The new born calf weighed in at 150 pounds, and stood six feet high on very wobbly legs. This was no ordinary baby giraffe. It was the first giraffe to be born in Swaziland in almost a hundred years. Hunters had taken their toll on these lovely animals until, sadly, there were none left in the region. The parents of this young giraffe had arrived in Mlilwane in the back of a one and a half tonne blue Datsun pick-up truck in 1964.
The original two came from the Kruger National Park and no, we didn’t catch them ourselves. The rangers had captured about forty of them to distribute to other game parks and reduce the giraffe herds in the Kruger Park. Ted was well known in those ranger circles from his time spent in the Sabi River area recently, and news of his successful venture at Mlilwane had reached the officials of the park. He was offered two giraffes. The problem was that, if he wanted them, he had to go and get them. There were held at a place called Hoedspruit, near Phalaborwa, about two hundred miles to the north. It was a long and difficult drive on dirt roads at the beginning of the rainy season. The roads could be dry and dusty, or become a sea of mud in the rainy season. We experienced both conditions on this remarkable and memorable trip.
I arrived at Mlilwane on a Friday evening in preparation for the long journey that started first thing next morning – at sparrow fart (very early), as we used to say. Ted and Petros led the way in the Datsun truck and I followed. The plan was to leave my car at the South African border north of Swaziland, so I could return to Johannesburg on Sunday night, and be back at work on Monday morning. They would continue to Mlilwane themselves. In retrospect, I should have taken the day off, though my manager didn’t get too excited about people who started their work week on a Tuesday for any reason, let alone “goofing” around while they transported giraffes somewhere. In his mind, the Denver Machinery Company took precedent over any giraffe. My car was left at the border, and the three of us headed to White River, which was to be our first stop.
Ted wanted to stop and say hello to a good friend of his, Mrs. Stevenson-Hamilton. She was the widow of Col. James Stevenson-Hamilton, the first game warden of the Kruger National Park that was originally the Sabie Sand River Reserve, in 1902. Ted had known the colonel, as had his dad in his Boer War days. We had tea with this gracious and colourful lady on her spacious veranda. I just sat there in awe while she and Ted talked; being in their presence I realized the significance of the history and the life she had led in those early days in the eastern Transvaal. One of the first game rangers the colonel hired was Harry Wolhuter who wrote the book “Memoirs of a Game Ranger”; he survived an attack by a lion that had pulled him off his horse in the bush – stabbed the lion with a knife and killed it. After a fine tea we bade her farewell and continued on our journey to Hoedspruit.
We arrived in time for supper and a quick look at the two giraffes that would be our companions on the return trip. They were young, one male and one female. They were about ten feet tall, and had large hooves that could deal out a nasty blow to the unwary that came too close to them. I made a note of the radius of those front feet, and had no plans to hand out a friendly pat. They were penned off from the other giraffes and were ready to be put into crates the next morning. The rangers also had several young cheetah cubs that had been deserted by their mother for some reason, and were kept in a wire enclosure. Ted said they had “rickets” caused by malnutrition and had weak back legs as a result. They were bad tempered little chaps that hissed and spat at anyone who came near them. The rangers wanted to nurse them back to health. Hoedspruit later became known as a center for rehabilitating cheetahs. Supper was most welcome after a long day, and later, we sat around the campfire and listened to the rangers tell their stories – some of which were on the ‘tall’ side. We slept in the open with some wool blankets the rangers had provided. Memories of my Rhodesian army days drifted through my mind as I contended with the hard ground and I tried to get some sleep.
We started at 5.30 am the next morning after a good breakfast cooked on an open wood fire; eggs, boerevors and tomatoes.
The rangers herded the two giraffes down a narrow wood fenced walkway to the loading ramp. We put the crates on the pickup truck and backed it up to the ramp. Each giraffe was prodded into its own crate and then a wood gate was dropped into secure slots behind them. The crates were open at the top to allow for their long necks. We were ready for the long trip back to Mlilwane. It would be a slow drive, as we had to keep the dust to a minimum and not jostle them too much. The clearance for the truck with the animals on it was about fourteen feet, and that height was to give us some problems that we had not foreseen. We said our goodbyes and away we went, thrilled with the two new additions to the sanctuary.
Giraffes can go a day or two without water, but we did need to feed them. That was easy, as all we had to do was to pull up under some low trees and they fed themselves while we sat in the shade on the side of the dirt road. It was fun to watch them feed. They wrapped their long, dark purple coloured tongues around the base of a small branch and then pulled a bunch of leaves off it into their mouths. I don’t remember any lavish picnics along the way though we must have had something to eat like biltong (jerky) washed down with some lukewarm tea; ideal on a hot day. That was to be the least of our troubles, as we continued slowly on our journey.
The combination of the giraffes on the back of the truck and the many low telephones strung across the road was not a good one, and it really slowed us down. We cut a sapling about ten long with a fork on the end and proceeded to raise the wires while Ted drove the truck underneath them. Toward the end of the trip, we came across a wire that was just too low for the “stick and lift” method so the wire had to be cut, for a good cause, of course. With knowledge of that part of the country, that line may still be down, some forty years later. In those days, most people were connected with “party lines” (everyone could listen into each other’s conversations) so we probably ticked off a number of people at the same time.
It was early evening by the time we reached the border post – it took all day to travel one hundred a fifty miles – and, much to our dismay, it had begun to rain, which complicated things for all of us, but particularly for Ted and Petros. They had a much more difficult road ahead of them, even though it was only seventy miles. The road they had to take was through the hills, and turned out to be muddy and slippery and gave them a hard time. I hated to leave them at this point. They didn’t arrive back to Mlilwane until the next morning, so you can imagine how slowly they travelled with that precious cargo on board. All I had to worry about was me, and that was to be enough.
I was tired, hungry and dirty: perfect conditions for a two hundred and fifty mile drive to Johannesburg in the rain. If I drove straight through, I would get home by midnight, but I knew I couldn’t do that so I was on the lookout for a place to stop. After about an hour I spotted a hotel that looked ideal for dinner and some sleep. As soon as they saw this disreputable character walk through the door any vacancies they had disappeared, and said they were full. I was really ticked off. That angry energy was good for another two hours on the road, after which I knew I had to stop. I was crossed eyed, I was so tired. Perhaps the night clerk at the next hotel at which I stopped had relatives that looked like me; anyway, he gave me a room. He promised to wake me up at five, which he did. After a hot shower, I drove the rest of the way, refreshed. I had breakfast at my flat in Hillbrow, changed, and went to work. I arrived just before eight. How I made it through that day I will never know, and actually, I did no effective work until Wednesday.
Ted may have told me what his plan was for that weekend and maybe not. I don’t remember. I would just go when I was free for the weekend and do whatever was needed. Each trip was different and filled with excitement, and in the long view, historic.