African Odyssey

Posted on May 18, 2013

I have been blessed beyond most men, in that I found my soulmate early in life. I have now been married to my darling bride for over four decades.
As in all relationships there have been ups and downs, good times and bad, but after 41 years together, she has chosen to not murder me in my sleep, even though I may have given her ample cause. I recognize that at times I could concievably have been difficult to live with, (albeit very rarely).
Beverly grew up on a farm outside a small town in southwest Colorado. There were few children of a similar age who lived within a reasonable distance. As a consequence, her primary playmates as a child were the animals of the farm and woods. Her friends and confidants were cats, dogs, horses, and the occasional feral creature that she encountered in the wild. Raccoons and even on one memorable occasion, a skunk, took up residence. This last to the great discomfiture of her mother.
As a result she developed a deep and abiding love for the creatures who share this planet with us.
In 1979 my job took me to western Africa, to Angola. We moved to Johannesburg, South Africa, to allow for a shorter commute for me than living in the U.S. would have allowed.
A month or two after moving there, we desired to see something of the country.
I hired a car and we drove out into the countryside.
The area around Johannesburg has been settled for centuries, and is not the deep bush. This land consisted primarily of rolling grasslands with an occasional river valley which supported a much lusher environment. These small valleys were often choked with vegetation. Trees and bushes abounded.
Numerous farms dotted the landscape.
After an hour or two of driving, we came upon one of the afore mentioned valleys. There was a wide spot beside the road which showed signs of frequent use.
We parked our car to take a looksee. There was a small languid river beside us that meandered off into a heavily forested area. We observed a well worn path beside it, and decided to explore it.
Now bear in mind that we were rookies in this adventure. We set off with some enthusiasm and a certain amount of trepidation.
After all this was AFRICA! In our naivete we had romantic visions of the dark continent, home to savage men and even more savage beasts. Who could imagine what perils awaited us? Lions? Hyenas? Crocodiles? Venomous snakes? We were definitely strangers in a strange land. To borrow a metaphor, we were babes in the woods.
Notwithstanding, we heroically ventured forth on our safari of discovery, and set off down the trail. Me with a great deal of interest, and she with wide eyed wonder.
There were hills on both sides of the river with areas of dense foliage interspersed with some open grassy glades.
After a short distance, as Bev preceeded me, I happened to notice a rather large turtle sitting on a fallen log suspended about two feet above the water. I also noticed that my intrepid companion had her attention focused on the hill above us to our left. She had not seen the turtle.
At this point the reptile apparently decided he did not wish to make our aquaintance. He scuttled off the log and impacted the water below with a very loud splash.
My bride heard this sound, and although at this point she did not know what had caused it, she DID know that she did not like it.
Defying all the laws of gravity and physics, my dear levitated a few inches into the air while simultaneously spinning around to face in the opposite direction. Her legs blurred into motion looking for all the world like the Road Runner when Wile E. Coyote was in hot pursuit.
A gutteral sound emanated from her throat;
I was unceremoniously bowled aside as she galloped toward the percieved sanctuary of our car.
In short order, she was some considerable distance away, moving fast and accelerating.
Recognizing what had just happened, I was overcome by mirth. I began to laugh uncontrollably. Between my gasps of hilarity I was able to shout after her;
“Come back, come back! ”
Upon her rejoining me she announced;
“That was a critter! “
After I explained what had caused the sound, she was all wounded pride and dignity.
I was so consumed with laughter that I had to lean over with my hands on my knees and gasp for breath.
If the old adage about looks being able to kill was true, I would have at this moment been reduced to a smoldering pile of ashes.
To this day she gives me “the look ” whenever I relate to a third party the anecdote about the “Afican Attack Turtle “
When I had somewhat recovered from my bout of hilarity, albeit with the occasional giggle still escaping, we once again ventured forth, undeterred.
A short distance further on we were startled by a genuinely terrifying sound. It was very loud, and very close. It sounded like a cross between a carnivorous roar and a bark.
The thought that flashed through my mind was “LION! “
This time we both levitated into the air, spun around, and hastily retraced our tracks at a high rate of speed. Bev asserted;
“Now that WAS a critter! “
During the course of our retreat, in my peripheral vision, I observed the source of the alarming sound. There was a troop of baboons meandering through a grassy area on the hillside above us. The alpha male had registerd displeasure at our presence.
