By the beginning of 1995 business was brisk, and Jurie and I were starting to feel the strain of running the lodge on a round-the-clock basis. Jurie was driving, and walking, guests, organizing the camp maintenance, administration, entertainment, and anything else that needed doing, while I, among other things, was cooking, helping with the housekeeping, coordinating the guests’ activities, and battling with the garden.

In about February Abel chatted to Jurie suggesting that perhaps what Djuma Bush Lodge really needed was an experienced tracker, such as Abel’s older cousin, Dixon Mkansi, who had for years worked at Londolozi and Sabi Sabi in various capacities, including those of tracker and guide. I was quite excited by this suggestion, as it meant I would then have Abel around camp to protect me from marauding baboons and hyenas while Jurie was out in the bush. Jurie was also greatly attracted to the idea: the thought of having someone to help with game drives appealed to him like a honey pot to a bee. Recently he had had two especially annoying encounters with guests. On the first occasion he had been asked - in all seriousness - whether giraffe hunted in packs! On the second, he had been asked to do an extra game drive after dinner - not a welcome excursion for a sleep-deprived person. However, always at the ready to give the guests a memorable safari, he had agreed. About half an hour into the drive, when Jurie and Abel stopped the vehicle to show the guests a rhino they had tracked, they discovered that everyone on the back of the car was asleep!
When Dixon Mkansi arrived in Djuma Bush Lodge’s lounge for an interview he proved to be every bit as professional and experienced as his cousin Abel had predicted. Dixon had been in the business for many years, as a tracker and a guide, and - with a slight American - accent recalled his experiences enthusiastically. Jurie and I were amazed to learn he had only had formal schooling for a couple of years, after which he had spent his youth as a cattle herder for his father. Although this meant he was practically illiterate it had made him into an expert on bush lore. He told us that in those days the worst thing that could happen to him was for him to return home to his father at the end of the day with a cow injured, or, worse, with one missing! In time to come we heard many stories about his days of defending cattle from venomous snakes and large predators. It did seem that facing his father’s wrath was always far worse for him than any encounter with threatening animals. What tweaked our interest most was Dixon’s account of his twelve years of experience in the game lodge industry. He had worked his way up from waiter to tracker to game ranger. During his interview with us Dixon pulled out several photos and letters from foreign guests, who waxed lyrical about his skills and how they had loved their safaris with him. With that cherry in place on the top, the deal was signed, sealed, and delivered, and within a couple of days Dixon had joined the expanding Djuma team. He started as a tracker, but Jurie quickly recognised the rapport Dixon easily established with guests, and before long Dixon was doing the guiding, with a ‘new and improved’ Abel tracking from the bonnet of the vehicle.
Dixon’s practical experience was vast, and very much more suited to the needs of the guests than was Jurie’s scientific knowledge. Most guests were interested in ticking off the Big 5, seeing as much plains game as possible, and hearing a few true wild stories from their ranger. Every now and then we would get guests that did feel the need for a deeper experience and then Jurie and Dixon would combine their knowledge to meet the guests’ expectations. A profound trust and respect developed between the two men.
Dixon and I hit it off from day one. First of all, he loved gardening, and the two of us started a great little vegetable garden next to his hut. We spent hours there lamenting the problems of gardening in the bush, and making plans to outfox monkeys, hares, birds, and rats from sharing the fruits of our labour. The veggie garden looked like a huge wire cage (which it was), the frame and door made from knob thorn stumps, and the roof from stretched shade cloth. It also had a rudimentary irrigation system that never really worked, but made us feel more professional about our market-gardening endeavours. We may not have produced as many veggies as we intended, but our relationship strengthened during time spent together in “the cage”. I was still coming to terms with living in the bush. Dixon and his stories helped me to relax somewhat and accept that I had to share my life with wild creepy crawlies.
