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Photo entries. The bulk of this blog, obviously. The best of these are featured on the main web site.
Photo entries. The bulk of this blog, obviously. The best of these are featured on the main web site.
The last few installments of Slingshot to Kruger are brewing, their publication somehow slowed by the many imponderables of life. Despair not, they will happen.
In the meantime, in search of easy distraction, I have revamped my macro setup and improved the props. My latest addition is the simplest of them all, the famous Pringles box as a flash re-director. Here is what the rather silly apparatus looks like. Canon 7D and grip, Kinko 1.4x tele-converter, good old Canon EF 100mm f:2.8 macro, reverse-mounted very old Pentax 50 mm f:1.4, Canon 430 EX II flash, and the invaluable Pringles can.
The can is sliced open to fit the flash head, taped in black to minimize reflectivity, and a piece of Styrofoam picnic plate is fitted inside the bottom cap as a reflector. With that setup, I retain TTL – which is invaluable, and even auto-focus if I’m not using the reversed lens. The Canon lens by itself gives me a 1:1 ratio, which isn’t huge, and adding the tele-converter probably increases the magnification to 1.4:1.
However with the reverse-mounted lens, I achieve a whoppping 4.5:1 magnification – in other words the size of objects recorded on my sensor is four times larger than reality.
For those of you who like maths, I just confirmed this by photographing a measuring tape, above. As you can see, the sensor (a cropped APS-C) captures about 5 mm of tape. That sensor being 22.3 mm wide, we are at about 4.5:1 magnification. Yeah, I know, the tape isn’t really sharp, this was handheld and at that magnification, one must focus by moving the lens forward and aft and even the steadiest hand shakes enormously…
Any way, the results of some experimenting are below. I made sure to catch a close-up glimpse of the Pringles before throwing them away. Yes, I did eat 5 or 6, first.
Olifants was revisited with intimate pleasure. Our new rondavel had an even better view than the previous. Hippos were on station down below, loud and comical. Birds and mongooses were also on cue. We managed to change our following booking from Letaba to Satara where we would now stay three days. Then we drove around, came back and braaied our dinner by candlelight and river music, and slept like babies.
In the morning, we packed up with renewed excitement. The scenery was going to change back to a more open savanna, mopane soon to be but a strange memory. We left the Olifants River behind and savored a flattening of the landscape as once again, we could see to the east as far as a ridge that marked the border with Mozambique. There were many more giraffes, elephants and crocs. There were funny baboon teenagers learning to tree-climb. There were rare ground hornbills that walked up to the Landcruiser and attacked our bumper with their beak, probably bothered by their own reflection.
My first task when I got out of the Landcruiser at Satara was to look at sighting reports posted by the reception desk. Sighting boards are present in each Kruger camp. They feature two panels with an area map, one for the current day and one for the previous. An animal legend on the side is color-coded and magnetic pins allow people to mark sighting spots for given species when they come back to camp. Every day, park staff rotate the panels, Today becoming Yesterday and the new Today being wiped clean.
Lions are red, leopards black and cheetahs white. There are also colors for other animals such as elephants, buffaloes and giraffes. Rhino location reporting is no longer tolerated in the park due to the intense poaching crisis.
There were multiple red dots spread out around the camp for the previous day, proof that Satara could live up to its lion country reputation. The nearby S100 dirt road was actually said to be the most famous hangout in the entire park, home to a mega pride of over 20 lions. It was also said to literally become a dust ball at dawn and dusk when visitors converge from all directions. That, the rumor said, was a consequence of the app.
In 2012, a geeky teen created a phone app he called Kruger Park Sightings. It uses crowd sourcing to report Kruger game sightings in real time, by tagging the location with GPS coordinates on a map. The app has become the talk of the moment as it radically affects not only one’s chances of seeing what they are after, but the entire park experience. Neither Marie nor I had, or wanted, the app – and we could not have used it any way, our phones being data-less in South Africa. But we wondered how this game-changing – pardon the pun – new variable would affect our lives.
We were about to find out brutally.
Having checked in, we drove through camp in a funny eight pattern around large circles of bungalows. Each circle was about 100 meters in diameter and was lined with evenly spaced out units on its periphery, the center being nothing but grass and a few trees. Our first impression was a dull one as there was no view of the outside and sitting on the porch, one was looking at the circle of identical bungalows. It however turned out to be a rather ingenuous design. The noise and lack of privacy we had feared were never a problem, and watching all the braais and fires progressively lit up at night was a touching proof that society could work if people were united by common interests and taught respect of the environment and one another.