Now we had been warned about baboons. They can be very dangerous. An adult male has canines three or four inches long, with very powerful jaws, and are not particularly afraid of humans. They are reported to have an extremely bad temper. Even a fully grown leopard will hesitate before tackling a bull baboon.
We, wisely in my opinion, decided to curtail further exploration. We returned to our vehicle, and wended our way back home.
A couple months later, we were once again desirous of seeing more of the bush. This time we pursued our adventure a little more vigorously.
I rented a vehicle more suited to the back country. It was similar to a Jeep or a Land Rover.
Once more we ventured forth into the savage heart of the dark continent.
In the north east of the nation of South Africa, there is a large game preserve named Kruger Park. Visitors are allowed to explore it un-guided with certain restictions. We had to register with the park authorities upon entering, and were given a set of rules, one of which was that we were required to be inside one of the numerous camps scattered at intervals throughout the park by nightfall. If we were not, a search and rescue operation would be mounted.
If found alive and unharmed, we would be ejected from the park and a hefty bill for the effort would be presented to us. They were quite adament about this.
Another rule was that we were not allowed to get out of our vehicle except inside the confines of a camp. Our windows were to remain rolled up whenever we encountered animals. Yeah, right!
We had been provided with a map of sorts. It was lacking in much detail, but did provide guidance as to the locations of the camps, but the “roads ” depicted on it were largely little more than a couple of dirt ruts leading through the countryside.
Off we went.
On that first afternoon, only an hour or so after entering the park, we came upon a flock, (is that the correct term?) of ostriches. There was one adult cock and several hens in it. A couple of juvenile birds were included.
The male approached us and tapped his beak on the left side window where Beverly was sitting. I was behind the steering wheel, which, of course was on the right side of the car. (They drive on the wrong side of the road in S.A.)
Disregarding the rules, she rolled the window down about half way. The cock ostrich proceeded to stick his head and neck inside, while uttering a kind of inquisitive chuckling noise, and thoroughly examining the interior of our car. It appeared that he was accustomed to handouts from people, but we had nothing to give him. After a brief time he apparently concluded there were no goodies forthcoming and withdrew his head with a snort of disgust, and wandered away back to his harem. Bev commented on his beautiful eyes and long, long lashes. She should know, as at one point they were literally nose to nose.
Onward, ever onward.
By this time the afternoon was drawing to a close. We made our way to the nearest camp.
The camp attendants were black South Africans who all identified themseves as Zulus, naturally.
At least one Hollywood cliche is true. They did like to sing as they worked, building a campfire and helping we visitors get settled in for the night. Those deep rich melodic voices with the starlit African night as a backdrop were hypnotic. Spellbinding.
During the course of the evening, they regaled us with stories of wild beasts and desperate men. There may have been a kernel of truth in some of those tales, but I suspect that they were largly products of their own imaginations. Fanciful yarns spun for the benefit of we tourists. That’s OK. We ate it up avidly. It was great fun.
In the morning, after a breakfast of tea and scones, we resumed our trek across the veldt.
Almost immediatly we encountered the clown princes of Africa. Wart hogs. There was a group of them browsing along beside the road. They went everywhere at a trot, their hairless tails raised conspicuously erect, snorting and squealing. When they grazed, they folded their front legs under their bodies and walked on their knees, their butts stuck up into the air. Bev was reduced to joyous delight at the comical antics of a bunch of young piglets who were in the group. It took all of the powers of persuasion I posessed to convince her that it was time to move on. She’s always been a sucker for baby animals.
Shortly therafter she asked me to stop the car. She had noticed a giraffe walking out from a copse of trees. At first glance it appeared to be a solitary animal, but we then noticed the much smaller head of a baby peeking out from behind his mama. He was a tiny little guy, only six or seven feet tall. He seemed to be curious about us, but was much too timid to come out in the open. The mother glanced at us, and at him, unconcerned. She began to graze on the leaves of a tree. Junior stayed where he was until we began to pull away. Then with a display of courage, he heroically ventured out into the open to watch our departure. Brave little creature.
Before long we spotted a rhinocerous. Althogh he was a couple hundred yards away, we could see him clearly. He was standing knee deep in a muddy waterhole, having his morning drink. A telephoto camera lens is invaluable in situations such as this. We soon tired of watching him do nothing, and proceeded along our way.
Over the course of the next few days, we were very fortunate to observe myriads of animals in their natural habitat. Our camera got a good workout.
