Funny the things one learns. I had always assumed that life in South Africa meant monkeys in the driveway and hippos in the pool, in the way that we, back in England, get squirrels on the fence and the odd badger on the lawn – only bigger. But no, it seems I was wrong. And so here I am; it is 7am, it is bloody freezing and apparently, I’m still in Africa. Specifically I’m in ‘the bush’, a long, long way from the city now, to finally see some animals, or ‘game’. I’m on a game reserve, you see – so there should be game here. You know, the Big Five: Lion, Elephant, Buffalo, Leopard and Rhino. I mean, I’ll settle for four out of five – even three. But it is 7am and it is bloody freezing – some game this is turning out to be.
Yes, I’ve seen the impala – lovely aren’t they? Really very similar to our ‘deer’. No, I’m here to see some real animals if that’s alright, and it’s – as I think I mentioned – bloody freezing, so if we could get a move on I’d really appreciate it. Ha! Wildebeest are the ‘McDonalds of the Bush’! Are they really? How funny – I’d really like to see that proven. Now, if possible. And isn’t it supposed to be hot? I’ve seen the Attenborough documentaries with the lions. I’ve seen those lions hunting, running, leaping and roaring, all in shimmering heat, practically wiping their lion sweat off of their lion brows. I am so cold I’m not surprised there aren’t any lions. If I was a lion right now I would be asking for the money back on my fur.
It’s been over an hour and our guide and tracker, Michael, insists that those paw prints running along the path are ‘fresh tracks’ and that ‘lion is close’. ’Be very careful’, he declaims in suitably ominous tones. ‘If the lion sees you step out of this vehicle she will snap your neck, rip out your lungs and drink your blood.’ Great, I think. I spot the rifle propped casually in the well of the passenger seat – surely out of Michael’s reach? Should I volunteer to man it for him? We’re in an open vehicle after all – nothing to separate us from the lion’s maw. And I’m really the only one who’s made any effort with the camouflage; all olive greens and browns. Yes madam, that pink North Face jacket might be keeping you snug but I look the part and if anybody’s going to stand out as a candy-floss snack for a passing carnivore it sure as hell ain’t me. Now perhaps somebody wouldn’t mind stepping out and testing our guide’s warning? Anything would be preferable to this torpor. Anybody…?
Susan Sontag writes of how on safari these days ‘the gun has been replaced by the camera’. The photograph is the trophy most of us take home now – the ‘shot’ far less deadly. That vital sense of needing to be protected from nature is gone. In the modern world it is far more that Nature needs protection from us. The arrogance of our age denies us an elemental response; to feel the blood run cold. Of course I’m conscious of the importance of preservation, but there is an odd urge that replaces the sedate satisfaction of merely seeing and ‘snapping’, that wants to feel at the very least a need for protection, as opposed to the need for another layer. I knew I should have worn that extra jumper.
It strikes me that deep down a part of me isn’t here to see wildlife at all. I’m here to see wild death. I can see these animals any day of the week in London Zoo, lolling and snoozing. And yes, the odd glimpse of them quite a long way from a cage – despite this reserve actually being just one enormous cage – is certainly better for the photos and I’m sure if they actually turned up they might enjoy the leg-stretch that this area provides. Good to get the country air in the lungs before being packed off to inhale the Primrose Hill exhaust fumes.
No, the difference out here is that all these animals do, apparently, coexist, rub up alongside each other, chomp the same grass, pad the same pathways and evade the same tourists. And once you’ve seen the animals, ticked them off your list and got the snaps, you actually start wanting to see them do something – something wild. The potential here is to see a predator actually predate, actually stalk something and drive its claws into the back of some unsuspecting idiot prey, which would fall in a bloody heap then to be mauled and devoured. You rarely get that sort of a display near St Johns Wood.
We return to camp, having seen a horde of herbivores, and are left to ponder until our evening drive. We must take care, we are told again, when walking between the main lodge and our tents: there are no fences and the animals can wander freely in and out. Ah! Some danger! Finally!
By animals, they seem to mean baboons. Admittedly baboons are pretty terrifying-looking apes and I wouldn’t want to share a Twix with one; they make a noise like something out of science-fiction and the colour of their behinds adds to the sense that these are ‘made-up’ animals and that the bush has got you hallucinating. The greatest danger here is that a fearless and fearsome baboon will sniff out said Twix, burst into your tent and shred your bags and personal effects until it has devoured everything to its satisfaction. But I too am edible – and there are plenty of edible creatures roaming around out there – the opportunity of a good, gory feast is all around and yet everyone seems quite content watching a cheeky monkey steal into the lodge’s reception and pinch a biscuit.
Dusk falls and we set out once again – freezing once again – but this time, at least, prepared. Wrapped more as if for hiking in Norway, we bump along the well-worn tracks silently, either defeated by the dullness of this morning’s sortie or hushed in anticipation of the night’s offerings. Michael, the guide, is uncharacteristically quiet, but you get the sense that he knows far more than he lets on, that he is discreetly mocking our desire to see. Tonight he gives away a frisson, which is strangely warming.
After some time we grind up a steep incline to a more wooded area, drift-slide round a sandy bend, at which point Michael shuts off the engine and lights and we are plunged not only into darkness but deep into the cacophony of the bush night chorus; cicadas rhythmically underthrumming the irregular grunts and howls soaring up into the clear and starry night. A dark, dramatic finger is raised from the driver’s seat, ‘Ssh! Can you hear it?’. There is a noise above the others, or rather well muffled underneath them, that he waits for us to single out; a panting, groaning, crunching. It is close.
As quietly as he can Michael starts up the vehicle, lights still off, and rolls us a few feet further into the trees and stops again. Again the finger. Again we wait, still. Suddenly, as if rehearsed, the lights of the jeep beam up to reveal a lone female lion in the scrub, face first in the day-old carcass of a wildebeest. At first it looks like one creature – the body of a lion with a bloodied, lifeless, dark-horned head. The light does not distract her but in her own time she pulls up to tear at flesh and reveals her red-stained killers mask, the eyes catching and beaming back an animal fire of pure bright green-white. The smell now wafting over from the feast is strong and revolting – like a sun-baked, abandoned butcher’s counter – how we didn’t smell this from the camp several miles away is a mystery – but it is not this that causes the breathless silence. It is the most awesome sight – the most visceral gorging – pure muscle and bone in slow, methodical grind. The sound of the mouth, of the satisfied stomach – an amplified gourmand’s guttural delight – the potent cloud of rotting meat – this noir scene, bright lit against the pitch-dark backdrop of night – is both thrilling and oddly calming. It makes sense. The blood makes sense.