The fuel reserve light lit-up and caused my heart to lurk, jumping ferociously out from within the pivot of my chest. For a while things had not seem so bad, I'd kept my emotions low-key but I then began to worry about how far the Grand-Ranger would take us, if Julian and I would even reach the closest resting camp alive. The green triangular road sign with white font was now in sight, I stuck my head out the passenger window to have a good gaze at how much of a drive we had remaining. The feeling of worry sprinted right through me as my eyes caught the sign's detail '30 KM to Numbi Gate'.
"Oh No!" I yelled in frustration.
"What is it? what's the matter? Julian asked with looks of concern.
My mind wondered off once more thinking about that dead rhino laying in the tall yellow bush, the injured white rhino calf we had at the back of the canopy, and the group of poacher's who we had fled from and spent the last twenty odd minutes being chased by. With yet another day filled with bad luck and trouble (something we seem to magnetically attract all the time) we had witnessed a deadly rhino poaching rampant in the over-heated and unforgiving Kruger National Park.
Julian and I were having a laugh when Bang! Bang! we heard the cracking sounds of rifles going off in a consistent fashion; about 500 metres or so north-west from the pack of Lions that we had been taking pictures of. The lions roared and ran off to the loud bomb-like noise. I tried to ignore the urge of going north-west; an attempt to not butt my nose into places where it had not belonged, but Julian convinced me otherwise. The moment I pulled the seat belt over my shoulder I recalled my grandmother saying 'curiosity killed the cat, curiosity killed the cat'. The daunting thought of me being the cat today sent a chill down my sweating spine.
Julian had scored us his father's grand-Ranger 4x4 for the safari weekend and when he heard the loud bang he stopped taking snaps at the lions and clutched the ranger into first before he stomped the accelerator peddle flat to the floor. He sped enthralled with excitement. He had on the same look a boy-child has when he sees an amusement park for the first time. Once we had off-ramped the main road I told him to glide the car in neutral so that the engine wouldn't make the loud roaring sound that came from the exhaust pipe every time he would accelerate.
"Dude I don't see anything. Maybe the gun shots came from...-"
"Shhhh" I whispered "You making noise. How on earth are we supposed to hear where the shots are coming from when I cannot hear a damn thing over the sounds of your loud voice?"
"Ntoko! Did you hear that?" Asked Julian as he turned his ear towards the driver window.
"Hear what?" I looked at him
Click! He turned the car's ignition off.
Bang! Bang! The rifle shots blasted through the air once again. The shots sounded awfully close. Too close for comfort in fact. The noise made the both of us nervously anxious. We bent our backs forward instantaneously after the two shots went off. We ducked down with enough paranoia that was acceptable considering the kind of situation and its magnitude.
"What on earth is that? Who is shooting like that? And what's being shot at?" I passively asked with a grimaced look on my face.
Julian straightened his back, un-buckled his seat belt and held the inside door handle in exit. "Let's go check it out." He said with a false bravado.
As he was about to land his right foot onto the game reserve's hot soil I quickly reached out for his left wrist. I gripped onto it tightly.
"Wait! Have you lost your mind?" I asked him with a look that made it clear I was dumb found to his suggestion.
He aggressively took back his arm as if I had stolen it from him.
"Let go of my arm" he said with a normal level of volume to his brusque manner-ed speech.
I whispered "We can't just walk into the bushes of the Kruger park. Are you crazy? Besides we don't even know where on earth all that noise is coming from. What if...-"
"What if you stopped whispering like a wimp, and tag along with me to go find out what this cacophony is?" He said rudely.
"Poachers!" I blurted out loud repositioning my bent back into sitting posture. "What if the gun shots are coming from a bunch of poachers?"
Julian raised both his open hands "So what? It would be a good thing if we do find poachers dude. We could report them and do you remember what that game ranger lady had said to us this morning?! She said if we report poachers we may end up receiving a ...-"
Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! A storm of gunshot's went off again causing me to bend my back forward and Julian to shut his door in a hurry and to reconsider his suggestions.
