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U3A Writing: Game

John Ricketts recalls his first African game viewing trip.

“You see that fellow over there,” indicating a man in his fifties who was sitting at a table on the other side of the hotel lounge, with a half drunk beer in front of him.

He was a deeply tanned man with a much paler line across his forehead where his hat had protected the skin against the fierce rays of the sun. He was wearing a suit which looked several sizes too big for him and looked awkward and out of place in the modern hotel.

“That’s Hanke Van der Velde. He’s quite famous round here.”

When he saw that I had never heard of him he went on the explain, “He was a well known hunter, used to take American millionaires out hunting, seeing to it that they got the trophies they wanted to put on their walls back home. I think in some cases he was the one who shot the animals, tidying up after the clients had only succeeded in wounding a beast.

He did this once too often and was crippled by a buffalo. The fellow he was guiding did something daft and was killed. He’s got a boat now and he takes people on photographic trips. Have you ever been on one?”

When I shook my head he said “Come along, I’ll introduce you” And that was how I found myself on my first game viewing safari.

It was still pitch dark when we trooped out of the hotel the following morning to the battered Land Rover. After the eight of us were seated in the back Van der Velde limped to the driving seat and we set off. In the back we introduced ourselves. There was a middle aged couple with their daughter, four South Africans and me. Though the South Africans had all been in the bush at some time none of us had looked for game from a boat before. For me and the Americans it was all completely new.

After about half an hour’s drive, we stopped and climbed out. The sky was just showing the first signs of dawn. We followed Van der Velde down a narrow track until we came to a river. An old boat was tied up to the bank and an ancient African was sitting in the back fiddling with the engine.
“Before we go any further I want to lay down a few ground rules” said Van der Velde. “First; I am the boss and what I say goes without question. I’ve lost one fool and I don’t intend to loose another OK? You’ve come to see game and I can make certain you see some but only if you do what I say. So no talking and no smoking. Sounds travel far on the river and even more in the swamp. I can do nothing about your scent but cigarette smoke I can stop. The only thing I want to hear is the click of your cameras. If you have to talk, whisper to the one next to you so that I can’t hear you. I think I can show you most of the game in the area except for the big cats. It will be just luck if you see them.’’

The first few minutes of the trip along the river was between banks of reeds and the only wild life we saw was birds which soon had the cameras clicking. Further on, the river widened and the banks became clearer and we saw the first of the animals, some antelopes, slowly and cautiously approaching the river to drink. The engine was silenced and we drifted slowly by.

Further on and much more bold we saw a group of buffalo and some wildebeests. As the sun rose higher in the sky crocodiles came out onto the sand banks to warm themselves. If we got too close they slid into the river and silently disappeared. We were all thrilled when we saw a family of elephants in the river. We kept to the one side and slowly went past with just the width of the river between us.

After a while we left the main river and took off down one of the tributaries which became shallower and shallower until it turned into a swamp. The boat pushed its way through reeds and grass from one pool to another. Birds of all sorts flew from the greenery or paddled on the ponds. Occasionally we saw antelope splashing through the shallows. Sometimes Van der Velde pointed out game which we just could not see until the twitch of an ear brought them into clear focus.

Eventually we circled round through the swamp and back to the main stream of the river. In a low voice Van der Velde said “For the next few minutes you are not to move. Try not even to breath. Have your cameras ready but no quick movements.”

We went round a bend and there was a wide stretch of water in front of us. I noticed that we kept quite close to one bank where the river was quite deep. Suddenly a huge greyish pink head appeared and then another and another until there were twenty or so sleepy eyes all watching as we went quietly by. The nearest was a mere six feet away, almost within touching distance. Then one by one they sank under the surface again until the river was empty. There was an audible release of breath as we all found the wonder of seeing a herd of hippopotami in their natural environment had made us hold our breaths. Everything else we saw was an anticlimax.

We hadn’t seen any of the cats or rhinoceros or giraffe but we had seen almost everything else to be found in that part of Africa. It was my first trip to view African wildlife but while I lived out there I went for at least a week every year into one of the game reserves in the bush. I managed to see lion, leopard and cheetah and the smaller cats, several rhino alive and one dead and all the other animals which I had missed on that first trip. But the finest memory of all is the hippos on my first safari.

P.S. There are few animals there now. 30 years of war has seen to that. Recently a herd of elephants was reintroduced into Mozambique from South Africa.

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