Blarn#3 - Got to Goat
Updated: Jun 10, 2020
Having just finished reading an intriguing article on the history of the bidet (don’t ask; but thank you Smithsonian for the inspiration), I thought it may be amusing to recount a ‘blarn’ about privy experiences I have been privy to. And there have been many! From watching Dennis Thatcher and FW De Klerk sharing a chuckle as they also shared a convenient termite mound, to having ladies hanging their derrieres over the edge of the vehicle at a lion sighting, the ‘pit stop’ has been a vital part of every safari I've ever undertaken. The urge is on a distinct sliding scale depending on how long the guest has been on safari. On day one most folk are acutely aware of restroom breaks and having access to the proper facility that puts the comfort into ‘comfort stop’. Preferring to hold on in anticipation of reaching camp, they will tie themselves into a pretzel with their eyeballs floating before asking to stop for a bush break. However, by the time we get to day ten, every tree is a lavatory, and comfort is now defined as that hugely underrated sense of relief, rather than the amenities of a modern cloakroom.
Call it what you like; latrine, loo, outhouse, thunderbox, long-drop, or WC, the bathroom, as my American friends call it (who would ever take a bath in that receptacle?), is an integral part of every person’s life. Consequently, bush camps around Africa have come up with ingenious ways to make them a marketable feature of their establishments. Whether it’s a seat fashioned out of the pelvic girdle of an elephant (surprisingly comfortable), or a throne perched on a river bank overlooking a pod of hippos, there is hardly a toilet design idea that hasn’t been used somewhere on the continent. So clearly the humble commode, or, at the very least, its easy access, is important to us. But this blarn is not so much a ‘House & Home’ editorial as it is about actual experiences of needing to use the facilities when you just got to go.
“So what line of work are you in?” I asked Peter as we sat down to lunch. Peter and his family had just arrived at Selinda Camp in northern Botswana - their first real camp on their first ever safari, and there was the usual get-to-know-each-other banter around the table.
“I’m in the motorcycle business,” he replied.
This, it turned out, was a rather modest admission because Peter was in fact a multi-time TT racer. Now in case you don’t know who these maniacs are, perhaps this image rings a bell. Narrow roads, small villages, brick walls, dips, ramps, hairpin corners and insane men negotiating it all at insane speeds on two wheels. Yes, this is the world famous motorcycle race around the Isle of Man in the UK. It is equally infamous for the number of fatal crashes it has seen.
Never having met such an individual before (or since) I was fascinated. The questions poured out of me to the point that I was probably becoming annoying. It turned out that his secret to surviving this, and other such races at these ridiculous speeds, is an unbelievably low and stable heart rate. You see, the adrenaline fuelled response we have to a potentially dangerous situation sets the heart racing, oxygenating our brains and muscles and allowing for instant decisions to be made, and acted upon, for one’s survival. Apparently, for us mere mortals, every corner or rapidly approaching stone wall on the multiple lap TT race would push our ‘adrenometers’ into the red. This is physiologically unsustainable and would ultimately result in an ugly mess. Keeping a cool head, and heart, is the successful (by that I mean living) TT racer’s best protection.
“So nothing gets your heart rate up?” I queried.
“Nope!” was his emphatic reply around a mouthful of the quiche he was not getting to eat because his guide kept asking questions.
But you haven’t been on a safari before! Was my unvoiced response to what may, or may not have been a challenge.
I’m sure many will agree that the first game drive on the first safari is filled with anticipation, but spiced with a pinch of dread. After all, you are heading out into a wilderness populated with those vicious beasts that Disney and Discovery have hyped up to a level where many think a safari is a suicide mission. Well the afternoon game drive for Peter and family was pretty typical for Selinda, but maybe, just maybe, I went the extra adrenaline mile. This meant being towered over by an elephant bull or two, and having the twenty-something strong Selinda pride all around the vehicle at near arm’s length. For most first-timers just one of these experiences is enough excitement to have them shakily slurping their recovery drink (aka G&T) at sundowner time. Not so for our ice-veined Peter. Each time a lion walked past his door or an elephant flapped its ears close enough to cover the vehicle in fine dust, I would look over at him hoping to pick out some indication that I was poking at his ‘fight-or-flight’ response. But alas, no white knuckles, no wide-eyed stare, and not a drop of perspiration. This guy was the proverbial cucumber!
