There is such a thing as bush karma. Ask any old hand – ranger, tracker, lodge owner – and they will tell you that the bush has a way of speaking to those who will listen. I’ve seen it many times on game drive; when those who have a long list of things they wish to see end up racing around and missing most of it, whilst those who are patient, slowly moving through the wilderness and making use of all their senses, end up seeing the magic.
If there’s one piece of advice I can offer first-time visitors to the African bush, it is to be patient. Your guide and tracker know what they are doing. If they say the leopard is likely to climb the tree, even if it takes an hour for it to wake up, then wait! Don’t rush off to look for something more lively. Sit with it. Listen to the birds. Breathe the fresh air, un-smogged and free of the noise of traffic.
My favourite answer when I ask new guests what they are interested in seeing, is: “We’re happy with anything!”.
When guests say that to me, I know we’re in for a good few days!
It was last year in March when a group of first-time bush visitors came to Londolozi for a two night stay. It was a large group and a number of vehicles were allocated to them. There had been quite a bit of lion activity during the week building up to their visit, and so on our first drive, it was decided that three vehicles would head to where the Sparta pride had been seen that morning while the other three would try and find the Dark-maned Majingilane, who had been found sleeping near the airstrip.
Recent rains had flooded the Maxabene riverbed and rendered only one or two spots crossable. We were heading down to Three-Streaked Donga to see if the waters had receded enough to allow us to cross there. If not, we’d be forced to go around.
The water was very shallow, but the firmness of the sand was the contentious issue. I didn’t like the look of it, but Mike Sithole out on the trackers seat thought it looked doable. Let me make it clear that it’s usually the other way around; it’s usually me that wants to make the hot-headed decision and plunge right in, and Mike’s calming voice of reason has to step in to prevent another pink-pouch incident.
Sadly on this day, Mike’s firm instruction to me to give it full throttle as we punched through was not strictly adhered to, and we lost all our momentum while trying to claw up the other bank, the wheels struggling for purchase in the horrifically loose sand, finally failing in their attempts to extricate the vehicle from the riverbed, as with a final juddering sigh and a defeated burble from the exhaust, I stalled us.
There’s always a horribly prolonged and silent moment on the vehicle when everyone simultaneously realises the predicament. The ranger wishes the earth would swallow him up while the guests, at first sure there’s a way out, swiftly realise that the vehicle is going nowhere in a hurry. The tracker is probably chuckling.
This particular set of guests were magnificent. As Mike and I tried in vain to dig or find some means of jacking us out of the sand, they laughed and joked, with most actually taking off their shoes and socks, rolling up their pants and getting involved.
Quickly realising we would need a tow, we decided to make the most of the situation and broke out the G&Ts, and pretty soon everyone was having a merry time on the banks of the Maxabene river.
By the time help arrived, night had already settled upon us, and by now it was far too late to head down to where the Sparta pride had been sleeping as we had to be back at camp for a group dinner with the other vehicles. Fortunately the male lion had been found near the airstrip, which was on our way back to camp, so I could salvage something from the drive. We had literally been out for only 20 minutes before getting stuck, so had seen nothing more than three impala, but the guests were just so ecstatic about being in Africa that they didn’t mind at all and had entered into the spirit of things with gusto.
The other vehicles that had seen the male lion had seen nothing more than an occasional tail flick, since he was fast-asleep in the long grass, but since we were arriving quite late, I had hopes that he might at least lift his head up for us. We would only be able to spend a few minutes with him as we were already late for the group dinner.
As bad luck would have it, he was still flat-out when we got there, but with there being no moon and the temperature dropping rapidly, I was banking on him getting moving sooner rather than later.
He remained fast asleep however, and my hand was reaching for the ignition when suddenly his head shot up, his ears erect as he swivelled to the south-east. Far, far away, the muffled call of another male lion came filtering through the night air. “Just watch, he will answer,” said Mike softly to the guests from the seat beside me, and we all tensed in anticipation.
Lowering his head and starting softly, the lion began roaring in response, his calls building to a dramatic crescendo as he passed on an unknown message to his brother in the distance. As his roars softened to the typical grunts that follow on the heels of the loudest part of the call, we heard a third male in the opposite direction, now answering from the west. Again, the dark-maned male that we were with began bellowing, but this time, for added emphasis on the roaring, Mike and I switched off the spotlight and headlights. The darkness was complete as from right next to us the night was split by the ear-splitting bellows of this phenomenal creature. The southern stars were emblazoned across the sky as one of the most powerful noises in nature struck a chord in all of us there that evening.
One vehicle, eight fortunate people, and one of the most iconic African experiences.
As the calls died away and we were left sitting there with the tapestry of constellations above us, a small sniff came from the vehicle behind me. “Sorry,” came a shaky voice from one of the ladies on the car. I assumed that she had been frightened, and apologised that the experience may have been a bit more than she had bargained for. It can be pretty intimidating being next to a roaring male lion for the first time.
“I wasn’t scared,’ she said, “I suddenly just had this overwhelming emotion come over me. I don’t know why I’m crying.”
“I am also,” said another of the guests.
When we had first become bogged in the Maxabene I was convinced I had sunk the game drive good and proper, excuse the pun. But the good humour of all on the vehicle had made light of a situation that might have infuriated others, and the karma of the bush, which always smiles on those who just go with the flow, had rewarded everyone with an experience that cannot be described in words. The sheer grandeur of a scene like that can only be appreciated fully while right there in the moment.
When you least expect it, the African bush can move you to tears, but in the most wonderful way.
Written and Photographed by James Tyrrell, Londolozi Ranger