“When a man is denied the right to live the life he believes in, he has no choice but to become an outlaw.”
― Nelson Mandela
An African winter sun was ascending as our Airbus began its descent into Johannesburg, leaving a two-tiered, radiant orange and blue line across the horizon. The beauty of our planet is glorious and unparalleled, yet we are reminded that it is the worldwide heat and polluted air that enhances the vivid orange.
As I looked down over the arid land and diverse structures that lie outside of the central city, I thought of the oppressors and the oppressed that is the recent past of South Africa and the present in many parts of the world. Since leaving my home country a week ago, thirty-eight people have died from three separate, racially motivated aggregate shootings. Global racism and anti-Semitism is alive and well.
Within ninety minutes of our arrival, we came to Liliesleaf, the site where
six of the eventual Rovonia trialists, including Nelson Mandela, were arrested for plotting to overthrow the apartheid government. Billed “A Place of Liberation,” Liliesleaf was used by members of the liberation movement while underground for a period of twenty-two months from October 1961 to July 1963.
Now surrounded by third world suburbia, the Liliesleaf compound is a grouping of nondescript buildings containing historical exhibits, including a safari tourist vehicle that was used to smuggle guns into the country. It was daunting to stand in the one room stucco and thatched-roof building, with only a single bed and small wooden desk inside, that served as a hiding place for Nelson Mandela, masquerading as a gardener.
On July 11, 1963, Liliesleaf was raided by authorities and thirteen men; six native Africans, five South African Jews, including Liliesleaf owner Arthur Goldreich, a muslim and an Englishman were arrested.
How they were discovered remains a mystery. It could have been the United States Central Intelligence Agency who, because they were primarily Communists, had been monitoring the group or a local twelve-year-old African boy who became aware of vehicles coming and going and began recording specific information. The most likely scenario is that it came from within, prompting Mandela’s famous quote: “Nothing is black or white”.
All of the native African men were convicted and given life sentences. Nelson Mandela served twenty-seven years before being freed. Denis Goldberg, the leader of the Congress of Democrats, was the only white man convicted while the others escaped or were released and exiled.
In 1990, execution of a consulting contract with the City of Pasadena required signing an affidavit declaring that I was not affiliated with a company that was doing business with or in South Africa. The one-two punch of worldwide economic and political pressure delivered the fatal blow to the apartheid regime, but the movement began at Liliesleaf by individuals who were willing to risk everything for the freedom of the native people.
Into the Zulu Bushland
Our thoughts and mindset transitioned during the ninety minute flight to Durban, the third most populous South African City and the largest in the Kwa-Zulu-Natal province, where, in most areas, survival of the fittest applies to the people, not just the lions, elephants, rhinoceros, water buffalo and leopards, known as the “Big Five” of the Zulu bushland animals.
We were greeted by Siyanda, our driver who patiently waited while we ordered some airport food before undertaking a three-hour drive into the heart of the Zulu nation that was, for me, inordinately transformative. It would soon look and feel like the 21-Century Africa that I had envisioned
I learned to drive in California and can’t relate to anything different. I told Siyanda that I sometimes become unnerved while riding in a vehicle where the driver sits on the right side and that moves through traffic in opposite direction to what we do in the states, especially through a crowded airport.
“Ah yes,” he said with an inspired native accent, “just remember that the steering wheel is always in the middle, no matter where you are.”
We drove by fields of sugar cane, pineapples and managed eucalyptus forests that were mainly harvested for construction lumber and utility poles. Soon we passed native people selling fruit, men walking goats and cows, women carrying pots on their heads and babies on their backs, hitchhikers and young students in uniform, all walking along the busy highway that carried cars and trucks at high speed. It looked dangerous and chaotic, but they managed it all as a part of daily life.
Fifty years ago, I married the same woman twice in one year that, in the letter of the law, may constitute bigamy. I discovered that a Zulu man can have as many wives as he can afford, but the price for each bride is eleven cows. Engagements require only a few, but marraige doesn’t occur until the eleventh cow is delivered. Hearing that story made me wonder if the young men with short sticks, herding cows along the busy highway were about to make a payment to Zulu love’s lay-a-way plan.
After three hours in the van, our travel weary bodies were shaken into
alertness as Siyanda left the highway and drove off-road along a washboard trail for the last few miles that led us to the guarded gates of the Nyala Zulu Game Reserve. Named for an antelope and the local province, it would be our home for the next six days.
Stretching my legs, I stood in front of the van, looked out across the horizon and reflected for the first time that, not only was I in the continent, but I was about to explore the African bushland, something that I wasn’t certain I would ever do. Karen and I have the good fortune of maintaining the physical and mental passion to explore new things and let the world take us out of our comfort zones.
After a quick check-in to the Safari Lodge, we had little time to become familiar with our spacious suites, change our clothes and walk past the crocodile pen to the loading area. There we met Sandiso, our guide, and climbed into a ten passenger all-terrain vehicle to enter the reserve for a two-hour, late afternoon expedition.
