The Lion and the Buck

It’s the eyes you notice – yellow intense slits that look right through you and pin you to the spot as surely as a butterfly laid out before a lepidopterist. Even though we are technically safe in our land rover, it’s an open plan version with no glass windows and only air separates us from the wild animals. A belief that the lion sees us as one with the land rover – an elephant sized, not very tasty rock-like-thing – contributes to this sense of security. But still, we are wary. If it had a mind to, the lion could kill us all without breaking a sweat.  Fortunately, he is more interested in lovemaking this fine spring day. The female of his affections lies not far away, and we infer a close intimacy between them, a sense of partnership and care.

We see a lot of the lion this trip. Two males, two females, and they are majestic. Lithesome and fluid in a way that only felines are.  Early one morning we come across one of the lionesses, lying alone under a tree. She is surrounded by several hyena. The hyena are considering an attack. Gathering in groups, calling to each other, casting sly glances in her direction, they skitter about the dry plains unsure as to the best course of action. The lioness feigns indifference, an epitome of stillness, but she is alert, keeping an eye on them and her escape route. For reasons known only to themselves, the hyenas give up the idea and move on, a rambling pack of rangy chattering carnivores, not as pretty or as powerful as a lion, but an essential part of the ecosystem. 

Into the scene wander some kudu, slowly munching on the available leaves in the parched landscape as they make their way to the water hole. The lioness is instantly alert, moving like water she pads across to a copse of trees, lowers herself below their eye line. Will they come this way? She lies in wait… and we too wait in breathless anticipation with her. The air is still. A vulture circles way up high.  In the end, something alerts the buck and they scramble away, snorting warnings to others in ear shot. The lioness shrugs, takes a long drink and ambles away, passing not a meter from us, with barely a backward glance.

Nature at work. It’s a privilege to witness it first hand, and we can imagine the dulcet tones of David Attenborough narrating our experience.

I think a lot about the order of things on this trip to the African bush. What luck to be born a lion, what poor luck to be born an Impala, to live in constant wariness of hungry passing carnivores. But, of course, neither the impala nor the lion has the capacity for self-reflection in this way. This is a uniquely human trait, a result of the evolution of awareness of self (which we share with some animals – the other primates, dolphins, elephants, some birds) combined with expressive language and episodic memory that gives flight to imagined alternative realities.  It is this that has led human animals to create gods, cities, Nikon cameras, pop-tarts and machine guns. And, more positively, being able to imagine someone else’s lot has led to the development of universal health care, the abolishment of slavery and a charter of human rights.

Is awareness a gift or a curse? The impala may be skittish but is probably content with its lot – not knowing any different. Not subject to ruminations or worry, which seems to be the downside of it all. Of course everything fights for its survival. Even as we watch on a night drive, a leopard fights off a hyena to protect its hard-fought-for prey. But conscious awareness, this seemingly rare capability, feels precious. More precious than humans grant it, most often blunt to its suggestive power and harnessing only what is required to blindly justify cognitive biases and the intuitions implanted by ignorant ancestors. The Buddha extols an Impala-esk mentality as a way towards inner peace. To practice acceptance in the face of life’s inevitable unfairness is the only way, apparently, to mitigate suffering. But I think there must be something in balancing the gift of awareness to shape a world where the luck is more evenly distributed, with accepting that we live in a world of self-interest, and that we can only do our bit.

There are other lessons to be found in this largely unspoilt landscape of eat or be eaten. Balance is another concept I reflect on during our travels. Balance is everywhere – central to life, its primary operating system. But despite our human desire to assign agency to everything there is no mind sitting behind the desk keeping tabs and tallying columns in this nature-driven accounting system. Life is just balance in action.  When things are out of balance, life flails. Too many elephants leads to overgrazing and too little food, which leads to starvation and death, which allows the food to regrow and elephants to recover.

I reflect to on compassion and cruelty. These also seem to be quite specific human traits, although perhaps not entirely. We fear the lion, but the lion won’t kill for pleasure, and the impala are safe from a frenzied attack by a narcissistic lion with a fragile ego. We ourselves are safe from that lion because there is abundant buck for the lion to chase, and he is not hungry nor sees us as food. It is humans who are the wild card, who can’t be trusted in matters of cruelty. Why is this so? It is depressing to think on it. Perhaps this is where it is best to take heed of the Buddha’s advice not to dwell in the mental landscape of things you cannot change. But it would seem to me that there is much we can learn from watching the animals, our distant brethren, out on the African savannah, if only we would apply our conscious awareness to do so.

The Rhythm of the Bush

IMG_1142 IMG_1147 IMG_1161 IMG_1233

Breeding heard of elephant
Breeding heard of elephant

Life here in the African bush has a regular cadence. A rhythm of peaceful relaxation and calm introspection, driven by the light of the day and the distance from everything. There is no urgency, no plan of action. We climb into the Land Rover, all open to the wild and trek around the park, peering through the grey and yellow and brown landscape in search of animals so well suited to hiding. It is strange how the animals, all so different – with grey elephants and black and white zebra and tall speckled giraffes – all blend in so well to the bush. It makes the task to spotting them that much more difficult. I image we hurtle past lion and rhino without seeing them, rocks and stones in the distant grass.

Today we saw zebra though, gorgeous, hanging out with the impala. In the distance we watched a large herd of elephants carefully shepherd their babies into the Kruger. We caught sight of giraffe, although not as close as yesterday where we saw them in the riverbed, up close and personal. There is rhino about and leopard, apparently, although we are still to sight them. I am holding onto hope! A leopard in a tree, that is the holy grail of spotting at Ingwe.

