Into the Wild – Part Two
March 3, 2013
I needn’t have worried about sleeping in on day two of our safari; I was crawling around in the brush outside our hut with my camera just after dawn. Heaven. My heart stopped at least twice when the grasses that brushed my ankle mimicked the tickle of spider legs, or the slither of a snake…but thankfully I saw neither.
Jody dragged me from the scenery in time to make our pre-safari snack at the main lodge, where we found coffee, juice and trays of rusks waiting for us. What’s that, you ask? It’s the addictive South African equivalent of biscotti that held little interest when we arrived, yet became a craving by the end of the trip.
As we gulped back the last of our coffee (keeping the cup small and praying we wouldn’t need bathroom breaks), the rain we’d been hoping would hold off began to fall. I tucked my camera inside my jacket, resigned to a day of no photography, while the retiree in front of me carefully wrapped his in complicated rain gear. I decided to try to sit back and enjoy the ride.
We took the same seats we’d had the day before, and our guide Hannes handed out thermal waterproof ponchos to his grateful riders. Our Jeep lurched onto the path, and as we picked up speed the wind whipped the rain sideways into our faces. It was impossible not to laugh, when we were hitting the bumps so hard we lifted off our seats. The laughter faded, however, when we reached the first enclosure and the electric gate stalled when half-open. Hannes jumped from the cab to shove it the rest of the way manually, saying “it gets a bit unreliable when it’s wet.” Seriously? Passing through, we could hear the rain hiss and pop as it landed on one of the nearby electrified fences. They do this every day, I repeated, calming myself.
It was disappointing to realize the first stop of the day would be the elephants, since I’d wanted so badly to take some photographs. The weather stole my photo ops, but it was no less amazing for us to share their damp company.
They have only two of them on the reserve, due in part to the expenses involved in their care. Hannes shared their feeding schedule: four meals a day that include 50 pounds of horse feed, 40 pounds of fruits and vegetables, and bales of alfalfa for each elephant. These amazing girls seem happy enough, are obviously well cared-for, and have plenty of space to roam…but don’t meet the minimum requirements for a herd. There was a situation at the Toronto Zoo recently, where four elephant deaths in as many years left just three in the herd, which zoologists blasted in the news, saying it was the smallest advisable number for these incredibly social creatures. It was concerning to see only two here, each possessing a sad history like many of the other residents, precluding any other outcome for them. Hannes told us that they kept to a strict self-determined schedule, demanding they be let into the building they sleep in each night at six. He said, “You don’t argue with an elephant having a tantrum”.
I could have stayed with them all day, and the rain was actually a blessing. I grabbed a few quick shots, then held my camera under my poncho and simply enjoyed the experience. I realize I need to do that more often; be in the moment without framing photographs, evaluating light, and experiencing everything through the confines of my viewfinder.
We tried to guess which animals would be next as we took an exceedingly bumpy ride across another enormous compound. There was absolutely no way to shoot while the Jeep was in motion, as shown by this short clip:
I caught sight of the zebras’ unmistakable optical-illusion hides at a distance, and realized once we’d bounced closer that a new foal was with them.
Hannes loved to throw out trivia questions at us, such as, “Are these white animals with black stripes, or black animals with white stripes?” The answer is the latter, and those stripe patterns are as individualized as fingerprints. He told us when zebras are about to give birth, the mother goes off on her own to have the baby and be completely alone for two days. With no other zebras in sight, her foal can memorize her pattern, and will recognize her by sight in a herd from then on. Isn’t nature amazing?
Over the next hill, we stumbled upon a herd of elands (absolutely enormous antelope) chilling out, and supremely unconcerned with our presence. Many Africans domesticate them in place of cattle for both their milk and their meat, which are more nutritious and easier to farm because the animals are inactive and need very little water. Translation: they sleep all day, and graze at night. Since this was about as exciting to watch as paint drying, we quickly moved on.
We looped around and ended up back in the giraffe area we’d visited yesterday, but since it was now morning, that young giraffe hadn’t yet had his mood swing, and was still hanging out with his dad. The scale of them together was shocking: the teenager who had appeared so enormous yesterday at about 10 feet tall was positively dwarfed by the adult!
Unfortunately the giraffes were not playing ball with our cameras today, and loped off in different directions. Hannes had done an admirable job thus far of positioning the Jeep for us to have the best views, trying to make sure people on both sides of the vehicle got their turn at facing the animals. Despite his efforts, this safari was still torture at times for a photographer. It was impossible to move around the subject, change your angle of view, or control the situation in any way, especially with people sitting both in front of and behind you. All I had in my arsenal was a choice of framing, exposure, and focal length of my lens, and the rainy weather made lens changes nearly impossible. Thank God for zoom lenses! I don’t know how I made it all the way through university with fully manual cameras and prime lenses. At this point, feeling relatively safe with the giraffes and frustrated at the limitations, it was hard not to leap out of the Jeep and keep shooting.
