Africa is not for sissies – that much we all know. But this continent of extremes, microcosmically represented by the incredibly diverse landscape, climate and habitat of South Africa, is packed with dangers, particularly for mountain bikers. – Compiled by Tim Brink and Sean Badenhorst
Hold your lion!
By Phill and Marnie Steffny
As a game ranger, I’m lucky to be able to enjoy the wilderness every single day. However, as an avid mountain biker too, I have to be creative in finding time to ride, as I live and work on a game reserve. So it’s not that easy to head off whenever I want to. There are some things that need to be thought about, planned for. And then there are events that you just can’t – or don’t want to – imagine happening.
My training rides back home from the lodge after my morning game drive used to fit in nicely with the time I had available. Plus, it was convenient to load up my bike on the cruiser and take it with me in the morning. I know what you’re thinking – you must be mad, what about all the animals?
I figured that if I stuck to the open areas, found out where the animals that I wanted to avoid were last seen, and kept my wits about me, well – I should be okay, right? So far so good, and all that. Apart from one or two surprised buffalo crashing off into the undergrowth, I’d managed to avoid any serious run-ins. The added adrenalin of the unexpected gave me a bit more muscle power than I’d usually have on some boring old track outside the reserve…
But one day it all changed. The ride back that day began just like the others. I said goodbye to my guests and swapped my uniform for cycling kit, and off I went. I’d been listening on the radio to my colleagues talking about a pride of lions feeding on a warthog carcass close to home, and in my head, mapped out a detour which would take me down by the river to avoid this hazard. That was my plan, anyway. As I approached the area where I expected them to be, I turned off the track and headed into some scrubby bush, following a well-worn game trail towards the river.
And then it happened. The bushes in front of me exploded in a tawny growling blur. Hitting brakes, I saw the unmistakeable black tip of a lion’s tail disappearing behind the bush, the thudding of giant paws barely audible over my hammering heart. But at least he was moving away from me. That’s all I could think about at that moment – the tail was getting further away towards the riverine thicket, giving me some time to back off.
I had cleverly avoided the main pride but had surprised a huge male lion at his own warthog kill. He was part of the pride and had gone off on his own and killed again. Some hasty backpedalling and swearing put a distance of perhaps 50 metres between this thoroughly peeved lion and me. But he’d vanished. Not a good sign.
Then suddenly he launched himself at me from behind a scrubby acacia thicket. At this stage I was still fairly calm. After all, I’ve been charged many times by lions and had always done the right thing, stood my ground and shouted. Which is what I did now. But he kept coming! What was wrong with this guy?
Not so calm now, my only option was to throw something at him. A rock. Easy on this rugged ground, I thought; rocks everywhere. Except at that moment. I looked around in despair. Not a single rock, let alone a pebble, stick, warthog skull, nothing to throw!
But I needed to throw something at him. My bike was too big, and anyway, I was using it as a barrier. First thing I could get my hands on was my multi-tool. Not large, spiky or heavy enough for my liking but better than nothing! I hurled it at the furious lion and it bounced off his front paw. Clearly, the surprise was enough to distract him and he looked in amazement at this puny little trinket, as if to say ‘is that the best you can do?’
And then to my immense – temporary – relief, he lay down, growling and twitching his tail in a very menacing manner. I started reversing again. He rose again, massive and deadly, and thundered towards me again at a full charge. This time I felt around for other things to throw, grabbed my full water bottle and lobbed it. It bounced in front of him and he ignored it. My last resort was to charge him myself! So I leapt forward, screaming my lungs out and thrashing my arms like a maniac, in a last-ditch attempt to stop him in his tracks. It did.
My immense relief was swiftly replaced with leg-numbing horror at my new predicament. Now I was only a few metres away! Within arms reach, so it seemed, crouched a very angry lion, fiery eyes fixed on me, and I’d run out of things to throw. I edged backwards, terrifyingly slowly, all the time expecting the explosive rush of his final charge to cut me down. Not even time to phone for help… Hang on! That could work – my trusty old cell phone, battered and chipped and very well used. With a frog ringtone. So I flung it at his face as he leapt towards me for a third and final charge. My luck, though, was in that day and he stopped once more, letting me reverse into a wider open area, and eventually he let me go and returned to the kill.