Claiming that his name meant something like “unexpected arrival,” Sandiso explained that he was a twin, but the doctors did not realize that his mother was carrying two babies. His brother was delivered at the hospital and his mother was soon sent home where he was delivered a short time later. Whether or not we believed his tale, Sandiso’s knowledge and abilities as an animal tracker and off-road vehicle operator gained our trust within the first thirty minutes.
His six days on, four days off schedule had allowed him to pursue a degree in wild animal management and, throughout the week, as we were busy looking through a camera lens at these incredible beasts in their natural state, he willingly imparted facts about their behavior, what they ate, if, what and when they hunted, gestation periods and how they parented. He made it a true audio-visual experience.
Karen asked, “Sandiso, how long will the rhinosaures calf nurse?”
He smiled and said, “Until the baby’s horn grows to five centimeters. Then the mother gets tired of being poked in her belly and decides that it’s time for the young one to start eating grass.”
One early morning, we caught the mother and calf still asleep in a small clearing surrounded by native needle bushes. The young one was cuddled into his mother the way our babies do. The adult rhino was patient,
affectionate and enormously protective from any perceived or real threat. They are too large to be threatened by other animals, with the rare exception of an attack by a large pride of hungry lions or hyenas, who are generally satisfied with hunting smaller antelope or impala.
I asked Sandiso, “How many rhinos live in this reserve?”
“We are not permitted to reveal the number of rhinos at this or any reserve,” he said.
The biggest threat to all rhinos are still illegal poachers who kill them for
their horns that are viewed as an aphrodisiac in some Asian countries. To save the animals lives, many preservationists saw off their horns. Unfortunately, the only options are often disfigurement or death.
Early one morning while scanning the wormberry bushes in the larger Hluhluwe Game Reserve, we came across a young calf standing next its mother who had a fully developed horn. The enormity of the rare majestic site took my breath away as I quietly scurried to capture it on film and gained a renewed realization of the desperate need to preserve them from extinction by humans.
The face of my phone read 5:12 AM and the smell of Karen’s
fresh coffee permeated the air of our open room. The alarms from our iPhones chimed simultaneously, each with a distinct ringtone. When we have to get up early, both alarms are set as a safeguard against one of us accidentally pushing the PM button. Experience tells us it’s the smart thing to do.
Some mornings I jumped into the shower, but most were about throwing some cold water on my face, brushing my teeth and stepping into clothes
that were laid out the night before. Shaving wouldn’t be necessary until we returned to Johannesburg the next week.
I allowed twelve minutes for the walk from our room to the loading area, Karen claimed it took no more than seven. It was important for me to be on time, not just as a courtesy to the others in our vehicle, but to be loaded and moving into the game reserve as the sun was rising.
Sandiso said, “When the sun come up and when it go down is the best time to see the animals.”
The coffee woke me up, then the morning air chill, the vibration of a rutted dirt road and the adrenaline of anticipation made me exceptionally alert for the early hour. Each trip into the bushland had been a different experience that left me wanting more and the dawn was about to deliver.
Minutes into the light, we came upon a meadow of dormant grass, shrubs and a few marula trees that provided a panorama that was natural for the animals, but both extraordinary and alluring for me.
Zebras, impalas, nyalas and a few wildebeest shared the pasture; eating, playing or just passing through. I was in an hypnotic trance watching and
photographing the various species intermingle harmoniously, all focused on surviving another day. We were most familiar with seeing South African animals in a zoo where they are usually segregated by species into sterilized enclosures made to look native.
Capturing three zebras in a rare full trot was my prize shot of the moment, but as this “day in the life of” scene emerged, the impalas and nyala antelopes stood out as innately
nervous, always looking over their shoulders, ears out as antennas. This is because they are continuously hunted by one cheetah, the only predator cat within the reserve. It is estimated that it can easily kill and eat one hundred antelope in a year.
The most feared predators in South Africa are lions, hyenas, leopards and cheetahs, in that order. The presence of a just a few of the first three at the
small five-thousand hectare Zulu Nyala Reserve would eliminate the entire antelope and a good portion of the warthog population in less than a year. This magnified the intrigue of our trip to the Hluhluwe Game Reserve in a few days to search out the lions.
Sandiso asked the group a question, then answered it. “What do the most-feared predators fear?” They fear injury, so they tend to prey on something easy and more their own size.”
The large animals like rhinoceros, giraffe, elephants and hippopotamus are vegetarian and passive except when they feel threatened. When they roamed freely before they existed only in reserves, hippopotamus killed more people annually than any other animal. The size and potential
destructive abilities of the larger creatures secures them a safe place in the natural order. Aside from an occasional baby warthog, before their tusks have developed, the cats prefer to hunt antelopes. They are harder to catch, but offer convenience and limited risk of injury.
“How do the cheetahs hunt when they are pregnant?” I asked.
“Ah, good question,” said Sandiso. “They only have three-month gestation and can have up to four cubs. They can still hunt some of that time and also rely on small animals and rodents.”
Even with Sandiso’s skill and knowledge, we could not be assured of
spotting the reserve’s sole predatory cat. It was constantly moving and trying to be as discreet as possible. Fortunately, over three separate days, our glimpses of the cheetah advanced from some faint spots, obscured by indigenous brush to a sighting of the immediate aftermath of a successful hunt.
