Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Washboard, Bladder Control and the Big Five

When the sun set at just before 6 pm it turned cold quickly. Riding in an open truck, intensely peering into the darkened landscape for the slightest movement in the scrub brush or tall grass, did not sufficiently divert me from that fact, even though this was the much-acclaimed night game drive through the otherwise closed Kruger National Park. We were traveling over washboard roads at a pace that left you moving about your seat like popping corn. Everyone was shivering and vibrating at the same time. I was laughing on the inside. Between the cold, the road and the adrenaline rush of spotting a water buffalo, elephant, rhino, lion or leopard, all 11 passengers looked like they had Parkinson's disease, making my symptoms indistinguishable.

We had been warned, in rather somber terms, that we might see nothing at all in the three-hour ride.  It's like reading the back of a prescription medicine I am taking to combat malaria. There may be no effects, or some rather nasty side effects. You will not know until you take it. Fortunately, our ride started out well, encountering a large herd of impalas, and graduated shortly thereafter to a significant group of water buffalo. One down, four to go. But then it started to get really dark, and the only apparent means of spotting wildlife was by way of two fellow passengers (one of whom was clearly struggling with the task) waving about two high-powered spotlights while bouncing down the road in the back of the truck. It was like fishing with a bare hook. I expected nothing but the odd stump or giant anthill to be illuminated. I satisfied myself that it was worth the trip by gazing at the brilliant southern hemisphere stars, all the while trying to ignore the cold and its effect on my tremor (not to mention my bladder).

But, before the next hour was over, we saw two rhinos, looking ominous even when running away from our vehicle. Shortly thereafter our driver smelled (as did everyone else except me apparently) the presence of a heavily musk-scented male elephant in heat nearby. Soon, a fair sized herd was discovered, which after a short photo-op session retreated into the night. Three down and two to go. Add to that the sampling of other animals, some quite rare, such as a civet, pack of wild dogs (only 200 of which are said to exist in the entire Kruger Park, a steenbok, porcupine and mongoose, and the night was turning into a frenzied "catch and release" session.

Then came a long stretch of silent peering through the blackness, following the frenetic spotlights as they stabbed into the wilderness, pausing here and there for a split second. It was nerve-racking work, and largely unsuccessful… at least by the passengers. Almost all of the animals spotting had been done by our driver/guide (how he did both I'll never know) without the benefit of any artificial light as if he knew where they were all along. Had I been a little more skeptical I would've guessed that the animals had been tethered in place for each dramatic discovery. After all, the two tourists shining lights into the night had the rather magical effect of keeping us all preoccupied rather than talking or complaining about not seeing the next animal on the list. However, as matters unfolded any scheme of artificiality or contrivances was completely discounted.

It was about 8:15 PM when our driver, using extraordinary peripheral vision developed over years of practice, noticed a movement some 50 yards off the road. The lights swung in the direction of his pointing, and soon discovered a sizable pride of lions, with at least five or six cubs romping along with them. All of the other animals, including the three "big five", had been viewed from a distance of a few yards. The guide muttered something like, "we're too far away to see properly" and veered off the road, bouncing slowly across the terrain towards the lions. Given that this was an open truck (except for the driver's cab, which was curiously fully enclosed), which did not have four-wheel off-road capability, I wondered about the advisability of approaching three or four (or more) lionesses, with young offspring to protect. And who knew where daddy was? We followed them at a distance of about 30 or 40 feet, awestruck and totally focused on what we were seeing, until they sauntered into the night, seemingly unconcerned about our intervention. Wow, four out of five in one evening's drive. The chances of that happening are incredibly low.

Picking up speed, while still notionally looking for the leopard (which would've made it a perfect five out of five), I knew we were headed for home. The increased speed had the effect of decreasing the body temperatures in the back of the truck, as well as shrinking bladders. Everyone seemed ready to call it a night. And yet, there was one more surprise: a rhinoceros family, single child following obediently, appeared at the side of the road and stopped long enough to show off their mud-slathered sides (apparently they roll in it to remove ticks). An inspiring finish to the day. And tomorrow… who knows?

PS. Pictures to follow!

1 comment:

  1. I liked the "Spartacus-like solidarity" you allude to at the end of the first paragraph. Seeing those animals in their natural setting is hypnotic, isn't it. Your descriptions made me fondly remember one of my favorite movies, THE GODS MUST BE CRAZY. I look forward to the photos.