Lucky to be alive

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Action and Adventure  |  House: Booksie Classic
Survival on the Skeleton Coast of Namibia

Submitted: August 06, 2011

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Submitted: August 06, 2011

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Lucky to be alive

 

 

 


 


Mariners call it "Skeleton Coast" and dread it.Treasure seekers know it as "The Coast of Diamonds and Death".Maps mark it merely as the Kaokoveld, which, freely translated, is Herero for "Coast of Loneliness".

Look at the map of Africa.In the lower left hand corner is Namibia.There in the north west of this territory, bordered on the west by the Atlantic Ocean and on the north by Angola, is the Kaokoveld.Our story centres there.

The Kaokoveld extends for about 800 kilometres north-and-south and 160 to 250 kilometres into the interior. It is a little smaller than England, Scotland, and Wales combined. If your map is a good one it will be plastered with place-names.Most of them begin with "O" and they include tongue twisters like Okamborombonga and Omurorauozonju.But do not be deceived by the multitude of names, they mean nothing.You cannot book your seat to Omahama or Otjobuku.No one will take you there nor will you find anyone or anything there – except rocky out crops, barren plains, dry river beds, and an occasional mountain - and sand.The names are merely descriptive ones given by the natives – Herero's, Bushman, Hottentots – to particular mountains, water-holes and sand dunes.How they got on to the map nobody knows.

The Kaokoveld is almost uninhabited.The reason is simple – most of it cannot be inhabited.Apart from the fact that the greater portion, including the entire coastal belt, has for  years  now been a closed area to which the government prohibits entry except by permit, the country is so dry and sandy that only the hardiest and those who ask the least from life, can exist there.A few natives alone qualify.Much of the time they live upon wild animals, lizards, roots and berries, and farm with small herds of livestock.They only live in the Kaokoveld because they or their forebears had to flee from more hospitable territory when warrior tribes, or the white men, came to take it.

So there are no towns in the Kaokoveld.Here and there, sometimes hundreds of kilometres apart, are tiny native settlements, a lonely trader's store, or a two-man police post.There are no roads or railways, no flowing rivers.In the interior there are barren mountains, thorn bushes, and thick, dry grass where the hardier wild animals abound, out of reach of civilisation.They include the desert elephant, lion and buck.Along the coast are only sand dunes, salt pans and desert.There is no sign of vegetation for hundreds of kilometres.Apart from a few animals, like jackals, hyenas and an occasional lion, nothing much moves in this vast waste of sand and silence, except the wind.The small herds of desert elephant stick to the dry river beds, where they have adapted to feed off the sparse vegetation and survive on what little water they can find.

Mariners have good cause to fear this coast.Its white sands are strewn with the skeletons of ships and men.Many indeed are the ships that have stranded here, and few are those that have escaped to make another port.Of the crews and passengers that found themselves castaways on this coast of death, only a handful survived the tortures of hunger, thirst, and exposure till rescue came.Countless skeletons lie beneath the sand dunes or lie bleached white in the blazing sun.Nobody will ever know their identity.Some of the ships, too, whose timber and iron frames stand out starkly against the white surf and sand, could provide the key to ocean mysteries that have puzzled the world for generations.Their wrecks were never recorded.They were simply posted "missing at sea".

There is no more treacherous coast in the world than this.Not only has it never been completely charted, but such charts as have been drawn by observation from sea are unreliable.The shore supports little or no life, but it is alive itself.It moves.Day by day, month by month, it is moving westward, further and further out to sea.There is visible evidence in the wrecks of ships that are today high and dry in the sand, far from the water's edge.

Ships navigating in these waters have to contend not only with a moving coastline, the possibility of unchartered rocks, and the powerful Benguella current which often sweeps at four knots up the coast, gripping unwary vessels and setting them in towards the shore.

It is against this bleak setting that our story unfolds.

 

 

 

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The black beetle climbed slowly up the slip-face of the huge sand dune until it reached the knife-edged top.It stood on its front legs, abdomen facing towards the sea in the west and waited for the fine drops of mist, blowing in from the sea, to accumulate on its body.As the drops grew bigger, they combined and slowly slid down its body towards the waiting mouth.It had been three days since the mist had last blown in from the cold Atlantic Ocean and the beetle rejoiced in the life giving nectar as it, drop by drop, satisfied its thirst and continued survival.

The thick sea mist started to part in places, like a torn veil, and the landscape slowly started to reveal itself.To the north, rolling sand dunes of all shapes and sizes extended to the hazy horizon, like a sea without ships and without any visible signs of life.To the south, more rolling sand dunes, like a duplicate picture of the north.To the east, more rolling sand dunes for about twenty kilometres and then greyish gravel plains took over, dotted with flat, blackish hills, with some high mountains just vaguely visible on the hazy horizon.To the west, the sand dunes sloped down to a sandy, pebbled beach on which the cold Benguella current curled ashore in a maelstrom of flying froth and spray, racing up the gentle sloping beach and sucking back to renew its attempt on the land, the stones on the beach sounding like chattering false teeth as the wave action swirled them around and against one another, and then it was just wave after grey wave until the sea and the horizon merged into one.