I was rescued by one of the game drives watching the rest of the pride on their kill, wandering what all the commotion was about. I bet a lycra-clad ranger emerging from the bush looking a bit shaken was the last thing they expected to see! The bike tool and cell phone are still missing. Perhaps it had rung when it was lying next to the lion, and he gulped it down, thinking it was a frog? I guess I’ll never know. One thing’s for sure though, my days of riding back home from the lodge are over! It’s back to the boring old farm roads again for me. For now, anyway.
Our adventurous spirit and love for exercising outdoors has its drawbacks. We’re very familiar with injuries because we know the occasional tumble is part of what we do and integral to improving.
But illness – sometimes quite debilitating – is a risk we face, more than most active South Africans. Because we often travel to rural or remote places to ride or race, we also find ourselves exposed to situations that carry a disease risk. In fact, right in our cities and towns there’s a disease risk as a result of sewer system leaks or simply the fact that homeless people use streams or rivers for ablution.
Even rock pools in the dry season can be dangerous, with standing water a haven for parasites that can get into broken skin and create serious infection. In addition to parasite infections, other water- and food-borne diseases in South Africa include Cholera, Bilharzia and Hepatitis A. All three are debilitating and even life-threatening in some cases.
Schistosomiasis (Bilharzia) is a water-borne disease that is quite prevalent in South Africa. It is not likely to kill you, just make life really unpleasant, with fever, fatigue, coughing and diarrhoea all in the mix. Spending as little time in river water is the only way to avoid it, really, so cut back on those mid-ride skinny dips when you are in an area known for Bilharzia.
A charging elephant or lion is fearsome, but mingy little mosquitoes are actually the most deadly creature in Africa, as they can be the source of malaria and dengue fever. Malaria alone kills almost a million people in Africa each year. South African deaths are low as the country has relatively good control of the disease. However, high risk areas in South Africa include the northern and eastern regions of Limpopo and KwaZulu-Natal and the eastern regions of Mpumalanga. The most high-risk period is from October to May. Don’t take a chance with malaria, the pills might make you feel like grim initially, but this is better than actually meeting the Grim Reaper.
Tick bite fever is not a killer – generally – but not the most fun you will ever have. Think a man with an angle grinder working on all the nerve endings in your head, another one jumping up and down in your throat with a cheese grater and add in the urgent need to get to a bucket and throw up, but not having the strength to get that far.You can pick up tick bite fever anywhere, and the only real avoidance is to check every time you stop that none have snuggled into your leg hairs or clothing – even at speed through bush and long grass, they can make contact. Check your socks, too, and this is one time your roadie mates have it right with the shaved legs! Ticks can also, more rarely, carry Lyme disease and Congo fever, neither of which you particularly want to experience.
Rabies potentially affects all cyclists, as we seem to be prime targets for dogs, rabid or not. If it isn’t caught really early, it is almost always fatal: symptoms, once rabies has set in, include insomnia, anxiety, confusion, partial paralysis, hallucinations, agitation, hypersalivation (increase in saliva), difficulty swallowing, and hydrophobia (fear of water). Here is the kicker – the window period for humans, after being bitten by something rabid – not just dogs, although they are the most common carriers we come into contact with – is about 10 days. Treatment before the bug gets hold will save your life, so any time you are bitten by a strange dog, go to a doctor and sort it out!
Cycle Mashatu is one of the must-do African mountain bike experiences: we visit Greg Bond and his guides as often as we can, and have had our fair share of up-close encounters with lion, elephant, cheetah, hyena and crocodile. But not once have we felt threatened enough to wonder if we were to be today’s special.
There are a few reasons an outfit like Cycle Mashatu has had such a spotless safety record. It starts with owner Greg Bond’s decades of experience as a game ranger, across South Africa, both vehicle-bound, and developing walking trails in other game reserves. As a passionate mountain biker, it was a no-brainer for him to set up an operation like Cycle Mashatu. The location – in Botswana’s Tuli block, wedged between South Africa and Zimbabwe, is missing two of the Big 5 – rhino and buffalo – which are the most prone to anti-human behaviour.
“The Big 5 were named in the old hunting days – being the most dangerous animals to hunt. Today, they could be classified as the five most dangerous animals to bunny hop,” says Bond, whose sense of humour would trouble us more if he wasn’t carrying a rifle.
“The two cats (lion and leopard) present less of a danger in wild country than most realise. That said, mothers with cubs, lions feeding and stressed animals through injury and sickness can be problematic. Semi-tame/canned lions are the most dangerous of all, as they have lost all fear of humans. In the last 10 years all deaths by lions in South Africa have been by canned animals. I guess the moral here is don’t go riding in the Lion Park.”
