aka 'Dream and Do' - Part 3
When I began writing about my year at Stanford Lake College in Limpopo, I brainstormed my memories and ideas as either specific stories that came to mind, or routines of life that were unique to the Magoebaskloof environment. 'Survival 2006' was definitely not forgotten; it just deserves a blog post all to itself!
Our bushveld survival experience was a 10-day course and was based on the army’s 21-day survival course. It was even presented by one of their ex-instructors. The setting: African bushveld with wild animals roaming freely, the most dangerous of which included hippopotamus, hyena, rhinoceros, leopard, and the occasional lion.
The experience started with an instruction to get dressed in only our swimming costumes; a set of overalls that were provided; and a pair of shoes. The only other possession we were allowed to bring along was a water bottle. We all piled into the bus with no idea where we were going or what to expect…
On arrival on the farm, we were dropped off in the middle of the bush, our shoes were taken from us, and we were each given a panga to use for the duration of the course.
Those first two days were hell! In certain parts of the African bush, you’ll find a type of thorn called a 'paper thorn'. I’m not even sure what the correct or scientific name for these buggers is, but on course, we didn’t really care… They were thin and light and got stuck to everything, not only the bottoms of our feet. Their sharp points were so tiny, we felt like we were repetitively stepping on sea urchins in a rock pool. A valuable lesson was learnt, though: the importance of footwear! Our shoes were only returned to us once we had successfully made our own makeshift footwear out of impala hides and cotton cloth. (More on that in a moment…)
Another lesson learnt very quickly was the importance of fire and warmth. This course took place in the middle of winter and the overalls we had been given were the type that had holes on either side where the pockets of the underlying layer of clothing would be. That first night, before being given any tools with which to start a fire, we all spooned as a group to try and stay warm, turning over and rotating the people on the ends every so often. Those lovely little pocket holes in our overalls let in the worst drafts of icy air whenever we moved or there was a slight breeze!
Over the course of the next few days, we learnt to look after ourselves using the resources that the African bush had to offer. We were taught to prepare kindling and start a fire using friction. Once successful, we were provided with a flint to use for the rest of the course. We were taught how to use converging antelope paths to locate water sources, and where to dig for water when we found these water holes and river beds. We were taught to build a boma out of branches cut (well, more accurately hacked off with our pangas…) from thorn trees to protect ourselves against opportunistic hyenas at night. We learnt to navigate through the bush using the sun and topography while also employing basic escape and evade principles, covering our tracks as we went.
On day three, we were given barely cured animal skins and pieces of cotton cloth with which to make clothing and shoes. What a long, tedious and smelly process! The impala hides had been salted, but weren’t fully dried out, so we had to use rocks to scrape away at the salty, crunchy mess of remaining tissue and soften the hides before cutting them and manipulating them into garments of any sort. Only once we’d completed a pair of 'shoes' and had worn them for a day were our original shoes returned to us. We were expected to wear our hide clothing during the day, but were allowed to change into our overalls at night.
The African bush can be very useful if one knows where to look. Although the Salvadora persica is widely known as the 'toothbrush tree', there is a lesser-known toothbrush bush called the 'magic guarri' (Euclea divinorum). We learnt to strip the outer bark off its twigs and spread the fibrous inner bark to form a very effective biodegradable toothbrush. Another plant with medicinal properties is the marula tree (Sclerocarya birrea). Its bark is used to treat diarrhoea and is believed to prevent malaria.
Plants that provided something to eat included wild asparagus (Asparagus africanus) and raisin bush (Grewia flavescens). At certain times of the year, the latter produces edible berry-like fruits, but when we were on survival course, we were only able to use the dried fallen leaves to brew a very pleasant tea. The prize for completion of one of the challenges on our course (I can’t remember which challenge…) was a tin of condensed milk. Add this to freshly brewed raisin bush tea… Heaven! Especially when you’re half-starved!
We also made tea from the red bushwillow (Combretum apiculatum subsp. apiculatum) but we primarily used this tree to make 'knobkieries', primitive wooden implements with one sharpened end and one knobbed end. The secondary branches of the red bushwillow grow from the primaries at nearly 90 degrees, making these joins the perfect cut from which to shape a knobkierie. Once finished, we were taught to use our knobkieries to dig for water in dry riverbeds and to hunt, throwing them at unsuspecting guinea fowl in such a manner as to concuss the victim. They set up empty coke bottles for us to practise on, but apart from one or two survivalists who had a semblance of technique, the rest of us were pretty useless!
