Terror and exhilaration on a South African night safari
Star Travel writer Adrian Brijbassi continues his exploration of South Africa in advance of the World Cup, which starts June 11. Today he takes a bit of a sidetrack to check out some African wildlife, as many visitors to the World Cup no doubt hope to do.
SABI SANDS RESERVE, GREATER KRUGER PARK, South Africa – It’s night in the jungle. Night means night here. No glow from a lamp on Yonge Street or the neon digits of a microwave or alarm clock. Your eyes adjust from black to black.
We’ve been in this position for a half an hour, long enough for the light to disappear and mayhem to creep close. To the left, rhinos lurk. Before the dark blanketed the plains of switchgrass and acacia trees, we had seen two of them knocking horns, a sign of aggression that would make any tourist uneasy. Behind us elephants stand and grumble: a six pack of them who could stampede over our Land Rover if they felt the urge. Ahead, a herd of wildebeest grazes unaware of what predator stares from beneath the tall reeds and bush. Directly to our right, is a stark-still impala who seems to know what we know: That somewhere close a pride of lions caterpillars toward this scene.
It’s been an hour since we first spotted the jungle kings. Our ranger, Brett du Bois of the Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve, could tell they were on the hunt. Their posture gave it away: the slow swivel of the neck; the head butts exchanged between the group’s lead hunter and her followers. Then the slow, stealthy walk toward the wildebeest.
Brett moved us into position, settling the Land Rover in the middle of the action. When the sun’s glow was present and you could see all around you, Africa kept you riveted with nature that’s as primordial as it gets. But when the dark came and you were told to shut up (so the ranger could hear the sounds out there) and not move (in case we spooked the nocturnal animals that can see us), the realization that you are in a place nowhere at all like the Toronto Zoo strikes you hard.
You go to a zoo to see animals. You come to a safari to see animals fight to survive.
Terror is finding yourself parked in an open plain encircled by wild animals that can see in the dark and must kill every day to live. You have no vision except for when the tracker flashes a spotlight so Brett can see what’s happened in the last few minutes. Call it the “Blair Witch Project: South Africa.”
Amid the grumbles of the beast, the crackle of crickets and our own breaths, Moses the tracker hears something that makes him throw a burst from the spotlight he holds. In that blink, Brett’s eyes catch sight of a movement — a twitch or a gallop, or any motion in between — that makes him say, “Okay, something’s going to get killed tonight.”
Your hand grips the rail of the uncovered Land Rover and your heart smacks your lungs with the beat of a tribal drum as you wonder to whose death he refers.
The lions start. They leap forward and you can follow them because their eyes, which were merely glints like fireflies moments ago, have become lanterns. Chasing toward the herd, they vault over fallen branches and bushes as they speed toward a potential feast. Forget the World Cup, you think, this is the game humans should be coming to South Africa to see.
A wildebeest fires a snort, a warning sound for him and his brothers to flee for tomorrow. The impala spots the lions and runs too. The rhinos and elephants are still in the dark, left behind by the Land Rover as Brett puts it in gear and rumbles ahead over terrain as unsteady as everyone’s nerves. Our safari group of six, all from big cities, hangs on as we keep pace with the chase.
The only witness I can see is a full moon, too far away to help should any creature need it on this African night.