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The road to Doornleegte
"My dearest conita, I came close to losing my life to a wounded lion today ..."
He was a game ranger in Bechuanaland's Tuli Block. On my map Bechuanaland Protectorate (now Botswana) was where South Africa ended and the Real Africa began. I'd never been there – I had no idea what kind of a block the Tuli was. I'd never before met any rangers. I'd heard stories though, full of daring and danger, always something life-threatening. Bush planes crashed, wild animals attacked, floods, fires, poachers; safari adventurers got into trouble and faced certain demise but for a last-minute rescue by one of those heroic rangers. Big and bearded, I assumed; a sunburnt, sweaty man who didn't talk much, but having saved the day, might down his whisky, shoulder his heavy-calibre rifle and stride off into the sunset. John Wayne, only younger, more handsome and not so American.
I lived in a bachelor flat in Hillbrow, Johannesburg. My bravest adventure to date had been to change careers from teacher to flight attendant. I wore makeup, perfume and a dressy little uniform. If I hunted anything at all it was a bargain in the great cities of Europe and the Far East. The only thing I knew about elephant, rhino and lion or anyone tangling with them was that they were best avoided.
The fates conspired. A friend of mine was to be married and she invited me to be her bridesmaid. The bridegroom invited a friend, a fellow student pilot, to be his best man. "Clive Walker," I was told. "You'll like him. Everyone does."
At the engagement party he turned up with unkempt hair and a sunburnt face, a fund of improbable stories and a determination to mark his rare emergence from the bush in as festive a manner as he could contrive with his host of friends. A helpful sort, he offered to take me to the airport two days later when I had to leave for Japan. A 3am pick-up. His promise to be on time, like his wild tales, did not convince me. I made back-up arrangements. At 3:15 I was happy to have been proven right.
Just before the flight was due to leave I was given an urgent message: a man was waiting at the airport fence desperately eager to apologise. Whatever his story, whether he'd overslept after his late-night party or had in fact come straight from the party, I wasn't interested. He was treated to a cool and distant wave from the aircraft. When we landed in Tokyo there was a telegram waiting for me: "Take special care." I took offence.
Back in Johannesburg I received a 15-page letter in which the main event was that hungry lion, and the bravery required to kill it in the nick of time, thereby not only relieving the unspeakable agony of an animal caught in a poacher's trap but also saving his own life and that of his gun-bearer. He didn't hold back on his feelings upon finding a magnificent male lion dragging the steel trap which had all but taken off its paw, and followed with a graphic description of the fitting retribution for people who set such traps or gave villagers financial incentives to do so. He appeared to have extremely robust opinions on the matter. As if to sweeten the macho image, he'd included a small and, I thought, exquisitely detailed drawing of elephants around a baobab tree. Art helps him to get through his evenings, he said – long, lonely evenings all by himself in the bush camp, deprived of company and comfort. I wondered how close to those elephants he'd been. Not that I cared, of course. I replied by asking him not to look me up again.
Within days, another bulky envelope: pages and pages of his exploits in the bush, followed by an indignant postscript – What did I mean by telling him to leave me alone? Didn't I promise to accompany him to his cousin's wedding? I tried to wriggle out of it: It had been mere chitchat, I didn't think he meant it, I was sure he'd have forgotten all about it as soon as he'd got back to the bush.
Another lengthy dispatch. He feels hurt; he doesn't chitchat and he doesn't forget, and his mother had brought him up to believe that a promise was a promise. Was she wrong?
For his second and last chance he arrived early, impeccably dressed, impeccably mannered and full of admiration for everything: my pictures, my books, my small collection of stones and shells, my dress, my hair. The cousin's wedding was a happy, heartfelt family affair, as good a setting as you might find for a sincere and handsome young man to show to advantage. By the end of the day I was smitten.
That was August 1966. On 3 December we got married. It must have been love. He owned – apart from his game ranger's rifle and his persistence – a lion skull, a dog, a box of books, some art materials and a Volkswagen Beetle.
A quarter of a century later that was the man I wanted to blame for the situation in which I found myself. On a morning like so many others and yet unlike any of them, I opened my front door, raising its weight by that one millimetre between a quiet escape and a wailing creak that would reach the sleeper in the bedroom. I walked out under the kind of sky you'll only find in a wilderness area. Stars brightening as the quarter moon swung west. No breeze, but faintly from some distance away, a broom cluster fig's extravagant fruiting nearing its end; every year that same sticky-sweet, overripe smell of late summer as it ripens into autumn. One season reliably flowing into the next and on into the next one. I longed for the security of such a predictable rhythm in my own life – the comfort of being able to trust what comes next.
