Rangers Diary

Daniel at Lanner Gorge.

DaniŽl Mkhancani Chavalala

When Daniël Mkhancani Chavalala, sergeant at Pafuri section, goes on leave you will most likely find him at a picnic spot somewhere in the northern parts of Kruger, where he will be soaking in the sounds, smells, and serenity of a place that has become as much a part of him as what he has helped shape in the last 25 years.

It wasn’t an instinctive love and Daniël recalls how scary it was during those first few months with section ranger, Arrie Schreiber, at Kingfisherspruit in 1982.

He didn’t know the bush and coming from a mining and fidelity guard background in Gauteng, to be confronted with charging monsters, like elephant and buffalo, was a novel and frightening experience. “Those were different kind of tsotsis,” he says.

It was at Kingfisherspruit where Daniël trained and where he gained basic ranger skills and knowledge, but also where the seeds of his love and passion for Kruger and his work were sown and since then have never stopped growing.

In time to come, people like Arrie, Ben Lamprecht, Johann Oelofse, Amos Mikansi and a sergeant Mthini each had a hand in shaping the young Daniël’s career.

“Corporal Mikansi taught me about the veld without opening one page of a book. He spoke a lot about the soil, the path that water would take, but also the paths of the elephant and the buffalo.

We built patrol roads and spoke about poachers. He was a great man.” In November 1982, Daniël was picked as part of a team to set up the new ranger station, Woodlands, with section ranger Johann Oelofse. If he had a crystal ball then, perhaps he would have seen this was not the last time he was to help set up something, only to be moved somewhere else, once it was completed.

There were no general workers at Woodlands and, as the youngest field ranger, DaniŽl says he was the Ďpikanien,' doing everything from cleaning the yard to fetching stuff from the rest camp. He stayed there until 1997 during which time Johann had moved to Tshokwane section and section ranger Ben Lamprecht had moved to Woodlands.

It was here where DaniŽl had his first harrowing experience that he would later tell his grandchildren about. The camp manager at Bateleur called Ben asking for their assistance with a buffalo in the camp. Ben told his team not to shoot, "but the buffalo was not talking to us," says DaniŽl. "We tried everything and when we eventually flung some stones at it, we had to run for cover as the buffalo came charging past us," says DaniŽl "It did not stop, and was not going to listen to anything we had to say." They went after it. It did not go far.

DaniŽl says he could see it was angry, the hair on its back standing up in warning. He hurled another stone but the buffalo charged at the same time and buffalo and stone passed each other. "And the buffalo is charging and all I hear is doef!" Ben had shot it, but it was a .458, and he had to reload and as the buffalo was "below me, it felt as if my intestines were on top of me. I thought it was the end of me, but fortunately we then put it down."

Mooiplaas

It was at Mooiplaas, where Daniël had been promoted as full corporal in 1994, that he had another experience that helped define his life as a ranger in Kruger. Once again the camp manager at Mopani called section ranger Johann Oelofse about a leopard in the camp.

Johann, also known as Mabarule, and Daniël tracked the spoor along the fence. At one of the buildings, they found a man hiding between a wall and fridge. He told them how he had fought off the leopard with a spade. “Mabarule asked how did you do that and the man said, he clobbered it,” says Daniël.

It was clear Mabarule found this difficult to believe at first as he asked the man if was a small leopard. Mabarule said: “Come corporal, are you scared? And I said, no. Let’s go.” Between the fence and the garden was a bushy area where the leopard diary had been sleeping for the last two days. It was here where they had to look for it. Meanwhile a student and another man, Ernst Manganye, had joined Mabarule and Daniël in their search.

"The next moment I heard the Ďkgg-kgg' of the leopard and suddenly Mabarule and the leopard were in a hand-to-hand battle. The leopard was on its hind legs and Mabarule was holding its front feet," says DaniŽl. Mabarule was moving backwards and then fell with the leopard on top of him.

"I fired a warning shot, but kept it low as there were many people in the camp. The student also fired a shot and then ran. I fired again and hit the leopard in the joint of its leg." It ran towards and into the fence. Ernst missed seven shots and then the leopard was on top of him.

“I was thinking, what now, I am alone, what must I do? I can run, but it is better if I shoot. I could hear the leopard biting into Ernst’s neck. It is better that I shoot, but not at the head as they are lying together. I took my time, but not too long and pulled the trigger.”

