Ranger Campfire StoriesGuests visiting Umlani Bushcamp often wish us to share with them, special stories of our wildlife encounters! Here's a taste of some of our most memorable. Enjoy! Marco Schiess
New Years partyA few years ago I was MC at a wedding for a couple who met while working at a game lodge which I was managing (not Umlani), however, during my speech I stated that a game lodge was like an island, the lodge manager is the dictator (sometimes benevolent) while the staff are the subjects who get up to all sorts of things which of course remain secret (until opportunities like this arise). Thanks to Umlani celebrating its 20th anniversary, such an opportunity has just arisen.
I was staying at Umlani as a guest, in the early days when the bathrooms were not en-suite, over New Year. There was a crowd of people, mainly friends and family, so a party was inevitable. As the night wore on so did the party; staff members from neighbouring lodges appeared out of the darkness to join in and eventually the cooler box full of drinks as well as most people moved to the swimming pool (if I recall correctly the owners sensibly went to bed). Clothes were shed and much booze consumed as the party continued until close to sunrise.
It suddenly struck one of the guides from a neighbouring lodge that he had to do a game drive, however, in his rush (and stupor) he couldn’t find his clothes, he drove off in his Land Rover stark naked, hoping that he could get dressed before meeting his guests.
Apparently his guests were waiting in the car park when he arrived unclothed.
The ferocious lionIn the earliest days of Umlani, when it just comprised two huts, and even before that when Marco & Marie ran it out of the old Marula Camp, I was responsible for reservations. In order to ensure that the place was kept busy, I would send my friends down there, or put groups of people together and take them down for a weekend in the bush.
We would head off, stopping in Hoedspruit to cool off by sitting in the beer fridge at Tonsanby Bottle Store and then cracking our second beer as we turned off the R40 onto the road to Timbavati (the first one was usually opened in the beer fridge).
Marco, Leon and George would ensure that we had an experience of a lifetime. We would cruise the property in a skorokoro Landy; listening to those three guys imparting their intimate knowledge of the bush as we walked for miles (I still remember George recreating a cheetah kill from a few scrapes in the ground and patch of fresh blood); the quips (like Leon’s famous “the faster you drive, the harder it rains”); the sense of being “at one with nature”; and of course getting back to camp to a welcoming fire and good food.
We would all relax around the fire, drinks in hand and talking about the awesome experiences of the day or simply admiring the stars, when the inevitable would happen, a lion would start snarling in the darkness just outside the perimeter of our seats. The guests would first look nervously at one another and then move closer to each other and then someone would say, “Did you hear that?” Out in the darkness Marco would giggle and step into the light with a cardboard tube in his hand.
Elephant chargeAt Umlani we try to show our guests the bush from various perspectives and walking allows us to take a look at a lot of the smaller things that we often drive past on the game drives. Occasionally the bigger things also feature on these walks and most of the times we are allowed to view these animals from a ground level without any problems. It really is a great way to fully understand the size of many of these creatures and provides the most natural of sightings, but sometimes we are reminded just how wild these animals are.
On a morning walk with a small group of guests I heard a noise that told me there were elephants up ahead of us so I carefully tried to get a view so I could decide what to do. We saw two bull elephants in the distance and were able to watch them feeding and slowly moving away from us until they disappeared into the bush.
We then continued our walk and moments later saw another, larger, male elephant standing very still about 50 metres away from us. I stopped the group and told everyone to remain as quiet as possible, but he began moving towards us rapidly almost immediately.
Running from an animal in the bush is very rarely a good idea so I decided to stand my ground and see exactly what this animal intended to do with us. He was approaching very quickly and telling my guests to stay behind me and to stand still I pushed a round into the chamber of my rifle. I shouted at the elephant and tried to make him stop, but still he ran at us. I aimed my rifle and as the elephant got closer and closer my aim lifted the rifle higher and higher. At about 10 metres the bull suddenly stopped and quickly moved back away from us, but immediately turned again and came back at us. I kept my aim on him until he stopped again, now with less than three metres between us, the elephant so close that all I could see above me was his chin, tusks and ears.
I came very close to pulling the trigger, but didnt want to, telling myself that if he moved forward just one more centimeter I would have to stop him. We stood there facing each other with my guests behaving perfectly behind me. The elephant kicked a log towards us and sand and dust flew up from the impact. He was trying to intimidate us to make us run, but we stood still and stood our ground until he slowly moved backwards away from us. I kept my rifle aimed at him until he turned and walked away, allowing us to do the same and I headed straight for camp.
It is important to mention here that the guests really did react perfectly to this situation and if anyone had moved away from the group I probably would have had to shoot the elephant. This scenario really is a reminder again that even the most severe situations in the bush can be faced and solved without pulling the trigger and that whiskey is sometimes the best way to end the walk and calm those nerves!
My first game driveI was living in Joburg, wore a tie to work each day but had visited Umlani on numerous occasions. I knew my way around the property (well sort of) and I knew the difference between the barrel and a butt of a .458; anyway there was a bit of a crisis and they had a photographic group in camp for the weekend and one of the guides had gone missing, so Marco called and asked if I wouldn’t mind guiding for the weekend.
It took me about 5 seconds to decide, closed the office and I was on my way.
We got there about five hours later and Marco; as well as the managers Morten & Tatum explained what they wanted us to do and we jumped in boots and all. The guests arrived an hour or so later and I psyched myself up for my first game drive.
I welcomed the guests aboard the vehicle (all fanatical wildlife photographers from Pretoria) and “the question” came – “so how long have you been here Tom?” I nervously answered “about an hour longer than you”, which elicited worried looks and nervous giggles and off we went.
I really don’t recall much about the drive, except I learned much about how best to give guests good photo opportunities, lighting, shadows, etc; (never realising that I would one day use these tips when I started guiding professionally).
At one stage during the drive however, I heard a squirrel’s alarm call off in the bushes to our right. That impressed the guests; I knew a squirrel’s alarm call! I suggested we go off road to see what was causing the disturbance (in those days we went off road for squirrel calls, hopefully no one does these days). Not far off the road, we found a squirrel perched precariously in the top of a very scrawny Mopani tree and an African wild cat was sitting below it.
After about 10 minutes, the squirrel lost its nerve and made a dash for it. Sadly it didn’t get too far and the cat trotted off with a very dead squirrel hanging in its mouth.
Things went better after that, the guests sort of had an idea that I sort of knew what I was doing.
To any potential new visitors to Umlani – they don’t hire city slickers like I was then as guides any longer – you will have an outstanding experience with a qualified and experienced guide.
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