"You right! Maybe we..we um..ought to drive to the closest rest station and report the gun shots over there." He said with serene sureness and a sudden conviction to my suggestion.
That's when we both heard the distinct cry of a rhino that sounded to be in severe pain. My face then swam out of gloom. It was determined and haggard and wholly wretched.
"Ok here's what we are going to do." I said with my hands placed in front of me, with all ten fingers straight, and the palms of both hands facing each other thirty centimetres apart.
"Turn the car on and you are going to keep it idling. I'll go check what kind of shenanigans this shooting is all about. It sounds pretty close, it can't be more then 200 metres from here. If I don't see a thing, we will just have to report it as a potential poaching case at the rest station. And if I don't come back within ten minutes call my cell phone. Got it?" I said to him.
Julian looked at me dubiously with his hazel brown eyes. He wipes down the sweat from his forehead and sighs.
"Hmmm, Ntoko bro! You sure you will..-"
I didn't feel like going through a whole sob discussion with him. I did not have the time nor the patience. I heard a rhino's cry, I needed to have a look at what was going on.
I shut the door on him while he was still talking. The passenger window remained open I raised my index finger to him and said firmly:
"Don't leave the car!"
I started off by walking at an average pace, then the walk turned into a light jog - then heavy, then ....Bang! Bang!
I fell to ground face first, landing into the dirt almost plummeting into a pile of what looked like elephant droppings the size of bricks. My heart raced at a faster pace nearly two fold as fast as it did with my first experimental indulgence I had with ecstasy last december. I heard voices, faint voices of four or maybe five men arguing over something. I really couldn't tell nor make out what gibberish they'd been talking about. It sounded like mandarin. No maybe Vietnamese. It beats me! All I could make out was that the voices speaking in foreign tongues had increased in volume.
I got up cautiously from the dirt and kept my now sandy knees bent. I reached for my striped safari looking shorts and took out my blackberry from it's pocket to find that it had no network coverage, so calling Julian now was obsolete. With the harsh sun looking over my shoulders I wiped my sweat dripping face with the collar of my khaki short sleeved shirt.
Thump! thump! thump!
The ground made a thumping noise the size of a small congress of what sounded like wildebeest that had amplified from the north of my direction.
"What the hell is charging? And why is it charging my way?" I thought to myself anxiously. I remained still and steady behind the thick stem of the sun cooling wild date palm tree.
Regret crept into the back of my mind as I started to picture the pack of lions Julian and I gazed at earlier. My imagination drafted pictures of the lions stalking me from the yellow bushes in front of me. Perhaps the lions had been stalking me all along - from the time I'd left Julian and the Ranger. Perhaps not! Those rifle shots created enough noise to deafen a filled to maximum capacity Mbombela stadium.
I then heard voices, with crystal clarity this time around.
"Tiro! Tiro!" I heard one of the men say.
"Tiro? That's Portuguese. I'm sure of it." I thought to myself. Then I whipped out the blackberry and searched the word translation into english.
I impatiently looked at the screen: 'Loading.......Loading.....' "Tiro means....I KNEW IT I thought to myself. Tiro means shoot in Portuguese. and cacador furtivo means POACHER. I stuffed the cell phone back into my pocket and I peeped north where the sounds were coming from. Using my head to tilt an inch away from the tree's bark.
Bang! Four men on foot, heavily armed with a rifle a piece at hand were aimed at a female white rhino and its calf. I could not believe my own eyes I wanted to... "Screw it!" I thought. then I picked up a very flat stone the size of a tennis ball and threw it to the man who seemed to come from Mozambique. With all the might I had in me the stone was well thrown, it carried a decent amount of weight and impact pressure to graze the man underneath his left eye. I assume it slit his skin convincingly enough for him to miss-fire his shot. Bang! "Ahhhhh" he yelled. The three other men spotted me instantly. I had one simple word in my mind. RUN! I quickly glanced back at them from behind the tree and noticed I had created the perfect diversion for the rhino and her young to flee. But not all was rosy and perfect. Who would create a diversion for me? I had quickly turned from hunter to being hunted.
