On an August evening back in 1994, I was drinking beer at a sidewalk café with Bill Karasov, David Goldstein, Danny Afik, and Nigel Adams. We were there for the 21st International Ornithological Congress (IOC) in Vienna, and we had just learned from a delegate that the next IOC would be in Durban, South Africa in 1998. I was delighted at this news: although I was born in South Africa, I had only been back there once since I left in 1962 and had always wanted to visit again. Nigel, a post-doc in my lab at the time, was South African and would be returning home soon. The other three were also keen to visit the country. We were all friends and we were all inveterate bird-watchers.
That was when my so-called friends threw a wrench into my nostalgic thoughts. Karasov, a professor of forest and wildlife ecology at UW Madison, and, at the time Danny Afik's PhD supervisor, turned to me and in a disarming tone said, "Berry, you are from South Africa. How about organizing a post-conference trip for us?" Goldstein, who was a professor of biological sciences at Wright State University in Dayton OH, with a wry sense of humor and a great sense of irony turned to me, and seconded Bill's idea. Danny, who did his MSc with me some years before, who might have had the common decency to abstain, joined Bill and David as they ganged up on me.
Yes, I was technically a South African, but, I pleaded, that didn't qualify me as an official tour guide to a country I knew very little about. In the end, I succumbed to peer pressure and agreed.
Truth be told, when I agreed to Bill's request, I had no idea what I was getting into, and for a year I silently regretted my knee-jerk agreement. Although I grew up in South Africa, I had left when I was 14 years old to settle in Israel. After obtaining a BSc at Tel Aviv University, I went on to earn a PhD in zoology at Duke University, in Durham, NC. After a post-doc in biophysical ecology at UW Madison, in 1977, I took a job at the new Institute for Desert Research at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Only after Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990 did I feel comfortable to visit South Africa again. I did so just once, in 1991, after an almost thirty-year absence. I'd changed almost as much as my birthplace, so we were mutual strangers. As for organizing group travel, South Africa might as well have been Mars for all I knew about the ins and outs of adventure tourism.
But, fortune favors the bold (and often the ignorant), and good fortune dropped into my lap with a visit to South Africa a year prior to the "planned" get-together at the IOC that my colleagues had roped me into. It was July 1997, and I was attending the International Conference on Comparative Physiology and Biochemistry at the conference venue at Skukuza, the main camp of the Kruger National Park. There, another morsel of good fortune dropped into my lap. During a particularly soporific presentation, as I was drifting off, what was left of my dwindling attention became focused on two men sitting close by, both with binoculars on their laps, whispering to each other with the obvious intention of doing a bunk. They were no doubt fellow birders, so, my own binocs in hand, I followed them out and asked where they were going.
I had suspected they were South Africans. After a quick introduction, I found myself joining Prof. Barry Lovegrove from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg and his graduate student, Andrew McKechnie, on a short "jol" to the plant nursery and golf course at Skukuza. We found we had a great deal in common, and hit it off well. While we walked the golf fairways, I cracked a joke, not to be repeated here, about the etiological origin of Barry's surname, "Lovegrove", which apparently won Barry's and Andrew's hearts. Later, at an evening discussion over G&Ts, Andrew said he'd be more than happy to help me plan and then join a post-IOC conference trip. The offer of a free trip was Andrew's unspoken deal-sweetener. We corresponded during the next few months, and I reported every now and again to Karasov, Goldstein, and Afik. Barry, who was always up for a bundu-bash, had also decided to join the trip. Barry and Andrew got to work choosing the route we'd take through three game reserves in northern KwaZulu-Natal (KWN) province: Hluhluwe–iMfolozi, Mkuze and on to Ndumo, which was the farthest north on the Mozambique border.
Jump to Durban, August 1998, at the IOC conference. We had booked a VW transporter for the six of us. Nigel Adams, now my ex-post-doc, had fetched the vehicle and delivered it to the hotel where we were staying. THAT hotel is another story, but back to this tale. David, Bill, Danny and I tested out the vehicle by driving to the Oribi Gorge a day before the conference began. It drove well, and most importantly, it had a cold box that we could fill with food, beer, bottled water and wine. Everything was looking rosy, and I was eager for the road trip.
Fast forward again, ten days - to our last morning in Ndumo. We had had a marvelous time during our entire trip, with Barry and Andrew having taken the reins, saving me from proving that I had close to zero knowledge of the region. After breakfast, we headed south for Hluhluwe–iMfolozi, through rolling hills, some covered in bush and acacia trees, some farmed, greens and browns pervading beneath a Microsoft sky, intending to reach our destination around noon. The two and a half hour,160 km trip would take us first from the Ndumu gate along a 15 km stretch of local dirt road to the P552, which, if my memory serves me, was unpaved back then. The P552 runs from the Mozambique border near Ponta do Ouro, passing the Tembe Elephant game reserve to Jozini on the Pongolapoort dam. There it joins the paved P447 that ends at the N2, South Africa's major coastal highway. That portion is about 91 km long and usually takes about an hour and a half without stops. From the P447-N2 intersection, it's an easy drive to Hluhluwe, although it didn't quite turn out that way for us.
