husband has long held that birds are vicious, pointing out the
cruelty of barnyard chickens to support his idea. Not long after we
started working in Swaziland we had a chance to test this theory.
started with my suggestion that we take elder daughter Bethany for a
picnic at Mlilwane Game Reserve now that we had acquired a car. It
was a 12 horsepower Volkswagen, and it was a tough little vehicle. We
had forded rivers, driven cross country where there were no roads,
and carried loads of firewood with the dependable little beetle.
There’d be no problem taking it to Mlilwane Game Reserve,
which, like Swaziland itself, was small, neat, and had no dangerous
animals in it. Or so we were told.
this Saturday we left the baby with the housekeeper, knowing she'd be
in good hands. The baby would spend the afternoon safely strapped on
Mrs Zwanee's back, as any Swazi baby would be. (My English friends
expressed horror at my allowing this practice. "The baby will
be slow to walk if you let this go on," they said. In the
event, Erin walked at age 10 months.)
the front gate we were held up by Bethany, who discovered some
domestic ducklings frolicking in a mud puddle. These were a source
of endless fascination and no tempting descriptions of zebras and
giraffes could compete. A duckling in the puddle is worth two zebras
in the veldt.
we went inside and drove around the dirt roads looking for game. We
saw some zebras, which walked across a field and vanished before our
eyes as they entered a sun-dappled pine plantation. One minute there
were 15 zebras there; the next minute they were gone. It was my
first hands-on experience of animal camouflage. You just can't
believe creatures wearing black and white stripes could vanish, but
up a small incline, we found ourselves behind an enormous backside,
which at once deposited a bushel basket of rhinoceros poo in the
middle of the road. We were amazed, and Beth screamed with delight
at this great party trick. Downshifting, Gene kept well back of the
beast, which eventually shambled off into the grasslands. With great
care, Gene negotiated the steaming pile, not wanting to skid in it or
get hung up on this ad hoc speed hump.
a broad expanse of veldt, we slowed to a crawl and looked out both
sides of the car for wildlife. A wide sea of golden grass spread for
acres and acres, and nothing moved.
look, dem amuhls inna raoud!” screamed Beth in the atrocious
polyglot accent she had acquired.
of a gun!" exclaimed Gene, "Ostriches!"
slow, maybe we can get closer," I whispered.
sneaked up as quietly as one can in a Volkswagen. The birds made no
attempt to flee. We had found a family group: a tom ostrich and his
shut off the engine, maybe they'll come closer" Gene said,
suiting action to words.
watched the huge birds, fascinated by their long necks, peculiar
plumage, and enormous drumsticks.
ostriches were as interested in us as we were in them, and soon had
surrounded the car. They pecked the tires and peered in the windows;
they nibbled the windshield wipers and they settled down to take
dust-baths only a few feet from our bumper.
fifteen minutes in the full sun on the middle of the road, we had had
enough. We were ready to go.
the car was not. Gene turned the ignition key and there was a click,
but no answering roar of 12 mighty mice. Click-click. Clickety-click.
a dead spot in the ignition system." Gene explained. "I'll
have to get out and turn the engine by hand. No problem, we'll be
going in a second."
opened the door and then closed it quickly as the tom ostrich raced
up and pecked furiously at the door handle, hissing in a very scary
aren't carnivorous, are they?" I asked in a shaky voice.
don't think I'd take any bets," Gene said. "Tell you
what, we'll have a cold drink, and eventually they'll get bored and
we all had a cold lemonade and tried to look nonchalant.
an hour later, the sun by now very high in the sky and turning our
tiny car into a fair approximation of a crock pot, the ostriches were
still hanging around. If anything, they looked more interested in us
was delighted, screaming a running commentary about whatever the
birds did. "Look, him eating our wheels!" and other
needless narration came from the back seat.
were by this time scarlet of face and wet of armpit. Every time we
rolled down the windows to get a bit of air, the ostriches converged
on the opening and stabbed their huge beaks at anything within reach.
were a few ice cubes left in the drinks container. Gene tried
pelting the birds with them, which had no effect other than losing
our last source of coolth.