As I was running through the long grass of veld in the park I whipped my cell phone out once again and dialled Julian's number.....bzzzzzzz! "Crap! No signal!" I looked to my rear and saw the four men chasing me at a safe distance away. I was chuffed at how fast I could still run. I used to sprint the 100 metres at provincial level but I hadn't run for almost three years now. Not since the car accident.
After extending a large enough gap away from the poacher's I stopped briefly to catch a breath of the humid air. I panted and coughed while my hands were placed to my bent knees. I spat onto the earth's hot surface followed by the sweat dripping off my brush-cut head like an open abandoned tap, A faucet. I swear you would think I had poured my face and neck with a gallon of hot water. Every drop that landed on the red soil seemed to dry up quicker than Newton's winds that dry natural things. In my view I could see the four poachers; two of the rhino men were tall dark men that spoke Portuguese, the other was a white man Afrikaans looking and perhaps in his mid-thirties, and the remaining guy who wore semi-formal attire was a vietnamese chomp who had on a blue and white button up shirt and dark blue jeans. "Who the hell dresses like that to a game reserve?" I asked myself.
Honk! Honk! I heard a car hooter go off behind me, I don't know why I was frightened by the horn at first. Perhaps my vivid imagination had still clinched onto the thoughts of the Lions.
"Get in! Get in!" Julian shouted. Ten minutes flew past without any cognisance of it whatsoever. I guess the adrenaline clouded my brains mechanics.
I leaped over a huge rock that was sitting near a thorn bush. The thorns caught onto my shirt meanwhile, piercing my forearm. I hassled in an attempt to unhook myself from it but the thorn bush wouldn't budge. Frustration seduced itself, then out of anger - which was an idiotic thing to do at the time, I forcefully ripped the shirt off the large thorns. Segments of my shirt stripped off and my leg fell in between the mini boulder looking rock and the thorn bush's stem.
"Ah, Jesus!" I cried.
My ankle fractured from the impact of my bones smashing into the solid rock and stem.
"Ntoko! Get the hell up, those men with guns are about to kill us. Get up!" Julian shouted from the drivers seat of the Ranger.
"I'm stuck Julz. Help me, I can't get my foot out." I said with a voice on the verge of bawling, I was frightened.
The poachers had closed the large gap that I made whilst running. The four menacing men armed with rifles were approaching.
Before the cracking noise I heard Julian scream from the top of his lungs "GET DOWN"
Bang! A shot aimed for me went off in a hurry. I lifted my head up from lowering it like Julian had told me. And I saw a grayish black hole from the gun shot that pierced through the thorn bush stem.
Julian hastily jumped out the ranger and helped me lift the rock that sat corrugated on my left ankle. He lifted me up and I jumped - no I actually limped into the car seat using my hands that held onto the hand pulley which is fixed onto a car's internal roof.
"Step on it." I told him.
As he pressed down the gas, the back wheels spun roughly pushing out the soft sand and small stones from under neath both of the back tyres.
As the car's engine pulled from 60KM/hour to 80KM/hour to....Boom! Palingplingpling! The poacher's had shot at the car, the bullet smashed through the back window causing the many small pieces of shattered glass to trickle all over the seating. We kept driving down south of the kruger park in search of people, game rangers, a resting station, anything.
Not long after peace was eminent. It was subdued by the poacher's speeding up towards us in a Ranger similar to ours.
"Don't worry Julian, just focus on the road mate. We are going to make it...-" ping!
I heard the sound come from the car itself and asked him "What's that?"
"I don't know if we are going to make it pal." Julian said to me with a look of angst.
The petrol reserve light just went on and we were nowhere near any kind of filling station or rest spots.
The driver in the poacher's car came in full swing and smashed into our tail light. Julian was an inexperienced driver so once that happened we lost control of the Ranger and we went flying into a steep strip of veld. All I could hear was the car's delicate body smashing into rocks and tree branches until the car suddenly halted. Duff!
