Tall tales from the veld: You’re never too old to learn

Writer Jim Freeman recently visited Pumba Private Game Reserve and Spa outside Grahamstown.

You won’t believe this but two of the prime causes of death among giraffe are lightning and snakebite.

I spend a lot of time in the bush, especially in the Eastern Cape, and any visit to a game reserve there invariably entails bumping into someone I know or someone with whom I have friends in common.

This held true on a trip to Pumba Private Game Reserve and Spa outside Grahamstown recently and, minutes after meeting senior guide Headman Gwide (who’d spent 20 years on Shamwari before joining his present employers two years ago), we began chatting about Geran Ellish.


Geran is a specialist trail guide I met at Shamwari several years back and a fount of knowledge on just about anything related to the bush.

It was he who told me that acacia trees (Senegalia, as we are obliged to call them now after the Aussies expropriated the name) communicated by releasing pheromones when browsing giraffe are in the area.

This induces them to change the flavour profile of the leaves that are the favoured sustenance of the giraffe in an effort to get them to dine elsewhere.

The pheromones, however, drift downwind and that’s why giraffe move upwind from tree to tree.

News to me – as it was for the family of Germans from Frankfurt-am-Main and my partner Rose-mariè who were along for an early morning game drive – was the giraffe’s susceptibility to causes of death other than old age and disease (lions try their luck but rarely prevail).

But if lightning earths on the highest point during a storm, it makes sense that it will occasionally do so on a creature that towers above the trees on an African plain.

Similarly, something that browses on the tops of umbrella trees is quite likely at some stage to disturb a boomslang.

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You live and learn

You live and learn The Pumba Private Game Reserve story goes back to July 2004 when long-time friends Dale Howarth and Trevor Lombard began buying up sections of the original farm owned by Voortrekker leader Piet Retief.

Retief was one of the earliest settlers in the area and Kariega was the first farm to be gazetted in the Eastern Cape.

The farm was subsequently sub-divided among his sons and their male progeny. The reserve is 7000ha in ex tent; a size that is described as “manageable” yet is still one of the larger privately-owned conservation properties in the province.

More than 2 000 head of general plains game were released in order to establish the reserve two decades ago before larger herbivores – such as elephant, rhino and buffalo – and predators were introduced. There are more than 20 mam mal and 300 bird species.

One of the attractions for visitors are the white lions, of which there are a number of females and, currently, several cubs. White lions are not albino animals but a sub-species within which a recessive gene predominates.

They need to co-exist within a pride environment with “normal” (tawny) lions if they are to survive in the wild; for one thing, their col our makes it impossible to blend in to the veld during a hunt.

It was on Pumba I saw my first white lion 12 years ago and this time the privilege went to my partner Rose mariè.

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The kill

It didn’t take long; we were less than a minute into the transfer from the gate to Water Lodge when she caught sight of something startlingly white loping through the bush.

We saw the same animal – under very different circumstances – a few hours later… licking her bloody chops and, as it were, impaling us on her blowtorch-blue eyes.

We’d met our German companions and Headman midway through the afternoon and went looking for cheetah and buffalo.

The family had been on safari for several days already and these were the last animals to cross off their wish list before departure the next day.

We saw a buffalo… a decidedly dead buffalo. A very recently demised ruminant that had been pulled down and suffocated by a trio of lions, including one of the largest males I’ve ever seen.

He was a madala – probably around 14 years old, according to Headman – whose incisors might have been worn down but there was still plenty of power in his enormous paws and jaws.

We were so close to the gorging beast, less than 10m, that we could clearly hear the sound of tearing meat and crunching bones.

Every now and then he would lift his head from the feast and give us a baleful glare. It was the wildlife sighting of a lifetime.

I was in raptures but the experience proved too much for some of my companions. “Can we please move further away?” pleaded a little German voice from behind me.

Headman didn’t hesitate but started the engine and drove on.  The “kill” was to have an interesting aftermath during game drive the next morning.

It was just after our lecture on giraffe mortality and the communication abilities of acacias that the guide’s two-way radio squelched.

All I could make out were the words nyathi and ngala; buffalo and cheetah.

There’s a sort of universal radio code I’ve encountered among guides and game rangers throughout Southern Africa.

They use the Swahili names for the “big-ticket” animals in the almost certain knowledge their foreign guests won’t know what’s being spoken about, bimbling along as if nothing is going on.

The reason, they say, is not to disappoint their charges if they arrive at a spot and the animals have buggered off into the bushes.

Bumping down the steep road that parallels Pumba’s western fence, we came across a herd of grumpy African buffalo.

It was the same group that had lost one of its members to the lions the previous afternoon. Lo! Walking up the road towards them, following the scent markings of a female, was a pair of young cheetah.

One dagga boy (an old, naturally bad-tempered buffalo) lowered his head and charged. Others followed suit.

The two brothers hastily gave way but their discretion meant nothing. Soon the entire herd was determinedly stalking them. It doesn’t matter that they are too big and dangerous to be cheetah prey; to a snarky buff, a cat is a cat is a cat.

The cheetah were separated and there a few very anxious moments on our vehicle before they reunited and skedaddled.

There was one last magical safari experience for the Germans. Headman stopped the truck in an open pan, unpacked the beverage and snacks hamper and asked whether anyone would like to “try a mocca-choccarula”.

After an eventful morning, everyone was game for a mug of coffee mixed with hot chocolate and lashings of Amarula.

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