Will We, Will We Not? The Search for African Animals

Part of me wondered if we’d see animals up close. We had four days in the Greater Kruger National Park but these were wild animals and the park is more than 20 000 square kilometres. It seemed theoretically possible for all animals to be distant from our vehicles. (Mathematicians, what say you?) When wandering around our lodge, Tremisana, in Balule (one of the private game parks adjoining Kruger without fences), the BB found photos taken by visitors. One showed lions next to the road 50 metres inside the front gate. ‘If only,’ I thought.

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Twenty minutes into our sunset drive that evening we encountered a herd of impala almost on the track – one male and a number of females. What a thrill! I later discovered that most people quickly tire of them because they are so prolific but I find their daintiness, clear colouring and relationships captivating.

impala herd

impala

Then, elephants! (And another ‘!’ if I may – terribly naughty grammar but it was terrifically exciting). The tusks had moon-lustre in the gloaming. Quietly the herd threaded its way past us, in front and behind. A youngster trumpeted half-heartedly but his raised trunk indicated he was not perturbed enough to charge.

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Our sharp-eyed driver located lime green chameleons curled up in little packages, eyes swiveling. We were spotlighting by this time and I wanted to wrench the light from the 11-year-old boy who was operating it. (My childhood farm nights were surging to the fore.)

chameleon

The night was teeming: spotted Lincolns stuffed in a row; jackals; an orb spider;  a lone wildebeest with a herd of impala; and a scrub hare, looking rather like a common old rabbit. Possibly the highlight (no pun intended) of spotlighting was the bush baby two nights later. Its eyes reflected as a single entity, masking its body. From its roadside bush, it bounced onto the ground then sprang immediately back up, 1.5 metres, into the bush. With no hesitation, it launched down to the road, then continued to the other side and disappeared. The effect was of a small, rubber, bouncing ball with an attached reflector.

Spotted Lincolns

Spotted Lincolns

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Jackal in daylight.

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Orb spider in daylight

It’s not just the sights that make the African wilderness. Even during the day, one can feel the damp cool near water. Mint and sage-like aromas plus dirt and the tang of urine add to the complexity of the air. And there are the sounds. Our driver that first night stopped the vehicle and asked us to guess the origin of the rustles, snaps and thuds emanating from the bush. Deductions based on height of the sound and the nature of the footfall lead me to buffalo and then they appeared; dangerous as hell to the walker but disinterested in our vehicle. They moseyed on and the night once again enveloped them, visually, if not aurally.

buffalo

Dinner was a brai (bbq). The boma was a picture of (tourist) Africa: a circle of rocks about 40cm high – insufficient to deter a big cat, I thought – in the open bush. We sat beneath a spreading marula tree at tables covered, incongruously and invitingly, with white tablecloths and lit by lights in jars. Beef steaks, sausages and corn roasted over the coals. Salad and dessert beckoned from the serving table. A rifle rested against the tree. That rifle, in the hands of one of the men from the lodge, accompanied me to the ladies – protection against woman-eaters.

The following morning, after a large and tasty breakfast, (they “fed us like fighting cocks”, as my grandmothers used to say), nine of us tourists zipped down the highway in an open safari vehicle (plus driver in the cab) to a Kruger entrance.

Day two - Kruger proper and the best toilet block I have ever seen.

The best toilet block/restroom I’ve ever seen. Near Orpen Gate.

A few hundred metres inside the gate we chanced upon lions – a male and female plus the security guard lion whose consequence for losing the fight for the female is to keep everyone away while these two mate every 15 – 20 minutes over three to five days. (Yes, you read that correctly.) The event we witnessed was brief and low-key – as you might expect with that sort of schedule.

two lions

The day filled with sighting after sighting of animals, most so close I couldn’t have used my zoom lens if I’d wanted.

Wildebeest frolicked on the verge and filed across the road. They are elegant, sleek creatures who do not deserve their place amongst the so-called Ugly Five. (Show me an animal that does.)

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wildebeest

Also in that group: warthogs. They are not ugly so much as…unexpected, and endearing for it. How sweet they are, humphalumphing and trit-trotting through the belly-high grass. (The other uglies are hyenas, vultures and marabou storks.)

There were ostriches with plumage like the great, wide mourning dresses of Queen Victoria; a mongoose, which brought a childhood story to life; half-hidden kudu; a leopard tortoise (representing the Small Five); baboons with their playful babies who sat still just long enough to plot their next caper (in some odd way, their large, pink ears seem to emphasise their thoughtfulness at such moments) ; giraffes adorned with birds; delightful, decorative birds.

leopard tortoise baboons

giraffe

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The 'flying-banana bird'. A real character

The ‘flying-banana bird’.

Hoopo bird

Hoopo bird

Zebras teased our eyes like a knot of striped jumpers and stockings – an utter treat.

