Wednesday, September 16, 2009

"Zhey Go For Your Eyez:" A Tale of Two Fences

Things have been pretty quiet in terms of Grassroot Soccer-related business around Richmond. We're finishing up our first batch of interventions at the high school (now drug free!) and middle school; should have some fun graduation ceremonies for those kids coming in the near future. Otherwise, just playing tons of soccer with the kids at the community center; my groin feels a lot better now so I'm happily back training with the All Stars. First practice back from injury yesterday; scored a goal (no big deal). I've been brainstorming some cool ideas for community projects not directly related to Grassroot Soccer; the one I'm most excited about is possibly starting and coaching a youth soccer club here in town. More on that to come.

This was our first real relaxed weekend here in Richmond since there were no soccer tournaments or matches, no big trip to visit friends; nothing really to do except laze around, watch embarrassingly long stretches of Anna’s 10 seasons of Friends episodes, and maybe get some small errands and chores done. This past Saturday, then, I literally sat around the house from 9 AM onwards cooking a long breakfast, “playing” (loose definition) my guitar, and enjoying a pleasantly warm Richmond afternoon. Around mid-day, though, Anna had seen enough and thankfully dragged me outdoors for a jog around town. She’s the expert as she’s had a bit more motivation to go for runs to explore Richmond and the area immediately surrounding it. So Anna took us out to these cool water pools which we got really excited about swimming in come summer but quickly realized were the town’s sewage treatment reservoirs.

The reservoirs are basically on the edge of town, and from there you can look in one direction and see Richmond, then look the other way and get endless Karoo desert. Not wanting our adventure to end with sewage, Anna and I set off into the “veld”—prairie/desert land—at first on a dirt track but when that ended we found ourselves picking a trail through little bushes and termite hills. Even though it’s still winter, I was on full “snake alert” and—ask Anna—I was freaking out every time a flurry of wind made some bramble move [note: my geneticist’s license is only good in 47 states, but I’m pretty sure my fear of snakes is a direct inheritance from my mother, who cannot be taken out to movies because the chance snake appearance in a film will ruin the film for everyone involved]. Here is the trail we set out on initially, with the Great Karoo in our sights.

Once we were well into the thick of the veld, off in the distance we saw a hill that looked like a sweet climb. We were in farm country and must have stumbled into some farmer’s territory because we hit a barbed wire fence. Following the fence to a point a little before the climbing had to begin, we realized the only approach up the hillside was on the other side of the jagged metal. Thankfully, we were able to dig under the fence, remove some rocks, shimmy under, and climb up this hill. Sweet views of Richmond and the Karoo ensued, but pretty soon it was time to descend and head home.

You can see the hole we used to foil the farmer's defensive system:

The hill and scenery we were trying to get to:

My inner Pacific-Northwest-Mountain-Man-With-A-Huge-Beard begs me not to write this, but—between constantly scanning for s nakes and, as a result, tripping over nearly every rock and crag on the way down—the arguably mild descent down this hill became unnecessarily treacherous. Once safely at the bottom, we picked up the trail of the barbed wire fence and followed it back towards town. Having no interest in screwing around with the 5 rows of razor wire on top of the fence but not quite remembering where we had come under, Anna and I just fixed our eyes on the dirt at the foot of the fence and started walking, searching for our original diggings and access point. After about a quarter mile of this, we finally looked up to give our eyes a rest. What we saw began the next, harrowing part of this tale. It was a carpet.

A brown carpet with some white crap sticking out from one end of it, about 50 feet away. And it was raised up off the ground flapping around as if there was somebody on the other side shaking the dust out of it. Like I said, since our eyes had been glued to the base of the fence for a solid 15 minutes looking for our hole, we had basically stumbled entirely obliviously onto this strange scene. After about 20 seconds of the elevated brown carpet flapping and waving around in the wind we realized that, well, it wasn’t a carpet at all. Because at that point the carpet stood up and turned around, and we saw this:

An ostrich. And not just any ostrich, but a 6 and a half foot tall, gnarly looking bird monster. It had looked like a carpet because it was doing some sort of weird flapping dance. Best of all, with the dance’s conclusion this thing started walking towards us. I don’t know how many of you have ever been in the presence of an ostrich—and especially an ostrich out of captivity—but these things are huge and legitimately scary. Not knowing what to do (GRS Intern Training in Cape Town had only covered Flying Squirrel and Baboon attacks), Anna and I walked backwards and quickly felt our backs up against—you guessed it—a 6-foot fence with rows of razor wire across the top. But we just kept backing up parallel to the fence, away from the ostrich, still with our eyes never leaving the animal. At that point the ostrich accelerated into a trot towards us; Anna and I responded by turning our backs and sprinting down the fence line, searching for something—anything—that looked like either our original entry point or an option that would just work well enough to get us on the other side of this fence and away from the bird monster. Who, by the way, was closing fast as Anna and I finally came upon something that I figured would work.

