Running wild, p.1

Running Wild, page 1


Running Wild

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Running Wild

  Running Wild

  Running Wild

  The Story of Zulu, an African Stallion

  David Bristow

  First published by Jacana Media (Pty) Ltd in 2017

  10 Orange Street


  Auckland Park 2092

  South Africa

  +2711 628 3200

  © David Bristow, 2017

  All rights reserved.

  d-PDF ISBN 978-1-4314-2623-2

  ePUB ISBN 978-1-4314-2624-9

  mobi file ISBN 978-1-4314-2625-6

  Cover design by Shawn Paikin

  Cover artwork © Gavin Doyle

  Job no. 003088

  See a complete list of Jacana titles at


  Acknowledgements & Apologies

  Chapter 1 – Rosita, Born Up a Tree

  Chapter 2 – Windmills

  Chapter 3 – Onderstepoort

  Chapter 4 – The Cowboy

  Chapter 5 – The Limpopo Valley

  Chapter 6 – Lady Godiva

  Chapter 7 – Return to Karl Plaas

  Chapter 8 – New Blood

  Chapter 9 – Teaching Old Dogs New Tricks

  Chapter 10 – Land of Giants

  Chapter 11 – Zulu Finds Kin

  Chapter 12 – The Night of the Hyenas

  Chapter 13 – Melodie Goes Eventing

  Chapter 14 – The Chase

  Chapter 15 – Muti

  Chapter 16 – Pula

  Chapter 17 – Earth Walkers

  Chapter 18 – A Trap is Sprung

  Chapter 19 – Return of the Prodigal Pitse

  Chapter 20 – Veld School

  Chapter 21 – The Cowboy is Leaving the Valley

  Chapter 22 – Mountains of the Sky

  Postscript – Hard Truths

  Notes on the Life of Zulu

  An Etymology of Horses

  Acknowledgements & Apologies

  THE STORY OF ZULU IS BASED on the life of a real stallion that lived and died in Africa. The versions of the story of Zulu are about as numerous as the people who recounted them. The horse and the myth were at times indistinguishable. This account of his life has been stitched together from all those stories. Of the four years when Zulu ran free in the Northern Tuli conservation area virtually nothing is known, so that part was constructed from what is known about the place and the wild animals that live there. It all could have happened that way. It certainly happened, one way or another.

  I am eternally indebted to David Evans, MB – makulu baas – of Mashatu Private Game Reserve, who pushed the project all the way; elephant researcher Jeanetta Selier, large predator researcher Andrei Snyman, cheetah researcher Aliénor Brassine and horse artist Gavin Doyle who captured Zulu in the wilds. Then the three people who knew Zulu best: Steven Rufus who founded Limpopo Valley Horse Safaris, Cor Carelsen who appreciated him most and Trent Sinclair who was close at hand when he died. At Onderstepoort, Professor Alan Guthrie, head of the Equine Research Centre, gave generously of his time and knowledge, as did thoroughbred horse expert Mpho Monjaine.

  Of great help were the regular social media posts by moviemaker Kim Wolhuter during the time he tracked the hyenas at Mashatu and made general observations about the behaviour and movements of various animals, as well as the weather and seasons.

  Bruce Young for taking my gangly colt of a manuscript and giving it some expert guidance. Josephine Bestic, Tanya McKenzie, Pru Allen and Kelly Evans read the manuscript, praise the muses, to iron out the horse nonsense, set the record straight and untangle my dyslexic typing. At Jacana Media, Bridget Impey for believing in Zulu, Carol Broomhall for gamely going along for the ride and Megan Mance for her uncompromising dressage lessons.

  The people in this story are all fictitious, but some less so than others. Anyone who recognises themselves or anyone else needs a stiff drink. As one of my favourite writers, Kurt Vonnegut Jnr, put it, the Lord protects the innocent in the course of divine duty. On the other hand, all the horses are real, although some have been reworked to fit the narrative.


