When I arrived at the Balule Nature Reserve in South Africa, the staff said it was the worst drought since the park was founded more than twenty years ago. It was the driest place I’d seen in a long time, and it seemed as if the strike of a single match could set the entire savannah on fire. Dry trees, dry earth, dry bones stretched as far as the eye could see.
“We really need the rain,” they said.
That afternoon we piled into the open air truck for the game drive, the first of a few drives into the bush (or bushveld, if you want to get fancy). The goal was to experience the savannah and hopefully see some of South Africa's most famous animals, but it was unusually windy. This faceless force of nature slashed through the savannah that afternoon and into the evening, pushing the animals to take shelter. Our guide, a talented and dedicated man named Given, explained that strong winds make it difficult for the animals to smell, and with that sense reduced they often hide. But the drive wasn’t without its rewards. Given spotted a mother giraffe and her calf, and we quietly exited the truck to get a closer look. Our guide took care not to invade the space of the giraffes (or any animals we approached), always maintaining a distance comfortable for all. I don’t remember the first time I saw a giraffe in a zoo, but I will always recall the moment I saw this calf half hidden by the trees. Even at just a few months the giraffe was enormous, and undeniably graceful. Given pointed out the differences in the coloring and the spotting patterns, as well as the size of the horns to indicate sex. It was the first lesson of a thousand he gave during my stay in the savannah.
A successful game drive is a combination of wildlife and environment knowledge, keen observation and luck.
There are no guarantees in the business. So often we saw signs of the animals’ presence but didn’t actually see the animal. For example, I asked our guide Given about was a tree whose bark had been erratically stripped and scored, exposing a reddish trunk smattered with mud. The culprit? Elephants. He said elephants not only eat the bark, but often knock over trees for the sheer enjoyment of it. The mud on this one had already hardened, and we didn’t see any elephants that day but just the idea of these majestic creatures roaming around knocking over trees was enough to make the journey worthwhile. Given also showed us the other, less playful side of nature — the remains of an elephant. A single bone nearly the length of my body brought me back to those dinosaur displays I saw in museums as a kid. Only this time it wasn’t a prehistoric piece strung up along with the rest of the skeleton. This set of bones was strewn about in a similar fashion to the way my nephews toss their toys throughout the living room. A femur bone by this tree, a few vertebrae by the bush over there, and a hip bone in the center of the destruction. Way off to the side, a portion of twisted elephant hide, so stiff you could use it for a chair. Welcome to the savannah’s living room.
Other surprises awaited once the light faded.
Even with the windy night, Given found four lions thanks to his sharp eyes and apt juggling of driving and spotlight duties. I found the beasts to be surprisingly relaxed as we watched them amble about, then finally pick a place to rest. They took no notice of the incessant camera clicks. In fact, our presence didn’t interest them at all, which was kind of a relief.
The ride back to the lodge was invariably windy, and after a quiet meal we retired to our cabins after what turned out to be a tiring day. An early morning six-hour drive from Johannesburg just to get to the border of the preserve, another hour or so from the park gate to the cabins, and then several more hours in the truck for the game drive really shouldn’t have been so exhausting. After all, I was just sitting there. But something in the wind pulled me into a weariness that made me expect sleep would come easy. I settled in for the night just as the long-awaited rain made its debut. Perhaps rain is an understatement. The storm came in furious as the wind was earlier and raged well into the night. I am no stranger to thunderstorms, but this one howled so intensely even I couldn’t sleep through it.
Bless the rains, indeed.
"Better not to watch"
Sleep or no sleep, every day at 5:30am the staff at Greenfire Game Lodge beat an enormous drum that hangs just outside the dining area for the wakeup call. After a quick coffee or tea, it’s into the trucks for the morning game drive. Not long into the bumpy, jerky, motion-sickness inducing ride, I knew I had a problem. Something hadn’t settled well with me the day before, and the moment Given stopped the truck along the way I asked if it was safe that I exit the vehicle. Six sets of eyes followed me as I hopped quickly down and walked behind the truck to revisit last night’s dinner. I could only think to offer this advice to my fellow safari-goers: “Better not to watch” and pointed to the front of the truck as if I could distract them from what was about to happen just a few steps behind their seats. Moments later Jonathan came to check on me, and managed to step in one of the three deposits I had made. Instead of thanking him for the paper towel he offered me, I only managed to quip “Watch where you’re stepping!” I knew that he was also having some stomach trouble but my symphony for him got lost in the shame I felt for subjecting the rest of our the group to the ever-disgusting experience of hearing someone else toss their cookies.