The westerly wind was strengthening and driving the sand horizontally across the barren landscape as it raced up the coast to the north.Nothing human stirred, it was a land of desolation and silence except for the moaning wind.

The beach was littered with flotsam, in all shapes and sizes, battered and torn on its journey through the huge waves pounding the coast.A man was slowly making his way amongst the wreckage on the beach, checking to see if there was anything he could use for his continued survival on this hellish coast.

His name was Michael, and he was the sole survivor of a small cargo ship that had left Cape Town four days previously for the coastal harbours of West Africa. The small tramp steamer was struggling to make ends meet and that led to cost cutting and poor maintenance, and ultimately to the sinking off the Skeleton coast of Namibia, 250 kilometres north of Walvis Bay with the loss of all 12 crew barring himself.He was 50 years old, 6 foot 3 inches tall, lean of build and his craggy, lined face was topped by thick brown hair. He also sported a bushy brown beard that had not seen a razor in the past 20 years.He examined a small cut on his left leg and thought back to the events of the previous night. 

He had been very lucky, he kept reminding himself, as he investigated another piece of wreckage.He had been alone, sleeping on deck, preferring it to the crowded, stinking crew quarters, when the ship had struck an unchartered reef three kilometres from the shore and had sunk within 30 minutes.It appeared as if the reef had torn a huge gash through the entire length of the hull and it must have trapped and drowned the crew immediately before they could get up to the deck.The captain should have survived, being in the wheel house, but might have gone below to the heads or galley at the crucial moment when disaster struck and so perished as well.He was also pretty certain that "Sparky", the radio operator had no opportunity to send off an SOS and no one would miss the ship until about four days time when they failed to arrive at their second port of call, Luanda, on the coast of Angola.It could take over a week before a search party was launched to try and find out what had happened to the ship and its crew.One week was nothing if stranded along the more hospitable South African shore line, with vegetation, water and possibly food, even humans, but here in this endless sea of sand it was going to be a battle to survive.

He looked up towards the top of the sand dune some 500 meters away and noticed the heavy sea mist had started clearing rapidly and his large plastic sheet that he had erected vertically on the dune's crest was now clearly visible.He decided to stop searching the wreckage for the moment and check how much water he had managed to trap. 

The whole idea of gathering water had germinated earlier when he had climbed up the dune from the beach to check out his surroundings and noticed the peculiar posture the beetle had adopted."I can do the same using the large piece of plastic and a container I saw amongst the wreckage," he thought.

He was very surprised and grateful to find over a litre of drinkable water in the container.He knew that without water he would be dead in only a few days as the dry desert air and heat that was sure to come once the mist lifted completely, would drain his moisture out of his body like a wet sponge left in the sun."I must be careful to ration the water as there might be days with no mist," he thought, as he trudged back down to the beach and resumed his search for anything that would help him survive.

His first priority had been water, which seemed sorted out for the time being, next was food and then some form of shelter as protection against the elements. It had been freezing cold early this morning when he had managed to reach the beach, thanks mainly due to the icy sea he had been immersed in and the wind/mist on the coast but it was getting much hotter now as the sun burnt the mist away.

As he prodded another piece of wreckage his thoughts turned to his wife Marie and their two children who lived in a house on the mountainside above the naval village of Simons Town.They were well off, no need to sign on as a crew member of a dilapidated tramp steamer, but Michael had done so to gain real time experience towards a book he was writing on coastal steamers and there important role in supplying vital goods to poor countries  around the West Coast of Africa.

"They are going to panic when the shipping company informs them that the ship and crew are lost at sea."He also knew that the search for the ship was going to be a long tedious job as it could have gone down anywhere on the last leg of the trip between Walvis Bay and Luanda, the harbour they were heading for on the Angolan coast."I must make a big SOS on the sand in case a plane passes along the coast."

Michael walked over to a round drum, the size of a 25 litre bucket of water and realized he had found one of the drums secured to the sides of the bridge that contained vital survival items.He broke the seal and unscrewed the top.Inside there was a list of survival items and the most important were 10 sealed 500 ml tins of water, 10 tins of food, a pocket knife, fishing gear, a small torch and a sealed container of matches.

Michael sat down to check the rest of the survival items in the container and found three distress flares.He also found a sealed tin containing medical supplies such as Dettol, antiseptic ointment, painkillers, bandages and plasters."I must find something suitable to store all the valuable items in," he thought as he approached another pile of wreckage and began pulling it apart."The ship must have broken apart quickly after hitting the reef," he thought, as a lot of the wreckage appeared to have come from inside the ship.