Still committed to finding the cheetah on the second day into the reserve, Sandiso found him for a face-to-face view, calm and sitting in the dry grass, sensory vigilant while enjoying a personal tongue bath. It never acknowledged our presence, less than thirty feet away. As it indulged us, I experimented with the various telephoto settings on my new camera and tried to capture its unrefined dignity.
Early the next morning, we encountered two cheetahs on the other side of the fence, in a neighboring reserve. Sandiso explained they often come looking for our cheetah to feel close and visit through the wire. He was devoted to us seeing the cheetahs in motion and decided to come to this
spot first. As we remained still and quiet, the visiting cats tuned us out and waited patiently, but their friend never showed up. Later that morning, before returning to the lodge, we would discover why.
“Wait, cheetah back on the left,” shouted one of our group members, as everyone’s eyes followed the tip of his finger pointing toward a small opening in the encroaching growth.
It was there, camouflaged into the surroundings and our presence seemed to be disturbing. With its bloody mouth secured to the neck of the fresh kill, the cheetah then lifted and dragged the dead impala across a clearing to a more concealed setting to finish its meal. The moment was brief, but a drastic departure from the graceful, dignified creature we watched earlier, enjoying a tongue bath.
During the afternoon expedition, after conferring on his radio, Sandiso quickly backed our vehicle down the makeshift road and headed to higher ground on the westside of the reserve. A group of adult giraffes, called a
tower, and a few calves were seen feeding in an opening close to the road.
As we approached, the strange looking heads atop long spotted necks became visible long before our vehicle found a safe place to stop. The tower of giraffes resembled Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers,” patches of brown and gold with vertical stems reaching up in different directions.
They were silent and deliberate as they chewed on leaves from the acacia trees, but their size and power was always on display. Fully grown giraffes have the body of a horse with added six-foot-long neck and legs. Life, for the young calves, begins with a six-foot drop to the dry, hard ground.
Watching for several minutes and photographing them at various camera
settings, I noticed giraffes began to look like that weird person at a party that doesn’t get it. Later, after encountering a large adult on the road, we were visually inspired with the sight of it moving away in the knock-kneed gallop before retreating into the brush.
With time remaining, we made a late stop by a large pond hoping to see hippos out of the water. They only venture out after dusk because their skin is extremely susceptible to sunburn. Today, we were too early and, although quite present, they remained submerged, eerily floating with just their pink eyes and ears exposed.
Adult hippos can hold their breath underwater for up to ten minutes and often allow young calves to ride them “hippo-back” as they remain
submerged. The need for mom to come up for air is humorously disturbing to the calf, who is startled by being thrown back into the water, only to climb back on and repeat the process.
We would come back to the watering hole another day. Sandiso’s desire to see the hippos out of the water led him to schedule a later departure time for the last day of our expedition that would allow us to remain in the reserve after dark.
He then was informed by a colleague via radio that three elephants had
been seen walking through a densely vegetated valley near the Northwest border. In the few minutes that we had left, he decided not to drive to where they were spotted, but where they were likely going.
Soon after stopping the vehicle and quietly waiting, we heard the crackle of breaking tree branches and watched the smaller treetops disappear behind the lower shrubbery. The elephants were close.
Sandiso had strategically positioned us at the point where the elephants would emerge from the thick flora to cross the road. He understood that if we were in their path that they would move around us as long as we remained quiet and still. We remained both as the sounds of movement got
louder and momentary patches of grey flashed contrast against the emerald sheen of late winter foliage.
In an instant, the elephants were upon us, massive in size, on a brisk walk to somewhere. They were so close to our open seats that we could see their eyes checking us out as they predictably changed directions and passed in front of the vehicle.
My heart pounded and my arms were paralyzed but luckily in a camera
ready position. My fingers managed to move rapidly, hoping to capture a special moment, one shot that I could treasure. Little did I know at the time, but future immersions with large herds of elephants were on the horizon.
Among the lions
We stepped into the truck at 5:15 AM, nearly an hour before the sun came up. Sandiso pulled the canvas over one side of the vehicle, making it a bit warmer, but movement sucked in the frigid night air and pushed us to zip up our down parkas, pull up our hoodies and cuddle together in the corner of the backseat. The 96,000 hectare Hluhluwe Game Reserve, the oldest in South Africa, was forty minutes away and we had no time to waste.
“If we want to see the lions, we must be there early,” insisted Sandiso.
It was dark and cold, the noise was piercing and the turbulence unsettling as we rambled through somewhere in the middle of nowhere, guided only by two headlights and a man who understood the land and the creatures who inhabited it. The truck strained at higher speeds and the all-terrain tires caromed across the surface of the dirt road, pitted from winter rains and hardened by the sun. None of it was about being comfortable, all of it was about being adventurous and trusting.
Still dark, at one point we slowed, then stopped. Eager to know why, I pulled back the corner of the canvas to find a sizable herd of cattle had engulfed the road and surrounded our vehicle. I wondered if they were moving to another pasture, a bigger watering hole or if the young Zulu shepherd was trying to marry every young woman in the village.
