A frank account of the last 18 years on Kapama Game Reserve, by Carl Olen
It feels like just yesterday when I drove through the gates of the reserve for the first time. I had no idea what was lying ahead of me, but one thing was for certain … I was glad to leave the city for good.
I was employed as a guide at the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre (then called the Hoedspruit Cheetah Project, and limited to the breeding of cheetah alone). I was one of three newly employed guides, all of us reporting for duty on that very same day. By day we took visitors on guided tours through the Centre, and by night we conducted night drives on the Kapama Private Game Reserve.
The Reserve was only about 8000ha (compared to 16000ha now), and game was very limited. Way back then, game drives were in very old 15-seater Forward Control vehicles. This in itself was an unspeakable challenge. These vehicles where build in the 1960’s, so performance and reliability were a problem. They had NO power steering, so a lot of elbow grease was needed to steer and manoevre the vehicle (anyone who has been on a game drive will appreciate some of those 16-point turns!). Add to this the fact that it was designed for very small people – with its minute cockpit, big healthy South African game rangers spent much of the drive knocking their knees to pieces against the metal dashboard.
There were only two camps on the reserve. A very rustic yet beautiful Tree-Top tented camp, and a small guest house. There was no airport in the vicinity, and the only access for guests was by car. There was a gravel landing strip on the reserve with a dual purpose: For the owners’ private charter flights, and for drag racing competitions between the rangers in their said Forward Controls. It is difficult to conceive the intensity of competition between the rangers during these events. Sometimes things got pretty fierce, and I remember one ranger over-shooting the runway, ending up in thick bush with a fair amount of damage to the vehicle. Big trouble!
My new boss was about 5ft tall. What she lacked in height she more than made up for in temper. Her sister was the curator, and was not much taller than her sibling. She too had been blessed in the front of the “fiery spirit” queue. Little did I know that she was to be my future wife.
We all lived together in a very well furnished staff compound. Two houses – one for the men and one for the women – were separated by a swimming pool. In hind sight, electric barbed wire would have probably been a more efficient barrier!
Also in the compound was a massive vehicle shed that resembled the Parthenon. This is where all vehicles belonging to the Cheetah Project were parked after hours. On the rare occasion when there were no night drives, the vehicles found themselves parked outside the shed, while the inside was transformed into an action cricket venue. These cricket tournaments would go right through the night into the early mornings…..
Part II (I’ll share some stories of interesting people at the Hoedspruit Cheetah Project, and my early days at Buffalo Camp)