We follow a path down into a riverbed and before long he’s picked up the tracks of white rhino and elephant in the sandy soil. ‘If you take two-and-a-half times the circumference of the print you can know how tall the elephant is at its shoulder,’ he explains. This one must be huge.
‘The bush is my office and the riverbed is my information centre,’ he tells us. Full of zip and passionate about the bush, he mimes how an elephant uses its trunk to sniff the ground, how lions killed a buffalo cow just here earlier this the week, how territorial rhino bulls kick their feet after defecating to establish their dominance and pass the scent along their territory.
He explains that strange rhinos in the area will leave their dung nearby the territorial bull’s midden to advertise their presence. ‘They’re saying, “Hey, I’m just coming to your bar because mine is empty,”’ he quips. If the intruder were to poo on the midden itself, that would be a direct challenge and the territorial bull would seek it out and fight to the death. (See here for more about rhinos’ behaviour.)
Amos describes things in a graphic way that helps to cement them in your mind – for instance, zebra dung looks like ‘charcoal briquettes’. In fact, in the absence of many animals on our walk – something that doesn’t bother us at all when there are plants and tracks to learn about – there’s time for lots of toilet talk, examining the scats of porcupine and impala to rhino, buffalo, elephant and hippo.
We learn that scrub hare’s droppings are small and round and that it’s a good recycler, happy to eat the poo to extract more nutrients if vegetation is in short supply. Eeuw. We follow some tracks and find a patch of dung big enough to be that of a lion. But the whitened millipede skeletons nearby are a giveaway that it’s the impressive work of a little civet, which is immune to the cyanides in millipedes.
Spiders, birds and plants
A spider’s nest obstructs our path and Amos explains it’s the community nest spider, which live in a group –something quite rare among spiders. He takes a stalk of grass and tickles the web as a trapped insect would, hoping to fool the spiders into showing themselves, but they refuse.
We learn about the medicinal uses of plants and about their protective mechanisms. ‘Some trees have thorns to protect them but non-thorn trees like gwarrie and mopane use their tannins as a protection,’ he explains. When animals browse, the plants send out chemical signals that turn the leaves bitter with tannins. ‘But the black rhino is clever; he makes sure he browses upwind so he can eat for longer.’
We find an untidy hamerkop nest and Amos assures us it’s been taken over by a pair of barn owls. While he tries to lure them out by talking their language, quiet Elias walks a bit further away and beckons to us; there’s a Verreaux’s eagle-owl snoozing on the top, its pink-lidded eyes opening now and then to keep an eye on us.
The Kruger spa
At a mud wallow, Amos slips into marketing mode, ‘This is the Kruger spa. You can have a nice mud bath and then come and rub off the parasites on this leadwood tree like the elephants and buffalo do. It’s a good massage spot.’
He’s full of stories: the croc that took out a lion, fish that jump out of the sand just as the river starts flowing again, how he watched two male lions kill a buffalo and then go after its small calf ‘for a starter’. Elias counters with his own story of a feisty honey badger he watched kill two pythons.
If I could remember just 10% of what Amos – and Elias, Patrick and Garth in their own much quieter way – told me that day, I’d be thrilled. How vultures can carry anthrax spores from an infected carcass to water courses, thus infecting other animals; that oxpeckers not only rid animals of parasites but also warn them of impending danger; that forktailed drongos can imitate the calls of about 29 other birds.
The list would go on – if only I could remember. That’s why the next time I get a chance to go on a walk with one of these clued-up Kruger guides, I’ll jump at the chance – and so should you.
More about Kruger National Park
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