Once settled in, we readied for our afternoon drive, deciding to aim for an area not too far east where lions had been reported the previous day on the board. Out the gate, a surprisingly high traffic flow accompanied us and we wondered if the infamous app was at work. Some cars were actually passing us at or above the tar road speed limit of 40 km/h as if rushing somewhere. We took our time, annoyed by the speeders, but eventually as I was scanning the bushes to my right, I heard Marie say a laconic “Uh-oh.” My head snapped back forward. Some distance ahead, a bunch of cars were piled up across the road.
We immediately knew what it meant. Lions.
Marie and I had learned, back in the Kgalagadi, that such traffic jams invariably mean that something very cool has been spotted. Most visitors being photographers and some taking it quite seriously, they will stop at bizarre angles to get a clean shot, and jungle law prevails among drivers. We had also become experts at assessing the location of the animal getting so much attention by analyzing the general direction in which heads and telephoto lenses were turned.
As we approached, we discovered that the cars had parked next to a pond and all eyes were trained on the opposite shore. With a mixture of disdain, repulsion and fascination, we stopped at the back of the queue as cleanly as we could and began scanning the scenery. Not spotting anything, we moved forward while cars were leaving or re-positioning, and eventually, after much squinting, we indeed found the lions. They were resting behind thick bushes straight across from us, quite far and hard to see. Two lionesses came closer to the water and were challenged by a hippo that emerged and walked out towards them. They did not care for a fight and pulled back.
Annoyed by the crowd, we drove on to see if we could find a better angle on the side of the pond where a dirt road seemed to cut in, but as we proceeded, the number of cars heading back our way confirmed what we had feared: there was no clear view. Eventually, darkness falling slowly, we came back to the line of cars from the opposite direction, settled in an empty spot, and decided to wait and see. As the sun’s very last rays shone on the bush, orange hues lighting narrow spots like as many candles, the entire pride rose and moved lazily towards the water, at a angle that finally brought them in full view and much closer to us.
There were many females and possibly younger males, hard to tell apart. But there could have been no doubt on who the male was. He came out last, his mane dark and thick, and chose an isolated drinking spot for himself. We sure got our money’s worth.
By now the traffic jam was spectacularly anarchic. There was something intrinsically wrong with the picture. Being there was like visiting a zoo, despite the openness of the park, the randomness of such a sight and the reality of the danger that surrounded us. The intimacy one would hope for when interacting with nature was lacking. Despite our best intentions and respectful manners, we felt like tourists on a ride. I wondered how many people in those cars were leaning on their cell phone, punching in the event’s details rather than actually watching it unfold.
The night was upon us and as the gate closing time approached, we decided to leave before the masses woke up and jammed our road in an impossible retreat effort. As we drove back slowly, scanning around us out of sheer habit, we discussed the experience and what it meant for the park, and for the lions. There was no doubt in our heads that the app was responsible for the number of vehicles hitting that location. In a way, what the app was achieving now was no different from what sighting boards had done for decades. But it did it with the utmost accuracy and with zero delay.
The app basically herds the flow of game watchers around the park, like pieces moved on a monopoly board, with bonuses for speed and penalties for poor navigation. The internet has gained control on what had long been a matter of luck and experience, and now provides the most clueless of visitors with evened odds of success. Processions of vehicles will be migrating between key spots at high velocity, in an endless, graceless ballet, the human herd continuously losing and adding members, its momentum unfazed.
Will this be affecting the animals? All species in the park must to some extent be used to the presence of humans. But until now, they could distance themselves easily and would be found only at random or by the few who had enough knowledge to track and anticipate their behavior. The app is going to make solitude much harder to achieve for any of the high interest species. The lion pride we had just seen will now, as long as they are within sight of a road or camp, have a flock of cars buzzing around them all day, thanks to the relentless reporting of their presence.
We have entered an age of absolute technology. Even when it comes to wildlife, luck will no longer be considered tolerable. It’s now up to a piece of software to guide ignorance.
