Lioness in African sun

African sunset

Late afternoon. April. South Africa. The African sun starts to set and this particular part of the world is bathed in a godly light. Cecile B. de Mille comes to mind. The clouds move, slowly changing shape, as if an invisible choreographer is directing them across the sky. The same ingredients: sun, clouds, sky and yet no two afternoon skies are the same. As we travel back to camp, we meet our neighbours. Tired from a day foraging for food, they laze around in the evening sun.

Baboob lit by the African sun

We pass a baboon, engrossed in picking fleas from his mate’s tail. Focused on the task at hand and paying no attention to our kombi. We may as well be invisible. The African sun catches him just so and adds a reddish tinge to his coat and dresses him for an evening at home with the family.

Lion basking in the African sun

We turn a corner and see a lioness, stretched out on the side of the road, enjoying what’s left of the heat of the day. She radiates pure gold and seems so placid, so tame. On guard, protecting the cubs I know are nearby, she appears so approachable. And yet I know that if I reach towards her, that will change. In a flash. All the godly light in the world won’t change the fact that she is wild – not wild in her world, wild in mine. Zebra in the African sun

A zebra, black and white in the noon-day light, turns biscuit brown as he grazes beneath the lowering African sun. Yet another trick of nature as all its forces work together to change the shape of things as we see them. To show us that nothing stays the same, not even for a little while. Things are constantly changing, however minutely. How we see things depends a lot on when we look. Nothing is certain.

dead tree against the evening African sun

The silhouettes of dead trees stand still against the sky, blacked out by the sun. As the French artist George Rouault so insightfully said: A tree against the sky possesses the same interest, the same character, the same expression as the figure of a human. It’s like being at a private screening of evolving art; a gallery open to the world but empty now, save for the four of us and nature.

It is at dawn and at dusk when the true magnificence of the bush comes to be. It is during these quiet transitions between time that I am most a peace, suspended in world where nothing matters but the now. And a tiny piece of me wishes I could stay.

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Safari south africa rhino

Alaska. South Africa. Could two places be more different? And yet, while in South Africa on safari, Alaska kept popping into my head. And it started when I saw a buffalo. Alaska is a great place to spot moose, caribou, bear, and the odd buffalo if you are lucky. In Africa, they talk of the Big 5: elephant, rhino, buffalo, leopard and lion (interestingly, this is to be expanded to the Big 7, to include whale and shark…mmmm).South Africa Safari Bison

Two completely different casts of characters, animals known for either their predatory nature or danger potential in compromising situations, with one common denominator. The Alaskan bison and the African buffalo don’t look alike all; it’s a bit like me having, say, Japanese cousins.  But the relationship is there.

South Africa Safari lioness

As the late AK was fond of saying, for every one animal you see in the bush, 49 see you.  HR is convinced that when he goes to heaven, St Peter will play back a video showing him all the animals he failed to spot on his trips to Kruger on safari and that will be his purgatory. Driving through the park gates was like driving into another world, a world where humans are locked up and animals roam free. A world where looking out the window of a kombi you might spot nothing for hours but acres and acres of bush and scrub and then suddenly, you round a bend and happen across a lioness on the side of the road.

Much of the excitement of being ‘on safari’ is not knowing what you’ll see next. Every bit of your being is tuned in to where you are and what you’re doing. You’re on high alert for the best part of the day. You react to the slightest movement in the trees, call ‘stop’ to the driver (the incredibly patient EK) who will then reverse and give you time to check out what you think you’ve seen. It can be very frustrating – rocks, trees, bushes all begin to take shape and morph into animals. You’d put money that what you saw was alive and breathing but no… it was another one of nature’s tricks.

South Africa Safari

But to truly enjoy it, to really get it, you need to be aware of the majesty of it all. It’s not about spotting the Big 5. It’s about spotting the chameleon on the side of the road; it’s about never tiring of seeing herd after herd of water-buck; it’s about dumping that ‘gotta be big to be great’ attitude that is so prevalent in our world of blockbusters and bestsellers. Yes, your first elephant or lion or zebra will always have that extra ‘specialness’ of being your ‘first’ …but the shame of it is that it’s so easy to devolve into a ‘seen one, seen ’em all’ attitude.

