At 15.45 sharp Don pulled up in the Land Rover into a parking spot in front of the top office.
He was taking us on a bush walk. It is a rare opportunity due to how busy the lodge is. When it is on offer, the chance is grabbed at by anyone who might have the afternoon off. On this particular walk it was me and six other girls. Don was greatly outnumbered but he didn’t seemed fazed as we bounced out of camp over the cattle grid.
We drove to a secluded part of the reserve, and the cutting of the engine signified that our walk was about to begin. We stretched out in single file in what was almost overwhelming heat that afternoon. We headed straight into an inviting drainage line, seeking the shade of the tall trees that grew along its banks. It was like being in a naturally air conditioned room. Our first stopping point was where a large portion of soil had been gouged out from the bank. It seemed as if someone had used a pick axe, leaving neat but deep gashes in the vertical earth. Don explained that this was from a rhino who had come to manicure its horn by rubbing it against the bank. We had simply walked into the drainage line and by stopping for a moment were able to gain more insight into the life of a rhino. This was a testament that one can be in the same surroundings for a prolonged period of time but can continuously gain new information.
Leaving the drainage line we came upon a wide but shallow pond; more of a pan. In the middle of the pan was a little island, about 1.5 m by 1m; on it was a dead log that hung over the water. On the log was a very large nest of a foam nest frog. Due to its size, Don guessed that it was the nests of several different mating groups fused together to produce one large nest.
These frogs are incredible – they will almost always avoid large bodies of water, choosing to lay their eggs only over smaller ephemeral pans in which there will be far fewer predators for the tadpoles.
Leaving the foam nest and the growing tadpoles inside, we carried on. About five minutes later we all froze; a snake (thankfully only a spotted bush snake and not something dangerous) made its way in an incredibly smooth glide, away from us through a grove of Tamboti trees. It reached the edge of the thicket and was lost from view, disappearing into a patch of green grass, its camouflage rendering it completely invisible.
We all looked up noticing that where we stood in the thicket there was no vegetation below the Tamboti trees. The Tamboti trees release a toxin into the ground which prevents other plant life from growing there in a process called allelopathy, allowing the Tambotis themselves to grow without competition for sunlight, water and nutrients from the soil.
An oxpecker flew overhead. We did not think much of it until Don looked up to follow its movement. Oxpeckers are great indicators of where big game could be. If they suddenly drop out of the sky, it means that there is most likely be a large herbivore at their point of descent.
As the oxpecker continued on its flight we heard a squirrel alarming. We left the thicket and headed back into the drainage line, wondering what had disturbed the squirrel. Christy Jordan, Varty camp manager, clicked her fingers to signal that she had spotted the culprit; it was a genet, sitting in the fork of a tall Jackalberry tree. It peered down at us through its beautiful eyes.
Leaving the genet we made our way towards a clearing, in which a prominent water hole lies. On approaching we heard a loud thumping noise which we were unable to identify. Stopping as we left the thicker bush to first to observe the surroundings in the clearing before heading out from cover (similar to what a leopard does when entering a clearing). To our right we saw two Egyptian geese having an almighty brawl on the water. The loud thumping noise we had heard was their wings hitting each other and the surface of the water. The female of a pair was enticing the male to attack another breeding pair and their chicks as a show of dominance. We and a hippo, sharing his pool of water with the geese, watched on in fascination.
The sun was slowly lowering, we turned and made our way back, silently in single file, to the vehicle.
At no point in our afternoon had we encountered any of the Big 5, yet that wasn’t the point of the walk. By simply moving through the landscape, letting nature be our guide and allowing ourselves to be present, we had our eyes opened to the far more intricate connections and roles of the smaller inhabitants of the bush. Sometimes its good to be reminded that there’s a whole other world all around us that is easy to overlook in the quest to seek out the bigger game; one that is equally as fascinating and dramatic, even if the scale might be different.