Like last time (see Okavango I
and Okavango II
, from last May), we went into the Delta with the mobile safari guide RD. RD is a guy I was introduced to through the Princeton alum that set up my position with Komku, and a fabulous safari guide – the best. We had a wonderful time with him last year and decided to reprise it this year, with a new round of family members. The trip was five: myself, my mother, my father, my aunt A and my cousin A.
We saw fantastic beasts, large and small, from tiny bee-eaters to kilometers-long congregations of elephants. I suppose everyone has their own favourite sighting from the trip, but my own was on the afternoon of the last day of our five-day safari. It was dramatic – hundreds of buffalo with a few giraffe mixed in, big male lions, the thrill of a predator-prey interaction (no active hunt, don't get TOO excited). It was aesthetically thrilling – the sunset, the waterhole and the big open sky and the thousand tines of sharp, pale buffalo horns poking out of the sea of brown hides. But overall, it was an afternoon spent observing animal behaviour. This is something you rarely get to experience on safaris; with most tourist safaris, it's much more of a drive-by shooting sort of event. The guide gets a tip that the lions are at water hole X, and you immediately rev into high gear, dash over to the water hole, snap photos of the lions, and are off to the next destination. This is a good method to get pictures of the Big Five in a short amount of time, but not a good method for understanding what's going on around you.
Having spent quite a lot of time observing animal behaviour for my studies and my thesis, I'm more inclined to be interested in animal behaviour than most tourists. But I believe that every safari tourist can and should be given the opportunity to understand and appreciate some of the behaviour going on around them, instead of just the pretty colours and big claws. As Richard Despard Estes, author of the renowned “Behaviour Guide to African Mammals,” (recommended reading!) writes in his introduction,
“Through daily contact with Ngorongoro visitors, I had become aware that the behaviour of the animals, which I found so engrossing, was largely unnoticed by most visitors and their guides. Their main effort went into seeking out rare or glamourous creatures like rhinos, cheetahs, lions, wild dogs, and leopards, and they spent hardly any time just sitting and watching the more common species that surrounded them. How often I saw vehicles drive right past (or through) herds of plains game that were involved in interesting and even dramatic activities. Whereas the sought-after species were found most of the time doing nothing more interesting than sleeping.” He goes on to write that, however, he found all such tourists were interested in his talks about animal behaviour, and I agree that almost anyone would be interested in animal behaviour if given the chance to explore, observe, and understand it.
Our adventure on the last afternoon was a great example of this.
We had been driving around in the morning, looking at everything we came across but aware that there were lions in the area and hopeful that we would run into them. However, by lunchtime we hadn't seen any. We returned to camp and settled in for our final safari lunch, tucking into the cook's usual extravagant smorgasbord – cold smoked meats, freshly-prepared meatballs, freshly baked breads, several salads, a cheese plate, and so on. Just before we'd arrived in camp, another guide had crossed our path and informed RD of the lions' latest position, as well as the approximate position of a large herd of buffalo that the lion were most likely tracking. We discussed this information over lunch, and RD did some thinking.
After lunch we headed out as usual. Not half an hour after leaving camp, we saw the buffalo crossing the road – we hadn't seen very many of them, and suddenly there were hundreds, rustling in the grass all around us, sticking their stolid bovine faces up to look at us and then bending back down to continue cropping the grass.
“Okay,” RD said. “Given where the buffalo are right now, I'm pretty sure that they're headed to these pans.” He raised his hand and gestured off to the right. “I'm also pretty sure that those two male lions are following them. They came out this way to follow the buffalo, and they're still going to be following them. They'll track them all day, singling out targets – looking for ones they might be able to take down, the ones that are lagging. Then they'll attack later, at night. So at this point they'll just be tracking, watching, not stalking. That's good because we'll be able to see them; they're not trying to stay out of sight right now. We probably won't see a hunt, because they tend to hunt at night, and the park rules say we have to be back at camp by dark – but we'll see the lions.” He paused, looking around at the bush, and the herd of buffalo, which was slowly moving off through the grass and bush. “These guys are pretty nervous. They know the lions are following them, and they've had tourists bothering them all day. I think we should leave them for now, and go wait at the pan – that way we won't scare them, we'll just be a silent part of the scenery when they come out to drink, and we can watch them drink and hopefully those lions will be there behind them, so we can watch the whole scene unfold. But if we keep following them they're maybe going to stay nervous, go back into the bush and just stay there, hiding.”
