Beating About the Bush
Updated: Nov 28, 2018
I had a hut in Africa at the foot of the sand dunes. Down there the air was damp and heavy and crept into our clothing. Up in the bushveldt it was dry and the wind flung a fine red dust in our faces, writing messages in the cracks in our skin (mine said, "aren't you a bit old for this sort of thing?").
Transitioning from Sodwana Bay to Dinokeng game reserve in Pretoria for my second wildlife conservation project, I swapped the cool blue of the ocean for the rustling russet of the savannah. Swapped scuba mask for binoculars, and flying for shooting straight up in the air every time the truck hit a bump.
Rising before dawn each day (FYI, not a morning person) we shivered in thick blankets as we jolted along dirt roads, carried out bird and mammal biodiversity surveys and wrestled to bring down rusty fences that hindered the animals' free movement. By 9 am, when normal people were arriving at work, we were often already on our way back home. In the afternoons, as the scorching day faded to freezing night, GPS in hand we searched for camera traps almost as elusive as the animals they were set to record.
The camp looked out across a low plateau of dense bush that rose gently beyond the electric fences. Fistfuls of brilliant red- and blue-waxbills scattered like spilled gemstones under the purple jacaranda trees. Narcissistic hornbills admired themselves in the sliding glass doors. Pretty as our gilded cage was, at first I missed the open ocean and hated being enclosed. The animals ambling past our reverse zoo even seemed to flaunt their freedom in our faces. Curious kudu peered in; wandering wildebeest snorted, unimpressed at the quality of the exhibits.
It Began in Africa
But we were born in the bush. Spending time here is like coming home to find your room is just as you left it. Once picked up, it's a book you can’t put down.
Keen to make the most of the experience, I spent my free time poring over pictures of paw prints and poo (long and stringy = short digestive tract = carnivore; grass-packed pellet = herbivore, fascinating stuff!). As we bounced through the slanting morning sunlight I attempted to put it into practice, rewinding time as I searched for clues along the dusty roads: who's been here? how long ago? what did they eat? which way were they going?
My tracking abilities were rudimentary at best but the animals were obligingly numerous and we weren’t short of sightings. Zigzag zebra crossed the roads wherever they damn well pleased. Gaggles of gawking giraffes left off munching leafy lunches to stare at us. We became intimate with interminable antelopes - waterbuck, tsessebe, hartebeest, blesbok, kudu, eland, impala. And experts at rapidly estimating their numbers, age and sex as they bounded away like released springs.
Other animals were rarer. Late one washed-out afternoon we came across a pride of young lions waiting out the remains of the day while keeping a lazy eye on a distant herd of wildebeest. As the pale sun sank, the cats rose and began softly stalking their prey. Cameras at the ready, we stalked them in our turn, losing them in the growing gloom before locating them again gathered around a downed wildebeest. The matriarch stood aside while her apprentice offspring tried inexpertly to finish it off before its agonised bellows alerted every creature for miles around. Finally it fell silent, but not before the impatient lions had begun to gorge on their prize.
Some nights later I heard the pride calling in the dark beyond the fences. The power of the moment was only slightly marred by the realisation that lions don’t actually roar, but rather make a strange and most un-regal retching, like a cat attempting to expel a very large hairball. (That’s right, Disney has been lying to you all these years.)
The next morning we ran into them (almost literally) lounging on the dirt road, soaking up the residual heat from the previous day. As they began to move off into the bush in search of shade, one of the lionesses padded past our open-topped truck. The millennials jostled for prime selfie positions, sticks waving like excited antennae. Sensing their too-rapid movements, she stopped, eyes boring into us like terrifying amber fire for a long, tense moment. Finally, fortunately, she decided we weren’t worth the bother and continued on her way.
We saw the lions rarely after that but we learned to watch for other animals that might indicate their presence, such as the aptly-named Go-Away Bird with its harsh warning cry, “gwaay, gwaay”, or the black-backed jackals which tailed predators in the hope of scraps. No mere scavengers though, they were prepared to work for their supper too, like the clever pair we saw patiently herding a grazing blesbok towards some concealed lions. Sadly for the jackals, their efforts were undone when the excited young male lion gave the game away and the wary blesbok trotted off to graze in safer pastures.
