It all began on a wet and rainy Saturday evening. I had a funny feeling that something was being planned by the senior rangers. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but I had noticed that Alex had carried a box of food down to his land-rover and made a hasty escape from camp, hoping that no one had seen him…but I had! I did not think there was anything too out of the ordinary with it, possibly that they were just planning a party for the hard working training rangers as a reward down at Tingwe tree house. Little did I really know what the four of us were in for!
18:15 we were ordered to meet James Kydd at the ranger’s room. James gave us 5 minutes to grab a few bits and pieces, luckily I warned my fellow colleagues that something was planned and we may be spending a night in the bush. We hastily grabbed a few ponchos, apples, beers, a torch, binoculars and water and jumped onto our waiting vehicle.
It was a quiet drive into the bush, so James requested that we each tell a story about ourselves and why we decided to become trainee rangers. Each of us had a turn, and each talked about where and when we were born, where we grew up, our fears and weaknesses, strengths and achievements.
We finally arrived at the tree house, and were asked to get off the vehicle and make ourselves comfortable. James then announced that he would be returning shortly with the rest of the rangers…but we knew that we would be alone and that possibly only 3 of us would make it through what lay ahead. Our hearts sank momentarily but we each promised that we would all make it through, and that no one was going to fail our ranger training and head home.
The four of us were extremely excited upon realizing that we would be spending a night out of camp but were clueless of what lay ahead. We climbed up the rickety staircase of the tree house to find a box of food and a note saying that this was the beginning of character week, that this was all the food that we would be getting for the next two days and that we needed to be ready and waiting at 4am the next morning.
Our box of food consisted of a bag of Nhlayisa porridge “gives men strength”, 2 tins baked beans, 2 tins bully beef, 1 loaf of bread and 6 litres of water. Another surprise was that there were only 2 thin mattresses and 2 blankets for 4 of us…no problem, a deal was made, sharing was the name of the game!
The other trainee rangers and I, giddy with excitement, cheersed each other with a bottle of beer for the unknown that lay ahead, and made a pact that we would help each other and all make it through together…. whatever the senior rangers had planned for us. We made a blazing fire and heated up our baked beans and bully beef and wolfed the meal down with fresh bread and a beer or two. Knowing that we all had an early start for the unexpected we made our way to bed and were soon asleep under a brewing stormy sky. I was exhausted from the day spent tracking rhinos with other rangers, and aided by my uncanny ability to be able to sleep in any conditions I was soon catching zzz in the land of dreams. The only thing that woke me during the night was the odd raindrop which fell from the leaves above us and trickled into my ear.
4am we awoke to the sound of a vehicle and we hastily pulled on our boots and wiped the sleep from our eyes… We got a few sharp orders from Boyd Varty to get our bags and water and meet him on the wet ground below. I looked at my friends, Charl Pretorius, Foster Masiya and Brett Wallington and soon realized that they had not been as lucky as I had… they all had a bad nights sleep. I felt guilty as I had rested reasonably well, but it was too late, there was nothing I could do.
As we climbed down the stairs, Boyd was busy hauling out three sand bags from the vehicle and said that these were to be carried with us for the next few days, none of us knowing exactly how long the ordeal was going to be. Myself, Foster and Brett each picked up a bag and a quick deal was struck that Charl would carry the majority of our water supply to equal our loads.
Another few words were uttered by Boyd that there was to be no talking during the walk that lay ahead and we would be walking in silence.
The march began with the skies still dark and a light cool drizzle beginning to fall, none of us knowing where we were or how far we would be walking. Four slightly worried faces began to trudge reluctantly after Boyd who looked like he had had a far better sleep then all of us together. I soon got into a comfortable rhythm of walking, though my head was down, trying to concentrate on putting my feet in front of each other. The walk had finally begun, this is also the stage were things began to get blurry such as distance traveled and the time of the day. I had mentally prepared myself for what ever lay ahead and much of my time and concentration was spent on focusing on my goals as a Londolozi guide. We must have walked about 8km when we had our first silent 5 minute break. I quickly sat down and emptied my shoes from the wet sand which had begun to build up. Quick slug of water each and we were off again.