It was a gate the farmer must have used to access this part of his grounds. With our eyes on the ground we must have missed it on our first pass—either that, or we’d been dissuaded by the single line of jagged barbed wire protecting the top of the gate. Well, a wise man once told me that one strand of jagged barbs is better than five strands of jagged barbs when fleeing an ostrich attack so I immediately grabbed the barbed wire and Anna went under it, straddling the gate as she made her way over. She got hung up for a second and, looking up, I saw that Big Bird had now kicked its attack into overdrive and that the feathered monster was coming right at us, full speed, and was no more than 20 feet away.

With Anna still navigating the last few motions over the top of the fence, I started running through my options. I could try to fight this thing. My first instinct was that, hey, I don’t see any claws or sharp teeth and, you know, maybe I could fend it off with some vicious kicking. Deciding immediately that my initial “whirlwind ninja kick” plan was a terrible idea, I figured my actual best bet would be to grab one of the larger rocks on the ground and try to get this thing in the head with a throw or just a swinging rock-bash to the face. I had seen both done in various full-length features whose titles began with words like “Defiant Warrior:”, “Silent Defender:” or “Twilight Assassin:” (the colons are crucial) and ended with phrases like “Jungle Takedown 2”, “Assault on Delta Bunker” or “Lights Out, President Gorbachev.”

With the bird a few paces away, however, both my better sense and unwarlike post-Viking Age Swedish heritage kicked in and I noticed that, by now, Anna was basically over. With a very ungentlemanly shove [note: sorry Anna] I pushed Anna the rest of the way over the fence and—heroically—she recovered from the tumble to the other side in such a catlike manner that—with the ostrich’s now-scary-looking beak nearly within striking distance—as I lunged for a single-shot high jumper approach over the fence Anna was already there holding the barbed wire as high as possible. I hurled myself over and through, and plummeted the 6 feet to safety on the other side. We were alive. But our adversary was right there, glaring at us—cognizant of how close he had come to an early dinner. Not tonight, bud (or, as one of the locals might say, “Nie naan, my bru.”).

This was the barbed wire gate we went over to escape:

Our harrowing escape complete, Anna and I set off through the veld to get home. After a bit, we came upon an old woman out for a walk who had seen the whole thing go down. As we approached she just stared at us: these two dirty, scraped up, bloody Americans whom she had just seen hurdle a barbed wire fence with an ostrich nipping at their heels. Denise turned out to be a real nice old lady, and during our conversation with her we learned just how much trouble we might have been in. Apparently, it’s mating season right now and, when we first saw it, the ostrich had been doing a mating dance. Looking back through the terror to those whimsical first moments of a floating brown carpet, I realize how cool that dance was. But then the terrifying escape comes rushing back in and I think of how much I now hate large, brown, dancing carpets.

Anyway, Denise went on to tell us that this ostrich was definitely a male, that he was probably doing his little mating dance as a warning (I mean, Anna and I are both fairly attractive people, so an alternative explanation is just that love was in the air), and that it definitely would have attacked us. “How do you handle an ostrich attack out here?” I asked. “First, you covers ze eyes. Anybody who works around ostriches always covers ze eyes,” Denise quickly responded [Afrikaans-ization of her otherwise spotless English added for effect]. Curious, I followed up, “Why cover your eyes?” “Because zhey go for your eyez.” Then—motioning to her old, gnarled hands in what could have been the first scene of Jurassic Park where the Paleontologist guy scares the crap out of the little kid with a big old Velociraptor claw—Denise started swiping at our eyes. “Ze ostrich can only kickz forward, but he has one sharp nail on hiz footz.” Continued clawing motions, now at our stomachs. “So what should we have done back there?” I continued, just in case we were ever to find ourselves in an ostrich attack situation again. Resident ostrich fighter Denise had a lot to say on the subject, but it seemed that her go-to move would have been to throw any large piece of fabric over the ostrich’s head. “It vill immediately become docile and you vill be safe.” Good to know, huh? We parted ways with Denise, but not before discovering that she is one of two people in Richmond with a swimming pool. Immediately recalling that temperatures hit over 100F in the summers here, Anna and I thanked Denise profusely and left things cordial with the kind old lady.

On our return to 54 Loop Street, Anna and I were ready for a beer, dinner, 5 episodes of Friends, and sweet, ostrich-free sleep. But on our front porch we realized, to our horror, that neither of us had brought the correct house key with us and that we were locked out. Sweaty, dirty, bloody, traumatized by an ostrich, and—to rub salt in the proverbial eye gouge wound—now we were locked out. Mercifully, the Richmond hotel that owns our house is located just across the street and, with their last employee just about to lock up and go home, we pleaded with her to help us try to find a spare key somewhere in the hotel store room. 25 minutes and a similar number of keys later, we thought we might have a key that at least looked like one of our backdoor keys.

