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Survivor Olifants

By Terry Baker - 3rd to 5th February 2003

Have you ever such an experience that afterwards it seems as thought it was a dream?
Well this is such a story.
We left Edenvale on Sunday 1st of February for the Olifants Trail in the Kruger National Park. The rest of our party had set off early to reach Lataba Camp at 3pm as our departure time was 3:30pm.
As we were running late, and only left Edenvale at about 9am, we took what was supposed to be the shortest route via Steelpoort and Burgersfort, through the Strydom Tunnel, and on to Phalaborwa via Hoedsptuit and Mica. Sounds fairly straight forward? Not if you are not familiar with the route.

After leaving Middleburg I decided to have a nap and hand over the driving to Hilary with instructions to follow the road to Stoffberg, then on to Burgersfort. When I awoke, with horror I learned that we were just entering the town of Grobblersdal, a trip of 60 km off course and no alternative but to retrace our steps and find the continuation of our intended route. The nightmare had begun. (In Hilary's favour the turn off is poorly signposted and only gives the route number and some obscure little town along the way neither of us had ever heard of. I missed the road out of Burgersfort and ended up on the Lydenburg road which cost us another 20km and lost time.

To cut a long story short, we reached the Phalaborwa Gate to the Kruger National Park about 4pm, already an hour late. So still speeding I was trapped doing 79km an hour whereas the speed limit in the Park is 50. On the way along the 50 km route from Phalaborwa Gate to Lataba Camp we passed a bus that had broken down. All the occupants were huddled in what little shade there was beside the road. Not a comforting thought since one is not supposed to leave your vehicle because of the wild animals. Anyhow, we arrived at Letaba Camp very late and frustrated only to find that our departure had been delayed in any case as one of the members of our party, the cook, was on the broken down bus. By the time we had arrived they had found a replacement for him and we all piled into the Toyota 4x4-viewing vehicle that was to be our transport for the next few days. Our Warder, Johan, introduced himself, got all of us onto the vehicle, all our luggage into the trailer, and himself, his assistant Michael and the "new" cook James into the front of the vehicle and off we set for the Olifants Trail Camp. The public does not have access to certain parts of the Kruger Park and Olifants Trail Camp is in this area. It must not be confused with Olifants Camp, which the general public have access to.

The wind on the back of the vehicle was like a blast from a hair dryer with the heat turned up. It had a "wind chill factor" of at least 40 Deg C. plus!
It was probably the hottest day of the year in the area, as confirmed by Johan.
A Black Rhino crossed our path but soon disappeared, being a very shy animal. We were lucky to see one as there are only about 350 Black Rhinos in the Park.

We arrived at the Camp just before dark and all disembarked and chose our respective "bungalows", little "A" framed huts with only 2 beds running the length of the hut with a gap of about 500mm between the beds and a gap of about 500mm at the foot of the bed to place your luggage. After Dinner we had our briefing by Johan and then went to bed. It was so hot that Hilary & I slept with the door of our hut open just to get a bit of ventilation. We were so tired that the thought of wild animals and mosquitoes were the last things on our mind. (There is a fence of about 4 ft high around the camp.)

Day One - Monday 3rd February 2003

Monday morning we were woken at 4 am by Michael with a bucket of water to wash in, and an enamel dish, both left outside the entrance to the hut.
After a cup of coffee and a rusk we all boarded our vehicle and set off for the veld. At about 5:45 am we stopped, disembarked, and set off on our first hike. The sun was just rising and it was light enough to see where we were going.
Johan claims our first hike was in the vicinity of 12 km in distance. A circular route was taken that ends back at the vehicle. The first thing of interest was a Spider Wasp - a large black wasp that lives off of Baboon Spiders.
Every time Michael or Johan noticed a spoor we would stop and a discussion would follow. All details of what type of animal it was, how old it was, whether it is a loner, or if a group how many animals were in the group. Our hike often crossed or followed paths created by animals as they move to water or shade and so on. We learned a lot that first morning, but more was to follow.

Michael suddenly stopped and pointed to a spoor. This he said is the spoor of a human, a Mozambiquecan. Johan explained that many illegal immigrants cross the border from Mozambique, walking through the Kruger National Park to reach South Africa to seek employment. The spoor was in the soft dust of the animal track that we were following and was clearly heading due west. Normally the Mozambiquecans do not step in existing tracks so as to avoid detection, but this guy had obviously been tired and had lost concentration. From the spoor it was determined that he had passed the spot within the last 24 hours.
Next we came across a White Rhino and two of her young.

Figure 1- White Rhino Family

She knew we were watching her from a distance and was facing us most of the time.
Rhinos do not have good sight so although she was aware of our presence, she did not know what we were and obviously did not think us a threat. Her 2 young ones were lying down and were unconcerned.
We were watching the rhino from a shrub at first. Under the shrub there was a large hole in the ground. We soon moved away when Michael and Johan detected a hissing coming from the hole. It was a porcupine's residence and he knew of our presence as well.

