My first month on the reserve was a fight for survival as we were thrown in the proverbial deep end and had to learn to swim very quickly. It was high season (school holidays) and hundreds of visitors visited the Cheetah Project on a daily basis. One guide was responsible for working in the ticket booth (reception), while the other guides had to conduct hourly tours through the centre.
The ticket booth became the smoking room, and whenever guides had time off between tours they would meet in the enclosed 2×2 space for a quick cigarette. Considering all the guides smoked, there was a permanent, thick and acrid cloud of smoke suspended in the booth, no doubt leaving behind ‘The Goliath’ of carbon footprints! How I am still breathing through healthy lungs is anyone’s guess.
At 16hoo our duties at the Cheetah Project came to an end, and we got 30 minutes to freshen up and get our game drive vehicles (the Forward Controllers, remember) in order for the afternoon/evening safari. This entailed folding up blankets, packing the cooler boxes for sundowners, and performing a quick check of the oil, water and diesel levels.
The drive commenced at 16h30 and ended at 19h30 when we stopped for dinner at the Elephant Inn Boma, a restaurant in the middle of the bush under the African sky. The menu was always the same – Greek salad, a beer bread, chicken kebabs, beef sausages and pap (an African polenta). Dessert was a traditional South African favourite – Malva Pudding. This remains one of my fondest recollections, and is still right near the top of my treat list!
The chef at Elephant Inn always came to the front of the buffet to announce the evening’s menu to the guests. The first chef’s English was horrific, and I remember – as if it were yesterday – her announcing that there were cattle sausages in the one pot (instead of beef sausages). This created quite a stir…
My first night drive was a total disaster. I had 15 French speaking guests who did not understand a word of English. I got completely lost, and to put the icing on the cake, my forward control vehicle let me down completely. I ended up stuck in the middle of the bush without an idea of where I was. And all of this under the pressure of 30 startled and uncomprehending eyes. Luckily I had a radio in the vehicle, but how the heck does one ask for help without a clue as to one’s location? It took a search party about an hour to find us. By then I had very disgruntled guests (have you ever heard one angry Frenchman? Fifteen is a formidable spectacle, I assure you). To make up for the catastrophic safari, and to do all possible to avoid a letter of complaint, I had to buy drinks for each and every occupant of my forward control vehicle. Before I could even dream of the crisp paper of my first pay check, half of it was already down the drain!
In a very sad turn of events, two weeks later both myself and ranger colleague Tom Coetsee were rushed to hospital with acute salmonella. We had held on to those chicken kebabs for just one day too long. I won’t regale you with the gory details, but the one thing I can say is that we were so obviously and audibly sick that we were removed and isolated from every other patient in the building.
Seven days later and we had fortunately fully recovered. The hospital would not, however, discharge us as they required proof that we were healthy enough to leave. So while we were held “captive” some of the staff (worried that we will contract another salmonella virus from hospital food) smuggled in some pizza through the hospital window. We eventually hit the jackpot when our test results heralded our green light of departure, and we were discharged. Another happy memory…
On the rare occasion that a ranger would get off the evening drive, he would go and sit on a termite mound – which we called the “mishoop” – at the staff compound with a cold six pack of beers. The very best moment was waving to all his colleagues as they drove past – en route to their own night safari drives, and to the infamous Elephant Inn.