‘This is Mike. Mike’s been by my side through many awkward situations,’ says Jeremy Harris.
I listen intently to his every word, wired in the African wild, and I half expect Mike to add to his introduction, but Jeremy, head ranger at the Khaya Ndlovu Lodge in South Africa’s Blue Canyon Conservancy, is thorough. And anyway, Mike’s just a rifle. ‘It’s a .375,’ Jeremy continues. ‘That’s the bullet calibre… the minimum requirement for big game.’
I store that vital information at the top of my messy pile of memories, ready to retrieve it in a situation where I’m about to get trampled to death. Mike’s only coming along for the photos. Jeremy’s never had to put him to use, and wouldn’t if he had to either way.
‘My job is to protect the animals,’ he says. ‘If I have to shoot an animal because of my own stupidity, then I’m not doing my job.’
Jeremy lives here, on the edges of the Kruger National Park, four hours east of Johannesburg, in the lodge, in the bush, a public servant to the animals.
Growing up in Zimbabwe on a farm, Jeremy learnt about the bush by sticking his hands down ominous holes, and looking for scorpions, and being a kid.
Many years later he is qualified both at home and in South Africa, a fully trained hunter, tracker and guide.
Today, though, he will be a babysitter, basically, mostly ensuring I don’t get killed by any one of a million things that are out to kill you in Africa. The rest of the time he’s focused on our mission – we’re hunting the Big Five. I’m armed with a Canon.
I may be just pretending to be a ranger, but I came prepared with a real Ranger, a 2016 Ford pick-up truck with a highly suggestive name: Wildtrak, written in an edgy font reminiscent of the way Ford scrawls ‘Raptor’ all over its flagship truck. The influences are obvious – from the loud orange colour, shiny wheels and meaty tyres, blacked-out fascia and contrasting highlights, this Ranger wants to be just like its bigger brother when it grows up.
I’m starting to think maybe the test we concocted at wheels is a bit too unfair for a mere bakkie (that’s what they call trucks around here) with a touchscreen. The Ranger is up against Kruger National Park, 19,000sq km of Africa. That’s almost twice as big as, say, Lebanon, or bigger than Kuwait. We’re not using tarmac roads, there are no highways, no signs, just a compass in that fancy touchscreen, the stars above, the light of the moon, and me, Mike and Jeremy.
We don’t know where the animals are, but we’re guessing they’re to the west in the wildest, furthest areas of Jeremy’s reserve. If we don’t catch all of the Big Five here we’ll head to the vast lands of the Kruger. There are river beds, savannahs and rock crawls to cover. There are thousands of kilometres of off-road trails, ranging from smooth dirt roads good for an easy 100kph, to green laning, or two-tracks, which only very loosely fill any criteria of a road. I guess at the most, they actually lead somewhere. Whether you get there is down to the car. ‘You can’t just come here in anything,’ warns Jeremy. ‘I mean, if you have four-wheel drive it will generally work, but not everywhere. You need the works for the bush, locking diffs, low range, all-terrain tyres preferably with strong side walls…’
The Ranger Wildtrak can ford a massive 800mm of water and clear 230mm with its ride height. And when the trail runs out, there’s nothing to stop you from bundu bashing – that’s when you drive freestyle through the bush. I might have had the wrong idea though.
‘Don’t expect to drive around and see lion,’ says Jeremy. ‘It doesn’t work like that. This Blue Canyon Conservancy is 15,000 hectares [150 sq km]. The Kruger is two million hectares.’ We have to look for tracks and clues, and that’s when we’ll have to go out on foot after the animal. Right into spotting some lion footprints Jeremy tells me about the last charge he and his tracker Honest had. He talks about it like it happens on a weekly basis.
‘We couldn’t seem to make out a general direction where this male lion was headed, the tracks were going up and down a river bed. We walked downstream for about two minutes or so and the wind suddenly swapped direction downstream – he smelt us. He was sleeping in a bush three metres to our right. Jumped out making a huge racket, but you don’t run. As soon as you run he thinks you’re prey and that’s it.’
Another one for the memory pile. Staying cool is a lot easier said than done of course, and you can’t show a lion any fear. You have to keep eye contact the whole time. If you make a big enough racket and if there are two of you maybe he’ll leave you alone. With others it can be a little sketchier.
