my radio so they could check on me. I was now very concerned that whichever one of them coming to see if I was alright, was about to come face to face with an unexpected feline confrontation. I could clearly see out of the western ‘window’ of my tent that the 2 other lions were slowly padding towards where the lioness had settled down. So I shouted out “watch out guys, the lions are right here”. I hastily switched on my radio to tell them that they should urgently retreat. Hearing no response, I then realized that in all likelihood, both John and Leon were probably fast asleep – which indeed they were! I then discovered, what I thought were footsteps of a rescuing human, were in fact those of one of the lions, walking to join the lioness on her termite mound. So much for the brave and protective males whom had assured me they would be there for me!