He shivered as he remembered the screech of tortured metal as the ship struck and then grabbing a life jacket and plunging into the dark sea.The waves were huge and he was tossed around like a cork.Luckily the wind was blowing towards the land and using the momentum of the curling breakers he managed to reach the shore after an hours' battle.He was exhausted as he lay down on the sand above the high water mark, but thankful that he had survived the ordeal without any injuries.His thoughts turned to the crew and he hoped that their end had been quick and merciful.No bodies had washed ashore yet and he was thankful that he might not have to go through the ordeal of burying his shipmates.

The mist had lifted completely now and the wind started to drop, which was a blessing, as the stinging sand had felt very uncomfortable on his bare legs and arms, also getting into his eyes, ears, nose and mouth.The sea was also starting to settle down and the grey colour was changing to a deeper blue.

As he stared out to sea he noticed hundreds of gannets, about 500 meters offshore, diving into the sea and then soaring on high to repeat the manoeuvre.Some settled on the water to devour their catch and Michael believed that it was pilchards as this coast was known for its fabulous fish catches.He had seen a couple of pilchard boats returning to the fish factory at Walvis Bay, followed by hundreds of hungry seagulls.They had made such good catches that their decks were almost awash, so low had they settled in the water.He also noticed a dozen small specks approaching from the north.As they drew closer he realized they were big pelicans gliding along the wind coming off the low sand dunes at the foot of the beach.They looked so graceful in the air, like the old British Sunderland flying boats that could land on water.They had enormous beaks and could gobble up a good sized fish in one swallow.A couple landed on the beach and waddled over to the wreckage to investigate, keeping a beady eye on Michael.

Michael knew, from reading a book," Skeleton Coast", that though it had got quite hot now that the mist had disappeared, by 3pm it would start getting cold again and by nightfall the temperature would drop considerably.On the exposed beach the wind chill factor (the effect of cold wind blowing onto the body and lowering its core temperature) could bring on hyperthermia and he knew he had to start rigging up some kind of shelter for the night.

One of the ships emergency life rafts had deployed from the stern as the ship broke up and the original plastic housing (two half containers, bigger than a house bath each) had washed ashore.Of the actual life raft itself there was no sign and Michael presumed it had inflated automatically when it landed in the water and been blown away after the accident.These rafts were designed to take 15 people and being inflated and empty, the strong wind would have driven it along like a skipping stone and it could be anywhere by now.Michael managed to drag the two empty containers up to the foot of the first dune and made sure that they were well above the high water mark.He retrieved a metal pot (part of the galley) and scoped out a nice deep hollow in the soft sand.He dragged the one container into the hole and positioned the other one over the top in a half open position (like a large half-opened clam shell) supported by two planks and stood back to admire his new home."Small, but big enough to lie down in and it will give me some protection from the elements and things like creepy crawlies," he thought.

The sun had crossed the zenith three hours ago and Michael realized it was getting quite late and that he was feeling rather hungry.He took out the fishing line and ambled down to a small reef of black rock jutting out into the sea for 200 feet before disappearing below the surface.He noticed a lot of black mussels clinging to the surface of the rocks and soon had a mussel as bait on the hook.He walked out on the rocks and when he thought the water was deep enough, he cast the line as far as he could.The Namib coastline is famous for its fishing and it was not long before Michael had caught his supper, a galjoen of about 2 kilograms.He carefully hooked his finger through the fish's gills and returned to his "home" with his catch.

He gathered an armful of broken wood and made a nice fire in the lee of his shelter.While this was burning down he cleaned the scales off the fish, removed the gut and head and threaded a steel pole through the body from throat to tail.

As the sun dipped towards the watery horizon, he gave the fish a final turn on the spit and had to swallow hard as the aroma of the braaing fish hit his nostrils and set his saliva glands going.

The wind had dropped completely and the setting sun looked like a huge orange egg as it kissed the sea before quickly dropping into its watery grave.Michael noticed that the diving gannets and pelicans had all disappeared and the sea was devoid of all life, animal and human.

He ate as much of the fish as he could, realizing he could not keep it for another meal as it would spoil quickly in the heat that would be back the following morning.He had also found a plastic container of 1000 x 500mg vitamin C tablets in the survival pack and as he had no access to fresh fruit or vegetables knew he had to take a minimum of two tablets a day to ward off any effect that the unavailability of these foods may have on his body.He had read that one effect of "no greens" was scurvy and he had no idea how long he would have to wait before he was rescued.

He completed his ablutions as best he could and then lay down on the soft sand he had filled the bottom of the plastic container with and tried to get some sleep.He started thinking of the tragic events of the last twenty-four hours but, being very tired, soon dropped into a deep sleep which he only awakened from at 4am as the first glimmer of the rising dawn appeared in the east.He climbed out of his makeshift shelter, stretched, and his thoughts turned to the coming day and what he was going to do about his predicament.

