• Kev Thomas Writes

An English Bull Terrier's Gaseous Tale

During the 1980s we lived in the old South African independent black homeland (as they were called at the time) of Ciskei. The nationalist government in South Africa created ten of these so called ‘independent homelands’ designated for tribal, rather than specific ethnic groups. Aside from the Ciskei, which was one of the smallest, the others were; Transkei, Bophuthatswana, Venda, Gazankulu, KaNgwane, KwaNdebele, KwaZulu, Lebowa and Qwa Qwa. Whilst I’m not going to delve into the politics of the concept, suffice to say they functioned. Albeit with a constant infusion of cash from the South African government. The Ciskei and Transkei were homelands for the Xhosa tribe, and virtually neighbouring each other, they were split along lines of historical chieftainships.

Prior to our arrival at Tsolwana Game Reserve in the Ciskei, we’d been in the East Caprivi where I’d been managing Caprivi Big Game Safaris. While in the East Caprivi we re-homed an English bull terrier. When we got her she was already about 2-years old, and had been found abandoned near Katima Mulilo. We named her Cleo. At the time, English bull terriers weren’t new to us as a breed, and we’d already had two. They’re also undoubtedly the clowns of the canine world, and Cleo certainly lived up to the reputation.

My designation in Ciskei was Regional Manager, Ciskei North, and I was employed by the Ciskei Parks & Wildlife Resources Board. Like most of the independent homelands the Ciskei’s wildlife policies were progressive, with high emphasis on wildlife utilisation on a sustainable yield basis being the cornerstone. Included in my responsibilities was the running of the commercial safari aspect across the nation’s three game reserves; Tsolwana (where we lived), Mpofu and LL Sebe Game Reserve. Adjacent to Tsolwana was the Chief Hinana Tribal Resource Area. It was a 5,000-acre block dominated by the 7000ft Ntabethemba mountain. This resource area was also managed by us for the Chief Hinana Tribal Council.

President LL Sebe was an ardent believer in the Ciskei’s tourist industry, and loved to visit the game reserves whenever opportunity arose. Typically, and like many African leaders he was also rather paranoid about his personal safety. Coups in Africa can quite often be the order of the day. As a result, and prior to his arrival we normally had a CDF (Ciskei Defence Force) platoon arrive and set up security around the lodge where he’d be staying. This usually included a mortar base plate position, and at least three MAGs. His personal security heavies, trained by MOSSAD skulked around in suits and wore wrap around dark shades. They also favoured carrying 45 ACPs.

President Sebe invariably arrived by helicopter at least a day after security had been set up. He was always accompanied by his wife, Virginia, known to all Ciskeins as the First Lady, or, alternatively, as the Mother of the Nation. Our helicopter pilots were all ex Rhodesian 7 Squadron and I’d known them from our Rhodesian Bush War. During their Ciskei years we’d become good friends and they flew us on our regular game censuses, and periodically delivered VIPs and safari clientele to the game reserves.

Whenever Sebe arrived at Tsolwana, I’d arrange for him to meet at our office to discuss tourist issues. On one occasion he brought the First Lady, Virginia, with him. Like many African leaders’ wives, she liked to wear what looked like evening dress, during the day. On this particular visit she had on a voluminous lime-green silk looking dress. It almost reached the ground. She was also wearing a huge black flying-saucer shaped hat, with an ostrich plume sticking out of one side.

When they arrived at the office, the MOSSAD trained security detail used to immediately fan out in a protective screen, and then stand gazing towards the mountains on the South African side of the Swart Kei River. Searching for any perceived threat (never much more than an Eastern Cape farmer and his angora goats). The heavies also insured their one hand was always inside their suit jackets holding the butt of their trusty 45 ACPs. Once security was in place, President Sebe and First Lady Virginia would be ushered into my office. The office led off from the curio shop and reception centre. Because of regular staff meetings, two desks in my office had been arranged in a T shape. My desk formed the top of the T and on this particular morning, President Sebe chose to sit on a chair at the base of the T. Brenda sat midway between Sebe and myself, and First Lady Virginia chose to sit on a chair just inside my office door. She was directly to my left as I faced the president.

Obviously, part of our wildlife management program involved annual culling of certain prolific breeding antelope species. In our case, springbok, mountain reedbuck, and impala. Venison was marketed through local outlets, and we also made biltong and boerewors for commercial sale. Game skins and other by-products were processed by taxidermy houses and sold through the curio shop. Our game processing abattoir was about 100m from the office and although it was out of bounds to our dogs, they periodically snuck across for a snack. On the day President Sebe and his wife stopped by at our office, and unbeknown to us, Cleo had been gorging herself on offal at the abattoir. Unnoticed, she’d then come into the office and flopped down on the cool flagstone floor directly underneath the chair First Lady Virginia had chosen to sit on.

Because the First Lady’s flowing silk dress (and the First Lady was large too) reached the floor, we hadn’t seen Cleo beneath it. This proved to be a bit unfortunate. When a dog eats game meat or offal, it tends to create a horrific amount of extremely odious gas in their digestive tract. And obviously as it builds, it has to escape or the dog will end up in extreme discomfort. Cleo, being an intelligent bull terrier obviously knew this. Not wanting to suffer stomach cramps, and unaware of the importance of our esteemed VIP guests, Cleo let rip.

It wasn’t noisy. There wasn't even a quiet hiss. And because of the weight of the gas, it took time to rise, and to escape like invisible chemical warfare gas tentacles from under the First Lady’s dress. However, when it did, it was bad. Very bad. Because of my chair’s proximity to the dog, and to the First Lady, I caught a whiff and immediately knew what we were in for. And I immediately knew where our faithful bull terrier was. When the whiff drift reached Brenda, she glanced my way and then quietly stood up and opened the windows behind her, a lot wider than they had been.

President Sebe sitting at the far end of the table, was the last to experience the dreadful smell. Initially, and as we watched, he stared directly at me and began drumming his fingers on the desktop. Because he was known for outbursts of anger, I thought my job would soon be on the line. However, he then started twitching his nostrils. Not unlike a Labrador on the fresh scent of a spur-fowl, and this made me realise the horrific smell must’ve only just reached him. The president’s nostril twitching suddenly ceased as quickly as it’d started. Turning his gaze towards his wife, President Lennox Sebe of the Ciskei asked in a booming accusatory voice, ‘Was that you Virginia?’.

In the few seconds of stunned silence that followed, the First Lady bent down and scooping the front of her dress hem up, bent over even further, causing her hat to slip askew, and looking under her chair came face to face with Cleo. All we could hear was the happy ‘slap-slap-slap’ of our bull terrier’s tail on the cool flagstone floor!

From bending over looking under the chair, to standing up and verbally lambasting the president in Xhosa took milliseconds! The First Lady, her face puffed up in anger then stormed out of my office, hat still askew, followed by an extremely guilty looking bull terrier, followed by a chastised president. Brenda and I had to linger in the office while we tried to compose ourselves. It was hilarious, but such is Africa!

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