Well-timed with entering our destination, the glow of the early morning sun was welcomed by all who had risen in the middle of the night to be tossed around in the back of a bitterly cold truck with no explanation of what was immediately happening. Questions were futile because we couldn’t hear each other over the racket. With that behind us, our adventurous and trusting spirit took over and the focus turned to finding our Simba. Actually, our aim was to warm up, be observant in our seats and rely on Sandiso to do the finding.
Another reason for arriving early stemmed from the larger reserve’s status as a national park. Unlike our uncrowded private reserve, anyone could
pay the entrance fee and drive in. In minutes, we came upon a half dozen vehicles, a mixture of all-terrain types, like ours, and compact cars from Japan and China, parked randomly on the narrow pavement. It was a clear indication that something special was nearby and the fortunes of timing were upon us. Lions, four females and one large male, looking like Leo the Lion from the Metro-Goldywn-Mayer logo, were fifty meters out, moving and playing in the dried brush that nearly concealed them, playing havoc with the auto focus of my camera. With each movement, the lens, confused, would alternate the focus from brush to beast and back.
When I got a clear sighting, I noticed that one of the females was wearing a handsome blue collar with a device attached that looked like the newest model iWatch.
Sandiso explained that it was a tracking device that they put on many of the large cats to monitor their movements and their safety. He reminded us that the animals were well protected, but 96,000 hectares was a large area to patrol and poachers were still a problem.
Reasoning that this would be my best prospect, I spent the next quarter hour stalking them through a six-hundred millimeter telephoto lens from a hard front row seat. The first instinct was a volume shoot and I quickly snapped off dozens of photos with the hope that one would be good enough to keep.
Lions will make short stops to rest and allow the young adolescents time to wrestle or micro-sleep, but they are mostly on the move. Within a few minutes, they had advanced from the nearby brush to a higher ridge, a quarter mile away. As had Sandiso with the tracking, the telephoto lens performed well and carried most of the weight with my photography, leaving me with many more new shots and a overrated sense of my real skill.
Within the first hour, I checked another box among things I needed to do and see in South Africa. When sharing future tales of my exploits, inquiries about the lions would be first and foremost and the thought of saying, “No, we didn’t see any lions this time,” was unimaginable.
Thinking that the party was over, most vehicles left to explore the landscape in search of other animals. Only Sandiso and one other guide drove to a spot five hundred meters up the road and parked. The lions were no longer visible and most likely out of camera range if they were. After patiently waiting in silence, we soon realized that with extended knowledge of the land and the ability to think out of the box, the two guides made an educated hunch that paid off for everyone.
A buzz of conversation began as the first people spotted them and we all soon became aware that the all five lions had emerged from the brush and were slowly walking in our direction. A sudden shortening of breath and accelerated pulse indicated that my body and mind had distinguished between watching them play from afar and watching them casually walk toward us.
I said, “So Sandiso, what are we looking at here?
“We’re fine,” he said. “They are no longer concerned with the vehicles and will essentially ignore us.”
“Essentially?“ I said. “So, as long as everyone stays in the vehicle, we’ll be okay?”
Sandiso smiled. “Of course.”
That was the reassurance I needed, then he told us that lions are opportunists and will “convenience kill” even when they are not hungry. The concept of convenience killing would have been better discussed at another time.
Without the need of the telephoto lens, I leaned on the rail of the truck and
captured images of our feline friends as they walked by us. Although we weren’t acknowledged, they surely sensed us and, in some ways, trusted us. I tried to honor that trust, but, at times, felt like an invasive paparazzi as our vehicle crept slowly, and for the next thirty minutes, followed them as they meandered up the trail.
At one point, the male stopped to relieve himself, so we stopped, only to start moving again when he did. In a way, it was comical, reminding me of an I Love Lucy television show sketch. It was hard to distinguish if they were completely ignoring us or putting on a show, but the sight of these
creatures, at the top of the food chain, roaming freely around us, never fell short of amazing.
As we began to fully trust the moment, Sandiso injected another “survival of the fittest” anecdote as he explained that every antelope in the vicinity, those near the bottom of the food chain, sensed the lion’s presence.
Shortly after he mentioned it, several antelope, grazing in an overgrown meadow caught my eye and the attention of one of the female lions who, body slumped and head lowered, slowly entered the thick brush and instantly disappeared. Females do most of the hunting, but this unexpected scenario was about to become remarkable kinetic art.
Understanding that the end result could be gruesome, I switched my camera to video mode, focused on the innocent antelope and waited for the
scene to unfold. With natural order, it was routine in the life of South African animals and I justified to myself that the potential images would be nothing more than I had seen in Disney nature films growing up.
Suddenly, there was an unfamiliar
noise coming from the meadow, strange like nothing that I had heard before. The video camera captured a deep, guttural sound, one created by a sudden and forceful exhale of air through the snout. As my right eye continued to monitor the storyline through a lens, I heard Sandiso speak.
“It is the antelopes sounding their warning signals,” he said.