Paradoxically, the biggest animals are often the hardest to find. The world’s largest land mammal wears a cloak of dusty grey invisibility which it uses to melt into the undergrowth at will. But even if you can’t see an elephant, you can often still hear it crashing around, energetically engineering the ecosystem. Sometimes the pachyderms were peaceful, allowing us to stay and watch as they stripped off branches and pushed over whole trees to get at the juicy roots. At others, they were reluctant to be papped, coming together to form a formidable wall of wrinkles, all flapping ears, pawing feet and menacingly mobile trunks. And when an elephant tells you the show’s over, you don’t ask for an encore.
Buffalo is another beast you don’t want beef with. Running into the fat black roadblock of a bachelor herd contentedly chewing the cud one day, we had no choice but to sit and wait it out. As they began to move away, we turned the corner, thinking ourselves in the clear, only to find three strapping gents waiting for us, sniffing the air experimentally. These belligerent bovines are renowned for being one of the most dangerous animals in the bush as they give no pre-charge warning signs. We didn't wait around to find out their intentions.
But of all the ‘Big 5’, for me the rhinos were the star attraction. We were privileged one day to glimpse not one but two critically endangered black rhinos rumbling through the jungle like ghost-grey juggernauts. The more gregarious ‘white’ rhino (a mistranslation of the Dutch for ‘wide’, referring to the mouth of this plains grazer) were more accommodating. We got to know a large male (who treated us to an impressive display of horn- and butt-rubbing on a nearby telegraph pole), the unusual grouping of a mother with two calves (one possibly adopted), and a more conventional nuclear family of four.
Watching the young rhinos, it was depressing to think we might be looking at the last generation of these prehistoric survivors to walk the earth. Unless things improve for them, fifty million years of evolution stand to be wiped out within the next few decades because all across Asia people persist in clinging to the belief that fingernails are magic.
Poaching is a problem for all reserves and, located right next to an urban area, Dinokeng was no exception. Touring the perimeter fence in the company of the maintenance team we found bloodstains and drag marks where locals had cut the fence and taken an animal for meat. (Dinokeng has no sensors or integrated computer system, so if a stretch of fence is down it won’t be discovered until the next manual inspection).
Stopping large-scale organised poaching is best left to the men with guns, but we were able to do our tiny bit when we found a pair of vervet monkeys caught in a trap. Having freed them, we cut the cage up to prevent it being used again. It was like removing a single drop from the ocean, but probably one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever done.
Death ain’t nothing but a heartbeat away in the bush: from the slow collapse of a jumbled giraffe skeleton, to the stench of a carved-out carcase, to an ostrich picking his way through the wreckage of a nest in search of unbroken eggs after a jackal raiding party. But as a great man once said, life always finds a way...
As my time in Africa drew to an end, another chapter was beginning. Green shoots sprang from fire-blackened alien wastelands. Fleeting flowers exploded in shocking colour against the red dust. The first spring babies began to appear in all their cuteness. Zebra foals tottered like supermodels in stripped stockings. Tiny lapwings chicks skittered across the grass as luckier ostrich parents shepherded flocks of fluffy hackysacks across the plains. Lazing under the trees, cheetah yearlings pawed at their siblings in the hope of starting a fight. Nights after rain brought great silver clouds of winged termites, silhouetted against the receding lightning, in search of suitable sites to establish new colonies.
On our final evening, as the big red African moon took up position in the sky for the last time, we sat sipping sundowners by the river (at a croc-safe distance) and reflecting on everything we’d experienced.
I had survived the challenges of volunteering in Africa, the hardest of which hadn't been the ones I'd expected: early mornings, frogs on speed and standing in a wetsuit next to 19 year-olds. I had survived a return to student living, not only without killing the students but actually having a pretty good time with them, despite the age gulf. True it had required a lot of patience and the ability to turn a deaf ear to teenage moans (“diving again”; “another lecture, booooring”). At those times I consoled myself with the thought that years from now they would find themselves trapped in a windowless meeting room at 8 am on a Monday morning, listening to the precious seconds of their lives tick away in time to the click of a Power Point presentation. Then and only then would they really, retrospectively, be able to appreciate an experience like this. They say youth is wasted on the young. I wouldn't know about that but I can honestly say I’ve never been more glad to be grey.
I left my brains down in Africa. And my heart at the bottom of the reef.