Thursday, July 18, 2013

I Kissed a Hippo





At least once a day for the past three weeks Scott has been flying patterns in the airspace over Hoedspruit South Africa. Scott’s flying lessons are the reason we are in Hoedspruit for a month, the estimated time it will take for Scott to gain the hours needed for a microlight pilot license. I know now where the term “He has his head in the clouds” comes from because Scott completely and utterly loves flying. I’ve never seen him so happy.
“Ask Bruce if you will solo today,” I said. “I don’t want to miss your first lone take off and landing in a micro light!”

At 6am Scott sent a text to his flight instructor Bruce, “Do you think I will solo today? Tris wants to be there.” Bruce texted back, “You’ll only solo when I feel it’s right for you to do so.” So off Scott went to fly his circuits as usual with Bruce in the seat next to him. Two hours later he was back. Just by the look on his face I could tell. “You soloed didn’t you.” 

“Yes. Half-way through the lesson, Bruce turned to me and said, “You’re ready.” Scott had a pained look on his face. “I’m sorry you weren’t there. It was so unexpected that I didn’t have time to think. Bruce got out of the plane while it was on the runway and I flew one circuit and landed. I was only in the air for 5 minutes. It's not a big deal.”

I felt so many emotions all at once. I was so proud of him. I was happy and sad at the same time. How could I have missed such an important event.... More important for me than for Scott it seemed. Scott had started and stopped flying lessons since he was 14 years old. Many of his friends are or have been pilots, some have flown honorably for the military. As far as Scott was concerned this was just an opportunity to obtain a license once and for all, just for fun. But for me, it was a big deal. How often does one get to see their spouse flying a little plane, solo, over Africa? Only once!

Blerg!

I hugged and kissed him. “Congratulations Scott. I’m very proud of you.  I so wanted to be there… Did they give you champagne (as is customary at Hoedspruit Civil Airfield upon completion of a first solo flight) when you landed?…”. Then, “I can’t believe you went solo with out me!” which sounds funny now that I think about it. But those who know us know we do practically everything together. If there were any couple who would solo together, if would be us. We rarely celebrate individual victories or accomplishments without the other present for the champagne toast. Now, after 35 years, we had become like so many other couples who “do their own thing”. 

It seemed I should do something solo too. But it had to be something equally adventurous and risky and fun and death defying. I decided to confront my biggest fear in the biggest way possible. I drove 18 kilometers out of town and kissed a hippo.

The path to Jessica The World Famous Hippo is not easy. The heavily corrugated, potholed, intestine-jostling gravel road made me regret the entire bag of Doritos I ate when I stopped at The Giant Baobab on the way.
When I finally arrived at the farm where Jessica lives, Rein met me at the gate with, “You drove out here by yourself?”
“Yes.” I paused trying not to think about what would happen to all those Doritos if Jessica gave me a sudden fright. “My husband will be so sorry he missed this.” Then I asked, “Do you have champagne?”
Rein gave me a funny look. “Uh, Jessica drinks tea,” he answered.
“Okay whatever. My husband will still be sorry he missed this!”

Rein led me down to a fence made of logs and asked me to climb over it. Only it was a little taller than crotch height so my attempt at a slow motion hurdle was not very successful. Walking like Tex Ritter, I followed Rein to a wooden bench. “Sorry about that," he said. "I don’t know why the owners won’t install a gate for guests.” Then, “I’ll be right back. I think I hear another visitor.” Soon, short newlyweds from New York were seated next to me on the bench. I wondered how they got over the fence. Their stocky built guide stood a distance away enjoying a Coke. Maybe he lifted them over. We chatted about the animals they have seen so far on their trip, how long they are in Africa etc.

“Did you drive here by yourself?” they asked. “Weren’t you scared? What if something happened to your car?”

People often express surprise when they see me out and about by myself. Just the other day I decided to walk the 4 kilometers from Lisl’s house where we are staying in Raptors View to the main gate. Every time a vehicle came into view the driver slowed down and asked if I wanted a lift. I spent more time turning down rides than walking. I began to worry that I would miss my appointment for a desperately needed full body scrub (feet included which is a good value for me) at the Hoedspruit Day Spa so I ultimately accepted a ride from a contractor. 

