First, an apology for my lapse in writing. A small family of insects made a personal empire in my laptop, and I needed to get a new one. And then I had to get it set up and get internet sorted and blah blah blah. This does make a good segue for this post, however. Coincidence? Or just bad luck? You decide.
Let me take a moment to wax poetic about nature and how these days we are completely ill-equipped to deal with it on just about every level. Let me discuss how we’ve rendered ourselves useless in the natural world by erecting walls, fences, and boundaries of any kind, and built up our reliance on weapons rather than on our brains to defend ourselves. Oh wait, am I talking about man in relation to the wild, or man in relation to anything in general? Hmm, guess it could really fit both scenarios if you think about it. But let’s stick to the ‘man in relation to the wild’ situation here since that’s what I’m dealing with these days. When I’m not in Jo-hazardous-berg, of course.
Living in the wild humbles you on multiple sensory fronts. We’ve spent so much time honing our sense of sight that we’ve neglected all the other senses, to our own detriment. Problem is, you can’t see shit (and I mean that literally as well as figuratively) out here. Every single living creature is camouflaged and has made a killing (again, literally and figuratively) out of being impossible to see. I realize I, with my dark hair and olive skin, probably blend in a bit more with my surroundings than the fellow gingers and blondies of English and Dutch lineage around me, but that isn’t exactly saying much, since I’m still so dangerously unaware of all the potential pitfalls that surround me on a daily basis. Grab a tree for balance while walking through the bush and you may unwittingly lay your hand on a boomslang or other deadly arboreal snake, and possibly not live to tell the tale of your rendezvous. Walk through the bush with earphones in your ears and I promise you, you will not hear the ‘pff’ of a puff adder underfoot before he strikes, or the soft whisper of the grass as a lion stalks you from behind. And yes, I HAVE seen tourists walking through the bush with headphones on, or typing on their phones, or doing some other thing that renders them completely oblivious to their surroundings. I’ve decided either they are too dumb to realize the dangers surrounding them, have a death wish, or are seriously that out of touch with reality. It’s possible it’s all of the above.
I admit I may have a slight advantage over other city folks who venture into the bush, and I can attribute that to my unhealthy fascination with all things that can potentially eat me, many of which can be traced to a childhood ingesting Animal Planet, the Discovery Channel, and National Geographic. I’ve spent a lifetime studying these creatures and locales on paper, so now I’m finally putting to good use the random facts I’ve learned about elephant behavior, hyena feeding habits, and Worst Case Scenario Guidebook-type info that has proven useless while traipsing around NYC and LA. I’m still out of my element. I think the most stealth thing I’ve had stalk me was a pigeon in Central Park who was hell bent on snatching a french fry from my lunch. While I admit it was a sneaky little bastard, it was still a pigeon.
Out here, lion and leopard are very real dangers, and they have a habit of creeping about camp at night, doing annoying things like nibbling on fire hydrants hung outside your door and scaring the crap out of you when you open said door to walk to the bathroom at 2am.
They say the most dangerous leopard is the one you don’t see. Well, considering I’d been here for almost 6 months before actually seeing one at all, yet I’ve heard and seen spoor (tracks) and scat (poop) for many more, there have been PLENTY I clearly haven’t seen. And that’s a little scary since I admit I’m always looking. In fact, having literally been standing next to an ELEPHANT that I couldn’t see, it still unnerves me how often sight is a useless sense out here. Unfortunately, as I said before, this is the exact sense we’ve spent millennium fine-tuning at the expense of our other senses. Well, I can safely say that in the bush, you will learn to use your nose and your ears. Otherwise, you will end up looking like something that saw the wrong side of an airplane propeller. If there’s even that much of you left.