Daniël says he could hear Mabarule say, “You shot it!” He had tossed the gun so hard that the grip had broken, then ran to reception to get help. By that time, Jocelyn, Johann’s wife, had arrived and rushed Johann and Ernst to Phalaborwa hospital. Both men recovered from their wounds. Daniël continued to work at Mooiplaas until January 2003 when he was promoted to Pafuri as sergeant.

Pafuri

Pafuri posed its own challenges, even before Daniel had unpacked. “At Mooiplaas I had a new house, electricity with TV, a fridge, electric frying pan and plenty other electrical appliances. I had a nice double bed. Mabarule and Jocelyn helped me move a bakkie load to Pafuri. But as we arrived I was torn about what to do.”

There was no electricity and the room was so small it could hardly fit a single bed. “At Mooiplaas I had planted a tree for shade during the hot summer days, and here was nothing. At Mooiplaas my children had been sleeping for the last two days. It was here where they had to look for it. Meanwhile a student and another man, Ernst Manganye, had joined Mabarule and Daniël in their search.

"The next moment I heard the Ďkgg-kgg' of the leopard and suddenly Mabarule and the leopard were in a hand-to-hand battle. The leopard was on its hind legs and Mabarule was holding its front feet," says DaniŽl. Mabarule was moving backwards and then fell with the leopard on top of him.

"I fired a warning shot, but kept it low as there were many people in the camp. The student also fired a shot and then ran. I fired again and hit the leopard in the joint of its leg." It ran towards and into the fence. Ernst missed seven shots and then the leopard was on top of him.

"I was thinking, what now, I am alone, what must I do? I can run, but it is better if I shoot. I could hear the leopard biting into Ernst's neck. It is better that I shoot, but not at the head as they are lying together. I took my time, but not too long and pulled the trigger." DaniŽl says he could hear Mabarule say, "You shot it!" He had tossed the gun so hard that the grip had broken, then ran to reception to get help.

By that time, Jocelyn, Johann's wife, had arrived and rushed Johann and Ernst to Phalaborwa hospital. Both men recovered from their wounds. DaniŽl continued to work at Mooiplaas until January 2003 when he was promoted to Pafuri as sergeant.

"I was thinking, what now, I am alone, what must I do? I can run, but it is better if I shoot. I could hear the leopard biting into Ernst's neck. It is better that I shoot, but not at the head as they are lying together. I took my time, but not too long and pulled the trigger." DaniŽl says he could hear Mabarule say, "You shot it!" He had tossed the gun so hard that the grip had broken, then ran to reception to get help.

By that time, Jocelyn, Johann's wife, had arrived and rushed Johann and Ernst to Phalaborwa hospital. Both men recovered from their wounds. DaniŽl continued to work at Mooiplaas until January 2003 when he was promoted to Pafuri as sergeant.

Pafuri

Pafuri posed its own challenges, even before Daniel had unpacked. "At Mooiplaas I had a new house, electricity with TV, a fridge, electric frying pan and plenty other electrical appliances. I had a nice double bed. Mabarule and Jocelyn helped me move a bakkie load to Pafuri. But as we arrived I was torn about what to do."

There was no electricity and the room was so small it could hardly fit a single bed. "At Mooiplaas I had planted a tree for shade during the hot summer days, and here was nothing. At Mooiplaas my children had played with Jolene (Mabarule's daughter). Here the FM did not even play well, only cassettes could play.

It was like I had to go back to the old days where we had to camp". On the other hand, it was a promotion and, "I also recalled how often I had visited Bobamene and Lanner gorge and how beautiful it was there." It was a difficult decision, and, "in the end I stayed."

According to section ranger, Sandra Basson, her sergeant jumps at every opportunity to explore Pafuri, sometimes to the frustration of the rest of the team, as he would walk miles on end. “He is also a workaholic,” says Sandra, which brought up another of Daniël’s close encounters with one of Kruger’s creatures.

In March this year, the entire Pafuri workforce was on their way back from a ‘know your status’ HIV/Aids awareness day at Punda Maria rest camp. They decided to take the Masakosa patrol road, back to Pafuri. Further down the road about 300 metres from the vehicle, Daniël noticed a group of elephants in the road with one very unhappy cow suddenly charging the vehicle.

At the same time, he heard yelling from the back of the open bakkie: "Go, go!" Two elephants were charging from behind, as well! "All I could think about was the thick mopane veld ahead and the front wheel spinning and the noise coming from behind. It was a rhythmic doef!, doef!, and people yelling and I couldn't understand what was going on.

