Why is it that when you find yourself confined to a small space with no possibility of escape do you immediately need to pee? In this case, confined to a tent by a couple of hundred buffalo. We’d been camping in a remote part of the Badlands National Park for a few days and seen the herds of buffalo grazing the plains with methodical progress around the park. They’re such beautiful creatures (kind of) from afar. Up close and personal they are, quite frankly, sodding intimidating.
Diffused sunlight began to warm the tent on this particular morning. I lazily opened one eye to see two big brown eyes staring back at me. John had been awake for a while it seemed. I lifted my head slightly to look over the top of him and saw Liz’s brown eyes also staring back at me. She too had been awake for a while. I heard a distinct low bellow, a kind of powerful audible rumble and looked at both Liz and John again but it didn’t seem to be their normal dawn chorus, if you know what I mean. Then I heard it again and realised it came from outside and I immediately knew it was the buffalo who had come to visit. In fact, they were right out side. A very large and distinct shadow moved over the tent and a guy rope went twang. Liz’s eyes widened. I needed to pee.
I once read somewhere that animals see things such as tents as solid objects, they don’t realise that there may be something inside. An optimist may, well have written that theory, but I chose to put some stock in it anyway. (I’ve also heard that pepper spray and bells are a good deterrent against bear attack. I hear bear shit always smells of pepper and is full of bells too.) Shadows continued to move across the skin of the tent, slowly, methodically. It was mesmerising and surreal, and as we got more used to watching them go this way and that it became enthralling. As long as we stayed put they would just do what they do and we could get the kettle on once they moved off, we just needed to play the waiting game. The psychological effect of having to sit it out was not doing my bladder any favours though.
Two and a half hours later the shadows had moved away and the low bellows of huge male buffalos sounded more distant and, well, safe. I unzipped the tent door, did a quick recce of the area and sprinted for a toilet called the South Dakota prairie. The buffalo were a good hundred metres away. A few of them paused from their grazing to see what I was up to. I was past caring.
They stayed within a reasonable distance of us for the rest of the morning and we spent and hour watching them over breakfast. We’d lost a couple of guy ropes off the tent and a rather inconsiderate buffalo had, unlike me, not waited to go to the toilet and left a very large, steaming ‘message’ six feet from the door.
We’d been in the Badlands for a few days and had just moved from the Northern Park to the South Park. The majority of visitors only go to the Northern Park, and for good reason too. Its more accessible and the views are stunning. Pinnacles of cream, rust and sulphur yellow reach for the blue skies as an impenetrable wall of beauty. We had chosen the Badlands as our first goal in the USA. We hadn’t been before and the name alone suggested that it had to be seen. We weren’t disappointed. However, our National Parks Guide Book (thanks Mum) suggested that the South Park should not be missed too, although four-wheel-drive was recommended. The South is very different. Mile upon mile of shimmering, undulating prairie which then gives way to what looks like oceans of grey and cream ash interrupted by sharp fingers of rock which rise up as canyons and buttes. Deciding to leave the buffalo to their own devises and hoping that they’d respect our tent we went off in search of Sheep Table Mountain, the highest point in the park and an 18-mile drive away by dirt road. The road was good all the way aside from the usual corrugations that try to shake every bolt loose from every vehicle that passes by. We soon reached the bottom of the mountain and drove for another mile or so up a narrow canyon and out onto the flat top of the mountain itself. The views were as spectacular as anywhere in the park. Pinnacles, peaks, lakes of ash of every colour and pine trees clinging to precipitous ledges wherever there was a foothold, and there weren’t many footholds around. A geologist’s tour joined us at the lookout for a few minutes. Seven people jumped out looking a little tired but still with cameras in hand, ignored the view, photographed the dog and the car and drove off again back down the mountain the way they had come.
A sign beside the lookout said “Four-wheel-drive, high clearance vehicles only beyond this point.” It sounded like an invitation so off we set. Before flying ourselves and Niva out the USA I had spent a good deal of time learning all about serious off-road driving techniques by way of watching You Tube. Now the school of You Tube was going to be put to the test. Two wheel ruts reached out into the distance over a sand plain of sage bushes. The wind had eroded the loosened soil so that an impromptu channel had been cut into the skin of the mountain top. I locked the diffs and put the gearbox into low range, we drove into the channel with four-foot walls of sand on either side of us. The bed of the track was initially flat and steady but after four hundred metres the left rut began to get deeper and the right hand rut began to get higher. The tipping point of a Lada Niva is 43 degrees but I can’t remember if that is front to back or side to side. It was getting precarious either way. There was no possibility of turning around and the loose sand meant that reversing was next to impossible. I looked at Liz who was sitting a couple of feet height up than I was and she didn’t look happy. Her lack of happiness was confirmed when she uttered the words “I want to get out!” I thought about mentioning that she was acting as good ballast but didn’t feel that referring to her as ballast would be good for our long-term relationship so I pulled to a stop and she literally climbed out. John somehow remained asleep in the back and together we set off down the mini-gorge wandering how the over-sized four-wheel-drive American pick-ups could get down here. Given that there were no other tire tracks it was a safe assumption that they didn’t try it. Remembering my You Tube training I kept the Niva true and steady and another four hundred metres on John and I emerged as conquering heroes. Well, I did, John snored lightly in contented bliss. I waited for Liz to catch up and off we set again.