Immediately, the heads of each of the antelope lifted and their ears stuck out in a ninety-degree angle, twisting like a radar antenna seeking the clearest signal. Antelope do not run, they swiftly leap and bounce along like they have springs on the bottom of their hoofs. I captured the visual ballet of several antelope, randomly pirouetting through the tall grass, vaulting high, then disappearing out of view as the female lion, at full sprint, entered from a nearby clearing.
In a fleeting moment, the commotion ended when the lion stopped in a flurry of dust to either enjoy what remained of the antelope dance or contemplate an opportunity lost. There would be no dinner or convenience kill this time. Calmness returned quickly and we continued to follow the lion’s journey up the trail for a few more minutes before leaving the area. Much of the reserve, home to over seven hundred elephants and large flocks of water buffalo and wildebeest, needed to be explored in our remaining time.
As we departed, Sandiso yelled something in his native language to the other guide, who decided to wait with him for the lions to return. They both smiled and directed waves of acknowledgement toward each other before driving off in different directions. Curious as to why their strategy to wait for the lions worked, I asked Sandiso if he knew the other guide.
“He is my brother.”
Pursuing his answer further, I discovered that the other guide was, in fact, Sandiso’s twin brother, the older one who was born hours before in the hospital. Their genetic instincts and shared passion added a window of opportunity and realism to the morning that exceeded all my expectations.
Beyond the Lions
As we moved through other parts of the Hluhluwe Game Reserve, I couldn’t get the lions out of my mind and feared that any new experiences would pale compared to those of our morning. That changed when moments later, we were looking at a small stream with water buffalo and wildebeests slowing moving up the mountain in the shallow flowing water that had carved a path among the rocks and boulders.
Within a minute Sandiso was ready to move on. For him, settling on this small migration as the ultimate photo opportunity was never an option. His instincts told him that the real prize was nearby and, like a badass, he shifted into reverse, darted backward down the path seeking an opportune opening for a one hundred eighty-degree turn and, like an arrow from a bow, sped off in a different direction.
Sandiso could have relaxed and we would have enjoyed photographing the
beasts walking up the creek bed. Instead, he read the signals that placed a large herd at a nearby watering hole and trusted that, holding on to our hats, we would accept his frantic driving as a means to an end. We did.
I am a fan of National Geographic nature photographer DeWitt Jones and have, in the past, used his videos for management training purposes. His message, expressed through extraordinary photographs, is not to settle. His masterpieces evolve after many attempts and an attitude that the best shot is still out there. He and Sandiso refuse to let good get in the way of great.
Our vehicle slowed amongst the flutter of hundreds of disturbed birds as the native brush and Cape Teak trees gave way to an opening that revealed hundreds of water buffalo and wildebeests gathered and paused to quench their thirst before traversing the mountain stream. It was as good as any National Geographic cover photo, but live, a natural daily occurrence in this part of the world.
The viridescent foliage was a contrast to the black and brown shades of the herd, the dark mud and murky green water in the foreground. A mosaic of native scrub on the nearby mountains served as a backdrop to the serene portrait that, for an instant, disguised the reality of natural selection. Water buffalo and wildebeest often travel together and today’s spectacle included a few curious white cranes. Grasping the concept of safety in numbers, the wildebeest may feel protected in the company of the enormous water buffalo who, in turn, understand the value of running side-by-side with an easier target when encountered by a pride of hungry lions.
The engaging outdoor panorama turned my reflections inward to thoughts of a recent conversation.
Weeks before leaving California, I was visiting a friend who had recently traveled to Africa. Of all her experiences, I asked that she describe one image that stood out.
She thought for a second.
“Ya know, all the animals were great, but one day we came upon a large herd of wildebeest crossing a river. The sight of hundreds of them
migrating together, carefully passing through the crocodile infested waters, will always be with me,” she said.
This was my moment, the cover photo of my African memories, the one that would always be with me. People who look at the photo will never comprehend that both the opportunity and the image was made possible by Sandiso’s skills and relentlessness. I was fortunate enough to push a button.
Artist Georgia O’Keefe once said, “I often painted fragments of things because it seemed to make my statement as well as or better than the whole could.”
Looking beyond my enchantment with the entire view, I managed to use my telephoto lens to capture the diversity of the herd and distinct facial
striations on the water buffalo that may have been overlooked from afar. It turns out that the ferocious looking water buffalo, one of South Africa’s “Big Five” feared creatures, spends much of its day eating grass, at ease with most other animals, large and small. Their horns resemble a ceremonial headdress or a large handlebar mustache or a weapon of destruction backed-up by size and brut strength. Differentiated from antlers, the horns stay with them for life and are the main reason that they are not an endangered species although humans continue to seek them as decoration and high-protein chewables for their
We moved on, continuing to explore the massive reserve and soon Sandiso pointed across a canyon to a sole elephant lumbering up the mountain.
“It has been separated from the herd and is finding its way back,” he said.
It is rare to see a single elephant, they generally move across the land in packs. Sensing that the beasts was nearby, Sandiso drove along the dirt path, then without explanation, stopped the vehicle and we waited in silence. The sole elephant herd at the Zulu Nyala Reserve totaled three, but this larger national park would, once again, deliver experiences beyond our expectations.
