COL­UMN

What hap­pens when you stall a tem­per­a­men­tal Willys Jeep near a cranky gi­raffe in the bushveld of north­ern Namibia? Ask Liesl de Beer…

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Liesl de Beer finds out what hap­pens when you stall a tem­per­a­men­tal jeep near a cranky gi­raffe...

This tall tale – all true! – started with a fam­ily friend buy­ing a gi­raffe bull for his farm Bak­enkop near Outjo in north­ern Namibia. Bak­enkop is a goat and cat­tle farm, but there are also game an­i­mals. He col­lected the gi­raffe in a lorry and dur­ing the drive home, he no­ticed some­thing odd in the rear-view mir­ror: Ev­ery now and then, the gi­raffe would lower its neck and bend down to study the ve­hi­cle’s tyres. Cu­ri­ous, the farmer stopped to in­ves­ti­gate. He re­alised then that the an­i­mal wasn’t in­spect­ing the tyres but rather ducking out of the way of low-hang­ing tele­phone lines! Some time later it was univer­sity hol­i­days and I drove up to Outjo with my two sis­ters, An­nelie and Ne­rina, for a farm visit. One morn­ing, over a bowl of por­ridge and bil­tong, we de­cided to spend that night in the game camp. A type of tree house had been con­structed there, which was per­fect for camp­ing out. There was an early, omi­nous sign that our plan might not suc­ceed, al­though we bliss­fully ig­nored it: The

farm’s mud-brown Willys Jeep had to be push-started. Oh well, it added to the ad­ven­ture! There’s a photo of us dur­ing our happy send-off at the farm­yard: The three of us laugh­ing, dressed in stu­dent RAG T-shirts and bright trousers. At first, ev­ery­thing ran smoothly. Noth­ing could dampen our spir­its, not even when the Willys splut­tered to a halt short of our home for the night. We car­ried our clothes, food and sleep­ing bags across the veld to the tree house. Be­fore it got too dark, we de­cided to take a quick stroll. We’d worry about the jeep’s flat bat­tery in the morn­ing.

We soon saw the gi­raffe. He was nib­bling some leaves all alone and he seemed grumpy. Maybe Bak­enkop’s res­i­dent gi­raffe cow had given him the cold shoul­der? He was a real gi­ant, quite grace­ful, and we ad­mired him from a dis­tance be­fore we started walk­ing back to the tree house. Sud­denly An­nelie anx­iously re­marked that we were be­ing “fol­lowed”. We turned to look, just as the gi­raffe bull was hit­ting his (sig­nif­i­cant) stride. Run! The three of us bolted and when I looked back a sec­ond time, I had to look up be­cause the gi­raffe was al­most on top of us. All I could see was a thun­der­ing tsunami of legs and chest mus­cles. Ne­rina and I both veered into a clump of trum­pet thorn bushes and fell to the ground, scratch­ing our­selves on branches and ser­rated lime­stone rocks. We got up like di­shev­elled meerkats and cau­tiously peered over the bushes. An­nelie was nowhere to be seen. We called for her and even­tu­ally we heard her pan­icked re­ply. She was high up a mopane tree, cling­ing des­per­ately to the trunk, and the gi­raffe was be­low, stomp­ing the ground and swing­ing its neck fu­ri­ously. It was sheer luck that the bull had sin­gled her out. Had he de­cided to come for Ne­rina and me, who knows what might have hap­pened? It was get­ting late and we had to think fast. We leop­ard-crawled to the jeep in the dusk, care­ful not to catch the bull’s at­ten­tion. But the en­gine just hic­coughed three times and died, this time ap­par­ently for good. It was a clas­sic African sun­set – blood­red sun sil­hou­et­ting tree and gi­raffe – ex­cept for one dis­cor­dant de­tail: Our sis­ter was also sil­hou­et­ted in the tree, trapped. It was a very danger­ous sit­u­a­tion, but Ne­rina and I couldn’t help laugh­ing. Of course An­nelie didn’t share in the hu­mour. She’s our soft-spo­ken sis­ter, the one who bakes cakes for the re­tire­ment vil­lage and never speaks out of turn. But that day she used a swear word that even the gi­raffe un­der­stood. He turned and stormed to­wards us! We swal­lowed our gig­gles, rolled un­der the Willys and stayed there un­til he re­turned to guard his more im­por­tant prey. Ne­rina and I re­grouped and de­cided to take a wide route back to the tree house, leop­ard-crawl­ing the whole way. At the tree house we col­lected our torch, and then we went back to the jeep to put our MacGyver plan into mo­tion: We’d use the jeep as a fort on wheels and try to get as close to the tree as pos­si­ble, so that An­nelie could es­cape and join us un­der the ve­hi­cle. Things were get­ting hec­tic. The bull was go­ing crazy and smashed at the flimsy tree with his pow­er­ful neck. Any one of those blows could kill An­nelie. Leaves flew every­where and a dust cloud rose in the fad­ing light as he tram­pled the ground.

