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

Poling Day

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The Okavango River was clogged with chest-high papyrus reeds and looked from the bank like a field after weeks of rain. As the polers approached, they seemed to be floating supernaturally over the ground, until they came closer and you could see their makoros through the reeds.

They were modern makoros, made of fibreglass, instead of the hollowed-out trunks of sausage trees. I had seen Malawian fishermen in the traditional sort; but they are rare, now, in Botswana. I slung the tent and my day bag inside, and the poler took my bedding roll, unfurled it with a flourish and fashioned it into a seat. I sat between the bags and he stood at the stern and poled us away from the bank. The flat-bottomed makoro slid over the reeds with a gentle rasping sound, and into a channel where the reeds towered over us and brushed against my arms either side, and the makoro creaked and the water lapped against it and there was a splash like a pebble flicked into a pond when the poler sunk the pole to the bottom to push us along.

We followed the small procession of makoros as it snaked along the channel. Flies droned and dragonflies hissed; kingfishers trilled and barbets chattered and lilac-breasted rollers made a sound like a man half-heartedly sawing wood.  Cape Turtle Doves kept up the chant they start at dawn and never let up all day: Bots-wana, Bots-wana, Bots-wana, Bots-wana….

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The channel widened further in, and water lilies were scattered across the space which the reeds had surrendered; a little further, we were out in the open river. It was a deep blue against the green and yellow of the reeds, and the poler’s reflection shimmered in the surface. The papyrus closed in on us again as we neared the uninhabited island where we were to camp for the night. The polers ran the makoros aground, and we jumped out, pitched the tents, dug a toilet, gathered firewood and sat out the heat of the day.

In the late afternoon, we set out again in the makoros. Bullfrogs growled, hammerkops manically cackled, and a bush shrike seemed to be trying to whistle When the Saints Go Marching In. A family of hippos waded between islands in front of us. The weaver birds’ massive communal nests hung from branches over the river. They are built like city apartment blocks, with chambers for each of a hundred pairs, or more.

The sun leaked out of the sky and dripped onto the horizon and its orange effulgence spread over the water. In the half-light, as we creaked and splashed back to our island, the papyrus around us erupted with whistles and cackles, trills and chirps, shrieks and hisses and the hammer-drill grunts of the hippos.

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© 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

Journey through Zimbabwe, Part 5

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We set off at first light in an old, open Land Rover.

Hard men in military fatigues paced the edge of the national park with AK47s. Ian stopped and spoke to them in sinNdebele and they slung their assault rifles over their shoulders and jumped on the running board and hitched a ride down the road. I assumed they were soldiers but Ian said they were rangers, protecting the park’s rhinos from poachers. It is a huge problem in a country with 90% unemployment and a black market willing to pay US $60,000 for a kilo of rhino horn. But it is a problem wherever there are wild rhino. South Africa lost the equivalent of one every eight hours in 2014. Some predict that they will be extinct in the wild within 20 years.

We stopped and jumped out and Ian led us deeper into the park on foot. The sun had taken the chill off the morning by then and the light was beginning to dazzle. The insects hummed and the Cape turtle doves incessantly voiced drink lager, drink lager, drink lager. We weaved around termite mounds taller than us and the gaping holes of old aardvark burrows, and Ian slowed us down and got us to crouch in single file, and we crept to within a few metres of a family of white rhino. The rhino sensed us and some looked up, but they decided that we were no threat to them.

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There is something ethereal about the country around the Matobo Hills. The dusty lanes overhung with trees. The bleached yellow grass, the vivid blue cloudless sky. The famous balancing boulders, the curvaceous granite hills. Water lilies floating on a reflective river. A profound sense of stillness. We drove deep into the communal lands, where joyful children ran out with fruit for sale. “You can leave what you like in the Land Rover,” Ian said confidently, “It’ll be safe enough here”.

We clambered to the top of a hill where the winds of millennia past had scooped out a cave, and the Bushmen of 11,000 BCE had painted stories on its walls of giraffes and lions and hunting and cooking and setting up camp, which it is easy to make sense of still. What is harder, though, is to comprehend as you look at these paintings – which are not fenced off, or behind glass, or supervised by guides – were already there at the end of the Ice Age, when the mammoths and sabre-toothed cats died out, when the Bronze and Iron Ages came and went, and Stonehenge was built in England, and the pyramids in Egypt, and a series of great empires waxed and waned, and the modern world slowly emerged and evolved, through wars and inventions and social change, into what it is today.

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At the township bar, where we stopped in the late afternoon, the beer-happy customers gyrated to dancehall which shook the walls, and Ian chatted to a wobbling man in sinNdebele, while we nodded and shook hands and said hello and sipped at the porridgy traditional beer served out of gallon drums. I had worried that people in Zim would be hostile, but found nothing but friendliness throughout the country. It is always a mistake, though, to assume that governments speak for their people, any more than mine does for me.

We trooped up the hill which they call World’s View and looked out across illimitable hills and over the park to the horizon with no sign at all that there might be a town within a thousand miles. A century old slab of brass is bolted to the rock and tersely engraved with the words: HERE LIE THE REMAINS OF CECIL JOHN RHODES.

