A Day at the Game Park

Karen Radford Treanor 


� Copyright 2019  by Karen Radford Treanor

Photo of an Ostrich.

My 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.

It 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.

On 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.)

At 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.

Eventually 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 they do.

Coming 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.

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On 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, look, dem amuhls inna raoud!” screamed Beth in the atrocious polyglot accent she had acquired.

"Son of a gun!" exclaimed Gene, "Ostriches!"

"Go slow, maybe we can get closer," I whispered.

We 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 three consorts.

"I'll shut off the engine, maybe they'll come closer" Gene said, suiting action to words.

We watched the huge birds, fascinated by their long necks, peculiar plumage, and enormous drumsticks.

The 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.

After fifteen minutes in the full sun on the middle of the road, we had had enough. We were ready to go.

Unfortunately, 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. Clickety-ickity-ickity-snarl.

"There's 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."

He 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 way.

"Ostriches aren't carnivorous, are they?" I asked in a shaky voice.

"I 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 go away."

So we all had a cold lemonade and tried to look nonchalant.

Half 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 than ever.

Beth 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.

We 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.

There 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.

Gene 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.

Finally, the three hens strolled away and began grazing. We were optimistic that their spouse would join them, but no, he stayed on guard.

Beth 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.

Gene 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.

I 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.

On 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.

"Tell 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.

This 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 simple.

It 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.

Gene 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 brake!"

When 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.

We 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?


Hitting 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.

Bethany peered out the back window, roaring at the top of her lungs "Gene's playing chasey with dem big birds".

There 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.

The 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.

"Drive, dammit, drive!" was all he said between gasps.

Miraculously 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 m.p.h.)

And that, Gentle Reader, is how I had my first driving lesson in Africa.

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