In the Faraway Bush: At Chitake Spring, Part II

September 21 —

The afternoon light bathes the spring in warm tones, and reflections on the small pools are a golden blur.

The lions have eaten so much of the elephant (they took down the night before) that their bellies have become distended.

The cub watching over the carcass springs up to chase off the vultures, and makes a pit stop, as they fly off, to eliminate the indigestible blood; the vultures circle back, land, and make a dash for it.

Not much goes to waste here.

As day ends, the sky becomes violet and the sun is dramatic and colorful against it. There’s one thing we can expect every evening until it darkens — a beautiful sky.

By the time we sit down to dinner, the lions have left. It seems strange that they would have tossed away their kill to the hyenas so soon. Will they come back to it, or hunt again tonight?

We’re under a canopy that glows from the light of the lamps burning around the table. I’m still a little stunned to have heard the cries of the elephant being killed so close to camp the night before, and I confess that listening to it for so long was agonizing. I find I’m not alone. But conversation moves along naturally and we share in other astonishing stories, incidents, and humorous digressions. Even in my bewildered state, I manage to say something that gives everyone a laugh — about how I was recently surprised, upon buying a jar of peanut butter in Botswana (a product of South Africa), to discover a disclaimer on the label: “Warning: this product contains peanuts.”  Another evening spent embracing the ironies.

But what will happen next? There is a palpable tension in the air as the night progresses. Or is this heightened alertness? We’re just six people at table together, enjoying each others’ company; but sitting out in the middle of the wilderness, we’re also tuned in to its pulse, the collective sounds of life everywhere around us.

Andy hears something as we’re finishing dinner and springs from his seat. In an instant he’s at the edge of the bank with his rifle. Three buffalo are tearing up the riverbed. Rod has us up from the table and gets us behind his tent, in case they decide to run through camp, an easy path from the riverbed up to higher ground. I’m blinking in hazy disbelief. But Rod calmly says, “Over here, Susan,” waving me to the other side of the tent. Mike asks if we should get in it if they come. Rod says yes, or to lie flat and out of sight. All this happens in a few seconds, while Andy has been giving the buffalo something to think about, bellowing the loudest warning he can, which is BIG, just totally impressive. He’s got the high-beam torch in their eyes as they come to a halt. They decide against charging through the middle of camp, and run off.

Rod wanted us to hit the ground because a buffalo on the way up that bank would have tossed aside with a flick of the horn anything, or anyone, left standing within sight. Following the “oh shit” moment is a strange “aha” moment, when I fully comprehend the term “bulldozing” and briefly envision how wrecked the camp might have been.

As we lay comfortable in our cots later, Len sleeps, but again, I can’t stop listening. I sleep in fits and starts trying not to miss anything. Older lions move in from somewhere down the riverbed to reprimand Sophie and her “cubs” — perhaps the lions that almost chased the buffalo into camp. These older lions lay claim to the carcass in seniority for as long as they like, or roar their complaints and demonstrate some might to the cubs. There’s a lot of slapping around in the mud and very loud eating going on.

Given the sheer volume of movement all around the riverbed, with other occasional barks and cries, it did seem as if a bit of a brawl were going on down at the watering hole.

September 22 — Before first breakfast (there will be a second), I come out to the edge of the riverbed yawning, and I’m amazed — half of the elephant carcass has been devoured. We all stand there hardly able to tear our eyes away.

Clyde films as more and more vultures move in on the carcass. A short distance down the riverbed, a larger group of elephants linger, possibly moving our way. We assume that they must be aware of the kill farther up, and wonder how they may react to this. Will they come up in a group to read the riot act to the lions?

We grab our canteens and packs and trek around the ridge out to the “badlands” where there used to be a village. There’s a flat open area where the bomas once stood.

Andy shows us a dip in a large flat rock that was once used as a mortar. I don’t know how long ago the village was abandoned, but it is an area that was formerly plagued with sleeping sickness; and it has been protected against hunting since about 1955. Now the wild dogs like to run there. The blood-sucking tsetse flies, responsible for spreading sleeping sickness where there is human habitation, are not a problem here now, though they are decidedly still around biting the buffalo concentrated around the spring. Their bite stings a little and swells if, like me, you have an unlucky reaction to them; and they’re pretty much everywhere. Andy says they can psyche you out. We try not to let them; we have a helpful breeze. But, poor Marty has them all over his baseball cap, and they seem to be doing their best to get to him.