Another joyful aspect to being out here, away from electricity and light and noise is the stars. Last night the moon was late to rise and the sky was clear and we drove into the middle of the bush and turned off the lights and lay on the top of the landy and stared and stared at the stars. The milky way spilling across the deep black night. We could point out the Southern Cross and Orion’s Belt and that very, very bright star (is it Alpha Centuria, perhaps?) to our children, but after that our limited knowledge of astronomy ran out. There were a million more stars to see, if only we knew their names, bright and clear in the dead quiet dark of the bush. Sometimes people say staring at the stars makes them feel insignificant. I don’t feel like that. It feels to me like we are part of some magnificent wonder, some incredible creation of indescribable beauty. A tiny part of some tremendous whole and I find it deeply refreshing right in the heart of me.

The African Elephant

An African Elephant
An African Elephant

I wish I wrote well enough to describe the majesty of the African Elephant. I wish I had enough persuasion in my pen to make those who seek to destroy this magnificent animal for the sake of ivory chopsticks, a symbol of recently acquired wealth (but a devastating lack of wisdom), sit back of realise the destructive stupidity of their demands.

There is a war going on in Africa. A war bought on by the rise of China and the efficiency of criminal enterprise to fulfil any demand. Elephants are being slaughtered for their tusks, rhinos are being driven to the edge of extinction for their horns (ground up and made into medicine so men who lack a conscience can feed their sense of sexual inadequacy) and now lions are being hunted for their bones. More magic muti for the ignorant and callous. Would it help if I told them the bone marrow of lions quite often house tuberculosis? That if they grind up the bones and put it in their tea, with a bit of karma, maybe they’ll get sick.

We came across three elephants yesterday, standing like dark giant rocks in the grey sea of winter trees. Close enough to see their eyelashes, thick and long, protecting brown pools of intelligence – eyes that stare at you soulfully. As tall as the Landrover and nearly as wide, they move with a silence that seems unbelievable. Turning off the engine, the only thing you can hear are the swish of their trunks as they pull the grass out of the ground and shake it about to dislodge the earth before eating it. My heart is always pounding to see elephant that close up. But what a treat it is. They are the real king of the bush, regal and serene, but when disturbed or upset, they can react with deadly intent. Not fast enough to escape a bullet though. Not fast enough to protect themselves from man’s never-ending self-obsessed talent for destroying beauty and life and wonder for the sake of ego.

In love with Africa

Africa Bushveldt Sunset
Arriving into Johannesburg feels unexpectantly like a home coming. The city is instantly familiar. I had forgotten how beautiful the light is here in the early evening. Diffused as it is through the haze of veldt fires, the air has a golden glow. The sun is setting when we finally get out of the airport, and head our hire car in the direction of Sandton. I point out suddenly remembered flashes of the past as we hurtle along Gauteng’s amazing highway system (still the best in the world). Coming back to South Africa has stirred within me roots I thought long buried.

The beauty of South Africa’s vast and varied landscape is quite spectacular. Even the high-veldt, which is dry and, in many places, charred, has it’s own charm. A mustard yellow environment, dry and crackling in the winter air, speckled with mines and empty fields lying fallow for winter. Power stations and the tall cylinders of granaries break the straight, flat line of the horizon, miles in the distance. And everywhere, the sky, a washed out blue, dominates the eye.

Around Dullstroom we move towards the edge of the escarpment. This is South Africa’s little Scotland, all highland heather the colour of weak coffee. Round headed koppies rise out of the rolling landscape and in the dips and valleys dams of water team with trout.

The beauty of Mpumalanga’s mountain ranges is jaw-achingly breathtaking. We make our way towards Burkes-Luck-Potholes, through lumber country where the mountains are dressed with pine and purple heather and waterfalls galore. Hiking would normally be the order of the day in this part of the world, but with the rain and mist we keep on going. Passing through yet another landscape, the clouds lift and we get to see the magical vistas on either side of our high road. Sweeping scenery in shades of brown and khaki fall away on either side as we head towards yet another range of mountains silhouetted in the distance.

We visit Burkes-Luck Pot-Holes, where Australia’s OH&S lawmakers would be falling over themselves in dismay, and clamber over the rocks to peer down into the ravines and holes made by a million years of flowing water and churning rocks. The kids are fascinated by the geology and love bounding over the rocks (away from the edge!) and trying to collect tadpoles further upstream.

And after that, the scenery changes yet again, as we move over Blyde River Canyon, suddenly we are in safari country. Bush country, with its dry khaki grass and grey trees, and beige sand. And it feels good to be in the bush once more.

Ingwelala is a very special place, located next door to the Kruger and unfenced and open to all the animals. We sit around the fire, watching the steak and boerewors cook, and are visited by a rangy hyena, all sloped shoulders and cowardly demeanor. He skirts the camp furtively, tail between his legs, looking for an opportunity to nick the meat from the braai. In the morning a family of warthogs visit. They kneel down to eat, as though they are praying. They are also skittish, reacting to any sound with a quick lift of their heads, their bushy whiskers startling against the light. They run off, in a line, tails in the air. Later, the kids play at the playground, the warthogs and Nyala in the background.

It is all sitting around, eating and drinking and driving around in the search for animals. It is a bit like trying to locate a needle in a haystack. After all, there are 17000 hectares for them to hide in. Still, we have managed to see giraffe, sable, zebra, impala, steenbok, Kudu and this morning a special male elephant. Not bad for day two, hey?