Then we heard the ranger drive straight past us.
"Did they miss us when their car span off?" Julian asked
"I don't know hey. Let's just get the hell out of here before...-" pshhhhhhhh! The tyre had a flat and it was perfectly timed.
"Could this day get any worse?" I asked sarcastically in acrimony.
We were being chased by a crazed group of foreign poacher's - who now wanted me dead, my injured ankle became insidious, and now the tyre needed changing not to mention our petrol was nearly depleted. I began doubting the prospect of making it out this place alive.
10 minutes later...
We were back on the road when what had first seemed to be a huge gray mountain-rock fall from sky right in front of us. It was not a gray mountain-rock. It had two arms, two legs, and a horn that shone bona-fide in beauty. The injured Rhino I had helped with providing a diversion from the poachers had made it. But the calf's mother was nowhere to be seen. Julian and I assumed only the worst.
The calf had a bullet wound to its leg and a grazing on its back. It looked horrified and confused.
"I've got an idea!" Julian spoke with excitement.
"The space in the rangers canopy is big enough to carry the calf in. We can't just leave it here. What if those scum bag poachers come back for it." He said
"I'm not too sure hey Julz. I mean this is a rhino we are talking about."
"Wow that's cheap coming from you conan! What happened to your brave heart bravado?" He asked with a tongue of cheek.
"Fine. Fine. Let's get it in by using that grip ledge and towing rope that I saw in the back. But don't switch off the car. Those poacher's could come back this way." I said to him with confidence.
But in my mind I was weary about whether or not the baby rhino would charge at us with that horn Asia craved with lust.
We placed the grip ledge onto the Ranger's canopy floor, diagonally, and then sat the other end onto the tarred road. Julian picked up the towing rope as I limped cautiously towards the white rhino in front of the car.
I spoke with a soft tranquil voice "Hey there baby rhino...I'm not going to hurt you okay?...unlike those baddies that hurt your mum...I'm your friend...okay"
I was now five feet away from it, standing bare with nothing but my heart and compassion engraved in me. I took a few painful steps closer, I was now three feet away from it and I thought to myself "Gee-whiz. This thing is bigger than it looked from inside the car."
I smooth talked it again "Hey there baby rhino....my name is Ntoko...Ntoko Malikey...and what is your name?
The rhino's ears started to flicker, but I proceeded towards the beast.
Two agonizing feet away. One foot away..and I was standing right by a wild rhinoceros. I couldn't believe my eyes at the stature of this large beast. Neither could I feel my legs. I was shaking as if I'd been tazered by the police for resisting arrest after a rough night of drinking and mischief in hatfield. I gently placed my palm on the top of it's head and slowly pat it down. Julian started to walk slowly towards my new animal friend but then I caught a glimpse of the rhino's tail starting to sway.
It charged straight for Julian barging me over onto my back in the process. I fell flat onto my ass bone and the sting resembled my oldest memory of taking a needle to the arm for the first time at the doctor when I was five. Ouch.
Julian stood as still as peaceful waters with nowhere to run, all I recall of him doing was passively letting go of the towing rope and dropping his jaw - mouth wide open - Agape.
I shouted "BABY RHINO" and I believe it responded to my voice as the rhino swerved it's charge, split seconds away from ramming it's horn into Julian's hip bone.
I shot up with speed and yelled at Julian to pick the rope up. He was still bewildered. I yelled again till my voice caught his attention.
"Heeey Julian! Wake up and pass me the rope."
Once I was standing by the rhino on-footed Julian tossed me the towing rope and I quickly tied it around it's meaty neck.
We had finally got the rhino into the Ranger and we were set to get to the next resting station. Till the fuel reserve light turned from yellow to red. Empty! And that's the time I spotted the green road sign with white font written '30 km to Numbi gate'.
I snapped back from the depths of my mind and heard Julian's voice
"What is it? what's the matter? Hello Ntoko dude, I'm talking to you."
"Yeah, yeah, I heard you man." My focus gradually returned.