An Unlikely Pair
After that embarrassing episode had passed, we saw far more interesting sights, such as the unlikely pair of a zebra and giraffe. Given told us that these two species often graze together because the giraffe’s height allows it to see approaching predators, whereas the zebra can sense danger on the ground and below the tree level. At the first sign of danger, either the zebra or the giraffe will move out, which signals to the other that it’s time to go.
Zebras are of course a well-known staple of the African savannah, but what I didn’t know is that you can replace the word “herd” with “dazzle.” And doesn’t a dazzle of zebras sound more fitting? No two stripe patterns are equal, and even more adorable, they often rest as a pair with their head placed on the other’s back to watch for danger in different directions.
References to the Lion King are inevitable on a safari, but the diversity Disney presented only scratches the surface of the true glory of the animal kingdom. The birdlife alone is enough to fill a book. Our successful sightings included a black-backed jackal, an animal that mates for life and will share food with their partner if they’re not foraging together. I’ve found that sharing food is a basic concept of love (especially when it is chocolate), so I think this counts as romantic, even by Disney standards. We also saw genets, which look like a snub-nosed cat with rounded ears, and opt to carry their young on their back instead of by the mouth as other cat species do. The genet’s raccoon-like relative, the African civet, are also rarely seen, and tend to diet on things that kill most other animals, like toxic insects, toads and poisonous snakes.
Our most intimate encounter was with the short-tempered African buffalo as a herd of them grazed quietly and peacefully on either side of our safari vehicle. Both males and females have horns for defensive purposes, and evidently they’re not afraid to use them at the first inkling of a threat.
A more common sight on the savannah is the greater kudu, a majestic antelope with corkscrew horns and an ability to jump eight-foot fences. Surprisingly, their twisted horns don’t pose a tangling hazard, as they simply tilt their chin up to avoid catching them in the brush.
A smaller but more common antelope, the impala, is definitely the animal we saw the most of during the safari, to the point where we didn’t even touch our cameras when they were spotted. But seeing them so frequently had its benefits over the rarer sightings. We could observe the herds better without constantly worrying how the pictures turned out.
The variety of antelope in South Africa alone is extensive, ranging from the greater kudu to the smaller varieties, each with their own coloring and graceful gait. Unfortunately, my photography skills weren’t good enough to capture them all.
Earth’s largest land animal, the African savannah elephant, is surprisingly good at camouflaging itself, and I’m still in awe that such an enormous creature keeps a strict vegetarian diet. We were lucky enough to spot one older male which our guide guessed was close to 50 years old. The elephant easily ripped off a large branch whose thickness was enough for a small tree, partly to eat the bark, partly just to be destructive. We didn't get very close, but to be honest, we didn't need a closer view to realize this animal's power.
Though some measures exist to keep the animals safely on the reserve, it's good to be reminded of the wildness of the savannah and its creatures. On our way to the airport we saw a warthog on the side of the road. That’s right…a regular Pumba just looking for some grub. Instant delight filled our car. Even on our last leg nature provided us with a glimpse of something new. I couldn’t help but blurt out, “I want to see a baby warthog.” Because we can all agree that smaller, younger versions of animals are obviously cuter. Just then on the right side of the road we saw another clan of warthogs, this time with the smaller, younger and cuter version in their midst. Our safari was complete. The best part about the experience was feeling like I might never need to go to a zoo again. In fact, it makes you think twice about ever putting any animal in a cage.
Name one living thing on earth that wasn’t meant to be free. I dare you.
PS - If you're thinking, "Well, G, how about murderers and such? Should they be free? What about deadly viruses? Should they be free to wreak havoc on society?" You can take my challenge with a grain of salt and use your judgement.