Around the corner of the house there was a slight movement of cooler air. I tightened the shawl around my shoulders and faced east. The bush was singing. For a while that was enough, but then I closed my eyes and tried to hear past the pre-dawn clamour of bird calls. Nothing. It wouldn't last. Something was coming that would disturb not only the natural peace that surrounded my home, but also derail whatever safe routines I'd become used to. Reason told me it would be hours yet before I'd hear anything – the heavy truck, bearing its cargo in a reinforced steel container, would only just have begun its long, slow journey to me. For weeks I'd been preoccupied with that cargo. What on earth had made me think I would be able to handle it? My initial cautious excitement had become tinged with nervous dread. So there I was, well before sunrise, listening.
The light grew and dark mounds turned into umbrella thorns. Something stirred, an impala ram picking its way across the floodplain. I could hear the river. I was tempted to walk down – the Palala was only 500 metres away. Just past the peak of the rainy season it ran full and fast. In a more optimistic frame of mind I might have been tempted to take that as a sign – a propitious omen in a part of the world where, at least if you were North-Sotho or Shangaan or Pedi, every natural element, every seasonal event conveyed messages of ancestral approval or disquiet.
If there were ancestors watching over that particular patch of African bushveld, they were unlikely to have been mine. I'm German, a daughter of missionaries. Like my mother before me I went where my heart took me. The calling I followed and made my own was my husband's. Clive might not have been a missionary in the religious sense, but his avowed passion for wilderness was no less of a calling. In those long love letters from Tuli he had made no secret of that. In truth, there was no one to blame for the crucible into which I'd leapt with such naïve enthusiasm. When I chose the man I chose the life.
After our brief honeymoon in what was then Lourenço Marques (now Maputo) in Mozambique, he was a responsible married man who had to think of more pragmatic matters than his love of the bush. Money, of course. I was tempted to fling my conservative scruples to the winds and go adventuring with my cash-strapped game ranger, but prudence – and a forthright mother-in-law – prevailed. We returned to Johannesburg and he began to look for work with respectable income-generating prospects. He didn't say so but we both knew it would be an interim arrangement.
Drawing on his training as an artist he worked as the advertising manager of one of the biggest paint manufacturers at the time, Herbert Evans. I was a senior flight attendant with Trek Airways (later to become Luxavia). But at the first opportunity that we could get our schedules to synchronise we piled some provisions into the Beetle – rather dashing, I thought, white with red leather seats – and headed for the Pont Drift border post. On both the South African and Botswana sides everyone seemed to know Clive. I'd never seen such popularity, or found myself so instantly and fondly included. All those tales of peril and adventure I'd disbelieved turned out to have been true.
Another revelation was in store for me. In that famed triangle of bushveld between the Shashe and Limpopo rivers, the Tuli Block, I saw my husband in his true heimat (homeland), and discovered my own. At a wide, slow bend of the Limpopo, full of clouds and washed blue sky, I watched a herd of elephant emerge from the shade of giant mashatu trees and stir up dust in their rush down the bank. I followed leopard spoor in the sand of the dry Motloutsi River. Under a full moon, somewhere far beyond the firelight, I heard lions roar. Close by, the furtive conversation of scops owls. There was an eerie cry. Black-backed jackal, Clive said. I had a fleeting glimpse, into the light and out of it again, of a little ghost of the night – a serval. A blood-red sun rose over the sandstone ridges of Mmammagwa and I realised: I'd become one of them – bushbaby, tree-hugger, umweltfreak (environmental fanatic). My husband was delighted to discover in his wife the heart of a conservationist. When we packed for our return to the city I held up my small camping mirror: no makeup, cheeks and nose flushed after days in the generous Tuli sun, wash-and-wear hair. Frau Walker: Naturschützer (conservationist). I would never again feel completely at home except in the wilderness.
My new-found passion extended also to the creatures that terrified the living daylights out of me: spiders, snakes, crocodiles and the elephants that were Clive's obsession. In the 1950s he had shot elephant in Mozambique. The excitement of the hunt, he found, was not enough. He would continue to seek them out, not to kill but to study and admire, and to be able to introduce others to the experience of being in the presence of such great wild creatures. Instinct and the bush craft he'd learnt from his trackers kept him safe far closer to elephants than I had the nerve for. We struck a bargain – not the one I had wanted, but the one I could get. When I was around he would abide by my definition of safe behaviour, not his; when I was not around, since I was not able to control his actions, I'd much rather not know about them.
In between our bush breaks we were a young couple with a completely urban life. When the first of our two boys came along his daily pram excursions were on the sidewalks of central Hillbrow. It would have been difficult to find an environment further removed from the wilderness than that one. Clive didn't complain. Such were the contentments and rewards of love and family that we were thoroughly happy.
The lure of the bush, however, was insistent, irresistible and growing. He became more and more involved in conservation matters, and I with him. My flying days had ended, without any regrets, with the birth of my children. My family came first and my husband's causes had now also become mine.
The founding of the Endangered Wildlife Trust under Clive's chairmanship – a seminal event in South African wildlife conservation – dates from that time and so does my education in what it meant to be involved in the battle to protect threatened species and ecosystems. I was shocked to discover just how much there was that needed protection.
