The night before the African Safari, I was so excited that I couldn’t sleep. I was to be picked up at 5AM for the 10-hour long Safari (or ‘Game Drive’ as it’s called in Commercial terminology). I was packed and ready to leave by 4:30 AM and nervously paced across the room, waiting for the watch to strike 5. Every minute post 5 AM felt longer than years and I was finally picked up by my driver cum guide-to-be, John. I was going to address him as ‘Mr. John’ but the guy was hardly 28 and it was a little surprising since I hadn’t expected him to be this young. There were two German couples and an English couple. I sat alone in my bubble of excitement and readied my camera gear to capture the most epic expedition of my life. About an hour’s journey from St. Lucia, we finally reached the main gate of the Hluhluwe/Imfolozi Park.
Game Safaris are not like visiting zoos. There is no definite guarantee of one being able to get glimpses of the Big 5s of Africa. The reason we started our journey so early in the morning was because a lot of animals such as lions and leopards tend to come out in morning for water as a part of their daily routine. Animals in safaris don’t run as per the ‘human’ schedule so humans have to blend into their daily schedule if they wish to spot them. The ‘Big 5’I keep mentioning are: Lion, Elephant, Cape buffalo, African Leopard and the White/Black Rhino. The name ‘Big 5’ was given by the hunters not because they are the deadliest but because these animals are the hardest to hunt. To enjoy the safari, one needs a camera with a lot of zoom since these rare animals can only be spotted from a distance (the reason we see wildlife photographers carry those gigantic lenses!) A good binocular is another must during game drives because the safaris are to experience the wildlife in its pure form and no amount of pictures can ever do justice to the moments which you witness with your own eyes. Binoculars can be easily rented for the day.
Within our first three hours, we spotted Rhinos, Buffalos and to our great luck, we were also able to spot a beautiful lioness. We stopped at a scenic place for breakfast which had been packed by the Safari Company. Although I had come for the safari with all my camera kits and preparations, at some point during the tour, I realized that I wanted to keep these valuable hours as memories of a lifetime and that I didn’t want to have to think about other things such as camera lenses and the picture quality. All I wanted to focus on was living in the moment and capturing it in some part of my soul to be able to cherish it for lifelong. The breath-taking African countryside was something I can neither put in words nor show you in pictures. It’s something one has to experience by them.
The most amazing part of the drive was the Guide and his vast knowledge about every single animal we saw. It was interesting to watch how he was so aware of the nature and behaviour of the animals and how he used the knowledge of their behavioural patterns to bring them closer to us so that we could have a good view. For example, during one instance there was a group of Cape buffalos crossing the road while we were in turn waiting to see them cross. They saw us just as we were looking at them and there were a few moments of eye contact post which, they stopped moving. John moved the car to get out of their line of view and we noticed that they started moving again and as they saw us in sight, they stopped again. It was a hilarious experience and we were laughing so hard. We spotted Elephants and many other animals throughout the day. We had BBQ in the park which was a completely surreal experience. The only thing we missed was spotting the lions and leopards.
Throughout the entire ride, I was really curious about John, him being so young and doing a job in a remote location like this, made me inquisitive about his back-story. I started a conversation with him over lunch with a simple question of how he had been able to spot a lioness from a distance of over 500 meters earlier during the day, where as it had taken us 15 whole minutes to set our binoculars on her location even after he had descriptively pointed it out to us. He said that when one stays close and spends some time with the Mother Nature and the wildlife, it not only affects the physical health but also improves the brain’s performance. Within a few days, one can hear sounds one couldn’t hear before and it’s sort of a mental process of filterization. He ended his statement by saying, ‘there is a reason behind someone coming up with the idea of having parks in the
middle of the big cities’. I sensed the sarcasm and nodded my head as I couldn’t have agreed more with him. It was then that I realised why I was still being able to smile despite of the 10 hours of bumpy ride and pain coursing through my entire body was in pain. My mind was still fresh and enthusiastic like never before.
During another discussion, we were talking about the behaviour of certain animals such as Hippos being territorial creatures who don’t like anybody entering their territory, Elephants being very careful of their kids and being harsh to any possible threats to their children. Similarly, other animals in the forest have various different ways of living their lives and don’t appreciate major changes within a short period of time. It was then that I realised how we misunderstand these animals all our lives without even empathizing with their reality. We change the environmental conditions of these animals and when they just behave as per their natural habits, we label them as cannibals or dangerous. It’s never their fault that we make the mistakes without knowing about their nature and in turn, expect them to behave within the terms which we are comfortable with.
The rivers in the park had dried out due to the absence of rain within the last few months and it was because the jungles were gradually being destroyed for the growth of industrialization. We always hear about this issue on the TV and read on the textbooks but when I saw its effects through my own eyes, my heart grew unbearably sad. The animals had no energy left in them and the entire park had become a graveyard for even the alive species. I was told that when there is a good rain, all the animals come to river for water including the lions and others. It is then easy to spot them near the river and a lot of hunting incidents among the animals can also be seen. Unfortunately, the river in front of us had no signs of ever having been a water resource. We saw two elephants on the side digging some holes into the ground. On further enquiry, John told us that they were probably looking for water for their children. This time, I couldn’t stop the tears coming out of my eyes and that image has been etched into my mind forever.
One thing was for sure, I had personally never felt this close to witnessing the destruction of humankind but Environment Change is real and it’s happening. I have seen it.