The road carried on for another two miles and Liz got out another three times, once even with the dog but with every obstacle my confidence in the Nava increased. Nothing that we faced seemed to be a great challenge for it. Many jokes have been made about Ladas over the years and most of them justified. For example:
- A man goes into a service-station and asks
“Can I have a windscreen-wiper for my Lada?”
“Okay” replied the man in the garage, “it seems a fair swap“.
- What’s the difference between a Jehovah’s Witness and a Lada?
You can shut the door on a Jehovah’s Witness.
- How do you avoid speeding tickets?
Buy a Lada.
However, the challenge of Sheep Table Mountain left me in no doubt that while our little Niva might rattle, crawl up the hills in second gear and 70mph is an aspiration, increasingly as we take it off the black stuff and into the outback it comes into its own.
Sheep Table Mountain was a treasure of the park and we had most of it to ourselves. When John woke up we took him for a run well away from the cliffs and with not a sheep in sight he ran and ran and ran. At least until he froze to the spot some forty metres from us, he was looking at the ground intently, not sniffing it, just looking at it. He lifted one leg and then tried to lift two simultaneously, putting one down again gingerly when he’d loose his balance. He looked to us, looked to the ground and tried to stand on just two legs at opposite corners again. And then we realised the problem and I went trotting over to scoop him up into my arms. He’d run into a patch of ground covering thistle-like plants. The poor little chap looked utterly helpless and while our parental instincts came charging out to save him, we still had a good laugh at him anyway.
We left the Badlands with a sense of privilege at what we’d seen and a thought for the people who had tried to make this their home as America was being populated. They were always going to be doomed to starvation. Still, at least the view was nice.
From the Badlands we drove due west to the Black hills and persuaded Jerry to open up the Wolf Camp for us. He said that all the campsites were closed for the winter now and it was time to go trout fishing. We told him we knew, his was the fourth place we’d tried and I think that persuaded him to take pity on us. We needed a shower and an internet connection, (particularly the shower); otherwise we’d have just wild camped as usual. He lay down a strict list of does and don’ts but went about it nicely. “Don’t let the dog off the leash in the camp or my wolves’ll get a sniff of him and it’ll send’em wild in the pen.” “Don’t wander around too much tomorrow night, especially with the dog. I’ve got a guy coming to hunt deer and he’s paying good money.”
Jerry was a nice guy and we spent the evening with him, his wife Cindy (or Killer Cindy as she was known from her internet password) and the staff at the camp who were all spending their last night together with an open bar barbeque before going their separate ways. We ate some humongous sausages and burgers while people argued about the pro’s and con’s of government handouts (with passion) and Jerry talked about stripping off and flailing himself with sage sprigs like the Lakota do. His spirit animal was the wolf, which is why he kept five of them locked up in a cage apparently. Go figure as the say. That said, he was a man with a big heart who opened his home up to us and we were grateful.
True to his word, the following day we returned to Wolf Camp to find a man up as tree fifteen metres from our tent with a large crossbow in his lap, just like the ones we’d seen in Wal Mart. He wore full camouflage and didn’t even twitch when we all looked in his direction and waved. WE spent the night wandering what or who would be dying tonight but woke to find him gone and no traces of blood in the area. Either he was very good or very bad.
Spearfish and Devils Tower were our next stops. Having had a couple of showers and looking much better we found a secluded corner of a large forest and made it our own. We followed a forest track for several miles until it was blocked by a fallen tree and decided it was as good a place to camp as any, so we did. Three days of seclusion were enjoyed in the middle of nowhere once again. John particularly enjoyed foraging for body parts and bringing them to us for our inspection. A mule deer scull and antlers were a particularly pleasing addition to the hood of the Niva. Devils Tower was however viewed through a low freezing misted rain. We took a single photograph from over the top of the bins of the Devils Tower Trading Store and drove on for more adventure.
Our next update will include such topics as:
- You have mail.
- This little piggy went to market.
- The cold sets in, and;
- In the Shadow of the Rockies.