On the bluff above me, two, back-swept, scimitar horns emerged, riding on the crown of an ebony horse-goat – a bull sable, Africa’s most magnificent antelope. The ridged horns must be four feet long, sturdy enough to skewer a lion.
The bull dashed in front of our vehicle and his harem of shorter-horned females thundered after on their way to drink at the Chobe River.
Swerving to avoid the herd, we hurtled over the sandy path inland where a tower of giraffes stood frozen, one long row of necks protruding above the camel thorn canopies. All heads pointed to a bush where a pride of lions slept.
I wondered if the claw marks on our hull belonged to this pride. Lions often stalked their dinner by taking cover behind the rover. Curious males once jumped up the hood and a brash nomad shoved his paw through the window. Youngsters chewed on the tires and batted the headlights.
And that’s not counting grumpy elephants, rhinos, buffaloes and giraffes who took turns trying to squish the vehicle flat.
Incredibly, I spent most of my 16-day safari in this steel box on wheels, jolting across six national parks over 10,000 kilometers of desert, karoos, savannahs and velds.
From South Africa’s Kruger in Limpopo, I travelled to Golden Gate Highlands in the Free State, passing through Mokala in Northern Cape and Karoo in Western Cape.
I turned back to the Northern Cape in Upington, at the edge of the Kalahari, to reach Gaborone, Botswana’s capital, to the Southeast, crossing the nation’s heart to Makgadikgadi Salt Pans, all the way North to Chobe, which famous explorer David Livingstone visited before he became the first white man to see Victoria Falls, “the smoke that thunders”.
Prior to hitting the road, I volunteered in Gansbaii, diving with great white sharks and took care of white lions and tigers in Thabazimbi. On my days off, I explored neighboring Pilanesberg and Marakele national parks.
Now, I discovered the corridor through the veld was equally dangerous as its Big Five (lion, leopard, buffalo, hippo, elephant). In the fringes of the red desert, our back tires exploded. Night-driving through Botswana, a one-ton long-horned bull flew over our windshield after colliding with the car ahead.
On average, safari guides drive 200 kilometers daily. Mine drove 500 to 800 kilometers most days, hopping from one national park to the next. Too much to see, too little time, he lamented.
Anyway, even in transit, everyday was a game drive. Elephants, giraffes and gemsbok browsed on the road between fields of sunflowers and seas of ripening sorghum. Ostriches and Kudus sprinted beside our vehicle. In the cities, warthogs rooted among the garbage and mongoose packs foraged in the marketplace.
As soon as we reached each campsite, I pitched my tent and took it down by first light, trudging about in boots to avoid scorpions, zipping my door flaps against creepy crawlies – from sac spiders to black mambas.
Big predators always prowled close by. South Africa’s camps are fenced unlike Botswana’s. Yet leopards jump over the fences, elephants bulldoze through the barriers and warthogs dig under, paving the way for bigger critters. In the end, you can’t keep anything out.
Every night, jackals and hyenas serenaded me. They raided the camps, dragging away shoes, pots and pans – if they don’t bite off the faces of sleeping humans.
Leopards warmed themselves by the bonfire or snuggled up to people. Lions slept next to the tents and stole pillows and mattresses. Elephants sucked water from the swimming pools and squabbled with other herds for drinking rights.
By day, rest areas and picnic sites teemed with Blue-eared Glossy Starlings, “flying bananas” – Southern Yellow-billed Hornbills who imprison their mates inside their tree hole nests till the chicks fledge and Fork-tailed Drongos who mimic the alarm calls of meerkats so they’ll drop their catch for the birds to snatch.
Botswana and Kenya’s national bird – one of the most beautiful in the world – the Lilac-breasted Roller is my favourite. The brightly-coloured, crow-sized, insect-eating acrobat twirl and somersault in mid-air to court his mate and battle eagles to defend his nest.
Africa also hosts the gaudiest raptor on earth – the Bateleur (Street Performer in French) eagle, with a black body, red face, bill and legs. Bateleurs rode the thermals, gliding without flapping their wings for hours.
Overall, 500 bird species reside in the biggest parks – Kruger and Chobe. Regularly, I saw African fish eagles – the national bird of Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Sudan, diving for lunch or stealing from herons, shrilling, “Heee-ah! Heee-ah!”
By the river banks, cape vultures cleaned off carcasses and bleached bones. Verreaux – Black Eagles and Martial eagles dive-bombed antelope.
Even the parks’ souvenir shops served as wildlife hangouts. Tuskers frequented Kruger’s Lower Sabie depot and deer browsed between its picnic tables. Nowhere else but in Chobe can you meet lions and leopards in the public restrooms.
No wonder, every year, millions of visitors flock to Kruger to see the superstar cats and to Chobe, to see Kalahari elephants.
Kruger is home to over 2,500 of the 20,000 lions remaining in the planet. Their game stocks likewise include 2,000 leopards, 500 cheetahs, 4,000 spotted hyenas and 360 wild dogs.
The prey consists of over a million impalas, 5,000 giraffes, 30,000 zebras, 25,000 African buffaloes, 15,000 blue wildebeests, 4,000 white rhinos, 200 black rhinos and 3,000 hippos.
While Kruger’s 17,000 elephant population is nowhere close to Chobe, the world’s tusker capital, with over 120,000, officials in both parks are feeling overrun. They’re closing artificial waterholes and considering culling – killing complete breeding herds – to control their numbers.
Kalahari elephants grow 12 feet tall and weigh 15,400 pounds. Adults consume 400-700 pounds of food and drink 80 gallons of water daily throughout their 50-70 year life spans.