  Rosita, Born Up a Tree

  A FLASH OF LIGHTNING CRACKED close to the tree canopy and Zulu reared in panic. The flare illuminated a herd of horses pirouetting like demented Lipizzaners. Impenetrable dark came with equal and unsettling suddenness, followed by an artillery barrage as the next thunderous volley reverberated across the Limpopo River valley.

  Water rose in the paddock where Zulu and the other frightened horses beat to and fro, the flooding Limpopo breaking over its high banks and rising around their fetlocks. After two days’ battering by torrential rain, lightning and thunder, the darkness hung like a sodden, sagging tent. Lightning streaked overhead and every now and then a tree exploded as if hit by cannon fire.

  By nightfall water was grabbing at their hocks. The panicking herd thrashed about in the muddy water. The horses were used to being out but never before for this long. They had not eaten or even seen any of their human minders since the storm had broken. They would not have known it but their current problems had started far away.

  Early in February 2000, the Météo office on Reunion Island detected a cyclone developing over the mid Indian Ocean and heading directly for them. Although they issued a storm warning, everyone on the island kept on going about their business since cyclones were commonplace at that time of year. Excepting Cyclone Leon-Eline was anything but common. When it swept across Reunion people did indeed take notice of winds reaching 100 kilometres an hour. Planes were grounded for a week.

  “It ees un cyclone monsieur,” the exasperated Air Austral reservations man explained for the gazillionth time. “It ees un act of God.”

  When the cyclone swept over Mauritius at 150 kilometres an hour and then hit Madagascar at 200, people not so much took notice as took cover. Not only the people but also all the animals on that island, all struggling to resurface from Cyclone Gloria, which had hit them a week earlier. On Madagascar, Leon-Eline left 10 000 people homeless and more than 200 dead. No one counted the homeless people and dead animals, but for weeks afterwards cows and goats in the heavily populated area around Antananarivo were found belly-up in streams and rice paddies. Along the wilder forested coastline, otherwise acrobatic lemurs and spiny tenrecs, tree boas and chameleons of bizarre size and variety washed up.

  Leon-Eline collided with the Mozambican coast on 17 February, punching with wind speeds approaching 250 kilometres an hour. The wind shrieked and groaned as if in agony, like a creature possessed. It ripped things apart, hurling bits of aerial flotsam and jetsam around – roofs like tattered sails, rafters the splintered masts.

  It was a beast from the Apocalypse. The first Mozambicans to feel the fury of the monster were fishermen in tatty dhows, some seaworthy, others in leaky dugout canoes with makeshift outriggers, fishing to keep the wolves from the family doors. They would not be missed, let alone counted, for some time while everyone on terra firma fought for their own survival.

  By the time the storm dissipated along southern Africa’s cold Atlantic coast five days later it had set the record for the longest-lasting tropical cyclone ever to wreak havoc across southern Africa. In Mozambique, the storm created the worst natural disaster in a century: 300 000 people homeless, 40 000 cattle dead as well as more than 700 humans …

  Most of the mayhem was not caused directly by the ferocious winds that swept scythes of destruction across that land, but by the Limpopo River that flooded for days afterwards from the greatest water dump ever known to have occurred in the region. As the storm swept westwards to oblivion, the Limpopo River and its tributaries pushed walls of water back towards the Indian Ocean from whence it had come.

  In 4
8 hours the Limpopo rose 11 metres above its normal flood level. As it approached the lowlands of Mozambique it spread out, up to 15 kilometres wide. Dams broke, towns were isolated, some inundated. People clutched onto the roofs of their flimsy huts waiting – some in vain – for rescue helicopters to reach them.

  Over Mashatu Game Reserve, on the northern bank of the Limpopo River in Botswana, the storm heralded itself with tell-tale horses’ tails clouds that formed whorled patterns hard up against the stratospheric ceiling. Weather watchers would have recognised them as the high, sharp edge of a storm wedge. Backing up the cirrus clouds came an angry attack of celestial cavalry: the roiling dark grey clouds obliterating sunlight. Wind that started like a distant drum roll beat its way toward them and swelled to envelop the landscape. The unrelenting pounding of lightning and thunder looked and sounded like the artillery barrages over the trenches in the First World War. It dulled the senses.

