AbrÃ© Steyn contracted polio 64 years ago when he was only two years old. At the age of 17 he spent an entire year in a plaster body cast having undergone South Africa’s first back fusion. He is now one of our most respected nature conservationists, holds numerous world records and has received many awards for his work and for his passionate and humorous writings. (AbrÃ© is a regular columnist in Farmers Weekly.) He and his wife, Aneta, have two sons and four grand children. This is his life, in his words, excerpted from a number of articles he has written.
“I was lying on my back. All I could move was my right arm, my eyes, lips and toes. The rest of my body was entombed in a thick, plaster cast that enclosed me like a cocoon. One leg and part of the other was also free but, due to paralysis, they had no life of their own.
It was January and the city of roses was in the grip of a mid-summer heat wave. I was lying in the hot, prefab orthopedic ward of the Bloemfontein National Hospital. Cranking my eyes as far as they would go to the left, I could see a piece of sky through the corner of a window. On the other side I could just manage to see the door and a portion of the passage.
I was only 17 and since early childhood I had been an outdoors and field sports person. I had spent my time in the veld with birds, insects, lizards and snakes.
Polio had caused a hunchback with a life-threatening 90Â° kink in my spine. It had started to compress my heart and other internal organs. Unless rectified, my life would have been short.
The plaster body-suit in which I was encased was split at the waist. It had a hinge on one side and a bottle-screw on the other. Each day the doctor gave it half-a-turn to gradually straighten my back. After a few of months I was to be ready for what, a half-a-century ago, was considered a miracle operation.
The idea was that my mother and I would undergo simultaneous surgery. A 25cm length of her shinbone would be removed and implanted into my back. There it would hopefully knit and keep my spine more or less straight for the rest of my life, which it miraculously did.
Like a butterfly I emerged from my cocoon: physically fragile, but mentally robust, convinced life was a short, undeserved gift to be lived to the full. That enabled me to follow an action packed outdoors career and exciting field sports interests that many able-bodied souls only dream of.
My big scare with hippos came early in my career at Komatipoort. Fresh out of university, I was still very inexperienced as I sat that night at my campfire, right at the water’s edge, and watched with fascination how the light of the fire reflected in the eyes of a large group of hippos in the water scarcely twenty meters away. Little did I realize the danger I was in and that their loud snorts and bellowing were signs of severe irritation as they attempted to drive me off. My fire and I could have been attacked at any time.
Next morning I was up at first light. I had been bitten by the tigerfish bug so, with my crutches and rod in hand, I made my way downstream, following a narrow hippo path into a dense stand of reeds along the river bank. My first cast went astray and, in the stillness of dawn, the spoon landed with a clattering sound on some rocks.
Suddenly the bush all around me erupted with the sound of running beasts crashing through the reeds. The hippos were still on land! I dropped my rod and retreated back into the hippo path. The reeds to my left parted and an enormous hippo came running down the path straight at me. Its mouth was agape. I saw his pink throat and enormous yellow teeth. I shouted something and instinctively threw my crutch at him. It hit him on the nose. He swerved, crashed through the reeds and jumped down the bank into the river right next to me. A wall of water almost flattened me.
Drenched and shaking, I started to look for my lightweight-crutch. Eventually I spotted it dangling from the top of some intertwined reeds.
For many years I headed the training of nature conservation officers in the former black states. My students came from all over Southern Africa where the resources for conservation and management can be very basic.
Being disabled, I found it very difficult to move around in the dense vegetation of the reserve without some form of transportation. The college reserve had a small mule cart that resembled an ordinary box trailer with large wheels. Although a bit skittish, the two mules were well behaved and, sitting low on the floor of the cart, I could often get right in the middle of a herd and observe the animals closely.
On one occasion we came upon a young impala with a broken leg. I had my hunting pistol with me and decided to relieve it of its suffering. I foolishly never thought about the mules. At the crack of the shot the mules bolted straight down the side of the hill. I hung on for dear life to both the cart and the pistol, while we crashed through bushes and bounded over boulders. The next day I went into town and bought a shiny, red, three-wheeled motorcycle. It could go anywhere and I used it for seventeen years until I replaced it with my present quadbike.
One evening, during a trip to Mozambique, the fishing had been lousy. Without telling anyone where I was going, I took my rod and tackle and, without a care in the world, drove on my brand new, bright red, Honda three-wheeler along the endless beach where, apart from the stars and the moon, there were no lights of any kind or any sign of humanity as far as the eye could see.
After about 8km I came upon a nice gully in the flat rock ledges. I made a super cast, but also made a terrible blunder. With the reel still spinning, I waited till the last moment (to get maximum distance) before reversing. But I forgot to flip the reverse lever and, as I slammed the accelerator, I shot headlong into the oncoming breaker.
I fought frantically to save my bike from the pounding surf and was almost at the point of giving up when I realised the engine was still running, although it had several times been totally submerged in seawater. If the bike could fight, so could I. With renewed effort I cleared away the sand, stood up, pulled with what little strength I had left and kept the wheels turning. As if the bike could see a foaming monster come rolling in, it suddenly gripped the hard packed surface and streaked backwards up the beach, dragging me along.
Most of us have at some time come to a point in our lives that looked like the end of the road, a time when we thought all was lost. Maybe it was when you lost your farm or when your employer told you he no longer needed your services. Maybe when you lost all your money in an investment, lost a loved one or were the victim of violence. The last thing to do is to lie down in despair and let the waves wash over you. Look for an opportunity and fight back. After the trial there may be a whole new life with lots of open doors waiting for you. We all have things that have great value to us, while meaning little to others. That was the case with that bike. In a time when my career as a wildlife scientist was jeopardized by my increasing mobility problems, it was the key to a second new life. It happened almost two decades ago, but since then we have had more than a lifetime’s adventure together, which would never have been if I had given up and didn’t fight back that night in the surf. In the years that followed I could be a falconer and a hunter – things I had always dreamed of doing.
Although I was disabled by polio at the age of two and, for the rest of my life, had to get along on crutches or a wheelchair my mobility-problems did not stop me from doing the things I wanted to do and achieve in life. In fact I experienced and did things many able-bodied people only experience in their dreams. I realised that my active life could be short, so my motto in life was: “Don’t cry about what you lost, but rejoice in what you have left.” I made do with what I had and the time I had, rather than sulking about what I did not.
You don’t live only once. You live twice – the first time is when you’re young and the second time: when you’re old. And they are not far apart, because life is short. When I was young I had the guts to use whatever I had, to do what I wanted at the time. Today I have a most capable 4x4 and all the equipment to take me to the ends of the earth, but not enough stamina. This is my miserable second life. If you want to do something, do it now - in any way you can. You may not even have a second life.
It was Henry Ford who said “Whether you think you can, or think you can’t – You are right.” And that’s how it is. It’s all in the mind. You can only succeed if you believe in your own ability. That’s why I hate to be called disabled. Disability is when you can’t do something because of your mind-set and many physically perfect people suffer from it. If there’s something wrong with your body, you are at a disadvantage but it can be overcome if you think you can. All you need is the opportunity to discover that you can succeed.”