The Lies We Tell

I need to make a confession.  For the past seventeen summers in the Timbavati, I have been lying to you.  When the deafening chorus of frogs croaked out from the pool, the waterhole, or just about any piece of standing water around the camp, the same question was always asked; what on earth is that ruckus?  I know that this question comes up, as when I first arrived in the Timbavati to begin my guiding journey back in the day, I asked the very same thing!  I was told it was a ‘Raucous Toad’; and based on the sounds bombarding my ears, I thought “ahhh, for once, a well-named animal”, as when it comes to naming animals, such a noisy creature would incomprehensibly be called something like the quiet-as-a-mouse toad.  Armed with this piece of information, I confidently answered that same question in the same way every summer.  Until about two weeks ago; then my world was rocked. 

Talking with a friend in the guiding industry, the topic of frog calls came up, and I commented on how I really needed to brush up on my knowledge of frog calls, especially considering there are only 30-odd species present across the whole Greater Kruger system.  I proceeded to list off the handful of frog calls I could confidently identify “Foam Nest Frogs, Brown-Backed Tree Frogs, Painted Reed Frogs, Raucous Toads, African Bull-” when he interjected me; “Raucous Toads?  We don’t get those in Kruger.  I proceeded to correct him and tell him that they were the noisy frogs we heard in the pools and waterholes around camp each year, only to be informed that those equally Raucous Toads were actually Eastern Olive Toads.  I refused to believe him until he played the call of the real Raucous Toad…it was very similar to my Raucous Toads’ call, just higher-pitched.  Annoyingly, the Eastern Olive Toads call he then played sounded exactly like my Raucous Toads’ call.  I was a liar.  And for that, I apologise. 


This discussion got me thinking about some other lies I had blindly told my guests over the years.  As humans, we have a habit of repeating information without always checking the truth behind it.  As a guide, I pride myself in not making up facts and stories, and only like to recount things I have read, or observed myself and do believe to be true.  If I don’t know an answer to a question, I will tell you I am not sure but share with you what I think the answer could be, then go home and research it – it is how my knowledge grows.  Unless I believe I am telling the truth – like with the frog calls. 


For years, whenever the skies were clear enough that we could gaze at the distant Drakensberg Mountains, I would point them out to the guests, and say “can you see that low point to the right of the tallest peak?  That is the Blyde River Canyon – the third biggest canyon in the world behind the Grand Canyon in the USA, and the Fish River Canyon in Namibia.  It is the biggest green canyon in the world too!” Wow, they were amazed.  I had no reason to believe that I was telling them anything but the truth.  I had heard many guides tell this to their guests, and even the official Mpumalanga provincial website has these same facts quoted in black and white on their “places to see in the province” webpage.   

Then one day I was watching a video, and a very large canyon came on screen.  It was big – much bigger than the Blyde, but it had trees – so it couldn’t be the Fish or the Grand Canyon.  I stopped the video as the realisation of what this meant hit me; “if there is a bigger vegetated canyon than the Blyde, it cannot be the biggest green canyon in the world, and this also means it is not the third biggest either; OMG…I’ve been lying to people for all these years!”.  It didn’t take long for google to confirm what I had feared – by no measure was the Blyde River canyon the third biggest canyon in the world!  I was a liar (again, apparently).  In terms of its 800m depth, the Blyde is way down the pecking order with canyons such as Tibet’s Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon averaging over 2200m depth, with some points as deep as 6000m!  This same canyon also stretches over 500km in length, greater even than the Grand Canyon’s 446km length (although at 1,850m deep and 29km wide, it is fully deserving of its name!) – dwarfing the Blyde’s 26km length.  The lesser-known Capertee Canyon in Australia is 1km wider than the Grand Canyon, but a couple of hundred metres shallower, yet is still 160km long – beating the Blyde in all three aspects of size, and Capertee Canyon seldom features in discussions of the world’s largest canyons.  The Fish River Canyon in Namibia – Africa’s biggest canyon – is 160km long, up to 27km wide and 550m deep, but even this seldom makes the Top 5 list of biggest canyons in the world…so how have we come to believe that the Blyde River Canyon is the third biggest?  Well, because someone said it, it sounded cool, and we have been repeating it ever since.  We have become liars…and turned it into some great marketing! 


Between frog calls and canyons, I am afraid we are only strating to scratch the surface of the lies we tell whilst on game drive.  Let me not even get started on what gets said about how white rhinos got their names, or what rhino horn is traditionally used for in the Far East.  These stories wind their way into the dialogue of guides (heck, I even read some of these lies in the printed books that were prescribed reading when training to become a guide), and once they are there, they are difficult to remove because guides will keep on hearing other guides tell them, and repeat them themselves…and so the cycle continues.  Until one day, a guide realises that that isn’t a Raucous Toad, and then their worlds are shattered. 


Although I would never admit to enjoying being wrong in front of Monique, the truth is that it is in being wrong that I learn the most, and for that, I always appreciate when people point out the erroneous facts and notions I repeat.  So here is your chance, if you happen to be a geologist that can explain why the Blyde River canyon actually is the third biggest canyon in the world, I would love to be call myself a liar again. 

 Until next time