In describing our attempts to get into our backyard and access the rear door, a brief description of our house’s defenses is in order. Despite Richmond’s lack of crime, our house is pretty Alcatraz-ed up. All of the house’s inner doors lock with deadbolts, and each inner door is protected by an outer, barred locking door. Every window has steel burglar bars. The backyard is ringed by a 5 foot brick wall which is covered in barbed wire—but here I’m talking the good stuff which rings and snarls around itself and has tons of spikes and sharp edges that actually keep people out, none of this farmland veld crap that allows no-good trespassers to escape from guard ostriches. So that was a no-go. The only other point of entry into the yard was up and over the huge wooden gate (perhaps the second fence to which the story’s title refers???) that unlocks and swings open to allow a car to park back there. There’s no barbed wire, but it is 7 feet tall. With the GRS Richmond Intern Team by now well-accustomed to finding its way over fences and the like, I gave Anna a boost and she was over that thing in seconds.

Anna disappeared around back for a minute or two. Now, the key we had found was the kind of key that only unlocks the outer double-doors, so—even if this key was the right one—I was still skeptical that we were going to be able to get through the second, inner door, which locks from the inside.

But then I heard a shout of success, and Anna triumphantly burst out through the front doors.

Apparently, we had not only forgotten to lock our inner backyard door, but we had forgotten to even close it when we had gone for our run. That meant that when the spare key worked on the outer barred door, Anna could just stroll into the house. This, I can say, will probably be the only time I’m ever THANKFUL for not locking my own door here in South Africa.

Badly in need of decompressing, Anna and I immediately took a stroll to Die Supper Klub, the newest restaurant in town (there are now three). There, we told the owner, Hannes, about our ordeal with the Velociostrich. Hannes—another pretty legit old Afrikaaner—had some interesting thoughts on the situation. First, defying Denise’s advice, he told us that—if we’re ever in trouble with an ostrich again—we should just immediately drop to the ground and wait it out. Skeptical of this approach, I wanted some clarification. “So if we do that it can’t hurt us?” No, no. “Oh, he’ll trample you alright. You’ll come away injured, but at least no dead.” “Dead, Hannes?” With a Denise/Jurassic Park-style swiping motion that Anna and I had by now come to fear, Hannes replied “Oh yeah, they kick forward like a Kangaroo with that front leg and they’ll open you up right through here with that big toenail of theirs;” and then he traced a line with his finger from just below his neck down to his belly button. “They’ll gut you on the spot.”

You know, I really had no idea. Every single person we’ve spoken with in the last few days has seriously warned us about the danger of ostriches. Our friend Mari Urtel even told us that the ostriches are so dangerous and feared in the community that the farmers deliberately place them in different parts of their farms to scare off would-be sheep thieves. That would have been good to know before we started “exploring” the farmlands around here. I honestly think that Anna and I came out on top in this whole ostrich attack though. For one thing, since it was a legitimately dangerous situation it sounds like we were lucky to get out of there unhurt and that we need to be a bit more careful gallivanting around in the veld from now on. Overall, though, we’re still alive; and—since Anna was daring enough to steal one of the ostrich’s feathers (which got stuck on the fence) right out from under its nose—we even have a little souvenir from the harrowing tale.

My sophomore year at Yale I had to write a history paper about a guy named Sir George Robertson, some badass British imperial soldier who I’m sure hopped a barbed wire fence or two in his day. In the 1890s Robertson, finding himself and his troops somewhere they shouldn’t have been, got stuck in an old fort at a mountain pass called Chitral in northwestern British India (which would be modern Pakistan) as hordes of pissed off Pashtun tribesmen laid siege to him and his small detachment. Writing during the 25-day siege in his diary about his frustration with not knowing where enemy troops were in the buildings surrounding the fort, Robertson commented, “it is a pity one cannot know exactly what is behind a big stone wall, without going round to see.” I don’t know how many ostriches there are in Pakistan, but Anna and I were in another former frontier of the Empire, there was a wall (or two), and we certainly went round to see. Both we and Robertson escaped unharmed from our respective predicaments but, as things turned out, Anna and I didn’t need 15,000 soldiers to hike out here from Calcutta and come bail us out. In your face, George.

Ostrich Attack Matrix
Helpful acronym in case of attack:
--- O.S.T.R.I.C.H. ---
Only Stop To Retrieve Intestines Carefully and with both Hands

Situation: | Appropriate Response:

Ostrich AT DISTANCE | - Remove article of clothing to throw over ostrich’s head
- Acquire “V-prong” stick which can hook the ostrich around its neck and hold it at a distance.

Ostrich UP CLOSE | - Lie down on ground and cover head; Ostrich will try to trample you but its most dangerous asset—the toenails and powerful, sweeping forward kicks that send them towards you—will be neutralized.

More to come soon.

1 comment:

  1. God, this is so funny after the fact, but I bet there were parts that were terrifying as they happened