They don’t let you carry firearms out here unless you have the training, and to be honest, when an animal moves at 22km a second or faster, the gun probably won’t do a whole hell of a lot anyway, since you won’t be able to get off a round in time before the animal is literally on top of you. A knife won’t help you a whole lot either, at least not when it comes to killing anything. While it’s nice to be able to hack away some of the rather sticky foliage in your way, it won’t do a damn thing against a pissed off mama anything, or a bull elephant in musth, or a buffalo that is simply having a bad day (which is most days in the buffalo world). Females protecting their young out here do so with a life or death mentality because that’s exactly what it is – either they beat the life out of you, or you take their baby. Of course they are going to attempt to pummel you! So don’t think you will have access to bullets (unless you want to carry around the shells and ping the animal in the head as it charges you, hoping maybe that might confuse them into stopping their attack, although more likely it will only act to further piss them off). And don’t think you’ll go all Chuck Norris on the wildlife either. I’ve seen people get f*&ked up by Bambi out here. Imagine what the animals with claws and fangs will do.
In the wild, you take away all your creature comforts and replace them with bugs, humidity, isolation, etc. Once you strip it all away, all the soft blankets, the heated floors, the screens to keep out the mosquitoes, the refrigerators that actually seal so the cockroaches can’t get inside, you find out what you’re made of. And I will be honest, for the first month or two, you realize you are made of Jell-O. You have no backbone. You whine and get angry at how inept you feel. You curse the local people because they are clearly the reason your phone doesn’t work. You curse EVERYONE and EVERYTHING because you are well out of the comfort zone and instead stuck having to rely on yourself to literally survive. Yeah, that teeny tiny MagLite torch (sorry, flashlight for us Americans) isn’t gonna cut it when you need to venture out into the blackest night to take a leak in the bathroom a good 300 feet from the ‘safety’ of your room’s four (semi-) sealed walls. And those high-tech boots and Gore Tex pants will do nothing against an infestation of pepper ticks, those itty bitty tick nymphs the size of a grain of pepper (hence the name, of course) who LOVE LOVE LOVE to suck you dry while a few try to infect you with tick bite fever. In short, you just have to accept the fact that you are not king of the jungle when it comes to the jungle, savanna, thicket, or really any biome in Africa. You are simply part of the food chain.
Now before I go any further, and since I’m now guessing most of you are crossing Africa off your bucket list, please keep in mind two things. One, this is all in reference to life in the bush, NOT life in the rest of the country. South Africa is not all wildlife. In fact, much of the country is agriculture and mining, and there are cosmopolitan cities that will certainly suit any gourmand’s or social butterfly’s needs. Two, that which does not kill us….you know the rest. But honestly, stick with me here. I promise you this place is worth the humbling experience.
So back to the bush. The other luxury you don’t have out here is time. Nothing happens for hours on end, but when something does happen, it happens in a blink. You barely have enough time to register what just occurred, let alone have the reaction time or presence of mind to catch it on film. Your mind simply cannot process that quickly, which is ironic, since we make a life out of snap judgments. But when it comes to anticipating the natural world, we are at a loss. Eventually, you slow down, but it takes effort and time, and until you do, you will inevitably miss that cheetah kill, the fish eagle swooping down on its lunch, the leopard who slipped past your car without your even slightest detection. People argue with me on this point often. They can’t fathom how you could possibly not see a lion sitting in the grass next to your vehicle. How can you not see a multi-ton elephant in the bushes beside the road? Well, the reality is, unless you know how to look (and even then sometimes you have no luck), you will miss it entirely.
Understanding animal behavior is one key to being able to follow their movements and finding them in the abyss of the greens, tans, and grays of the bush. If you watch a lion as it stalks, you start to learn how its body moves in the grass, how the grass shifts and whispers with each gliding muscle movement, and what it means when the grass stops moving and speaking entirely. You will hear things you didn’t hear before, like the shrieking of the francolins and the bark of baboons, when a threat is nearby. You will learn to identify and follow the spoor, and eventually even be able to detect whether the animal whose spoor you’ve come across is walking, running, or stalking. But that takes time, and as I said, time is a luxury out here that few people have. So if you can’t dedicate years, or even months, of your life to studying this stuff, do what the rest of the world does and bow down to the people who DO know it. Learn from them. They have much to teach, young Jedi, and you have much to learn. And tip them well. To say this industry pays peanuts is giving it credit.
Lastly, remember: while you should keep your eyes open at all times, take a moment to close them now and again and let your other senses in on the fun. But make sure you have someone else with you to watch your back when you do it. Just in case.
Song of the day: “Wild World” by Cat Stevens
Of course, the theme song from The Pink Panther fits as well…
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