Although we never did see a leopard, as they are primarily nocturnal creatures, we were treated to lions, elephants, rhinos,hippopotamuses, crocodiles, monkeys, and on one memorable occasion, we spotted a cheetah strolling along through the grass in the near distance.
At some point in our sojourn, I don’t remember on which day, we encountered our old friends, the baboons. There was a troop of them loitering beside the road. We stopped to watch them, windows rolled up as a precaution.
Most of them were on the right side of our car. As I had been driving, Bev leaned across the seat to better observe them. Unbeknownst to us, the alpha male had come up on the left side. We became aware of his presence only after he tried to bite the glass of the window, thereby making a loud clicking noise. This drew Bev’s attention, and she turned to identify the sorce of the curious sound. This brought her face to face with the baboon at a distance of only a couple of inches. He had his mouth agape with his formidible teeth prominately displayed. Once again I heard “GAAAH! ” uttered in a loud voice. Unfortunatly she had been drinking from a can of Coke, which was in her right hand. An involuntary reaction caused her to jerk her hands into the air with a result that the contents of her soda can were propelled into space, and across the car, whereupon it’s flight was arrested by the left side of my face. When she turned to look at me again, she burst into gales of uncontrollable laughter, while observing Coke dripping from my nose and ear. Ha, ha. Very funny. I understandably appreciated the humor in the situation considerably less than she did. There may be some poetic justice in this incident, taking into account my joviality during the attack turtle confrontation. Oh well.
One of our most memorable encounters soon came to pass. Once again we were driving along, myself at the wheel, when Beverly screamed at me with a great deal of urgency in her voice;
“Stop the car, stop the car! “
I did so.
We were in an area of tall thick dry grass, maybe two feet in height. It was colored a dull brown.
She had spotted a bunch of lion cubs beside the road. There were three or four of them. They were delightful animals scarcely larger than house cats. Their fat little bellies hung down nearly to the ground. Their legs were short and clumsy. They were playing together, for all the world like kittens, gnawing and clawing at each other.
One little guy, more bold than the rest, wobbled up closer to our car. He looked at us and gave us his best interpretaion of a fierce jungle beast. His tiny ears folded back along his head, and his nose wrinkled in his finest approximation of a fearsome snarl.
“Back off, or I’ll bite you, because I’m a lion, and that’s what lions do! “
He was unbearably cute.
Now Beverly is one of the most intelligent people I know. She has a great deal of common sense…which totally abandonded her on this occasion. To my horror, I saw her reach for the handle of the door and open it, and start to exit. I lunged across the front seat and seized her by the arm.
“I’m going to go play with him “
“No, you are not! Get back in this car! “
“Why? He can’t hurt me “
“Maybe not, but I guarantee that mama is not far away “
As if on cue, we watched as an adult lioness stood up in the grass about twenty feet away, where she had lain concealed, and looked at us. She did not act aggressivly at this point, but we could see that she was definitely curious about the current activity.
“Aha! ” I chortled in triumph; “See what I mean? If that cub had let out just one squall, she would have been all over you “
As previously stated, she is very smart. She knows absolutely that I was correct in preventing her from a course of action that could, and almost certainly would, have been disastrous, but to this day, I believe that deep in her soul, she has never totally forgiven me for not allowing her to play with that lion cub.
We pressed onward. Ever the intrepid explorers.
We had been told that elephants were rare in the park that year. To our great good fortune, somebody was mistaken, as we encounterd dozens of them.
On another day, we were loafing along when we came upon a small herd of them. There were several huge adults, some juveniles, and a couple of babies. The latter were engaged in their silly little elephant games, frolicking around and engaging in mock charges, while their seniors foraged along. My darling bride was driving on this occasion. She stopped the car.
This time my own common sense departed from me. I got out and walked to the rear of our vehicle, camera in hand, to better snap some good photos.
The largest of the pachyderms, he may have been the patriarch of the family, looked at me disapprovingly. All of a sudden, he spun around to face me and charged! his ears flopped forward, his head dropped down displaying his tusks threateningly, and he emitted a loud trumpeting challenge. HERE HE CAME!
I, of course, decided that discretion was absolutely the better part of valor. I spun around with the intention of diving back in the car…only to see it accelerating away from me! WHAAAT?
Dirt and gravel were pelting me as the rear wheels dug for traction.
