We’ve just signed a form that indemnifies SANParks in case we’re gored by a buffalo, tossed by an elephant or eaten by a lion. And now we’re setting off on a bush walk in the middle of the Kruger National Park, not far from Satara. Are we mad?
With us are field guides Edward Ndlovu and Metwell Mkansi, both looking confident as they load and check their rifles. Around us the dawn chorus is already in full swing. Francolins, coucals, babblers and shrikes are advertising to their neighbours that they’ve survived the night and are still in full command of their territories.
We start walking at a fair lick, but before long Edward stops to pick up an old impala horn lying on the sand. ‘
This will have been broken off in a fight for dominance. Look, it’s growing dreadlocks,’ he quips, pointing to the long thin casings of small critters that have already moved in to break down the keratin.
Using the empty shell of a leopard tortoise, Metwell explains how to determine whether it used to belong to a male or female. The shell on the underside of the female’s is rounded, but the male’s is a bit convex, to allow him to mount her for breeding. Isn’t tortoise design clever?
Not far away we find fresh spotted hyena tracks. Some of us think these may be cheetah tracks, because we can clearly see the claw marks and we know cheetahs don’t retract their claws like lions and leopards. But Edward gives a crash course in hyena identification. The crucial element, see, is that cats have three lobes on the back of their paw, whereas animals of the dog family, like the hyena, only have two.
The area around Satara camp is a hotspot for various antelope species because of the sweet grass in the area, which lures lots of predators too. And there’s no mistaking the lion tracks we find. No other cat can come up with something so large and impressive. Fortunately for the lily-livered among us, they’re pointing in the other direction, back the way we came.
‘That’s not this morning’s track,’ Edward explains. ‘It rained a little last night and you can see the raindrops have fallen over the print.’
Or at least he can.
There are also signs that a lion has been rolling around in a pile of elephant dung nearby, still fairly fresh and whiffy. Apparently they’re sneaky camouflage artists who do this from time to time to mask their lion smell and allow them to sneak up on delicious antelope more easily. And easy is the lion’s stock in trade – a more lazy predator you couldn’t really hope to meet.
A tower of giraffes is an opportunity for the guides to explain what good eyesight these animals have. That’s why antelope like to graze nearby, knowing that the giraffe will spot danger long before they do.
By contrast, a rhino, which has very poor eyesight, often relies on the oxpeckers riding on its back as an early warning system of any danger lurking nearby. The birds act as a kind of valet system too, chowing down on the rhino’s ticks and vacuuming up bits of dry or dead skin.
All this is enthralling. And so is being in the open, free to wander among these beasts in their own element without a vehicle to cage us in. But the highlight must surely be an encounter with a lone elephant bull feeding on the branches of an acacia tree.
We approach to within 25 metres and stop to watch. We can hear the cracking of the branches, the rumbling of his tummy. His eyesight is poor so he can’t see us, but he can certainly hear us. He turns to face us, his large ears flapping alarmingly, head held high. Edward and Metwell signal for us to stand still and be silent.
They’ve read him well. After a few moments, the elephant is satisfied and returns to his breakfast. The sense of closeness is remarkable, a mix of adrenalin and awe that’s quite overpowering.
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