During 1994 I think I had bumped into Johnson once or twice in Utha village, where most of the staff came from, and knew him to be a chef working at a renowned lodge much further north. I noticed him because he looked a little like Captain Picard from StarTrek. Apart from commenting on that I am not sure whether we had ever discussed his coming to work at Djuma. However, when Dixon and Abel mentioned that I was looking rather exhausted, and suggested the need for a full-time qualified chef, my thoughts wandered over to Johnson.

I contacted him and asked if he was interested in joining ‘the new kids on the block’, and indeed he was. Working at Djuma Bush Lodge would mean he would be closer to his home and family – a wife, Lindiwe, and four sons. Being the only chef at the lodge would mean an increase in his status, but it also meant he would have to do everything as far as food was concerned. At the larger lodge he had had assistants in various fields, such as baking and salad preparation, leaving him free for the more skilled jobs.
The day came when Johnson was to start work - and for which I had decided I could wait no longer. The day came and went - no sign of a chef. I was devastated: we had a film crew coming in for a few days, and I had been looking forward to having someone to share the workload. When I phoned Johnson the next day I learnt he had not yet worked off money he owed to the other lodge for a course he had taken while in their employ. No problem. I sent Jurie off, chequebook in hand, to pay off the debt at once and bring Johnson back to the lodge that very day. The film crew was a SABC team using Djuma to shoot a documentary for teenagers. Johnson’s having arrived at Djuma, all-be-it a day late, meant I was able to join them on some drives. On one such drive the crew shot some very gruesome footage of a young male lion killing a baboon. The rest of the troop cried out with almost human voices, while the baboon fought courageously before succumbing to a final blow from the lion.
Johnson and I were destined to have a tough relationship – maybe our artists’ temperaments or something – but in broad terms we do get along. He was quite scathing about my not having served three-course dinners, and immediately set about correcting my wayward culinary expertise. In fact, with the kitchen under Johnson’s control, I began to feel like a fifth wheel. About two weeks later I was drawn aside by Max Sithole, the chef at Chitwa and Johnson’s best friend, and sternly informed that Johnson “knows his job”. It was suggested I stay out the kitchen.
I think Johnson dismissed all I thought I had thus far achieved at the lodge because I am not a qualified chef. He refused to cook on an open fire, when there was a good enough gas-oven in the kitchen, and everything, apart from potjies and braais, had to be reorganised to be prepared in the kitchen. Not only did I find cooking on a fire convenient, but I also, as already mentioned, liked the authentic bush atmosphere the procedure lent to dinner and breakfast. Rather grudgingly I allowed Johnson to have his way because he did such a fine job. Moreover, the guests were happy and I had a bit more time to focus on other things.
Among the great deal that Johnson criticized in me was that I seemed to regard finer detail as unimportant. However, it was more a case of my being plain ignorant. Grace, a housekeeper friend of Johnson’s, came in and showed our staff some tried and tested added extras that would put nice finishing touches to the chalets: how to turn down the beds in the evenings, and place flowers and chocolates on the pillows; how correctly to insert a toilet roll into its holder and make the leading edge of tissue look very beautiful - who would have guessed that was possible! Many other such little touches taught to us by Grace are still used by us today.
Shortly after Johnson joined us we were contacted to do a live cooking show, from Djuma Bush lodge, for a radio station. The show was travel-oriented, with the guest host, Braam Kruger, presenting from various exotic locations linked up, through techno-wizardry, to Radio 702’s studios in Johannesburg. Braam was an artist in many forms, which included running, and cooking for, his restaurant The Kitchen Boy in Troyeville, Johannesburg. The décor, food and atmosphere at The Kitchen Boy was unique, the patrons usually enjoying a live show of bravado and emotions before they finally got their food, which could take hours to arrive at the table. Anyone daring to complain was usually shown out in no uncertain terms onto the pavement.
The radio show aimed at covering the preparation of a three-course meal, during which we would chat about venison, hunting, and such things. Braam said that my voice tested best for the broadcast and so Johnson was let off the hook, while I once more had to get to grips with cooking. While such matters were being decided Braam and I were being hooked up to cordless microphone head-devices. As was to be expected Braam found my dishes hopelessly boring, but, amongst much ass-pinching and colourful language, the afternoon progressed while he showed off some of his own interesting dishes. They had originated in various traditional cultures. Needless to say such dishes were usually poisonous, or, at the least, dangerous in some way, if not prepared properly; anything less would have been too dull to even contemplate. One instance I recall utilized madumbies, or the bulb part of the elephant ear-plant, indigenous to Kwa Zulu Natal: if the tuber were not peeled properly its toxins could kill you! Another dish was made from the paddles of a prickly-pear plant. Every single little prickle and thorn had to be removed, before grilling over the fire produced a pretty average-tasting morsel.
Johnson thus made no radio debut, but continued to inspire changes at the lodge. For example, on his insistence we closed in the open-plan kitchen. The monkeys were still taking their full toll from the contents of the vegetable fridge; we often walked in on them during their raids. From a hygiene perspective it was just not on sharing kitchen space with primates that did not clean up after themselves. Another time hyenas tried to get into the oven where we were keeping some left-over food from the previous night’s dinner. In the morning we found the stove lying face down on the floor, with the gas connection pipe stretched to breaking point. Once we had righted the stove we could see a perfect set of teeth marks, right through the metal, where the culprit had bitten to pull the stove over.
Johnson had been in the business for as long as Dixon, their having sometimes worked together at the same lodges. They had grown up together in Utha village. I should point out that Johnson and Dixon are both much older than Jurie and I, and we gladly have taken their advice and guidance very seriously. Both Johnson and Dixon have been very instrumental in laying a good foundation for running the lodge. From the time of their having joined us we never looked back.
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Our African Way