Sitting chatting to guests around the dinner table (as used to be the norm in B.C. times – before COVID), there are a number of questions that are asked repeatedly by curious travellers. “How long have you been guiding?”, and “what made you become a guide?” (which is usually answered as a long story about how my cell-mate gave me the idea when I ‘did time’, and I intentionally don’t always clarify that I was joking), or “what’s your scariest encounter?” (to which I don’t always give her name) and then a question that probably doesn’t get raised quite as often as I would like it to. But, on a good night some polite guests (maybe taking the Micky themselves) may ask how I keep in shape, or how do I exercise? I suspect that most of them are thinking that they know the answer already – that I don’t – so when I tell them I go running, there is a look of disbelief on their faces as they momentarily stop chewing on Chef Ryan’s delicious desserts… and I’m never quite sure if the expressions arise because of the perceived dangers of running in the bush, or the fact that they cannot believe that I actually do exercise!
Now before you start getting too impressed about my dedication to cardiovascular activities, I need to clarify my level of effort put in during these “runs” (after all, I’m the guy that felt exhausted simply driving behind my friend as he ran an ultramarathon-distance charity run through the Timbavati). I think I burn off more calories telling people about my running than I do actually doing them. They take place at such a slow pace that I worry more about being chased down by leopard tortoises than I do about leopards themselves; the latter would be unlikely to even identify me as a moving object.
I soon realise though, that the guests’ reactions are actually more to do with their perceived notions that running in the bush is dangerous, as only food runs. While I always play it down by examples of how my friend has spent more than a decade running many more hours and miles without incident in the Greater Kruger than I have, and that my most heart-stopping moment of late was an incident with a rock that suddenly came out of nowhere to maliciously trip me and so nearly send me face-first into the dirt, the truth is that there are always risks involved. It is my belief that I’m as safe running around the bush as I am running in the streets of Johannesburg, mostly because it is easier to predict the behaviour of a lion than the movements of a Joburg driver… and besides, at such a high altitude there is barely enough oxygen for me in Johannesburg when I’m trying to exercise!
That being said, I have had a number of encounters during the course of my exercise activities, from bumping into mating lions to disturbing a leopard resting near her fresh impala kill. There was the time I thought I heard growling on the route out, but found nothing. Only to return twenty minutes later to find a leopard sitting in a Marula tree in the same spot watching me as I trundled past. To be fair though, it is not the cats I am most worried about, but rather buffalo bulls (who can hide behind the smallest of bushes) and elephants. The latter makes me think about a run I did some years ago when I was trying to get back into some form of fitness regime.
I had gained at least a years’ worth of guiding experience and had been thinking of this as I ran out of camp confident that if I were to encounter any potentially dangerous animals, I wouldn’t be too fussed by the whole episode. So confident was I, that not only did I opt out of a boring run up and down the airstrip in favour of a run along the bush roads, but I also didn’t like the idea of running in silence, so I decided to rather go running through Big Five country with earphones blasting some Back Street Boys from my iPod. I had not run 200m from my house, and the thoughts of how I would be so steadfast in my resolve to not react should I encounter anything had barely had time to leave my mind when they were suddenly put to the test. Over the whining sounds of “I want it that way” I heard a crack of a branch to my left, and as my gaze moved from my feet to the mopane thicket adjacent to me, the reason for the breaking sound became instantly apparent. All five tonnes of it. Upon realising there was an elephant bull about 25m from me, I let out a little squeal (that had nothing to do with the song), levitated, and realised that I had overestimated my level of confidence.
I gave the bull some room as I meandered off road to get around him, grateful that he had gotten a bigger fright than me, and gave myself a stern, mental talking to as I carried on jogging down the road. “Focus, Chad. Situational awareness, Chad”, and it worked, as a further 300m down the road, I noticed that there were some particularly fresh elephant tracks crossing the road from left to right. As my gaze followed the direction of the tracks, my eyes were quite surprised to see that I hadn’t been wrong about just how fresh the tracks were, as standing watching me from no more than 15m away was the elephant responsible for making them!
Fortunately, the elephant simply stood there watching the foolish, breathless boy pick up his pace as he ran off down the road packing away his earphones. It was at that very moment that I made the decision that running in the bush was just too dangerous for my health and that if I wanted to fit into my very short khaki pants, I either needed to accept that I was no longer a size 32 waist, or that maybe I didn’t actually need all those second helpings of aubergine bake at breakfast!
As the years passed, I have resumed the practice, but now I make sure that I run in more open areas, I leave the Back Street Boys where they belong (in the lost playlists of a broken iPod), and always choose running partners I can at least outrun!