If lions are encountered whilst riding its important to not panic, says Bond. “Most of the time the cats will take off at the first glimpse of humans. At close quarters, lions may react aggressively and possibly charge (as happened to Phill Stefny in previous story!). Dismount and stand your ground. By running/riding away their natural hunting instincts kick in and they will catch you. Stand tall, scream and shout and wave your arms frantically. This should be enough to turn a charging lion. Following a charge, continue facing the animal/s and back off slowly. As your distance between the animals and you increases they will settle down or take off.” All the more reason to wear baggies…
“Of all the big game I regard elephant cows as the most dangerous,” says Bond. “Elephants are the most iconic of the big five, and the hallmark of Mashatu. Bulls tend to be solitary, and more relaxed and tolerant of human disturbance than cows, but again sick, injured or stressed animals can be dangerous. Elephant bulls are normally safe to view from a distance. We never follow an elephant bull, though, as that might aggravate it. But elephants are herd animals, and as a rule, if you encounter a herd of elephants turn the other way. Occasionally circumstances allow us to stop and watch for a while at a safe distance, but we are always very cautious and conscious of escape routes, distances and wind direction. The moment they seem to sense our presence we leave.”
“Elephants are deceptively quiet and, despite their size, very well camouflaged. When riding in elephant country it’s important to keep a keen eye out for fresh (wet) dung and prints. Avoid thick bush and listen out for telltale sounds of trumpets, rumbles and breaking branches. Remember too that they will stand dead still for long periods of time listening out for danger, so a quiet piece of bush in front of you is no guarantee the way forward is clear,” warns Bond.
“There is nothing to compare to a charging elephant. Most of the time an elephant will charge with a fantastic show, ears flapping, trunk held high and tremendous trumpeting. This is referred to as a mock or display charge for the purpose of (very successfully) scaring the daylights out of the recipient. The rule is never run, and do your best to return the rumpus. Once the show is over retreat quietly and smartly. When extracting oneself from this type of situation use any available cover, get downwind and make as much distance as possible from the angry ellie. We’ve had occasions to scream ourselves hoarse attempting to shout down elephants and then darting this way and that to avoid a repeat.
“Occasionally, very occasionally an elephant means business. The desired result (from the elephant’s point of view) of a full charge is to obliterate the nuisance. If you find yourself on the receiving end of a full charge you have serious trouble at hand. It is situations like these that require us to carry rifles whilst out and about.”
The Mashatu guides have only had to fire their weapons twice – both warning shots – in the six years they have been in business.
“Our most scary moment came when our most experienced leader, Joe, had a full group of eight on a well-worn trail through a fever tree thicket. The track doubled-up on itself, and as Joe looked left to check on Goms, the guide at the back of the line, he literally bumped into a large cow elephant. She was as startled as the humans, and instinctively took offence to their presence.
“She fixated on a girl at the back of the line, who was wearing a bright, white cycling top, and charged. Joe jumped off the bike, hoiked the rifle off his shoulder and got between the guests and the ellie. Shouting and waving had stopped working, and Goms was quickly leading the guests away, as Joe stood his ground. He was forced to send a warning shot over her shoulder, and thankfully she stopped about five metres from him, stomped and trumpeted a bit and then left. I am not sure I would have been that cool.
“My warning shot would have been between the eyes, but it did show me we have exactly the right guys working for us. Safety, and calmness under pressure, that is what you need in these situations.”
To this day, Bond ensures, at the start of a Cycle Mashatu tour, that nobody is wearing bright, especially white, kit. Or just advises the rest of the party to ride a bit away from someone that is…
Choosing the Tuli area was important, as Greg has had by far the most trouble with rhino and buffalo, in his non-mountain biking African experience. “Rhino will most likely be the most common encountered large animal whilst out riding on many of the smaller game parks and farms that offer weekend riding getaways. Both black and white rhino present real dangers and one should always keep your distance if encountered. Riding where black rhino occur is not recommended and unlikely to be permitted. They are quick to attack and difficult to turn. Best thing to do when encountering a black rhino is make a quick get away. Their habit of lying under a shady tree makes them easy to stumble upon.