I would not be surprised if within a decade, opportunistic businesses arise who will rent you a lion-seeking drone for the weekend, complete with instructions manual and a variety of preloaded search patterns. Imagine the slogan:
“Send your drone out looking for your favorite animals while you get up late and have breakfast. We’ll save you time and disappointment doing all the hard work for you. Use our exclusive award-winning search algorithms: Lion Frenzy, Lazy Eight, Rhino Seeker, Kill (horn)Bill, Mega Game Pack, Race Track, Elephant Cull. Plus, for a limited time and an extra fee, you can get the Premium Stealth version that scrambles the signal of nearby drones and transmits your results back to you with 256-bit encryption. Call now! 1-800-U-LOSERS.”
Shame. The lions will still be lashing their tails at all the new buzzing flies, but they can never shake the suckers loose.
Note: If you think I’m exaggerating with my drone theory, think again. As you read this, drones are being used over the very Kruger Park in the war against rhino poaching. I’ll write more about that in the next post.
Then if you want to see what they actually look like, check out this site, kindly provided by cinematographer George Billard.
And last but not least, if you still have doubts you can read about it from no other than NatGeo photographer Michael Nichols who photographed Serengeti lions using drones and robots.
Water, however murky, is ever-present in New York City. I guess things could be much worse.
Out for a cruise aboard the Hornblower Hybrid recently, I made the best of stormy weather and shot the city from a maritime point of view, the Big Apple’s urban assault dampened by much water and beautiful shimmering lights. Unfortunately, the city hum and incessant horns and sirens had been horribly replaced by on-board disco. It fascinates me that a sightseeing cruise would not provide its passengers with the option of a quiet deck.
I put my mini Gorillapod to good use and fastened the Powershot to railings, but a boat is a boat, and it rocks. Long exposures were impractical and the ISO had to creep up. Still, pretty night despite the rain and grain.
Before boarding, I had been stunned to find along the Hudson River promenade an informative sign mentioning lined seahorses as common inhabitants of the river pilings, and a strange apparatus in the water with another sign inviting passers-by to look for plankton and fish attracted at night by the solar-powered light source. Plankton and fish? In the Hudson, over which thick Italian espresso has a definite clarity edge?
Someone please convince me!
In the morning, the hyenas were gone and I wondered if I had dreamt their presence.
Departing from Balule, we concluded that the life of a camp keeper can be rough and left the grumpy guard a tip. He lit up like a child, receiving the gift with both hands the customary way. It would appear this was a rare occurrence for him. We had yet to visit Tsendze, where we would be reminded of the virtues of hospitality. But not everyone is a born host.
The drive north wound through an eco-zone classified as mopane woodlands on granite. It was rated as having low game density because of the sourveld grasses that are unpalatable. The bushes were high, rarely allowing a view of the horizon and shrinking our environment to the close proximity of the road. Very little happened, nothing moved.
Gratefully, about half-way to our destination in the vicinity of Letaba – a camp we were scheduled to visit four nights later, we crossed the Letaba River and again stopped on a beautiful bridge.
Our timing was impeccable as a huge herd of elephants was appearing on the south bank, slipping and sliding down the dust of a steep gully. They crossed the river in front of us. The scene was epic; it was like being whisked inside an HD documentary, with the added bonus of a breeze on our face, the now familiar but strange smell of the bush, and a comforting sun on our backs. The crossing took some ten minutes, and then the river was deserted again.
We pondered our luck, and the importance of timing. There might not have been much occurring all day on this bridge, but we had arrived at precisely the right moment. It was a sobering reminder that in such a gigantic park one had to be very alert and tuned into nature, in addition to being plain and simply lucky, to avoid missing its essence; because most of the time, nothing happens.
Well, something else actually did happen. Marie, who was scanning the river banks with binoculars, spotted a trio of rangers walking along the water far in the distance. They were heavily armed and likely involved in the on-going war against rhino poachers. One of them threw a rock at a hippo, probably to make it keep its distance. Hippos are, after all, considered to be one of the most dangerous species in Africa. No kidding.
The road followed the river bed for a while, but soon mopane reappeared and engulfed us for hours. Our drive became almost boring, if such a thing is possible in a place like Kruger. We jokingly began giving names to repetitive events. A lilac breasted roller sighting became a numbered LBR, the count to be reset to zero every day. Hippos were officially nicknamed beach ticks. Wildebeests were guh-noo’s, from our previous Kgalagadi expedition and a references to the Muppets.
