Dawn to Dusk at Chobe National Park

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It was cold in the early morning in an open Land Cruiser. I layered up in just about all of my clothes, knowing that I would have to peel most of them off after the sun came up. But it was dawn and, as yet, the only hint of the sun was a pinkish effulgence along the horizon. It was a good time for spotting game.

Just inside the park, there was a buffalo carcass, picked clean in the night, the best bits presumably eaten by lions, the rest polished off by vultures. There was a flock of them sitting in the trees around it, and a little further down the track, a coalition of lions. A lioness crossed the track right in front of the jeep; her fur was still stained with the blood of the buffalo. She walked with pugnacious purpose, as if on her way to argue with some petty bureaucrat.

Giraffes and kudu grazed peacefully just a few metres from the lions, but it no longer surprised me, as it had when I first got to Africa, how close together the carnivores and herbivores lived.

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We were camping in the grounds of an upscale safari lodge on the banks of the Chobe River, across two bridges, through trees and way out of sight of the overfed, big-tipping tourists. There were signs nailed to the trees near the river which read Beware Crocodiles and Beware Hippos, with a crude picture of each in case you were not sure what the big thing was which was chasing you down.

Hippos might be herbivores, but they panic if they think their route to the water is blocked and kill more people than any other animal in Africa. And, no, smartarse, malarial mosquitos don’t count.

In the mid-afternoon, when the heat of the day had begun to die down, we went out on the river in a safari boat.

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The water was a rich royal blue; the sun glinted on its surface. The soil on the banking was dry and dusty but dotted with trees; there was a tangle of roots at the water’s edge. A telegraph pole, shouldered aside by an elephant, stood at a 45-degree angle.

A crocodile lay at the side of the river, its lime green eyes twinkling with malevolence, a sharp-toothed grin on its face. “He’d make a good handbag,” someone on the boat said, distastefully; and the crocodile was probably thinking along similar lines about her.

There were islands in the middle of the river and a family of four hippos had migrated to one for a spa day: they luxuriated in the mud and laid down to snooze while oxpeckers fussed over them, ridding them of bothersome parasites.

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A buffalo grazed up to its chest in reeds while a white egret strutted about on its back. More egrets poked about in the reeds and were startled when a hippo surfaced without warning and stayed for a while with its wet head glistening above the water and its dangerous bulk below like a submarine. The egrets came back when they saw that it was only a hippo and one pecked at its snout while the hippo watched indulgently.

Another croc lay on the island with its horrible mouth wedged open for ventilation. A flock of cormorants sat dangerously close to the crocodile, as if for a dare.

A herd of elephants shuffled along the bank, stopping to pick up trunks-full of dust and toss it over themselves. They got to the water’s edge, limbered in and swam across in line astern; the calves entwined their trunks around their mothers’ tails, like small children holding a parent’s hand when crossing the road.

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The sun began to set again, then. It tumbled down behind the acacia trees and vanished from sight, leaving only a salmon pink glow in the sky.

© Richard Senior 2016

If You Meet a Lion, Just Pretend Nothing Happened

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If you meet a lion on your way to the toilet block,” I was told, “whatever you do, don’t run. Only food runs. And don’t turn your back on it either. Walk slowly, back to your tent, zip it up and pretend nothing happened. Just remember that you’re not their main source of food. And make sure you have your torch with you at all times.”

“Yeah, I wouldn’t want to face a lion without it,” I said.

The Serengeti is just south of the Equator and the nearest town is hours away, and when the sun sets it just drops from the sky and the darkness is suddenly total. The piercing whistle of ten thousand cicadas stole the silence, and birds sporadically cackled and whooped as I zipped up the tent and turned in for the night.

There was nothing to stop the animals coming into the campsite, no fence, no hedge, no one ready with a tranquiliser gun, just in case. Two separate herds of elephants had wandered through that afternoon and trumpeted, stamped and flapped their ears if anyone went too close with a camera. Buffalo and wildebeest grazed around the edges. Baboons were all over the place.

Something woke me up in the middle of the night and I made the long, lonely walk to the toilet block, surrounded by the buzzing cicadas. A glow worm would have been disappointed with the light my wind-up torch gave out. The oinking grunts of the wildebeest were close at hand but they were out of sight. They sounded to be inches away. If they were nearby then, surely, so were their predators. There might have been a lion a foot from me. Remember that you’re not their main source of food. Not their main source!

Don’t run…don’t turn your back on it…walk slowly back to your tent. It is easy enough to say; but if the yellow eyes of a 400lb lion had blazed at me through the night, I would undoubtedly have turned and run, in any direction but the right one.

