“Nothing but breathing the air of Africa, and actually walking through it, can communicate the indescribable sensations which every traveller of feeling will experience”
William Burchell, Travels in the Interior of Southern Africa (1824)
We staggered out of our tents in Lower Sabie at 4am into the gloaming. The birds were already tweeting away when I made a quick trip to the ablutions block. By 4:30 we were standing by the open vehicle in the car park. The field guide looked us over and commented on our appearance. “You have to blend in with the scenery. That white baseball cap will make you stand out like a crowned crane,” he said.
Turning to me, he said, “Lose the shoulder bag.” This wasn’t just any shoulder bag. It was a thick, calico-cotton, Made-in-India, eco bag, with “Observer Food Monthly” written across it in bright orange lettering. I was using it to carrying water, sunscreen, sunglasses, binoculars and notebook. “We have a backpack to carry your breakfast. Stow your gear inside and carry it,” he said. “Yessir!” I was only too glad he failed to comment on my dusty, white cargo pants as I had nothing else to change into if they had been too visible.
The senior field guide was a white South African called Travis. He was dressed in an olive-drab lightweight hoodie, with matching bush shirt and trousers and a khaki cap. His high-pitched effete voice contrasted with his macho outfit. He insisted on total obedience to his orders.
His assistant guide I will call Mr T. He rode shotgun. Literally. He was carrying a massive elephant gun. We climbed aboard the converted LandRover and set off for the walking location.
I was sitting next to two Czech medical students. The girl was wearing a tee-shirt bearing the message “Emergency DOCTOR”. A bit of a fib, really, but these walking safaris could be dangerous.
It was icy cold in the open back of the LandRover, so I tried wrapping myself in one of the blankets provided. The wind got beneath it and it was flapping all over the place until I sat on the edges. All the excited banter in the vehicle had been silenced. We were freezing.
Before the walk started, Travis spelled out the rules. No chatting. Constant vigilance. Single file. Keep up with the group. If threatened, point to the danger and say what animal is charging us. Shout out if you want to stop and take a photo or ask a question. Take nothing away but memories, leave nothing behind but footprints.
Meanwhile Mr T had gone on ahead, looking for predators.
We set off along a well-worn track and soon arrived at a midden – a rhinoceros toilet. They are messy creatures, rhinos. The dominant male deposits faeces in the middle and rubs it around with his feet. Less prestigious rhinos, such as visiting females, take a dump at the periphery. Travis explained it all by saying, “This is rhinoceros Facebook.”
Mr T came back and told us to avoid a dark smudge of excrement in the middle of the track. “This is porcupine pooh. If you get this on the soles of your shoes, I guarantee that you will be buying a new pair. It stinks for weeks.”
The next bit of bushcraft was a lesson on giraffe pellets. These are about the size of large hazelnuts, with a dimple at one pole and a point at the other. They fit together in the lower intestine like one of those cheapo key chains. “Try and crush it with one hand,” said Travis. “It’s just dehydrated roughage.” It was so compacted, I had to use two hands to break it. Do giraffes ever get constipated, I wondered?
Travis then told us he had seen lots of creatures ahead, but as we were walking in single file, no one else did. “The red-billed oxpeckers are flying about searching for large herbivores. They want their breakfast of ticks.” He saw a side-striped jackal, too.
In the dried out river bed, an elephant had dug a waterhole with its tusks. Apparently elephants are sensitive to vibrations and can detect water under the ground. Judging by the tracks in the sand, lots of other animals were taking advantage of the muddy liquid.
Travis pointed out a pearlspotted owl. It was being mobbed by canaries, but didn’t seem to care. Although it is small, it has a badass reputation and can take down other creatures twice its size. It doesn’t actually have eyes in the back of its head, they are feather markings.
Our next stop was a large pit. It may have been dug initially by an aardvark, but now could be home to warthogs, snakes or porcupines, all living together communally. Rather worryingly, there were lots of bones scattered around the edge of the pit. Travis was careful where he stood. “Sometimes, the inhabitants shoot out of the burrow in a panic, so it is best not to get in their way.”
We marched off and Travis noticed something. “Did anyone pick up a warthog tusk? Put it down immediately!” Another tourist asked if he could take a porcupine quill. “No! Remember the rules.”
Travis went on to tell us about a tourist whom he had heard eating an apple. When the munching stopped, he heard another noise. “Did you just drop that apple core?” The tourist said that it was biodegradable, but Travis maintained that its seeds could pollute the environment. I felt guilty even though I hadn’t done anything.
Eagle-eyed Mr T claimed to have seen some rhinos far away on a ridge below the horizon. He said he had once spotted elephants three kilometres away. Not even Travis with his Nikon binoculars could see the pair of rhinos he was pointing out.
We spotted some hyenas, a family of giraffes, a harem of impala, another jackal and then stopped for bush breakfast. Travis invited questions while we ate trail mix and drank fruit juice. “I really want to see an ardwolf, what are my chances?” I asked. “There has only ever been one confirmed sighting in Kruger, so your chances are pretty slim,” he replied.
By now it was 7:30am and the day was starting to heat up. We marched back towards the vehicle, stopping occasionally to learn about insects, fungi, plants and rocks. We stopped. Our way ahead was blocked by a herd of about 500 meandering buffalo. Travis had a brief conversation with Mr T and decided that we would walk abreast, not in single file, straight towards them. “They will part like the Red Sea did for Moses,” he said.
And they did.
Most of us had heard tales of hunters being ambushed by wounded buffaloes, or having to climb trees to escape a charging bull. But we did what we were told, and the buffaloes scattered. A couple of males returned to scrutinise us as we walked by, but they didn’t bother us at all. It is all about who has the biggest cojones. Figuratively speaking.
That was an exhilarating end to the walk. We were all buzzing when we climbed aboard and drove to Lower Sabie. Travis even booked another tourist for speeding on the way back to camp. It is always impressive when someone from a completely different walk of life impresses you with exceptional knowledge, making their world more understandable.