A few kilometers further we stopped in some shade and used a tree that had been pushed over by elephants as seating as we eat our snacks that we brought along in knapsacks. Snacks consisted of cream cracker biscuits, sliced cheese and cooked boerewors as well as fruit juice.
After we had gone a further couple of kilometers we saw a bit of action with vultures coming and going.
There was a small river ahead of us and under a large tree there were a number of vultures feasting. We crept up as quietly as we could to get close without alarming the diners. Suddenly a large male lion got up from his resting place. Johan beckoned us excitedly to follow him. Michael was right there at the front. The lion ran off and Johan was trying to keep up to make sure he saw where he was headed for. He needs to know where the lion goes, so that we are always aware of his whereabouts and don't come across him unexpectedly. Johan realized very quickly that he was responsible for us and waited for us to catch up to him, but he had seen which way the lion had headed. Hilary was at the rear and really slowed up a lot at this point. I was in front of her & tried to encourage her to move a little faster to keep the group close together as we were instructed the previous evening. The last thing on my mind at this stage was taking a photograph - and we were asked to only take photos of dangerous animals after checking with Johan if it was safe to do so. The sound or flash of a camera could startle an animal.

Figure 2- The kill

There were a number of hyenas and Jackals competing with the vultures, but they moved away with our presence. As we approached the river we saw 2 hippopotami looking at us from the water a couple of meters away. The river was only about 3 to 4 meters wide nearest the kill but narrowed to about 1.5 meters where we crossed over to the side where the kill had occurred. As we crossed over 2 of the ladies stepped into the mud. Karen's one hiking boot stayed behind in the mud and Michael put a log across for the rest of us to step on. We saw the lion again from the other side of the river. He had retired into the shade to rest as he had had his fill. The jackals were still hovering around the kill and the hyenas had what looked like "spare ribs" in their mouths and were heading in the same direction as us but about 80 to 100 meters away from us. We saw them periodically for the next 15 minutes or so.
That little episode had revived us because we were all a bit exhausted and weary by the time we came across the kill. We still had a way to go to reach our vehicle and did so after another couple of kilometers.

Once back at camp James had prepared our brunch for us and we were glad for that as it was about 11:30 am by this time and we were all a bit hungry.
It is too hot to hike during the day and we were told to do what the animals do - have a siesta, sleep relax etc. until about 4 pm when it is supposed to get cooler. The thermometer in the thatched boma read a steady 39 degrees centigrade!
Those who didn't or couldn't sleep watched the hippos from the boma or from the viewing platform, which is in the corner of the camp.

At about 4 pm Johan appeared and gave us the option of another hike or game drive.
Karen was not feeling well and Hilary had had enough exercise for one day so the rest of us voted for a drive to a watering dam for a swim. These dams are large concrete structures about 3.5m tall and about 5 m in diameter. Tall animals such as Giraffes and elephant drink from them. The closest one to us was about half hour drive from the camp and close to a road used by the general visitors to the park. Swimming is not allowed in these dams but Johan said because of the heat he would make an exception as long as the public doesn't see us. Well, we had to climb from the top of the vehicle onto the dam wall before we could plunge into the cool water. It was a welcome relief and some of the city people did not take kindly to the green algae which we coined "elephant snot". Only one vehicle approached whilst we were swimming and we just kept our heads down until they left. It was 20 to 6 pm by that time and the public has to be in camp by 6 pm, so the vehicle didn't stay very long as they still had a fair drive to the nearest camp.

Johan then took us to the Mozambique border, which was another 20-minute drive away. We went along the fence for a few km until we came to an old house that was built around 1900 and was used by game rangers in the past.
On the way back to our camp and as the sun was setting we saw ostridge and a single rhino very close to the road. Close to the camp we came across a porcupine in the vehicles headlamps.

Day Two - Tuesday 4th February 2003

Tuesday morning we were up at 4 am again and on the road by 5 am.
We stopped the vehicle at a different spot this time and set out for what looked like a cliff and ravine.

Figure 3 - Hiking day 2

The ravine turned out to be a dry riverbed where we stopped for a rest and a snack in the shade of the towering cliffs.

Figure 4 - Johan figuring how he is going to get us up there

Many giraffe, waterbuck, steenbok, zebra and wildebeest as well as impala are seen whilst hiking. On the cliff we also saw klipspringer.
Climbing the cliff was a challenge and not too easy going but we all helped each other and gave encouragement until we reached the top where we rested once more. The view from the top is stunning. From the photos taken it is difficult to see the perspective, as everything below looks so flat.
It was here that Johan pointed out a Yellow Bellied Sand Snake under a bush. It was so well camouflaged that he virtually had to touch it before some of us could see it.
When it decided to move it did so with great speed, being one of the fastest snakes in the world - fortunately not very dangerous.

On our way down we reached another dry riverbed, which is more like a ravine. One can see the watermark where the water once flowed or still does in rainy seasons. In this ravine is a very large baobab tree. The tree is the largest I have ever encountered and I estimate it to be about as high as a 4 of 5-story building. According to Johan a hunter named Briscoe around the 1900s used it for hunting elephant. It has his name and a date carved into it.
It would really be nice to get to the top of this tree and check the view from up there.