"What did the road sign say? We close to numbi or what? Cause the Ranger is about done right now man."
"It said 30 km till Numbi Gate." I spoke with a low voice that described sadness and a sense of demoralisation.
Julian Pulls the car over and turns the ignition off click!
"What are you doing?" I asked
"Stopping the car, there's no petrol we are done for." He said
"Look. We have to keep on going. The closer we are to the rest spot the shorter the walk and I'm sure someone is going to spot us."
"No let's, wait" he said firmly
"Wait? Wait for what are you crazy!"
Julian didn't respond, I assume he was just as stressed as I was. I began feeling the guilt of my decisions. Julian decided to listen to my advice one more time and start the engine of the car. Upon pulling off we were once again faced with poacher's in high pursuit and fierce determination. The poachers drove at a high speed towards our vehicle, and as Julian intended to pull off, the car had finally given in.
We sat in the car nullified with our faces as blank as clean sheets of white paper. I then looked to my left as one of the poachers arrived at the car door.
Laying in the dark a memory from childhood came to my mind. I was a little over six years old when my older brother Sello had pulled one of his tutoring odd jokes by stuffing me into the pantry and locking me inside it. He usually would play it out until I would rave and rant, then scream, then the scream would turn into a cry and then he would open up for me. The last time he did that if memory serves me correctly; was the day he had pulled that abusive joke on me once more. But this time he completely forgot that I had been locked up inside the small contraption, and I ended up sitting in solitary confinement for eight long hours which honestly felt more like eight days. The same feeling I had when I'd been locked up for eight hours, was the exact same way I felt now.
The poachers had stuffed me into the boot of a car and I could do nothing but lay there in despair. I started to ponder about the new animal friend I had made and tried to save, but only the thoughts of the rhino's horn being cleaved off its body ran through my mind.
They drove for another hour or so and I overheard the Portuguese men argue about something with the vietnamese looking man, while the Afrikaans bloke acted nearly as a translator for the deal.
I heard "Mecca, fifteen thousand mecca." Then I would hear "what will we do with the boy?" And after their voices calmed down I heard the Afrikaans man saying something along the lines of "Our employer will deal with him."
I was frightened and filled with morbidity. I worried about Julian and where he could of been? And if he is alive or not. I felt as guilty as sin. I began feeling the top of my dry mouth with my scratchy tongue and realised that I may even de-hydrate and perish before the poacher's got the chance to kill me. Another hour passed and that's when I heard gunshots go off from all sorts of directions. Bullets poured like rain drops in the hot summer and my heart did more than just lurk. It pained from panic. Bang! bang! Plow!
Then a key entered the slot of the boot where I was held captive. It opened and I prepared to embrace my death, with no grudges or plans of action. I declared solely to except my fate - to meet my maker. But something odd yet extremely relieving occurred. Julian opened the boot.
The setting sun burnt the surface of my eyes, my clothing was soaked in salty sweat, and my eyes blood shot maroon with tears pouring down my oily face. I was happy to be alive.
"Ntoko, you ok bud?" Asked julian as he carried me out the car boot.
"Water...I need water!" I barely responded.
He handed me an ice-cold bottle of water. As I began recovering I looked around and realised we had reached Numbi Gate. But something about the situation did not sit well with me. It was too good to be true. There was no cop in sight, no game reserve staff, no customers nothing just Julian, the white baby rhino and myself amongst the dead bodies of the poachers and Kruger National Park guards. The poacher's were stopped by security and the offenders fought them off with an unexpected Iron fist.
I limped over to the gate office still paining from my throbbing ankle and I was spooked. They were all dead. Everybody was dead. I asked Julian if he had known what had happened he said gloomy eyed "I was tied up and thrown into the back of the Ranger they had been driving. Only once the shoot out died off, I untied myself and got you out as soon as possible."
"Damn it! Alright as long as we are okay, things will be fine. Its best we call the police to alert them on what is going on. Plus this rhino needs medical attention. " I said while drinking huge gulps of water.