And our reaction to the mopane landscape, after a careful study, was labeled mopane syndrome - a state of latent depression and apathy, characterized by rare bursts of exaggerated interest at the sight of a tree squirrel or the one-hundred-fifty-thousand-and-forty-third impala. We discussed how eventually seeing lions might feel, and concluded that we would then be suffering from PMS, post mopane syndrome.
Mopani was reached in early-afternoon. So-called because of the mopane veld surrounding it, the camp is located on a hill some five kilometers north of Tsendze. We performed the ritual remote check-in and fueled up. Mopani was a large camp crowned by a baobab located at its epicenter. Finally, I had a chance to walk up to and touch the enormous tree, even though actually a modest size specimen. Picking up some of its fruits, we brought them with us for a future experiment.
Staring at the leafless tree spread out against a deep blue sky, I attempted to connect the dots between my experience of the moment and plain reality. I was as excited as a kid in a candy store and yet most people probably drove or walked by without noticing anything.
Then I remembered that I had brought much baggage with me here, and would leave some bits behind too. It was the meaning that made the difference, not the raw matter. Bark is bark, but a biochemical storm in my brain was setting it on fire, fueled by memories and past associations. I would never really be able to share this. Even a picture would look ordinary, it was just a large tree. But I was seeing what I had wanted to see all my life.
It took me a while to understand that the window of Africa, like the window on a train rushing through the night, is a distorting mirror that partly reflects a viewer’s own face.
Paul Theroux, The Last Train to Zona Verde
It was mid-afternoon when we arrived at the Tsendze Rustic Campsite, eager to pitch our tent and relax, as we were going nowhere for two nights.
The camp gate was closed shut once more, but intentionally unattended this time and a sign simply reminded visitors to close the gate back behind them. We drove in and had to admit that the camp’s reputation for being very bushy was in no way overdone.
We had heard from our Balule neighbors who had preceded us to Tsendze that they had had an agitated stay here, an elephant having ventured inside the fence. We had not known whether to laugh or take them seriously and now looked around us hesitantly. Should an elephant be in the camp, it mostly likely would not even have been visible until it stepped right over our tent. I downplayed the veracity of that story and argued that these people had probably meant to say that elephants had been close to the fence. Outside of it.
The reservation from SANParks had led us to believe we had been assigned camp site number six so we proceeded to that spot, but found it occupied by a caravan. We were taken aback. Tsendze being isolated, it would be hard to sort things out. A long troubleshooting process followed, involving much advice from other campers – most of which centered around finding the famous Rodgers, camp attendant and local hero. He, they said, would sort it out.
We knew about Rodgers Hobyane who was legend in the field and had received multiple SANParks and hospitality awards, but finding him on foot in a camp where one cannot see further than a few thick trees took a while. When Roger finally appeared, he listened to our concern with a smile and indeed sorted the quid pro quo out in a matter of seconds: we had merely read the reservation wrong.
“The number six is the camp’s code,” Rodgers explained good-humoredly, “not the tent site. Most newcomers end up at site six and are baffled.”
We nodded with tentative relief.
“They numbered the camps from the top down,” he explained again apologetically as he drew a map in the air with his arms. “This happens to be six. But your site number is actually written on your check-in ticket from Mopani.”
Blushing, we fumbled for said ticket, which we had forgotten about. There it was. Number 19. We had a home. We could proceed.
But we did not. Rodgers had launched into a long conversation, monologue-style. It would be the first of many. He had a friendly, outgoing personality and obviously cared deeply for his camp, his guests – and his growing popularity. When we managed to say good-bye for now, we were a little breathless. From listening so much.
We pitched in, setup, spread out and sat down. Lounging with no immediate driving to do was a bit intoxicating.
Rodgers, we soon realized, pushed his duties to the next level and he would make a point to tour the entire camp twice a day to salute campers and chat with everyone. Around 5 or 6 PM, as the day was turning to night, he dropped by and having inquired if everything was all right, he began – and sustained – the conversation, well into a darkness repelled by our headlamps.
