It’s 6am and freezing cold as the sun peaks over the horizon and begins to light up the bush. The sky is clear as zebra wander past my lodging and I head out to join our guide who’ll take us on this mornings game drive, seeking out the big five – lions, elephants, rhino, buffalo and leopards. Climbing onto our vehicle, of course, painted in the obligatory fatigue green we place blankets over our knees which will eventually work their way up to cocoon our heads and shield our ears from the wind chill as our eyes poke out, scanning the surrounding landscape for any movement. The sun creeps over the trees and shrubs and warmth gradually brings the wild to life, although we’ll be back enjoying breakfast long before any benefit allows us to fully warm up.
It’s close to zero degrees and 17 degrees will be the pinnacle today. Heading out of the safe zone, an area fenced off to keep the dangerous animals out, the gates click shut behind us as we bump over the cattle grid and head out along the dirt tracks. Now and then we stop and check out the animal tracks, looking for fresh evidence, noting their direction as we drive on eyes peeled. Springbok dart across in front of us and I recall the name from a menu recently, some of the most delicious carpaccio I’ve ever tasted. Is that wrong? Anyway that’s the only thing off any menu we’ll see today. More zebra stare us down as we pass. Most animals we see look directly at us initially, checking us out or daring us to approach. They will scatter if you get too close.
It’s quiet on the plains today. There are three drivers out this morning each keeping the other posted on sightings and whereabouts via walkie talkies. Our guide points out lion tracks on the road highlighting the difference between male and female. They’re fresh so we stay quiet and scan the shrub. This tease is energising in the cold however the lions are either well hidden or have moved on. Fresh dung by the roadside is a calling sign of rhinoceros.
There’s a difference between that of white and black rhino, because they eat different things. She likens the heap to their Facebook page where others will come and dump on top of the remains if they like them and beside it if they don’t! I don’t know how many likes I have today as we’re completely off the grid and I love it. Black rhinos are rare and recently one was released into this reserve says our guide with a tear in her eye. If not for people like her then our planet would be losing most species as poachers kill to satisfy the vain needs of consumers. The world loses one rhino every 8 hours! Rhino horns are like our fingernails she explains.
Do you really need them ground up in your morning juice to improve whatever you think this does? In the human world this is a form of torture. Try pulling out your own and grind them down instead… just saying. Keen eyes spot giraffe feeding on the leaves high in the trees in groups a little too far away but within eyesight nonetheless. Warthogs in bigger numbers feed close to the roadside and without fail hold our gaze. We’re always respectful and keep our distance. We skim the fringes of the lake where menacing eyes drift above the water concealing the bodies that lurk beneath as crocodiles seem to float effortlessly and a hippo and her baby clamber out onto the small island metres from shore.
It’s hard to believe they are responsible for more human deaths than any other animal. Don’t be fooled by their size or apparently sluggish nature. They are fast on land and in the water they are deadly. Flimsy canoes are no match as they are easily flipped leaving the inhabitants precariously unprotected in the water. We stop for coffee and hot chocolate beside the water reassured that we are far enough away to avoid harm. We’re relaxed but never complacent. We are the visitors. We’re driving through thousands of hectares of bushland so it’s a lottery looking for needles in haystacks.
Calls from other trackers give us some direction but maybe today the lions, rhino and elephants are too far from the well worn tracks we are travelling. More fresh tracks taper off into the brush and most of the dung we come across is yesterday’s news, likes or not. Suddenly we stop and keep quiet, listening. Lions somewhere. The sound is enough to reassure us of their presence. On a drive last week elephants were so close that their trunks prodded jubilant onlookers. We’ve been warned not to touch any animals if they approach. Even those that are close enough to, well touch. We drive on in the hope that elephants will want to come up to us as we resist the urge the stroke their enquiring trunks. Not today.
Part of the realness is understanding that we are immersed into another world. An animal’s world. While we may take the same route to work each day or prefer to do things in a certain way, animals in the wild are both predictable and unpredictable. We’ve learnt about their habits and monitored behaviour patterns however they are driven by much the same as us. They will go where there is shelter, food and safety. Unlike most of us, they are nomadic or maybe like some of us, they have holiday homes in different places for different seasons. The vicinity is often the same but the dwelling may be different. They rarely dust of the furnishings when they return for the summer season.
Most animals on this reserve are monitored for protection with tracking devices. However few have access to the passwords in order to tackle abuse and limit rogue rangers. Recently a lioness was seen to be in the same place for longer than usual. She was discovered in a trap. The rangers are forever on guard. It’s now legal to shoot poachers to kill on sight. Apart from the obvious slaughter poaching leaves orphans and babies are often cared for by dedicated staff. Our guide has looked after a meerkat since he was orphaned when just a few days old.
The trust this little animal has for Therese is astounding. She truly is his mother now. However as a male he is threatened by males of any species. To put this to the test she puts him down. There are three of us men here today and he immediately goes in to attack the one of us with shorts on, legs uncovered. He picks up the scent of testosterone.
“Part of the realness is understanding that we are immersed into another world. An animal’s world… I’ll return in warmer weather and probably to a different place to experience the joys that Africa has to offer.”
“Get up on the table” she screams to him as he is a little surprised that this cute little thing has gone from cuddling his mummy to attacking the male intruder in a blink of an eye. He is staking his territory and it’s a reminder of where we are and who is in charge. We’re not here to roll up and snap photos and go. We’re here to enjoy the search and the experience the thrill of the hunt so to speak, without guns. I can now completely understand the skill required and the resulting excitement of tracking animals in the wild, the anticipation that goes with it, and the indescribable pleasure of discovering them. I cannot understand the egotistical, senseless need for killing them.
The zebra, hippos, wildebeest we see are a bonus and although it’s a little disappointing to miss some it’s reassuring to know that this is not a theme park ride where caged up and distressed animals beg for release while they are prodded or withheld food in order to appear or perform. “You’ll have to come back” our chef states emphatically as he scrambles our eggs and pours hot coffee to thaw us out. He’s right. I’ll return in warmer weather however and probably to a different place to experience the joys that Africa has to offer.