Whatever You Do, Don't Run: True Tales of a Botswana Safari Guideby Peter Allison
A hilarious, highly original collection of essays based on the Botswana truism: “only food runs!” With a new introduction and new material from the authorSee more details below
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A hilarious, highly original collection of essays based on the Botswana truism: “only food runs!” With a new introduction and new material from the author
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Whatever You Do, Don't RunTrue Tales of a Botswana Safari Guide
By Peter Allison
THE LYONS PRESSCopyright © 2007 Peter Allison
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWhatever You Do, Don't Run
The first place in Africa that employed me was a camp called Idube. The people who came there, like the people who came to every camp where I have ever worked, loved a thrill, something different. So we took them out to dinner.
Not far from our main camp we had a small setup, Inventively called the Bush Camp. It included a teepee over a toilet and a clearing where a fire could be built. Around this, chairs and tables were set, ready for the delighted guests who would be brought in the dark for their meal. Firelight is romantic and makes everyone look beautiful, just as it did for the Bush Camp. With lanterns lit and a beaming staff, the place looked perfect. But during the day it was only a sorry patch of earth, and the teepee was filled with spiders. The guests loved it, and the nights were cheap for the camp's owners, so they insisted we run them at least once a week.
The staff didn't like these dinner nights in the bush. Setting up meant that the usual quiet time, when all the Guests were out of camp, was suddenly filled with frantic activity. The one spare Land Rover, a decrepit and spluttering machine called the Skorokoro (which means "too old to work" in Shangaan), would be loaded with firewood, lanterns, and a chef named Wusani, whose bulk always made the aging suspension creak ominously. Wusani particularly disliked these bush dinners, as one afternoon after being dropped off she was unpleasantly surprised. Shortly after she lit the cooking fire, a lion roared, according to her description, "closer to me than a baby is to its mother." Lions often walked in the soft sand of the dry riverbed that flowed beside the Bush Camp, to enjoy the shade or maybe to startle an antelope that had been lulled to sleep by the cool and tranquility of the surrounds. This lion was not hunting, or it would not have roared, but that didn't make it any less terrifying for Wusani.
When the Skorokoro and its driver returned that day with the tables and chairs, they found Wusani improbably perched on the outermost branches of a long-dead tree. When told it was safe to come down, she would not, because she could not. Adrenaline had fueled the climb, and now she only had the strength to cling on and beg for a ladder that the camp did not possess.
Finally gravity's pull resolved the issue. Despite Her substantial weight and the height she fell from, Wusani was saved from serious harm-perhaps by her ample padding. But she would never stay at the Bush Camp by herself again, and she warned me against it when I started working at Idube.
My job for bush dinners was simpler than Wusani's. I had to transport sufficient amounts of alcohol to the Bush Camp to last the night. I hadn't been working at the camp long, and as barman I was probably the most lowly staff member after the "gardener," who watered the lawns that the warthogs promptly dug up. This gave me last priority when it came to loading the Skorokoro.
"Bugger it," I thought one afternoon when I had already helped load tables, chairs, cloths, salads, and cutlery to the exclusion of the booze. "I'll carry it there."
Animals were the last things on my mind as I loaded up a wheelbarrow with spirits and mixers. All I wanted was to get my job done. Besides, I'd been learning from the guides and felt that I was getting to be reasonably bush smart. With the cockiness of a nineteen-year-old, I felt I could handle anything that Africa threw at me. Whenever an animal encounter of The sort I was about to have was discussed, the advice was always the same: "Whatever you do, don't run." This was the solemn counsel of the three guides who worked at the camp. "Food runs," added Alpheus, the tracker, his rough face split by an enormous grin. "And there is nothing here that you can outrun anyway."
After grunting and sweating my way along the sandy tracks that the Land Rovers used, I dropped off my first load and trudged back. All that I needed to take to the Bush Camp now was a case of beer. Filled with bravado, I decided to ditch the wheelbarrow and carry the drinks instead. I hadn't considered how heavy twenty-four cans of beer gets when you are slogging through soft sand for almost a mile. Only a quarter of the way into my journey, I decided to change routes and take a shortcut along the riverbed.
At one point I stopped to shake a small pebble from my shoe. Quartz, I concluded, because it was the only rock type I knew. I rested, gently putting the beer down and stretching. Branches met overhead, offering cool shade and a sense of peace that mingled with the constant undercurrent of excitement that comes from walking in the bush. In one of the branches, a type of bird named the grey lourie called, a long drawn out rasp that sounds like a hag telling you to go away. "Ka-weeeeeeeeeeee." It is not an emphatic sound, but it is irritatingly insistent. Later I would learn that this is just one of the many birds that give an alarm call when it sees a predator. The tricky part is figuring out whether it is saying it because of you (after all, humans are Africa's most abundant predator) or because of something larger and fiercer.