We learned that he was on Facebook, having received from generous visitors various internet connection tools. He now had a smart phone with a camera, a laptop, and was friends with many a fan on the web. He was very grateful for those donations, having ascended to his current situation from a local upbringing, and if his autobiographical story was a barely disguised pitch to qualify the leads that we were, it was done in a natural, openhearted way. But worried for our bredie that was simmering on the braai, we eventually wiggled our way into a good night.
Candles lit our dinner and we sipped red wine brought from Cape Town. Carrying a case of wine on road trips has become a tradition of ours, one which once cost us a comical bribe in Namibia, and later forced us to leave bottles hidden in the bushes of Golden Gate National Park before entering Lesotho. The dinner over, we left the dishes soaking for the next day’s wash and went to bed.
At some point in the night, I was half-asleep when I felt Marie turn suddenly on our air mattress. The inside of the tent was pitch black but I could sense that she had risen on an elbow and was listening. I knew all too well that the noises of the night are always amplified by a tent’s enclosure, but I raised an ear too just in case. Silence was perfect for a moment, then there was a definite crushing sound, not too far. A large branch had been broken from a tree.
“Elephant,” Marie whispered.
The night answered with an even louder crash, sounding dangerously close. There was no doubt that at least one elephant was out there, tearing branches off or even breaking entire trees. The only question that remained was whether that was happening outside or inside the camp.
“Sound carries far in the dark,” I said softly, “In most likelihood they are outside the camp.” But I couldn’t be sure. The Balule neighbors’ story was fresh in our minds. I grabbed my headlamp and got up without turning it on, to remain somewhat invisible. I unzipped the tent door as stealthily as I could, exited and closed behind me. Listening intently with an open mouth, I scanned the darkness for clues.
I was given none. There was no sound, no motion. The air was still and the night peaceful again, only punctuated by the call of an owl that would be up until darkness faded.
I slipped back into the tent and eased under my sleeping bag, just in time to hear loud trumpeting echo nearby, unmistakably elephantesque and angry-sounding. The giant nearby was talking, or calling. It was impossible to know if there were more than one and there wasn’t much to do other than be watchful and ready for the unexpected. Granted, I said to myself, elephant calls always sound threatening, but they were probably simply telling mouse jokes to each other. But was the fence electrified?
Eventually, after much noisy presence, the elephants went away and we fell asleep. Getting up in the morning, we almost expected to see downed trees around us but of course everything was normal. We felt silly for having worried. I felt sorry for our ancestors the cave people who had gone through this every night for millennia.
Rodgers came by at dawn with his partner Elina to clean up our braai ashes, as it is done in all camps. However their cleaning method was above average and the braai was left spotless. We asked them whether the elephant-in-the-camp story had been true. To my surprise, the answer was yes. Elephants had thrown down the fence which had not been electrified at that time and walked into the camp. “It has all been repaired now,” Rodgers added, reassuring. We wondered if indeed it had, but were not willing to test the fence ourselves. Nothing was said about the method used to push the animals back out.
We packed up our kitchen and drove to nearby Mooiplaas picnic area to have breakfast in the open. The picnic spot is actually located right against the Tsendze fence but there is no access from inside the camp and one must drive a couple of kilometers in a loop to get there. We rented an extra gas burner from the attendant along with a large skottel, and enjoyed the luxury of eggs and toast with our coffee.
Apart from birds, we did not see a single movement down in the small river bed, but large footprints suggested that the night elephants must have come this way towards the camp.
Our next drive took us north to very dry pans where zebras were playing in the dust. Later we found a couple of elephants drinking from a cistern at one of the few remaining wells. They were splashing themselves and clearly enjoying the rinse, and reminded me of kids playing in the spray of a New York City fire hydrant on a hot summer day.
We crossed the Tropic of Capricorn, by 23°26’18″ of latitude south. A sign allowed careful excursions out of the car, at one’s own risk since one might die doing so. I took a souvenir snapshot. I like that shot almost as much as that of Cape Agulhas, for what it means. Legendary places, boundaries pushed.
Back in Tsendze we spent time doing laundry and washing dishes. The camp had open sky showers and I took one of the most enjoyable showers of my life under tall trees, the sun shining at an angle and creating an actual rainbow around me.
Then we began planning our next day’s drive up to the Bateleur Bushveld Camp which would be our northernmost leg of the trip. But we were feeling uneasy about it and after a brief discussion, Marie, who had arranged the bookings and felt responsible for the fact that we had not yet seen a feline – a silly concern as she had done a masterful job, suggested that we might want to reevaluate our route.