I now began to feel more and more comfortable and realized that we were extremely lucky for the beautiful cool weather we were experiencing, thankful that it was not going to be a blistering hot day. As we walked my head slowly started to lift and I was able to appreciate the stunning beautiful morning that it was. I saw spider webs laced with water droplets, the luminous green sickle bushes and smelled the wet earth. My muscles were beginning to warm and I was feeling more awake and alive with every step I took.
The next break was at the repeater station, and again shoes were emptied and water gulped. This time I was able to mutter a few words to my team mates, all still wondering where exactly were we going. Charl pulled an apple from his bag and we quickly sliced it into 4 and each was able to have a little nutrition. Apple has never tasted as delicious as that morning.
Onto main road we marched, finally a sense of direction was achieved and a hope that possibly we would be making our way back to camp for a hot breakfast of eggs and bacon…my favorite meal of the day! Onward we walked, our pace strengthening in hope. We heard a vehicle behind us and Richard pulled up with his guests to show them a rare sighting of four wet and hungry trainees. This brought a smile to our faces and we lifted our caps to greet them.
During the walk I had plenty of time to go through the variety of thoughts rushing through my head such as my family, my previous months of training, animal presentations, bird lists etc. This helped me a great deal to keep my focus off my now aching knees and muscles. I was worried though about my comrades and every now and then I would make a quick turn of my head to make sure they were all still coping, glad to see they all were and looking strong too!
We arrived at the Sparta Ravenscourt break and turned left, a longer route back home. I realized then that it wasn’t going to be that easy and straight forward a walk back to camp. Onward we trudged, down the hill slipping on the slimy black turf soil. Boyd suddenly picked up the pace and began to run down the hill, with us in tow. The sand bags began to feel heavy and I could feel the contents of my bag begin to grate against my back. Arriving at the bottom of the hill, we were able to have another rest, and we all quickly dropped our bags and had a relieving drink of water! Boyd then gave us an explanation of the reason why we were doing this walk. It is called the Pioneer walk and it is done to represent the long hard walk which Charles Varty and Frank Unger made when they first purchased the Sparta farm in 1926 and had to walk from the railway siding in the south all the way to the bank of the Sand River. They must have encountered incredible hardships along their journey often not knowing what they may encounter on their path through the bush. This made me feel extremely lucky that we had at least roads to travel upon and that if we ran into a dangerous situation such as a rhino or buffalo crossing our path that rescue was not far away.
Towards camp we began to walk again. I could now almost smell the delicious bacon cooking in camp, but this was not to be. We soon arrived at the entrance of camp, and walked past it!!! Then came the next entrance, and bypassed that one too!! I now felt slightly worried that we weren’t going to be stopping in camp, and began to prepare myself for the disappointment of not arriving back at camp and having to carry on along our journey.
I looked at Foster, who was looking a little worse for ware. He had a limp and he was looking dehydrated, and it did not help that he was wearing long trousers, fleece and heavy jacket. He was also beginning to slow his pace and I think he thought that we would be going back to camp and had not prepared himself for possible disappointment. A few hundred metres out of camp and Foster collapsed on the side of the road. We quickly reacted and pulled out our water bottles which he literally drained in a single gulp. His shirt had turned a different colour from his sweat and he was looking pale. He was complaining o pains in his hip, but we urged him to carry on. The rest of us gathered up his jackets and sand bags, realizing the hardest part was yet to come.
We arrived at the causeway and Boyd replenished Fosters water supply from the river, sneaking past a watchful buffalo which had been feeding quietly in the river in the process. A quick detour through a thicket and we were back onto lower river road heading east towards the Mala Mala boundary. Foster was now lagging 30 metres behind the main group, encouraged on by our voices saying “come on Foster we’re almost there, you can make it!!” though we had no clue of where we would eventually be heading or how long it would take us.
We arrived on the boundary and were met by Gavin laughtenbach, Alex vd Heever and James Kydd waiting in a vehicle. Seeing this I thought my worst fear had just come true and they were waiting to take one of us back to camp to leave the property, failing our training.
Luckily this was not the case and we were ordered to now carry Foster the rest of the way back to Tingwe camp, about another 4km!
This is where team work became essential. I came up with an idea of straddling foster over each of our shoulders and one person would walk in front carrying his legs. We must have walked about 20m when we realized that this could not be done and a stretcher was necessary. The three of us ran into the bush and began sawing and breaking guarri branches in order to build a stretcher. At the same time we had the senior rangers uttering comments at us on how we were not working together as a unit, that there was another reserve just next to us and we could get a reference from our head ranger to go and work there as their training was not going to be as tough as ours and how it was okay to give up. Their only response from us was a few words in our best French and that there was no way that we would give in. we constructed the stretcher out of our belts, jackets, bag straps and poles cut from the bush…thank goodness for Charl’s saw on his clip knife.
