‘We will take what nature gives us. I’m not going to squeeze the nature’.
We were about to step into the wild. I felt a mixture of emotion. A thrill of excitement. A whole lot more fear. ‘Whatever happens don’t run. It’s not good to die tired’. Aron, the head ranger was holding forth. ‘You too are very bright’, he said, nodding at the Germans, the only other couple on the trail. ‘Animals are colour blind, but they detect brightness – they’ll go for you first. So think of your saftey, and stay behind the others’. That would be us then.
We’d arrived at the camp the previous evening. Four thatched, stilted bungalows perched on the southern bank of the Olifants River; in the distance the Lebombo mountains and beyond them, Mozambique. We were in the middle of open grassland and riverine forest – and nothing else. The campfire and flickering parafin lamps burning on the bungalow’s narrow decks cast a soft welcoming light. A huge kettle simmered on hot coals. The sounds of the bush magnified as night fell. A rhythmic pulsing, steady and strong. Stars began to shimmer; Venus out sparkling them all. Shadrack, the cook, laid out dinner on a long table in the lapa – bar-b-que chicken, stew, rice and salad. Cicadas bombarded us, buzzing as they hit the backs of our necks. Aron and Absalon laughed in amusement at our flinches and flat handed slaps as we pushed the solar powered lamps ever further to the edge of the table, prefering to eat in relative darkness.
In the morning we were awoken with a soft call – ‘water is ready’ – as Absalon poured warm water into enamel bowls standing tall on legs, outside our huts. A quick wash of the face, a cup of tea with a rusk, and we were at that moment – our first bush walk. We set off in single file, Aron and Absalon up front, rifles loaded but slung over shoulders or underarm. Six people walking in silence, the power of the group intensifying an almost spiritual experience, all senses heightened. To walk in the bush is to feel it, to smell it, to hear it, to almost taste it. Bird calls so piercing, melodious and varied. The crunch of the dust. The pull of thorn on clothing. The warmth of the sun on your back. And the realisation that anything can happen at any moment. To walk in the bush is to pay attention to small details, and Aron and Absalon, a veritable Holmes and Watson, began to decipher the signs.
They pointed to large, two-toed hoof tracks and asked ‘what sort of animal is this’? A short while later we came across a mama and baby group of giraffe and had our answer. We watched them. They watched us. Peering at us quizzically, all furred horns (female – only males are bald, we learned) and large ears atop long slender necks, they stood ready to bolt. One of the little ones was only a couple of months old. ‘They are born tall’, Aron laughed. Both rangers were able to imitate bird song so well that birds tweeted back, and we became unsure which was bird, which ranger. Aron spotted two pearl-spotted owlets and called to them as they swooped and circled. Remarkable little birds with eyes in the back of their head – albeit fake, feather patterned ones, in an attempt to fool potential enemies. We were given a master class on dung spotting, dung differentiation, classification and recognition and listened to stories about the medicinal properties and traditional beliefs associated with trees and plants. ‘Nature has everything’, Aron told us as he plucked a rough leaf and asked us to feel it’s texture. It was just like an emery board – handy if you needed to file your nails in the bush!
‘Do you smell that popcorn kind of smell’, Aron asked, as we were hiking. ‘That’s a leopard, marking his territory’. But he, and most other animals eluded us. We saw only giraffe and the ubiquitous impala. Kruger is in the grip of a drought and where we trod on dirt and rocks there should have been knee-high grass. What should have been green was barren, brown earth and there was nothing for so many creatures to eat. ‘We struggle to find any animals, they have all moved away’, Aron told us. ‘We’ve lost eight hippos in our area alone. Their skin cracks if they can’t spend enough time in water’. One morning we spotted a tiny little steenbok, so skinny, it’s haunches protruding, as it stared at us wide-eyed. I thought of it’s suffering. Later on that day, we found it lying dead on it’s side. It would provide meat for something that evening. Life and death, hand in glove. I felt sad but the bush is no place for sentiment. Birth and death are part of a continuous cycle and the everyday. Again I felt that conflict of emotion, a reminder of my own mortality; a surge of life, and a sadness at the eventual loss of it.
To spend even such a short time in wilderness is a privilege – with or without animal sightings. As we drove out of camp on the last morning, Aron said ‘there – on the rocks’. The leopard sat, watching us leave. Seemingly satisfied to have his territory to himself again, he turned tail and disappeared. And we rejoined the madding crowd.