Bateleur was located in the same mopane zone and while baobabs would become more frequent in the north, there was very little else to look forward to in terms of game. In addition, the drive back south to Letaba the following day would be the longest of our Kruger drives, all through mopane.
It was late afternoon. I jumped in the Landcruiser and rushed to Mopani where a very friendly staff member did some checking for me. The easiest would have been to simply add a night in Letaba, but it was fully booked. Nearby Olifants, however, still had an available bungalow. It would mean driving south past Letaba for a night, than back up some 30 kilometers, but we knew and liked Olifants and the perspective of another night over the river appealed deeply. I booked it.
It was with a sigh of relief that Marie learned we were headed south and we celebrated with a G&T while cutting open a baobab fruit to taste the sour chalky flesh. Towards the evening, the wind picked up strongly and when dinner was ready, so much dust was swirling around that we setup our table on the lowered back door of the Landcruiser, sheltering downwind from it, and were able to keep our food from filling up with sand, and the candles lit.
By the time we went to bed, the wind was howling. Our tent was being swung in all directions, and I had to get back up in the dark to add a maximum of pegs and more side lines to steady it. Even with this done, the wind would slide under the tarp and hit us as hard as a wave crashing on a boat’s deck.
I had rarely seen such strong wind outside of a tropical storm or hurricane. It would come in waves and we could hear their roaring approach in the trees, progressively louder as they got closer. At the gust’s peak, the noise was so loud it made your heart accelerate instinctively. I remembered Jon Krakauer describing the high altitude wind as the “roar of a squadron of B747′s” and felt humble.
It was another long night. We worried that the branches that had not been eaten by elephants the previous night might now break and fall on our tent. Lights were flickering on and off in the camp as people became concerned and got up to tighten, batten down, latch and secure.
By morning, though, the air had settled and the world was calm again. A fine sand dust had worked its way everywhere. It was in the tent, in our mouths, in our dishes, in our clothes, in bags left open, in and out of the car.
We thanked Rodgers who didn’t seem too impressed by the night’s wind as he had a solid house. He showed us a bonus owl and went into another lengthy tirade. As it turns out, Elina calls him “Talk-Talk”. When we managed to escape, slightly dizzy and needing to digest all the information provided in raw batches, we were silent for a while, processing Rodgers. Over.
As we drove steadily south, the predominant mopane syndrome kept us yawning for action, and a new plan emerged in our minds. From Olifants, rather than backtracking north to Letaba, we would if possible add a night in southern Satara, at the heart of lion country.
To my bewilderment, even the magical sight of hippos and buffaloes had turned casual. The human mind is easily fooled into boredom by repetition, and tends to seek novelty above all things. Where repetition could actually yield intimate knowledge, it is replaced by a thrill-seeking quest for new sensations. We want our imagination to be tickled, our senses probed. And somewhere along the way, we lose the path to wisdom.
But on that day of June 2013, as we drove through the dense bushes of African wilderness, the tall head of giraffes poking through vegetation like skyscrapers out of fog, elephants materializing so close to us that their spread out ears made our hearts skid and our accelerator foot heavy, wisdom had lost a small battle with greed.
We just wanted to see some bloody lions!
2013 note: This entry was originally published exactly six years ago – July 27, 2007. This is an anniversary reprint. On that date, lightning struck and the greatest wheels were set in motion. Time stood still for only an instant and then leaped forward.
The comments left referred to this post about HDR photography. History in the making.
This time it was only midnight. I walked towards False Creek and the bridges to go record some invisible colors. Somebody was sleeping on the beach. I can’t blame them.
Wintertime mornings are chilly in the Kruger Park, and when up before dawn, a sweater or fleece are welcome. Shivering a bit in the dark rondavel, I dressed up enough to feel cozy and brewed coffee on the outside hot-plate while birds added their solos to the river tune. Our next camp, Balule, was only a half-hour away and we had decided to go for an early drive before packing up and moving on from Olifants.
One of the park maps we carried along showed a little star some five kilometers to the north along with the magical caption “Von Weilligh’s Baobab”. As far back as I can remember, upon my first reading of The Little Prince, I have had a secret wish to see and touch a baobab. For those who don’t remember, the prince’s planet was threatened by baobab seeds which had to be strictly controlled, or else.
