By HERMAN THORBECKE
Because I destroyed a perfectly good Ford Fairlane, my employer came to the conclusion that fast cars were not good for me and replaced the 5 liter Fairlane with a brand-new (1967) 1.5-liter Peugeot 404, a perfectly nice little car, but no speedster. It’s not just speed that can cause accidents, however.
At that time, the 1960s, I lived only some 10 miles from the Kruger Game Reserve in South Africa. As there were no fences around the reserve, and the wild animals did not know where the park ended and the cattle ranches began, many of them roamed free in that part of the country.
At times, when the wind was out of the east, one could hear the lions roar, very much to the dismay of my bull terriers, who on those occasions would rush out into the bush, ready to tackle the invaders. More brawn than brains and fortunately the lions never came that close. My current Standard Poodles maintain that you don’t need brawn if you have smarts.
If I had had a little more smarts, I might not have landed in trouble during my sales call to Hendrik Prinsloo, a cattle rancher and one of my clients. I happened to arrive on his birthday, which was in the process of being celebrated with lots of beer and a major cookout. Always game for a party, it took little convincing to get me to join the festivities. A couple of beers were not going to hamper my ability to find my way home, I thought.
The talk around the fire was about a cheetah that had been sighted in the area—another unwelcome stray from the Kruger Park. It had already killed several young heifers that belonged to farmers in the area, and plans were made to hunt him down during the coming days. Little did I suspect that I would be passively involved.
It was past 10 o’clock when I decided to drive home. Hendrik insisted I take a large bag of raw steaks, which he deposited on the back seat of my car. He admonished me to drive carefully, adding, “In that French buggy, you couldn’t get into trouble if you tried.”
The roads in that part of the country were mostly poorly maintained dirt roads, without signage of any nature. As I was more than a little under the weather and still not very familiar with that section of my territory, I was soon very lost. Had I been inclined to ask for directions, there would have been no one to ask.
I must have been driving around in circles, as after a couple of hours I was very tired but nowhere near my destination. As I found out later, I was only a few miles from my point of departure. So extremely tired, that my system decided to take a little time off. With my foot still on the accelerator, the Peugeot kept moving along at a steady pace. When I woke up from my little snooze, I was parked—well off the road—on a big rock and wedged in between two rather hefty Mopani trees.
As this happened in the pre-airbag era, I must have been under the watchful eye of some angel that specialized in the protection of drunks and fools. Other than a gusher of a nosebleed and a rather sore knee, there were no apparent ill effects to my physique.
The Peugeot had not been that lucky. The engine ran and the rear wheels merrily turned, but that to little avail, as they were some six inches off the ground. Time to start walking. A little fresh air would not be harmful. I found myself some 100 feet from the road and had to climb a steep embankment to get back to it. No easy task that was, with my throbbing knee.
Once there I did at first not have a clue which direction to take, but being an avid sailor, I knew a little about celestial navigation. The sky was clear, and in the southern hemisphere, the Milky Way stands out like a wide streak of light across the heavens.
With the help of the Milky Way and the Southern Cross, I figured out the general direction and started limping along, hoping against all odds that someone might drive by and give me a ride.
Again my guardian angel came to my rescue. A rickety bus packed with laborers on their way to work stopped, and after questioning me, gave me a ride to a crossroad not far from my home.
The driver wanted to know what I was doing there that early in the morning. “Did the wild animals attack the young basie?” he asked mockingly. Basie is the diminutive for baas (boss).
I must have been quite a sight with the blood from my smashed nose all over my shirt, and as they were all laughing gleefully, I appeared to be providing some comic relief for these early morning travelers. At least that part was positive, although I did not quite see it that way at the time. I may have been young, but at 6 foot 3, certainly not little.
Anyway, thanks to their kindness I did make it home by sunrise, just in time to be received by the young man who worked for us in the house, with the question, “Hauk, poor Basie, was you attacked by the animals?”
My wife’s observations were somewhat less compassionate, “Were you drunk again, you bloody fool? One of these days you are going to kill yourself and then, what will I and the children do?” As she was plainly stating the facts, there was no point in arguing. I had a cold shower and went to sleep.
On waking up, I called a friend who owned a tow-truck and asked him to give me a hand retrieving my poor vehicle. It took us a while to find it. Had it not been silver-gray with the sunlight reflecting off it, we might never have found it. There it sat, high and dry on its rock, hidden between the trees. On approaching, I noticed a strange noise coming from within the car, and on peering through the rear window, I realized I had a visitor.
Were the jokes about the wild animals attacking me about to come true? Spread out on the rear seat was a full-grown cheetah. The doors were closed, and he could not get out. On leaving, I must have left one of the doors open, and attracted by the lovely aroma of 10 pounds of raw beefsteak, the cheetah had jumped inside for a ready meal. No killing required. His weight must have jolted the door closed behind him. The partially open windows and the shade of the trees kept him alive.
That same day park rangers tranquilized my guest and returned him to the game reserve from which he had strayed. I called Hendrik Prinsloo and told him his cattle were safe again. He promptly offered to replace my steaks. The Peugeot was well beyond salvaging, and for all I know still rests in peace on its rock in the African Bushveld.