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Baboons began barking. It is a horrible, heart-rending sound: a sound of terror, a sound of unbearable pain. Or so it seems, at least, when you hear it when out, alone, in the sinister East African night. “If the baboons are barking,” I recalled someone saying, “it means that leopards are close”. So leopards were out there somewhere, as well. The cicadas hissed, the wildebeest grunted, the baboons barked, a bird trilled, but still I saw nothing. I would not have seen anything, even if something was there. With my useless torch, I would have fallen over a leopard before I saw it.

The cicadas hissed, the wildebeest grunted, the baboons barked and something howled. Hyena? Jackal? I didn’t know what it was but quickened my step until I was all but jogging and reached the toilet block and shut the door and flicked on the light and met an enormous spider.

I got back to the tent and fell into an uneasy sleep, until I was jerked awake again by the gurgling roar of a territorial lion. I would, I supposed, get used to all this in time.

© Richard Senior 2015

Journey through Zimbabwe, Part 6

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The vultures crowded like excited spectators into the baobab tree. The boldest hopped down and inched towards the buffalo. But a lioness saw them and mock-charged to force them back. She took her turn, then, to tear a piece from the carcass while the male, full for now, reclined in the sun. Another lioness kept watch on the vultures.

Is the buffalo dead?” asked Nahid.

Nah,” said Lisa, “just resting”.

We had turned north from Bulawayo and driven the 200 miles or so to Hwange National Park. It used to be called Wankie Game Reserve, until they found out why visitors were sniggering, and it is best known for its elephants. There are something like 40,000 there, in a park the size of Belgium. A small herd bathed in the river, while two young males wrestled on the bank, trunks entwined, tusks locked, stirring up clouds of dust as they struggled for grip.

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Always, on safari, the drivers stop and chat sotto voce about the game they saw further down the track. The word “shumba,” – chiShona for lion – had sent us hurrying to see the lions tackling the buffalo carcass.  So I thought nothing of it when the other jeep stopped, but I was puzzled why the passengers sat grinning in silence. Something was off. Then they bombarded us with elephant shit and drove away laughing.

That evening, after a few drinks – and after cleaning off the elephant shit – we set off in the jeep again with torches. Bush babies leaped between branches, and an elephant padded stealthily across the road.  We called in at a smart safari lodge, got more drinks and sat at the waterhole watching zebra and gazelle.

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Then, in the morning, we continued north.

© Richard Senior 2015

Serengeti Snapshots

Early morning in the Serengeti, squeezing six to a pop-top Land Cruiser.

Jambo Frederick.”

“Karibou.”

A herd of wildebeest crosses the road, five or six deep, stretching for ever. Hundreds of wildebeest, a thousand perhaps. The hooves collectively thunder; a cacophony of oinking grunts. A few get confused and run the wrong way, young males stop to pick fights and hit on the females; but they are all sucked back into the relentless flow.

Thompson’s and Grant’s gazelles, impalas, giraffes and dozens of zebra graze at the side of the track. A dung beetle rolls a dropping the size of a baseball uphill.  A young wildebeest bounds into a herd and tries to take over, but the dominant male sees him off.

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A stream choc-a-block with cooling hippos and, a little apart from them, a solitary croc. They respect each other, like nuclear states, because each could destroy the other. A lioness pokes her head out the bush, peers around, and strolls along the edge of a stream to a shadier spot, followed at a jog by ten unruly month-old cubs the size of little ginger cats. A second lioness acts as rearguard.

Back to the same spot in the afternoon, the trees by then thick with vultures. A lioness appears with blood on her face and paws. The cubs jogs after her in ones and twos and they all clamber down to the stream to drink and wash the blood from their fur, then leap over the water and move on, leaving the carcass to the vultures.

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Poa kicheze,” Frederick says.

What’s that?”

“It means ‘cool’; ‘very cool’.”

“Porky cheesy?”

“Poa kicheze.”

“Pork a chaise, eh?”

A herd of elephants wants to graze where the lions have gone, and elephants think nothing of lions. They spread out and advance in a row, like soldiers clearing a jungle. One lioness hurries the cubs away while the other stays back and glares at the elephants; but the elephants press on with slow determination. The lioness has to save face, so she waits till the elephants are inches away, then leaves with studied nonchalance.

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Sawa-sawa?” says Frederick, “Okay?”

Yes, sour-sour”.

But the jeep will not start. The elephants are looking at us now. One of the bulls flaps his ears and looks angry. Elephants are bad-tempered things. And an elephant will toss over a jeep as casually as you would flick a bug from your arm. Frederick calls out to another driver and asks him to shunt the jeep from behind to get it going. It works.

“Asante sana, Frederick”.

“Karibou”.

Thank you very much. You’re welcome.

(c) Richard Senior 2014