Having started out my debut blog post on Africa Geographic in a tiara, it wasn’t hard to come up with a topic that would lead to less ridicule than that; but that clearly would be taking the easy way out!
Instead, I have decided to write about something that one probably doesn’t often associate with big, macho game rangers…and that is tears!
As it is a guide’s job to keep his guests happy and give them the experience of a lifetime, you would probably not expect an awful lot of tears on a safari, unless of course, the guide is doing his job extremely well, or extremely poorly! During my last working cycle I twice looked around to see my guests crying. Fortunately, in both cases it was because they were totally overwhelmed with joyous emotions from simply sitting in the middle of a breeding herd of elephants; something that as a child used to bring me to tears too, albeit for totally different reasons!
As a kid, I had an absolute phobia of these large grey beasts, and I can recall one incident like it was yesterday (and in case you are wondering, that is an entirely figurative use of the word!); I was about 13 years old, and should actually have been sitting in the classroom staring at the blackboard, but instead I was in the middle of the Timbavati staring at a tortoise at a waterhole. As there was nothing around, my dad said I could go and look at the tortoise, about 60 m from our Land Rover, which I proceeded to do before returning to the Landy. I had literally just put my bum on the seat when a herd of elephants came strolling through the bushes on the far side, right past where I had been standing a minute before; for a kid with a phobia of elephants, this was the equivalent of a near-death experience, and I immediately began shaking so much that the whole vehicle wobbled for the remainder of the sighting…but not tears!
Oh no, the tears only started coming as I got older. Now I am not sure if I am a bit odd because of the fact that I can actually, over the course of my guiding career, recall three occasions when I have cried (for non woman-related issues, that is), or am I odd because I will actually admit to having cried on three occasions over the course of my guiding career? Either way, the cat is out of the bag now, so I might as well continue with this story.
The first two occasions actually happened within a month of one another, and both involved the deaths of two animals that I had spent hundreds of hours watching; the first and biggest blow was the rather tragic loss of the dominant male leopard in our area, who was affectionately known as Batman. That hit me hard, and more for the manner of how he died than anything else; but I like to think that I was not the only guide that shed a tear when he lay on his bed at the end of a very blue Monday the day we heard the news. I was just coming to terms with Batman’s loss when I witnessed one of our resident lionesses being attacked and killed by three nomadic male lions that sprung up out of nowhere! Making the situation worse was the fact that she had just had a litter of cubs that were now doomed to a slow death because of the loss of their mother.
My tears were as much for anger as they were for sadness, knowing that this attack was not going to be the last by these males on this pride; sadly this premonition was true, and all the lionesses in this pride were wiped out; by the fourth lioness, the tears had stopped flowing.
Before you start grabbing for the tissues, my third crying session is a much happier one! I do just have to contextualise the situation a bit, as it slotted right in the middle of probably the most amazing string of game drives I have ever taken any guests on; it was the sort of drives I used to dream about taking when I was a little boy (and cried for many other reasons, such as being made to eat my vegetables, or when He-Man’s head fell off). I had a Swedish, an Australian, and a South African couple, none of whom had ever been to the bush before! Being their first time, I started off slowly, and enjoyed the smaller animals without rushing about. We found the nervous male leopard with an impala kill, but he wasn’t all that happy, and soon came charging out of the grass straight at us before grabbing the remains of the impala and dashing off! As he was moving off with the carcass, a female leopard pitched up, and we watched as she went and ate the left over scraps – two leopards in the first hour of their first safari produced a lot of smiles; then to end the drive being surrounded by a hundreds of buffalos drinking at a waterhole in the moonlight rounded off their first real African experience in style.
Day Two arrived, and we spent the morning sitting on a rock on the riverbank watching a herd of elephants drinking water about 30m away from us as if we were not even there – even for me, it ranks up there as one of my best ever elephant sightings; so how was I to better that experience in the afternoon? Well, with the help of a herd of giraffes drinking, some elephants splashing in the mud, and a pack of wild dogs waking up for their afternoon hunt, it was an easy job! It takes a lot to pull me away from a wild dog sighting, but this afternoon was different, as less than a kilometre away, a pride of lions with nine cubs were resting in an open clearing, and it was too good an opportunity to miss – and our timing could not have been better! Not only did we get the cubs active in the most amazing light, but the sun had no sooner set when the lionesses got up to hunt; within 10 minutes we watched them pounce on an impala right in front of us and sat gob-smacked as the twelve lions got stuck into their meal. Oh, and if that wasn’t enough, we ended the evening with another leopard!
The next day was a bit “quiet”, but still included a crash of rhinos and an exciting elephant sighting that almost produced tears for the wrong reasons! The last morning, and I was issued with three requests: male lion, hyenas, and cheetah. Easy! Forty minutes into the drive – eight hyenas eating a kudu in a waterhole! A bit further down the road, while following up on audio for a leopard, we found tracks that Petros (my tracker) was examining so closely I thought I might need to offer him my glasses; but he looked at me and hesitantly suggested that these were not tracks for the leopard we were looking for, but actually those of a cheetah. An hour of tracking and searching later and I was about to give up when a colleague excitedly called me to tell me that he had found it; soon we were sitting watching a gorgeous cheetah surveying the bush from a mound, just as a herd of forty elephants pitched up to drink at the waterhole on the other side of the vehicle– all I wanted to know was when the male lion was due to fall out of a tree!
With that scene set, it seems a bit odd that of all the animals we saw, it was a giraffe that made me brought me to tears. I took the guests on a midday bush walk – the ones that we normally don’t see any animals on, as animals are not as stupid as us to go walking around in the midday sun – but today was different and we saw impala, waterbuck, and even a wonderful herd of giraffes that were so relaxed that we walked within 30m of them! Not wanting to overstay our welcome, we carried on down into the riverbed towards a pool of water, and out of the bush to our left popped a male giraffe. I told the guests to stand dead still, and dead quiet – although even a blind mole would have seen the six of us standing out in the middle of a dry riverbed with no cover!
But the giraffe didn’t seem to mind. No, instead he approached the water and began to drink about 15m from us. I glanced to my right, and there a hippo was ambling down the middle of the river bed towards us, and he walked straight into the water about 40m away.
I turned my head back to the left, but it wasn’t to look at the giraffe, it was to shake my head in disbelief at the fact that I was standing in the middle of the African bush, seemingly invisible to the animals around me. And just like that, my eyes welled up with tears and I just stood there. Watching the giraffe. Crying.
When my guests asked if they could walk again the next day, I forewarned them that they would be disappointed, as walks like we had experienced the day before don’t happen often. I guess I should not have been surprised when we found a leopard sleeping up a tree and watched as she jumped down and strolled across a clearing while we stood there watching in disbelief once again!
To this day, I am not sure what I wonder more about; whether those guests have any idea about just how incredibly fortunate they were to have seen what they saw in three days; or whether or not any of them saw those tears behind my sunglasses and realised that game rangers do cry?