Next morning after a surprisingly easy sleep, I awoke to a five o’clock alarm, and gathered my pieces together to head for the Bucky . I thought I would try and beat the rush but first rays of the new day were already reflecting on the vegetation around the camp. The air was cool, dew filled my windscreen and my breathe was visible as I loaded the car. I drove out of the little driveway next to the rondavel I had slept in and found myself in a queue of thirty cars, all waiting for the gate to be open. Many of them revved their engines and it was more like being in a traffic jam in the centre of Johannesburg than out in the wildest African Bush. The sun was almost visible when the guards put down their coffees and sauntered out of their shed. They pulled back the big wooden gates and cars, camper vans and 4×4’s charged out onto the open road.
For about a mile there was only one turn off and the majority of the cars headed west. As more and more turns arrived, the line of vehicles gradually broke apart but all the way along, any advantage in getting out while the animals were active was ruined by the noise and fumes from the traffic jam. I sought the path with least cars on it and drove westwards. The first animals I saw were a small herd of wildebeest along the roadside. I turned south and noticed a whole bunch of vehicles dashing at twice the speed limit in my direction. One passenger leant over as they drove past and said in a strong boerish accent “Lion – just got it on the radio”. It seems many spotters were using CB or walkie talkie radios to communicate with each other, and if they saw something, would broadcast around. Half because I had yet to see a lion on this trip and half for curiosity at how this was going to play out, I set off in the direction of the speeding cars. I needed no guide to pinpoint where the lion was; about a hundred cars were parked up along the roadside, many still with their engines running smogging up the landscape. Looking south east into the sun, I could make out the large form of a female, padding gently through the acacia. Clearly somewhat disturbed by the attention she was attracting she was trying her best to disappear into the scrub, but several people were offroading and following her movements, almost cutting off any escape routes. I managed to take a very poor photo but then realised this was not what I had come to see – it was no better than a safari park or zoo. I turned the Bucky around and headed away from this ghastly scene.
Although the traffic was still heavy, it was more spread out and easy going on the next stretch and I saw some of the most wonderful sights in the next hour. To one side was one of my favourite antelope, the kudu. Tall and erect they stand, their dark brown bodies contrasting with a series of stripes from the top of their backs; their long white socks standing out against the tall grass. The males have fantastic horns and their manes look neatly manicured. I saw more wildebeest – a large herd trooping across the grass. Zebra grazing in amongst them, impala everywhere. I stopped abruptly a I saw the head of an enormous bird peer above the grass on the right. It stalked deliberately through the grass, its top bobbing up and down. Cautiously, I stood up in the Bucky and leant out of the window, hoping no leopard was sitting at my feet ready to lunge at my throat. This curious bird was the a cross between an eagle and a heron, but much larger than both. It had a mottled brown back. I could just make out a white underbelly and some black markings on the wing. Its neck was the most amazing thing though, it was a black and white pattern that extended the full length and was so thick, nearly half the girth of the bird’s body. Its head sat atop the neck with no junction, the long pointed beak reaching out in front as far as a feathery crest stood out backwards. I had never seen the like of it before and could not find it in my field guide. Only when I got back to Irene did I discover what I had seen was a Kori Bustard, the largest of all bustards. At almost three feet high it is an imposing bird and kind of reminds you where the dinosaurs ended up.
My safariing maturing all the time, I felt less of a need to rush around finding the big five. When I reached the next waterhole a mile or two on, I was treated to some interesting theatre. First I noticed a family or two of wildebeest hanging around, neither eating or drinking. I was surprised they just seemed to be standing there but I eventually worked out that a family of jackal were ambushing them from behind a grassless knoll. Two or three would come running out and try to get to a small calf in the middle of the huddle. The older wildebeest would charge back at the jackals, fighting off their teasing and snapping while others would ensure the calf was never left unprotected. The jackals would then retreat, regroup and recharge. I watched this for about twenty minutes, the jackals trying all manner of tricks to distract the older beasts, but unlike many of the Natural History TV programmes, it was the prey that got the upper hand on this occasion, the oldest male in particular showing a lot of bravery in charging a pack of jackals in one go; once he managed to flit a jackal, causing the dog to scuttle over backwards and leap out of the way of further injury.
Eventually, the main huddle of wildebeest managed to remove themselves from the harassing jackals and only the old male, invincible, was left to see that the dogs did not follow further. I moved on too. The morning was already advancing, the sun was high in the sky and I was less than twenty kilometres from Olifant’s . This little road close to the Mozambique border had many secrets to let up. There were ostrich out in the scrub. Just beyond the landscape opened up to a wide plain of tall grass. In the little Bucky I could see nothing. A camper van was stopped up ahead and the occupants were looking through the roof into the grass. Out of curiosity I stopped the car and leant out of the window. The van driver looked over at me and hoarsely whispered “cheetah”. I drew myself steadily up through the window, ensuring I had a firm purchase on my door and looked down in to the grass. About three feet away, a pair of cheetah were nonchalantly walking through the grass, taking no notice whatsoever of me. The most elegant of all the big cats, the super sleek bodies were magnificent, their intelligent wily faces concentrating on where they were headed. Almost within an instant they had merged back into the grass. They were the first cheetah I had ever seen in the wild and I was amazed at how close I had come to not seeing them at all. I was also proud that I had shared this experience with only one other vehicle, the memory of how the lion meeting went that morning and how I have heard of vans taunting cheetahs in the Kenyan parks haunted me. Cheetah are daytime hunters and having hundreds of spectators trailing them across the Masai Mara all day means they do not get a chance to stalk and can go hungry day after day. Here at least there was enough cover to escape the humans and stalk their prey.