Sandiso’s expertise paid off again. Four elephants appeared on the road,
walking at a brisk pace. Soon there were ten, then a full herd of thirty elephants walking directly toward us before veering off on both sides of our vehicle into some tall vegetation that partially camouflaged them. There were adults of various sizes and young calves grasping their mother’s tail with their trunks. It was a classic nature film except we were present and immersed in yet another extraordinary escapade.
Immersed in Elephants
Elephants are matriarchal and the herds, ranging in size from three to thirty-five, are led by the oldest female. As they lumbered down the road, this commune, with prehensile trunks swaying from one side to the other, created a rumbling noise and vibrations in the earth. Approaching and now close, their aura was colossal, but there was also a gentle intimacy to the elephants as they forged a path together. Mammoth proportions aside, their steps were soft and they seemed to glide while cutting a large swath through whatever route they took.
I was reminded of the old Yogi Berra witticism, “When you reach the fork in the road, take it.” Elephants don’t need to choose, the right path is wherever they make it.
Held spellbound in the moment, we watched the herd leave the road and cross an open meadow before entering the tall grass that camouflaged all but the wrinkles atop their gray heads and backs. The calves disappeared from view all together leaving us to follow their movements through the
snap of breaking twigs along the newly blazed trail. Even with our presence, they pushed ahead steadily and walked with purpose, leaving no signs that they were stressed or intoxicated from the fruit of the nearby marula trees.
Marula trees are prevalent in many African countries and here in the KwaZulu-Natal province. Aside from offering a graceful silhouette against a fading sky, they produce tasty fruit, high in vitamin C, and some locals believe it makes the elephants “drunk.” The large fruit drops to the ground and, high in sugar content, ferments quickly. When food is scarce, elephants have been known to consume large amounts, become intoxicated and, like humans, act a little crazy, maybe flip a vehicle or two.
There were no signs of intoxication today and, although sensing and sighting us, they were for the most part, focused on traveling to another sector of the vast reserve. However, like homosapiens, there are always a few exceptions and we had, on separate occasions, experiences with an elephant who detected us as invaders and obstructionists.
With the last of the elephants moving beyond the horizon, Sandiso, as was his style, drove to another location then stopped on the road, signaling that we wait in silence. After several minutes, that snapping sound made by branches breaking signaled that the herd was, again nearby. The sounds
became louder and louder until the elephants emerged from the bushwillow shrubs and crossed the road in front of us. We were hearing “elephant damage,” a term used to describe a landscape bereft of trees after the presence of elephants. Loss of marula and knobthorn trees has prompted some conservationists to advocate managing elephant populations to save trees.
For the second time in an hour, we watched the herd cross the road without incident until one of the adults reluctantly stopped, glanced our way and shook her head.
As the tension persisted, Sandiso found a teaching moment. “She does not like us here and her body language is telling us to stay away. Watch her head and feet.”
I needed some reassurance from our leader. “Should we move?”
“No, she’ll figure it out.”
We stayed(hoping she would), fully trusting Sandiso’s judgment and proven ability to drive in reverse. Feeling secure with our retreat and surrender strategy, we sat back and watched the drama unfold.
At first the elephant’s abrupt movements caused her ears to flap against the enormous head and her trunk to sway, then point skyward before exhaling the baritone horn sound that we all know. This time, the sound surrounded us, piercing and personal. Then, like a bull before charging the toreador, she lifted her right forefoot and repeatedly scraped her toes along the
surface of the newly formed path that intersected the dirt road, head still swaying and ears thrashing about. Concerned that movement may escalate things further, Sandiso signaled that we would wait it out. Like all of the situations he pushed us into, it ended with the elephant “nerving up” and calmly crossing the road to rejoin the herd. Tensions relieved, this episode injected a realism that could only present itself with us there, caught up in the moment.
By early afternoon, we had already survived a chilled pre-dawn roller coaster ride and immersed ourselves into the daily routines of a small pack of five lions, some migrating water buffalo and wildebeest and a large herd of elephants. We stopped to eat lunch by a lake profuse with wildlife, exotic birds in the air and on the water while anxious baby warthogs squealed and scurried haphazardly on the mud bank. By now, we understood their pre-tusk vulnerability and the behavior that results from being a top menu choice for predators seeking something quick, easy and nutritious.
Before re-boarding our all-terrain, open air vehicle for the return to the Zulu Nyala Reserve, I exited a restroom and found myself face-to-face with
a mature warthog finishing his lunch of local grasses. He looked up, uttered an obligatory snort, and went about feeding. Sometimes I wish that we would make the entire planet a national park like Hluhluwe, where aside from a few anticipated predators, we could all live together more harmoniously and fear each other less.
The following day presented a change of scenery as several of us joined Sandiso in a warm and comfortable van for a one hour drive to the quaint village of St. Lucia, South Africa’s first World Heritage Site, that rests along the shores of the Indian Ocean. Among many charming features, St. Lucia is essentially a tourist beach town where the trees were different and the salt-tinged air was heavier than anything we had encountered in the bushland.