I also discovered that, however noble the cause, you had to be prepared to get your hands dirty. Literally.
Shortly after we got married, on one of our regular Sunday afternoon "Just looking, I promise" stops at a second-hand bookshop, Clive discovered a treasure: a 1929 publication that had found its way there from Herald's Bookstore in Salisbury, old Rhodesia. Denis Lyell's The Hunting and Spoor of Central African Game was the only book he'd ever found which showed life-sized animal tracks for the purpose of identification. Another Sunday afternoon, another bookshop, another find. Dr Reay Smithers's The Mammals of Zambia, Rhodesia and Malawi with small animal tracks accompanying the text. I could see where we were headed, and halfway through dinner with a friend who said, "You've got to include dung," I pushed away my schnitzel and tried to accept my fate. Across the table Clive and Koos Bothma, Professor of Wildlife Management at Pretoria University, were enthusing over the prospect of a first-ever fully comprehensive authoritative field guide to the spoor and signs of the mammals of Southern Africa. I was making mental lists, beginning with rubber gloves, plastic bags and industrial-strength disinfectant.
In the course of the next few years it sometimes felt to me as if every animal that had walked anywhere between the Kgalagadi in the west and the iMfolozi in the east had had its spoor measured, photographed, described and identified. If it had defecated anywhere within the range of vision of Clive and the various scouts who accompanied us from time to time, the remains of its last meal found its way into my meticulously labelled plastic bags. If it had dug a deep hole or tunnel both my sons would volunteer to investigate. Renning was older and already fascinated by the natural world, but Anton being the younger was smaller and often won the right to crawl into that dusty unknown while I panicked about snakes, scorpions or indeed the owner of that hole which could still be lurking down there, foul-tempered and hungry.
For the boys it was an adventure that continued over many holidays. They became expert dung collectors, sharp-eyed and unflagging. I gave up on rubber gloves and joined in their contests: with our fingers thrust deep into elephant dung we'd each offer our best guess – this morning, last night, yesterday. The scout was the judge. He was usually also the one to keep watch and send us all racing madly back to our Land Rover station wagon to escape the ire of lion, rhino, buffalo or elephant that resented our poking around their ablutions.
The aftermath to our study and collection trips was much less fun, and with that Clive was on his own. Banished to a room as far removed from the rest of our living space as possible, he soaked the dung specimens in tetrachloride and then had them drying for days on end in grim little heaps on sheets of newspaper before they could be deposited in labelled glass jars. The boys and I resolutely refused to assist. Carnivore dung, especially, was bad enough out in the open air of the Okavango or Savute or the Klaserie Game Reserve; at close quarters in a Johannesburg house we found that the romance of the wild was utterly gone. It was dung, it stank and was wholly and solely Dad's affair.
Signs of the Wild was published in 1981 and is still in print to this day. Popular and useful as it is among safari guides and tourists, for me it has even greater value. I see two small boys with sun-bleached hair shouting their excitement to me as they run up with their hands full of animal droppings. And, striding up behind them, their father, laughing.
That might well be my favourite image of Clive: on foot in the veld, and since 1975 that is how he spent much of his professional time – walking in the wild.
We had created Educational Wildlife Expeditions by then, an organisation aimed at bringing man and nature closer together. EWE took small groups on walking trails into unspoilt wilderness areas. Sometimes I was able to go along, but mainly, together with the responsibilities of fulltime motherhood and part-time teaching, I was part of the team that ran logistics support from Johannesburg. These days wilderness trails have become one of the mainstays of nature-based tourism. All flavours of trailing: backpacking, slack-packing, every possible variation of eco- and wild- and green-, horseback, elephant-back, every degree of indulgence from hard-core no-frills, to ultimate no-sweat with every luxurious attention to your comfort.
It was different then. The renowned conservationist Dr Ian Player had introduced his pioneering Wilderness Leadership School trails in KwaZulu-Natal. There weren't many other enterprises of the kind, and his model was the one closest to what EWE wished to achieve. The goal was straightforward. People, ordinary everyday people, were to encounter wild nature on foot. No more, no less. The focus was not the splendid designer accommodation or gourmet cuisine – we aimed for basic campsite comforts and hearty refuelling after a day's trailing.
Excerpted from "A Rhino in my Garden"
Copyright © 2017 Conita Walker and Sally Smith.
Excerpted by permission of Jacana Media (Pty) Ltd.
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Table of Contents
1 The road to Doornleegte 1
2 Bwana 19
3 Matriarchs and motherhood 31
4 Mothlo 44
5 Palala 59
6 The hopeful species 71
7 Munyane 86
8 New beginnings 105
9 Home 118
10 Waterberg rain 131
11 Ayden's world 141
12 Rapula 157
13 Rescues 163
14 Mokibelo 184
15 Moêng 201
16 Lonetree 220
17 Lonetree II 240
18 Walker's Islands 258
Epilogue: The good remains 275
About the author 281