South Africa Safari water-buck

On a night safari (the only option available to see animals at night as private vehicles cannot leave the compounds after 6pm) it was upsetting to hear people groan ‘it’s only a herd of impala’. How anyone could tire of seeing these gorgeous faces is beyond me. Likewise, the zebra. Amazing creatures. I could watch them all day. Their black and white stripes (28 on each side of the average Z) moving and merging into new patterns and shapes. Art on hooves. Whether their stripes are for camouflage or to prevent insects biting  is still under discussion and has been so for more than a century.

South Africa Safari zebra

While the days did take on a certain sameness as we found our groove, that sameness was superficial. Up at dawn. A quick coffee and some rusks (ours made by the incredibly talented SD from Ermelo, Mpumalanga). Pack the kombi. Then out the gate. Brunch about 1oish (Pretoria’s HR in charge of the braai) and lunch late afternoon before back to the camp to supper. That was the routine of it. DR has it down to a fine art – she’s the mistress of order and organisation and could run a small nation. She’d get my vote for president any day. The excitement, the wonder, the magnificence of  it all came in between. During the long hours of nothing, years of collective memories surfaced and I realised how lucky I was to be in the company of such greatness.   And then the adrenaline rush when I thought I saw something. The frustration when it turned out to be a rock. Another rush and this time I was sure it moved… and it did… and I saw nature at her best, in all her glory. And I felt insignificant.South Africa Safari bird on a giraffe

For all our modernity, for all our inventiveness, for all that we claim in the name of progress, nothing can match the uncomplicated complexity of nature. A world where survival is what it’s about; a world where beauty is not augmented by creams and lotions; a world where big and small live side by side and being different is part of simply being.

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elephant eyelashes

A number of years ago, while sitting in her house in Slough, the indomitable EK promised that some day, she’d take me to play with the elephants. I have to admit, the very words ‘play with the elephants’ conjured up all sorts of wild imaginings. Elephants wielding baseball bats in their trunks. Elephants playing football. Elephants doing the 100-yard dash.  Being South African, EK often paints her thoughts with words, a refreshing change from the formulaic descriptions used this side of the world. But playing with the elephants??? No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t get a handle on what she meant. And then I went with her to Kruger.

Kruger elephants

Now, some less fortunate people go to Kruger on tour. With guides. In groups. I was extremely lucky to have three personal, professional, and very entertaining guides in EK and the Springbok Kids (sounds like a band, doesn’t it…and yes, believe me, they sing and bring a whole new meaning to the concept of a ‘captive audience’). Between them, they’ve more than 100 years of elephant play time under their oxters and I knew I was in good hands. Being slightly anal, I refused to believe that elephants could hide. They’re massive. How could they disappear behind a tree? But disappear they do. One minute they’re there. The next, gone!

Kruger elephants

Kruger elephants

We left the camp each morning between 6 and 7am and motored around all day, stopping for breakfast and lunch. You can only get out of your vehicle at designated rest areas or occasionally, in the middle of a long bridge. The animals see vehicles as just another beast – on four wheels rather than four legs,  rarely venturing off the road. Tame enough. No threat. That first evening, on our way back to camp, we hit on a herd of elephants playing in a river. It was gobsmacking – awe inspiring – to see these massive creatures frolicking around like kids. When they’d had their bath, they wandered up across the road to go home. My more experienced companions were keeping a sharp eye for signs that one of them might charge because despite their bulk, they’re fast! They can travel at 25 mph and at that speed, you wouldn’t want to run into one!

I wondered what animals did all day in the bush. Just eat and sleep and wander around? Perhaps. Only once did I see one doing something approaching work,  using her trunk to move a heavy log – admittedly I had trouble seeing the sense in moving a log from a to b, but then again, working for the sake of working is quite common in human terms, too. But when you consider that a grown elephant needs 300-500 lbs of food each day, finding that food and eating it is a good day’s work in itself.

Elephants in Kruger mom and baby

Close up and personal, even the youngest of them looks old and wrinkled. But they’re happy in their skins. I didn’t see any of them working out or trying to firm up that flab but man, do they have eyelashes to die for – they can grow as long as 2.5 inches, without mascara! I fell in love. For me, elephants are the rugby players of the animal kingdom (am thinking Keith Wood here). Big, strong, bald, great eyes. I could forget about dieting as no matter how big I got, with my elephant beside me, I’d still look tiny.

