It runs in the family. Angelique Pienaar, who helps her mother, Délene Elliott, run Imade Supreme Travel, is a fourth-generation safari organiser – a career that was pioneered by her great-grandfather, Gert Kotzé, way back in 1939.
Oom Gert was legendary, well known for his vast knowledge of the veld and the wild, the fact that he spoke nine local languages – including Khoi – and his love of practical jokes. He was also the first person to venture onto the sand tracks of central Botswana – then Bechuanaland – in a 12-ton school bus carrying 50 schoolchildren.
It was inevitable that his three sons, John, At and Eugene, would join the business, having been well trained in bushcraft by their adventurous father.
In fact, after a small plane went down near Ghanzi in Botswana and a passenger who went for help died of thirst in the Kalahari Desert, Gert told the Pretoria News that his sons – in their twenties – would walk to water from the same spot, armed only with a knife, and survive. The newspaper accepted the challenge, and he promptly sent them off to do it!
“We walked for three days,” recalls John in his Pretoria home, “surviving on cane rats and field mice.”
They had no matches. To make fire they used the Bushman method, hand-spinning the end of a wooden stick against another until the friction generated a small flame.
“On the last day we ambushed a kori bustard, which made a welcome change to our diet. It tastes a bit like guinea-fowl.” They found water on the third day, and survived to help their Oom Gert win his bet.
How did it all start? “Well, my father had a saw-mill near Beira in Mozambique. Game was plentiful in those days and being a keen big-game hunter, he led a number of hunting safaris just for the love of it. Word spread, and soon groups started arriving in numbers too large to accommodate,” John recalls.
Gert sent them on their way but a group of Americans persisted, actually camping outside his house. To discourage them he said he would do it for a fee of 50 pounds – a small fortune in the years not long after the Great Depression. To his surprise they happily agreed, and the era of professional hunting safaris was born.
Some years later, back in Pretoria, Gert bought a number of buses and under the name “Afrika-In Toere en Safaris” took tourists into South Africa’s neighbouring countries – Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia and Botswana, which all had different names back then.
John’s notes read: “The very first tour undertaken by Afrika-In Toere en Safaris happened at the end of 1959, to the Eastern Transvaal (now Mpumalanga). My father was the tour leader and I drove the bus. It wasn’t only our first tour, but one of the first in South Africa for South Africans.”
Roads were rudimentary, like the twin-spoor strip roads in the then Rhodesia, but the DAF buses took them in their stride.
In 1964 the SA Federation of Youth and Sport wanted an adventure-leadership holiday for a party of 50 boys – Boy Scouts and Voortrekkers – and the Kotzés obliged with a bus tour from Pretoria into Africa. The route was to Francistown in Botswana (then Bechuanaland), on to Nata and Maun, Kasane, across the Zambezi by ferry to Livingstone in Zambia (Northern Rhodesia) and back to Pretoria via Beit Bridge.
On today’s tarred roads it would be a piece of old takkie, but back in 1964, the DAF school bus was the largest and longest vehicle ever to attempt the then deep, sandy tracks of Botswana. Of the 3800km round trip, more than half was over sand tracks or through thick bush. The sandy, pot-holed 300km from Nata to Maun took four days, at an average speed of 20km/h.
The boys had to push the bus more times than they would care to remember. Then, in the sand dunes of the Mahabe Depression, the clutch gave up the ghost. A replacement had to be flown in to Livingstone and brought to the bus by Land Rover.
As the party waited, water supplies ran low. Probably not as a last resort but as one of Oom Gert’s practical jokes, the body fluid from the intestines of a hartebees was strained and filtered. “It tasted as one could imagine it would,” wrote Roger Gaisford in a recent article.
The bus just fitted onto the ferry, but the rest of the trip was plain sailing – with the strip roads from Livingstone to Hwangwe (Wanke) feeling like a table top after the sand tracks of the Kalahari. Just to put it into perspective: the largest vehicle to venture into Botswana before the 12-ton bus was a 1,5-ton four-wheel-drive vehicle.