After a short discussion we all agreed to go along with his suggestion, and we made our way over the rough road to the pans. When I say “rough road,” I mean it: not a gravel road, not a dirt road with a few stones, but a dirt/mud/sand road bulging with tree roots, blocked by fallen branches, sticky with mud and eroded by the floodwaters and rain so that it boasts huge puddles that block the entire road (necessitating a detour around it, on the grass and through the bush). There are holes of black mud that can suck the staunchest 4x4 into a standstill; undulating sections of sand road that make your vehicle bounce up and down as though you were in a hip-hop music video; stretches of swamp where you must drive through a foot of water thick with flooded grass. The way Moremi is now, most self-drivers and tour guides refuse to go on many of the roads. For RD, it's a delightful challenge – test your knowledge and the ability of your vehicle, dredge up the memory of back roads you haven't used for 10 years and find that old alternate route, routes that younger guides have probably never heard of, much less traversed. We bushwhacked through roads that hadn't seen traffic for years, occasionally hopping out to machete branches out of our way as we muscled through.
But back to the buffalo.
We parked at the pan, perched on a hummock overlooking a wide, shallow pan and a line of bush that we hoped the buffalo would emerge from. RD cut the engine and we sat there quietly, talking and listening. I drew a picture. We all tuned our ears for the sounds of the buffalo. Another tourist car, thinking that we had spotted something, stopped and waited for awhile; after five minutes they lost patience and drove away. We continued to wait. There were several giraffes in the bush, their heads and necks visible above the vegetation, and we watched them to see what they would do – the buffalo, RD explained, were also watching the giraffes for their decision, relying on the great height and excellent eyesight of their neighbours. We would watch the giraffes to see what the buffalo would do. After about 30 minutes, we saw the giraffe moving towards us, and then we could hear the buffalo rustling in the bush. They began to emerge. We readied our binoculars and cameras.
But horrors – another car pulled up just as the buffalo began to walk towards the pan, engine roaring, occupants talking loudly and excitedly. The forerunners of the herd threw up their heads before they reached the pan, and regarded the new arrivals with suspicion. After a moment's consideration, they turned and headed back into the bush. The tourists drove away, satisfied with their quick snaps of the buffalo, little suspecting the huge herd that lurked in the bushes just out of sight.
Frustrated but not defeated, RD said that we were at the beginning of a series of several pans, and the buffalo would probably just move on to the next one. We fired up the engine and drove to the next pan, a few hundred meters away, and found a new viewing point.
This time we were rewarded. As if on cue, the herd appeared, melting out of the bush and moving towards the water. The first few were tentative, but then they seemed to deem it safe, and hundreds of buffalo surged out of the protective cover of the bush, splashing into the knee-deep pan and drinking deep. Where before there had been an empty field and a quiet pan, there was a splashing, crashing, chomping, chewing, snorting, shuffling, endless sea of buffalo. They milled around drinking and chewing mouthfuls of grass, their dark coats splattered with mud and their wide, wet noses glistening above their constantly-moving mouths.
Buffalo are one of the Big Five – one of the five African animals considered most dangerous to hunt. The other four are elephant, leopard, lion, and (black) rhino. The buffalo is deceptive; to the average tourist, it must remind them irresistibly of a domestic a cow. Buffalo don't move very quickly unless pressed, and they have a habit of standing and staring at you with big dopey eyes and a mouthful of grass, flicking their tails absentmindedly to rid themselves of flies, and tolerating the agile oxpeckers that cling to their backs searching for ticks. It is not a very intimidating stare. They look quite comical, especially when they have long wisps of grass hanging out of the sides of their mouth. Their huge horns, curling down on either side of their face, looks like a judge's wig. But arouse them, and they will overturn your vehicle, gore you and tear out your intestines or toss you high into the air with a flick of their razor-sharp horns. The horns form a thick, literally bulletproof plate on their forehead, and from there curve down into wicked points. They can run like hell if they feel like it, and when a giant brown tank with a bulletproof battering ram and two scimitars of death on its head is running towards you full-tilt, you tell me it's still a comical cow. Buffalo will protect each other within the herd and have been known to kill lions. (If you haven't seen Battle at Kruger, please go watch it now. Seriously.)
