Blarn#4 - I've Got Your Back
Updated: Jun 10
There is an age old idiom that tells us that ‘Behind every successful man there is a woman’ and, despite various tongue-in-cheek revisions such as, ‘Behind every successful man is a woman; behind every unsuccessful man is two’ (Mark Twain), or ‘Behind every successful man is a woman, and behind her is his wife’ (Groucho Marx), the truth remains the same. What, though, is the measure of success? In the fraternity of wildlife guides the yard stick is very rarely based on financial gain, but rather centres more on intangibles like contentment, happiness and fulfilment. If you were to couple these ethereal values with survivability, then I certainly consider myself extremely successful. Yet none of it would have been possible without the woman who has been alongside, rather than behind, me for twenty seven of my thirty professional years. The fact that I have blarns to tell, and that I am actually, at long last, eventually, with much encouragement and cajoling (in marriage parlance this is known as nagging) putting ‘keystrokes to screen’, is testament to her unwavering, and at times, unfathomable support for the passion that is my career. Most woman would have made good their escape early on, but running is something she has reserved for the most inopportune times during our time together; but more on that later. This blarn is dedicated to my closest friend, whom I happened to marry, and who has put up with the endless impositions, and countless hairy adventures, that have shaped our life together. Shaz, I love you, but please, just this once, let me tell these stories my way!
“I’d like to come along.” This was Sharon’s response when I broke the news that I was cashing in everything I owned and heading to North America in an effort to discover as much of the continent and its wildlife as possible. The sky-hugging mountains of the continental divide, with its megafauna of bears, cougars, wolves and bison, was as exotic a temptation to me as the African safari experience was to the American tourists I had been guiding for the last few years. Eventually the itch could no longer be ignored and, with nothing but my job tying me down, I was ready to scratch like crazy. The fact that my work colleague, and occasional drinking buddy, wanted to join the adventure without any qualms or hesitation was a big bonus. A shared experience is a treasured experience; and of course two wallets are always better than one!
A seven month, 22,000 mile journey, in a vehicle that was a prime candidate for Car S.O.S, with a tent and blow up mattress in the ‘trunk’, is filled with many tales worthy of recounting. However, I am going to skip past the time we nearly froze to death in the Blue Ridge Mountains; and the evening we painted Key West red; and that time we could almost hear those scary banjos from Deliverance as we paddled a canoe in the Okefenokee swamps; and the rather personal account of when my drinking buddy became more than that; and the moment we were transfixed by the terrifying head-long charge of a Yellowstone brown bear! Well, I might dwell a moment on this last experience just a bit. It left a lasting impression on Sharon’s psyche which would thwart every attempt I made from thereon to find and watch these imposing giants whose scientific name, Ursus arctos horribilis, is quite befitting.
In a tactic not dissimilar to searching for leopard and lion back home, dawn after chilly dawn we trolled the back roads of Yellowstone hoping to catch one the world’s largest predators foraging on the lower slopes of the Rockies before they retreated from the heavy tourist traffic as the day warmed up. On day four we hit the jackpot. Rounding a corner just as the sun was rounding a distant peak, there in all his grizzled glory, was our first brown bear! It was as peaceful a scene as you could imagine for an animal that is often the stuff of nightmares. This full grown boar, maybe half as much again bigger than a male lion, was the picture of contentment as he turned over rocks, engrossed in his breakfast of grubs and other scurrying critters. There was one other person there; quite obviously a professional photographer judging by the equipment he had trained on the animal. With his tripod set up outside his vehicle he was snapping away like he knew what he was doing.
“I’m going to join him.” I declared to Sharon reaching for the door latch, my own shutter finger twitching with anticipation. Sharon’s questions of, “Do you think that’s a good idea? Didn’t the rangers say we should stay in our car?” went unheeded and, quite frankly, unremembered!
The bear was some distance from us and didn’t so much as lift his head as I went over to the photographer and politely asked if I could join him. Sitting quietly without talking, I took frame after frame as the light steadily improved with the rising sun. All the while our subject, with his coffee coloured coat highlighted in the dawn glow, went calmly about his business. It was idyllic ….. until it wasn’t!
