Out in wild Africa

Out in wild Africa

Savannah's residents.Photo by author

A bush elephant came up on our vehicle path. A classic Loxodont Africana specimen, it closed in on us and set our hearts pounding. The loner paused, stared, and exited into the thicket. It was our first Big 5 encounter. It left us with goose pimples.

It was Day 1 of an action-packed South African safari in the southern end of the East African plain, an hour’s flight from Johannesburg. We were out to observe, photograph, and delight in the wildlife and scenery.

Up before daylight, a chorus of cicadas, soft sounds of barks, wails and birdcalls from afar, and roars greeted us. Outside our shelter, creatures big and small were up and about — including animals we had never seen before — kudu, red duikers, nyalas, lilac-breasted roller, long-tailed widowbird, and so on.

The forays into the canopy forest were in an open four-wheel drive, painted over to blend in with the setting. The landmass, highly biodiverse, had savannah grasslands dotted with acacia, baobab and other trees, spiny succulents, and small flowering plants. It’s a complex food system that supports life from mammals to birds to termites.

Our Afrikaner guide Dylan and Zulu tracker Mr T knew the territory well and whisked us as close as possible to safely observe the wildlife. On the drives, they were all eyes and ears for the happenings around, often stopping to get information from the mud track.

When fresh and semi-dried elephant poop was spotted, they knew elephants were nearby. As they examined the track, we looked at an energetic dung beetle rolling, hurling cargo, some 250 times its weight, to bury in the sand. Nearby, a beautiful rosette-marked leopard tortoise moseyed along. It swallows seeds whole, passes them undigested, and regenerates the forest.

Dylan said they found pug marks of a cheetah and cubs. Clearly, excitement was ahead.

The Landcruiser moved on. Soon we were within a heartbeat distance of zebras, giraffes, and wildebeest. The grassy plain’s centerpiece was a rare black rhinoceros and a cub. They were ripping grass with prehensile lips. It’s a process, a 50-million-year continuum, that turns shrubland to savannah. On the rhino’s armored back, red-billed oxpeckers picked pests. At the sign of danger, the birds screech, and alert the rhino. Despite that warning, IUCN reports that a rhino gets waylaid by poachers for its horn every nine hours.

A bulky one-tonner such as the one grazing, when startled, will snort and charge despite its weak eyesight, relying largely on hearing and smell. That hasn’t deterred poachers, and yet I wondered if the wind changed direction, would the lumbering mum catch our scent and lunge at us?

Across the savannah, a pair of tall secretary birds, grey -bodied with a crest of long black plumes, was walking like old-timers with hands folded back, chatting, nodding. These endangered species are terrestrial hunters. To get food, the birds front-kick and foot-bash reptiles to a mince.

At a waterbody, a pod of hippos lay with bodies submerged, nostrils, ears, and eyes above the water. We watched as a sprightly youngster dashed in to challenge the dominant bull. The leader, a hefty two-tonner, rebuked the upstart and sent him packing with deep-red gashes on the body.

With the sharp sun, we stopped under a tree. Mr T got off his seat and sidled in beside Dylan. Ahead, a pride of elegant African Panthera leo — mostly lionesses — rested on a mound, under the shade of a stubby acacia. Cubs and youngsters frolicked nearby.

At close quarters, the scene was breathtaking. Of the land predators, the lion is the largest, most powerful, with an ability to wreck a wildebeest’s neck with a stroke of paw, and haul twice its weight in its jaws. For such reasons, other animals including young elephants give it a wide berth.

For now, the nocturnal hunters were laid-back, lazily looking out at the horizon. Some yawned and stretched, oblivious to our presence and muffled activity.

At the far end of the forest was the fearsome Cape buffalo, wallowing in a receding waterhole. Unlike its Indian counterpart, this bovine has never been domesticated. Its unpredictable nature and aggressive behaviour make the task difficult. Tagged Black Death, they can make short work of an attacking lion. More game hunters have succumbed to its fury than any other wildlife.

Intrigued, we watched the herd leave the water. Caught up snapping pictures, we didn’t notice a carved ebony giant that had closed in on our vehicle. Its pungent breath, eyes and sharp, gigantic, thick scimitar-like horns fixated on us, making our collective pulses quicken in excitement and fear. When the last of the herd left and the grey Cape terror followed, we realised it was a terrifying but absolutely exciting experience.

Later that afternoon, Mr T excitedly pointed to a happening on our far left. We couldn’t make out much. A trail of dust was being kicked up in the distance. A timeless drama was unfolding.

Dylan swung the vehicle around and hit the gas pedal. Soon we were hurtling through tall grass, past anthills, and rough growth. Cranes and wart-hogs skedaddled out of our way. The excitement got to us. The ranger in a voice to carry over the rushing wind said, “A cheetah chasing an impala.”

In bursts of lightning speed, twists and turns, a cheetah with a heaving chest and a narrow waist was pursuing the small antelope running zig-zag, and at a devastating pace. It was not the day of the underdog. In quick time, the impala was tripped, strangled, and dragged to a hiding spot — under an acacia surrounded by bushes. There, three waiting cubs watched the mother rip open the herbivore. Throughout the grisly meal, the felid kept throwing furtive glances around. Dylan explained, “She’s hoping the wind won’t alert the lions and hyenas from stealing her kill.”

It was a quintessential, exhilarating and, at the same time, brutal safari moment — highlighting the complex predator-prey link that maintains the delicate eco-balance in the forest.