This is my twenty-second (V) entry for the Blogging From A to Z Challenge.
Note: This article originally appeared in the August 2015 edition of OutdoorUAE Magazine.He held up his hand and we all stopped. We saw nothing, heard even less, but our guide knew better. With barely a whisper he told us to stay where we were, and he carefully stepped forward, avoiding the ready-made path created by elephants and other animals.
“Stay in a single line”. Our other ranger said from behind us. “When it’s safe to go; one at a time and walk where Luke is pointing.”
Only 30 minutes earlier we had climbed out of our open-sided 4×4 jeep; after we had eased to a halt on a bend above a valley, our journey planned so perfectly we got there in time to watch the sunrise over the mountains in the distance, and the valley below us light up with life. Buried somewhere in the South African bushveld, we watched as our guides loaded their rifles and gave us our safety briefing. The phrase, “listen to us”, repeated many times over. The affable Bongani, always smiling and telling jokes learned from previous guests added the final message, “please run in a straight line if you feel like running from an animal. It is easier for me to shoot you this way because I don’t want to shoot the animal.”
Luke pointed to a nearby thicket and I shuffled there as quietly as I could. My next 20 meter journey saw me stop behind some rocks. Finally I was beside Luke, a large clump of trees between us and … only Luke knew what. When the other two safari-goers joined us, Luke shared what was going on.
“There’s a black rhino about 30 meters in front of us.”
We saw nothing. And then, the rock directly ahead of me and hidden by the trees … well, it moved. It moved as only a rhino can. The black rhino is critically endangered, with less than 5000 remaining in the wild. Of the two main rhino species in Africa, the black rhino is also the most aggressive. We were about to move closer when Luke stopped us. “This one has a baby with her. And a young one at that. Mum will be really protective today. Not sure if we should try to move closer.”
He surveyed the area around us, and only one other location would offer enough cover for us if mum decided her baby was in danger. We decided to stay where we were. The trees and rocks made getting a good photograph impossible. The rhinos lumbered off, mom leading the way. I had never seen a black rhino before, and so close too. I’ve never been so happy to not get a good photograph.
After joining Bongani again we crested a hill, learning little things about the bush you can’t learn from inside a jeep. We learned what trees can make elephants sick, exactly how hard a giraffe can kick, and the whole story of how Luke, after his second year of medical school took a year off to travel to Africa and never returned to the States. He took a field guide course and now spends every day in the bush.Not surprisingly, a pair of giraffes saw us coming before we saw them. We stood watching them eat, our threat level to them at zero. When they move, there is more grace than possible; their long legs should be awkward beneath them. As we made our way towards the river, we stopped to examine a series of leopard prints only a few hours old. Since it was still early morning, the leopard may still be active. Our best bet though, was to search the trees. When the tracks ran cold, we focused on the trees until we reached the river. No leopard to be seen this day; but the thought of one nearby made every step I took that much more exciting.
We sat near the river having a few snacks for breakfast. A pod of hippos snorted their annoyance with us but none of them bothered to move in our direction and stayed submerged in their quiet little pool. Breakfast over, we headed back towards the jeep, admiring a crocodile on the far bank of the river first. Back at the jeep, the weapons were unloaded and we returned to camp in time for a heartier breakfast.A walking safari offers an unparalleled look at the African bush, and really gets the adrenaline flowing. While it is possible to see a lot of animals from the road, even the main highways that weave through the parks, walking amongst the trees and bushes, beside the river bank, and scrambling over rocks, adds a truly other-worldly experience to any safari.
Without the gentle rumble of a 4×4 motor, every sound is magnified. The rustling of the leaves when the wind picks up. A twig snapping, the mighty sploosh that echoes in your brain when a hippo takes to the water. It is all there. Unfiltered and in high-definition that makes your television seem pointless.
Due to the risks, albeit minimal, the senses are naturally heightened, you are naturally more likely to hear something when there is nothing to hear. And when you are crouching, peering through bushes and over rocks to glimpse a two-month old black rhino and you break the branch you are holding for support and fall over in a loud heap, your heart stops for a second or two as both rangers and the other tourists look at you, and then the rhinos, and they all quietly laugh as the rhinos don’t care. You, however, will still look and feel like an idiot.