Review: Vivien Horler
Running Wild – the story of Zulu, an African stallion, by David Bristow (Jacana)
It must have been an amazing sight: a stallion, coal black except for one white sock and a white smudge on his shoulder, running wild in the bush of Botswana’s Tuli Block with his harem of zebra mares.
Reared as a riding horse and one of a herd used for bush safaris, Zulu spent four years living as a zebra stallion in the bush, avoiding predators, snakes and the scourge of African Horse Sickness.
And then he was recaptured by the people who owned him, and went back to being a safari horse, but one who was now acutely attuned to the bush and the creatures in it, particularly big cats.
It seems almost unbelievable – could that really happen? Well, a lot of people swear it is true.
David Bristow, South Africa’s first full-time travel photo-journalist and former editor of Getaway magazine, knows about the bush and the people who live in it. And it was people, some from Mashatu Private Game Reserve and Limpopo Horse Safaris, both in Tuli, and others, who told Bristow their versions of the story.
Zulu certainly existed. Bristow first encountered the horse on safari with Steven Rufus of Limpopo Horse Safaris in 1997. Later, intrigued, Bristow went back to the area a dozen times and stitched together the various versions of the tale.
The result is fictionalised non-fiction. Or as Bristow puts it in his “Acknowledgements & Apologies” at the start of the book, “the people in this story are all fictitious, but some less so than others… on the other hand, all the horses are real”.
Bristow had to rely on his imagination for the period while Zulu was running wild, based on what is known about Tuli and the wild animals that live there. “It could have happened that way. It certainly happened, one way or another.”
The pivotal moment in Zulu’s life was during the great storm and subsequent floods that swept across Africa in 2000, the storm and floods that saw the birth of the little Mozambican girl Rosita in a tree.
At Limpopo Horse Safaris just across the Limpopo River from South Africa, the storm caused havoc. In 48 hours the Limpopo rose 11 metres above its normal flood level. The horses panicked as the waters rose in their paddock, and it was decided to turn them out into the bush, an area they knew well from grazing and safaris, to take their chances.
Several days later, as the floodwaters subsided, the safari bosses set out to round up the herd, finding nine of the missing 15 horses. Three months later three of the missing six wandered back into camp. Another two were probably taken by horse thieves, but there were reports of sightings of the last of the missing animals, a black horse among zebras, “a legendary presence around the Tuli, never entirely corporeal but never completely without substance”.
And then four years later, the call came through to the horse safari camp that a dark horse had been making a nuisance of itself around a nearby village. His distinctive markings confirmed that it was Zulu.
This is a lovely book. It is full of interesting facts about the bush, about the people who live there, about African Horse Sickness and how to try to combat it, about Onderstepoort Veterinary Institute which was founded in 1902, after the end of the Boer War, “to tackle the sickness that might well have lost (the Transvaal government) the war”.
At one stage, before he went to Botswana, Zulu was part of Onderstepoort’s Equine Research Unit, where the horses were used to produce snake-bite serum.
Running Wild is a great African story, of courage and endurance, heartbreak and love.