‘Only food runs, Jean.' This is what I was told when I first broached the subject with Corne van Schwalyk, the marketing director of Ecotraining, a training provider of safari and nature guide courses in South Africa. 'There are two prides of lion, many leopard, never mind seventy elephant in the Reserve. You should look into a different exercise routine.’
I arrived in the Selati reserve in northern Limpopo for a two month long professional nature guiding course, although I could only stay for the first four weeks. I came from Cape Town, where daily runs on Table Mountain – a vertical climb for the first 40 minutes of a 1.5 hour run – had sharpened my fitness. The thought of not being able to expend that energy every day threw me into a panic.
Like many runners, I am addicted to my endorphins. But also to the mental space that running affords, and how – curiously – I do some of my best thinking while not thinking. Which is to say, while running.
‘You can get a volleyball team going, though,’ Corne added. He was trying to be helpful, but I’m not a team sports person. Considering that it's in a reserve without electricity, it's amazing that Selati has its own volleyball court, with a net pitched in the hot sand of the Selati river. The river is ephemeral, meaning it flows with water only a few times a year, as in the recent (January 2012) floods in Limpopo. But most of the time it consists of sand, giant river boulders, smooth enough to scramble over, and shrinking pockets of river water inhabited by tiny flesh-nibbling fish.
My first day I tried circuit training, using a tried and tested routine from my months on Antarctic research vessels (no running there either). If done with intensity, circuit training is a decent substitute for running, although I found on the ships that there was nothing like putting one foot in front of the other. Also, if I can’t run and/or walk for a couple of hours a day I rapidly put on weight, no matter how little I eat – my pet name for our research ship was the Good Ship Fatso.
I took a mat and went down to the volleyball court. We were allowed to play volleyball because it was in sight and screaming distance of camp. If we were to suddenly be in danger then Ralph or Dries, our instructors, ought to have time to grab one of the high-calibre rifles from the gun cabinet and come to our rescue.
I was doing burpees, a fiendish exercise invented by the US Navy to keep personnel fit on aircraft carriers, when I heard the growl. It wasn’t a roar, rather a low deep-throated sound that held within it the capacity for eruption, or explosion. I’ve been in the bush before, in South Africa and Namibia, and come upon puma and jaguar while working in the Central American rainforest, so I recognised it immediately.
I stood up and faced the riverbank. The cat was only ten metres away, I guessed, hidden in the thick riparian bush. I picked up my mat and backed away, facing the direction of the sound.
‘Yes there’s been a male leopard around,’ Ralph said. 'Maybe you'd better exercise closer to camp.' We agreed that I could, at my own risk, run within the confines of camp. The path that snaked through it was probably only 400 metres long. I’d have to run back and forth about 40 times in any one run, running from the women’s washroom block at one end to the trailer that marked the outer boundary of camp at the northern end. If I ran in the middle of the day, when lion and leopard are usually asleep, I might be alright. But this also meant running in the hottest part of the day in Limpopo, where March temperatures are over 30 degrees, with 90% humidity.
One day Cristina, a fellow student, came running with me. We started at opposite sides of the camp and met in the middle. Soon though she was gaining on me. ‘You run fast,’ I said, afterwards.
‘No, I was just turning around before the end of camp because I was too scared.’
Over the weeks I saw as much wildlife, or rather I had more meaningful encounters, while running through camp than I did on our educational game drives when we went in search of the animals. I made friends with a group of Nyala antelope. Rather than scattering at my approach, they watched me benevolently. I would stop and talk to them on my laps, and the young males let me sidle up to them until I was only inches away.
I ran always with my eyes peeled into the long tawny grass on either side of the path, and on the path itself, to keep a lookout for snakes. Adders don’t move at your approach, and cobra, if surprised, will rear up suddenly. There were lots of Mozambican spitting cobras in camp, we were advised, although I thankfully never saw one.
I did see a rhombic night adder, a very beautiful (for a snake) reptile and nearly collided with two male waterbuck who were as surprised as I was. A warthog mother and her piglets made regular appearances, and I would often stop short of my destination so as not to scare them. Vervet monkeys followed me in the trees alongside the path, screeching: look at the crazy runner! I also got to practice bird identification and animal sounds, telling my Crested Francolin from my Natal Spurfowl – both make an hysterical racket – and hearing the grunt of the kudu buck who lived down the road from camp.
I did make a few concessions to my vulnerability. I tucked in my ponytail so I looked less like the bushy-tailed impala, favoured food of the carnivoires. If I heard something I didn’t like the sound of I stopped dead and backed away.
When I returned home I got in touch with Adrian Faulker of Afreco Tours. Afreco booked my safari guide course, and represents Ecotraining’s many courses – from professional rifle handling to bush adventure holiday courses like their 14 day Ecoquest courses. I told him about my running. ‘But I wasn’t stupid, I said. I did it as a calculated risk, to stay sane.’
‘Yeah, well I wasn’t going to tell you this, but two guys who were running in Kruger were killed by leopard not long ago,’ he said, referring to Kruger National Park, some 60 kilometres east of the Selati reserve. ‘Read A Game Ranger Remembers’ by Bruce Brydon, and you’ll know why I was a bit worried when you told me you were running every day in camp.’
I haven’t read this book yet, and I’m not sure I will. When in the bush safety is paramount of course; Ecotraining are supremely safely-conscious, our instructors were completely diligent in this regard, and my running was a calculated risk – my own risk. But something tells me a bit of blithe innocence – or ignorance - is no bad thing. For dedicated endorphin addicts, at least.
Ecotraining’s 55-day South Africa and Botswana-based FGASA Level One course costs approximately £3,600 (excl flights); a 28 day accredited Level One course is also run several times a year in Kenya, cost approximately £2500 (excl flights). Ecotraining is represented in the UK by Afreco Tours: www.afrecotours.com