“White rhino are dangerous for the fact that they appear placid, docile and approachable. White rhino rely on their sense of smell to identify threats. Being shortsighted they run blindly ‘away’ from danger, often straight towards you, when the scent of humans assaults their nostrils. If faced with a charging white rhino, which is akin to a steamroller (speeding) towards you, wave and shout as best you can. This more often than not alerts the animal to your position and it will change course. If this fails, you could be in for a real charge and you need to get out of the way. Make use of any available cover to get out of the way. Their shortsightedness becomes your advantage in this case. Don’t think you can side step a rhino, which can turn on a penny.”
But of all the big animals, Bond warns to be most nervous of riding where buffalo occur.
“Breeding herds present no real threat but hangers-on (bulls) and dagga boys (old bulls) present potential disasters. Buffalo bulls can be grumpy and cantankerous. Like the rhino, they have a habit of lying low, in thick bush and one could easily ride onto one before knowing of its presence – with catastrophic results.
“A buffalo does not mock charge, so you have no chance of turning it. If you’re not fortunate to have a competent armed guide on hand you may, at this stage, regret not forking out that extra $$$ for one. Hit the ground, so he can’t hoist you, and present as small a target as possible. If you have time, dive for what-ever cover is available and hope for the best.”
Rules when riding in Big 5 country
- Listen to your guides
- Stay behind the guides/gun
- Ride as a group in single file
- Ride quietly. Often animals can be heard before they’re seen
- Stick together
- Do not approach wild animals
- Do not run (most of the time)…
- Keep your eyes up and anticipate what may be around the corner/behind that bush.
- Let somebody know where you’re riding, if you are going sans guides.
- Have cellphone/radio for communications. (Your guides should have, but carry yours anyway)
- Carry first aid kit (If you are guided, they should have, but check before you set out.)
Spiders, Scorpions and Snakes
Spiders that are big and hairy are not actually dangerous – it is the little ones you need to beware of. There are only three common one that are generally regarded as dangerous to humans, in South Africa, and none of them will kill you. The Violin Spider is common, but will do no more harm than create a nasty lesion that will scar badly – the good news is they prefer running to biting; the Yellow Sac Spider is like a Violin Spider on steroids, but still not fatal; finally, the Button Spider, which you can happily find in most homes in SA.
A bite from one of these will make you sweaty, feverish, give you cramps and limb pain, as well as abdominal pain. But, not a single death on record in our fair country, so you will be fine. The best way to avoid spider bites is to check before you pick up wood or stones.
Which brings us to scorpions. “We have had a few scorpion stings at Mashatu” says Greg Bond “ and all of them have been around the camp fire, picking up wood.” The good news is scorpions are easy to decipher in SA – if it has a thick tail, and thin pincers, you have a problem. Thin tail, thick pincers, it is going to sting like blazes, but not for long.
The Parabathus, or thick-tailed varieties can cause death in small children – less than one a year since records began – but are highly unlikely to do so in adults. Get to a doctor if you start sufering sensitive skin, nausea, abdominal cramps or other abnormalities in the 12-24 hours after being stung, chances are you chose the bad kind and will need observation and/or medical treatment. An icepack on the stung area will help reduce pain in both cases.
Interaction with snakes is a reality on any mountain bike ride in South Africa, but your chances of getting into trouble are minimal, to say the least. Almost all snakes will ‘run a mile’ when they sense humans coming, even on bikes. The only glitch in this evolutionary flight response is the Puffadder, which is a lazy sod and just lies in the track.
“We have seen everything at Mashatu over the years, even Mambas standing up in the grass. But the only ones we are really careful of are the Puffys. Often, Joe won’t see them until the last minute, and everybody ends up bailing left and right as his wheel flicks it up at the rider behind. Number three is the worst place in the line…”.
Treatment for snake bites involves three essential steps: identify the snake (in case antivenom is needed), immobilise and calm the bitee (the slower the heartrate and the less the activity, the slower the venom will travel) and get the victim to a hospital as quickly as possible.
Wrapping the area in a light bandage, and splinting the limb, can help with immobilising, but please refrain from being John Wayne: cutting the wound open with a penknife and sucking out the venom looks cool in spaghetti westerns, but will do absolutely no good. And current thinking is that tourniquets do more harm than good, too. Keeping the patient calm is the best medicine, until you can find professional help.
TREAD Magazine is sold throughout South Africa and can be found in: Spar, CNA, Exclusive Books, Discerning bike shops and on Zinio
*Originally published in TREAD Issue 13, 2011 – All rights reserved