5:30AM seems to come earlier every day. I think I’m just lying in bed awake waiting for the wakeup call when the wakeup call wakes me up. We dress quickly and gather our things for the morning safari. As we down a quick cup of coffee Mike and Sam are readying the riffles. Morning discussion centers on the lions and hyena heard during the night. The young woman from Chicago didn’t sleep at all, fearful of the distant roaring of lions in the darkness. I, unfortunately or fortunately, didn’t hear a thing.
There is always a loaded rifle in the Land Rover but this morning they double check them. We are going on a walking safari in search of lions. There’s a feeling of excitement and anticipation in the air as we climb into the Land Rover. Soon after we leave camp, Sam stops for a small herd of male buffalo, probably chased out of the main herd by the younger stronger bulls. Small birds clean their hides, jumping from their backs to their faces and ears and back.
We reach the trail head and are given a short pep talk on how to walk in the bush – stay single file, don’t talk, rotate from front to back from time to time so the same person isn’t always in the back, and whatever you do don’t run if charged, instead stay put and listen for instructions. If you run you’re sure to become someone’s dinner.
There is a certain tension in the group, danger mixed with anticipation. We walk silently, stopping occasionally to talk about mongoose dens or African spiders. The walk feels good – the air cool and the pace quick, up and down rolling grassland and through dry river beds, but no lions. After about an hour and half Mike declares, “the good news is we are safe, the bad, no lions.” Somewhat disheartened we head back to the dam for tea and coffee.
On the way we see vultures circling above. At first just a couple but soon six or seven. Two distant trees also each have about half a dozen raptors just waiting. “Waiting for what?” we wonder. Sam drives the long way around to check out the park. Maybe we’ll see something.
Soon Mike finds fresh wild dog tracks and is convinced that we are too late. A pack of wild dogs can chase down and completely devour a kudu (large antelope) in a mere six minutes.
At the dam a lone young impala wanders near the bank. Mike explains that that’s what wild dogs do. They create chaos in the herd causing them to scatter. These lone creatures then become easy targets for any number of predators. I watch the small animal on the other side of the dam go down to the water for a drink both feeling a sorry for his predicament and secretly hoping for a lion or leopard to attack. He drinks and safely returns to the bush.
Back at Camp
Breakfast – poached eggs, tomatoes, mushrooms, fried potatoes and toast, as well as fruit, yogurt and corn flakes. The sun comes out and the temperature is rising. The afternoon drive will be warm, hopefully urging the animals to head to the watering holes.
More guests arrive just before lunch, a young Canadian couple on a four-month trip around the world and a British couple on their honey moon. As we are served a fried chicken patty sandwich, the woman from Canada asks me if the food has been good. “Well”, I say as I try to figure out what the individually foil wrapped cream cheese really is. More like processed American cheese or Velveeta than your typical cream cheese.
We board the Range Rovers for our last afternoon/ night drive. All are hoping for lions while our guide Mike is still focused on the much rarer wild dogs. He’s seen lots of lions, having worked formerly on a lion preserve, but he understands our desire and looks for lion tracks as well. The afternoon has cleared as expected and the straw colored grass and gray frame of the trees glow against the blue sky in the late afternoon light. We stop to watch and discuss raptors and other birds.
We learn about the bateleur eagle, recognizable by its short tail and wobbling nature as it flies high above us. “Bateleur” is the French word for “tight-rope walker” and the eagle’s characteristic rocking back and forth motion is reminiscent of a bateleur balancing on a tightrope.
Next we come across a giraffe standing in the middle of the road, unconcerned with our presence. We soon notice that she is flanked by a few friends on either side of the road, all of whom seem eager to pose for the camera. Can you really have too many giraffe pictures?
A call comes in from Sam announcing that a large herd of migrating buffalo has been seen entering the property. Once again we race off to catch them. Soon we see the camp’s other Land Rover stopped watching the buffalo cross the road in front of us. Mike cautiously drives us into the middle of the herd, a 360 panorama of staring faces.
An eerie feeling, knowing that you are completely surrounded with your safety resting on the mood of these massive creatures. Young and old they soon lose interest and walk around us.
The light is getting low and we are still hoping for lions. Maybe they are following the herd.
Heading back to the dam for sundowners we come across a mixed herd of impala and zebra. A striking combination of sleek tone-on-tone tan and black and white stripes. They travel together to help protect and warn each other of approaching predators.
Nearly at the dam we encounter a gigantic mama elephant and a young calf, most likely part of a herd, as mothers and calves travel in groups. Mama is not happy that we are so close and starts flapping her ears and stomping her feet in protest, kicking up a dusty cloud. Mike explains the warning signs and levels of probable animal attack, assuring us that while she is annoyed with us she is still at only B or C warning level. If she lays her ears flat back we had better get out of there in a hurry. Almost dark, he finally backs the vehicle into the night and leaves her in peace with her calf.
About sundown the wind picks up and the temperature drops. We huddle under the warm wool blankets not wanting to miss the night drive. With so many animals in the area our chances that lions are following was increasing. Mike searches the night savanna for eyes staring back in his spotlight. His beam follows back and forth across the road and up and down the larger trees, but no sign of lions or leopards. He does spot a bush baby, genet cat and jackal.
A thrilling afternoon so close to so many animals, but we can’t help but be a little disappointed at the lack of big cats.
Dinner – lamb stew, potato meat pie, rice, mixed veg. Throughout dinner the wind howls. “Will it bring us sunshine or rain,” we wonder. Only the morning sky will tell.
September 23, 2011
For links to all the posts in this series see the South Africa page.