Hungry herds uproot trees and strip their bark, converting wooded savannahs to scrub grasslands. This paves the way for grazers like zebras but destroys nesting sites for eagles and other birds.
Worse, rangers say Kruger can only sustain 7,500 elephants. The rest have to be slaughtered.
Already, they culled 15,000 elephants from 1967 -1995 until the practice was banned for wreaking havoc on the elephants’ collective psyche. The animals suffered Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, much like human victims of war, becoming hyper-aggressive rogues who murder people and destroy villages and farms.
“We still have too many elephants,” my guide gestured to the dead trees and trampled ground that hemmed us in. The herds even gouged the trunks of thousand-year old baobab trees.
“Soon, Kruger will cull 7,000 to make the park sustainable. We can’t relocate them. It costs a Million Rand (about P5 Million) to move a single elephant. Chobe insists they won’t cull but they’ll be forced to.”
I shuddered. Poachers are rampaging through neighbouring reserves in Mozambique, where aerial surveys counted 3,000 elephant carcasses. Illicit ivory trade doubled in the last half decade and 62 percent of elephants in Africa have been poached, decimating the population from 1.3 million to 600,000.
Rhinos fared no better. This year alone, poachers slaughtered 180 white rhinos in Kruger and the black rhino is almost extinct. In 2012, the park lost 700 although South African laws are so strict a poacher can sometimes receive a tougher punishment for killing a rhino than for killing a person.
Of course, tourists don’t see the nonstop battles between poachers and rangers. But they rage on, all the same, exacting human fatalities on both sides alongside butchered behemoths with horns and tusks sawed off, lions entangled in snares, dying of thirst in untold agony within a few feet of watering holes.
But for now, I gawked at thousands of Kalahari elephants on the move across the Kasikili Island between Botswana and Namibia.
Cruising down the Chobe River, I counted more tuskers paddling across the blue waters into the floating expanse of grass, mixing with great herds of buffaloes, zebras, various antelopes – lechwe, waterbucks, tsessebe and eland.
On the outskirts, hippos wallowed and crocodiles basked with mouths open as water birds darted about.
Chobe is the last place where elephants can roam freely over vast, unfenced areas. The behemoths occupy a home range of 2.8 million hectares, traversing four countries in a single season in 600 kilometer “mini-migrations” following the rains.
The 25,000 zebras also move en masse 600-kilometers from Botswana’s Okavango Delta to the Makgadikgadi grasslands and back again to find grazing.
It’s the second largest mass migration after Kenya’s Masai Mara and Tanzania’s Serengeti and just as spectacular though not as well known.
Somehow, I managed to get up close to the rhinos, buffaloes and tuskers – within slamming distance, to be precise, though some still flinched at the rapid-fire click of shutters, flapping their ears and stomping.
As I snapped away inside a hide by the waterhole in Chobe, a matriarch sneaked her trunk in the opening to pluck my camera. Good I ducked in time and she didn’t suck up water to hose me down in vengeance.
A hyena attempted to nudge me with his nose after I mimicked his brother’s call and a nomadic lion came close enough to touch when I hummed a feline greeting at him.
But I never expected a whole pride will turn up in my camp.
On my last night, lions chased a bull sable drinking from our waterhole and vanished into the scrub. Exhausted, I retired to my tent early but woke with a start after several hours.
The silence deafened me. Big predators must be prowling around. I crawled out of my sleeping bag and lifted my door flap. Darkness devoured the whole camp. We have a blackout.
Then I heard the faint grunts. Familiar shapes padded not far from me. Lions!
They must be the same ones hunting the sable. Only their prey must have gotten away, otherwise, they won’t be here.
I shut my door flap and waited. The nearest tent is too far. No use shouting and provoking the cats. It didn’t even cross my mind to be scared though I felt like a sitting duck.
I’ve lived with lions thrice. Playing with them, touching them everyday, you forget how dangerous they are.
Problem is, I don’t know these marauders. I can’t see their faces to gauge their intent. And they could be man-eaters.
Lions in Kruger have devoured at least 3,000 illegal immigrants from the borders. It’s no consolation I’m in Botswana now. All big cats are opportunistic predators who favour easy kills like slow, noisy creatures who blunder on their path.
One lion broke off to inspect my tent. I could hear him sniffing around. The canvas bulged where he pressed his half ton self against it. With a single swipe of his paw, he can slash the tent to bits.
I wonder: Do I throw my blanket over his head? It can distract him for awhile. Lions love mattresses and rustling sheets. Question is: Can I move fast enough? And will the rest of his pride pounce?
I don’t want to harm the lions.
As for the prospect of being eaten alive, I know it doesn’t hurt much. I’ve been badly bitten by a 250-pound mountain lion before. Their teeth’s so sharp you can’t feel anything though you’re fully aware of your flesh tearing.
Suddenly, a primal scream tore the silence. Bodies thudded on the ground. More scuffles, horrible growls. The weight on my tent lifted as the lion bounded away.
“Lions got the sable after all,” neighbouring campers buzzed excitedly at breakfast.
No, it’s not the magnificent harem-master I first saw. The cats caught a young male who strayed from his bachelor’s group.
Nobody roots for Bambi in the bush though prey sometimes kill their predators. One sable run his scimitar horns through a lion, broke his neck in the act and perished with his hunter.
Last night, the odds favoured the cats – and me, in a way.
I didn’t look for trouble. Just being in this wild Paradise, the last stand of many endangered animals, is peril enough.
At least, I came out of my great African adventure alive.
(Reprinted from my story published at Animal Scene Magazine.)