‘Leopard,’ Jeremy is unhesitating. ‘Leopard is the most dangerous. You’re tracking through thick, thick bush, and you can’t see beyond five metres ahead, and then you hear a growl… You don’t know where it’s coming from and if you make the wrong step, forward towards the animal, that’s already provocation.
‘As soon as you move either way, though, I guarantee, a leopard always does one of two things: he runs away or he charges.’
The significance and fame of the Big Five – they’re also on South Africa’s currency, the rand – is based on, traditionally, the five most dangerous animals to hunt on foot: buffalo, elephant, rhino, leopard and lion.
‘There are many other big animals,’ explains Jeremy, ‘but they’re easier to hunt. The Big Five, their mentalities as animals is what makes them dangerous, they can be very aggressive and very territorial.
‘Plus, you only get one chance – a charging lion will cover 10 metres in a second. If he bounds out the bush you have one shot.’
Before long Jeremy motions me to coast to a stop – all my movements behind the controls of the 2016 Ranger are soothed, tense. He’s already spotted lion tracks on the side of the road before I make everything a mix of Continental, Converse and cat prints.
Jeremy’s got a mental portfolio of lion tracks in his head, and based on the edges of the tracks, how loose or firm they are, he can tell how fresh they are. Earlier we spotted a kill that was a few days old, and tracks that were more than a day old. This one points out a more recent way though.
‘This is a defined track,’ Jeremy says. ‘It’s not blunt. It’s a big male, going straight ahead, directly south. 200kg, or more…’
And then Jeremy goes for a stroll. Many things go through your head when you’re walking around in the open wild with a lion lurking somewhere around. A million thoughts, a million directions to run. ‘Don’t run,’ repeats Jeremy. I can’t imagine a way not to. Just as well we don’t find this 200kg male. It’s late morning and seeing as it’s a random time of day for lions that means nap time. We turn our attention to Fig Tree Tom.
Fig Tree Tom is a leopard tom cat that lives in a fig-tree forest. It’s out there somewhere, about half an hour bashing through the Blue Canyon reserve. We spot two kills, one fresher than the other, and close to a nearby pond there are territory markings Tom’s left with his claws. They’re reclusive loners, and we’ll need stealth to hunt down this cat.
The Ranger’s 3.2-litre five-cylinder turbo diesel is what Jeremy reckons is its biggest advantage in the bush. It’s whisper quiet, if not vibration free to the driver through the accelerator pedal, which flutters with the diesel’s internal rattle. From the cabin or outside the car you can’t hear it run, and since the Wildtrak happily traverses serious off-road terrain at idle speeds this makes it a sneaky ranger’s sidekick. ‘It’s not just about scaring away the animals,’ adds Jeremy. ‘With loud vehicles you can’t hear the animals, either, rustling through the bush. The Ranger will be able to take you a lot closer to animals that are already aware of you.’
Kudu, wildebeest, warthog, impala, waterbuck, zebra and giraffe, and all manner of mammals merely glance us off as a big, wandering sunburnt dinosaur or something. The Big Five are rare and that’s what makes them special sightings, but all the other mammals are plentiful and everywhere you look around the Kruger region. They’re used to cars. But we’re not sneaking up to any leopard now. It’s reclusive and Jeremy’s walkie-talkie crackles about a pair of rhinos some 20 or 30 minutes’ drive away.
With 470Nm of torque from 1,500rpm to 2,750rpm you never need make any effort on the accelerator pedal and a low-range crawl makes an anticlimax of every elephant mud bath. The river beds and steep banking look like a challenge on approach but again the Ranger just grips and quietly crests everything, the Continentals tossing big, sharp rocks aside at speed, too – only the steel side steps get in the way on occasion. With Sport mode and a sequential shift option we never require hill descent either.
In the Kruger, buffalo roam the savannahs free, and on our way they stare us down some for interrupting their road crossing towards a river. We tick the buffalo off with a couple of clicks of the shutter. Over in Jeremy’s reserve there are currently no buffalo though. Currently there is a situation with foot and mouth disease.
