Just like kids love the tension and thrill of a good ghost story, it seems that every safari guest yearns to be enthralled by their guides’ stories of daring-do and near escapes from marauding animals. It fuels the excitement that hangs like an invisible aura around the word ‘safari’. I have yet to meet a wildlife guide or ranger who doesn’t have a backpack full of tales of encounters with dangerous wildlife. Most of these narratives, like the best ghost stories, would raise the hairs on the back of anyone’s neck, but, and I’m sure our close-knit fraternity of guides will back me up on this, the number of stories where you can honestly say…
“That was a close shave!”, or
“I saw my life flash before my eyes”, or as is the case with this story,
“I also saw my client’s life flash before my eyes”, are few and far between.
Africa and its myriad beasties, with all their combined and often inflated reputations, is largely a safe place to explore. A two week safari is, in my humble opinion, safer than a weekend at Ibiza! After a lifetime of living amongst wildlife and garnering my own backpack of stories, some exaggerated, but most not, there is still only one incident that occasionally bubbles up from my subconscious in the dead of night, waking me up in a cold sweat.
But before I get into that, I need to try describe for you the animal that is the real reason why khakis and browns are the so-called ideal colour for safari gear. You see this is not the colour best for hiding from wildlife, but rather the perfect shade to camouflage the ‘fright streaks’ that appear in one’s trousers after a too-close encounter with this animal.
Their reputation is the stuff of legends and there is little that they fear in their world. I have seen lions and elephants quite literally step aside at their approach, showing a respect that can only be learned through experience. The only way to describe their unflinching, withering stare is that they always look at you as if you owe them money. They have relatives on other continents, but none of these cousins can hold a light to Africa’s brawny, brawling bovid.
By now you are probably thinking ‘Buffalo’ but you would be only partly right. You see there are two types of buffalo in Africa. The cows and bulls that comprise the breeding herds and even the bachelor groups of Cape Buffalo are, for the most part, only once-removed relatives of Daisy the dairy cow. However, the other type is the over-sized, over-grumpy, over-endowed solitary buffalo bull known as the ‘Daga Boy’. ‘Daga’ (pr. dah/gah) is a colloquial term for the traditional mud adobe plaster that is used across Africa by just about every culture to daub their traditional houses. Old buffalo bulls are very fond of rolling in thick, gooey mud. This coating will shield their skin against the incessant annoyance of blood-sucking flies, caking and cracking like the plaster of a African hut. These crusty old behemoths have, over their 25 year life span, won every battle they ever fought and have the patience of a full bladder. I think you will agree that it is better than a good idea to give such grumpiness a wide and respectful berth. Well fortunately, just for your reading pleasure, I didn’t, and consequently there is a story to tell.
The "you owe me money" look
Our story is set at a time when I was working at a rather well known private game reserve known as Mala Mala, running a delightful little place called ‘Harry’s Camp’. Management at the time had this obsession with ‘The Big Five’ and it was (still is?) a big deal to present departing guests with a certificate should they be lucky enough to have had an excellent guide (ahem!) that could show them each of the Big Five during their stay. Lion, Leopard, Elephant, Rhino and Buffalo make up this auspicious ensemble; its moniker harking back to the early ‘white hunter’ days when these were the most dangerous animals to hunt with nothing more than your wits, a black powder blunderbuss and the right coloured khaki trousers! Truth be told I find ‘The Big Five’ more than a little distracting as a safari accomplishment when Africa has so much more to offer than just these five critters – but back then it was all about checking each of these off a guest’s safari wish list. Well, every so often at Mala Mala we would have a drought on sightings of buffalo and this usually commonly encountered bovine would become annoyingly difficult to find. It is just such a drought that prefaces our story here.
My guest was a single Chilean gentleman by the name of Diego who had been at Harry’s for four days, and for three of those days we had been trying to close off the damn Big Five certificate with a buffalo but to no avail. On his day of departure we threw in the towel and decided instead to do a proper bush walk – not one of those dinky half hour nature strolls to look at berries and poop, but rather a good three hour hike along the banks of the Sand River - to look at berries and poop and perhaps some wildlife. After arranging for Luxon, our tracker, to meet us with the safari vehicle at a designated spot we set off.
Under normal circumstances the walk would probably have been described as excellent – some good early morning birding and a few mammal sightings to break up the stops for interpreting signs and looking at berries and poop. But truth be told I don’t remember anything we saw or did before reaching the entry to the river crossing, on the other side of which would be Luxon with our vehicle and the much anticipated coffee box. Funnily though, one thing I do remember is we never saw a single sign of buffalo – not a hoof print or a desiccated patty alluded to a missed opportunity of a sighting in the last few days.
Three hours in and by now Diego and I had pretty much talked ourselves out and so we descended into the dry river bed in silence – the soft sand masking any sound our footfalls would have made. Now before I go any further, it’s important to note that we carried a heavy calibre rifle on our walks, but strict company policy was that you never walked with one up the spout, meaning that - and I quote from the ranger’s manual and every other public safety manual ever written - ‘in the unlikely event of an incident’ you would need to draw back the bolt, chamber a round in the breach, and then line up on the threatening target – which of course will wait patiently for you to be ready. At this point I have to ask…what is it with that phrase ‘in the unlikely event…’? We have all watched Air Crash Investigation and sat through DiCaprio’s gooey love scenes on The Titanic. We know shit happens. So wouldn’t it be more pertinent to insert the phrase ‘when shit happens…’ into every safety manual on the planet? After all, the most unlikely event of a globally paralyzing pandemic has happened hasn’t it? There is surely no argument this event qualifies as ‘shit’.