Andy points out some porcupine tracks; they have a funny footprint with what looks like a long heel and a few toes. I find a porcupine quill near them. In the bush around us, we find petrified wood and see the nests of a few different kinds of weavers in the leafless trees.

There are what look like old sun-bleached white droppings around; but these aren’t as old as they seem. Powerful jaws allow hyenas to crunch even the bones of a kill or a scavenged carcass, which they can digest as well, so their waste is significantly high in calcium. Other animals with diets less rich in calcium, herbivores mainly, will consume this “meringue.” Tortoises, for example, need the calcium for the growth of their shells. And, dung beetles and termites take care of the elephant dung.

Even animal waste doesn’t go to waste here.

By mid-morning, the lions are not at the carcass and Clyde takes the opportunity to set up a small, waterproof camera on a timer to film the vultures as they pluck away at what remains.

Clyde and Leah are with us for second breakfast, the real breakfast, not yogurt at daybreak, but the substantial one: oatmeal, eggs, toast, sausage — and that takes place after the bush walk, when we’re hungry. Rod and Andy marvel over Clyde’s energy, how he seems to run all day long on a bit of breakfast. Clyde is not only an excellent and dedicated photographer/filmmaker but also a gifted storyteller — and, like Rod and Andy, he’s seen and heard A LOT out in the bush. Conversation moves fluidly from the discussion of a TV show, A Thousand Ways to Die (with that title, enough said about the show, but Len, who worked on it as an editor for a season, has us laughing). Then Clyde has us all amazed at an actual story. It’s about some South African guys who are a tough lot. They’ll eat any kind of bush meat. These guys are driving through the bush like maniacs when they plow into a kudu and, though it’s illegal to haul it away from the park, they decide not to let the fresh meat go to waste, so they put it in the back of their vehicle and drive on.

Of course, later when the guys all pile into the back of the vehicle to deal with it, the kudu awakens from a stunned state, they all get a good thrashing, and someone ends up dead before the animal destroys the entire vehicle.

Another story involves the prices of hunting safaris and who in this world can afford them. About $50,000 will get you something like three weeks with a professional hunter, tracker, skinner, and food and accommodation. The trophy costs an additional figure depending on the animal: a baboon might cost you under $100; the price of a male lion runs upwards of $20,000. There are also license fees, trophy packing and shipment fees, and indeed a government levy. Of course, prices vary, but you get the idea. And, who are the hunters you’d expect to find on these safaris? Texans? Good guess, but there are more wealthy hunters from Russia.

This is the inconceivable story of one rich bad-ass Russian hunter, who puts a hefty deposit down after looking at the colorful brochure with its price list for trophies, and photographs of the animals and hunting teams out in the field. This wealthy hunter points at an image for which there’s no listed price. The guys with the hunting outfit make the mistake of kidding along with him because he could not possibly be serious; he’s pointing at one of the members of the hunting staff  — a black Zimbabwean. And everyone thinks the wealthy bad-ass is joking FOR SURE when he says he wants just the hunt, minus the trophy. But once he arrives for his safari and has shot a number of the selected animals, he suspects the hunting outfit is just playing hardball on the rest of the deal. So, he demands to know the price or he wants his deposit back. He becomes so enraged when the outfit firmly refuses him that National Parks has to step in. We can hardly laugh at the story, but only wag our heads at this man’s brutal arrogance — that this brave hunter can imagine no better way to spend a fortune…

I am of the opinion that hunting wild animals is a problem in today’s world — particularly trophy hunting. For some people, raised near areas where there is a long history of game hunting and where it will undoubtedly not end any time soon, I’m aware that my opinion may seem naive. There are arguments that private hunting outfits discourage poaching, cull and balance certain populations, employ people, and help subsidize conservation. Some of these may be true. But who really benefits? Poaching often involves an equation of economics and survival; why not work at solving that rather than setting example that money buys the privilege of hunting. Placing an economic value on wildlife itself is a tricky business — profits and trophy fees can too easily end up in the hands of corrupt governments. And, there seems little contest between weapon-wielding humans (protected by other professional hunters with weapons) and the animal, particularly as the population on this planet increases and encroaches upon wilderness areas — that we pollute and force into other sorts of imbalance.

Though there is a dwindling population of Cheetah, which need large open plains to chase prey, some outfits offer trophy hunts for them. Also, as the fees for these trophies rise, so does the pressure for a return on the price paid with a successful hunt. Some hunting techniques are questionable and involve artificial methods for setting up encounters; lions, for example, are baited when hunted. And, given all of this, I’m simply unable to see the sport in it, whereas I can very clearly see the sport in tracking. An animal can be shot once only with a weapon; it can be shot a million times with a camera.