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pigeon near zebra hoofs

Twice we were surrounded by elephants. Later, I emailed my mother with that bit in capital letters. She loves elephants. I watched for her too.

baby elephant two elephants

At lunchtime a fellow passenger bought rhino bracelets for a honeymooning Irishman and his wife, so keen was he to see a rhino. By mid-afternoon we had all embraced his desperation. The driver took us to rhino hangouts. Nothing. As we criss-crossed the bush, the woman next to me acted as a periscope or meerkat, upright and pivoting. We wouldn’t miss anything on her lookout. By 4pm the shadows were taunting us by forming remarkably rhino-like shapes. Spider webs glistened in the slanting rays, marking out large territories as children mark out play homes with stones.

Bachelor herd

A bachelor herd of impala. Every now and then a member will challenge the male with a female herd.

The rare two-headed zebra

The rare two-headed zebra

We did not see a rhinoceros. I didn’t expect a leopard – the final member of the Big, ie dangerous-to-hunt, Five – since they are largely nocturnal.

As we zoomed home in the dark, huddled against the cold air, I wondered about cheetahs. I had heard tales of semi-tame ones at a nearby lodge. Oh, to see one!

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African lion. Kruger park

The sentinel.

We had one and a half days plus an evening drive remaining…

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BRING ON THE PLASTIC ANIMALS

I had a toy hippo. Its body was a very hard plastic shell and it stood about 6cm high. It marched stiffly down slopes on wide flat feet, heel toe heel toe, mouth agape, stumpy teeth gleaming. It was one of the marvels of my tiny life.

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There were many animals in the small, battered cardboard case: cheetahs – captivating (though easily misplaced) in their minuteness; a lion whose patchy mane did not reduce his magnificence in my eyes, a solid rhino and others.

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One morning my grade one teacher handed out squares of white paper. She assigned everyone in the class (4 – 8 years old) an animal from the pictures hanging on the wall. I stared at my giraffe, high up on the other side of the room. Overwhelming as the task was, it was also rather thrilling. I had been directed to something that, until then, had simply been part of the decor.

IMG_3981 African animals: many of us were raised on them. Through happenstance we develop a kinship with particular species. And we gather more, even into adulthood: we see a film featuring a friendly warthog; we receive an elephant calendar for Christmas; we are likened to a meerkat.IMG_3276

They came close to the breakfast area each morning for scraps.

We take them into our psyche. They become part of our notion of what the world is and, subtly, they are woven into the fabric of who we are.

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They become special (sometimes without us realising the extent). They call us.

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A far cry from the narrow, brown plastic elephant, upright only because of its rectangular base.

We want to see them, to visit ‘our animals’ roaming freely.

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And we pay to do so.

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The plastic animals have brought the BB and me to Kruger. Our money helps conserve the real animals and support people who are fighting to that end.

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The relationship forged through plastic animals renders the experience of seeing the real ones richer and deeper than it would otherwise have been and, in that sublime moment of tenderness, awe and recognition when we sight them in the wild, the memory of that first contact dances at the edges.

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Give a child a plastic animal (or a picture or a zoo visit or a movie or…) and give them roots to life.

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To be continued.

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NORTHWARDS!

Minutes from the Johannesburg airport we’re in countryside that (once again) looks decidedly Australian, scattered as it is with eucalyptus trees. Strange, elongated, pointy hills dot the flatness – possibly mine dumps. We pass flat fields of sorghum and dead corn. Boomsprays sit in furrowed fields. I see cattle, red and glossy black, on the verge of the dual carriageway. What’s to prevent them wandering onto the road? A moment later I spy the man wandering alongside them trailing a thin, supple stick. They are grazing the long paddock, as we say in Australia.

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Penguins and Points

The Americans next to me in the minivan were remarking how the landscape reminded them of Oregon. At the same time I was thinking how reminiscent it was of parts of Australia – hectares of scrub, rocky outcrops, eucalyptus (a weed in this country, threatening indigenous plants and ‘using lots of water’ according to our driver). We were on a day trip around Cape Peninsula.

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Black sea birds fly low past the Cape of Good Hope

Continue reading

Cape Town Caper

Large black-maned lions used to roam the land where Cape Town now stands. The last one was shot sometime between 1802 and 1858.

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Rembrandt – a Cape lion

The sea used to wash through what is now downtown. It was pushed back in the 1930s and 40s – presumably using the know-how of the Dutch, those masters of land reclamation.

Cape Town from Table Mountain

Cape Town is a working harbour.

District Six was a thriving mixture of cultures. Apartheid policies razed it. It is now largely grass supporting a few religious buildings. People sprawl between the occasional boulders and rubbish. Continue reading

Arriving In My Past

Johannesburg is a rich tapestry of lights – arterial amber globs and backstreet silver pinpricks.

As we descend, the land’s undulations are black sheets studded with lights: paper with rounded upper edges, placed upright one behind the other, obliterating the lower parts of those behind – a simple art project for children.

Then the lights separate from the whole and form themselves into buildings. We are in the city.

On the ground we walk the South African way. Continue reading

ASK NOT FOR WHOM THE CONDUCTOR DANCES

Keep an eye open for your bliss. You can stumble upon it or you can create it. And for all your planning, it may still be a surprise. Continue reading