But I digress.
So Diego and I are walking down into the dry river bed along a path with pretty good visibility except for one smallish Lantana bush which we needed to circumvent. For those who don’t know, Lantana is a thick, prickly invasive shrub that can grow into huge impenetrable stands. This particular shrub wasn’t so impressive and was about….. well about the size of a buffalo. As we rounded the shrub the so-called ‘unlikely event’ (aka ‘shit’) happened!
The first sign we got that our walk was about to take a rather dramatic turn was an explosive snort and grunt – "PHHHHHHT…HUGGGGGHHH!" This translates from buffalo-speak as “brace yourself, this is gonna hurt”. I had enough time to spin around and see….. No that’s not accurate. As I spun around my entire field of vision was filled by worn-shiny horns and a black, hairy, daga encrusted on-coming locomotive. In a split of a split second I did the best matador manoeuvre you’ve never seen and managed to dodge the juggernaut, all the while going the through the motion of laboriously drawing back my rifle’s bolt. My desperate pirouette landed me face down in the sandy river bed and in one fluid motion (before the next 25 years bled such athleticism out of me) was back on my feet slamming a cartridge into the chamber. One small problem though. The open breach had landed in the sand first and now was caked full of dirt. I am pretty sure the manufacturer did not list ‘silica granules’ amongst the recommended lubricants for the fine engineering of Mauser technology. Just like that my weapon’s status had been demoted from a high powered rifle to an ineffectual club.
Now through the corner of my eye I had seen Diego take three strides and dive under another dense bush a little up the trail. And as I struggled in vain to empty a child’s beach bucket of sand out of my rifle I saw the bulging haunches of the Daga Boy protruding from the same bush Diego had disappeared under. Anyone who has been in a similar situation will tell you that Einstein’s theory of relativity comes into play and time is suddenly an elastic band. Milliseconds become seconds and seconds become minutes. In what seemed an age I stood behind this buffalo desperately performing a version of the Macarena in an effort to clear the rifle. Then rather abruptly the Daga Boy backed out of the bush and bolted across the river bed and off into the bush.
Relief? Hell no.
What if he doubled back for round two?
What if he had a buddy I still hadn’t seen?
Diego? Oh my god Diego?
While these thoughts are going through my head at the speed of light, and my pinkie finger is still jammed up the barrel of the rifle, plaintive moans start to emanate from the bush. “Uhhhh! Uhhhhh!”
“Diego are you OK?” I asked, my mind already picturing a gory scene and starting to go through the ABC’s of first aid. More moans – “I’m bleeding” he managed to say through the moans. You can imagine now what I’m thinking and none of it is good. “Did the buffalo get you?” whilst I blew down the barrel of the rifle. More moans then a pause……
“No,” he said “the thorn bush did”.
Well, I didn’t know whether I should laugh or cry. By now it was clear that the Daga Boy was a loner and had decided not to collect our outstanding debts. I dropped my new club and went over to Diego who was extricating himself from the only plant known to Man that had the potential to stop a rampaging Buffalo. The plant is known as Maytenus heterophylla – a name I will never forget – otherwise known as the common spike thorn. With near indestructible thorns up to three inches long, many a 4x4 tyre and radiator has fallen victim to its destructiveness. Now too, it seemed, so had a Daga Boy and a man called Diego.
Diego was indeed bleeding – in fact he looked like he had fallen victim to a psychopathic acupuncturist. Despite his red polka-dot appearance, I was mesmerised by Diego’s forehead. For right there, buried to the hilt under the skin, looking like a cyclopoid eyelid, was one of those three inch thorns. With my trusty Leatherman – a tool that is clearly more trustworthy than a Brno .375 rifle - I used the pliers to grab the little stub protruding from his frown wrinkle and slid the thorn out. Diego, so pumped with adrenaline, didn’t feel a thing. Fortunately both Diego and I were wearing khaki shorts, so no further mishaps were immediately evident!
We scrambled wobbly-kneed up the river bank to our waiting vehicle a mere hundred yards away to be greeted by a mildly concerned Luxon and a woefully under-stocked coffee box. He had heard and seen the buffalo exiting the river bed but had no idea that we were the subject of its crankiness. To this day I am not sure if Luxon’s unaffected demeanour was a sign of respect that we had survived or his way of accepting “God looks after fools”. Trackers have a unique way of dealing with hairy situations….. but that is a story for another Blarn.
Two things happened as a result of our close encounter of the Daga Boy kind. Firstly, Diego was the only guest at Mala Mala that day who got a Big Five certificate, helping to maintain the reserve’s (and guide’s) reputation. Most importantly though we were responsible for an important amendment to the Ranger’s Safety Manual. No, guides could not now walk with a chambered round in the rifle – that would be silly. Instead, all walks would, from henceforth, be shadowed (and that is not a figurative description) by a game drive vehicle to which the guide and guests can retreat to for safety ‘in the unlikely event….’.