Saint-Éxupéry was a cunning storyteller but he also managed to draw beautifully innocent images, which I used as practice subjects when I first learned to draw vector-based objects in an old Corel Draw version. I recreated the prince, curved sword as his side and blond spiky hair like an evening star, and I made open and closed boas, and the small planet with its three baobabs, circa 1992. I’ve unfortunately lost them.
Then a few years ago while overflying coastal Central Africa on a flight to Cape Town, I had spotted, just minutes before sunset, long isolated shadows on the ground, some 35,000 feet below. Mesmerized and having ruled out all other possibilities, I had concluded that these were the silhouettes of gigantic trees, baobabs isolated enough that I could single them out from the plane in the flat and dry, glowing landscape.
So with all the above in mind, the promise of finally meeting one of the largest trees on Earth was making my visit to Kruger even more exciting. We followed a dirt road for a while, my heart beating faster every minute and soon the tree appeared, rising majestically out of low vegetation in slightly hilly terrain. The baobab was towering above us, right next to the road, hundreds of years old, a beacon through the times it had witnessed.
We were not allowed to get out of the car, and would not necessarily have wanted to with the thick, ambush-prone bushes around us, but we took pictures from both angles and I promised myself I would eventually place my hand on such a trunk and listen to its ancient pulse. Baobabs are deciduous and their strange little fruits with a velvety skin sound hollow. We would find them at another camp.
Two of the largest baobabs alive are actually located in the Limpopo province, whose southeastern border is the Olifants River, and their trunks have a mind-boggling circumference of 33 and 47 meters (108 and 154 feet)! The have names and have been carbon-dated to be over 1000 years old.
I fell silent for a while, talking in my head to the little prince, explaining that the planet had grown and now had more trees and people, but it remained, essentially, a lonely planet. Baobabs, however, were no longer a threat. He did not reply. He might have been caring for his difficult rose.
Back at the camp, we packed up and after one last glance at the magnificent scenery that was rapidly warming up through late morning, we headed out since we had time to kill between our 10 AM check-out time and 2 PM Balule check-in, done in advance at Olifants since Balule was another satellite camp.
The drive to Balule would normally have been very short, a secondary bridge crossing the river almost directly in line with the camp. But reception staff informed us that the bridge had been damaged by floods early in the year and still had not reopened.
In an amazing display of violence, the Olifants River had left its bed and flooded its banks, spreading chaos and destruction throughout its path. The flood pictures posted in the hall were incredible, reminiscent of the Amazon much more than Africa. Serious repair work had already be done but our bridge remained impassable. We would have to go the long way around.
We re-visited the bridge over the Olifants River, finding many crocodiles and witnessing fish eagles mating up in a skeleton-looking tree. We came across a trio of klipspringers who had forgotten to be shy, surprised a superb saddlebill stork eating in tall wet grass, and a large pofadder, extremely venomous, crossed the road in front of us.
Arriving at the Balule gate early and finding it closed, we frowned, surprised. I got out of the car and let us through, closing back behind us. Tamboti had been wide open during the day and we wondered if this implied the presence of more predators.
The camp was rather small and we had soon inspected it and found the few available sites. Of these, the center ones were rejected for lack of privacy and we picked the most isolated corner we could get, not so shady but facing nothing but savanna wilderness. The river, though out of sight behind bushes, flew past the opposite side of the camp only a few hundred feet away. We could hear hippos grunting as usual, and fish eagles were calling somewhere nearby.
I went to work on the tent while Marie dealt with early food matters. Luckily, our tent is of the self-erecting kind and I can have it pitched in 5 minutes flat. I then sat down in a camping chair and stared thoughtfully at the fence, wishing it had not been there and yet grateful for it kept all man-eating creatures locked outside the camp. They could now only attack me in dreams. They never did.
A bit later, a man who was camping next to us with his wife in a caravan, and with whom we had exchanged the ritual pleasantries earlier, came over to inquire whether we needed anything from the shop at Olifants as they were going on a supply run. That’s the bush for you. Civilization is oozed back into the heart of people by the presence of so much harsh beauty and barely tamed wilderness. We gratefully placed an order of tonic water as we were out – and somehow cannot conceive drinking anything else at sunset than a cold G&T.
