When the animals started drying up and the scenery became repetitive, there was always the bird life, which even in the heat of the afternoon was lively.
Grey hornbills, hooting its characteristic call in the trees and flying in a sinusoidal pattern between trees; the hook of their outsize bill arcing upwards, their body arcing down as if a counterweight. Across the road, occasional flocks of guinea fowl would streak across the road in perpetual fear, and the more assured francolins would almost commit suicide by trying to stop your vehicle to protect their mates.
Francolins are as common in so much of Africa as pigeons are in Britain. They are related to partridge, rather dumpy little bodies with tapering necks to a rather thin face and little plump legs. I am generalising terribly here as there must be a couple of dozen species but the Natal francolin is the one I saw most often in Kruger. One bird book describes the francolin as “cryptically coloured”,
and I must admit the myriad colours can make it well camouflaged in a range of habitats. I remember one time that day I saw a male bird darting around on the road. As my interest in seeking elusive mammals out had waned, I stopped and observed this creature, who once I had stopped ceased to move to. So caught up in its jerky head movements, sizing the white Bucky up and down, that it was not until I was about to start the engine again that I noticed an eye blinking in a tuft of grass at the road side. A female francolin was hiding there while her male distracted me, and at her feet, four tiny chicks huddled together to avoid detection.
That I had started looking the birdlife confirmed that I was beginning to mature on safari. I knew when I got to look at every single insect and grass blade along the way I had become too obsessed, but now I was happy not only to search out the big game but start to appreciate the whole ecosystem I was passing through. I remember my first time ever on safari was a number of years previously when I had the tame experience of visiting Nairobi National Park. I was spending a couple of weeks at the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi to help a tsetse control team, headed by Robin Reid and Russ Kruska, with some remote sensing interpretation of the Ghibe Valley in Ethiopia. Living inside the heavily guarded compound was incredible; the neatly cut grass, the spacious rooms were luxury and the acceptable if a little pallid food in the restaurant was made up for by a well stocked bar in the adjoining room. I had some of the most amazing evenings out there; if I timed it right a whole bunch of students, visiting researchers and old timers who had no other social or family life would meet up in that bar and decide which restaurant it was going to be that night. I had the best Indian food ever in a place near Westlands. I had Japanese food, traditionally served by waiters in Kimono’s and stocking feet, even though they were Kenyan. I ate near the great casino out of the town centre. I was serenaded by a bunch of Ghurkha pipers in the Hard Rock Café in the heart of town. We danced the night away at various seedy clubs out west, and ate at the famous Carnivores; my first tastes of giraffe, wildebeest and ostrich. I had a bight of crocodile too. Unfortunately the tough meat needs marinating for three days and the taste of all these was of the marinade rather than the animal.