“Are you walking alone?” he asked in his lilting born-in-Zimbabwe accent. “You aren’t afraid? Don’t you know that there are reptiles? And leopards?” and we talked about the recent leopard sightings all the way to the gate. There wasn’t enough time to discuss the snakes. Funny enough, I saw one yesterday while walking on the Aardvark Trail.                                                                     

I turned to the couple from New York “Sure I drove here alone! My husband and I used to do everything together but these days, not so much." I paused and watched as they comfortably swung their legs to and fro above the concrete patio floor. "How did you get over the fence?”

We watched a short video about Jessica. Jessica was only a few days old when she washed up on the bank of the Blyde River during the epic flood of 2000. If retired game ranger Tonie Roubert had not spotted Jessica trapped in some debris, she would have died. She spent the first five years of her life living in Tonie and Shirley’s home before being re-introduced to the river. For the last 13 years, the Rouberts swim with her, cuddle her, give her massages, and hand feed her sweet potatoes, corn, and warm rooibos tea from a bottle. Every night Jessica beds down on the veranda outside the house. She is never caged and she is free to roam the river with wilder hippos anytime she desires. Jessica sometimes joins a raft of hippos along the river for a day or two but she always comes back to the Joubert’s. She has a strong bond with their 5 dogs; one even sleeps on top of her at night and she has been featured in over 80 documentaries and movies.

Rein led us down a ramp to where Jessica was waiting in the water alongside a wobbly floating dock. He handed me a bucket half-filled with cut up sweet potatoes. “You can each take turns feeding Jessica. Place a slice of potato in her mouth and when she stops chewing and closes her mouth you can pet her nose.”

The first thing I noticed about Jessica is that she is the size of a VW bus. Her long, razor sharp tusks make my Nacho Cheese Dorito laden tummy do somersaults. The inside of Jessica's mouth is very pink and muscular looking - six pack gums so to speak. Also, she has bad breath.


I knelt down and popped a piece of potato in her cavernous mouth. She chewed twice before opening her mouth again for more. Each time I fed her I petted her nose. I couldn’t believe I was actually touching a hippo. Ever since we were charged by a hippo while canoeing on the Zambezi River in 2005, I have been terrified of hippos. I had no desire to get anywhere near them ever again. I think Jessica may have cured me.
After I fed her the potatoes, I massaged her back with my bare feet. After that, I gave her a big bottle of tea. After the tea, I gave her a kiss on her nose.

When I returned home that afternoon Scott, head in the clouds, forgot to ask where I had been.

It didn’t matter. I kissed a hippo!










Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Place Where Norman Slept



Since arriving in Africa I’ve recounted a few stories of exciting, surprising, and even risky encounters with wild animals. I never thought I would use the word “enchanting” to describe a bush experience but that’s just what my encounter with Norman was, the most enchanting encounter ever.

Norman is a solitary old bull elephant who lives on Amakhala Reserve in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. He used to spend his days with his elephant friend George until George died after an unfortunate tussle with an electric fence in 2006. Now Norman wanders apart from the other elephants, meeting up with the breeding herd only at a distance or in mating season. Norman is bigger than most elephants his age and he is the elephant who asserts discipline over the herd and metes out punishment when he and his 8 tons deem it necessary.

I first heard about Norman during on a 3-day camp out on Amakhala when we came upon the remains of a male elephant on the side of a gently sloping hill. We could smell the scene long before we saw it.  Sun bleached bones picked clean by hyenas and scavenging birds were strewn widely around the area but the putrefying hide of the elephant still lay draped over part of the skeleton. I am not much of a “woo woo” person, but the area felt creepy. We turned to our mentor Schalk and asked how the animal died.

“This elephant was beginning to be a real problem. He would aggressively approach people in vehicles, pester other elephants, and generally disrupt tranquility amongst the herd. We had just had a ranger meeting to discuss what we were to do with this elephant when Norman decided to take matters into his own hands.” He went on to say that the battle between the two elephants went on for hours and that the shrieking of the other elephants in the herd as they watched the carnage could be heard several kilometers away. After it was all over, the herd was once again relaxed and content.

