Who nose (s) best

When I was asked to write another story from the bush, Hayley Jackson suggested a blog called, “What smell is that?’.

With the rather pungent bouquet of flowering purple-pod cluster leaves (Terminalia prunoides) wafting around the bush at that point I joked that most people would already get it wrong by thinking that someone left a pile of sweaty socks lying.   This conversation sent my mind down a whole different path all together.  

I have followed my nose around the bush on more than one occasion and it has led me to some rather odd things. 

I used to think I had a good sense of smell when I began guiding all those years ago, and recall being laughed at when I radioed in that I could smell a leopard and would be following up. Luckily, I had the last laugh when minutes later we managed to find the leopard.  In fairness, it wasn’t some magical power to “smell a leopard”.  When a leopard is walking around scent-marking its territory on every corner it is as if you had just walked into a jam-packed cinema and everyone in there was devouring an extra-large bucket of popcorn.  Bizarrely a leopard’s urine smells just like popcorn!  Considering I was in my mid-20s when I started guiding and still ate like a teenager, it was no surprise that I could pick up such a strong food-like smell from a mile away and thus, smelling a leopard wasn’t as an amazing feat as I used to think it was. 

Tanda Tula in the Timbavati Game Reserve, part of the Greater Kruger National Park, South Africa - Photo credit: Chad Cocking

Now, smelling a terrapin, that is a different skillset altogether!  My tracker and I were out with guests and ambling down the road when the rank odour of decaying flesh brutally assaulted our nostrils. We stopped the vehicle to go and find the creature that had died.  Based on the hum in the air, we both thought this was likely to be something large – a buffalo perhaps – and set about walking into the bush, nostrils aloft and following our noses like a pair of sniffer dogs.  The smell was getting stronger, and we walked cautiously, not sure whether a pride of lions was responsible for the kill, and if not, whether they had perhaps, like us, been drawn to its stench.  As we crept through the bush, the scent started fading as if we had somehow walked past it. 

We turned back and returned to where the smell had been most pungent, puzzled, we scanned the area more closely before we eventually spotted it; a dead, fully grown adult….terrapin! 

We had to return to the guests and retract our statement that we were positive something large had died there, and they should get their cameras ready.  So, with this faux pas still fresh in our memories, you can understand why when months later we drove past an equally repugnant stench that we didn’t even bother jumping out to go and search for another dead terrapin.  Three days later when 50-plus vultures were gathered in the area, you can imagine how foolish we felt when we realised that this time, there had actually been a dead buffalo sitting there all this time. 

They say third time is a charm, but I am not so sure.  A couple of years had passed when one quiet afternoon we once again came across a pretty potent odour drifting with the air past our now well-experienced noses.  We scanned the nearby trees, but saw no vultures gathered in the vicinity, so we were erring on the side caution and going with the possibility of the terrapin scent-scale yet again, but knew we needed to confirm what it was.  Yet again we set off on foot, and when a bewildered look on my tracker’s face was promptly followed by laughter, I thought we had lost another shelled friend. 

I walked over towards him to check it out, and if you had asked me to list the things that I thought it could have been, I am sure that I would still be standing there listing things without coming to the right answer.   

Tanda Tula in the Timbavati Game Reserve, part of the Greater Kruger National Park, South Africa - Photo credit: Chad Cocking

Quite unbelievably, sitting in a shallow depression a good two kilometres from the closest water was a pile of fish that would have made a Capetonian fisherman a happy person!  I laughed at the unusualness of this sight, but immediately began questioning how on earth over 100 fishes had ended up in the middle of a block so far from the water; I had heard of it raining fish before, but the geographer in me knew that this explanation just wouldn’t cut it.  I cannot recall what explanation I gave my guests when we returned to the vehicle, but I can tell you that it is the only time in my guiding career I have had to use the words “oh, it was nothing much, just a pile of dead fish in the middle of the bush”.   

Some questioning of what it could have been did eventually yield an answer.  It turned out that when a large dam had dried up in front of one of the private camps in the area – with literally hundreds of fish dying in the mud in front of the camp – the putrid stench just became too much for the staff living there. They decided to gather all the dead fish and drop them off in the most random spot they could find, but at least it was a spot that was far enough away from their camp that they didn’t have to smell it all day long. 

Exactly what came and ate all the fish we cannot be sure, but I can only imagine that the first hyena passing the area would have been just as confused as us…fortunately for the hyena, as off-putting as the smell of rotting fish is for us humans, that smell must have smelt as delicious as buttered popcorn to the hyena. I am sure it sat back and filled its belly as the theatre of the Timbavati continued to play on all around him.   

As for me and my days of sniffing out scents?  Sadly, they are long gone. Instead, I now opt to taste things.  Whenever we have wine makers at camp to tell us about their wines, they insist that I take in a deep whiff of the bouquet to get a feeling for the wine. I use the excuse that if I cannot tell the difference between a dead terrapin and a dead buffalo, how on earth am I ever going to pick up on the hints of pencil shavings and blueberries on a glass of this nose?  I just enjoy drinking their produce instead…speaking of which! 

Until next time, cheers! 


Tanda Tula in the Timbavati Game Reserve, part of the Greater Kruger National Park, South Africa - Photo credit: Chad Cocking

Tanda Tula in the Timbavati Game Reserve, part of the Greater Kruger National Park, South Africa - Photo credit: Chad Cocking