The wind was blowing gently from the west and he saw a thick bank of grey fog about a kilometre offshore that seemed to be slowly closing in on the land.He turned and checked that his plastic water maker on top of the sand dune was still up and in position so that he would get some more water if the fog did roll inland.It was vital for his continued survival that he collects every precious drop of the water that was possible.

He decided to use as little as possible of the food he had found in the survival container andjust live off the sea; fish, mussels, crabs, etc. With that thought in mind he headed back down to the rock ridge and collected a dozen big black mussels for breakfast.He returned to his shelter and soon had the mussels on the boil in the pot he had salvaged.As soon as the mussels were open he took the pot off the fire and let it cool down.When they were cold enough to handle he took each one in turn, bent the shell open, removed the flesh inside, pulled off the small hairy appendage and placed it in his mouth.He chewed slowly, enjoying the salty sea taste.Once his hunger has been satisfied, he drank a cup of water, missing his normal cup of coffee first thing in the morning.

The first job this morning, he decided, was to tramp out the big SOS sign in the sand."It will really be bad luck if a light plane came flying along the coast and didn't see me," he thought, as he found a big level piece of clean sand and started making the first S of his SOS.

Thirty minutes later he was finished with the SOS and moved back down to continue searching through the wreckage for anything useful or edible.

 

 

 

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It was the morning of the 3rd day and Michael had still not seen any ships, planes or other human beings.He had continued to catch fish and collect water and was feeling in good health but becoming worried about the prospects of being rescued any time soon.He knew that a golden survival rule was; if you have shelter, food and water it is better to stay where you are than to go off into the unknown.Most successful rescues had taken place because the stranded people had stayed near the wreckage of the ship/plane and this wreckage is what rescuers would be looking for.That is also why planes that went down in remote mountainous or jungles were usually "swallowed up" by the terrain and it was sometimes impossible to rescue any people alive.He also knew that he could not, just because he had the basics to survive, stay by the wreckage for too long."I will give it another two days and if nothing happens by then will have to try and walk out on my own," he decided.

The firth day dawned and Michael started preparing for the gruelling task of finding his way back to civilization.He soon realized that if he took all the things he needed, he would have to devise some form of transporting it.He recalled a movie he had seen recently where the people had used two long poles or planks to make a travois on which they placed their belongings and then pulled it along behind them, using the horse and cart method, only he would be the horse.He went down to the wreckage on the beach, found two nice long planks, about four meters long and using some rope, soon had a makeshift "cart" to place his things on.

With a last lingering look at his temporary home for the past week, he set off southwards along the beach in the direction of Walvis Bay.He estimated he was about 250 kilometres north of Walvis Bay and if he could walk ten kilometres or more a day, the journey would take him about 20 to 25 days.

He stepped out briskly, but after two hours he realized that the soft sand was going to make heavy going.The good thing was that provided he didn't extend himself too much in the beginning, his legs would get used to the plodding and he should become "walking fit" after three days.

By midday the sun had just past the zenith and it was becoming unbearably hot.Michael stopped for a rest in the lee of one of the coastal dunes, had something to eat and drink, and then stripped naked and waded into the ice cold sea for a "cool off".Refreshed after his dip, Michael dressed, picked up the end of the travois and started southwards again.

Late that afternoon, around 5pm, he decided to stop for the night and started looking for a camp site.It was then that he noticed, what appeared to be a tower, sticking up out of the dunes to his left, about one kilometre inland and two kilometres from his current position."Strange," he thought, and decided to head towards it and find out exactly what it was.

As he drew nearer, more detail started appearing and he realized that what he was approaching was the mast of a wrecked ship nearly a kilometre inland from the sea.Instead of being surrounded by a sea of water, it was now surrounded by a sea of sand.Once at the site, he stared in amazement at the big, battered, rusting hulk, which was mostly still intact and in remarkable condition, considering the elements of wind, scouring sand and sea mist.He walked around what was left of the stern and saw that the name of the ship was still legible – Dunedin Star.

He recalled how he had read, in the book "Skeleton Coast" of how the Dunedin Star had come to her final resting place here and what had happened to the people that had sailed aboard her on that fateful last voyage.

 

 

 

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The Dunedin Star

 

"SOS---SOS---SOS---SOS

Listening intently, a radio operator in Walvis Bay heard the international call for help from the Dunedin Star, a 13,000 ton British liner, reporting that she had struck an unknown object.She had torn her bottom open and was making full speed for the nearest land in the hope of beaching herself before she sank.A quick glance at the latitude/longitude supplied by the ship, and his map, showed the operator that the ship was heading straight for "The Coast of Death."