After lunch and some shopping, we boarded a boat and cruised up a fresh water inlet near the ocean to catch more glimpses of enormous floating hippopotamuses. They were abundant and made me anticipate even more tomorrow’s planned evening excursion with hopes of observing them on land. Aside from the hippos and crocodile eyes buoyed above the water’s surface, a unique animal experience awaited us as we were walking to dip our toes in the Indian Ocean.
Within the first steps onto the beach, over a modest knoll, we found a huge sand sculpture with life-sized depictions of a lion, rhinoceros, water buffalo, leopard and an elephant, the Big Five of African animals. To one side was a large sign, also sculpted in sand, that read “Welcome to St. Lucia and
Africa’s Big Five.” An identical size sign on the opposite side read: “Hi, please support my hard work.” The young artist/entrepreneur had not only sculpted the five animals, but whimsically depicted them as “couch potatoes,” their bodies strewn across gigantic furniture also shaped from sand.
We made a well-deserved donation to the young master, who not only shared his talent, but created another memory from our brief time on the South African beach. As long as we both have our wits about us, there will
always be that image of walking barefoot along the surf of the Indian Ocean and encountering that incredible sand sculpture.
After envisioning the dinner waiting upon our return, I spent the drive home thinking of tomorrow’s last two journeys into the reserve, one in early morning and the last that would extend into darkness where viewing the nocturnal hippos took precedence.
I turned to Karen. “Is there a reason to go out in the morning,” I asked, “I
can’t think of anything new that we will see.”
“Have you been disappointed yet?”
“No, not even once.”
I waited for her to give me a convincing pep talk, but none came. My answer lay within her question. Each trek had provided once-in-a-lifetime encounters with the animals and I now asked myself why would I ever miss an opportunity to follow Sandiso into the amazing Zulu bushland? Our last day would be a full day.
Sandiso’s Farewell Gift
The rising sun casts an orange hue across the horizon as we entered the reserve on our last morning. Nothing new stood out and the next few hours before lunch would be a reprise of everything we had seen during the week. The morning light illuminated the open meadows like a stage and the animals, awakened and active, served as the characters, caught in a real life painting of stripes, spots and adornments. The vervet tree monkeys, with prehensile tails four times longer than there miniature bodies, were visible and moving nimbly through the branches. Only the cheetah, the sole predator cat, remained hidden, leaving some to fear the unknown.
There would be no walk after lunch today. I was prepared instead to relax and be fully engaged in the late afternoon and evening excursion that would be our last. We were still anticipating closure on a few goals and knew that Sandiso would be the linchpin to make it happen before we departed in early morning for Johannesburg.
The light was fading when we first stopped along the plateau and looked down at the hippos, still in the water. From a distance, we saw one on the bank briefly before she reentered the turbid pond. After that, we settled for watching the floating pink eyes of some and others submerged with young calves asleep on their backs.
Suddenly, I was startled by a reverberating sound that moved through the air like it was amplified. One hippo, annoyed with another, was voicing displeasure at high volumes. Her trumpeting snort, sounding like a baritone duck call or a raspy pig in an echo chamber, can reach 115 decibels, almost identical to those attained at a rock concert. Beyond the image of docile, leaf-eating gentle giants with sensitive skin, their resonant natural sounds were more akin to the aggressive, dangerous creatures that they are.
I questioned Sandiso. “Was that a grunt or a roar?”
“It was the devil laughing,” he said.
The sounds were breathtaking but, in the end, it did not brings the hippos out of the water, so we left and traveled to higher ground, trusting Sandiso to deliver an alternate visual experience. Within a few minutes, he braked suddenly, raised his long arm and pointed back toward the hippopotamus pond that, from a distance looked and sounded like an amphitheater.
“They are out of the water.”
We turned, looking back to into the distance and saw three hippos standing on the bank, preparing to stroll up to the nearby brush for dinner. Sandiso once again, shifted into reverse, backed up at high speed, and proceeded down the hill, slowing to a crawl as we approached the pond. He then stopped the vehicle yards away and placed his finger vertically across his lips, silently requesting silence. When someone tried to ask a question, he repeated the gesture. He knew that any sudden movement or noise would drive the hippos back into the water and it had become his personal challenge for us to see the animals on land.
Despite their enormity, hippos’ facial expression and body language always portrays them as shy, reverent and self-conscious. Their gawking pink eyes made them appear more menacing in the water. While observing their
expressions and deliberate movements, I could not, in a million years, have imagined that my first thought would be the memory, as a child, of watching large animated hippos, in tutus and ballet slippers, performing the “Dance of the Hours” from the Opera “La Gioconda” in Disney’s “Fantasia.” Witnessing them today, in the flesh, immediately took me back to the beginning, my first recollection of seeing hippos. In some ways, their true image resembled those caricatures in animation and children’s books. I was reluctant to share my thoughts in fear of seeing glazed stares from my colleagues. The ways of my vivid imagination and memory are, at times, too much for me to comprehend.
The hippos’ skin, looking like a thick, loose-fitting blanket thrown over their bodies, was iridescent with the natural shades of pink and grey that have inspired fashion designers for centuries. They shimmered in the glow of the last light bouncing off the water.