Okay. With my opinion out of the way, I continue with clear conscience on our very brilliant safari…

In the afternoon, we head out to where the buffalo are due to come down to drink. We see the cubs on our side of the ridge and stop a short distance from them.

They pant in the sweltering heat and glance at us mainly with disinterest, almost blending in with their surroundings but magnificently framed in an opening in the bush. One of the cubs walks away as we watch.

The buffalo don’t come down to the spring. They were around on the opposite ridge, but something has interrupted them. The heat drives us back to camp.

When we arrive, a cub has surprised us all and returned to the carcass — and tromped over Clyde’s small camera. So, while continuing filming with the main camera, Clyde waits for an opportunity to fetch the other and see what it has recorded, if anything. That’s the price one pays when filming lions — that, and learning the fine art of practicing patience, which Clyde has excelled at.

The cub pants heavily, looking so overstuffed he couldn’t possibly budge, as though now it’s just a matter of demonstrating possession. But the vultures are really moving in. And, the cub manages to swiftly haul up its fully bloated 400 or so pounds to chase them off.

They hover everywhere in the trees — hooded and white-backed vultures, and a few other raptors seeming to scope out  opportunities around the event.

After being run off, the vultures circle and move right back in, hopping around the carcass, quarreling over the bits of flesh they’ve already snatched, never giving up a chance to sneak up from behind for a grab like shady Wall Street figures fighting over the best of the spoils.

After a while the lion climbs inside the carcass and eats. Fully half of its body is not visible. How can they keep eating like that? If Sophie and her cubs ever showed up at my tent for dinner, I’d want to have a good 45 pounds of steak right on hand. Male lions will consume about 15 pounds of meat a day, and females eat only slightly less. The trio, along with the other lions and scavengers, have probably polished off a couple hundred pounds.

In the afternoon, we take a drive out to a clearing with a stand of enormous baobab trees.

As the sun begins to set, there is a certain breathtaking, timeless element. The thousand-year old trees conjure ancient images.

They have withstood elephants stripping away great chunks at their fibrous base. When humans inhabited the area, the fiber was stripped and used for weaving and braiding into mats and rope and the like.

These trees stand there still, seeming to occupy vast amounts of space.

In the evening just after dinner, the elephants are farther down the riverbed but still lingering. A year-old baby wanders among them without its mother. None of the other females are looking after it. Andy thinks it doesn’t look well, and will probably be taken down by some predator during the night. This is a little heartrending and hard to fathom. The baby can’t protect itself, and the females can’t be unaware of this. I wonder if they know it hasn’t got a chance and avoid attachment. Am I reading into this; am I anthropomorphizing?

Elephants demonstrate tremendous affection toward one another, and their social interaction is familial and complex… But I leave these thoughts suspended with the idea that I just don’t know. I would love to spend a year or so in the bush watching them.

During the night, the older lions seem to move in again on the carcass, but it seems more competitive and louder. Have the hyenas entered the competition now, complicating who will get in to feed on the thinning supply? The sounds escalate into what seem like a few moments of serious fighting, but each time this comes to an end — someone backs down. This is not at all about hunting and killing. It’s about a hierarchy of social interaction being relentlessly played out and tested. An elephant trumpets now and again from somewhere in distant punctuation.

At some point the lions wind down and quit all the snarling skirmishes. But there is still the sound of the carcass being eaten, I imagine. And being downwind of the smell doesn’t help my imagination. A little later it sounds like the riverbed has become a hockey field not ten meters beyond our tent, with some dashing, snorting and grunting between the goals. Meanwhile, there’s been this frog that has burrowed under our tent croaking all damn night. It’s a little bit like an alarm clock on the sleep feature sounding off every few minutes. Still, it’s pretty charming.

September 23 — What was a living elephant less than three days ago, is now mostly picked-over bones.

And, the lions have played hockey with the wastebasket they borrowed from the loo. (All right, I wrote the part about the hockey field after I knew they played with it, but it doesn’t mean that what we heard didn’t sound like a muddy hockey field with some players on it.)

We take a long walk out to the riverbed where fossils have been found that date back to the early Jurassic period.

The fossilized bones of Megapnosaurus (“big dead lizard” in Greek) rhodesiensis are visible in the middle sediment layers in the rock of the river canyon walls.

This dinosaur measured up to 3 meters long (10 ft) from nose to tail and weighed about 32 kilograms (70 lb). Because a number of them were discovered in a tight group, there is speculation that they hunted together. They were carnivorous, of course.