My initial reaction to the story was that I wanted to stay as far away as possible from an animal as violent as Norman. Though Schalk always referred to him as a “wonderful old elephant”, each time I encountered Norman after that I felt on edge - until the day we had a chance to watch Norman taking a nap. 

We had seen Norman earlier that day when he passed by two male elephants as if they were not even there. He carried on up the road in the opposite direction and disappeared over the crest of a hill. While Lewis continued leading our group to an encounter on foot with the two young elephants, I noticed that Scott kept his eye on Norman’s direction of movement. When it was Scott’s turn to lead, he was presented with a choice; we could follow the two young males down the road where they would eventually meet up with the breeding herd, or we could try to locate Norman. Scott looked at Schalk with a smile and said, “Let’s walk Norman!” I was more than a little apprehensive about his choice.

By this time Norman was far away so we climbed into the Land Rover. I was on the tracker seat. I had my eyes on Norman in the distance but I suddenly lost him in a thicket. Then I even lost the thicket! We drove around the area for 30-45 minutes looking for Norman’s tracks or Norman’s poo or Norman. Tiring of driving around in circles, we finally just got out of the vehicle and walked. Schalk, with his years of experience in the bush, especially with this elephant who was like an old friend, was able to recognize Norman’s footprint. We began following the spoor and tracked Norman deeper into the thicket. After some minutes, Schalk asked Lewis to bring the Landy up closer to our location and then told Scott and I to head in the direction of the vehicle, “I want to go a little further on my own,” he said.

Scott and I had just met Lewis at the vehicle when we heard a strange sound from the bushes. Then Schalk came running out at full speed. We quickly got the doors of the Landy open and were half in half out when Schalk, with a big smile on his face whispered, “It’s Norman.” Schalk caught his breath then said, “He’s sleeping! I almost bumped into him in the middle of the thicket. He was so still I thought, oh no, here is another dead elephant. Then he snored.”
“That was the sound we heard!” I said quietly.

We moved the Landy a short distance away from Norman’s bedroom and parked it behind a large bush. We waited for Norman to wake up. We peered through binoculars into the thicket.

Each time Norman took a breath and exhaled, the leaves on the tree next to him would flutter. We crept closer until we could clearly see him and we could easily hear him farting and snoring. We waited.
We quietly made lunch. We made coffee. We waited some more. It had been well over two hours since Scott had suggested we walk with Norman. Finally we heard limbs snapping. Norman slowly rose from his slumber and headed for the waterhole. Using clumps of bushes and trees as cover, we walked parallel to Norman as he made his way to drink. Then we watched him retrace his steps and pass the place where he napped before finally disappearing over a hill and out of view.

“That was great!” we all said and we began walking back to where the vehicle was parked – always the hardest part of a bush walk for me because I become so engrossed in what I am looking at that I have not paid any attention to landmarks. Fortunately the guys were guys and knew the way. “Can we see where Norman slept?” I asked as we neared the thicket. What I saw there completely changed my opinion of Norman once and for all.

The place where Norman slept was a cozy den with a high ceiling made of twigs intertwined with vines bearing petite blue flowers. A large patch of soft dry earth was his bed. There, in the center of the thicket, was a perfect impression of a sleeping elephant. Up near where his trunk had lain was a bone, part of the hipbone of another old elephant friend named Tom. On the way to his nap Norman had stopped to visit Tom’s nearby grave and decided to take a part of Tom with him as he napped. We all stared at Tom’s bone and thought about all we know and what we can’t ever really know about the complexity of elephant relationships.

I’ve encountered more animals on foot than seems fair for such a novice but no matter how many more chances I have to observe animals in the bush, I’ll never forget how lucky I was to see the place where Norman slept with his old friend Tom.