On this occasion I once again heard the now familiar, GAAAH!, only this time it was emanating from my own throat. I pelted off in pursuit of the fleeing vehicle, screaming, “STOP! COME BACK ” at the top of my lungs. I could hear the impact of that evil beast’s massive feet pounding the ground. His breath was clearly audible as he expelled air with every step. A glance over my shoulder revealed he was gaining on me. He looked to be about the size of Mount Everest, a great gray mass of violent death and destruction. I was motivated to even greater feats of speed. You may rest assurred that I did not dawdle.
Now to Beverly’s credit, she had simply acted reflexibly. She insists that she had been looking out the right side window when the brute came for me. She swears that she was unaware that I was outside the car. Well, maybe. I will give her the benefit of the doubt.
Upon realizing my dire predicament, and upon seeing me in full headlong flight with that animal avalanche gaining on me, she had slammed on the brakes, snapped the car into reverse,and returned to rescue me. She skidded to an abrupt stop beside me. I jerked the door open and dived into the car, stretching my length on the seat beside her, and we were off, with me yelling; “GO, GO, GO! at the top of my voice. My encouragement was unnecessary, as she was already in full flight mode herself. We made good our escape in the very nick of time.
I looked back to see that Jumbo had abandoned the chase. He was standing there shaking his head with a self satisfied look of triumph on his face. I hated him.
After a few shouted caustic comments from me, Bev apologized for abandoning me to my fate. She was genuinly contrite and sincere. I think. Who am I to doubt her?
To this day, to soothe my wounded pride, I insist that the beast was bluffing, and his intent was only to chase me off, and not to stomp me into a grease smear on the ground. My bride disagrees. She is absolutely certain he was deadly serious. Who can say?
On our final evening in the park, we again took up residence in a camp. With the end of our adventure looming, we were in a somewhat somber mood. We did not want it to be over.
We had arrived in the late afternoon. We settled in for the night, while the attendants grilled antelope steaks on the camp fire. There were yams roasting in the coals. We sat and sipped a cold beer while we waited for supper.
Shortly before sunset, we heard growling and feline complaining in the near distance. One of the Zulus explained that there was a pride of lions that hung out near this camp. He said that that what we were hearing was the big cats waking up from their daytime slumber, bitching and grumbling. He said they had slept through the worst of the heat of the day and were now becoming active once the temperature had begun to abate a bit. They were apparently in a surly mood.
Night falls quickly in the tropics. It was not long before all sunlight had faded from the sky. There was a half moon that provided some illumination.
The grumbling had stopped with the onset of full darkness, and silence reigned outside the boundries of the camp. I looked around and noticed that, although there was a fence around us, it looked awfully flimsy.
After a while, as we were eating our supper, and listening to more outrageous tales, all hell broke loose out in the African night. There was a terrible chorus of growling, roaring, snarling, and other unidentifiable commotion.
I looked at the Zulu sitting next to me. He nodded to me oh so wisely, and announced;
“They have killed, Nkosi. Even now, they are arguing over which one of them gets the prey first. It will be the largest male “
Oh good. I once again looked at the now even less substantial appearing barrier between us and those savage beasts. Hmmm?
I glanced at Beverly. Her eyes were about the size of golf balls.
After a short interval, the commotion subsided, with only the occasional growl coming from the darkness.
“They eat ”
I naively inquired as to whether or not the lions ever entered the camp to dine on humans. The reply was;
“Of course not! Well, at least not very often ”
Although I believed that he was pulling my leg, I could not be absolutely certain. I can assure you we did not sleep very soundly that night. The slightest sound in the camp jolted us into wide eyed alertness.
We survived the night without becoming lion chow, and started our return journey to Jo’burg. Our adventure had come to a close.
In the fullness of time we departed Africa and returned to the United States. Vivid memories of our adventures remain with us to this day.
My favorite memory is, of course, the event of the “African Attack Turtle “
It is said that anyone who has ever visited Africa retains some of the spirit of that continent. It truely was magical for us. Those treasured memories will be in our souls until we no longer draw breath.
We hope to return someday.

Last edited by T. Clifford on June 15, 2013, 10:57 am

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2 responses to “African Odyssey”

  1. Upon completion of this admittedly long tale, I observed that it had already recieved more than 100 hits, some of them being my own, as I reopened the story to edit and write more of it.
    It is extremly gratifying to me that so many readers are interested enough in my yarns to take the time to read them. Thank you very much.
    I would, however, like to suggest that if you are among that first hundred, I invite you to reread it in it’s entirety, as it is (finally) complete.

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