Thursday, October 8, 2015

A Zebra in the Kitchen 2003

On the 11th of July, 2003 I found myself stuck in a queue at Heathrow Airport for what seemed like a Virginian opossum pregnancy term. My departure time was drawing close when two frantic looking B.A. (British Airways) staff came running up the line yelling my flight number. They pulled me and another girl out of the line and ran us to a check in counter. 

The B.A. staff worked like a well oiled check in machine on speed. The fury actually saved me a substantial amount of money as they weighted my bag at 42 kilograms. I was on my last leg of my first big overseas trip. I had been bouncing around London mostly, Ireland and Scotland. I was on my way to South Africa to meet up with my younger brother, James, who was on a year-long Rotary Student exchange in the Transkei region. 

Soon the well oiled BA check-in machine finished with me and I was told, very firmly, “RUN”! (So much for my plans of duty free shopping). I sprinted to my gate and the steward shut the door to the plane behind me. I thought the morning’s chaos was over, but it wasn’t. I found my seat which was next to an authentically forehead-dotted Indian woman who was intent on getting me drunk: “If you ask the steward for alcohol they MUST give it to you,” she said. Then the captain advised us there were problems with the air-conditioner and, after we ascended, the overhead locker started leaking water. That was my very long flight to ‘Jo’Burg’. 

I linked up with a domestic flight to get to Umtata, which was where James was living. Umtata was renamed the following year (2004) to ‘Mthatha’. The tiny building that was the airport was filled with little round black faces that beamed with huge white grins. This welcome and my first impression of kids of South Africa never changed. They were warm, shy, curious and inquisitive about the tall blonde haired, white skinned woman in their presence .... Me.
James and his host mum, Nikki, picked me up from the airport and we drove at a hectic pace into town. Nikki instructed us to lock our doors as we floated through red light after red light. There was a strange conversation going on between them about “robots”. Even though they were speaking English I didn’t have a clue what they were talking about. I soon worked out the “Robots” they were referring to were the traffic lights. First bit of SA lingo learnt, check! 
When I woke the next morning I wasn’t prepared for what I walked into. First, I thought maybe its jetlag, maybe I’m stoned on mootee (cough medicine from the night before) but one thing I was sure of there was no way in hell any bugger at home was going to believe me. What greeted me that morning on the kitchen bench were two hooves connected to two stripy legs sticking out of a black garbage bag. It was in fact half a zebra and it was currently being made into biltong by the garden boy. Graeme, James’ host Dad, was clearly home from safari. So I did what only an unbelieving jetlagged tourist would do - I retrieved my trusty Nikon and went back to the kitchen to take a photo. 

That night James went into this long winded story about how they make biltong. For example, soak it, salt it, dry it, hang it, spice it with this and that etc. I listened intently then I noticed, by the end of the conversation, he was leaving out the crucial part, so I asked him, “Yeah, righto, but what sort of meat is it?”
His reply, “Ha.. aahh Zebra”. I’d already eaten about 2 or 3 pieces of zebra biltong before it had dawned on me that I was actually eating HORSE! Zebra wasn’t the only thing I ate and experienced while I was in SA. That was the least traumatic meal. We had a ‘roast’ later that night with other friends of James. There seemed to be a silent joke going on around the table about what meat we were eating. It felt a little like déjà vu after James’ big explanation of the biltong. Only this time they were explaining the meat as just “Game”. I did manage to get out of them that ‘the beast’ I was eating was a duiker. Once we got on safari I realised the ’not so beast’ like creature that I’d had for a roast dinner actually looked very much like a cute little Bambi! By the end of the trip I’d eaten a variety of biltong – elephant included – and god knows what. I do rate the Kudu though and the duiker did make a fantastic roast. Just make sure you eat one before you meet one!
There were quite a few “stand n stare” moments in SA. One of them was when I was standing in an ordinary suburban street in Durban when a baboon jumped out of a tree and ran across the road in front of me. The wildlife wasn’t the only reason for the ‘stand n stare’ reaction. James and I attended an Xhosha wedding and an African bloke asked James if he could buy me for 12 cows. After an initial “stand n stare’ I let fly firmly with “If you even consider selling me, it’ll be nothing less than 1500 head of cattle. Got it?” 

From Durban we started a private safari with other Rotary exchange students. I accompanied them as a guest of Rotary. What I didn’t count on was being the girl’s dorm room monitor. The girls on the trip outnumbered the boys by about 3-1. There were about 40 exchange students. It was like being transported back to boarding school days but with a Contiki feel to it. There was the over abundance of sweet smelling deodorant, sugar highs and shy giggly conversations about boys. And I was 26! 

On our first day in the Kruger National Park I finally saw a zebra that was actually in one piece and alive! The landscape and animals were incredible. The South African landscape is very much like my home in South West Queensland. They were similar in the way that the sunsets were warm on your face, a beautiful orange that fades to pastel pinks, blues and purples. The light puffs of dust that lift up from your feet as you walk along with the sun defining it. The outline of trees and grasslands are just the same. The difference is the silhouettes of giant elephants on the horizon as they stroll past with graceful and deliberate moves in their herd. It’s as if they are in slow motion. It’s those moments that keep my feet itchy to explore more of the world. I am still in awe of a stork that looked as if its wing span that would rival a Boeing 727; the troop of baboons defleaing and grooming each other; a spotted hyena; and the vast and varied types of antelopes. 

We’d all missed seeing a lion in the Kruger and it was time to move onto a private park called “Tskukudo”. Early on the first morning at Tshukudo there were about a dozen of us lining up for a shower and Pam, one of the rotary leaders, called out “oh an impala”. By this stage we’ve seen a few hundred impala. To liven the morning up I pointed and yelled, “Ohhh, a lion’s chasing it!” I was kidding. However, I did get about 10 head snaps in the direction I was pointing. I was nearly on the ground laughing so hard. Tskukudo was an incredible experience and I learnt so much about Africa up close. I had morning walks with a cheetah named Savanna, and I meet an elephant called Becky and her calf. 

Tshukudu are known for their lion breeding program. They restock the Kruger National Park with lions, electric fences separate males from females and it is very well controlled for some very ‘motivated’ and ‘in love’ lions. They mate every half an hour for fifteen to thirty minutes every day for four days when they are in heat. When this was explained to us a Brisbane girl let fly with “Ohh go son”! Pick the Australian... they are never far away. You could hear the roar of the lions at night time from the camp; the sound was a deep vibrating rumble and was a rather haunting experience.  On one of the last morning walks a hand raised lioness came with us. She was a playful one hundred kilogram plus pussy cat. I’d prefer to torment and play with the four kilogram kind; it’s probably a little less dangerous. The walk was to one of the dams to see animals coming in for water. As we were standing on the dam wall Becky’s elephant calf let go of a largest fart I have ever heard, even bigger than your grandmother’s! Who needs a set of floppy African elephant ears propelling it through the air, when a gas jet pack is quicker?
I had jammed a lot more into this trip but the rest of the story might have to wait for another article. So the trip that started like a scene from “BBC Airport”, ended with a near-flying baby elephant. And, by the way, to save you looking it up, a Virginian opossum pregnancy term is 12 to 13 days.

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