Stretcher constructed, we loaded foster on to it, fumbled with the poles and heaved it up and began to move forward step by step. Our backs began to burn with pain, but now we began to focus on the road ahead and tried to block out the unwanted comments of the senior rangers. It felt like eternity carrying Foster, but the soon we fell into a comfortable rhythm and began making good distance. Every few minutes we would have to lower Foster to rest but were encouraged on by the rangers who started making short goals for us.” Come on guys…to the next hill, 20 seconds, you can do it!” came the shouts of our mentors.
The day had now begun to warm up, and I have never sweated or felt my lungs burn as badly as that time. From this experience we learnt that we could carry on under severe pressure and exhaustion, that once we overcame that we had a limit far beyond our belief. I loved and hated this experience at the same time and I will never forget it. The next time I experience stress or exhaustion such as I did this day, I will remind myself that I have far more mental and physical endurance than I expect.
At the last goal, a termite mound, we gathered all our strength and hobbled to the finish line, collapsing in a pile. It felt very strange at the time, I could barely look anyone in the eye and I felt very emotional. The whole experience really felt like we had a very badly injured unconscious person who we needed to get to help as soon as possible and we were going to do everything we could to help our injured comrade. I got a small taste of what it must be like getting a fallen friend out of a battle field!
We loaded our kit and Foster onto the waiting vehicle, and we were driven back to our camp in the bush. I managed to cram a few lemon creams down my throat before I passed out on the wooden deck of the tree house and slept for what felt like days. We awoke late in the afternoon, to get ready for the presentations which we had to do for the rangers who would be arriving soon. I got up from the deck to light the fire for the evening and I have never felt such aches through my muscles and bones, and was hobbling like a frail person around our camp. Luckily I was not the only one, all us looked as if they had aged 60 years just in a few hours! But at least we had survived the first day.
The rangers arrived, and we presented on any subject of our choice, they also brought us a .22 rifle with 5 rounds. This was to be used to secure our protein source for the next few days. That evening was spent sitting around the fire eating pap, bully beef and baked beans…a truly delicious combination!
The next day we were able to sleep late, well at least until 5:30 am, then the baking sun rose and any attempt at sleeping became impossible. We decided that substantial protein was needed and Charl headed off with the rifle in search of a francolin. An hour later he returned with a crested francolin in hand and we began to salivate. Being a trained chef in my previous career, I quickly plucked, gutted and skewered the small bird and hung it over the fire. The small bird cooked in no time and we wasted little time devouring the meat, picking the bones clean. James soon arrived after our breakfast and we set off again up the water course, sandbags and water in hand. We met Alex and Boyd and were instructed that the next challenge would be to cross a river. Foster was sent to the other side as he was unable to carry out any physical work at the stage. Charl, Brett and myself were instructed that we needed to get medicine (represented by a bucket of water) to the other side without wasting any as it was needed for sick people on the opposite bank. We threw ropes across, tying each end to trees. We then hoisted up the bucket, which was attached to another rope and Foster was able to pull it across. The three of us had to then pull ourselves across without getting pulled down by the raging torrent below (Boyd and James). We finished the task successfully in 11 minutes. We were then challenged by the rangers to do it in 7 minutes and if it was done in this time we would be rewarded with more food. Working like crazed men, we again succeeded and managed to finish in 7 minutes.
Exhausted and in pain from rope burn, we were then to walk to Rhino dam in 15 minutes. It was made interesting by the fact that Foster was in serious pain and was unable to walk at a fast pace. So we took it in turns to shoulder Foster and make our way to the next position. The hard part came when we had to keep out of sight from game drive vehicles and the sharp eyes of the trackers. We made it to the dam in good time to find the rangers waiting with one of the old land rovers. We knew immediately what the task was that lay ahead…fix the land rover and possibly push it.