The Selinda pride kept us busy with their cub antics until sunset was rapidly becoming dusk with night hot on its heels. Nevertheless, the traditional sundowner was not going to be missed because the rest of the family needed that recovery drink even if Peter didn’t.
At about this time Peter asked, “Is there somewhere I can take a pee?”
We were about to stop in a regularly used open area where a little clump of fever berry bushes to one side provided the unisex lava-tree, so I drove around the copse in a perfunctory and, as it turns out, wholly inadequate, security check before stopping to set up the all-important cocktails.
“Just pop behind the bush Peter, before it gets too dark.” I advised as I rustled up the drinks and snacks.
I was dispensing the first gin when a gospel revival suddenly broke out from the direction of the fever berry.
Our heads snapped round and here comes Peter, running in our direction at full tilt with eyes as wide as a chased impala. Behind him, the distinctive sloping back of a hyaena was visible in the half light, bolting off in the opposite direction.
“I peed on its head.” Peter stuttered in his explanation of how, in mid-stream, he looked down into the shrub he was watering only to make direct eye-contact with Africa’s second largest carnivore. The resultant ‘contraction’ sent a jet of liquid straight into the face of the bewildered predator before Pete the Pastor declared the baptism complete and both parties made good their escape. The ensuing jokes about ‘sausage for supper’ and ‘not being a laughing matter’ distracted me from doing a physical test of Peter’s heart rate, but the image of him galloping towards the vehicle with an expression I had seen countless times on the faces of doomed prey, was evidence enough for me that his adrenal glands were working just fine.
Can lightning strike twice?
A reasonably uneventful night drive got us home before lamb-is-ruined time, giving the family time to go back to their rooms and freshen up before dinner. I had barely returned to the bar after escorting everyone safely to their tents, when Pete the Pastor broke into sermon once again.
“OH MY GOD!!!!!! HOLY!!!!!!! MOTHER!!!!!!!” This was shortly followed by “GRANT!!!! GRANT!!!!” Having already learnt what this tone meant, it was clear I wasn’t being called upon to perform a miracle, other than to save Peter from some impending doom. Fortunately the room was close to the main area so I was there within seconds, only to be greeted by a pale faced Peter and his rather shaken wife.
“The toilet! The toilet! Snake!” a wildly genuflecting Peter blurted. Sure enough, on this cool evening, there coiled comfortably around the sun-warmed toilet bowl of the outdoor bathroom was one of the biggest Anchietas cobras I’d ever seen.
Turns out Peter’s urge back at the sundowner spot hadn’t been completely satisfied and he was eager to complete the task in the safety of his accommodations. Once again, in mid-stream, feeling a weird sensation on his shoe he looked down and ……… Well, I doubt your imagination needs any help from me to finish that sentence. Suffice is to say Pastor Pete’s impromptu incantations had done little to dispel the evil serpent. Indeed, the cobra was completely unrepentant and not only refused to depart peacefully, but started getting a tad peeved at my persuasion tactics. Sadly (and I mean that – I hate killing snakes) it, and a large portion of the bathroom wall, was ultimately exorcised with a 12 gauge shotgun.
For the rest of Peter’s stay his cool demeanour remained unshaken, no matter how exciting some of our game viewing encounters got. However, as he shook my hand before climbing on a plane headed for the Okavango, he quietly capitulated, “Don’t know how you do what you do,” he said, “I don’t think my heart could take it.”
Naja anchieta is certainly a scary customer
(Copyright Stu Nielsen African Snakebite Institute)
Snakes, hyaena and all manner of wildlife aside, the beast that is responsible for my own personal toilet ‘episode’ is in fact Botswana’s most commonly encountered mammal. How common you may ask? Well I checked with Prof Google, and even asked a teenager, but the stats aren’t clear. There was however a wildlife aerial survey conducted a couple of years ago that, apart from counting the elephant and buffalo, also revealed that there are about four million cattle in Botswana. So, using my own precise estimate that there is an approximation of exactly one and three quarter goats for every cow, I hereby declare that there are seven million goats, or thereabouts, in our country of two million people!
And they say we have a problem with elephants!
Back in the late ‘90’s my wife, Sharon, and I were running the Walking Trails at Selinda Reserve in northern Botswana. Our seasons then were long – none of this cream puff three months on, one month off stuff. No; we did nine months straight with clients, six weeks of camp maintenance and then were given a pass for six weeks R’nR. It was at the start of our annual reprieve, when we were dashing south for our fix of mountains and seashore (both of which are non-existent in Botswana), that I met Billy!
