Most of my friends’ eyes begin to glaze over as soon as I mention the Kruger National Park. This is because it’s such a wonderful place that I enthuse about it far more than I should.
I first went to the Kruger, as it is affectionately called in South Africa, when I was a primary school child. The first day there we spent peering into the bush to spot animals through the window of my dad’s 1949 Pontiac Silver Streak. I became so over-excited that I vomited ceaselessly the entire next day and I had to stay behind in the campsite with my mum.
I remember little of my next visit to the Kruger, because on that occasion I floated about the place in a romantic haze. We were only there for two or three days, when I took my fiancée Gill to South Africa to introduce her to my family en route to England, where we were due to get married. My parents, my brother Charel and his wife Marlien took us there to showcase the beauty and variety of their country to the English bride-to-be.
I can only remember a single animal-spotting incident during that visit. We came across a white lion, the rarest of rare beasts in the Kruger. Although a small group of white lions had lived in the Timbavati area for decades, there are so few of them in the Kruger that they are seldom seen. The others were breathless with surprise and excitement. Then Gill, unaware of the momentous significance of the occasion, asked my brother, “Do you think we’ll get to see any normal lions too?”
Many years later, when our children were small, I ran into our orthodontist friend Paul at a social occasion.
“I’ve visited your old country earlier this year,” he told me. “We went to this place called the Kruger National Park.”
“How did you like it?” I enquired.
“You know, Tim, I’ve done a lot of travelling in my time, but I haven’t been that excited over any place since I was a child.” I recalled my own excitement in the Kruger as a child. There and then I decided to visit the Kruger Park with my family.
A few months afterwards we flew to South Africa for a visit to the relatives and to visit the Kruger. I left the traveling arrangements in South Africa to Charel, who picked us up at the Johannesburg airport and took us to his house in Pretoria. He told us to have a quick shower before we set off for the Kruger.
“Today?” I asked in disbelief, having just spent twenty plus hours in an aeroplane.
“Yes,” he said, “and get a move on. The camp gates close at 6 pm”.
We arrived at the camp in time. Charel pitched two tents right next to the perimeter fence, one for him and Marlien and one for our family. Darkness descended in the blink of an eye. He set about barbecuing meat and boerewors (the traditional South African farmer’s sausages) on a grill over the glowing coals.
After we had eaten, looking somewhat furtive, he told us quietly: “We’re not allowed to feed any wild animals here, but I brought along an old T-bone so that we can attract a hyena for your Aussie kids to see.” He took out a huge bone and threw it over the fence.
Hardly a minuted had passed when our son Neil whispered to me, “I think the hyena is here, Dad.”
“Rubbish.” I said dismissively. “He won’t just appear that quickly.”
But Charel passed his torch to Neil and told him to have a look. Neil pointed the torch at the fence, switched it on, and there, not two metres away from us on the other side of the fence, stood a large hyena who proceeded to crush the bone in its mouth as if it were a mere rice cracker. I could see why the hyena is so renowned for its strong bite, proportional to its size.
I rather like hyenas, despite their loping gate and ill-proportioned bodies. They have lovely dog-like eyes, in stark contrast to the icy cold and merciless yellow eyes of lions, which send a shiver down your spine when you see them close to your car.
But my brother is less fond of them. When he told me that a hyena’s breath is one of the foulest-smelling in the animal kingdom he spoke from personal experience. Hyenas are consummate scavengers that will feast on putrid meat with as little effect on its constitution as if you and I were to eat a piece of toast with marmalade.
When I went back to South Africa last year, Marlien told me about their recent visit to the Kruger. Accompanied by Marlien’s friend Willana, they erected their two tents next to the perimeter fence as usual. After dark they had a braai (barbecue) and drank a fair quantity of wine. When Marlien and Willana decided to call it a day and go bed, Charel, who was quite merry by this stage, decided to stay behind at the fire and have another glass or two of wine.
Close to midnight Marlien and Willana were woken by a series of unearthly howls. As they emerged from their tents in bewilderment they saw Charel lurching about, wildly wiping his shoulder-long hair with his hands, and screaming incoherently. It transpired that he had kept on drinking until he had passed out right next to the fence. He had been brought back to consciousness by the awful smell of rotten flesh and by something tugging at the hair at the back of his head. It was a hyena that had tried to bite his head through the fence.
Marlien ended her account by asking Charel, hands on her hips, as is often her stance when she has a point of importance to make to him: “Now tell us, Charel, what lesson have you learnt from that episode?”
Without missing a beat he responded, “Well, in the Kruger you should never pass out right beside the fence.”