Typically, they reach puberty at 12-14, have kids up until their 50s, and live to be in their 70s. Quite human. They cry, they laugh, they play. They can look sad, and happy, and bored. They’re the world’s biggest land mammal. They grow to 3-4 metres, weigh 4-7 tonnes (think about 12,000 lbs) and have four toes on their front feet, and three on their back ones. They throw dirt on themselves to protect their skin from the the sun (Lancome, watch out!), and this without the benefits of TV advertising!

Kruger elephants

Elephants are very family oriented. The herd (of 9-10 animals) is ruled by the strongest female, the matriarch. If a baby is upset, they’ll all hover around and comfort it. But while they take care of their young, watching over them at all times, never letting them stray out of sight, they’re not so tolerant of the young, obnoxious bulls. These are usually kicked out of the house when they hit their teens and hang around in bachelor herds, only going back to the family to mate. (Why does all this sound so familiar?) The older they get, the lonelier they become.  There is something really moving about seeing a lone bull making his way through the bush. His slow, lumbering walk. His big soulful eyes. I couldn’t help but feel for him.

Playing with the elephants turned out to be much more than I’d expected. It was an amazing experience and a humbling one. I’d never quite realised how much of humanity is mirrored in the animal kingdom.

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birdwatching in South Africa
Yellow hornbill birdwatching south africa

Yellow hornbill

Since coming to terms with the fact that I fancied the geeky Malcolm (the birdwatcher in the 1980s TV comedy Watching) it’s been years since I’ve had difficult admitting anything to myself. I’m not at all backward about coming forward when it comes to sharing my embarrassing moments but in all honesty, this latest fessing up has left me somewhat dazed. Me? Birdwatching? In South Africa?

I like listening to birds and have always had a strange fascination with owls. But other than the dawn chorus, I’ve never really had a lot of time for our feathered friends. Once, in Valdez Alaska, when I saw about 14 eagles perched on the one tree, I stood in wonder. A robin in the back garden at home that comes calling every winter, he’s special enough to warrant an audible awe. But for the most part, not a bone in my body twitches. The British called birdwatchers ‘twitchers’. In South Africa, they call them ‘birders’. Same idea. Spend the day outdoors with binocs trying to get a check or a tick against  a bird (the rarer the better). Yawn! Yawn! Yawn!

birdwatching south africa

Kori Bustard

Now, having spent eight days travelling through Kruger with three avid birders, not to mention having had dinner with three others in Wakkerstroom, it was probably inevitable that something would rub off on me. But then again, I’ve spent years in the company of red-wine drinkers and I’ve never gotten a taste for that! Mind you, I was rather surprised that none of them were the slighest bit anoraky. They are all intelligent, interesting, amusing people with stories to tell.  So much for stereotypes.

Over the course of eight days or so, my fascination with birds became more and more obvious until on the last day, still searching for a leopard to complete the Big 5 (+ elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion), I had to fess up to praying for a sighting of the Kori Bustard doing his mating dance. I’d seen it on EK’s video from their previous trip to Kruger and so wanted to see him live, in action, for myself.  Stuff the leopard… I wanted to see yer man strutting his stuff. And I’d have gladly taken a secretary bird over a cheetah!
birdwatching south africa

Lilac breasted roller

Another day, parked on a bridge, ostensibly looking for hippos or crocs in the river below, I spotted this big bird in the distance. It flew closer and closer, black and white feathers with a black beak with bright red band and a flash of yellow. I was gobsmacked. I completely forgot about my camera and just stared, mouth open. The saddleback stork can grow to 58 inches in height and there are only 100 in Kruger (a place the size of Belgium). And I saw one of them! It was amazing. But as big as it was, I was equally taken with the hornbills, the glossy starlings, the blacksmith plovers and the go-away birds – which spend their time shouting ‘go away’!

