There are no animal rights in the South African bushveld. No medical care for the sickly, no protection for the weak. Here, a faltering stumble quickly catches the eye of the hungry lioness. A bolt of amber fur streaks through the dry grass, aiming for the throat. Unlike her tame domestic counterpart, this cat does not toy with her prey. The kill is quick and the smell of fresh blood fills the air. Her cubs will have meat tonight.
The male with his shaggy mane gets first choice and the most succulent tidbits. The hunter mother and her cubs must wait. Male chauvinism rules.
From the safety of the open Land Rover, we watch. Once the lions have eaten their fill, the hyenas and the vultures will ensure that not a morsel is wasted. This if life before civilization. Killing is not a sport, it is a mechanism for survival.
The game rangers are wary. Their powerful spotlights illuminate the scene, but every so often they flicker discreetly through the shadows. The antelope have long since fled, so there is no chance now of blinding them and weakening their defences. I suddenly feel very vulnerable, with only the night air between me and invisible, hidden, predatory eyes. For a hungry wild cat, the jump from the ground (or the nearest tree) onto the open topped vehicle is a very short one.
The drive back to the lodge is slow. There is no road. The driver stops so we can take a better look at the wide-eyed bush babies staring at us from the trees.
And then, it’s back to reality. Electric lighting. A comfortable room with running water in the en-suite bathroom. Drinks and conversation in the bar. An elegant meal under a jet black sky studded with stars too numerous to count. The milky way spills across the heavens.
Is this the same kind of buck the lions were eating? I ‘ll have the salad tonight, thank you.
Perhaps later we’ll wander down to the “hide” with our wineglasses, close the door and watch through the window to see who comes to drink at the remains of the waterhole. Someone saw a leopard here just the other night. Perhaps tonight it will be a cheetah, a civet, an African wildcat.
At dawn, of course, it will be crowded. Kudu, springbok, gemsbok, eland – all will make their way to sip at the precious drops in the tiny, muddy pool.
By then, of course, we will be on the Land Rover again, perhaps in the company of elephants towering above us, perhaps backing cautiously away from a rhino on the rampage. The baboons may
be out in their numbers, or perhaps we’ll find a cheetah just lying in the road.
The giraffes nibble at the tender tops of the trees. The zebras gnaw at the unpalatable grasses which only they can tolerate. The air hums with insect life. The countryside is dry. Too dry. It makes the animals easier to see – good for me, not so good for the ever-watchful herds sniffing for the scent of predators upwind.
We’re back for breakfast before the sun rises too high in the sky. Then, like the animals beyond the boundary fences, we too retreat to the shade, hiding from the harsh sun. An icy beer, a cold pool and a lazy deckchair make for perfect relaxation.
I awaken to the sound of thunder rumbling through my soul. Thick, dark clouds fill the sky. Suddenly, lightning cleaves the horizon in two. Before I can grab my towel and rush inside, the first big drops fall heavily to the ground. A cheer erupts all around me. It is raining!
Rain here does not fall, it plummets in sheets. It looks like a solid wall of water out there. Tomorrow, there will be tender green shoots in the bushveld. The hippos will be able to wallow in the river, snorting their pleasure. Waterholes will reappear, and with them, new herds that wandered elsewhere in search of water, and life.
And I will return to the city, with its concrete and its exhaust fumes, its traffic, its crowds and its fast foods. At least, my body will. A small part of my soul will stay here, in the African wild, calling to me at night in my dreams.