The sun was now up, and slowly but surely the not-so-early birds were arriving to get a few scraps of the worm. In a relatively short space of time, this quiet back road started to become a parking lot of tourist filled vehicles. It seemed the rangers were wrong about the dangers of getting out of your vehicle because whole families were alighting from cars, RV’s and minivans. Raised voices were like cut glass in the still of the morning, shattering the mood of the scene we had been privilege to just moments before. The bear was nonplussed at first, but as the decibel level started climbing, he began lifting his head between stone flips and taking note of the noisy bipeds. Then, without any warning, the almost cute, lumbering teddy we had been quietly observing earlier, transformed into that beast of legends – Mr. Horribilis! His charge down the hill towards the gathering of humans was unbelievably swift. With rocks flying and his bristled coat undulating with each giant stride, he closed down half the distance between us in the time it takes to fire off two (blurry) frames. Amidst the squawking and squealing, with mums and dads racing their offspring back to the cars, our grizzly stopped and, having obviously made his point, nonchalantly resumed his rock foraging. Nevertheless, the image of his charge is forever burned into our consciousness, and it set the stage for an encounter that should have been a clear warning to Sharon about the guy she was hooking up with.
Our Yellowstone Grizzly - before Mr. Horribilis emerged
In many respects 1994 was a landmark year. Back home in Africa, Mandela became President of the country that had imprisoned him for twenty seven years, and the tiny, little known country of Rwanda was suddenly on every news channel. Internationally, Brazil became the most successful football nation by winning the FIFA World Cup for a fourth time, and the Channel Tunnel opened between England and France. In the US, Tonya Harding ‘smashed’ her way to a national gold medal, and, most importantly for us, wildlife attacks on hikers and campers hits an all-time high!
Every national or state park we visited had notices and accounts of brutal, sometimes fatal, encounters with wildlife, and bears always seemed to top the list. It was impossible to escape these often sensationalised stories, their impact compounded by the warnings and survival tactics that were drummed home to us by every ranger or wilderness local we struck up a conversation with. After about the third ‘Grizzly Mauls/Kills/Injures…’ headline Sharon should have been contemplating catching the next flight home and leaving her demented travel partner to his sure fate. Instead, she embraced those survival tactics with gusto. Every hike we did was serenaded by ‘Sharon’s 21 Song Rendition’ as she kicked every stone, broke every twig, and questioned every passer-by in an effort to alert any potential marauder to our presence and avoid an encounter with anything bigger than a deer. It worked! Our hikes became increasingly focused on scenery with only the deafest of animals sticking around for a brief glimpse before they sprinted away from the cacophony. All my ‘shooshes’ and pleas for quiet were politely ignored and my frustration began to grow. After all, wasn’t finding these animals my raison d’etre for hocking my worldly belongings and being a hemisphere away from home?
Everything came to a head when we reached Glacier National Park. This exquisite slice of planet Earth is tucked away in the mountains of northern Montana and, apart from its thirty five glaciers, of which only twenty five still exist today, it quite proudly boasts that it is ‘….home to the greatest density of Brown Bear in the lower 48’. Here, at last, my chances of encountering Mr. Horribilis again must be better than even. I was right, but it would not quite pan out as I had imagined.
We arrived to an empty campsite; something we relished as it meant the peace and quiet of this wilderness could be fully appreciated. As we were going through our slick routine of setting up camp, a ranger turned up and started admonishing us for the half drunk soda I had set down on the picnic table. “This place is crawling with bears,” he warned, “drink up and dispose of the can.”
Apart from the unintended consequence of further raising my hopes, his concern was real. Bears have an olfactory capability that puts a bloodhound to shame. Combine this ultra-keen sense with an almost insatiable appetite, and leaving anything that smells remotely of food lying around is inviting trouble. Bear attacks fall into two distinct categories: those that involve a sow defending her cubs, and those that involve a bear going after campers’ food. Ever since Yellowstone we had observed every rule and taken note of all advisories. Our thinking being that if we were back home and the roles were reversed, we would want visitors to heed our warnings about lions and elephants.
