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Can man survive in the bush?


By Albert Arthur Ackhurst

Being eaten is something that could potentially spoil your entire day. This thought was foremost in our minds as we set off along the Klaserie River in the rugged savanna bushveld south of the mighty Olifants. Our aim was to survive for thirty days in the Klaserie Private Nature Reserve.



We suffered from insomnia, we were scared, hungry and dirty. That was after the first day. During the next twenty-nine days we endured the harshness of Mother Nature in all her facets. Disease, injury and heat exertion was counted under the good times. There were the hyenas that constantly plagued us at night and that one obstinate buffalo bull that crossed my path.  We had to do some quick gymnastics to avoid the horn of a bad tempered black Rhino. None of that was too bad all things considered. What really got to us was the journey we had to take to get back to our true roots, back to where Mother Nature still calls the shots.

Things didn’t turn out the way I wanted it to. I thought I was going to conquer nature. Instead, on that last day, I sat on a hard rock in the red glare of the setting sun picking the last of two hundred odd ticks off my privates thinking about time travel. We have just traveled one million years in twenty-nine days.

It was early in 1990. Survival specialists were then used to train fighter pilots, parabats and pathfinders in the art of survival so that, in the event of them going down behind enemy lines in the bushveld, they can find their way back across the border and survive off nature. Sort of an insurance policy that is paid for in sweat and blood. This was to be our final test before we could become survival instructors. After the first five days, which we spent acclimatizing and practicing our survival skills next to the Klaserie River, we suddenly lost all our benefits. We were left naked in the bush wearing just a belt, water bottle and a knife. Eight naked guys muttering profanities while hobbling on tiptoe over sharp stones and thorns really have entertainment potential but we were suffering from severe sense of humor failure at that stage. It made us feel what it means to not even feature on Maslow’s hierarchy of basic needs. The next day after spending a cold night under a Text Box:  green-stem-corkwood tree (Commiphora neglecta), we felt less cheery. We were insect bitten, itchy and irritated. Our course director gave us four dried impala skins (raw, not tanned) and advised us to make protective clothing out of it. First thing we did was try to eat the skins, then we thought of eating the course director but very soon we made what was most important, shoes! We fashioned rough moccasins out of the thicker neck hide and loincloths out of the softer parts, stitching it together with thong. Our mood lifted somewhat since we were dressed to kill, or so we thought. It turned out we were actually dressed to be killed. Since that day onwards we were never really left alone by the hyenas. The combination of the raw skins and our increasingly ‘special’ body odor was such that they couldn’t resist our company at night. We drastically needed a fire because the hyenas became very familiar with us tugging at our knobthorn kraal and even nipping at pieces of our clothing or shoes while we slept. The onlyText Box:  weapons we were allowed to use were throwing kieries (clubs) made from the hard wood of the red bushwillow (Combretum apiculatum). They served best as digging implements though because after the first visit from the hyenas we threw them all with negligible accuracy which left us weaponless and vying for sleeping spots in the tree. A small fire was our only answer to deal with the predator issue. You must really want a fire if you are going to twist a fire with your bare hands using sticks. We used the long, slim hard branches of raisinbush (Grewia sp.) for turning sticks and the softwood of marula or wild fig for a base to twist on. After a few hours of exertion, teamwork and loud swearing we had a fire to soothe our blistered and bloodied hands on. Psychologically it was a breakthrough not unlike the shoes. Our diet of mostly leafs, roots and berries could now be supplemented with cooked food like meat. Soon enough we were finding our feet in the bush, mostly on account of them aching so much. We had multi-course dinners consisting of light roasted scorpion, fried termites and bushveld lizard. That was for starters. Main meal was normally the pheasant-like francolin, rabbit or even once a leguaan that wandered into our traps. We pounded and dried a piece of shepherds’ tree root (Boscia albitrunca) to make porridge with and dipped balls of it in a wandering jew (Commelina sp.) spinach mix. For salt we just added some sorrel (suring) leaves. Tea was had afterwards made from the reddish dry leaves of the red bushwillow. Starches also featured from time to time like the tubers of sorrel, wild asparagus and a strange plant we called jerrykuku (a difficult to find wild potato on account of its insignificant growth form). Sometimes we had coffee made from either roasted shepherds tree root or from the roasted and pounded seeds of buffalo thorn (Ziziphus mucronata). Fresh fruit was eaten from time to time like marula’s, sour plums, wild figs, raisinbush and lowveld milkberries to name but a few. We once wandered off to the Olifants River in the north and were lucky to catch some catfish, which we took back and smoked on knobthorn bark. Although it may seem as if we had quite a time it must be remembered that our sugar levels were down and energy was hard to come by. Most of us had ‘the runs’ from the strange food and some of us were suffering from heat exertion. Some days the pickings were slim, others were better. We were constantly plagued by festering insect and spider bites which we treated with the red under bark of marula (contains antihistamine). We all had snakes, spiders and scorpions crawling over us at some stage or another. Most of them got eaten. The heynas never let up especially after we started catching small game and twice we walked into a pride of lions. We had to dodge black rhino, elephants and buffalo. Our bodies were scraped all over from either running away from something or running to catch something in typical knobthorn/marula bushveld. We were barely surviving but we knew the hard part was yet to come.

