31 May Chapter 1 – Rhino Walking Safari by Nikki Meyer
Two years, seven months, eighteen days and nine hours after leaving our precious lives in the Kruger National Park to try to carve out a place for ourselves in town, we found ourselves heading back. We could not believe our luck. Every minute of managing our fledgling courier brokerage and office services business in town had been purgatory. We’d been optimistic in thinking for one moment that either of us would thrive, or even be happy, living away from the bush – worse still, trying to grind out a living in the confines of a shopping centre.
Leaving the park had not been entirely our own choice, more a matter of making the best of the situation as it was at the time; and the situation was that, as a major employer in the new South Africa, South African National Parks (SANParks) had a duty to transform its staff complement to reflect more accurately the racial demographics of the country. We were racially over-represented and had to give way.
Once we’d started down the path of self-employment, there was no turning back. We had put everything we owned and everything we could borrow into the business – it had been a long sentence to serve – but, like most people doing time, we couldn’t blame anyone but ourselves.
Nobody else had influenced our decision to try this route instead of looking for another bush job. We had been convinced that there would be more scope and security in working for ourselves during South Africa’s sensitive political phase than for someone else. Whether this thinking was accurate, I don’t know, but we were concerned about the future and didn’t think we could afford to risk the ‘luxury’ of another bush job. Insecurity meant prioritising differently: when the chips are down financially you downgrade your home, you don’t renovate or redecorate. Well, most people don’t – let me not speak for those willing to keep up with the Joneses on credit.
Four months had passed since Gerrit’s mother had phoned in March, casually mentioning that her friend Ansie was living on the building site of Rhino Walking Safaris, a new private concession in the Kruger Park, and asking if we’d be interested in applying to manage it. We didn’t hesitate and had our interview almost immediately. Then the wait for an answer began. Four long months were spent looking at pictures of Plains Camp, the concession’s eight-bed trails camp, on the Internet, and dreaming of living there. The photographs brought about a sense of calmness and peace; our imaginations and the memory of the beauty of the Kruger Park filled the gaps. I could smell flowering Knobthorns, crushed wild herbs and grasses, steaming elephant dung and the strong, earthy scent of the wet ground after the rains. I only had to look at a photograph of the wooden lounge deck with the firelight flickering in the nearby sandpit to hear the plaintive whoop of a hyena. I could visualise myself sitting in one of those canvas chairs looking out over the still plain, searching for any small sign of movement in the darkness, the gentle Lowveld breeze cooling my cheeks.
Plains Camp is a gem, filled with antiques, artefacts, gleaming silver and stylish furnishings reminiscent of an elegant bygone era. I imagined myself turning to the chair next to me to find it occupied by Meryl Streep, pith helmet and all.
All too often, these blissful imaginings were interrupted by a shrilling telephone, which shocked me back to the reality of revving engines in the car park and voices: urgent voices, complaining voices and, once in a while, the wailing of a child who hadn’t got what he or she wanted. Dragging my eyes from the computer screen, I would blink against the harshness of the fluorescent lighting.
All day long, stale cigarette smoke mingled with the spicy aroma of curries from the Indian takeaway across the corridor, hanging thickly in the shop that somehow never seemed fresh – no matter how hard we scrubbed at the floors and windows. In the evenings, the odour of busy, warm bodies lingered long after closing time, blending with the scent of paper, ink, spice and smoke and embedding itself in the grey wallpaper. When we opened the office in the mornings, we’d rush to throw open the security door at the back, drawing the heavy salt wind through the building in an attempt to drive out the previous day’s trapped smells before the new day added its own.
As soon as that confirmation of our appointment came, our dreams became more real and sneak peeks at the website in the back office became more frequent. About ten kilometres away from Plains Camp, its sixteen-bed sister lodge, Rhino Post Safari Lodge, was being built on the banks of the Mutlumuvi dry riverbed. The total concession was twelve thousand hectares.
Twelve thousand hectares of wide-open space, wild animals, fresh air and nature. Beautiful, beautiful nature. We couldn’t wait.
It was a bit of a setback when Xandra, our very competent and loyal assistant, declined the invitation to manage our business for us, saying that it was more responsibility than she was willing to shoulder; but we understood. A mad scramble ensued to find a suitable candidate and get her trained. Nothing, however, was going to stand in the way of our return to the bush and to happiness. When we broke the news to Martin, our now seven-year-old son, Gerrit said, ‘Mart, would you like to go and live in the Kruger Park again?’
We studied him carefully, his reaction important to us. He’d been four years old when we’d left, and had enjoyed the last two and a half of his formative years among friends. He may not have been pleased by the change.
Martin’s face split into a gap-toothed smile.
Are we going home?
When Gerrit nodded, Martin whooped, and we laughed as much at his enthusiasm as at our relief. We were all going home.