I put my shoe back on, hopping around to do so; picked up the beer; and rounded a fallen log. This startled two massive male lions that had been waiting for whatever clumsy creature was making all the noise, probably expecting a buffalo.
They may have leapt to their feet, they may have flown. I don't know because it was so fast I didn't see. The time it took for them to get from where they were to where I stood was too short for my life to flash before my eyes. Instead I skipped to a day in December, when I was seven years old.
Our next-door neighbors had a German shepherd named Pancho. Pancho scared the crap out of me. On the few occasions that we had been inside their house, he would pace a circuit from the kitchen through the living room to the dining room and round again, dipping his head to a canine rhythm and growling.
On this day, my mother, sister, and I were going to Hawaii so my mother could run in the Honolulu marathon. She was doing this even though she was sick, because she was a proud and determined woman and wanted it done. She was sick enough that while she completed the marathon, it would be the only overseas trip my sister and I would ever get to take with her. The medicines that customs would not allow, and I now carried next door for our neighbor to safeguard while we were away, would prove useless, and cancer would take her within a year.
The lady of the house was on the front lawn, brushing Pancho while holding him by the collar. Afterward my father, who considered himself an animal expert, would state that Pancho must have mistaken the medicine in my pudgy fist as a weapon. I was always convinced that the motive was much more simple-hatred. Pancho hated everyone except his owners, and here I was, coming like a sacrifice.
To get to me, he violently twisted his neck, breaking his collar and leaving it in his owner's grip. My father had always said to me that if a dog attacked (and even before that December day, I knew he must have been warning me about Pancho), that whatever I did, I mustn't run. I had always imagined that if a dog (all right, if Pancho) did attack me, it was my mother I would make proud by standing bravely. She had also warned me about animals, and in a rare case of agreement, had repeated my father's words: "Whatever you do, don't run."
I ran. As fast as my little seven-year-old legs could whir, I ran for the low brick fence, insanely convinced that if I could just clear it, Pancho would stop at the boundary set out by some long-forgotten property surveyors. I could hear his owner shouting, "Pancho, no!" and "Pancho, come back!" so I must have outpaced him for only as long as it takes to say those words. With the fence still agonizingly far away, he pulled me down and mauled me.
Twelve years later on another hot December day, I once again had every instinct telling me to run.
"Let's see if you've grown," was one of the only things I had time to think before the two lions were at me.
The other thing I thought, and it shames me to admit it, is this: If you drop the beer, it will get all fizzed up. And which motive was the strongest, I don't know.
Chapter TwoThe Lesson
But I stood my ground and gave my best attempt at a roar back at the lions.
The lions stopped. Only an arm's length away from me, they bellowed and spat and then, with a visible release of tension in their bodies, trotted around me and carried on down the riverbed as if they had pressing business elsewhere.
I put the case of beer in the sand and sat on it as a stool. I shook, and listened to the birds. I felt the fear that hadn't had the time to arrive earlier and let it wash over me. But through the fear I felt something else.
* * *
"You should learn how to walk," Chris said to me.
I was nineteen and had been getting around on two feet with relative ease for some years, so the comment might have seemed strange to an outsider. But we were in a safari camp, and the walking Chris was talking about would involve in-depth knowledge of trees, tracks, insects, and all the smaller things that were usually overlooked on a safari drive. I had only recently been offered the chance to become a guide and was doing my best to absorb the knowledge and skills required.
There was the possibility that on one of these walks that I, and the tourists that I was being trained to lead, would inadvertently find one of the larger, more dangerous animals that we hoped to see only from the safety of a vehicle. In this case it was important that I had the ability to remain calm-and not run.
Because of this it was important to make sure that if something did charge, I "had what it took." This was safari-speak for having the ability to stand your ground against something that was hurtling at you with the full capability and possible intent of eating you. There is no point trying to outrun any of the dangerous animals in Africa anyway. Humans are almost laughably slow, not able to outpace even the obese hippo, the top-heavy giraffe, or the surprisingly sprightly warthog.
Iain, one of the guides training me, used to tell a joke at mealtimes about this lack of speed: Two guys are out walking when they see a lion, and it starts stalking them. One of the guys kicks off his hiking boots, reaches into a backpack, whips out some running shoes, and starts lacing them up. "What are you doing?" the other asks. "You can't outrun a lion."
"I don't need to," comes the reply. "I only have to outrun you."
The joke always got a laugh, so it was recycled with Almost every group that passed through. I heard it plenty of times before I ever got close to a lion on foot, so it came to the forefront of my mind when Chris walked into the camp office carrying a rifle.
"There are lions right outside camp," he said. "It's the Ravenscourt Pride. They're a bit nasty at times." This was an understatement. They were the prime suspects in a man-eating case from a year earlier. "It's been a while since I faced a charge. I want to see if I've still got it."