The light began to fail and the sun slipped out of the sky and a band of orange spread up from the horizon and gradually faded out.

The peacefulness of it all,” Rhodes remarked, while sitting on this spot, “The chaotic grandeur of it. It creates a feeling of awe and brings home to one how very small we are”.

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© 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

A Drive through Ngorongoro Crater

Frederick inched the jeep down the track to the floor of the crater, a huge caldera formed when an ancient volcano imploded. To the right was a salt lake pinked with all the world’s flamingos. To the left, buffalo feasted on tall yellow grass while oxpeckers feasted on their backs. Big fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite ‘em. And little fleas have lesser fleas and so ad infinitum.

But the flamingos and buffalos were a distance away, half-hidden behind trees and termite mounds, and after ten minutes I was prepared to be disappointed with Ngorongoro Crater. Then a warthog waddled down the road towards us, a squat, ugly thing with a mouth like a shovel with nails hammered through it. The warthog waddled right past the jeep – just inches away – stopped briefly for photographs, and waddled off into the grass.

A hundred yards along the road, we stopped for a zebra crossing. There was an abundance of zebra, an embarrassment of zebra; they were as plentiful as sheep in New Zealand. The zebra graze side-by-side, nose-to-tail so they can swat flies from each other’s faces with their tails. They graze with the wildebeest because they eat the same grass and the same carnivores eat them and each can look out for the others.

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Hyenas!” someone shouted as three furry heads popped out of the grass and one broke cover and loped down the track at the side of the jeep. I never cared much for hyenas. They are always the villains in wildlife documentaries, nasty little things which laugh inappropriately and steal the poor cheetah’s cubs. But they need to hire a PR consultant because they are a lot cuter in person than they seem on the screen with their fluffy coats and sorrowful faces like bears’.

Simba” Frederick said.

Lions!” everyone else said, translating the one word of Swahili the whole world knows.

A coalition of four males reclined in the sun, looking pleased with themselves, as male lions will. The females do the hunting while the males strut about looking hard. Sometimes they roar; often they just stretch out and doze. But when a female comes back with the kill, they bully her out of the way and eat all the best bits themselves. There was a mixed herd of wildebeest and zebra within easy jogging distance, but hunting is not their department, so they ignored them.

The lionesses were round the corner, planning an ambush. Two fanned out, crossed the road and hid while the others crouched low in the grass, just metres from us. A moment later, a dazzle of zebra strolled over the road and across the grass in front of the crouching lions. They let a few pass and then pounced. The zebras turned and bounded back the way they had come, but the other two lions leaped out of hiding and came at them in a pincer movement. Lions to right of them, lions to left of them, lions in front of them; the zebras swerved and dodged, the lions ran after them, kicking up dust as they spun, but the zebras, narrowly, got away.

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(c) Richard Senior 2014

Etosha at Midnight

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In the silence of the night, four giraffes shared the waterhole. They splayed their forelegs and lowered their necks and eased their heads to the oil-black water, where their reflections copied each move. An elephant lumbered into the scene, ears flapping, trunk swinging. It passed the giraffes, found a spot which it liked and paused for a moment like a chess player pondering a move.

The giraffes stole away and a black rhino took their place and the elephant started to drink. A lion roared in the near distance, filling the night with sound, and sending a panicky dik-dik scuttling. The elephant farted impressively to show how little it cared about lions and carried on taking two-gallon sips. Cicadas buzzed, a bird squawked. The last of the giraffes loped across the back of the set.

A second rhino arrived, then a third. They ignored the other rhino, which waited a minute and then left, as if it hated them too much to share the same waterhole but did not want them to think they had won. It met an elephant on the way out and there was a brief, unexpected stand off; but the rhino gave way and peeled off to the left, affording plenty of room to the elephant.

A jackal trotted to the water, gulped down a few mouthfuls and trotted away. A lone zebra slipped in between the elephants and tensed and listened when the lion roared again. The rhinos and elephants ignored it. Lions don’t worry them.

(c) Richard Senior 2014

Smoke That Thunders

Dr Livingstone thought that Victoria Falls sounded better than the local name Mosi–oa-Tunya which means “the smoke that thunders”. The government says that it is going to change the name back, which has got people worked up in support and against, but is hardly among the more urgent things which need to done in Zimbabwe. To outsiders, at least, it is what the falls are which matters most, not what they are officially called.

The word “awesome” has become as devalued now as the old Zimbabwe dollar but, when it pops into your head at Victoria Falls, it belongs there. A mile of water, hurtling out of control, tumbles over the edge and disintegrates into abstracts: thick gouache white swirling over slime green, tumbling, tumbling, tumbling a hundred metres into the gorge below, hissing and rumbling, roaring and thundering like some massive industrial process; the spray rebounds, a gathering storm, higher – way higher – than the top of the falls, until a perfect rainbow chops it in two and it comes down again as an unseasonal shower and soaks the path and the tourists who stand there and gawp.

Vic Falls ruin waterfalls for evermore as surely as the Grand Canyon ruins canyons.

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(c) Richard Senior 2014