Thursday, July 4, 2013

“Whoopsie!” And Other South African Sayings



The hospitality of South Africans is beyond measure. They are warm, generous, and polite. They meet you at the door and walk you out too. Everything they do for you is "their pleasure."  How generous are they? While sipping coffee in Madham’s Cafe a stranger walked up and asked, “Is that your Landy? I think we passed you on the way into town.” When we told him we were in Hoedspruit for a month while Scott takes flying lessons Donovan said, “I have a small vacant house on my property. It’s a bit out of town but you are welcome to stay there.” Meanwhile at least three other people in town were looking for accommodation for us too. In the end, we rented a wing of a house in town, yet in the bush, in a place called Raptor’s View. I am writing you from the deck of Lisl’s house overlooking Africa, all the way to the Drakensberg Mountains.

Everyone in Hoedspruit seems to have two or three jobs. I think Lisl has six. She’s an environmental speaker and retired Air Force helicopter pilot who teaches Pilates, Tai Chi, and Zumba, writes, and coaches local women on empowerment and entrepreneurship. She is also the Goodness Guru at Madham’s. Best of all, she picked a pretty incredible spot to live. When Scott rides to the hanger for lessons (on the bicycle his instructor Bruce McDonald generously lent him) he often passes giraffe on the way.



When Scott isn't flying we practice our tracking skills and usually run into an interesting species or two. 

I love the way South Africans speak. I love their accents and intonations but I especially love their sayings. People the world over have words or phrases unique to their experience but I find the expressions in South Africa to be the most charming. The most charming of all, which I heard for the second time in one week, is “Lord, love a duck!” meaning, “You don’t say!” or “How in the world did you find that?” Or in the situation used the other day, “I can’t believe you still have the email I sent you three years ago!”

“Shame” It is usually delivered almost in a whisper. Shame can be used in place of “What a tragedy”, or “Oops” or “That really bites!” or “That is very kind of you.” Examples include, “I lost my job” – “Shame.” “I spilled my milk” – “Shame”, or “Here, why don’t you borrow my binoculars?” – “Shame.” We met a woman who never said just “Shame.” It was always, “Shame, Daddy” which I can’t explain at all.

“Whoopsie!” Like “Oops” or “Oopsie daisy!” as in, “Whoopsie, I spilled some Tequila."

“Oaks” It means, as far as we can tell, “folks” as in “Those Oaks are really nice people.” I forgot to ask what they say when they want to say oak as in oak tree, oak barrel...

“YE-EEES!” It’s “yes” but said with a lot more conviction, enthusiasm, and excitement. When South Africans say, “YE-EEES!” they sound like they’re… well, climaxing. Got me to wondering… never mind. Anyway, this is my favorite expression.

“Chilled” It means relaxed but it’s often used with animals as in, “That bull elephant in musth (which means he has super high levels of testosterone coursing through his veins) is really chilled!” We think this a very misused expression. Lions and elephants are nothing like teenagers collapsed on a couch listening to music or watching TV. If you annoy a chilled teenager they are unlikely to chomp or stomp you to death as a lion or ellie would. Whenever one of our guides says, “That leopard is chilled!” I feel like saying, “Are you serious? Go over and change his channel and see what happens.”
Here's one we encountered in Kruger who knocked this tree over in order to get at the tidbits at the top - or just because he could. 

“Shhyo!”  Delivered with a loud exhale and as far as I can tell it means “Wow!” or “OMG!” or “YE-EEES!” or “I’m speechless!” or “You said it Buster!”

“Have you seen the Southern Cross?”  Just about everyone we meet asks us this question. When we say, “Yes” they accuse us of fibbing. “Are you sure you’ve seen the Southern Cross? Do you know how to find south by using the Southern Cross?” When we say “YE-EES!” (because we were required to on our course) they still tell us anyway, “See those 4 stars? And the pointers below?...” Anyway, the Southern Cross is a pretty cool mass of stars in the Southern Hemisphere.

“You must” or “You mustn’t” This is used in place of “I suggest” or “You might consider” when giving advice. I get a little tired of people telling me what I must or mustn’t do. “I’m the boss of me!” as I used to tell my mother.  I know “must” is just an expression but it started to bug me. “You must speak louder” or “You must tint the windows on your Landy so that people can’t see what is inside.” (That one is actually pretty good advice and we probably should, must do that.) The only time I appreciated being told what I mustn’t do was when a woman in a small town tourist information office said while pointing to a squiggle on our map, “You mustn’t take that road. There are potholes. Also, service workers are on strike in that town and they will throw rocks at your vehicle.”
“Okay!” I said, “I mustn’t!” But after a pause she said, “I just remembered that today is Sunday and on Sundays they won’t throw rocks. They will throw rocks again tomorrow, on Monday. You must take this road.”