But before we go there I need to give you a little context.
Driving through northern Botswana is very different to any other country I have visited – period. It is an endless wilderness and even the sealed roads cut through vast swathes of land that are the exclusive domain of elephant, antelope and big cat. Well almost. Every so often a pastoralist’s remote ‘cattle post’ will be evidenced by a few mottled cattle grazing along the road’s verge, or a jittery herd of goats scarpering across the tarmac in front of you. Now because Botswana is a beef exporter, and because the powers that be in the European Union demand it, the country is sectioned by fences into ‘Foot & Mouth Zones’ that are monitored by our veterinary department. This is a measure that supposedly keeps our prime, export quality stock safe from the ravages of a Picornavirus (everyone is an expert virologist these days, so I thought I would throw that in) that is apparently carried by cloven hoofed wildlife and ‘cattle post’ stock. As one drives out of a ‘red zone’ into a ‘green zone’, often in the middle of nowhere, you intersect a Veterinary Gate. Here you are subjected to a rigorous inspection by a veterinary official, the intensity of which is inversely proportional to the ambient temperature, but directly corresponds to the official’s level of hunger. Best time to hit one of these gates is on a hot afternoon, just after lunch. The shoes on your feet, and any spares, need to be dipped in a borax solution, whilst the car’s wheels are treated as you drive through a hub-high dip. Heaven forbid if your secret stash of biltong (a dried meat delicacy that is NOTHING like jerky) is discovered, or there is a yummy ‘unauthorised’ dairy product in your cooler. However, the potentially disease laden domestic stock have a free pass. Many is the time that we have seen a herd of goats trot across these strict boundaries unperturbed by the unperturbed veterinary official. Sometimes even stopping to slake their thirst in the vehicle dip! Perhaps, like injected disinfectant, this eradicates the virus?
I’m just saying…. It could be terrific....... Maybe it's worth looking into?
[Disclaimer. In the event that some EU import bureaucrat is reading this blarn, and to prevent my single handed part in the collapse of Botswana’s beef industry……..None of this is true. It’s only a story.]
My point is that the goat is culturally and nutritionally important to the Batswana people. It is there, in body if not in spirit, at every wedding celebration and funeral wake. It brings traffic to a halt in our little village and no one bats an eye when a herd wanders through the middle of a soccer match. It is equally normal to see a bunch of goats slumbering on top of parked vehicles (the reason for which I cannot fathom) as it is to see a lone roadside butcher under a shady Acacia, miles from anywhere, with a fly covered goat carcass hanging as an advert to passing motorists.
So when our road trip hit the sleepy village of Nata, the wandering goats (and donkeys, and cows) were nothing out of the ordinary – almost a visual ‘white noise’ that you tune out as you go about your business. Nata’s significance goes beyond being a tiny dot on the map where domestic animals congregate. It is the first resupply stop on a two day drive to Johannesburg. Fuel, for vehicle and body, is taken on board and you get a chance to ease any pressing matters.
“Babe, I’m going to take a leak.” I told Sharon as she dealt with the petrol attendant and collected processed foods we hadn’t seen since the year before.
Back then, Nata had one fuel station, and it was attached to the only hotel in town, which always seemed to be eerily empty. Getting to the toilet required walking behind the office, past the hotel reception, alongside the pool, through a doorway and finally down a long, narrow passage till you got to a single door with that little man picture thingy on it. As I started this journey, I noticed a shaggy, blond billy goat milling around the reception entrance.
Boy you’re a big one!
Sharon tells me, despite the mental note I made to myself back then, that Billy has gotten bigger over the years with each telling of the story. Yes dear, you are right….of course.
Billy was alone, which is unusual for a big, burly goat. There is a reason ‘horny as a billy goat’ is a common metaphor – or at least common in the right amorous setting. A mature billy tends to be constantly fussing over a harem of nannies – offering the goat equivalent of chocolates and flowers in a never ending effort to woo them over, whilst simultaneously battling off like-minded Casanovas. It seemed that Billy had noticed me too because he started tailing me, which was sort of cute at first. I thought perhaps he had been hand reared by the hotelier and was a little imprinted on two legged goats. Then, after negotiating the pool detour, my instincts started pricking.
