By Robin Cook
How many people can say they have slept in a Big Five reserve with no fences around them? Who can magine themselves sitting around a fire whilst listening to elephants cracking the branches of trees n the dry riverbed below? My father and I experienced these life-changing vents and many more on our night out in the bush with Mooiplaas section ranger Johann Oelofse.
The night out in the bush was a reward for my contributions towards the Honorary Ranger’s anti-Poaching project. To this day I have collected 8000 in donations and small change.
The time was 15h00 when Johann drove his vehicle into Tsendze Rustic Camp to collect us. After a short drive along the Shongololo Loop we turned right along a "no- entry" road and drove to our destination. Our eyes fell upon two magnificent tents with tables, chairs and a small fire burning in the front.
But my focus went to the biggest leadwood tree I had ever seen. Its branches stretched out everywhere and the trunk soared up into the sky. Johann estimated this massive giant to be around 1000 years old.
Johann’s amazing passion for this tree highlighted the lack of respect so many of us have for nature conservation in general. He took us down to the dry Shongololo bed where we looked at all the dung and spoor left over the past days.
Johann went on to fully describe his earlier events with a herd of elephants that had discovered our camp at 12h00 that day. He showed us photographs of an elephant right next to his tent and the spoor and dung of the elephant a little further on. This of course left us feeling a bit shaky, not knowing whether they might return again.
After taking some photos around the camp we settled down near the fire with some drinks, and took in the sounds of nature whilst chatting about a diverse range of topics. As the sun began to set, Johann decided it was time to start cooking. He taught me how to make pap (this was my first time) and then let me take control of the braai and “earn my stripes”.
Later that night we were joined by a herd of elephants that, although could not be seen, definitely made their presence ominous with loud heart-pumping trumpets and low rumbling sounds. The wonderful night sounds were completed with the soft, low roars of a lioness in the distance.
Once we had demolished our chocolate pudding, we retired to our tents fully aware of what could be outside but at the same time filled with a sense of excitement. I woke up the next morning to the sounds of water boiling over the fire and a crested francolin calling a few metres away.
I went to have some coffee with Johann and then put some wors on the braai for breakfast. We took our final photos around the camp and then packed up for the short trip to Tsendze. We stopped at the low level bridge near Shipandani Bird Hide where a very tame acting African jacana went about its business looking for insects along the waterside and almost under our vehicle.
We drove into Tsendze Rustic Camp where we unpacked the car and said our farewells. This trip has really made me think about my future career in conservation. Out of all the careers available, I have decided to make wildlife veterinary science my future goal at Ondersterpoort Veterinary Institute.
A big thank you must go to Johann Oelofse, Christa Von Elling (Mopani duty manager), and Kendel Nordin (West Rand region honorary ranger) for all the support they’ve given me and for keeping my conservation dreams soaring high.
A Young Man's Special Night in a Tent in the Open Veld of Kruger
By Johann Oelofse
The day eventually dawned. This was to be the day on which I had arranged a special bush-treat as both a reward and further incentive gesture for Robin Cook, the young grade seven school boy that has already donated R8,000 of personal pocket money as well as money collected from family, family friends and fellow learners at school, to conservation in the KNP.
I took one of my general workers, John Moyambo, with me and we motored out to "Leadwood Camp" as I have come to call this beautiful site near the Frasersrus windpump. A site nestling under the spreading boughs of the biggest leadwood tree that I have seen in the KNP. Here we pitched camp in preparation for Robin's night in a tent in the open veld. Way out in the unspoilt bush of Kruger and far away from tarred roads and rest camps with fences.
Around midday I returned to the camp to light a fire and set the atmosphere just right and suddenly found myself surrounded by a breeding herd of elephant. Most of the animals kept their distance behind a screen of shrubs and trees, but one inquisitive young bull couldn't suppress the urge to investigate the presence of the camp with its strange smells.
With me standing frozen with camera in hand between the two tents he slowly stepped closer and closer, all the while reaching forward with a questing trunk, obviously trying to work through the weird smells emanating from this strange phenomenon.
After taking a few photos I eventually had to step up and slap against the side of the tent nearest to him, talking to him to make my presence known. The poor chap nearly had a cadenza and took off at a rate of knots with one last defiant trumpet as he crashed through the screen of greenery, also startling the rest of the herd into a noisy stampede through the bushes.
After this interesting little interlude I motored over to the Tsendze Rustic Campsite where I collected young Robin and his dad, Matthew Cook, with their bedding and personal gear. On the way back to the campsite I caught up on what Robin has been up to these past three years since I first took him on a “day in the bush with a game ranger”.
Upon arrival Robin and Matthew were quite taken by the sight of the camp and its setting and after admiring the majestic leadwood, were soon settled into their tent and the rest of the camp. We strolled around and ended up in the sandy bed of the Shongololo Spruit where I pointed out the tracks and dung of animals that had passed through recently. Some time later saw us settled in camp, chatting about a variety of conservation-related issues while drinking in the sounds of the wild around us.
Soon the sun began to set and I tasked Robin with building up our camp fire and putting on a three-legged black pot with water for the pap. This was followed by a lesson in actually making the pap, a first for Robin and a task at which he acquitted himself admirably. Work around a campfire can keep a man busy though and Robin soon found himself elected as “tong master” and in charge of the braai.
After our bush supper we sipped coffee around the glowing embers of our fire, listening to the sounds of elephants trumpeting some distance away. It soon became evident that they were heading in our direction though and eventually we could hear them breaking branches, punctuated by the odd squeal or trumpet and later still they were close enough to hear the rumbling of their stomachs.
My two companions looked uncomfortable at one stage, but taken in consideration that this was a first-ever experience for both of them, they both weathered it very well. Later still, lions roared in the distance and a lone hyena whooped somewhere in the dark. It was time for bed and we bid each other good night and retired to our tents.
The next morning I was up early, got the fire and coffee water going and was appreciating that wonderful first cup of coffee in the morning when I heard the stirrings of life in the other tent. Soon afterwards I was joined by Robin who soon had a mug of coffee in hand too.
We chatted for a while before Matthew appeared and while he also joined us for coffee we discussed their impressions of last night’s sounds and stirrings. Robin and dad Matthew thoroughly enjoyed the early morning in camp around a fire while nursing good ground coffee. We listened to the wondrous variety of bird calls and chatted some more about our shared passion, all things wild and wondrous.
By then it was time for some sustenance again and Robin, by now a practiced hand around the fire, grilled us a coil of boerewors over the coals. Soon after we tucked into boerewors on rolls doused with some of last night’s left-over gravy. Talk about nature and life in the bush continued as we ate and before we knew it, it was past 09h00 and time for me to take them back to the Tsendze Campsite where we said our goodbyes and went our separate ways.