All in South Africa seem to have a Jack Russell as a pet. Whenever we meet families traveling in Kruger Park where pets are not allowed we ask, “Who is taking care of your Jack Russell?” and no one ever says, “Shhyo! We don’t have a Jack Russell!” If they did we would respond, “Shame” because they really are the most amazing pets - especially the Jack Russell named Fraser who we met at Jembjo’s Lodge in Knysna. Best dog ever.

South Africans love to braai – barbeque – though it is a process that takes hours and hours because they start with logs and keep adding logs until they burn down to coals so you are usually pretty hungry by the time the meal is ready to eat. While we wait for the logs to produce coals we drink. Man! Can South Africans drink! (This characteristic fits in nicely with my Irish heritage.) They mostly drink beer and wine, but also Rum and Coke, or Brandy and Coke, or Tequila and Tequila. They eat meat and lots of it. No one knows how to braai like a South African male. It makes my mouth water just to think of it.

“Ach!” means, “I miss-spoke. I meant to say I would like a Rum, not a Tequila.”

"Now", Just now" and "Now now" all mean something different as to time when something will happen but I always get them mixed up. I think "just now" means "sometime in the future," or "don't hold your breath."

We learned in our firearm handling classes that "immediately" is defined as "by the end of the next business day."

No one knows how to enjoy the weekend better than South Africans. At least here in Hoedspruit they do. Shops close earlier on Fridays and even earlier on Saturdays. Most of the town is closed on Sundays. People savor and enjoy their time off to spend time with family or attend sporting events. We could learn something  here.

We noticed that when South Africans camp in Kruger, they build mesh fences or barriers all around their site. They bring lots of stuff and 100 feet of extension cord because they like to have lots of lighting strung up around their sites. But they are very quiet and respectful of others and they go to bed when the meat is finished so this is another reason to like them.

I won’t talk about the politics because when it’s discussed, South Africans always say, “Ach! We could talk about this for days and no one would agree!” But everyone we have spoken with says that Nelson Mandela, 94 and in hospital, was a great leader and is wonderful man.

We hear side striped jackal at night and choruses of birds during the day. Five warthogs just walked by. I love it. Two properties away, Derek Solomon, renowned safari leader, birder, and wildlife sound recorder extraordinaire, generously gave three hours of his time to tutor us in the use of sound equipment that we use to record vocalizations of animals we meet in Kruger.

We don’t deserve any of this generosity! But we are grateful. I only hope we have a chance to pay it back. Or forward.
Scott and Tris
Hoedspruit South Africa







Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Spoor – Not to be Confused with S’more, A Tasty Campfire Treat.



 
Greetings from Teresa J. OKane, Field Guide. Well, more like Tris, Spoor Aficionado. 

During a trip to Africa fourteen years ago, Scott and I took John Locke’s Bush Trails and Training Course in Klaserie South Africa. We took it not because we wanted to become game guides but because it was for us the best way to learn about the bush while living in it. We slept in an unfenced big five game area in canvas tents, pooed and peed in a long drop, showered with a bucket and a cup or with a sun shower, took turns cooking for the group of 4 students plus John, walked twice a day in the bush, had class under the shade of the one tall tree in camp, heard the calls and examined the spoor of hyena and elephant and leopard that passed in the night, and loved every minute of it. We never forgot our experience so when we decided to return to Africa, Scott researched courses that would cater to our mutual love and appreciation of the bush.
 
A lot has changed in the Field Guide Training world in 14 years. There is more emphasis on the hospitality end of things and courses are longer. Fourteen years ago, FGASA (Field Guide Association of South Africa) was young and there were only two other students on our course. They were Afrikaners and English was their second language. These days, field guide courses include students from around the world. Some students go on to be guides, (a challenge if you are not South African, but possible if you are really, really good at your job) and all are interested in learning about the flora and fauna and skies of Africa, but most go back to Europe or The Americas or Australia having learned a lot about the bush and had a hell of a great time away from home.