Finally, in the useful flora category, we come to mother in law’s tongue (Sansevieria hyacinthoides). This offputtingly named plant is densely fibrous, with long strands running the length of each blade. We learnt to crush the blades using rocks in order to remove the fleshy part and be left with long fibres that could be woven into rope and used to fasten anything from clothing to shelter.
Cooking in the bushveld isn’t limited to the flame-grilled approach. We 'boiled' eggs in hot soil; fried pieces of meat on our pangas; buried whole onions under hot coals to bake them; and made biltong by hanging cuts of meat in the tops of the thorn trees. At our last campsite, we even built an oven out of bricks made from rhino dung mixed with mud, and use it to smoke some of our meat.
For obvious reasons, despite our newly acquired cooking skills, meals were still scarce. The problem was that if I was to make it through the whole experience in one piece, I needed to stay medicated… If it was time for me to take my anti-inflammatory and there was no food in camp, our instructor used to sneak me half a banana so that there was something in my stomach when I took my meds. I hope my fellow survivalists will forgive me for this dishonesty, 13 years after the fact… 😉
To keep our spirits up when we had little to do in the evenings, we sometimes discussed the first foods we’d indulge in once we returned to civilisation. I’ll never forget the first item on JJ’s list: he was adamant that he’d stop along the road on the way home and buy a 'garrrrage pie'. The rest of us dreamt of things like Coca Cola, pizza, and bacon. Mmm…
On day five, we were given a fresh impala carcass to dress and use as best we could. We hung it from a tree and skinned and dressed it, reserving the stomach for one of our survival lessons… We were expected to drain the stomach liquid into a fire bucket and drink this stinking stomach 'water' since it was a legitimate source of hydration in a survival environment. Terrible, terrible stuff! Ugh! I remember Neil joking about how those were the smallest sips anyone ever took from that fire bucket, compared with the times when we shared tea.
Thankfully, the rest of the impala was a more pleasant treat. We fried pieces of the fillet cut on our pangas in the impala’s own fat; we smoked the ribs in our bush oven; and we cut various other pieces of meat into strips and hung them high up in the thorn trees to make biltong. We used every edible part of that carcass, until all that was left was a bare spine hanging from the tree.
On the fifth or sixth night, our bush nerves were tested to the point where we almost called for extraction. We’d made our boma of thorn branches and were settling down around our fire for the night when we heard what sounded like a rhino snorting in anger. Rhinos are rumoured to react angrily to bush fires, often attempting to stamp them out, and we’d been told to kill or hide our fire when there was a rhino in the vicinity. Needless to say, we rushed to douse our flames as quickly as we could! The next moment, we heard a hyena calling, and to keep them away, we’d been instructed to make a larger fire. What now?! Well, we fed and fanned our fire to keep the hyena at bay. Again, we heard a rhino snort and made the fire smaller, and a few minutes later, a hyena call and made the fire bigger. We felt we were stuck between a rock and a hard place, and just as we were breaking open our sealed cell phone to call our instructors for help, we heard someone outside our boma start singing, 'I like to move it, move it!' Des and our instructors had orchestrated this rather hair-raising prank!
Our last day was a test of all of our navigation and escape and evasion skills. We were briefed early that morning and given a map of the farm with a number of checkpoints marked. The map wasn’t particularly detailed, but was hand-drawn and showed the most prominent koppies and waterways. We had to navigate around the farm using this map, the topography and the sun; visit the checkpoints in sequence; and finish at our instructors’ base camp that afternoon. We were given an hour’s head start before two trained trackers were dropped off in the centre of the farm and instructed to find us. We weren’t told what would happen if they succeeded…
What a day! We experienced a number of challenges. I remember having to leopard crawl and hide in dense bush to avoid being spotted by the trackers. I remember arguments over navigation, with differing interpretations of the hand-drawn map and topography. I remember us needing water at one point and planning our route to pass one of the animal water troughs on the farm, only to get there and find a dead Hadeda Ibis floating in the precious water. That afternoon, we unfortunately took a wrong turn, having misinterpreted the map, and found ourselves wandering as night fell. Our instructors came to find and rescue us, and instead of loading us onto the bakkie, led us on the short walk back to base camp.
Survival 2006 was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. There’s something about being challenged to survive and provide for one’s most basic human needs that realigns the soul, balances our perspective on life, and restores our compassion for other people and ourselves. I think that’s why, in a day and age when technology is advancing by leaps and bounds, there is also a move towards simplicity and minimalism. Everyone needs a 'time-out' now and then. Perhaps not in the form of a 10-day bush survival course, but at the very least, in the form of a camping trip to a place with no cell phone signal or electricity.
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