September 2, 2014

Bush "Time"

Almost everything we do is governed by time.  Our alarm goes off every morning; we have trains to catch or a time to leave to avoid the worst of the traffic.  Our jobs dictate that we take lunch at a dictated time; the kids must be picked up from school, our favourite TV programme starts at a certain time.  Just think about it: how many times a day do you look at your phone, your watch or a clock – time rules us all…

The bush is not governed by time.  The animals do not complicate their life in the same way that we do.  Therefore, when conducting a course and experiencing the bush in its purest fashion, why should we?  A few days ago the students at Karongwe were able to experience the delight of a day unpressurised by time constraints.  Lorraine, the chef, dutifully prepared for us a packed lunch and we piled into the land rover at first light with the intention of spending a full day in the magnificent world that surrounds us and exploring new areas of the reserve.  We did not have long to wait….

During the previous evening, the chilling calls of the resident hyaenas had echoed up and down the drainage line running alongside the camp.  Perhaps only 200 metres out, we encountered Giggles, the matriarch of the local clan lying in the road.  Soon after she was joined by another female and a sub adult and they slowly loped away up the sandy pathway in their typical ungainly fashion.  Giggles however was limping badly (although we could see no obvious cause for her discomfort) and despite their unsavoury reputation, the hyaenas showed us a gentler side of their nature by constantly looking back at her to check on her progress, ensuring that she was not  separated from her family.

The next few hours (although in keeping with the theme of this article, I honestly could not tell you how long actually passed) ticked by as we marveled at the diversity of species and behaviour encountered on the reserve.  We watched a brown hooded kingfisher catch a cricket and manoeuvre it expertly in its elongated beak before swallowing it whole; a harem of zebras traversing the road which elicited the obvious ‘zebra crossing’ jokes and the comical antics of a baboon troop as they squabbled in the branches of an imperious jackelberry tree, whilst a resplendent nyala bull watched on.

Despite racking up countless hours of bush time over the past 2 weeks, the students had not yet seen an elephant in the flesh.  We had seen fresh tracks and even heard breaking branches in the undergrowth but the architects of the landscape had continued to elude us. 
Until today.  After a period of unknown time, we came across a herd quietly feeding next to the road.  My attempts to discuss the intricacies of elephantine behaviour were lost on them for the first 10 minutes as all sat, mouth agape with cameras seemingly surgically attached to their faces!  One of the big bulls gave us a great display of his power as he ruthlessly dispatched half of a sickle bush tree in one swipe of his formidable tusks!  As is often the way in the bush, this exhibition of destruction was immediately balanced by the comical arrival of a young calf, keen to see what all the fuss was about, and perhaps to pick up some tips on how best to augment his own capabilities.  We watched the gentle creatures interact with each other, delighting in their tactile nature as a calf placed its trunk in its mother’s mouth to sample her choice of food, for an unspecified amount of time before heading off to find shady spot for lunch.

After a pleasant and lazy lunch overlooking the waning Makutsi River (under the watchful gaze of a stunning male giraffe) observing a variety of birds going about their daily activities, including a stunning white-fronted bee eater, we headed off to try and catch a glimpse of a lion pride that had been spotted earlier close by.  However, their alleged location proved fruitless as we drove round and around the area, eyes scanning the undergrowth in the hope of picking up the flick of an ear or the twitch of a tail.  

Eventually we picked up on fresh spoor leading away from their previous resting place and joined in with another vehicle to track them down.  Finally we were rewarded for our diligent work when we bumped into 2 lionesses about 10 meters off the road.  As we watched the muscular predators scan the bush ahead of us, the magnificent male appeared from behind a bush and confidently strode over to join his ladies.  The wind was strong and his mane billowed in the breeze like a model on a photo-shoot as he greeted the huntresses like a general marshaling his troops.

They crossed the road a mere 5 meters from our car, their toned muscles rippled as their powerful feet struck the ground and their whiskers twitched gently as they sampled the air for potential prey.   Something caught their attention and keen eyes were suddenly focused on a sound in the thick bush beyond.  Like a well-oiled machine, the 2 females broke rank and slipped silently into the undergrowth and out of view.  The male seemed despondent about having to move any further during the heat of the day but diligently followed his ladies from a distance.  Despite our efforts we were unable to relocate them but the quality of the sighting more than made up for its brevity!  We all commented how fortunate we had been – 2 minutes earlier and we would have driven past them before they appeared form the bush, 2 minutes later and we would have missed them.  It was another great example of how life has a way of happening whilst you are planning it.  Structure is a good thing but sometimes, listening to the rhythm of nature and letting things just happen can be extremely rewarding!

Finally we arrived back at camp, only then realising that we had spent nearly 9 hours deep in Africa’s glorious garden. We had been thoroughly entertained by countless animals, mesmerized by their actions and interactions and left in awe by some of the ancient gnarled trees that shape the landscape.  Coupled with the backdrop of the towering Drakensburg Mountains the day had been an absolute treat.  Not once did we worry about the time.  Not once were we concerned that we would miss an appointment.  It was freedom in its purest sense and despite the time we spent out, we all felt refreshed and empowered by the experience.  Perhaps we should all take a leaf out of nature’s well paged book and learn to forget about the metaphorical jail that we build for ourselves out of words such as seconds, minutes and hours, and just relax.

Author and photos by Ben Coley

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