Does Billy’s attitude seem more challenging than charming? No worries, he’s just a goat. I mulled as I reached the passage with the all important loo at the end.
The cubicle was more like a half a cubicle – a proper ‘little boy’s room’. Once the door was closed, between myself and the toilet bowl, the room was full. Irrespective, it served its purpose and the job at (in?) hand took my mind off of Billy, whom I thought had probably wandered off once the item of his curiosity had disappeared behind the door. So, as you might imagine, I was a little surprised to open the door and see Billy standing fast at the far end of the passage. Like a surreal scene right out of an Alfred Hitchcock movie, with the sun behind him, Billy was casting an eerie shadow down the walls of the passageway, magnifying his bulk, and accentuating a menace that was now very clearly un-cute! The two of us stood at either end of the passage like a pair of gunslingers weighing up our options.
It’s just a goat – call its bluff.
Wow, this passage is really narrow.
Those horns are rather large and pointy.
Wait him out.
These thoughts flipped rapidly through my mind before Billy started doing something every male ungulate, from impala to buffalo, does just before tangling with a rival. Standing as tall as he could, he tilted his head, first one way then the other, in a slow deliberate manner. In rams, bucks, bulls and billies, this is a sighting mechanism to ensure contact with their rival is as direct and effective as possible. Knowing what was coming left me with only one option. I slammed the door shut a millisecond before there was a resounding boom from the other side as Billy's head collided with direct and effective contact. His hooves made a clear scuffing sound as he reversed down the passage, so I opened the door again, daring to hope he had given himself a concussion and given up on the duel. No luck! I got a brief glimpse of a shaggy coat before I slammed the door shut – BOOM! Again I could hear him reloading, so this time I deliberately just cracked open, but then immediately closed the door – BOOM!
Ok, this isn’t going to work. What now?
“Call Sharon,” I hear you muttering. Well, although the rest of the world knew about cell phones in the late ‘90’s, Nata, and indeed most of northern Botswana was still using smoke signals and drums. And my drum was back in the car.
Tallying up the weapons available to me in the half cubicle was disheartening. I didn’t think the plastic ‘bog brush’ or the half empty can of air freshener were going to raise my intimidation factor, and now I could hear Billy’s heavy breathing on the other side of the door [Oh Alfred, you would’ve loved this as a sequel to Birds – I think Barnyard could have been a horror blockbuster]. I looked up above the toilet cistern at the little frosted window and began to feel a spark of hope.
Can I get through that?
There was a small problem though – other than the size of the aperture. An awning window, as they are known, is a common feature in just about every toilet across southern Africa. Being hinged at the top, it needs a mechanism to stop gravity from slamming it shut. This comes in the form of a rotating, elongated latch that doubles up as the prop that holds the window open. This prop is supported by a small peg that protrudes from the lower frame. Escape would entail crawling through a shoulder width window frame with no support to grip onto and that sharp little peg prodding and poking where little pegs shouldn’t prod and poke. This diminutive, blunt metal spike would provide me with a memento that would last for the better part of our six week getaway!
The choice was simple: it’s the peg or a headline in The Ngami Times along the lines of ‘Experienced Wildlife Guide Impaled by Billy’. So, fearing a local hack’s limited grasp of literary ambiguity, contorting through the window trumped a wild charge down the corridor wielding a yucky brush and shielded by a cloud of mountain pine.
The first half of my exit was reasonably graceful and I thought I had got away with it. Then, as my feet left the support of the cistern lid on the inside, my centre of gravity, which was now on the outside, succumbed to Newton’s most famous physical law. The little peg, that I had thus far managed to carefully negotiate past the delicate bits, now dug into the soft flesh of my inner thigh as I plummeted unceremoniously head first onto the ground outside. All things considered I was lucky. The skin hadn’t broken and the peg’s trail left only a paltry welt and bruise that belittled an assured impalement had Billy and me gone head-to-head.
Somewhat ruffled, sporting torn shorts, and bits of grass in my hair I got back to the car to find a frustrated, but decidedly unworried wife.
“Where have you been?” Sharon asked whilst tucking into her Pringles.
“The toilet,” I answered truthfully as a dull booming sound emanated from somewhere in the hotel.
Artwork courtesy of the talented, and long-time friend, Cathy Rann