I thought an elephant was taking people off the bakkie one by one. And I am trying to put my foot to the petrol and all I can hear is the wheel spinning. Eventually, I registered that the bakkie is on its side and the banging noise is the elephant hitting the bakkie against a mopane tree." By that time the people on the back of the bakkie had jumped off and ran for their lives and DaniŽl and Sandra were stuck inside the vehicle with the elephant thumping the chassis.

Sandra was lying on top of Daniël and his first thought, having seen the elephant tusk cut through the bakkie past Sandra’s head before the bakkie flipped, was that they had to fire warning shots and keep the elephants away from returning to the bakkie.

After hearing the warning shots, Thomas Ndou and Thomas Chauke returned to the bakkie to help. Ndou helped Sandra from the bakkie and they rejoined the rest of the group. Mathonsi was bleeding profusely from where the elephant’s tusks had ripped through his leg.

They radioed Reckson Seane, section ranger at Woodlands, who met them halfway on their way to the hospital at Malamulele. “The miracle,” says Sandra, “is how we all stood together helping one another and how each knew what to do in a time of emergency.” “The buffalo at Woodlands was small, and the leopard at Mooiplaas was something, but this elephant, hoooeee!”

Illegal Immigrants

But it is not only animals that keep Sandra, Daniël and their team on their toes at a section like Pafuri. Being on the border with both Mozambique and Zimbabwe makes it a prime destination for illegal immigrants and not all stories have a predictable ending. Like the one time Sandra and Daniël actually helped a group of illegal immigrants on their way to Masisi, a village about 19 km north of Kruger’s Pafuri gate.

Sandra and Daniël were on their way to Pafuri Gate when they noticed a man walking in the Park. “The ranger said it must be an illegal immigrant. I wanted to jump out and grab him, but she cautioned me,” says Daniël. “Be calm, be calm, Daniël, talk nicely,” she said.

“So I asked him his name and where the others were. As he began his story he noticed the sticker on our vehicle door.” They were also both in uniform, although Daniël was wearing a sweater, but the ranger’s name tag was clear as daylight.

"We said we were students and would take them to Masisi. They got on the bakkie and we proceeded to the gate." Meanwhile they contacted the people at the gate to alert them of their situation, but as they approached the "man was sitting in the sun like a dassie.

Sandra hit the petrol and the horn and hurried towards the gate, which was hastily opened. We were doing about 130 kilometres an hour towards the police station at Masisi." All was going well until a herd of cattle crossed their path Ė literally.

Sandra slowed down, watching the needle fall to 60 and, once again blasted the horn, hoping the cattle would oblige. They didn't. Before the needle reached 40 kilometres an hour, people were taking flight between the huts in the nearby village.

Sandra and DaniŽl took chase until "my chest was burning" but they had to make peace with the knowledge that, true to their undertaking, but contrary to the intent, they had given the illegal immigrants a ride to Masisi.

Favourites

DaniŽl's favourite tree is a nyala tree and although he likes birds, he prefers trees, because "birds need dwellstime to identify and to get to know them well, while trees can't run. I can come close to them." A common love of Pafuri and respect and understanding between Sandra and DaniŽl sustain their relationship beyond work.

They also share a love of sports, though this does not extend to the different teams and they often find themselves at loggerheads during provincial or club games, with DaniŽl vouching for Pirates and Sandra for Chiefs. DaniŽl is also a staunch Blue Bull supporter, while Sandra will not budge from her Lion's den. At least there is harmony at Pafuri when Bafana Bafana and the Springboks take to the fields.

DaniŽl says while he has spent many happy days at all the sections where he has worked, Pafuri is by far the most beautiful. "Kingfisherspruit at the river is really stunning, Woodlands has lovely trees and with that it is about 10 percent as beautiful as Pafuri in comparison.

Mooiplaas at Matafule is really spectacular and a wonderful place to camp without a tent where you can see for miles, but ah, Pafuri - "This is where the ĎHeart of God' is," says DaniŽl.

"Wherever you go, you will find beauty Ė be it where the Limpopo and the Luvuvhu rivers meet, or the hills from where you can see into Mozambique and Zimbabwe or the deep ravines where few people have walked or on the slopes where you may stumble across a huge rock under which three cars can easily park."



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