Child that I am, I got such a kick out of being the one to spot the Kori Bustard EVERY TIME, without binoculars, despite being in a Kombi full of birders! It was during a moment of gloating that I realised what was happening. I was shocked. I was hooked. After two days, I gave in and started ticking them off. After six days, I began to recognise them myself and only had to ask about the new sightings. I spent ages following three yellow hornbills trying to get them to pose. I cursed myself for not having a telephoto lens only once during the whole trip: when we spotted seven ground hornbills…. in a tree!!!
birdwatching south africa

Blacksmith plover

I have a thing for black and white and was dead keen to get a decent shot of some zebras for my B&W hallway.ThenI discovered the blacksmith plover…and those pyjama donkeys had some competition. Unfortunately the closet birder in me didn’t show her face until we’d left Wakkerstroom – and I missed the opportunity to see some cranes. Now that would have been cool. Equally so, to see some vultures…close up and personal. I’ll just have to content myself with rereading Xinran’s Sky Burial.

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South Africa and Hungary

The more I learn about the world, the more I realise how little I actually know. Before I visited, what I knew about South Africa had been gleaned from newspapers, TV documentaries, reports by aid organisations, Internet blogs, and the occasional conversation about the state of the nation with some Afrikaaner friends. I have vague memories of Nelson Mandela’s visit to Dublin. I remember the strikes against apartheid and the celebrations when South Africa gained its freedom. I’ve seen the cartoons featuring President Zuma standing under the symbolic showerhead (he apparently believes that showering after sex will prevent the transmission of Aids).  I’m still wondering at FIFA’s decision to hold the World Cup there this summer. In short, if my mind were a computer and you did a search on ‘South Africa’ you’d find a complete mismash of information that says far more about me and my misconceptions than it does about South Africa. Everything I have read or heard about the country has been filtered through a perspective that is the product of the life I have lived so far; a perspective that is influenced by my education, my upbringing, and my spiritual beliefs; a perspective that has been largely coloured by the reported experience of others rather than any first-hand experience of my own.

Learning by doing

A South African friend of mine, recognising this huge gap in my education, invited me to join her on a visit home to the grasslands in Wakkerstroom just south of Pretoria. To see another country, not as a tourist, but as a resident, however temporary, is an honour that is all-too-often taken for granted. To see it in the company of someone who is revered (and occasionally reviled) for the work she has done in breathing new life into this small town is a privilege indeed. Were I here as part of a tour group, staying in a guesthouse or hotel, eating in restaurants featured in guidebooks, my vision of South Africa would probably still be intact. My preconceptions – the cities are dangerous; Aids is prevalent; life is cheap; racism is rife; whites are rich; blacks are poor – may have gone unchallenged.

Instead, I have been party to conversations unfiltered by judicious editors or biased press officers. I have stayed in suburban homes built in guarded complexes, often surrounded by two or three layers of fencing. I have listened to horrific accounts of how rage and anger manifest themselves in senseless, brutal assaults on young and old alike. I have seen how differently people react to the threat of violence; how political correctness is severely curtailing growth and prosperity; and how affirmative action, without the necessary provision of skills and knowledge, is eroding hope for a sustainable future. My somewhat naïve questions about the sanctity of elephants have been met with patient explanations of the damage and the danger and the missed opportunities inherent in not allowing herds to be culled. Heated debates on the dire state of public infrastructure, the inability of politicians to cope with growth and development, and the mistakes that have been made and continue to be made in the post-apartheid era all seem somewhat familiar.

Home thoughts from abroad

Interestingly, I find myself contributing to the conversation with stories of what’s happening in Hungary. I hear myself drawing parallels between post-communism and post-apartheid politics; between the Roma and the Zulu; between the townships in South Africa and the villages of Eastern Hungary. I recognise the insularity of the rich and the powerful; the insecurity of those threatened by the devolution of power; and the humility of those who know enough to realise they have so much yet to learn. Corruption, racism, and the ever widening gap between the very rich and the very poor exist to a greater or lesser extent in both countries, as does a growing if unconscious dependency on China. Likewise, patriotism, nationalism, and cultural history abound.

Both countries are beautiful and surprisingly, a lot alike. The great open plains of the Puszta are mirrored by the vastness that lies under the South African sky. The birding paradise of Hortobágy bears a striking resemblance to the grasslands of Wakkerstroom. There is no time difference. The extreme variance between highest and lowest daily temperatures is comfortingly familiar…at least at this time of year as Hungary moves into her summer while South Africa edges towards winter.

The more I learn about  both countries, the more I realise how little I actually know about either of them. What I have learned though, is that to really appreciate a country, I need to live in it. And to really live in a country I need to make a concerted effort to understand both sides of the story.

First published in the Budapest Times Tuesday 11th May 2010

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