waited until the tom ostrich came near the door, and then flung it
open, roaring at the top of his lungs. He got the ostrich broadside
and for a moment it looked as if the tom would run off. No such
luck; Tom responded with a great hiss and a loud "hoop-hoop"
noise. He raised his tail and looked extremely fierce. We were
definitely in trouble. Gene retreated behind the closing door.
the three hens strolled away and began grazing. We were optimistic
that their spouse would join them, but no, he stayed on guard.
began chanting, "I gotta go potty" every thirty seconds,
interspersed with "I wanna go home". The temperature in
the car was well above 110 Fahrenheit by this time. There was no
sign of a ranger's vehicle or in fact any vehicle. We were stranded
on the high veldt with a mob of angry struthines and we'd have to get
out of trouble on our own.
had an idea that if I distracted the ostriches, got them to my side
of the car, he could pop out and have a quick fiddle with the engine
and get us going.
wiggled my fingers out the window, sang, told jokes, dropped shreds
of cigarette wrapper and did anything that occurred to me to get the
ostrich to my side of the car. Every time I succeeded, Gene
slithered out the driver's door, raised the engine compartment cover
and tried to turn the engine by hand to get past the dead spot. And
each time Tom spotted him and galloped to the rear of the car intent
on eating him, or at least turning him into eyelet embroidery.
the last attempt Gene didn't get the engine cover quite closed. The
Tom amused himself by pecking everything in sight, and pulling at any
wires he could reach. "Hey, this is fun, come on, Girls,"
seems to have been what he told his wives, as they all turned up to
have a look. After a few desultory tweaks, the wives returned to
their grazing and Tom to his patrolling.
you what, let's change places. You get in the driver's seat, I'll
sneak out the passenger door and push the car. When we get going
fast enough, you pop the clutch and we'll be away," Gene said
after some thought.
led to a five minute explanation of what "pop the clutch"
meant. I was relieved to learn it had nothing to do with
weasels--nasty beasts, prone to rabies--and that it sounded quite
is not as easy for two adults to swap positions in the front seats of
a Volkswagen as you might think. It is in fact quite painful, and,
given the weather that day, very sweaty. The swap was finally
accomplished, to Beth's great disappointment. She'd thought it was
a game and was discouraged from joining only by her father's roars.
sneaked out, keeping low. He began pushing as hard as he could, but
the little beetle wasn't moving very far. After several minutes of
scarlet-faced effort, Gene sneaked back into the passenger seat and
sat there gasping. After a while he said in a very calm voice,
"We're going to try this again, and this time don't touch the
his blood pressure approached normal, Gene slipped out of the car
again. He pushed and the car began to roll. Pushed some more and it
rolled more. I had my foot on the clutch and at what I judged to be
the magic moment, let my foot slip, hit the gas pedal, and heard the
wonderful sound of a VW engine coughing into life. I floored the
accelerator while shifting into third gear.
flew along the hard clay-pan road, this was wonderful! I glanced up
to the rear-view mirror to see if we had left the ostriches behind.
Yes, there they were, tiny harmless looking birds, loping up the
road. And that was that in front of them?
the brake and hoping I wouldn't stall the car, I shifted into neutral
and waited. I didn't know how to reverse a Volkswagen and there
wasn't any place I could swing a wide circle to go back and get Gene.
peered out the back window, roaring at the top of her lungs "Gene's
playing chasey with dem big birds".
wasn't much I could do but shut my eyes and pray. About 90 seconds
later Gene caught up with us and threw himself into the passenger
seat. He made it with a half-second to spare.
tom ostrich hammered futilely on the roof. Gene sat in the passenger
seat rubbing both knees to get the circulation restored after banging
them on the dashboard while getting into the VW. Anyone over six
foot tall shouldn't attempt rapid entry of small cars.
dammit, drive!" was all he said between gasps.
I managed to let off the handbrake and shift into first and then
second and so get us out of Mlilwane, the friendly family game park.
With only the slightest grinding noise I shifted into third and swung
through the gates and back onto the highway. (Should you ever need
to know this, the escape velocity for people fleeing ostriches is 42
that, Gentle Reader, is how I had my first driving lesson in Africa.
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