After 37 years in the business (he took ownership in 1973 when his father decided to take it easy and later changed the name to Woema Tours), 76-year-old John Kotzé has a wealth of campfire stories to tell.
One concerns the occasion when four girls on a University of Pretoria student tour to the Moremi decided to sneak up and photograph four elephants at a water hole.
“A cow got wind of them and charged. Two girls ran back to the camp, but the other two climbed into a tree. By the time I got there, the elephant had her head against the trunk, pushing the tree to and fro.
“My brother, At, shouted that he would distract the elephant. He stood in front of the animal, waving his hat and eventually throwing it at the cow. She turned and chased him, and he had to dive into a deep, narrow donga.
“One of the girls scrambled down the tree, but the other one was frozen with fear and wouldn’t let go. I had to climb up and pry her fingers loose,” says John.
In the meantime, the elephant was bent on getting at At, kneeling and reaching down at him with her trunk. Fortunately the ravine was just too deep for her.
“We had an ex-Army 4×4, ironically dubbed Olifant. I actually nudged the cow’s backside with the front bumper to distract it, but she didn’t even look around. It took us hours to get the elephant to leave.”
John’s stories keep you riveted.
There was the evening he heard an elephant’s stomach rumbling mere metres away from where he was doing a radio interview with the 1970s radio personality, Fritz von Lingen. He kept mum, not wanting to disrupt the recording. But eventually Betty, his bush-wise wife, jumped up and instructed him in rather unladylike terms to see to the problem. When he switched on his torch, it was more or less the elephant’s eye that came into view. Fritz also responded with a few choice words…
Or the time when his father did his favourite party trick (“he did have an eye for the ladies,” John acknowledges). Oom Gert would strategically position the girls under a tree where he knew baboons slept, and then shine his torch into the tree. The suddenly awakened primates would lose control of their bodily functions. “What my father didn’t notice, however, was the huge mannetjie right above his head. Late that night, he was still scrubbing himself under the shower…”
It’s clear that John inherited much of his father’s sense of humour and love of practical jokes. One night, a camper disparagingly doubted John’s warning that lions were about.
Revenge was sweet…
The bones left over from the braai were planted around the Doubting Thomas’s tent, and for good measure a piece of fresh meat was placed on top.
The next morning the tent was all but demolished by the lions, and the terrified victim was found crouching in a corner, after a long, sleepless night. Thereafter, if John said the sky was green, this guy would wholeheartedly agree.
Another time a group of students ignored John’s warning not to put their sleeping bags at a certain spot where the grass was green and the ground flat. They all went to sleep, while John waited by the fire. As he could have predicted, a bull hippo came out of the water to see if the coast was clear before the cows could follow. It sniffed at the first prone body, and at the second let out a loud snort.
“There was pandemonium. The frightened students didn’t even bother to get out of the sleeping bags. They just got on hands and knees and crawled towards the fire as fast as they could. It looked like giant inch-worms approaching.”
But in all those years not a single life was lost, nor was an animal shot to protect the people. “Sometimes we had to fire shots into the air to drive off the odd elephant or lion, and one girl was badly bitten when a hyena tried to drag her from her tent, after she had ignored my instruction not to sleep with the flaps open.”
An important reason for their good safety record was that John, like his father, knew the wild, knew where to camp and where not to, and how an animal would react in a certain situation.
And so the safari operation continues, with John’s daughter, Délene, and her daughter, Angelique, running Imade Supreme Travel, arranging self-drive tours to northern Mozambique, Malawi, Namibia and Botswana.
If possible, Délene takes her father along. “When he starts telling stories around the campfire, the people hang on every word,” she says. And after 37 years of doing tours, Oom John doesn’t have to tell the same story twice…
• Imade Supreme Tours can be contacted on 082 820-6686.