There are few moments in one’s life, where a day or experience will stay with you forever. You could count them on two hands, and this was one of those times.
Everyone is familiar with the famous Aesop’s tale of the tortoise and the hare, and how the two animals raced each other one day, and despite all the odds stacked against him, the tortoise plodded his way to victory.
Well a few weekends ago we were privileged to watch, in action, the world’s fastest tortoise, the tortoise Guinness book of Records sprint record holder, the Usain bolt of carapaced reptiles. A tortoise who was incapable of plodding.
For the purpose of this story, let me rewind. Each year, Comrades Marathon Association selects several charities in an effort to give back to those communities in which they host and run this magnificent race. And each year, my dear friend Jo van der Walt chooses a charitable cause to support, for two reasons – well actually, three. One – she likes to line up in C batch along with all the racing snakes (if you meet the fundraising target, you get a better race seeding). Two – running for a reason and fundraising is a cool thing to do. Three – she’s very competitive and persuasive when it comes to getting money out of people.
This year she raised money for Wildlands, a well-run non-profit that does the most amazing conservation work, above and below land. She raised R31,000 and as the highest fundraiser for this particular charity, was invited to Somkhanda – a Big 5 Game Reserve near Pongola that packs a lot of punch – for a special conservation experience, the collaring of 3 lion.
Our first treat at Somkhando was to participate in a simulated poacher tracking exercise with the anti- poaching unit and an extraordinary Belgian Malinois dog called “Vodka”. Two “poachers” set off to hide and the posse set off after them. I’m afraid Vodka was too fast for me, He paused only briefly to sniff the air or the soil before bolting through the dense bush. I was dropped very soon after the exercise began and it didn’t help that the thorns from a couple of wag-‘n-bietjie bushes snagged my arm and slowed me. I’ll use that as my excuse for failure. Joanne managed to keep up with Vodka and described the experience as awe inspiring.
On that same afternoon we were educated and shown the invaluable work being done at the reserve to help save the Wild dog ( The beautiful Painted Dog- Lycaon Pictus). We were driven to a boma where 3 male Wild Dogs are corralled. These dogs are awaiting release into the greater park where it is hoped they will join an existing pack of wild dogs. In an extraordinary demonstration the dogs were fed an impala carcass.
I will take with me three special memories of that spectacle; the dogs’ twittering, squeaks and chirps of excitement when they realised food had arrived , the metallic, iron odour of the blood of the disembowelled impala, and the speed at which the 3 dogs tore apart and demolished the carcass.
On on our final night the most incredible experience – the highlight of an extraordinary weekend. We were invited, as fascinated, excited spectators to witness the tracker-collaring of three lions from a large pride in the reserve. After a long bumpy drive over the hills and valleys of the reserve and through pristine bush, the lions were located. Once they had made themselves known, a team of keen rangers and Mike the veterinarian set to work. The lions had to be lured within range of the vet’s dart gun in order for them to be sedated. A trap was set. The fresh carcass of an Nyala ram was chained to a sturdy tree. Branches were cunningly arranged to compel the lions to approach the meat from only one direction from where their rears would be in view of the dart gun. Finally a loudspeaker was placed in the tree and the squeals and screams of a warthog in distress were loudly blasted across the bushveld.
As we waited expectantly to see if the trap would be successfully sprung, our eyes spotted a movement on the ground and there next to a clump of verdant African dandelion was a leopard tortoise.
Cruising through the African bushveld on balmy afternoon, we all watched with baited breath as this tortoise, let’s call him Sid, headed straight into the eye of the proverbial storm – the lion, the Nyala carcass and the distressed warthog recording. First there was just one lion in close proximity to the tortoise but soon the whole pride was close in attendance.
The tortoise fled, terrified, across the veld and it was then that we witnessed the greatest tortoise sprint of all time as he bounced and dashed and battered his way to safety. Occasionally he would have to swerve Cheslin Kolbe-like to avoid yet another giant feline paw but eventually he appeared to have negotiated a path to safety and so we turned our attention away from the tortoise and watched as the slick team of rangers and the vet went about their business.
There is something startling about the cracking smack a dart makes when it strikes a lion’s flank. But there is also something primevally terrifying about the guttural roar an angry lion makes when it has been stung by a tranquiliser dart. It is astonishing to witness how quickly our lion brushed off the dart’s blow as if it were no more than the sting of a small gnat. Seconds after being struck the lion buried its head in the carcass and carried on feeding. But then the sedation kicked in and the lion dozed off. Once the lions were unconscious the team made the lions comfortable lying in a circle on tarpaulins after which the stout tracker collars were fitted. As guests we were allowed to lend a helping hand removing the old collars, whilst posing for photographs with the sedated lions. (With latex gloved hands to fend off feline tape worm ) This we did very tentatively and with nervous grins.
The entire experience was extraordinary but I will keep two abiding memories ; the fur on a lion’s mane is surprisingly soft and Joanne’s hand looked so tiny alongside the male lion’s giant paw.
When the work was completed we returned to the safety of our vehicles to monitor the progress of their recovery.
As we scanned the horizon to see how our tortoise was faring, we watched him vere violently to his right. In the gathering dusk gloom, we spotted the reason for his swerve. A giant black mud -spattered bull elephant carrying gigantic tusks was bearing down on us at an angry and frantic speed. The elephant was enraged, and we soon understood why. He had spotted his bitter enemies, lions, lying in a vulnerable state in his territory and he and was determined to crush them, to gore them, to stomp them, and to kill them . We suddenly found ourselves defending the “kings of the jungle”. If one lion had been harmed it would have been an ethical and conservational disaster. We would have been haunted forever. Our trip would have been ruined and destroyed. Shots were fired into the air, car roofs were banged and Joanne raised a banshee scream that blasted our ears. It was tense, it was close, but eventually we succeeded in turning the bull elephant away. He returned on a few occasions but we employed the same tactics to keep him at bay. We could only relax when the lions awoke and were able to fend for themselves.
And what did they do when the tranquiliser wore off ? They carried on eating, growling, and snarling and feeding furiously. We were finally able to simmer down, to feel our racing pulses settle, to hug each other, to laugh, to chatter excitedly, and to try and digest everything that we had experienced on this magical evening.
And In the distance our male leopard tortoise disappeared into the setting sun.
Eternal thanks great friends Jo and Jaco Van der Walt, Roelie Kloppers, the Somkhanda team, Wildlands, and the sprinting leopard tortoise for a lifetime of memories . Carpe Diem – my cup runneth over!
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