Gary wanted us to watch the sun rise from the top of a bluff, on foot. We were well on the road by 6am and on top of the bluff fifteen minutes later. Gary poured us a cup of coffee as the sun peeked over the horizon, and we listened to the sounds of the bush as it woke up. The first one to greet us was a klipspringer, a little antelope that bounces all over the rocks so quickly he “springs” from one to another. These animals have a little pad of flesh that grows in between their hooves on the bottom of their feet, giving them a softer landing and more staying power on the slippery rocks.
Back in the Land Rover we were treated to sightings of zebra, warthog, black-backed jackal, and the ubiquitous antelopes: impala, kudu, waterbuck. At first it had been easy to overlook all those antelopes in favor of the bigger, more exotic game, but with the Big Five well behind us, it was nice to take the time to examine their beauty too. You know those images we have in our heads about African tribes people of yesteryear, all dressed up in crazy, colorful outfits, with body paint, face paint, or masks? They’ve taken all that inspiration from the animal kingdom, for sure. All those spots, stripes, shapes and colors… the most creative child with a pile of crayons and stacks of blank paper probably couldn’t come up with so many designs.
We reached a watering hole and watched hippos play while a Nile Monitor sunned himself on the bank. Gary surprised me with the fact that hippos are Africa’s most deadly animal, second only to mosquitoes. (And both are behind man himself, of course.) Hippos don’t look it, but they are incredibly fast on land. You don’t want to be between them and their young or their source of water. And their jaws are so wide and powerful, they’ve been known to chomp a crocodile in half.
Another neat fact about hippos: a group of them is called a “raft.” I also like that a group of leopards make a leap, rhinos make a crash, elephants a parade, and giraffe make a tower.
Back on the trail, mid-morning, fatigue had set in. Occasionally, only occasionally, the game drives could become a tad monotonous. It was a lot of sitting. With dinner over around 10pm each night and all those early mornings, we were starting to look forward to a nap. We were also getting a bit grumpy with our Rover-mates, who had taken the front seat every darn time since we arrived. (“Do you mind if we sit up front? My wife gets carsick.”) Carsickness is a totally lame excuse since there’s not much going on in a slow-moving wide-open safari vehicle to create disagreement between visually perceived movement and the vestibular system’s sense of it. (Yes, I googled it.)
The stadium seating was good enough for seeing stuff (though many of my photos include the backs of their heads), but did very little to help us hear Gary two rows ahead. We missed out on lots of his stories and explanations, and had to ask “What did he say?” so many times that we gave up. The next time this happens, I will have no trouble claiming that I get carsick too. And Seb has worked up a story about having a phobia of being in the back seat for too long, sending him into a weird paranoid rage, unintentionally maiming the people sitting in front of him without any knowledge of having done so. Do they really want to take that chance??
Then, we came across a leopard and her cub, and got to watch the two of them frolic and play. We remembered why we were there.
The cub even got an impromptu lesson in hunting while we were there. He spotted a squirrel on a tree and went after it while mama watched. He gave it a valiant effort, but the squirrel was simply too fast for him. I found it hard to pick which one to root for; Seb was all for the squirrel.
After the crushing defeat, Mama rewards her son greatly for his effort with grooming, more playing, and snuggling.
The next morning, our last, we were treated to another sighting of babies, this time lion cubs. MalaMala has a policy of allowing only one vehicle at a time around young cubs to help them habituate to the vehicles. We quizzed Gary from time to time about why the vehicles don’t seem to phase the animals. He told us they are used to the size, sound and smell of the vehicle, and they see it neither as predator nor prey. The shape of the vehicle is important, too. So we mustn’t stand up in the presence of the animals, or they may not recognize the vehicle as the neutral being that it is.
We left the cubs and moved on, spotting kudu, another leopard, discussing some of the local flora. Gary heard something over his headset and headed off into the bush, but this time it was thicker and rougher than normal. He had heard there was another sighting of lion cubs in a deep ravine. The Land Rover could handle anything, it seemed—Gary mowed down trees I would have expected to stop us in our tracks.
This brings me to perhaps my one and only concern about our little safari adventure, and that is our environmental impact. I can reconcile our presence around the animals, surreal as it was, because I could see it really didn’t bother them. It’s not like we were hunting them, and they weren’t trapped in a zoo. But what about those trees? And how about all the fuel we used? I remember feeling a little bit guilty, and selfish. If you’re willing to fork over the money, they will spare no expense (nor tree) in giving you a front-row seat on the action.
Bah. Who am I kidding? It was great! A once-in-a-lifetime experience. Gary did not succeed in giving us a front-row view on the lion cubs in the ravine that day, but he did give us a front-row view of the ravine. It was very deep. Teetering on the edge of it was an adventure in itself. I have no photos of it because I couldn’t loosen my grip on the Rover’s rails enough to take any.
As we headed back to the lodge for the last time, taking our last glimpses of hippos, zebras, warthogs, and elephants from the safety of behind Gary’s gun, I remarked that we hadn’t seen very many giraffe yet. And that I really liked them, all tall and gangly, majestic, so different from the rest. As if on cue, Gary turned a corner and we came face-to-face with a tower of giraffe.
And there lies the magic of MalaMala: They claim they can’t give you just any animal sighting you want on demand, but they come pretty darn close. This incredible experience will stay with us a long, long time.