Close encounter with the wild

2012-05-25 09:27

It happened on the road between Skukuza and Lower Sabie, deep in the southern Kruger National Park.

I had come across a convoy of about eight cars facing different directions which had stopped in the middle of the road to admire a few elephants snacking on trees on the side of the road.

Excited to see these giants, I joined in, snapping away, for we hardly ever see these things in the city. Then it happened.

Another herd of more than 20 elephants, massive giants that towered over vehicles like mountains, pushed through the bushes from the opposite side.

I found myself in the middle of the convoy, unable to move either forward or back.

It was a sight to behold. But it was an equally frightening sight, for you never know if the giants may decide to remind you who’s boss in these parts by giving your car, a miniature creature in their eyes, a little push with those massive tusks.

They were so close I could hear their low grunts and smell their breath.

I swear I even heard one of the bulls curse: “These things and the little things they point at us all the time! Nx! Stupid creatures!”

The elephants milled about the road for a while, with the big bulls jealously guarding the entire herd and engaging in what I thought were minor mock charges to scare us, the strange creatures, away.

It wasn’t to be my last close encounter with the wild.

Two days later, while preparing an evening meal at my tent in Skukuza Rest Camp, I almost jumped out of my skin when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a mean-looking hyena.

It was about 5m away, walking past like a bloodthirsty tsotsi on a mission to satisfy a blood lust.

Thanks to the gods for the fence that separated us, otherwise I might have become part of the endless cycle of the ecosystem.

Two hyenas became regular visitors every evening.

Apparently some misinformed people have created this problem by tossing bones over the fence, which has made them somewhat dependent on leftovers.

I wouldn’t have hesitated, though, to have thrown any culprit to the hyenas had I seen this happen.

Anyway, the whole trip was, as usual, unplanned. It was the nagging longing to be in the wild, to wake up to the magical call of the African fish eagle, to listen in awe to the haunting roar of the lion that saw me head north to the Orpen Gate.

My obsession with the wild goes back a long way. In my boyhood I would sit for hours marvelling at massive calendars that bore striking photos of Africa’s wildlife.

But back then, as a result of laws made by people with such strange nicknames as Die Groot Krokodil, that world was not open to us black sons and daughters of the soil. Thank heavens, though, that those stupid laws are gone.

The thing that is so addictive about the park is the whole idea and experience of being in a part of Africa that remains almost completely unspoilt by the hand of man, where fauna and flora thrive and survive with little interference from man, as they did before our species came along.

It is also not just about being able to watch the wildlife in action in their natural habitat, but the peace, serenity, wonderful sunsets and glorious mornings that allow you to almost hear the earth breathe.

You stand at the top of Matekenyane Hill in the early morning, look around and beyond, to be greeted by almost never-ending stretches of bush.

You drive out of Lower Sabie Camp in the morning and stop by the watering hole to watch hippos and crocodiles lazing about.
And always the most difficult thing about being in the park is the last day, when reality suddenly hits that there are bills to be paid and work to be done. And you wonder, “Why can’t I just live here?”

But as I left, after seven glorious days at Lower Sabie and Skukuza, I thought of former president Thabo Mbeki’s words: “At times, and in fear, I have wondered whether I should concede equal citizenship of our country to the leopard and the lion, the elephant and the springbok, the hyena, the black mamba and the pestilential mosquito.”

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