What made the Ulovane training special was the quality of the instructors and the wealth of knowledge of our mentors Schalk and Candice Pretorius, Andrew Kearney, Brett Horley, and Cobus Spies. These names might not mean anything to you outside of Southern or Eastern Africa but anyone lucky enough to have even one of these people instructing them on the bush can consider themselves fortunate. That coupled with the uncommon number of reserves that served as our classroom, world-renowned places like Amakhala, Shamwari, and Klaserie, made it an unforgettable experience. Oh, and while at Ulovane a wonderful woman named Thabisa and another named Joyce cooked our meals, made our beds(!) and did our laundry. Yes, a lot has changed in 14 years.
 
We, along with 4 other students, completed the seven-week course in temperatures that ranged from heat stroke inducing to frigid and wet. We had many days that were perfect – still mornings and afternoon skies filled with bright white clusters of cotton ball clouds that drifted by in a soft breeze.  In all weather, we learned to track wild animals and identify their spoor. We learned how to aim and shoot a rifle big enough to stop a lion (or me as it turns out. More on that later). We beat about the bush at Ulovane (the school), and at Amakhala, Shamwari, and Klaserie Game Reserves. With our armed mentors we walked in big five - lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant, rhino - areas with all except for leopards, which we saw from a vehicle more times than seems fair. Sometimes the game we encountered on walks was almost too much. Eight buffalo would be thrilling enough for me but eight hundred can be daunting.

One day we walked for nine hours through Klaserie game Reserve. The first eight hours were too quiet. We strained to hear sounds of ox peckers alarm calling or guinea fowl kicking up the dust and we concentrated more on signs and tracks of what had been there before. Tracking is my favorite thing. It’s like beachcombing for treasure. We tracked lions for over two hours but lost the trail in thick tall grass. I spent several minutes touching, breaking apart, and sniffing a small pile of dung to determine if it was a baby white rhino or a baby elephant and it felt good when I showed our guide all the twigs and leaves in the poo because while the initial consensus was that it was rhino, I had thought all along it was ellie.

Then in the last hour, two hours after I had returned to camp with Christina who had brought us lunch at a waterhole, our group, tired and looking forward to returning to camp, came upon a breeding herd of elephants. Breeding herds can be cranky because they consist of moms, aunts, juveniles, and babies and everyone knows that the most dangerous animal in nature is a mama bear protecting her cubs. And they were. Not bears. Cranky. Several charged. Escape was into a ravine, then another ravine. By the time the elephants had chased the group a sufficient distance away, everyone was out of breath. Inhaling deeply was not such a good idea because a few feet away lay a fresh, half eaten carcass of an enormous male kudu. Brett Horley, our mentor, rifle still at the ready, looked at the carcass then in a split second, arched his back and aimed the rifle up into the tree directly above his head and that of the kudu’s mangled remains. Scott said, “By the look on Brett’s face he expected to see a leopard, sprawled out on a limb, tummy half full and ready to protect his kill.  Just as we all began to relax, a spotted hyena trotted by not 15 feet away. Tris, you should have stayed! You would have loved it!”

Another day in Klaserie, just before sunset, we approached two female lion on foot. From far away they saw us or smelled us or heard us. But unlike the few other encounters with lion where the lions noticed us, watched us then carried on resting or sleeping, these lionesses immediately stood up, growled, and charged. Rifles were cocked and retreat was made quickly back to the vehicle. I think it was the most adrenaline that has ever pumped through my body. As we retreated I knew I should keep my eyes on the lions but I couldn’t make myself look. I walked quickly expecting a lion paw to trip me up at any moment. Brett, and Jason a neighboring lodge owner and another mentor extraordinaire, were puzzled at the aggressive response these lions gave us because we were so far away when they charged. It was decided that we should investigate the lions from the safety of the game vehicle.