It was just after half-past ten that night when the liner struck.Of more than 100 people on board most, including the 21 passengers, had already turned in, or were preparing to do so.The ship was tearing along at full speed, 16 knots, in pitch darkness, showing no glimmer of light without, for fear of German submarines that may be lurking in the area, as this incident took place towards the end of World War II.

None of the five lookouts or the third officer, who was on watch on the bridge, saw anything to warn them of danger.There was a violent bump, then two lesser bumps that were more like shivers.Those below heard as well as felt the first bump, then heard the bottom plates grating over something hard.The ship heeled over to an angle of about seven degrees, then slowly righted herself and carried on at full speed.

Damage reports soon came in.The keel beneath the engine room appeared to have been torn away and water was rushing into the ship at an alarming rate.Water was also rising in numbers two and three holds.

The captain made up his mind when he heard the chief's report.Ten minutes after the first impact the liner had changed course and was rushing at full speed towards the east – and the shore.Her master had decided to beach his ship rather than let her sink in deep water, possibly losing the lives of her passengers and crew.

After nearly 40 minutes of hard driving through the swell, breakers were sighted ahead.The sea was fairly calm but the usual oily rollers were heaving sluggishly in from across the South Atlantic.Immediately the breakers were seen the order was given to reduce to half speed.  Skilfully the captain manoeuvred his crippled liner.She took the sand gently and swung broadside on to the surf, facing southward down the coast, about 200 metres from the shore.

As dawn broke, the people turned anxious eyes towards the land.There was no movement on the inhospitable-looking shore.Not a sign of life as far as the eye could see, not a tree, a bush, nor a blade of grass, just sand, sand and more sand.Anxious eyes turned from the land to scan the sea.It too was bare.They were alone, castaways on the Skeleton Coast, the "Coast of Death".

After a long, dangerous struggle to reach the beach through the pounding surf, the survivors set up a makeshift camp and settled down to await rescue.Three attempts were made to rescue them over the following weeks.

First a tug was despatched, the Sir Charles Elliott, from Walvis Bay.This tug also came to grief, stranding on the coast near the wreck of the Dunedin Star, with the loss of one crew member.

The second attempt was by airplane, a Ventura bomber that managed to land on a flat area behind the sand dunes with a load of water and food.Unfortunately the bomber got bogged down in the sand and was unable to take off again.The plane was later freed from the sand, managed to take off, but crashed into the sea on its return trip to Walvis Bay without any loss of life.

The third attempt to rescue the survivors was along the coast, from Walvis Bay, but the convoy got bogged down and were unable to make further progress.They had to turn back and then tried an inland route through the interior, crossing many dried-out river beds and the gravel plains behind the sand dunes and eventually after a huge struggle taking three weeks, managed to reach the survivors and rescued them successfully by returning to Walvis Bay the same way.

It was an epic rescue, reported worldwide, and almost rivalled the tragic story of the Titanic in public interest.

 

 

 

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Michael decided to make camp by the wreck that night as it afforded him good shelter from the chilly wind that had started to blow from the south west.There was still a lot of wood in the area and he soon had a cosy fire going and set about making something to eat and drink for supper.As the sun dipped towards the horizon he settled down for the night and hopefully a good rest.As it quickly grew dark, he lay on the soft sand that had infiltrated the wreck through numerous holes, and exhaustion and the keening of the wind through the super structure finally allowed him to drop off into a deep sleep.

Dawn was on the eastern horizon when he awoke, stretched, and crawled out of the dilapidated compartment he had chosen for the night.The wind had dropped completely during the night and it looked like it was going to be a hot, cloudless day.As he looked around the area he noticed a brown bundle of fur lying about 100 feet away.He thought that was quite odd, started towards it, and stopped in amazement as the "bundle of fur" raised a shaggy head and looked in his direction – it was one of the rare brown hyenas of the coastal plain.It looked very thin and obviously hadn't had a decent meal in a long time.

Michael returned to the compartment and took a big chunk of dried fish that he had brought along, plus some water in a pot, and returned outside where he placed it about 50 feet away.He again returned to the compartment and settled down behind one of the many holes in the ships side to observe the animal, without being seen himself.

The hyena waited ten minutes then slowly shuffled to its feet and slinked over to the food and water.It ate the fish with gusto and lapped up all the water before returning to its original position and lying down again.Michael had observed its feeding, and though he could ill afford to have fed it, he was at heart a nature lover and did not like to see any animal, whether domestic or wild, suffering.

He gathered up his belongings, took them outside to strap on the travois, and decided to return to the firmer sand along the beach before he started working his way further south."Sticking to the shoreline is the only option," he thought, "these sand dunes will be my death within a couple of days if I try to walk through them."There was another compelling reason to stick to the shoreline, possible food and he could make water from the fog that usually rolled in from the sea in the early mornings.Without those two basics, he realised he would eventually join the nameless skeletons buried beneath the sands.