Having established camp, we took off, chasing sunset. The gate was still closed but this time it was guarded and it appeared we had arrived earlier while the guard, who obviously was there all day with no relief, had gone to do just that. He looked grumpy now, and as he dutifully noted down our plate number, we wondered if having ventured manually through the gate had been an offense. Eaten tourists probably looked bad on his report. On the way back, we stopped for a moment in front of a beautiful baobab that grew just outside the fence, the sun setting right through its branches.
Marie lit up the braai in a ritual that was again becoming, after only a few nights, as important as it had been for our ancestors for hundreds of thousands of years before us. Fire had promised survival, then, and while our lives no longer depended on it, our souls still seemed to.
Scanning the bush just outside the fence, I suddenly noticed a shape that did not belong. It was golden brown, very low in the dry grass and did not move. But, to my delight, it had ears. Hyena ears, trained on our braai, and on us.
The spotted hyena lay there for a long time, still and flat. Then as the night closed in, its courage grew and it lifted its head to better smell the air. A strange cry echoed through dusk, mixture of laughter and tears. The hyena turned its head but did not move. A larger animal appeared and came close, sniffing the smaller male on the ground. Hyenas are a matriarchal species.
They would be there all night, roaming, hoping, (s)talking.
A sign on the fence warned against feeding wild animals. An animal you feed is an animal you kill, it said. But the hyenas had probably been fed dozens if not hundreds of lamb chop bones by clueless campers, and they were patiently waiting for tonight’s menu, defying the sign’s authority. Of course if they had had a chance, the hyenas would much rather have tasted the hands that fed them.
I kept my camera handy but the light was dim. The telephoto forced me to shoot at very high ISO and I knew I would have to enhance the pictures at post-processing.
I decided to start a conversation.
“Hello,” I said to the hyena, hoping to get a blog post out of this.
“Hiya,” he answered, nodding once. “I was expecting you.”
“You knew Marie and I were coming to Balule tonight?” I asked.
“No, but someone always comes to this corner in search of privacy and wildlife.”
“Do people feed you?” I asked again.
“Sure,” the hyena said, “all the time. Bones, whole chops, sausage, you name it.”
“That’s bad for you,” I explained. “The sign says that animals who are used to being fed become a threat and have to be displaced or killed.”
“I mean it,” I insisted. The hyena had to understand.
I changed my approach. “Listen, let me ask you a question. If the gate was open and you could come in at night, would you be afraid of us and the fires?”
“Of course not,” the hyena laughed, “I’m here every night, watching you.”
“And would you hesitate jumping on a kid and eating it?” I asked, knowing what the answer was going to be.
“Not only a kid but a juicy fatty adult if I can find one. I would suspect Gauteng citizens are especially tasty.”
“Now,” I said, “that’s bragging a bit. They are big and padded.”
“I can kill a hippo and my jaws are more powerful than a leopard’s or a bear’s,” spat the hyena disdainfully.
“You would be shot,” I said.
“Maybe,” the hyena answered, sighing as a wind gust brought in a lungful of boerewors fat.
“Doesn’t that worry you?” I asked again.
“No. I don’t know how to worry. Tomorrow doesn’t exist, I’m a hyena. I do what I do, in the moment.”
“Then I envy you,” I said.
“No you don’t. You need tomorrow. Now is never good enough for humans. They waste it wondering how much better it could have been, and rather than acting, they promise themselves that tomorrow will be better.”
I was silent for a while. He had a point.
“If I could cross this fence and kill you now,” the hyena added, “I would.”
“But you can’t,” I insisted, “and you know why? It’s because the promise of tomorrow has made us erect a fence here to guarantee it.”
The hyena kept quiet for a moment and then burst out in maniacal laughter.
“All right, then,” he said, “I will eat you tomorrow. Totsiens.”
We parted. We would each do what we did best, confidently. I knew I most likely would prevail. I had a strong short-term advantage: I could build fences, based on the previous day’s memories and to improve the next. But long term, our futures became blurry.
There was a strong possibility that the hyena might still be standing by an old abandoned fence next to a millennial baobab, eons from now, long after my species had pushed a wrong button and gone extinct.
The hyena would still laugh and hunt, and it might have a similar interview with a new interlocutor. But would that one be smarter? And most importantly, would he still draw baobabs?