We had immersed ourselves in business and gleaned little joy from a couple of years spent in town. There had, of course, been some highlights: being voted the best branch of our franchise in KwaZulu-Natal in a radio competition and customer survey twice, and being awarded certificates for outstanding service by a local business network. Achievement did, indeed, bring some reward and satisfaction, but it didn’t bring happiness. We needed to do more than just our best – we needed to enjoy doing it and, after work, we needed to enjoy living. I will harp on no more about our poor little business; suffice it to say that we cared for it, but did not love it.
Packing up and moving back to the Kruger National Park was immensely pleasurable. We packed one suitcase each with everything we realistically thought we might wear in the bush; kept one file of documents we deemed important; and sold, gave away, or otherwise disposed of everything else. It was a liberating feeling. We had been warned that our accommodation at the concession would be small. It was in the process of being built and would be constructed with a concrete floor and thatched roof to keep it as cool as possible in summer; the sides were to be made from canvas, with windows stitched from shade cloth.
The house, its area not much bigger than the swimming pool at my parents’ home, would consist of a bedroom with a bathroom en suite, a lounge and a small verandah. No kitchen, no dining room and no guest room. This didn’t worry us too much, as we didn’t figure we’d have much time for socialising – we were going to work for fun again. The only part that did concern me was where Martin would sleep. Somehow it didn’t seem right to have him growing up without a space to call his own; every little boy needs a place where he can make a mess and, if necessary, from which he could even shut his parents out.
When I’d kept a caged gerbil as a child, my mother had taught me the importance of letting it have a secure place. It had a little upturned box in its cage, with an arched entrance, and under no circumstances was I to lift that box to get at him. If the gerbil deserved his own bolthole, then so did our precious offspring. Gerrit was quick to reassure me that he would make sure that Martin had his own space, even if it meant that we had to do away with the lounge.
Gerrit was back in his element. He was in charge, and I was so happy to be able to let go and stop panicking. I knew he would fulfil his promise. He’s quite the best handyman I know, the best ranger, and the best fixer of both technological and technical problems. I might feel the need to wrestle for administrative power with him, but I would walk the length and breadth of the earth with him, and happily defer to his superior knowledge in every sphere. Except, perhaps, the kitchen – a girl can only eat so much spaghetti with tinned bully beef or braai meat and pap.
With all of our household goods sold, we were not only unfettered but had a little extra cash for the first time in years. Most of this was put away to furnish our new tent in the bush, buy school uniforms for Martin and put fuel in our car for the nine-hundred-kilometre trip to the park. My father, bless his ever-generous bank account, had paid to have our Jetta serviced, which had cost an arm and a leg given the extended period of neglect that it had suffered; but kudos to great German engineering, it never let us down.
My mother kitted me out in a couple of bush-friendly outfits to keep me going until we had ordered our uniforms, and we were about ready to go. My only splurge was new underwear for all three of us. No satin, lace, or luxuries, just nice (pretty in my case) cotton underwear.
I am sure there’s a psychologist out there somewhere who could write screeds about my need for new underwear, and I’m not sure that I’d like to read it if he or she did. Be that as it may, when we had some money to spend, that is what I chose to spend it on. Besides this, I believe that everyone has a mother or grandmother who has told them always to ensure that they are wearing decent underwear and have cleaned out their underwear drawer at home before setting out on an adventure.
After all, you never know what could happen …
Copyright Nikki Meyer
Nikki Meyer was born in South Africa in 1968 while her father, a banker, was stationed in Swaziland. She spent her first eight years of life living in Swaziland, then moved to South Africa with her family. She grew up in Scottburgh on the KwaZulu Natal south coast.
After working in a bank, and then a hotel, she studied public relations before taking a job in Botswana at the age of 21 working at a game lodge. This was her first real bush experience and shaped the rest of her life. She is married to a conservationist and they have one son, Martin. All three live in the Kruger National Park and share a passion for wildlife.
Her first book ‘Game for Anything’ tells the story of her move to the bush and all the adjustments and adventures and romance that this entailed.
Her second book recounts how after leaving the employ of SANParks and struggling to adapt to town living, she, her husband Gerrit, and her son returned to the bush and set down roots, finding dealing with fires, floods, wild animals and visitors to the bush far more satisfying than the hubbub of suburbia.
Nikki and Gerrit have been working at Rhino Walking Safaris in the Kruger National Park since their return to the bush in 2003.
This book is a true account of events and circumstances experienced by the author. The names of some lodges and those of some of the people appearing in the book have been changed to ensure their privacy.
Although every effort is made to ensure accuracy, the publishers, personnel, printers, distributors and/or other related parties do not accept any responsibility whatsoever for any errors or omissions, or any effect arising therefrom.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, translated or transmitted in any form by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the written permission of the author.