We watched in silence for several minutes. A few were quietly eating, others stood near the pond in some state of transition. Like in a daytime soap opera, the thrill came when one hippo caused the ire of another. As
the dispute unfolded, I quickly switched to video mode and captured a brief skirmish that ended with one hippo being chased into the water and the other standing on the bank, echoing displeasure at 115 decibels. The defeated pachyderm waited in the water for the aggressor to depart before taking some solace in a futile, ear-splitting last word. Species that share this planet are not all that different.
Coming into contact with hippos out of the water was a promise made and a promise kept. After days of anticipation, Sandiso ended our last trek into the reserve on a captivating high note. We all saw the satisfaction on his face but, as we drove off, the group felt compelled to praise him individually and honor his efforts. As the days of adrenaline rush were slowly transforming to fresh memories, no one, including Sandiso, anticipated the final encore that would put on display all of his skills and magic. This last ride was not over.
With twenty minutes of daylight left, Sandiso received a radio message from a colleague that the reserve’s three elephants had been spotted nearby. In a minute, we came upon a split in the dirt road that veered left and advanced straight up a hill. The characters of the quickly unfolding scene included two passenger filled vehicles parked single file in a standoff with the curious elephants, less then one-hundred feet up the hill. Sandiso parked at the base, blocking the others to facilitate our best view. With open paths on either side, it became clear that the elephants had chosen the road as their own and began to express angst at being blocked.
With flailing ears and trunk moving like a pendulum, one elephant became assertive and began trotting down the hill toward the startled passengers in the two vehicles. The ensuing visible and verbal tension caused both drivers to signal Sandiso to back-up and allow them to exit. He did and, as the others fled, we expected to follow them. Instead, Sandiso, in reverse, took us back up the hill, square in the faces of the small herd.
I asked the question that was on everyone’s mind. “Was that elephant charging?”
Sandiso, with motor running and rear view mirrors positioned to facilitate a speedy exit, tried to put us at ease.
“At this point, she’s just curious. Trotting downhill only looks like a charge.”
Seeking some clarification, I said, “At this point?”
“We are ready for whatever happens.”
Sandiso was speaking, but his eyes were locked on the rear view mirrors and his left hand clutched the gearshift knob as the three elephants lumbered toward us. Trust, instincts, fear and a sense of adventure all surfaced simultaneously as the spectacle began to unfold.
The two elephants in the rear pulled up, content to watch the leader, probably a scout, continue to approach us either out of curiosity or an attempt to take back what was rightfully hers.
Once again, Sandiso tried to put us at ease, “Her head is still, she’s mostly curious.”
“Or giving us one last chance to move voluntarily,” I said.
“We are okay, I’m watching closely,” said the man sitting in the driver’s seat with the motor running.
As the leader made her final approach, my friend Mario, who was closest, cooly pulled an Iphone from his parka and held it out like a shield. If this
would be our demise, it would be preserved for eternity in highly pixilated footage. Not to be outdone, I moved to video mode and added some realism to a surrealistic moment by filming Mario bravely filming the charging elephant.
Seconds seemed like minutes as the stand-off continued to evolve with the pachyderm circling from cautious to curious and back again. Then very close, with head and ears gyrating, she aggressively slid her toes against the dirt, lifting dust into the air. In a moment, the lie of the land changed and we were left looking back at the stunned elephant in the distance as our vehicle sped down the hill. Sandiso had determined that it was time to leave. The beast would always be victorious, but he managed an amazing surrender.
The air was still buzzing with many energized conversations as Sandiso stopped the vehicle and addressed the group.
“I always had your backs,” he said. “I could see everything.”
Everyone laughed. It was the laughter of relief and release.
The people among our group came here from different parts of the world with few thing in common. Aside from revering them and worrying about their struggle with extinction, we all had a deep desire to interact and connect with them in their natural setting. Today’s encounter enabled that to a degree that few people will ever be exposed to.
Now in total darkness, we wrapped ourselves in warm blankets as Sandiso pulled a powerful handheld searchlight from under his seat. He began driving with his left hand on the steering wheel, his right clutching the searchlight that he waved expeditiously, side-to-side and up and down.
He explained why. “Sometimes when hit by direct light, the animal’s eyes can’t adjust and they are temporarily blinded.”
He knew them as well as anyone and all of his actions ultimately respected their space and innate sense of being.
Animal sightings in the darkness were rare, but as we were about to the
leave the preserve for the final time, three large jackals emerged from behind some boulders, giving us a brief glimpse of their exquisiteness until Sandiso moved the light in a different direction.
“Jackals,” he said, putting emphasis on the last syllable.
Our safari was ending and, although it was too early to fully wrap my head
around the past week, I knew that Sandiso was at the core of every thing that happened. He was a man, one of the Big Six African animals. Like Pepe, our guide in the Sacred Valley of Peru or Pauli, our naturalist in the Galapagos Islands, Sandiso imparted the knowledge, aptitude and personality that connected us to the special people and animals of the Zulu nation whom we will never forget.