Figure 5 - Briscoe's Boabab Tree

A bit further along this riverbed it became very rocky and navigating became difficult.
A hyena who was cooling his bum in the only bit of water, took off and scampered away as we approached. What a smell!
Karen, who by this time had full on flue, was taking more strain than the rest of us.
I was so hot I'm sure my body's cooling system was beginning to pack up as I started getting goose flesh - from the heat.
A well and deserved rest was had in very dense shade and 35 minutes from our vehicle.
As we went over a rise Johan stopped us as he normally did when he saw game and exclaimed - "Look Toyota".

Back in camp the afternoon was to be a rest again but was soon turned upside down.
A few of us were sitting talking in the boma, and the rest including Johan, had gone off for a siesta when I heard a "plop" in the Olifants river barely a couple of hundred meters from our camp. On looking to see what had caused the sound, I noticed someone waving to me from the other side of the river. I waved back then went to fetch the binoculars. A black lady with a baby on her back was waving frantically.
We called Jimmy to see if he could communicate with her. All the shouting aroused Johan. Johan and Michael went to the river where they passed her a bottle of water by tossing it across, and tried to get her over to our side.
After what seemed like 2 hours they returned and radioed Olifants Camp (The Public Camp) for them to send a 4x4 vehicle to the other side of the river to pick her and her baby up. By this time everyone was up from all the noise. Johan was sitting with us telling us her story when he looked downstream toward where the hippos were and noticed someone standing there, about a kilometer from our camp but on our side of the river. On looking with the binoculars, Johan said "is every one in camp? - There is a white guy standing down there. I don't believe this! - What's going on to day?" He whistled to the person and beckoned for him to come to us and the guy started moving toward the bush.
Johan grabbed his rifle and he and Michael went to find this guy. The guy looked very elderly through the binoculars so we were all a bit puzzled what an old man is doing all alone in such a dangerous situation.
Ian suggested that maybe Tara (a mental home) were out on a picnic that day.
Whilst Johan & Michael were out of sight the guy reappeared but very close to the Camp. He approached to within talking distance and asked for water. We offered him a bottle so he came right up to the fence. Suddenly he jumped over the fence, introduced himself to us thanked us for the water, drank it and then asked for more. In the meantime Johan & Michael had appeared on the riverbank about at the spot where this guy had been. Johan, in his rush to get to the guy, forgot to take his binocs and therefore could not see that the guy was now with us and so started tracking him towards the camp.
This guy, lets call him Willem, was in his thirties, very fit, but very burned. His hair was blond/ginger in colour and at a distance gave him the appearance of being elderly.
Also when we saw him from a distance he looked as though he was in his pajamas or a powder blue tracksuit. He was however wearing faded jeans and faded denim top with long sleeves and had sneakers on his feet, but no hat. His lips were also very burned and blistered.
I asked him what he was doing in the park on his own. He said he was doing a survival course. I said "on your own, without water or food?" I asked him who organized this survival course and he said some of his mates. He also said he is a tomato farmer from a farm 50 km from Tzaneen on the Lydenburg road. He claimed he had been dropped off by his mates at 9 am that morning and had to be a some place downstream by 9 pm that evening.
Whilst we were talking he told how he had that morning come across a family of elephant as well as a pride of feeding lions on the other side of the river. He also told how he had crossed the crocodile and hippo infested river - fully clothed. Willem then pointed to the river below - to a crocodile of about 3 m in length.
Then he asked if we had seen a black lady across the river, because he was trying to
get her over.
When we told him that Johan had gone to look for him Willem started getting jittery.
By this time I had whistled to Johan and waved at him indicating that Willem was with us. Johan and Michael were getting closer to the camp and then realized that he was with us and they started rushing back to camp.

Willem was now asking sensitive questions. "How many people in camp? How many rangers? Are any of them white? What are we doing here? Are the rangers armed?"
When he heard that Johan was white and that they had firearms with them he said "Oh Sh*t". Anyhow, Johan and Michael arrived back at camp whilst we were getting to know Willem. Johan introduced himself and asked him to go with him so that they can have a chat. As they walked from the viewing platform passed the boma, Hilary heard Johan ask "Are you from Mozambique?" and Willem answered "yes".
Clearly, Willem is an English speaking white South African acting as courier to illegal immigrants from Mozambique.
Whilst Johan was interviewing Willem, The 4x4 with 2 rangers arrived on the other side of the river and collected the lady and child. Jimmy told them what had transpired in the meantime, so they radioed for another vehicle to pick Willem up at the dam. Johan drove to the dam with Willem alongside him and Michael with a rifle on the back of the vehicle.
We did not get our hike or drive that afternoon - We had our share of wild life right in camp!
The following morning before leaving Johan took some of us down to the river.

Figure 6 - Wednesday Morning Looking at the Olifants from Boma

Figure 7 - Boma

Figure 8 -L to R Norma, Debbie, Terry, Guy, Peter, Michael, Jimmy, Hilary, Karen, and Ian
Sorry Johan - Someone had to take the picture.

What an experience! Pinch me to wake me up.

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