Off we went, enjoying the countryside and stopping for the odd bird sighting. We passed a rough "bush garage" on the P522 not long after we left Ndumo, with lots of junked cars slowly being devoured by rust and invaded by undergrowth. I couldn't imagine what type of business a place like that could do there, in the middle of nowhere. Little did I know…
The fun began half-way between Ndumu and Jozini, a small town with a liquor store on the east bank of the Pongolapoort dam (again, another story). There, as far between villages as it was possible to be on that road, our left rear tire blew out. Hardly surprising given the state of some of the roads we'd traversed over the past ten days - but no problem because we had a spare wheel.
We all got out of the van and Andrew, always obliging, checked the tools and then the spare, which was bolted under the vehicle. He surfaced from under the vehicle with a grim look on his face. The spare wheel, he informed us, had a hole in it "as big as his fist". Cell phone reception was zero. Not only were two tires deflated; at this point so were we, but only momentarily. Putting our combined 100 years of higher education together we decided that Andrew and I would hitch a ride and take the damaged spare to the bush garage we had seen along the way. Not that we had seen any traffic on the road, mind you.
Luckily, after only a short wait on what was a very quiet road, a single cab bakkie (South African for a small pickup truck) came along, going north. The cab was occupied by a vet and his assistant, and the back was full of the vet's display and kit for teaching the locals how to artificially inseminate their livestock – plus a large dog of unclear, but evidently diverse, ancestry. They were going to a village the other side of Tembe, knew the bush garage and said we could ride in the back with our wheel and the mutt. We tied down our hats, got into the truck, and with not a thing to sit on or hold on to, the vet took off at the speed limit, which is 100 kph even on the corrugated dirt roads. It was a hectic half-hour ride and we worried that one or both of us might not make it undamaged. The dog seemed unperturbed and remained glued to his spot while we grabbed the sides of the bakkie and clung on for our lives.
Andrew and I disembarked at the bush garage, flushed with adrenalin – at least I was. We thanked the driver for the ride (and The Force being with us). We dusted ourselves off and rolled our wheel inside. First, we asked the manager if he had a cell-phone connection, and were amazed when he proudly showed us his dipole antenna raised several meters above the roof on a long, thin pole. Andrew called the rental company at Richard's Bay, the nearest agency, but still several hours drive away from where we might meet. I didn't hear the whole conversation because I was still coming back down to Earth, but the good news was that they would immediately dispatch a carrier with a new vehicle to the intersection of the N2 and the P447, and could meet us there in about three hours. Yeah, right (of the kind where a double positive makes a negative)!
While we were waiting, Andrew and the manager set about discussing the problem at hand. The manager called over a child, who couldn't have been more than 12 years old, gave him a wheel spanner and pointed to a VW in the bush that had branches growing out of the windows. A short while later, the youngster returned with a VW hub carrying with a tire that had less tread on it than the one we'd brought in. Andrew described it "as smooth as a kitchen counter". The youngster put the tire on our rim and pumped it to pressure while we waited with bated breath for the inevitable burst. Surprisingly, the tire survived, and we paid the manager the equivalent of US$5 for the hub, tire and labor.
Now we had to return to our colleagues, the poor dears, stranded as they were with the food, the beer and the water. We stood by the side of the road, full of hope, soon to be rewarded in the form of a man in a small black sedan who was going our way. We put the tire in his boot (trunk) and off we went, Andrew and I feeling mightily pleased with ourselves. Half an hour later we saw the VW with our mates standing in its shade. With just a few hundred meters to go, our luck ran out. The little black car sputtered to a halt: run out of petrol (gasoline), the man said, but, not to worry, someone would stop and give him enough gas to get to Jozini. We thanked him, rolled the wheel to the van. Before we could get there, sure enough, a car pulled up next to the black sedan, and moments later our rescuer waved as he passed us by.
It was after noon by the time we replaced the wheel. All hot and dusty, we climbed aboard the VW and Andrew drove us gingerly to the planned meeting point with the car hire company. The first thing we did was find a scrap of shade, where we could have lunch and a cold Castle Lager, a common SA brew that, to me, tastes too much like the American beer described by Eric Idle. At least it was cold, I told myself as we waited in the dust and the heat as the traffic whizzed loudly by on the N2.
So, how do half a dozen academics spend their time while waiting for rescue? Did we discuss the highlights of our trip? Compare notes on the wildlife observed? Consider the vast political changes in the new South Africa? Plan international collaborative research by which we would answer the most pressing questions in our respective fields? None of us had the enthusiasm that would have required.
Boredom came fast and Barry Lovegrove began to kill time by collecting glass bottles discarded from passing cars, clearly with something in mind: there were hundreds around. What he didn't have in mind was returning them for a fortune in deposit money or environmental sustainability. Instead, he lined them up and called out "shy up, shy up" and cast the first stone that elicited the satisfying sound of breaking glass. That got the rest of us going and for the next half hour, or so, we indulged in a stone-throwing competition like a bunch of miscreant schoolboys. I recollect that David Goldstein broke the most bottles, but whether that was because he threw the most stones, was the most accurate or, through a lifetime of similar experience knew which were most fragile, I suppose I'll never know. Good that we didn't place bets.
At around 15:00, a Hertz truck arrived carrying a VW van. The driver's name was Gideon, as Danny Afik reminded me in 2021, though how he remembered this is beyond me. Before setting off again we checked the vehicle up and down, inside and out. No more scope for error.
(Mis)adventure over, we drove to Hluhluwe–iMfolozi and arrived at the reserve gate before sunset, when the reserve gate would close. The next day, I got a horrible infection in my nose and lungs and Andrew took me to find an MD in the close-by dorp of Hluhluwe – but, for the third time, that's another story.