Entering a grassy opening through dense thicket we discovered the reason for the angry charge. There, lying in the grass panting, were a group of three female and two male lions. One female was pregnant and one or both of the others was in oestrus and the two males were vying for their attention.  On foot, we had walked into their bedroom and spoiled the mood. No wonder the two females were angry! For reasons beyond my understanding, the lions paid little or no attention to us as long as we were in the vehicle so we were fortunate to view some amazing animal behavior - scent marking, submissive behavior, invitations to mate, and a tussle between the two males. Watch the action here, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wz0pFGKD0-k

Not every day was filled with as many thrills but every day was exciting and new. Scott and I haven’t studied that much since college. We learned about gestation periods and weaning ages, weight of dangerous animals and their charging speeds (really, you don’t have a chance. If something wants to take you down, it will). We learned what they eat, how much they sleep, and what their footprints look like in soft sand, mud, and almost too hard to see prints at all substrate.  We learned all about digestive tracts, mating practices, how tall they stand at the shoulder, and how many teeth they have. I can define a carnassial shear and piloerection. It’s not what you think. I missed it on the practice exam. But I didn’t leave the space empty. Instead I wrote, “I have no idea but it sounds intriguing!”

We also had a few weeks of rifle handling. First we had to earn a certificate of competency from the South African Government. For three days we sat in classroom an hour away from Ulovane in Port Elizabeth and learned all about South African gun law, cleaning and maintenance of firearms, and emergency action drills undertaken when, as South Africans say, “The poo-poo hits the fan.” (see post “Whoopsie! and Other South African Expressions” for more.) We memorized tables with calibers and grains, and formulae for ballistics (internal, external and terminal) and trajectory, and where the brain is located on the big five. We learned to always treat a weapon as if it were loaded and to never ever point a weapon at anyone even if unloaded. We experienced the unbearable pain of pepper spray when our instructor fired a short stream into the air in the small indoor shooting range, “…so that you think twice before you use it. Use it if you need it but know what you are doing to someone.” A little goes a long way. When it hits you, you cannot breathe. Then we took our knowledge out to the shooting ranges. We used a scope on a .308 and had to hit the bull’s eye far down range. That was fun.
We had a lesson in muscle memory. Using dummy cartridges, we loaded the magazine of a .375 rifle, chambered a round, aimed, unloaded and made the rifle “safe” all in fifteen seconds while blindfolded. 
Other timed drills included shooting a poster of a charging buffalo in the brain (a very small red circle between the eyes), handling a misfire, and my favorite, reacting to a charging lion (a poster of a lion running at full speed – or as fast as my fellow student Lewis Buckner and future Game Ranger in the Masai Mara could run the line attached to the lion contraption) while on a simulated walk with guests. In this drill, the lion runs at you with the intent to tear you to shreds. You have to shout at the lion, cock your rifle, tell your guests to stay calm and not run, shout at the lion again, shoot the lion at 5 meters, fire an insurance shot, move to the lion and poke him in the eye to make sure he isn’t just pretending to be dead, reload, and ask your guests if they are all ok. I got the Lion-poster in his right eye with my first shot (In real life, you only have one chance to stop a charging lion). Lion down, no drama, no profanity - except for Scott who might have said “Holy poo-poo Tris! Good shot!”

This was all on Day One of our weeklong Advanced Rifle Handling practical assessment. By Day Three, I was in tears, so sore and bruised up and down my arm and on my breast that I bailed. I remembered that I don’t like guns and would not want to have to shoot an animal anyway, so I was okay with it. Some of the gents tried to encourage me to stick with it. When I said, “If firing a rifle caused pain, bruising and swelling on your nuts, would you keep at it?” and they winced in sympathy. Scott did spectacularly well up until day five, the day of the actual assessment when he impulsively chose a different rifle than the one he had been shooting spectacularly all week. Two weeks later he was re-assessed by James Steyn back in Klaserie and passed with flying colors.

“What does this all mean!” I hear you saying. Not much! Only that if we get the chance, we will do more courses like this in the future.

Scott and Tris
Raptor’s View
Hoedspruit South Africa


Next: “Whoopsie!” And Other South African Expressions