Best of all were the times Dixon and I used to spend in the bush. Okay, I also loved being out and about with Jurie, but I had a lot more trust in Dixon should we get into potentially dangerous situations. Jurie was great for explaining the inner workings of symbiotic relationships between, for example, specific grass types and the grazing techniques of antelope, but, as far as I was concerned, I needed practical knowledge concerning what to do if, say, charged by an elephant. Dixon could read spoor like I never thought possible, he taught me the various smells of different animals, and how to act and react in specific situations. One afternoon we were on a drive with Dixon on the tracker’s seat, Jurie behind the wheel, myself in the passenger seat and six French-speaking guests seated behind us. We were moving through some fairly thick scrubby bush when we came across an elephant in our path. Dixon had told Jurie never to back down from an elephant because that often encouraged a charge. It is better to stand one’s ground and make the elephant think twice about one’s presence; it should back off in its own time. There we were, faced with an elephant, ears outstretched and head raised – not the best situation in which to be, with the surrounding bush was too thick to turn in. Jurie revved the engine to announce our presence, but the elephant reacted to this as a gesture of dominance and charged! I can assure you that, at the moment of a charge, one cannot tell the difference between a mock charge and a full on charge. Only the outcome decides the issue. There was Dixon in the most vulnerable place of all, perched on the front of the vehicle, and he had the presence of mind to stand up on the footrest of the tracker’s seat and wave his arms, clapping his hands at the elephant as it closed in on us. Most astoundingly the elephant stopped a few meters from of the car, turned around, and went off, leaving us quite breathless and bewildered!
Another time I was wowed by Dixon was during sundowners near Green Pan on eastern Gowrie. You may remember Green Pan from an earlier account of when we drained the vehicle’s battery watching a lion kill with a spotlight. On this occasion we had stopped and climbed out of the vehicle. We wanted to have a drink on the lovely plain that glowed in the golden light we would get in summer just before the sun goes down. A few minutes later Dixon spotted a rhino a fair distance off. We all had our drinks in hand, and Dixon said that, if we were very quiet, he reckoned the rhino, out of curiosity, would walk right up to us. Rhinos have poor eyesight, but good senses of hearing and smell. Dixon knew the wind was just right. Sure enough, within a few minutes the great beast started moving towards us, and shortly was very close to where a guest and I were standing together a little way away from the vehicle. Dixon calmly - but convincingly - told us to walk backwards to the vehicle, very slowly. It was only then that the rhino gave a snort, and with tail curled, turned and trotted off.
On several occasions during night drives I saw Dixon catch nightjars by hand. This is by no means an impossible feat, but he managed it so effortlessly, and would then have the small birds perch on his finger while showing guests their gapes and the strange whiskers that enabled them to catch prey on the wing.
There was always a certain artistry in the way in which Dixon added to our guests’ total game experience. For example, he would never cram the first part of the drive with sightings, but would space the sightings over the full three hours, or even over a few drives. On one night drive the spotlight lit up some lions on a kill just behind Chitwa’s dam wall. It was a fabulous sighting, lots of noise and drama as the lions squabbled over titbits and we watched from close quarters. After some time of being entranced by the sighting I suddenly realised that the spotlight was no longer focussing on the lions. Dixon had the guests absorbed in stargazing! After about ten minutes of identifying the Southern Cross, Orion’s Belt and the Milky Way the spotlight swung back on down and there were the lions still at the kill.
On the lodge front Dixon brought us up to scratch quite fast, insisting on uniforms, blankets, and other amenities for the vehicles, and many other general improvements he considered essential. As far as uniforms went we had thought clothing, in various shades of brown and khaki, from the army surplus store in Johannesburg was good enough, but Dixon was right. We needed proper bush gear and good shoes in order to present a more professional appearance. Jurie hardly ever wore shoes at all, but that, too, was changed. Dixon somehow also got me into khaki ‘Teesavs’, with epaulettes to boot! I remember printing our first epaulettes, once again putting my art-school skills to good use.
As far as our game-drive vehicle was concerned, some finer details were added. These included a first-aid kit, toilet paper, a spade, mosquito repellent, a bird book, and various spoor and mammal identification guides. The most valuable of these reference books were those that had some info in German, French and Spanish for quick translations for foreign guests. The addition of blankets to the vehicles not only made their benches more comfortable to sit on, but were also practical in another way, in that there was something warm to wrap up in when the weather cooled down.
To read previous chapters of “Our African Way”, please click the following link:

Our African Way