This urge passed quickly as we entered what would be the last habitat of the day, and saw something disturbing:
This was the work of the lions. That whole “not a zoo” thing was incredibly clear. The lodge releases its hunters with their prey to let nature take its course, and remove any need for rangers to cull their antelope herds.
We drove around for some time, occasionally stopping as Hannes got on his walkie-talkie with other guides, trying to find the lions. It was disconcerting, to say the least, to realize we were so close to these animals, and they might see us long before we saw them. Hannes was very careful with his path, avoiding the high road near the fence since it “didn’t offer a reliable enough escape route.”
After a few unsuccessful circuits, we unfortunately had to return to the lodge for our scheduled breakfast and checkout, and poor Hannes seemed to take the absence of lions as a personal failure….and challenge. He asked if we wanted to reconvene after breakfast, saying he thought he could coax the big cats out with the food truck. Food truck? Apparently the game lodge has an arrangement with the surrounding farms: when livestock die, the lodge purchases the animal and drives the carcass out to the lions, dumping it whole into their enclosure. Hannes said they don’t butcher meat because different nutrients are found in each organ, and the lions will eat whatever parts of the animals their bodies need. It’s a perfect solution, and there is no waste. Everyone agreed we would love the opportunity to take our third safari out!
We rushed through breakfast, and saw Hannes give us the thumbs up sign from the doorway. We ran to our hut, packed up, checked out, and hopped back on the Jeep in the parking lot within fifteen minutes. It was still cloudy, but the rain had finally stopped. Seeing no one else around, we realized we were the only group being given this additional opportunity to find the lions – one of the benefits of having drawn the head ranger for our tour! (And perhaps due in part to the substantial tips we’d slipped him.)
While we’d been enjoying breakfast, Hannes had continued to drive around the lion compound until he’d spotted the pair. On our way back through the gate, Hannes carefully instructed us to stay seated in the Jeep. “The animals see the truck with all of us in it as one large unit,” he explained. “As soon as someone stands up, it separates you from the group, and the lion will see you as a smaller, individual target. And a lion can cover 100 metres in 4 seconds, so he will be here before I can turn the truck on.” I will not need to hear that information twice. He told us the male lion on the reserve came from a canned hunting facility, where he was raised to end up an easy trophy on someone’s wall. “He is massive, over 220kg without an ounce of fat on him. I’ve never seen a lion his size before.” I was excited, but very much aware of the vulnerable position in which we’d placed ourselves. Canadians mauled on safari, I could see the headlines now.
We stopped a little further along, fully inside the enclosure, waiting while he spoke on the walkie-talkie with the food truck driver. At this point, the retired photo enthusiast in front of us decided he simply had to get just the right shot of a heron, and stood up. Repeatedly. Even Jody was nervous at this point, and told him to sit back down. We moved on slowly, watching the food truck in the distance winding a trail across the landscape, hoping to entice an invisible lion or two into view.
Jody was the first one to see him. “Here he comes!” she called out, pointing towards the row of bushes in the distance.
We craned our necks in the direction she was pointing, and he materialized, moving in an easy trot through the grass. Even at a distance, the power in his bulging muscles was evident as he made a beeline straight for the feeding truck….which looked remarkably similar to our safari vehicle. Best of all, I noticed the feeding truck was empty. We’re baiting a hungry lion with an empty truck, while a Jeep packed with humans waits nearby?
After a few minutes passed, he did seem a little perturbed when no food was forthcoming. His mouth dropped open and he panted while sniffing the air; then appeared to stare us down for a moment. All I kept thinking was he could reach us in four seconds.
I didn’t realize I’d been holding my breath, but as the lion flopped down in the grass, I finally relaxed as well. What a sight to behold.
As if on cue, his mate appeared from the right, coming at the truck from the other side. She also sniffed the air as she got closer, seemed to realize there was nothing there of interest, and laid down a short distance from the male.
In typical fashion, Hannes said “I think I can get you closer”, but we assured him we were good with what we’d seen. All of us were ready to move on, thrilled but more than a little wary of these powerful animals.
Deciding it was worth a shot, I asked Hannes if he would mind leading us through the elephant area again, now that the weather had improved. Those that ask, get! We circled around and spent our last few minutes watching the elephants feed, kicking up the grass to eat the new shoots, and “smiling” all the while.
We returned to the lodge after an extra hour out on the reserve, so grateful to Hannes for an incredible experience that exceeded our expectations.
Heading back to the highway on our way home, we passed some trees with clusters of elaborate weaver nests in them. The birds construct the nests when the grass is supple and green, which then dry into sturdier homes.
I’ll say it again – isn’t nature amazing?