We’re story-tellers by nature. The truth of this came back to me while on safari in South Africa. Everyone I met as I traveled on the fringes of Kruger National Park – drivers, hosts, rangers, game drive passengers, waiters and masseuse – all had tales to tell. The ones that intrigued me most were those involving encounters between humans and the wild animals of the veld; the tales rife with near death, valiance, luck, foolhardiness, and even wry humor – often all in one story.
These tales brought to mind Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories. Like Kipling’s, they are more than entertainments. Lessons and morals, warnings and epithets are wrapped up like Christmas treats for the listener who cares to discover them. And like all good stories, they toy with the outline of truth.
These are a few of the tales I heard – you’ll be the judge of which ones are true.
Three boys went down to the banks of Olifants River. An uncle had warned them to be watchful. They dismissed him, saying to themselves he was old, crotchety, and certainly jealous of them. The boys scampered about for awhile, but in the heat, soon decided to rest and fish. They did notice the crocodile some ways out and set their poles back from the river’s edge.
One boy was telling a story, while another took off his shirt, hanging it on a nearby bush. The shirt’s bright red was a definite interloper in the muted palette of the bush. The boys chatted away, only barely aware of their poles’ gentle swaying with the water’s tug. Suddenly, one of them heard a swooshing sound. He turned his head to catch a glimpse of a mud-green flash just behind them. The crocodile had slipped out of the water, circled around them and now rocketed toward the shirtless boy. The one watching instinctively shut his eyes, awaiting the shriek. When he opened them again, he saw the crocodile submerging in the water, the red shirt sinking fast with him. Later, the three boys agreed their uncle need never know.
An experienced Ranger with a full load of passengers was following a leopard. She was busy sniffing and scent-marking, moving stealthily along her chosen course. Desiring a superior photo opportunity for his guests, the Ranger, contrary to better judgment, pulled the truck directly into the leopard’s path. The leopard approached the vehicle, but instead of easing past its flank, in a blink, was crouched in the passenger seat. The Ranger instantly looked away, covering his face with his arm, preparing for her to strike. After a moment, she jumped down and continued on her way. His passengers did indeed get the best view that day, but not one of them captured it.
Every day an old man visited the place where he’d buried his dogs many years before. One day, when younger, the man had gone fishing, his three dogs following along. He picked a spot within eyesight of some other folk who’d had the same idea. His dogs ran off, as dogs will do, sniffing and exploring as they raced about, leaving him with his thoughts. Sometime later, a python surprised the man, wrapping itself quickly about him. He felt himself being crushed, slowly and methodically, and screamed for help. Those on the bank nearby came running, but when they saw the python enveloping the stranger, they backed away. With little breath left, the man called once more. Just then, one of his dogs appeared, let out a high pitched bark and raced for the man. The other dogs, close behind, joined the attack on the python, biting, snarling and pulling at its tail. The man never forgot that he owed his life to those dogs.
A group of rangers went out to target shoot. They brought a cooler of refreshments to slake their thirst after their effort. They picked a spot near a large Sausage tree, which would afford them plenty of shade to enjoy their drinks. The rangers set up their targets and, one by one, took their aim. Hot and satisfied after the last one’s turn, they leaned their guns against the truck and made for shady respite. Bantering and bragging about who’d done the best, they didn’t notice the trespasser. A gunshot was what startled them. They looked up to find a baboon, bracing a rifle against the truck, taking careful aim for their target.
Thanks to Godfrey, Andrew and Ronny for these and so many other marvelous tales. Photographs by Rebecca Reynolds.