We sat in the car, snapping photos, studying the buffalo through our binoculars, and just enjoying being part of the enormous herd. The omnipresent rustling of their hooves and teeth, their breathing and the flick of tails, the fluttering of the ox-peckers – it was marvellous. The sun was setting and a rich golden light was cast over everything, bringing out the colour in their coats and limning their horns with light.
Suddenly, on the edge of the herd, appearing from the bush like dreams, the lions came. When the buffalo noticed them, every single head turned towards them, every ear pricked, every set of horns oriented towards their hunters. We all watched them, as the two male lions slunk along the edge of the bush, unhurried, gazing calmly at their prey. Presently they came to a stop and lay down behind a large stone. We couldn't see them anymore. The buffalo resumed grazing.
“They're not interested in hunting right now,” RD said. “They're still picking out their prey. They don't bother hiding from the buffalo; the buffalo know that they're there, they've known all along. When night comes, the lions will begin stalking, and they'll try to surprise the individual prey. But the buffalo know what they're planning.”
As we watched, the lions rose again, and then suddenly we heard the sound of roaring... but from behind us. At the first sound, the buffalo lifted their heads as one, and as one turned sharply towards the roaring. It was another group of lions, far off, calling to the two males.
The two males began walking across the plain, and as they reached half-way across, they began roaring in reply. It was bonechilling, the sound of impending violent death and primordial power. It sounds nothing like the MGM lion. It is a deep sound that has no beginning or end, no well-defined “roar!” that children can imitate. It shakes the ground and echoes across the land, a rough, throat-scraping sound that must surely come from the very tip of the lion's claws to travel like a wave through its body, gathering strength, before tearing its way out of the great cat's mouth. We were spellbound, like any other prey.
As we watched, pinned to our seats by instinctive terror, it seemed that the lions walked straight towards us. In reality they probably did not care about us at all – we were simply in the middle of the shortest path towards where they wanted to go. They stalked towards us on their gigantic, heavy paws, never ceasing in their roaring. As one male stopped to draw breath, the other would pour forth his roar in turn. They slowed as they passed us and looked up at us, amber eyes arrogant and incurious, huge jaws gaping slightly to show the edges of their teeth. They moved with heavy, powerful grace, their steps buoyant and elastic, the tips of their thin, muscular tails bobbing just above the ground. Their manes were thick and rough, wild matted shields to keep them safe from killing bites during their fights. Their fur was short, the skin stretched tightly over muscle and sinew, veins and tendons.
For a moment we all held our breath, filled with the delicious but terrifying knowledge that the lions could easily leap into the vehicle, tackle us in one fluid motion out of our seats and onto the bare earth beyond, and tear us limb from limb. But they wouldn't. And they didn't. They walked past us, resuming their roaring, and we all sank back in our seats.
The buffalo continued to watch with total alertness as the lions padded into the tall grass on the other side of the road, and then melted like tawny shadows, suddenly and completely, into the bush. “They're probably trying to get downwind of the buffalo, for the hunt later this evening,” RD said. We heard one last roar, and with that, it was time to move on. The park rules said we had to be back in camp by dark, and we were pushing sunset, with twenty minutes of driving left to go. Awed by the encounter, we left the buffalo to their eternal struggle to survive the night, and drove back to camp.
What made this day so remarkable was not that we saw a huge herd of buffalo, or that we saw lions, or even that we saw lions following a huge herd of buffalo; it was the way we followed the interaction for the entire afternoon, understanding where the buffalo were moving and WHY, and the pattern of the lion's behaviour. To understand is to be able to spend an entire afternoon enthralled and rewarded; to lack that understanding is to take five minutes of snapshots and drive away, never discovering the meaning behind the encounter. I'm delighted that we were able to have the former experience.