What has gone on in this riverbed has been going on a long time. There were four mass extinctions before this dinosaur was wiped out by yet another. I can’t help but think of the animals that now reign in Africa — how their environments have been hemmed in by humans, little by little until entire game populations have been wiped out in many regions. One can only remain hopeful of the continued preservation of larger wilderness areas, particularly Mana Pools, which is bound naturally by the escarpments that not only concentrate vital water supplies, but also afford large game the refuge of higher ground with enough space between to propagate.

As we cross the spring to return to camp, we stop at the carcass, which has reached a new stage of decomposition. Smaller carrion eaters, insects, and bacteria will claim the rest.

Before we all part ways, we climb down, and sit under the trees again to watch the buffalo take their path to the spring to drink. I see something almost delicate in the buffalo, behind all the muscle and bone and knocking each other about.

Leah finds a “sticky frog” in camp just after (second) breakfast. It fits snug in the palm of her hand and is the color of the sand here. It’s got very big eyes. I wonder if this little frog is the one with the big mouth. Leah takes it out of camp and puts it back near water at the spring. We organize our leave of this place ambivalently. We don’t want to leave. Upon saying our good-byes, I become tongue-tied, unable to express the absolute wonder and intense appreciation I feel. I think they understand, though. They get it.

For Len and me, these are the final moments in the wilderness after several weeks traveling in Southern Africa. Andy drives us a last time out to the stand of baobabs just to breathe the Mana Pools air for a little while before we must leave.

I thank Andy for all the information he has shared, and I ask him a little about how and why he came to be a guide. Zimbabwe’s licensing program is well respected for being rigorous. Out of a class of about 400, only 4 students will make it to the exam process, which involves a lot of tests in decision-making. Only 1 of these 4 will become a licensed guide. And, those who obtain a license do so because they love the work. Andy has a quick sense of humor and the sort of laugh that comes readily, that isn’t a mannerism. Clearly, he is one of the lucky individuals who has found his bliss, and has worked hard to keep involved in it. And, he’s phenomenal at what he does. No wonder Kavinga Safaris sought him out as their guide; they are all exceptional individuals, and remarkable as a team.

During our drive back up toward the Mana Pools airstrip, Andy stops to let me photograph a seedpod, which has been of fascination.

Each seed within this pod will sail away at the end of a soft round puffball to further the distribution of the tree it comes from. And, these tiny, modest, delicate seeds pack a very concentrated amount of poison; they have been known to be ground and applied to the tip of an arrow that can stop the heart of the target unfortunate enough to be pierced by it.

On our way through the dense, dry brush, we spot a nyala and stop. It’s the first and only time I’ll have the pleasure of seeing one.

This elusive antelope is seen during the day only in protected areas and this dense bush is its natural home. I find the nyala an exceptionally beautiful animal. It doesn’t run off, and watches us from behind a veil of branches. I look at it in awe, hoping that this place will remain as it is, and that I will have the chance to return here some day and see another nyala.

© Susan Robinson – 2011 All Rights Reserved. Content and photographs require permission for all third-party use.

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11 thoughts on “In the Faraway Bush: At Chitake Spring, Part II

  1. Your beautifully written pieces took me on a wonderful journey. With the fantastic photos complimenting the descriptive writing, I felt like I was right there with you.

  2. Great! A fascinating and thrilling read, with terrific photos, all expertly laid out on the site. Thanks for sharing the journey. I look forward to hearing more in person!

  3. Thanks for your thoughts; I’m thrilled you mention the layout. I’ve found making little decisions with both the website and the content very rewarding. The section with portraits of animals all lined up on the left margin within this article, for example, all have a trophy price on them, with some of them looking quite vulnerable. The “shooting gallery” here is decidedly photographic. Just a little example of how creating a photo essay, and being able to choose the way it’s all presented, can help along the message. This blogging phenomenon is pretty cool.

  4. Such fabulous naturalist writing! Coming back to and weaving around the elephant kill, the reflections, all of it. I’m sure you’ve read Beryl Markham’s “West with the Night,” but I have to mention it because your writing calls it to mind. But what’s the name of the poison from the seed pod? Maybe you detail it in another post.

    • When I was a reader, I covered a script about Beryl Markham as an aviatrix, but haven’t read her memoir yet. It’s on the list! Thank you for the wonderful compliment, and for reminding me of it.
      The seed pod. I could never recall the name of the tree, but the poison acts like a type of strychnine, so it may be within that family of plants? I’m not sure!

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