One year ago today, KC and I arrived in Venice, the first stop of our travels. Feeling nostalgic, I clicked back through our blog and noticed that our recent entries reflect not so much the wonder and chaos we shared early on, but the more mundane things we’ve grown accustomed to, such as slow internet and bureaucracies. Today is a good day to remember why we left on this journey one year ago, and share one particularly unforgettable experience.
In August, we had the pleasure of sharing our travels with one of my closest college friends, Keith. Not only was it a chance to spend rare quality time like we haven’t done since carpooling together for 2 years after university, it was just plain nice to have a friend visiting. After almost a year of the same dinner conversations between KC and I, we kept Keith on his toes, debating with him (a fresh viewpoint!) and subjecting him to more commentary on post-apartheid South Africa than he probably cared to hear on a “vacation.”
We took Keith on a week-long camping tour through South Africa’s flagship national park, “the Kruger” (as South Africans call it), and Mlilwane, a lovely small national park in Swaziland (one of the last true kingdoms in the world). You’ve heard me complain before about the South African parks with all their rules, and Kruger is no exception. (Admittedly, after witnessing an idiot walk up to a bison in Yellowstone or the South African woman hand-feed a jackal from her picnic lunch, I do understand the need for all the rules, even if I still don’t like them.)
We camped at Lower Sabie, a picturesque campground near the southern end of the park, and Keith ran headlong into one of the rules after he took off with a cute Spanish chica for a late afternoon game drive and missed the 6 pm gate closing when they found themselves stuck in the middle of a herd of Cape Buffalo. Somehow Keith talked himself out of the R500 fine by explaining that the uncooperative bovines didn’t share his sense of urgency to get back in time.
While having sundowners (one of my favorite African terms, meaning “happy hour”) on the deck of the restaurant in the campground, KC noticed a dead Cape Buffalo in the grass along the riverbank where the deck overlooks the Sabie River. The deck sits about 15 feet off the ground and the bottom is enclosed in 6 strands of high-voltage electric fencing that makes for stunning – but safe – animal viewing. We listened to the hippos grunting and calling up and down the river, watched a herd of elephants snorkel across further downriver, and we stalled until it got dark, hoping some hyenas would slink in to work on the carcass.
(Why hope for hyenas? Lions and leopards are also great scavengers, so we could have wished for those, but we’ve seen all the big cats by now, and after 8 months in Africa, it’s time to see a hyena, for the love of pete!)
Luck was not with us, and we eventually had dinner and went to bed (not without checking the deck one last time before brushing our teeth).
A little after 3 am, I heard someone jogging past our campsite. Strange, I thought… why would the rangers be exercising at this time of night?? Then KC woke me up, “Fire!” We stumbled out of the tent to find a good-sized fire burning out of control just over the fence from our campsite. We stayed up long enough to be sure the rangers were aware of it (I guess those were the “jogging” rangers I’d heard/dreamt), and before KC could go back to the car to get our camp shovel to help put it out, 6 park employees had finished the job.
Before going back to bed, I suggested we check the deck to see if any hyenas had shown up. We took our flashlight and made our way to the restaurant. We sat on some stools along the edge of the deck and listened (it was a cloudy night, and the only light came from some safety lighting along the floor of the deck – not enough to see out into the grass along the river bank 50 feet away). We could hear some rhythmic chewing sounds, and as our eyes adjusted to the darkness, we made out the shapes of a school of grazing hippos.
Suddenly from the grassy periphery, our eyes caught movement of a shape trotting toward the clearing below us, and I almost fell over the edge of the deck when it materialized into a spotted hyena! (Finally!) Then, another one and another came into the clearing. We stood spellbound; first slack-jawed then looking at each other with eyes of wonderment and goofy grins plastered on our faces. After a few minutes I came to my senses and ran back to the campground to wake Keith. By the time he and I made it back, KC had counted 8 hyenas. Four of them were on the carcass; we could only tell by the tearing and crunching sounds coming from that direction and the glowing eyes picked up by our tiny flashlight’s beam. They were surprisingly silent, with only one brief vocal skirmish.
Eventually Keith, and then KC, went back to bed. Now it was 4 am and I had the viewing buffet site all to myself. Not two minutes after KC left, another large shape emerged from the shadows and into the clearing directly beneath the safety lights of the deck, allowing me a perfect aerial view of a lioness stalking through the grass! She must have decided there were too many hyenas to confront alone, because she disappeared under the deck, and I’ll never know if she was hunkered down under my feet for the next hour, waiting, or if she kept walking and exited the protective cover of the deck further upriver. Although I was perfectly safe, I felt a primal unease knowing that this apex predator was “underfoot” and the ticking of the e-fence calmed my fear that she might decide to work on her climbing skills.
The night was silent except for the crunching and gnawing I could hear on the carcass, but eventually even that stopped and I heard the hyenas splashing along the river’s edge when they left. It was such a beautiful night, I didn’t want to go back to bed, so I stayed for another 2 hours, enjoying the solitude of the African bush all around me, then listening – as the first hint of daylight softened the darkness – as the hippos went back to the water and some true early birds started cruising the river’s course. Some crunching had resumed on the carcass, so I assumed a hyena had stayed on, or perhaps the lioness was now taking her turn.
Eventually Dave, another camper, arrived, and we listened to the last remaining animal feeding on the carcass. I learned that Dave is a wildlife photographer spending 8 months in the Kruger (and I thought WE were slow travelers!). When the sun finally peeped up enough to see the carcass, the damage from 3 hours of work was impressive. Even more impressive, though, was the sanguine cat that stood up and stretched after finishing her early morning meal. To my utter amazement, it was not the lioness, but rather a beautiful leopard. Could I be so truly fortunate all in one night!? The big cat walked to the river for a drink, then laid down in full view to stare us down. I had enough time to go back to camp and wake up the others (again) for the leopard viewing before she disappeared into the bush. Maybe she was the mother with the cubs that campers saw playing in a tree across the river later that day. I can’t know for sure, but it’s a nice thought.
It feels special…magical… to have enough time to sit, listen, and watch the typical activities of the bush. During daylight hours we’ve been “stuck” behind elephants taking dust baths in the middle of the road for an hour or more, and it honestly feels like they’re letting us hang out with them. (We’ve had them flap their ears and raise their trunks, too – a clear message that we’re unwelcome and we should move along.) But in the dead of night when we humans are sleeping, the bush comes alive. Predators prowl while the prey anxiously try to survive the darkness.
I’m so grateful to have had this past year to experience moments like these in slow motion, and that “African time” has permeated our subconscious enough so that when we come upon a herd of unfamiliar antelopes, we grin, park the car, and pull out the African Mammals Field Guide and binoculars. We have all the time in the world to analyze the markings inside a delicate ear and decide whether we’re seeing a steenbok or an oribi, so why hurry?
Our only deadline is the 6 pm gate closing.