“Remember chaps, confidence is the key to conducting a successful trail.” Cameron Bristow smiled at the group of fresh-faced young men who had just completed their guiding course at the Environmental Academy. “You’re all good lads who now know more than most of the people you will be leading through the bush. Good luck.”
Nicholas Boshoff recalled these final words from their instructor as he readied himself for his first walking trail assignment. He had already spent a month familiarising himself with the reserve and following the set trails in the presence of experienced guides and so he felt ready to tackle his first solo trail.
“Do you think you can handle a bunch of school girls, Nick?” William Barlow had looked at him over the rim of his spectacles. “Ten girls and one female teacher,” he confirmed, looking down at the list on his desk.
Nicholas breathed a sigh of relief. Matt had been assigned a group of post-graduate zoology students and Simon had been asked to lead a group of middle-aged bird-watchers. He wasn’t sure if he was ready to handle either of those yet. School girls would be a pushover. “Sure,” he replied confidently and set off to do some advance preparation.
Surprisingly, Nicholas felt a little self-conscious when the mini-bus carrying the school girls and their teacher drew up outside the reception area. His uniform was too new; his haircut too recent; and the elephant hair bracelet he had slipped on the previous day had begun to look incredibly stupid on his bony wrist.
He watched them enter the door to reception, where they would register for their trail. Nicholas knew he should have stepped forward to greet them. “Confidence is the key,” he could hear Cameron saying, yet he remained rooted to the spot. Even the memory of Simon stepping forward to introduce himself to the birders, a broad welcoming smile on his face, couldn’t budge him.
The girls and their teacher seemed to pour out of the door. “All of you, off to the loos first,” their teacher told the girls and followed briskly in their wake. Nicholas took up a position in front of the open safari vehicle, where they couldn’t miss him. He donned a pair of sunglasses and checked his appearance in the side mirror of his vehicle. ‘Not too bad’, he thought. Just then he became acutely aware of the group approaching him from the ablution area and hoped they hadn’t seen him.
“Hello, I’m Siobhan Davidson. Would you be our driver by any chance?”
Nicholas whipped off his sunglasses and slipped them into a top pocket. He grinned and held out a welcoming hand. “Yes ma’am. I’m Nick.” He had balanced ‘Nicholas’ and ‘Nick’ in his head and aloud many times over the past month: ‘Nick’ seemed to project a stronger, more confident image, he thought. He helped the girls stow their luggage, made sure the doors were closed properly and slowly set off for the dropping off point from where they would embark on their wilderness adventure: three days of experiencing the bush and wildlife on foot.
He felt at ease as they rumbled over the rough dirt track and wound through the trees, rocks and termite mounds. Not a single animal made its appearance. Nonetheless, his well-rehearsed introduction effortlessly came to the fore as he pointed out the area they would be walking in and faltered a little as he tried to interest them in the few birds he was able to identify in passing. Instead, the girls chatted excitedly to each other and Siobhan merely looked thoughtful.
‘I’m driving too fast’, Nicholas chided himself and slowed down a little. ‘How am I going to keep these girls quiet? We won’t see anything if they carry on like this!’ Briefly, the thought of leading post-graduate zoology students seemed to be appealing. “Confidence is the key”. Those words hammered in his brain with every bump in the road. He was aware that he had been holding onto the steering wheel so tightly that his hands had begun to perspire. ‘Strong and silent might be the best approach’, he mused as the drop off point became visible.
Nicholas parked the vehicle in the shade of a grove of trees and waited for the girls and their teacher to don their rucksacks. In the ensuing silence, they all looked around enquiringly until Siobhan ventured brightly, “Are you to be our guide?”
Realising that his youthful appearance had probably bemused her, he smiled in what he hoped was a confident manner. “Gather round,” he summoned the group in a commanding voice. “If you want to really experience the true wonder of the bush over the next three days, you will need to drop your voices to a whisper.”
“Confidence is the key” played a tune in the back of his mind as Nicholas explained the procedures they would follow. “It is important to instil confidence from the beginning,” Cameron had told them. Well, he had some catching up to do but at least they were all listening to him intently.
“All set then?” He shouldered his rifle and set off at a determined pace, stopping now and then to point out animal droppings and once even to show them a kudu bull browsing in a thicket some distance from them. He could feel the power of leadership course through him and thrilled at the sound of the girls’ excited whispers.
The barely discernible path wound through the hot, dry veld as the group headed towards a clump of trees where their first overnight camp was nestled. Nicholas led them down the stony path that would take them into the welcoming shade. He could hear low murmurs of rebellion behind him: the girls were hot and tired. Not even the sight of a white rhino had lifted their spirits much.
“We’re almost there,” Nicholas said encouragingly as he turned back to face them. “If you look carefully, you should be able to spot our shelter between those trees down there. Just be careful as you step over these last rocks.” One man and all these girls … they’d be eating out of his hand before long.
As that thought drifted through his mind, Nicholas walked straight into the web of a golden orb spider stretched across the path. He let out a loud yell and dropped his rifle …