  “Old warriors with knobkerries are falling out the sky,” the farmers on the southern bank in South Africa told one another. “Badimo ga ba itumela,” they said across the river in Botswana, the ancestors are angry, as people gathered pots, children, chickens and even goats indoors. Ruff Stevens, the makulu baas of Limpopo Valley Horse Safaris, looked up and whistled.

  “!Xie !Xom !Xak,” he said to himself with a chuckle. It was the punchline of one of his favourite Afrikaans jokes, each “!X” sound imitating the Bushmen’s plosive clicks: the shit is about to hit the fan.

  By evening the ominous moan of wind had turned to fire and brimstone, wind shrieking like wild cats and the angry sky flashing like a disco in hell. Rain wasn’t so much falling as flowing. Humans hid indoors while wild animals sought any crevice in which to hide from the continuous deluge. It was like a crack had opened in the sky and an ocean was pouring from above. Leon-Eline dropped nearly a metre of rain over two days, typically what fell on the arid Limpopo River valley in several years.

  That afternoon clay and thatch huts in the valley were beginning to crumble under the onslaught. There was no use trying to go out and fight the elements, it was every man, woman, child and animal for him or herself. All you could do was grab at any bit of survival kit at hand and hope for the best. By the time the storm started to ease, the rising river began plucking out big riverine forest trees, stately wild figs, ebonies and leadwoods.

  About the rustic buildings of his horse safari camp Ruff could do nothing; they could easily be rebuilt. He was worried about the horses that were the lifeblood of his business. On the evening of the second day of the storm he braved a patrol outdoors (“Excuse me gentlemen, I might be some time …”). Although “doors” was an exaggeration for his base camp that was set a way back from the river’s edge. The camp comprised mostly safari tents and the only doors were in the brick building that served as office and ablution block.

  Luckily the camp was set within a grove of large waterberry trees that broke the main force of the wind. Luckier still, they had no guests in camp. That night the corrugated iron roof of the main building peeled off, the sheets flew through the air like underwear whipped off a washing line in a gust. Canvas tents ripped and flapped like ships’ sails in a hurricane. Ruff crawled-swam to the paddock where the frantic horses were thrashing around in water that was still rising. Hay bales two metres high were flying past, bouncing like rubber balls. He noticed saddles and wheelbarrows nested up in trees. Then the riverbanks, up to eight metres high, started to crumble.

  Now and again he could make out the ghostly shapes of people as they swam through the murkiness, trying to move and breathe in the liquid atmosphere. Movements were caught in flashes of lightning, like dancers frozen in flickering strobe lights. Ruff grabbed the first person he came across and dragged him – it turned out to be senior guide Harvey – and together they managed to break down the paddock gate, herd the horses through the gap and chase them out. There was no knowing how high the water would rise so it was best the horses found their own ways to higher ground.

  Normally the horses of Limpopo Valley spent most of their days out grazing and knew the lie of the land around camp. They would come back to camp every morning to be fed a mixture of lucerne and hay and spend the rest of the day nibbling the wild veld grasses. Once a week they would be doused against the scourge of African horse sickness; more frequently in mid-summer. Whenever they were needed for a safari, Ruff or one of the other guides, Harvey or Sparkie, would ride around on a scrambler herding them back to camp.

  The camp staff were huddled inside the main building, partially open to the heavens, but at least the brick-and-cement walls were holding. Individuals dashed in and out, suddenly gripped with the notion that something vital needed doing. A gas camping stove churned out hot drinks and by the break of day three, if you could call it that since it was already well broken, a sense of holiday camaraderie had enveloped the sodden group. Like it might in a lifeboat out on the ocean.