Charl jumped into the front seat and turned the key…nothing. We then checked the battery, opened the bonnet and realized that the plugs had been changed and the accelerator was revving at the wrong level. They also threw in a flat tire to top it off. Foster being a mechanic managed to get the vehicle running in no time. I panicked about the tire and jacked up the vehicle before putting it in gear and letting the others know about it. As I recognized my mistake, I ran around the vehicle and at the same time Charl turned the key and the vehicle and it lurched forward kicking out the jack and almost knocking Brett out! We slowed things down and were able to fix the wheel in good time.
The rangers struck a deal with us over the tire incident, we could go back to the tree house but we would have to sacrifice a mattress, or we could push the vehicle a distance and keep one of our prized mattresses. We decided to push the vehicle, all of us not fearing a challenge. Off we went, Foster helping steer and Charl, Brett and myself behind pushing. It started going well, at least on the down hill, but once we reached level and uphill roads, the sweat began to pour! We were lucky enough to have the rangers behind us shouting encouragement, they also jumped out of the vehicle to help push up some of the steeper hills. We cannot thank them enough, as we might not have made it all the way if it wasn’t for them!
At the end of it, when we reached the Marula after about 1km of pushing, they rewarded us with the use of the vehicle for the afternoon.
Another task was set. We had to build a hut at our camp strong enough to withstand the elements of the bush. So we headed down onto Tugwaan drive to cut a bunch of wild date palm fronds which were to be used as our roof. Back at camp we constructed a frame and covered it with ponchos and palm fronds. Around the hut we placed buffalo thorn branches to keep out any marauding animals.
We were collected by the mentors again later in the afternoon and driven to Lex’s pan in silence. We were asked to pick a leader from our group, Foster, and get orders for the next task. The rest of us were then called over and blindfolded. Foster who knew the roads better was now going to lead the three of us carrying heavy gum poles on shoulders back to camp. This was to be a serious challenge of endurance and trust. We blindfolded ourselves our shirts and lifted the poles onto our shoulders and began the march back to our camp. Foster attempted to tell us what he was seeing as we walked, birds, trees and animals. He also warned us about the uneven parts of the road and got us singing “shosholoza” to get our minds off the pain of the poles digging into our shoulders. We had the rangers again mocking us with comments, but onward we marched ignoring them. The walk back felt incredibly short but we carried the poles for just over 2km finally arriving back at camp certain that the poles had cut deep into our shoulders!
We were now thoroughly exhausted and in severe pain and the rest of the evening was spent nursing our aching muscles and wounds from the day’s activities. I went out to try and shoot a francolin for the pot but was unsuccessful, and it was going to be a night of eating plain pap with onion…mmm delicious! The mentors also told us that we were to keep watch over our camp in shifts as we would be sleeping in our newly constructed hut, so between the four of us we would take it in shifts to keep watch, 2 on for 2 hours while 2 slept. Night watch began at 8pm, myself and Charl taking the first shift until 10pm and Foster and Brett on guard from 10-12pm. We decided that the fire was to be kept alight and short patrols were to be made to protect the sleepers from invading beasts of the night. The first shift went without a hitch, and the 2nd too, only with a visit by Alex and some guests. The hard part of the night began when I took watch from 12pm until 2am, but I managed to keep myself awake by taking short walks and changing my position around camp. I must say I really enjoyed these few hours, listening to the sounds of the night and watching a bush baby jumping through the trees above our camp. I was also certain I heard voices and a vehicle in the distance but I was not certain that they were real or just in my imagination. 2am arrived and I was looking forward to the next 2 hours of catching up on some sleep. 3:15 am I awoke to screams and shouts breaking the quiet night…we were being raided by our mentor rangers. I sprinted out of the hut only to come face to face with Boyd, both of us shouting with surprised faces. I also saw James jump onto the deck in an unbelievable leap and try and grab our cooking pot which was luckily rescued by Brett. The entire commotion went on for only a few seconds but it all felt like slow motion. Before we knew it the camp was quiet again and the rangers made of into the darkness. We luckily hid our rifle and rescued our precious pot, the only thing that was stolen was our keys to our vehicle, but that wasn’t a huge problem as Foster ”lucky fingers” was able to hot wire the car if need be. Adrenalin was now running high and getting back to sleep was impossible, in any case our next watch was to begin soon. A task had been set the previous night which was to secure another francolin for breakfast. Charl and I made our way on foot into the bush in an attempt to shoot the first francolin we saw but after an hour of searching we came home unsuccessful. Foster tried again and also failed to shoot anything. Foster came back and told us that he almost shot a cuckoo but he was afraid that there would not be enough meat to go around for 4 now starving rangers! 5:50 I decided to go out again in a final attempt. I could hear francolin calling all around me, but I could not see any! Suddenly from out of a thicket a francolin burst onto the road and scuttled across and into another bush. I loaded the rifle and waited for the francolin to come out the other side. It again burst from its hiding place, sensing that it was being hunted, but I was too late and the francolin escaped. I was now fuming with anger and disappointment at having failed to get food for us. My luck suddenly changed and another francolin ran out of the thicket and across the road and into the bush. This time I was ready and when the francolin decided to make a run from its hiding place I fired and hit the francolin in the head. The bird fluttered and I sprinted over and lunged myself on to the francolin which had flapped into a thorn bush. I was not concerned about the thorns hooking into my skin, and was hell bent on not loosing my catch!