With camp set up and all foods secured as per regulations, we decided to head out for a hike on one of the nearby trails. After about an hour of seeing nothing but towering trees and glacier capped mountains, with Sharon halfway through Swinging on a Star, we bumped into a lone hiker who was barrelling towards us at speed. His animated mix of Italian and English, wild gesticulations and the wide eyes behind his thick-rimmed glasses didn’t need an interpreter. The guy had walked into a sow grizzly with two cubs somewhere on the trail ahead of us and, after some form of warning (that part probably needed an interpreter) from mama bear, he had managed to escape without further incident. Visibly shaken, Giuseppe (he so looked like Pinocchio’s creator) was not going to be deterred from returning safely to the trail head, and left us contemplating our next move.
“Let’s go Shaz, we can still see her before she disappears,” was my immediate reaction as I started up the trail with Sharon sort of following. Her response was something along the lines of, “You are stark raving mad!”
This day, at this point in time, is probably where my ‘success’ started. Sharon made the case that to continue was just plain foolhardy; “It’s a sow with cubs for crying out loud!” Somehow she managed to temper an urge that could possibly have ended in yet another gruesome story for the rangers to tell the next batch of dumb tourists. With common sense prevailing (or in my case, uncommon sense), we followed the puppet maker’s cloud of dust back to the safety of our campsite. But our bear adventure was far from over.
After cooking and eating dinner far from our tent; then cleaning away every morsel from every plate, pot and utensil; then storing our entire larder and belongings in the bear proof lockers; then finally showering the smell of food off of us, we clambered into our Spartan tent and nodded off with thoughts of an early morning hike up to one of the park’s famous glaciers.
I didn’t know at first what woke me up or what time it was, only that it was really dark and quite chilly. Then I heard the sniffing! Actually it was more like a huffing – each breath loud and clear and obviously being expelled from a large set of lungs.
I hope Sharon is asleep. I thought, our backs touching as we faced away from each other.
Should I wake Grant up? Was apparently Sharon’s contemplation at the same time.
The huffing got closer ……. and closer, till it was almost above us. Accompanied by slow, heavy footfalls, it left no doubt that the owner was not a coyote or raccoon, both of which had visited us before in their nocturnal ramblings at other campgrounds.
Suddenly our tent caved in! Those flexi poles that held up the igloo shape of our dome tent were bent over to the point where the roof was on top of us!
“Grant, what do we do?” Sharon asked with a querulous whisper. The fear in her voice reflecting the hammering that was going on in my chest.
“Lie still and shut up.” I whispered back as calmly as I could muster.
There were a couple more huff-sniffs, a pause, and then our tent sprung back into shape. We lay motionless hardly daring to breathe, listening to the shuffling gait as it moved away. Try as I might, it is hard to express in words the sense of relief that cascades over you after something like this has happened.
“Was that a bear?” Sharon asked the professional wildlife guide next to her.
“Not sure.” I answered whilst thinking Hell yes! And way too close for comfort!
Very little sleep was to be had thereafter. We lay prone with our ears pricked up like radar dishes, whilst quietly praying that our visitor didn’t make a second run through a campground where dinner’s choice was limited to two juicy Africans in a canvas wrap. As the sun pulled back the curtain of the night’s fear, and in the bright light of a new day, the plate sized paw prints were clear for all to see - it was indeed a bear that had gone bump in the night.
We have recounted this story many a time and many have said we were lucky, but that isn’t true. In fact we were just smart. Smart because Sharon insisted on following the guidelines to the letter, and smart because I (eventually) listened to Sharon.
You got space for another?
So Sharon didn’t run when she could have, but that doesn’t mean she’s not a runner.