Jeremy explains, ‘We can get buffalo on our reserve, but that would have to be a quarantine buffalo, which you’d have to rob a bank for – a bull costs four million rand.’ That’s a clean million dirhams. ‘But because they’re quarantine buffalo,’ he continues, ‘they’ve never been in the wild, so you pay 4 million rand for this buffalo and the next morning you see a lion hanging off it. An expensive breakfast…’
Then we get our first traces of rhino, although trace is an understatement. It’s a massive mound of dung, which is actually just a huge pile of steaming grass. One of these piles gives nourishment to 16,000 dung beetles. Jeremy tells me there are three kinds of beetle, but the giant one that rolls its dung into balls is undoubtedly the most impressive thing in the bush I’ve seen so far – it climbs on top of its dung ball for a moment to orientate itself using the stars. The Wildtrak has sat-nav, technically, but the SD card is missing. The beetle has integrated memory.
The dung is fresh, the rhino is close by. It’s late in the day when we get near but there’s a pair of them with their horns chopped off. Jeremy’s reserve chooses the option of cutting the horn above the nerve endings to make the rhino undesirable to poachers.
‘Hunting brought back the bush,’ he says. ‘To put it in simple terms, without the hunting industry none of this would be here. Hunting populated the bush with animals. If someone comes with US dollars and he wants to hunt a buffalo, that’s half a million rand just for the permit to shoot the animal. Then you’ve got all the expenses for tracking, accommodation, etc. It’s all regulated, and there are strict quotas for each animal. For example, one reserve may be limited to 20 buffalo for the hunters, but that’s 10 million rand – that goes a long way towards conservation and anti-poaching.’
‘Ethically hunting is bad,’ he says. ‘I can’t imagine why you’d want to shoot a big, majestic lion. But there are people who want that experience, and it feeds the bush and keeps the circle of life going. You have to be cruel to be kind. Back in the day before the regulation, there were no fences anywhere, and the Big Five roamed free. Since we put up fences, the conservation has to be regulated.’
No amount of money will get you a rhino hunting permit though. The rhino poaching situation is dire. Right now in South Africa there are three cases of rhino poaching a day.
‘Every day,’ says Jeremy, ‘most of them here in the Kruger Park, every seven hours a rhino is killed. It’s highly endangered, it’s in the red zone. We have around 15 anti-poaching guards here. They work in teams, they use ex racehorses to patrol, and touch wood, since 2012 we haven’t had a rhino poached here.’
Rhino horn can be as expensive as gold, normally traded in China and Vietnam on the black market for a million rand per kilo. An average horn will yield poachers four kilos. The anti-poaching teams shoot to kill. ‘Our team is very strong,’ says Jeremy, ‘but it’s 15,000 hectares and big areas of bush difficult to traverse, and the poachers will come in knowing it’s almost impossible to police.’
In the Ranger we patrol the perimeter for a while along the 7,000-volt electrified fence, reflecting on the irony. Rhinos are prehistoric, 50 million years old or so, they’ve made it through everything, they’ve beaten ice ages and migrations, giant predators all now long extinct, but they’re losing this fight, the fight against man.
Both big cats continue to elude us, but we can get three out of the Big Five with an elephant, and down the line one fresh set of tracks in a mud bath has Jeremy sniffing around. ‘All the animals without lots of fur wallow to suffocate the ticks and protect the skin from the sun. Then they’ll rub against trees and the ticks will fall off,’ he says. We follow the big, muddy prints from the car, and some distance from the trail there’s a bull, a male elephant, posing under a tree, motionless and confident, commanding over everything he sees. Only he and the rhino have no predators; natural, anyway. Jeremy heads straight off into the bush towards him, with instructions for me to mimic his every step. It’s a long way over until our camera lenses get anything.
‘Elephants,’ Jeremy whispers, ‘are the smartest of the Big Five. It’s proven. They mourn their dead. They can communicate over vast distances infrasonically through their feet.’ The awe in his eyes turns. ‘Animals now have been persecuted by man for millions of years. It’s ingrained in them that you are a threat. You watch the warthog, impala, zebra, they all mix, they live together and drink at the watering hole together – but if you go join them they’ll all run. They’re born with it – human is an enemy.
We get the shots. Returning towards the quietly waiting Ranger I crane back and wonder aloud if whether to him, we’re just a couple of impalas.
It’s a while into our walk before Jeremy speaks up. ‘Nah…’ he says. ‘To him, we’re just a couple of idiots.’