Text Box:  For most the time during our ordeal we were surviving static close to the Klaserie River. Each of us built a thatched bivouac shelter with soft plant material for beds that rather served as tick nests. We weaved ropes from the strong fibers of assegai bush leafs (Sansevieria pearsonii). We had a communal kitchen under the green-stem-corkwood tree with a termite nest oven and a smoking oven made from elephant dung and mud. We even hung out a pyramid shaped ‘freezer’ made from thatch grass and reeds with a bed of river sand as the rack. It was kept moist during the day and it kept a small block of butter solid in 36 degrees plus. Of course we were not allowed to use the butter, would you eat your thermostat?

Text Box:  We were to leave it all behind and start surviving on the limb while covering between twenty five to forty Kilometers a day. We headed off feeling glum and a sense of impending doom. Angers flared up without warning. Food was scarce because we didn’t know the terrain we moved in. We got lost in a mopane forest where every tree looks like the previous one. We thought we were going to die without water but we stuck to our natural navigation methods, which is especially difficult in dense mopane forests. Sometimes Mother Nature surprises you just as you are about to give up. We walked into a nearly dry mud pan. There was about one inch of murky water left in the center of the pan. We went down on our knees in the mud, scraped the animal dung to the side, and drank like dogs. Best water I have ever had in my life. That night we slept on bare earth. There were lions nearby but we were too exhausted to worry. Besides, we smelled like something that lions might prefer to avoid. We slept for half the night only so that we could make more ground during the rest of the night and sleep in the shade during the hot hours under the sweltering sun. In daytime our eyes were clogged with mopane bees trying to get at the only bit of moist for miles around. Days dragged by as if in a dream. We were at our weakest. Our muscles were constantly aching from dehydration. We started chewing the rhizomes (underground stems) of mother-in-law’s-tongue just for a lick of water. Then came our nemesis, we were to go it solo from then onwards. Each of us had a specific route to follow. My spirits sank deeper than ever. No more group support or protection, just me and this savage bush.

There I was, alone, virtually naked, weak, scared and exposed. Why am I doing this? Then it came to me… I want to live! I want to be part of Mother Nature, not just judge her from the outside like I used to with my typical bleeding hearts conservation attitude. I walked on into our deep past, started seeing things for the first time. I had to take control of my pain, fear and weaknesses. I started sleeping well for the first time. For a few magic days I ceased being a survival specialist and just existed in the wilderness, maybe like our forebears millions of years ago. I followed a small herd of impala to a muddy watering hole when my water ran out. I browsed and grazed as I walked along, in no particular rush. One night an old buffalo bull thrashed my hide under the low bent trunk of a karee tree. Good thing I was under it at the time because in the open he would have destroyed me. He horned the trunk and snorted a lot while kicking dust and stones into my face. Maybe just asserting himself over me for intruding in his territory. Eventually he got bored and I could continue sleeping. The next morning I collected moisture by squeezing the mucilage from the cusps of Commelina flowers. A while later I found fresh elephant dung. I scrounged around in it and found a couple of marula seeds. I pried the nuts from the hard seed casings and relished the taste. As I walked I breathed the fresh air of the lowveld bush. Something to the west attracted my attention. I looked and saw a large herd of blue wildebeest to my right. Normally very nervous creatures in the presence of humans but they seemed content. Between them and me there was a herd of slow moving zebra, grazing as they moved along. I saw all this underneath the bellies of two Giraffe striding alongside me to whatever the north held for us.


About the Author:

Albert Ackhurst is a naturalist with a keen interest in ethnobotany. He specialised in the uses and value of indigenous veld fruits as a survival specialist, scholar and field guide. He is a member of the Botanical Society has worked on a research project for the establishment of wilderness administration systems for the SANP. He lives in Johannesburg and is co-founder of Elements Travel & Project Management with Ozlem Dalgic, a travel agency that promotes educational/environmental trips for people who would like an alternative experience in Southern Africa (from sea to on foot safari in wilderness and more).  


Elements Travel & Project Management
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