  By midday the sky had turned from night to dark gloaming. The rain had abated to a steady torrent. It was possible to move about, wading through muddy water that was around waist or thigh high. Late that afternoon torrent became shower. The camp staff gathered along the treeline to watch the foaming waters sweeping by and nibbling at the bank that was their home. The roar of the raging river made conversation near impossible. Large trees, some with nests and terrified birds, squirrels or snakes still in them, their root systems looking like giant squids, swept by. Occasionally a cow, its legs in stiff rigor mortis, raced past.

  As they stood there a tree rushed past in the raging main channel. In its tangled branches was a woman, white eyes like searchlights in her black face staring straight at them. Whether or not she saw them standing there was impossible to tell. She made no movement, just holding on for life … and then she was gone, swept away by the current in the direction of the Indian Ocean. Nothing could be done, or said.

  On the third night of the storm, while the camp staff slept on tables and boxes or anything else that would elevate them above the water, leaning up against one another in the slush, the wind began to abate. In the grey of the following morning the sky still had a heavy lid of cloud, but the thunder and lightning had been turned off. They could not only see but also hear again. Soft rain was falling as people awoke and ventured outside to take stock of their situations. If they hadn’t been so exhausted they might have seen the funny side of wading in slow motion through the flowing mousse.

  All the panic and confusion of the past three days subsided, as did the water all through that day and the next. There was death and destruction everywhere: dead birds and tree squirrels, baby baboons and monkeys. The creatures that lived in trees had fared badly, those that lived underground worse. For weeks afterwards the smell of something rotting down old aardvark holes would alert them to a warthog, porcupine, a den of hyenas or wild dogs, creatures that had drowned in their refuges.

  Surprisingly, the main barn had not been damaged beyond repair, being more open than closed, apart from flying debris that had embedded itself or knocked chunks out as it flew past. It would be some days before the water returned to its actual allotted course. Meanwhile, Ruff and his staff had their hands full taking care of survival, mainly feeding themselves and tending to wounded bodies and spirits. Every railing, bush or tree branch in reach had something hanging out to dry. Stuff was moved, mud shovelled, whatever had turned to mush dumped on a growing pile.

  But each day that passed would bring more danger to the horses. Hopefully they had the sense, or were stupid enough (different people would have varying points of view on this), to hang around as close as they could to the camp. They knew the area well enough from so many rides, but in the storm they would have become panicked and confused.

  Ruff finally got a chance to wheel his scrambler out of the barn, clean the engine and bleed the carburettor. He kicked the bike into life and rattled off, the iron cowboy doing round-up. It took several days to cover the area, Ruff on his bike and other staff in the v
arious vehicles as they were coaxed back to life. They did transects of the area as best the terrain would allow. They managed to round up and bring back nine of their 15-strong herd.

  Frankie, Pongola, Tommy, Ironsides, Rasta and Zulu were nowhere to be seen. The search for them went on for weeks, then years, both inside the game reserve as well as in the surrounding tribal lands and villages. But time and place in African consciousness are relative things.

  “Not a long way” and “a long way” could be the same distance, it depended on many factors. Similarly, a short time and a long time depended on who was telling you and what they thought you wanted to hear. The rainy season was always too short; the dry season too long.

  “Have you seen a horse, a pitse?”

  “Yes, a short while ago, not far from here …”

  And the chase was on, but all ultimately led to nowhere.

  Three months later, Frankie, Pongola and Rasta sauntered back into camp together one afternoon during siesta time. They were noticed only later that evening at turn-down time and celebrated with much ululating by the African staff. Sadly for all, not least the horse itself, later that year Rasta disappeared in the night.

  “Rustlers from Zimbabwe,” was Moany’s reading of the spoor.

  They all knew better than to question the wily Bushman and they knew any follow-up would be futile.

  But there was no sign of the other three – Zulu, Tommy and Ironsides – the three old Bergsig brothers. The search for them was extended outside the reserve, doing rounds of the local villages while doling out relief supplies. But always no, they had not seen any stray pitses. Had the morenas seen any of their cows, their donkeys, their dogs? At one hut there was much keening going on. A family had lost three children, swept away in the floodwaters, never to be seen … “aaaaie!”

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