He took up his travois and started back down to the shore.When he was halfway there, he glanced back towards the wreck and discovered that the hyena had got up when he left and was now hot on his heels.Not as a predator, but as a starving animal hoping for another handout.It remained about 100 feet behind him, slowing down when he did, and stopping when he did.

Once he had regained the beach, he turned south and picked up the pace.His "friend" had also turned south and was following along behind in his footsteps, maintaining the 100 foot distance.Michael slogged along till midday and though he seemed to be getting nowhere in this vast sea of sand he could see a reef of black rock about an hour's walk away."That might be a good spot to stop and try to catch a fish for supper," he thought, as glancing around to find his "friend" still on his tail, "make that two fishes."

An hour later he reached the reef and set about finding some mussels to use as bait.He ignored the black mussels clinging to the rock.  Instead he started digging in the wet sand and soon found half a dozen white mussels.These mussels were much firmer than the black ones and stayed on the hook longer.

He baited up the hook and caste the line into the waves.Ten minutes later he had caught three nice fish and set about cleaning the scales off and removing the gut.All this time the hyena lay 100 feet away and watched every move he made.He started a small fire in the lee of the rocks, with some planks he had brought along from the Dunedin Star, and once the flames had burnt down, placed the fish directly on top of the coals to braai.

Twenty minutes later, the smell of freshly caught, braai'd fish made his hungry stomach rumble in anticipation.  He removed the fish from the coals and placed them on a smooth rock to cool off.He had set aside the biggest fish for the hyena and as soon as it was cool enough, he placed it on another rock midway between himself and the hyena.

Soon he was tearing away at the succulent meat and while eating, the hyena got up, approached the fish he had set apart for it, and started feeding.It gripped the fish's head with a front paw and then taking a firm grip near the tail, stripped the meat off in slabs that it quickly wolfed down.Michael was a bit worried about the major fish bones, they could get stuck in the hyenas throat, but this hyena must have fed on  fish before and seem to know exactly what to do with it.

Michael smacked his lips in satisfaction, after finishing the first fish, and decided to keep the second one for later or breakfast.He changed his mind when he saw how intently the hyena was watching him, as if to say, "Hey, I appreciate what you have just given me, but I could do with another one if you don't want it."

Michael felt lazy after his meal and decided to have an hour's rest before deciding whether to go on or camp for the night.He threw the second fish in the direction of the hyena and then settled back on the soft sand in the lee of the rocks, which was just starting to provide a small strip of shade.His eyes grew heavy and he dozed off for about an hour.

When he woke up, he found that the hyena had crept up, devoured the second fish, and had also settled down in the lee of the rock, but this time it was only 20 feet away and seemed quite unconcerned of its human companion, as it lay with its shaggy head on its paws and its eyes closed.

Michael was emotionally quite touched by the trust the animal was starting to show in him, and he was reciprocating that trust."It seems to be just me and you old fellow and all this sand and empty space" and he started to realise that he was enjoying the company of the animal, like having the family dog around.I will have to give him/her a name if he/she persists in sticking around – what about Lucky. Yes, I will call you Lucky, because you must have needed a lot of that to survive out here."

As if Lucky had heard him, the hyena raised its head, fixed its big brown eyes on Michael and then lowered its head, to continue dozing.It seemed quite content to share its space with this strange animal – a human being, possibly the first one it had ever seen.

Lucky was a three year old female, pregnant with three pups (unknown to Michael at this stage) and had left the gravel plains for the coast when a male lion had attacked her small clan of only four members, killing two and gravely injuring the third.She had managed to escape because she had gone off to scavenge for food and only came upon the scene of death and destruction when she returned.

She had hung around the den for two more days and then, when the wounded hyena died, had started walking in the direction of the coast 40 kilometres away.By this time she was starving and vague memories of walking along the sea and finding the odd dead bird or fish and even a seal pup kept her going.Food meant survival and she knew that with the rest of the clan dead, she would be unable to hunt and survive by herself here, let alone feed the three hungry cubs when they arrived in three weeks time.

It took her a gruelling week to cross the barren hell of sand dune after sand dune, but eventually she made it, starving and dying of thirst, to the wreck of the Dunedin Star, where this other strange animal had given it the food and water.She sighed contentedly, lifted her head to check what Michael was doing, and then lowered it again and dozed off.

 

 

 

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Michael and Lucky had covered over 90 kilometres southwards by the end of the first week.Some days there was enough food, other days they both went hungry.Michael had managed to stay away from using his "emergency food" and hoped it would continue that way.With the mist creeping in regularly during the night, he had also managed to gather more than enough water for both himself and Lucky.

It was during the early hours of the fifth morning, after leaving the wreck of the Dunedin Star, that Michael woke up to feel something pressing against his back.He bent over to check what it was and found Lucky curled up behind him.The distance between them had shrunk to six feet yesterday, but Lucky always kept his distance and Michael had not managed to touch him/her yet.