By the time we are managing a camp in the remote Selinda Reserve of northern Botswana it is clear that our partnership has some permanence to it. In fact, we would get engaged whilst running Selinda Camp and our first married home would be a Meru tent under a giant Leadwood tree where, in the dead of night when the bladder can no longer be ignored, the reed-screened bathroom was fifty, nerve jangling, meters away. This was just one of the many things Sharon put up with as part of ‘The Package’. My late returns from exhilarating night drives ruined more than one of her dinners; along with ruining her chance to wow the guests with her skills. Whilst I was out tracking all manner of exciting wildlife, Sharon was back at camp making sure all facets of hospitality met the company’s high standards. This is no easy task - not with the constraints of a budget driven head office, and the endless stream of mini calamities that plague every safari operation.
Did Sharon ever complain?
Of course she did!
But she didn’t run!
We loved our new home at Selinda. The camp was small and the animal action was an almost 24/7 affair. It seemed that every day we had yet another exciting wildlife encounter to deposit in our story bank. Great staff, wonderful guests and Ratty, a hand-reared squirrel, just tied off that first year with a neat little bow. The camp was built on an old termite ‘island’ where, over hundreds of years of clay building by these little architects, the land had progressively grown above the surrounding floodplains and slowly become wooded with palms, acacias, sausage and fever berry trees. This description implies that Selinda is a water wonderland, and it is at times, but not always. The lifeblood of Selinda Reserve is an ephemeral stream known as the Selinda Spillway. Its ebbs and flows respond to erratic rainfall cycles and the influences of tectonic shifts along its ever so gentle gradient. Through the 90’s the spillway progressively receded until, in 2003, all vestiges of water were gone and even the impressive Zibadianja Lagoon was nothing more than a grazing paddock for wildebeest and zebra. Today, it is has returned to being a watery Eden, but Nature’s cycle will undoubtedly steal the water again someday. In ’96 the once expansive watercourse and shallow floodplains that fronted Selinda Camp was reduced to a string of muddy puddles, each of which was home to a seething mass of hippopotami. Groups of sixty or more of these rotund, but notoriously feisty, two ton herbivores would pack so tightly together that even sardines would shake their heads in disbelief. One such conglomerate lived right in front of the camp and every evening they would extricate themselves from the fetid black gloop and head off every which way to graze on the grasses of the floodplain savanna surrounding the island.
Situated on the opposite end of the island from the guest tents was our safari tent. It was magically tucked away under a spreading sausage tree, overlooking one of the dry floodplains. As wonderful as its location was, it presented one small problem. Every evening, after seeing our guests safely to bed, and extinguishing all the lanterns, Sharon and I, with nothing but a Maglite and our wits, would negotiate an avenue of blue-bush shrubs to get to our own bed. It was on one of these homeward treks that Sharon left me.
Like so many nights before, after bidding all a good night’s rest, we started heading to our tent along the distinct path that followed the fringe of the island and provided the best visibility for the probing beam of the Maglite. These walks were done in silence. No Wake up Little Suzie from the ‘21 Song Rendition’, or stomping boots to ward off bears here. Listening for movement was important, because elephant and hippo, our two most commonly encountered camp visitors, are notoriously light absorbent, but will, more often than not, give themselves away with a rustle or crack.
More often than not!
Sharon put up with this nightly gauntlet, because it too was part of ‘The Package’. At the time I didn't realise that each of these night time hikes was an adrenaline fuelled challenge for her. She trusted me right? I was her protector, not so? We were perhaps halfway along the two hundred yards we needed to travel when our bubble of silence was ripped apart by a crashing of bushes and thundering of feet. Holding my ground I swung the light around and saw a hippo hightailing towards the floodplain. “Phew, that was a bit close,” I whispered over my shoulder to Sharon, thankful that we had successfully avoided any real trauma.
“Shaz?” I asked as I turned around and the Maglite illuminated a whole lot of empty space behind me. Barring David Copperfield being one of our guests, Sharon’s disappearance could only be explained by her explicitly ignoring the countless times I had told her “Never run!” and she had bolted off blindly into the inky night. Apparently my protective role on our nocturnal strolls together was more of the sacrificial variety than the heroic.
“Grant! Where are you?” I heard her call out from the darkness.
“Right here where you left me….with the torch.” I replied with a mix of exasperation and relief.
It turns out that, sometimes, behind every successful man….. there actually isn’t anyone!