Up a pole in Kruger Park

23 August 2004

Call him crazy, but Johannesburg businessman Bob Thornley plans to sit on top of a pole next to a water hole in the Kruger National Park for two weeks – and wait for the unexpected to happen – in order to raise money to send underprivileged children to bush school in SA’s most famous game reserve.

The idea of being exposed to wild animals and the unknown element of what may happen next appeals to Thornley, the owner of a company that specialises in corporate and specialist conferences and events.

Up the Pole: on the Web – Check in on Thornley’s 14-day diary, see his latest pics from the pole, send him a message of support, subscribe to receive e-mail updates, make a donation to the Operation Bushbaby School, find out more.

From 28 August to 11 September, Thornley will perch on a specially constructed 4-metre high platform next to a waterhole near the Lower Sabie Camp area called “Die Ou Boomhuis” (The Old Tree House).

The site, used by park officials many years ago to observe wildlife in its natural environment, was chosen both for its isolation from park visitors and because an existing scout vehicle track means that no unnecessary vehicle “footprints” will be left behind.

The four-by-four-metre platform is supported by a reinforced steel pole and features three solar panels to power Thornley’s laptop computer, battery chargers and small fridge, and car headlamps mounted under the platform “should the need arise to use light at night to film certain activity”.

And when nature calls? “It will either be a portable caravan toilet with interchangeable base sections, or a PVC pipe will be inserted down the main support pole that is filled with chemicals”, said platform designer Rob Kennedy, CEO of Omnistruct.

Operation Bushbaby Kennedy designed the structure to allow for minimally invasive set-up and removal – and to stand up to 14 days among the Kruger Park’s “Big Five”.

“Our biggest threat to this structure is elephant and rhino”, Kennedy said while working on his creation. “For this reason we have to double up on the amount of reinforcing and foundations. There are no written guidelines in the engineering manuals as this has never been attempted before.”

Visitors will be allowed to visit the site twice a day. A 22-seater vehicle under the guidance of a game ranger will transport visitors to the site to speak to Thornley and get first-hand information on the project.

An Operation Bushbaby office will be stationed at the Lower Sabie Camp, where visitors can speak to Thornley’s support team and make bookings to visit the site.

South African National Parks (SANParks) has sanctioned the project, which will enable children from a number of disadvantaged communities to attend a three-day bush leadership and educational programme dubbed Operation Bushbaby.

Kruger Park’s people and conservation department hope to build on this by developing a permanent bush leadership school in the park.

Thornley is no stranger to ambitious, unusual projects. On 26 May 1982, together with friend Colin Hall, Thornley staged a project called “A Day In The Life of South Africa”, inviting anyone with a camera to capture the ethos of South Africa on that specific day. The resulting book sold 30 000 copies, with all proceeds going to the SA National Council for The Blind.

“It’s about affording underprivileged and homeless children the opportunity to experience the wild”, Thornley says of his new venture.

“I am going to sit on a platform, on a pole, at a secluded waterhole in the Kruger National Park for 14 days and wait for the unexpected to happen – as it often does in the bushveld. Should anything happen, I want to share it with South Africa and the rest of the world.”

Asked what’s in it for him, Thornley responds: “Fourteen days of extreme wildlife pleasure and a personal goal achieved … Operation Bushbaby will belong to South Africa and will always be owned by the children in perpetuity.

“I imagine sending thousands of deprived children to the Kruger National Park to provide them with a wildlife as well as an educational experience they could never otherwise afford.

“Before, during and after this event, I am going to approach society … with my cap in hand and ask them to make a contribution to the children of South Africa.”

And when it’s done, says Thornley, look out for another publication, going by the title: “South Africa’s Finest Coffee Table Book Ever”.

SouthAfrica.info reporter