He lifted his right hand and gently rubbed the back of the shaggy head.Lucky uncurled, stretched out, and continued to doze.Michael got braver and started rubbing Lucky's ears and the hyena gave a contented sigh.

"This is absolutely amazing.This animal has one of the most powerful jaws in the animal kingdom and here we are lying like a domesticated dog and its master."He moved his hand down to rub its belly and then realised that Lucky's tummy was filling out and the nipples were becoming engorged.Lucky was a female, she was pregnant and it seemed that the birth of her cubs were not far off, maybe days.

As if to share her pregnancy with him, Lucky lifted her head again, sniffed at the hand stroking her and then started licking it.The bond between Michael and Lucky had now taken deep root and their destiny on this coast of death was entwined, whatever the result may be, life or death.

 

 

 

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It was the 15th day since the sinking of the ship and as Michael and Lucky plodded along the coast, he estimated that they had another 50 kilometres to go to reach the big seal colony at Cape Cross, where there should be some human life, maybe a ranger with a radio link to Walvis Bay.

They reached a big dry river bed, lined with thorn trees that originated in the west and cut its way down to the shore.It seemed a good spot to stop for the night and Michael turned up the sandy river bed to find a shady spot along the river bank to make camp.

There was plenty of dry wood and as the sun set he soon had a nice fire going.He decided to breach his emergency rations and mixed up a stew from two of the tins.He also still had a nice fish, caught the previous day that he cleaned and braai'd on the coals for Lucky.

Lucky settled down at his feet and waited for the food being prepared for him."What am I going to do with you, old friend, once we reach civilization?"  With a heavy heart he realised that their bond would have to be broken once they got to Cape Cross, and both would have to go their separate ways."We will cross that bridge when we come to it," he thought, as he gave Lucky his evening meal first and then settled down to enjoy his own.

It soon grew dark and after piling some big logs on the fire, Michael and Lucky settled down for the night.At first Lucky was quite restful  but around 10pm, she started to become restless and was making small whimpering sounds.

Michael woke up, heard the whimpering, and reached out his hand to stroke Lucky's head.Lucky lay quietly for an hour and then she got up and started digging into the sandy river bank.She soon had a fair sized hole, crept into it, and then peace descended on the lonely camp again.Michael soon dozed off again.

Around 4am, he was woken again by Lucky licking his face."What's wrong, old fellow?"He then noticed the blood around her vagina area and realized that she had just given birth to her cubs in the hole she had dug.

She got up, walked to the den, and looked back at the entrance as if inviting Michael to come and have a look at their new family before disappearing inside. Michael decided not to "crowd" her and just lay dozing until 6am when the light grew brighter as the sun lifted off the western horizon.

He missed the feel of Lucky's body against his during the night and lay thinking about the dilemma he now faced.He was about two to three days walking away from Cape Cross and rescue, but Lucky had now given birth to her pups and if her bond with him was stronger than her maternal instincts, she would abandon the pups to a certain death by continuing to follow him, as she had faithfully done for the past 200 kilometres.

He realised that his rescue and being reunited with his family took top priority but could he really now abandon his only friend and companion for the past three weeks.He racked his brains to come up with a compromise and then came to the sad conclusion that he had no option but to sneak away during the darkness of the next night and leave Lucky behind to fend for herself and her newborn cubs.

The day past slowly, Lucky only putting in an appearance for something to eat, and then disappearing back into her den.As the evening approached, Michael grew sadder and sadder and around the evening supper fire, as he fed Lucky her last meal, the tears rolled down his sunburnt cheeks.

Lucky seemed to sense that all was not well with Michael and came over to have a rub, and lick his hands, before retiring back into the den.Michael watched her go with a heavy heart."Goodbye my faithful and trusty friend, I will miss you."Darkness descended and Michael decided to wait until about midnight before he would quietly break camp and move off back down to the shore line, to continue his southerly walk towards Cape Cross.

Midnight arrived and it was time to say farewell.Michael checked to see if Lucky was around but her usual spot next to him was empty and the den 30 feet away was quiet.As he lay there, reluctant to start breaking camp, a disturbing thought occurred to him.Hyenas were "clan" animals, always a lot of uncles and aunties around and when some of the adults went off on a hunt, a few stayed behind to look after the den and the pups.

Lucky had lost her clan and only had Michael now.If he left her and the cubs at this stage he was committing her and the pups to slow starvation and death.She would be unable to leave the pups alone and therefore be unable to go hunt for food.

He realized that the only solution was to "delay" his rescue by at least a week so that he could continue to provide food to Lucky so that she could produce enough milk to feed her pups at this vulnerable stage.

With that decision made, his spirits lifted and he relit the fire in preparation for breakfast.He had fed Lucky the last of the fish last night and needed to go down to the sea and fish again.