The next set­back was the torch – the bat­ter­ies were al­most flat and it wouldn’t have blinded a cricket. It was dark by now and we just forged on. I still don’t know where Ne­rina and I found the strength to push that jeep 50 m through the sand, but we had to – it was the only way to save An­nelie. In the mean­time, she also got cre­ative. She took off her T-shirt and the gi­raffe did seem mo­men­tar­ily con­fused, but he soon re­alised she was still up the tree. Then he worked out what we were up to. As we were inch­ing closer, he left his guard post and charged. We dived un­der the chas­sis as he stomped around the ve­hi­cle, so close that I could reach out and touch his shins. A pat­tern emerged: The gi­raffe would re­turn to An­nelie, we’d jump out and push the jeep closer, the gi­raffe would rush back to us and we’d scramble un­der­neath it. Fi­nally we were close enough. The blood­thirsty gi­raffe now had to di­vide his at­ten­tion be­tween the jeep and the tree. The moon came out and the stars shone brightly. An­nelie had gone quiet; we as­sumed she was pray­ing. What­ever she was do­ing worked be­cause the gi­raffe’s con­cen­tra­tion be­gan to wan­der. His cir­cles around the tree grew wider and wider. When it seemed like he was far away enough, we shouted at An­nelie to come down the tree. But the mo­ment she started mov­ing off her perch he came closer again – a jeal­ous jailor if I’d ever seen one! (We even tried to howl like jack­als and roar like lions, but the less said about these ef­forts, the bet­ter…) Even­tu­ally the gi­raffe lost in­ter­est and huffed off and An­nelie was fi­nally free to get down. It now be­came ap­par­ent just how in­cred­i­ble her ath­letic ef­fort had been: There were no easy branches to use to get up or down. She must have shot up there on pure adren­a­line. Fi­nally she just jumped. She hit the ground like a sack of pota­toes and rolled in un­der the jeep. There was no way we were giv­ing up our cover, but we still had about 100 m to go to the tree house. We kept look­ing be­hind us ner­vously as we pushed the jeep – noth­ing could sep­a­rate us from the old jalopy that night. Back at the tree house we scur­ried up the rope like sea rats.

The or­deal had lasted four hours. We were cov­ered in dust, scratches and cuts. Grass seeds were stuck in our hair and our clothes were torn. We were ex­hausted and re­lieved and soon be­gan gig­gling man­i­cally. We were also starv­ing and passed around a tin of baked beans while we changed into clean clothes. As I handed the tin to An­nelie, I no­ticed the tag on her bris­tle-cov­ered un­der­wear. “Tri­umph, Small” it read. In­deed it was.

Things were get­ting hec­tic. The bull was go­ing crazy and smashed at the flimsy tree with his pow­er­ful neck. Any one of those blows could kill An­nelie. Leaves flew every­where and a dust cloud rose in the fad­ing light as he tram­pled the ground.

IL­LUS­TRA­TION NICOLENE LOUW

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