I grabbed the bird and excitedly made my way back to camp. I was feeling very uplifted and could not wait to get back to camp and feast on my small prize! Back at camp we quickly plucked and roasted the small bird over the fire. Boyd and James arrived just in to time to see us gnawing the last few scraps of meat of the bones, I think they were quite horrified to see the savages we had turned into! After a quick feed back from the mentors and a brush of our teeth with guarri bush and leadwood ash, we gathered up our bags and began yet another march through the bush! Again it was in silence, none of us knowing how far we were to walk. Foster was still in severe pain as he walked but we walked along side him, encouraging him to carry on and supporting him on difficult parts of our root. We walked down towards the sand river and made our way to the Ebony tree on lower river road. We arrived to find a bush breakfast waiting for us. But it was not to be for us, it was to be another challenge. The task was to set up the bush breakfast in 30 minutes but the catch was that we had to do it without talking and myself being a chef and a veteran of bush breakfasts I was not allowed to cook. We went into survival mode and sub-consciously we all knew exactly what to do. We set up the breakfast, all taking specific duties such as laying the table, preparing the buffet and cooking the food. The guests arrived shortly and were greeted by a motly crew of dirty, tired trainees. It got interesting when I had to explain to Brett how to cook soft scrambled eggs by means of sign language and grunts, but we managed and successfully completed the challenge. Richard came up to us to find out how we were all coping and told us to prepare ourselves for another 6 days of camping out in the bush. Our hearts sank but we began to prepare ourselves for what lay ahead. At the end of the breakfast, we were so thirsty and hungry but were not allowed to touch any of the food. We were allowed water and we even drank the iced water which had been used for the champagne! We gulped down the icy liquid, nothing tasting quite as glorious as that ice water! We broke down the breakfast site and packed away the cutlery and food, salivating as the hot bacon and sausages were packed away. We knew we were not allowed to eat anything and we did not want to risk anything and disappoint our mentors by stealing a single scrap of food!
We were given note books and asked to write a letter to ourselves about why we wanted to be rangers at Londolozi and what we could offer the lodge. We each found a quiet spot under the trees and wrote our letters. After 40 minutes we again picked up our bag and began to walk. We were now led by Alex, James and Boyd. We walked past a single rhino bull which was sleeping in the cool waters of the sand river, not even budging as we passed him. I envied this rhino because he looked so comfortable! As we walked the rangers began testing our knowledge on trees, birds, rocks making us more observant of our surroundings. We arrived at camp dam, the rangers telling us to hurry up and keep up with them. Half way across the dam wall, they turned around and quietly said “congratulations you have finished!”. I was shocked and surprised, not knowing whether to believe them or not. All the way into camp I still did not believe them but as we arrived at the village all the Londolozi staff were waiting and began cheering and saluting us. We had finished!!! A wave of emotion spread over us and we lifted our fists in relief! Buckets of ice water were dowsed on us and we were taken to a hot meal of roast chicken and baked potatoes.
This whole journey taught me a huge amount about myself and my colleagues. I learnt that I have strength and endurance within me at times when I am most exhausted and mentally drained. I have learnt to survive when food is short and days are long. I have found new confidence in myself and my colleagues and have made lifelong friendships through our challenges and team work. I now look at Londolozi in a new light and respect, I know that when things get tough in the future, I will think back to the challenges I faced and remind myself that I can get through any task no matter how difficult it is or how tired I am! I love this place, people, wildlife and land and thank everyone for giving me this opportunity!