Sunday, December 1, 2013

Best Sightings?

Personal Favourites

“So, Rudi, tell us what your best sighting has been on Safari?”

This question resonates, with not only me, but in all likelihood every single ranger, guide and lodge staff member currently, and previously working at any of the lodges or game reserves that are commercial and host guests.

I have pondered over this question countless times, but have never been able to actually pin down one sighting in particular as an all-time favourite. There are experiences that have been meaningful, some distressing, many even funny, but as for the best, that is a question I will never be able to answer.

To start our journey, I will walk you through a sighting that was for many reasons almost spiritual and meaningful in a profound sense early in my career. A sighting that can only be dreamt about by those that have chosen to immerse themselves in the African bush as guides and rangers.  

The year was 2001, and I was the Head Ranger at a lodge in the Timbavati Game Reserve called Motswari.

It really is amazing how I can still remember the smallest of details. It was hot, really hot. I recall walking out of my room to the lodge patio to host my guests at afternoon High Tea, and the oppressive heat hit me like a flying dung beetle would sometime collide with the side of your head when driving an open safari vehicle. Those that have experienced this will tell you that the small creature hits you with enough force to snap your head back, and often draw a droplet of blood.

But I digress slightly – The heat was most unwelcome, and I was dreading the drive as it had been deadly quiet on the morning drive because of the already stifling heat. Tea came and went, with no tea being drunk, but gallons of ice cold water and soft drinks in preparation for the 3 hour plus drive to follow.

Off we went, and I ended up heading to the southern parts of the reserve in search of a pride of lions that had been spending time around a particular dam called Makulu ( BIG ) Dam. About a half an hour before sunset I eventually managed to find tracks of the pride known as the Nhlaralumi Pride, who at that stage consisted of 4 adult lionesses, 3 sub adults, and 2 young cubs about 9 months old. They were dominated by a single male lion known as Woza Woza, the biggest male lion I had, and to this day have ever seen.

The tracks left the road, and safari rules dictate that off road driving is allowed to look at animals, but not for animals. This meant that my tracker, Isaac and I chose to walk on the tracks, hoping to locate the pride resting at a point so that we could then return with the guests and the vehicle once we had established their exact position.

We instructed our guests to stay seated on the vehicle and enjoy the antics of the hippos, after parking them under the shade of a large tree next to the dam.

Isaac and I had been walking for about 10 minutes along the flood plain of the dam, following the tracks when they lead us into a rather dense stand of thick scrub called Guarri bushes. Loading the riflle we crept forward, not wanting to startle the resting pride and lose our chance at a sighting.
Ten meters became 20, then 50, and later 200m of tense, adrenalin pumping excitement as we crept through brush with visibility no more than 5 meters beyond the thick vegetation. As if on cue we heard the lions growl not too far in front of us. Stopping in our tracks, freezing at what may just be happening we looked at each other and just shrugged our shoulders, waiting for the inevitable charge to come at any stage.

5 seconds and no charge, we were not sure of what was happening, until we heard the crashing of branches, but fortunately moving away from us. Interest piqued, we moved along until we came upon a small clearing roughly 50 m by 50m. A large fallen over Knob Thorn Tree stump allowed us to stalk closer without being seen, and there was the entire pride, in the process of circling a large giraffe bull.
Staying hidden for a while we both stared transfixed at the sight before us, neither of us willing to tear our gaze from the incredible process taking place.

We moved slowly forward, and had a seat on the stump, no more than 5m away from the two cubs, who as much as we were interested in the hunt, were interested in us.

Whispering to Isaac, we decided to stay put, firstly, not to disturb the hunt, and secondly because neither of us had seen a Lion Kill whilst on foot before.

I felt an immense sense of privilege to be able to witness raw nature and survival at mere meters, without either the Giraffe or Lions aware of our intrusion. The life and death struggle so engrossed all animals that the human presence never featured for even a second.

We sat transfixed, for over 10 minutes, in absolute silence, watching the Lions methodically going about the hunt, almost being able to predict the next movement in our minds. The silence was the experience to be treasured, and is what really made the sighting meaningful.

Had we been on a vehicle, we would have had the noise of the engine, camera shutters, guest’s gasps and shrieks and questions to deal with, as well as my duty to translate the behaviour from scenes to words for my guests to understand.

I will always treasure the 10 minutes of absolute silence that went hand in hand with being so vulnerable, and on foot, whilst watching a pride of lions ensure their own survival by securing food in the form of Giraffe meat.

Once the Giraffe was pinned to the ground, and the strangle hold was in place by Woza Woza around the muzzle of the Giraffe, Isaac and I slowly backed away to a distance where it was safe enough to start making a run for the vehicle.

Needless to say, me, being slightly overweight, and a smoker to boot, Isaac reached the vehicle a minute or two before me, and with a lot less panting and no burning lungs. It took me a minute to tell the guests that we had found the lions, and subsequently went crashing through the terrain to get back to them.

We arrived before the giraffe had breathed his last, so the guests still got to witness the actual kill, even though their ranger and tracker had been slightly selfish by choosing to live the experience alone, and in silence at first.

They never did know that we had had our own sighting before returning to them, but Isaac and I agreed for years after, that the sighting that we had had was one that we would remember and look back on in years to come. After all, the idea of a safari should be to observe animals and wildlife, in their natural environment, doing what they would naturally be doing whether we as humans were there or not. Just like a fly on a wall, with no impact on changing their behaviour, even if it is to just look up at an approaching vehicle.

That day we were the flies on the wall, and I will forever treasure the experience.

Certainly one of my best sightings!

Nhlaralumi Cub Mentioned Above

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