What does an ancient sycamore fig have in common with a pride of feasting, feuding lions? At first glance, absolutely nothing. But on this particular occasion, both were completely unexpected and delightful finds.
Our guide must have given us several strange glances in the few days that we spent bumbling around the Timbavati, wondering what on earth could possess this group of women to get so excited about trees! All the other guests would head out at the crack of dawn to begin their lion or leopard search. Not us. Our mission was to find the trees of the day after enjoying a leisurely cup of coffee and a casual presentation on the identity of the leafy subjects we’d be hunting down.
The nice thing about trees is that they don’t retreat into the shadows when the sun gets too hot, or move about uncooperatively while one is trying to photograph them. They are just there. But they form a significant dimension in the ecology of an area. They are not only the backdrop to many a glorious bushveld scene, but are a link in the food chain, a part of the animals’ habitat and an element of biodiversity that’s worth learning about to get just that little bit more from the overall bush experience.
“What are we looking for today, Megan?” one of my tree enthusiasts quizzed me over her steaming cup of Amarula coffee. We had pretty much covered the bulk of the list and had a few “trickier” species to track down. I’d really hoped to show them a sycamore fig, Ficus sycamorus, one of the bushveld’s iconic trees, with its characteristic yellowish, powdery bark that makes it stand out like a sentinel along watercourses in the early morning or late afternoon light … but I hadn’t seen any. “Let’s ask our guide if he knows where we can find a sycamore!” I answered, crossing my fingers.
The guide looked distressed when I asked him, and then his eyes lit up, “There is one that I know of, but it’s far away,” he offered. “We’ll take it!” I said and so began our morning’s expedition. He was keen to drive quickly to get to the site but we were keener to take in as many trees along the way as possible [another of those funny looks]. After some haggling, we compromised. He’d drive at a steady pace and we’d yell for him to stop if we wanted to look at something particular. There were a few emergency stops … Gardenias, Terminalias, Lanneas! The radio was crackling with life and I could see our guide straining his ears to at least enjoy the morning’s big-and-hairy sightings remotely while his charges enjoyed the vegetation. I sensed his frustration at not being focused on responding to any of the calls.
Then he stopped suddenly and turned to us with beseeching eyes. “Can I make just a little detour? I’d really like to show you something!” The girls conferred and the vote was unanimous, “Sure, the sycamore isn’t going anywhere! What’s on the menu?” A wry smile crept across his face – an all-knowing expression that communicated without words – just wait and see!
Shortly, we were stopped in front of a writhing mass of feeding lions. They were everywhere, a large pride of probably more than 15 animals. Breakfast was a buffalo bull – clearly an old retiree, a “dagga boy”, one of the group known for their grumpiness. The bull had clearly been vulnerable without the safety of a herd or at least other dagga boys to watch his back. The pride were making easy work of their enormous kill. A huge black-maned male presided over the scene, obviously having fed well as he was quite amenable to the females sharing the meal – uncharacteristic chivalry for a male lion.
Then chaos erupted as a chase ensued. One lioness was apparently not welcome at the feeding frenzy – perhaps a female from the pride whose territory these lions had invaded. Our guide explained: the feasting Caroline’s Pride were some way outside of their usual range. The taste of buffalo had obviously tempted them to venture into forbidden turf, but because of their large numbers the pride were confident of their invincibility. The dark-maned male saw off the unwelcome lioness in the bolshie way lions do and proceeded to roar out his easily won victory. Our hearts rattled in our chests as he did so.
Satisfied that he had given his guests a sample of proper wildlife action, our trusty guide then ushered us to our next stop: the promised sycamore. Little did he know that this stop would be even more breathtaking for us than the first one had been! The tree was enormous, towering over the landscape and noticeable from a good distance away, cloaked in perfect soft light. The amber trunk rose up from a fantasy-like buttressed base that contorted and spread its arching limbs to hold high the dense canopy of deep green, rough-textured leaves. It was a simply splendid specimen! Approaching it was tantamount to approaching an enchanted place and, descending into the small drainage line out of which it grew, we held our breath. There was no point ruining the moment with tales of how minute fig wasps inhabit the fruit in a lock-and-key arrangement so that the flowers inside the receptacle are pollinated and, reciprocally, the wasps can breed. How the tiniest insect of all and this monster of a tree mutually rely on one another for survival is one of nature’s incredible wonders, but it was a story that could wait until we returned to the lodge and matters academic! We simply soaked in the sanctity of the magnificent setting.
When we did eventually get back to the lodge, sated by a fabulous morning all round, we were surprised to hear that the other guests had not seen the lions. They had charged off in pursuit of the cats but not seen any. We, on the other hand, had gone looking for trees and had stumbled into the midst of a Discovery channel scene. There’s a lesson in that irony, I have no doubt.