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)! They have names and have been carbon-dated to be over 1,000 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 a.m. check-out time and 2 p.m. 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 dusk 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?
«Slingshot to Kruger» Series
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Marie’s recount: Kruger National Park