Too our surprise a game park ranger appeared from the outside of the game reserve. I explained to him every inch of detail that had happened in the last twelve hours or so. He comforted Julian and I, then he told me he would use his radio transmitter to communicate with the head security of the park. I thanked him just before he took a look at the rhino which was tied into the canopy of the Ranger the poacher's had used. He said the calf would make it.
He turned around and slowly started walking to his Ranger, and that's when I heard a loud bang! Come from behind me. A gun shot!
I never felt any pain but I had a pretty decent excuse to fall to my knees till I realised I wasn't the one who had been shot. I looked up in front of me and saw the game ranger bleeding from his torso. Blood gushed right out of him and he fell to his knees. I could tell without even thinking twice about it, it was inevitable that the man who tried to help us was a goner.
I turned behind me where the gun shot had came from, with my hands raised in submission.
What I saw was surreal. Julian had a rifle firmly gripped into both his hands. He had just shot the ranger.
"Wha..what on earth are you doing Julian?"
"I'm sorry Ntoko. I should have told you earlier. I should have come clean about the real reason why I had planned to come to Kruger Park this weekend. I'm sorry old friend." He said to me with eyes as cold as winter mornings.
"Is..is this what I think it is? Are you..-"
"Yes I hired those good for nothing poacher's, it was me. I secured a deal with the vietnamese to trade the horns for money. I just knew if I had not gotten involved myself things would never have gone as planned. And once again my prediction was right."
"That's not the truth and you know it. Tell me you are pulling my leg on this one?" I asked him even though at the back of my mind somewhere I knew the real answer.
"Cmon, really? You think I guessed where the shootings would take place? Do you really believe that out of all the places in the park I knew exactly where to pick you up once the poacher's chased you and your stupid phone had no network? What did I suck up GPS co-ordinates from my thumb? Think about it. Why would you be placed inside a boot and I receive treatment of a different kind? Why did the poachers all of a sudden stop the chase once we had crashed into that steep bush? They realised it had been me driving so they called the hunt off. So when I saw your pathetic sympathy kick in for the rhino I knew that I needed you out of sight. So I text my men to pick us up once I had purposely leaked the fuel of the car by disconnecting the petrol filter. Making any sense buddy?"
Anguished. I was in a complete state of doldrums.
He shot the white baby rhino in front of me. I don't know why he did so, maybe it was his sick attempt to win me over and sell me some bogus dream that killing animals for money wasn't such a bad thing to do. I can't say, all I remember are the cries of my new dying animal friend. The poor thing had not even turned a year before some brute would kill her and use her body parts as a substance in asia - just for a quick buck.
After shooting the rhino, Julian failed to win me over and I purposely was reluctant to join him in his life of crime and cruelty. I made it vocal that I was against it all. Against him and his rhino poaching and the taking of human life for a lousy couple of hundred thousands.
He drove up 30km into the park where his rhino horn stock was held. The vietnamese man had been waiting on him. He looked towards me in the back seat and said
"I wish you could see things differently my friend. But I cannot risk you ratting me out to the police for all this. I just can't."
My eyes leaked once more and I shut them as Julian shut the door and locked it from outside. My hands and legs were tied in order for me not to fight what was a brutal death becoming. Two vietnamese goons holding five litre containers with petrol filled to the brim approached the car on either side. They poured the petroleum all over the cars body. I looked at Julian and saw him shake hands with his rhino horn buyers. The goons waited for a signal to light the car up.
I shut my eyes and thought of times that created a nostalgia in my mind. And for the first time I felt something rather different. I had drifted into my vivid imagination again, and I saw the pack of lions one more time. They had been stalking away but not at me as I had once imagined. They had stalked Julian and...I opened my already open eyes to find that I had not imagined the pack of stalking lions. They were real and they were right in front of me and behind Julian and his poaching associates. I heard screams and cries and yells and phoney apologies until silence inherited the wild. I started the car and drove off thinking about my grandmother and what she had said to me as a child "curiosity killed the cat" but curiosity did not kill the cat. At the end of it all, the cat killed curiosity.
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