After breakfast, he gave a whistle and called Lucky.She came crawling out of the den and shuffled over to him for the ritual greeting and morning rub.He gathered up his fishing gear and set off for the beach.Lucky whined and seemed reluctant to follow him."Don't worry, go back to your den, I'll be back with your breakfast a bit later."

As if she understood him, Lucky turned and re-entered the den.Michael waited five minutes to see if she would come out again and when she didn't, he set off for the beach.There was a spring in his step, and he started humming a tune as he plodded through the sand.

With white mussel as bait, he had caught four nice fish within an hour.He was dogged by the occasional pelican that was always on the lookout for scraps.When he started cleaning the fish, beheading them and taking out the gut, he was surrounded by a ring of pelicans, like spectators at a boxing match.Every move he made was watched with those beady eyes and when he threw the fish heads and gut to them, it became a free for all as they snatched up the offerings, tilted their long beaks skywards and swallowed the morsels.

He looked up along the dry river bed and spotted Lucky's shaggy body shuffling along with that peculiar gait that hyenas have."Ah, you have come to check on me," he thought fondly, as Lucky shambled up to him and picked up the smell of the freshly caught fish.

Back at the camp, he gave one of the raw fish to Lucky and started to braai the other three.Once his hunger had been satisfied, he contemplated on what he was going to do with himself for the rest of the day.He decided to go for a stroll up the river bed towards some low darkish hills about two kilometres away.Of Lucky there was no sign, and Michael presumed she had returned to her pups in the den.He was keen to see how many pups she had given birth to but decided to wait another day before checking her den out.

He started off towards the hills and as he approached them he heard two men talking on the river bank above him.He heard the one man say "I saw the buck disappear into the shrubs over there."Michael could not believe his ears and shouted up to the unseen men,"Hello there!"

Two white faces, then bodies, clutching hunting rifles, appeared on the bank about 50 metres ahead of Michael.They stared at him in disbelieve, then shouted, "Who the hell are you?"

Michael replied, "I became ship wrecked about 200 kilometres up the coast and have spent the past three weeks walking south along the coast towards Walvis Bay. You are the first human beings I have come across since the mishap."

The men stared at him a bit longer, talked softly to each other, and both suddenly raised their rifles and aimed in Michael's direction."Poachers!" Michael thought as a shot rang out and Michael's ears heard the loud bang as the bullet sped past his left ear.He ducked as a second shot rang out and he heard a soft smack as the bullet struck flesh and bone.

He turned around and 200 feet behind him, Lucky lay sprawled on the sand.The hyena had obviously decided to join him on his stroll and was hurrying to catch up with him.The men must have thought that the animal was creeping up to attack him, and had shot to kill it.

With salvation so close at hand, he had possibly lost his companion and friend to a stupid case of misunderstanding.He could not blame the men, as they had believed his life might be in danger.

He shouted, "No!" and ran back to where Lucky lay unmoving in the sandy riverbed, blood slowly starting to seep out of a hole in her side.Michael started to sob as he reached down and cradled the shaggy head in his arms.Lucky opened her big brown eyes, attempted to lick Michael's hand and then with a deep shudder, stopped breathing.

As the men joined Michael at the dead body of Lucky, they realized something was seriously wrong when they heard Michael's deep sobs and saw the tears streaming down his face and dripping onto Lucky's cheek.They listened with anguish as Michael spoke to Lucky for the last time and then laid her head down gently on the sand – only then did they begin to understand the bond that had been forged between man and wild beast on the savage coast of death.

 

 

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They had returned to the den and discovered that Lucky had had three pups, but they were all born dead.Maybe the trauma of first starvation and then the long hard 200 kilometre trek had just been too much for Lucky's system to handle.Lucky was now dead and buried and Michael was grateful that he had been spared the deed of having to kill the pups, as without their mother, they would just have starved to death.He had removed their little bodies from the den and they now lay with Lucky in her final resting place, under a big thorn tree on the river bank above the camp site.

The two hunters (they had legal hunting permits and were not poachers) had left their four wheel drive bakkie about four kilometres above Michael's camp and decided to return there for the night.They would break camp early the next morning and drive down to pick up Michael before heading down to the coast and Cape Cross.

That night, as the light faded away into darkness, Michael sat quietly by the fire and prepared his evening meal.He still had two fish and decided to braai them both, one for himself and one for Lucky.Once he had braai'd the two fishes, he took them both and climbed up the river bank and walked to Lucky's grave below the big thorn tree."I have brought you your last supper, old friend," and he placed one of the fish on the rocks covering the grave.He then sat down next to the grave and started eating the other fish.

"I will never forget you Lucky, our good times and our bad times – you meant more to me than just an animal, you were a true friend and companion.I will miss you terribly.Rest in Peace."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The End

 


© Copyright 2020 jupiter. All rights reserved.

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