Saturday, September 29, 2012

Khaki Fever

Khaki Fever

By Gillian McLaren
click link to view the published piece:

It is with great trepidation that I meet the ranger assigned to my vehicle when I stay in a private game lodge. He (or, more recently, it could be she) has the power to make the stay pleasure or purgatory. 

Many guides - clad in their khaki shorts, chest hair cascading out of their bush shirts, beaten cap with the lodge logo emblazoned, and sporting a large rifle - cut a dashing figure. Unsurprisingly, this Alpha Male of the bush is known to draw gasps of admiration and long-eyed stares from guests, especially foreigners. 

Most rangers are professional, friendly and eager to track the much vaunted Big Five. Occasionally, however, the guide may be someone unforgettable for more than rippling muscles, a stylish G&T technique and an uncanny ability to track leopard. They become etched in your memory for inflicting their personality upon you as you sit trapped in the game vehicle for the obligatory three-hour drive. 

But let me backtrack a little. 

Each year, it is my privilege to host a group of American surgeons who come to operate at Baragwanath hospital. To thank them for the generous gift of their time and expertise, I take them to a private game lodge. 

One year we arrived, eager for what the African bush could offer, to be met by a short, tanned man in his early 30s. He glanced at the group and immediately made his way over to Suzy*, the pretty scrub nurse. He began to talk about himself to her and within minutes had described  an encounter with a lioness in the camp. She was duly impressed and clutched her (recently purchased) ethnic necklace as he regaled her with his narrow escape from a gruesome death. I tried valiantly to find a gap in the narrative to ask if there were any cold drinks for my guests!
Once we were on the vehicle and heading for our camp Scott*, still the raconteur, regaled us with how he was born in a mud hut in a tribe in the Zambezi Valley before the Kariba Dam was built. As he was clearly of European ancestry, this seemed as likely as the previous tale, concerning his escape from the hyena which had lacerated his left testicle. 

My American guests were lapping up his yarns though, and Suzy was beginning to gasp with horror-tinged admiration and hyperventilating with mounting interest in Scott. He casually lit up a cigarette as the smoke billowed into the face of a distinguished plastic surgeon from Mid-West USA. I politely asked Scott if he could please refrain from smoking on the vehicle. He spun round and started shouting at me: "Do you know what it is like to be an addict? No you don’t! Well I am an addict, I need my nicotine..." 

As the drives went on, Scott become our Forrest Gump of Africa. With each sighting he shared  ever-more-dangerous encounters with animals, from which he had narrowly escaped death. And the tall tales didn't stop there. If his tales are to be believed he played a major role in both  the Rhodesian and South Africa bush wars and he single-handedly solved some major zoological mysteries. 

When we saw an elephant with "floppy trunk syndrome", he informed us that it was his sleuthing that had unravelled the origin of this condition. He discovered that it was a neurotoxic bite of some miniscule spider! It also came as no surprise to hear that he had dated (and broken the heart of) an American pop star who was known to my guests. 

The worst moments with Scott weren't even his non-stop bravado, but rather his reckless driving.
Driving right up to a testosterone infused young bull elephant and revving the engine to provoke a mock charge is surely not in the game ranging textbook? While the American guests loved the drama and were clearly thrilled by the elephant's tetchy trumpeting, I was cowering in my seat wondering if Scott was indeed psychotic. He then drove right into a group of lions on a kill so that the guests could get some good photos. Scott later invited Suzy to accompany him for a swim at a private rock pool... where no costume was required. To my relief, she declined his offer. 

There was no respite from this man, even at meals, where he joined us and held forth incessantly. I vacillated between being amused at my gullible guests, and being outraged at our 'host's' behaviour. When we left he gave each US guest a peaked cap with the lodge's logo, thus ensuring a hefty tip in dollars. 

While Scott has become folklore in my family, the experience has scarred me for life and I have a heart-pounding moment every time a ranger strolls up to our group to greet us! I've learnt you can't be too careful when stepping into a big, green safari machine... 

*Names changed to minimise the chance of litigation!

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Gillian Mclaren Travel and Science Writer