I wasn't sure if my one experience with lions counted, as I suspected it was fear and not confidence that had rooted me to the ground. "I'd like to come along, and see if I've got it at all," I piped up.
Then I poked Chris in his not-quite-flat belly. "Besides which, I reckon I could outrun you."
Chris didn't comment at first. He just put some rounds in the rifle, then chambered one. He smiled benevolently at me. "Not with a bullet in your leg."
I watched his smile to see if it wavered, some indication that he was joking. But he held it admirably firm, and I was somewhat relieved when after an hour or so of tracking we decided the lions had moved away. I would have to wait for another day to see if I had what it took to be a guide.
Chapter ThreeHow I Got my Name
If you have spent any time in Africa and haven't been given a nickname, you aren't doing enough to get yourself noticed. A nickname can be just as important, and is far more likely to be used, than the name you are given at birth.
The people I worked with in South Africa were mainly from the Shangaan tribe and were considered the masters of getting right to a person's essence and defining it with one or two words. The couple who owned our camp, and were not always loved by the staff, were known as "Mamba Eyes" for her and "June/July" for him-a reference to the South African winter months and the way the staff felt a chill when they saw him.
I waited eagerly for a moniker, sure that since I was a nice guy I would be treated well. If I caught a staff member looking at me with the slightest hint of assessment, I would try my best to act as serene as the Dalai Lama, as kindly as Santa, and as cool as Elvis in the hope of being called something like "That Hip Guy From Far Away" or "Number One Sexy Beast." Most likely I came across as constipated, but it was irrelevant, as the assessing look often turned out to be a warm-up for a request for a loan until payday. I was then faced with the dilemma of rejecting them (unbeknownst to them I was one of the lowest-paid people in the camp, making about four dollars a day) and getting a name like "Cheap Bastard," or coughing up the cash and being known as "Rollover" or "Soft Touch"-either of which had disturbing double meanings that I was sensitive about since I was lonely on the romantic front. There were no single girls in camp, and my fumbling attempts at seducing guests were rejected because they only had eyes for the guides and I was only the barman. And all the alcohol at my disposal couldn't make the animals attractive.
In the end it was this missing element in my life That decided the name for me. Titus, one of the trackers, called me one day by shouting "Ngwenza! Gunjaan?" I only understood the second word, which means "How are you?" So I asked the chef, a kindly woman named Rosie, what Ngwenza meant. She snorted into the bread she was mixing and said, "Is that your name?"
"I think so. What does it mean?"
She wouldn't tell. I asked Harold, the gardener. He reeked of marijuana, and I was sure that he was taking better care of a garden somewhere else than he was of the lawn in the camp. As soon as I said the word Ngwenza, he went into high hysterics, fell on all fours, thumped the brown grass, and said, "Yes! That is you!" He wouldn't, or possibly couldn't, tell me anymore, so I left him with his grass and went in search of an answer elsewhere.
Eventually I asked Alpheus, the camp's other tracker what Ngwenza meant. His pitted face split into a grin, and he said in his rough voice, "A man who has not been with a woman for a long, long time."
"You mean sexually frustrated? That's my name?"
There was no point arguing it. I guessed that doing so would only reinforce it. Anyway, it could only be a matter of time before I gave the name reason to be changed-I hoped.
The name did change, but not for the reason I wanted it to. One of the impediments I faced in becoming a guide was that I didn't know how to drive. I'd left home too early to have my parents teach me, and I never could have afforded driving school. The guides declared that I knew enough about the animals, birds, and trees to start guiding, if I only knew how to get a Land Rover around on the rough tracks-and off them when following something like a cheetah as it hunted. They took me out in turns. Chris, the most knowledgeable, gave up after I scraped the side of the vehicle while getting it out of its bay. Iain, who I was closest to, grew quickly frustrated at my inability to master the clutch, brake, accelerator, and four-wheel drive select knob in one go. To my surprise it was Devlin (known to the staff as "19" because of a missing finger), a party animal and genital exhibitionist, who was the best teacher. He was patient, and good at explaining the process that occurred as gears meshed and released and fuel was applied, but most important he took me to a place where I could do the least amount of damage.
Unlike the open plains shown in many documentaries, the South African bush is fairly dense and scrubby, so the places to practice were few. Devlin drove us to a clearing that had one tree in it, inventively called One Tree Plain, surrounded by open grassland. Along the way we had to stop and clear a tree that had been pushed across the road by an elephant. Elephants push over trees for two reasons. The first is for food-to eat the leaves at the very top of the tree or to get at the exposed roots. This tree, though, had not been fed on, so it was apparent that the culprit was a bull who was filled with testosterone but no outlet for it, so he pushed over trees. It's a great release for a bull and a way of showing his strength after a female has rejected him. If human males had the same ability, global deforestation would be complete by now.
Excerpted from Whatever You Do, Don't Run by Peter Allison Copyright © 2007 by Peter Allison. Excerpted by permission.
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