8 October 2012 by Amy Sohanpaul
There are more stars than sky on this South African night. They burn as bright as the fire on the braai, where a kudu is being grilled to perfection. Still, neither starlight nor firelight do much to penetrate the dense darkness in the middle of the bush, and beyond the thorny enclosure we're gathered in, the night is blacker than every black thing I can think of - tar, coal, pitch.
There are live kudus out there, there are lions, cheetahs, snakes and scorpions, there are rustles in the night adding to the last sigh of a log disintegrating into ash. There's a man with a rifle standing next to me, so I'm not worried about what the wild dark hides.
The night is perfect, we're enjoying drinks and delicious conversation and there's a feast ahead. The day was perfect too. It started forever ago. The words "5 am wake up call" don't usually fill my head with joy, but here I was up already, raring to go. It's easy to pounce out of bed when you can see the pink fingers of dawn stretching over wild hills, easy when there's the chance of seeing the resident owl Boo-Boo flitting back after a night's hunting.
He was my welcome to Sanbona wildlife reserve last night, my first night here. He was perched on my balcony, and didn't fly off when I opened the sliding doors, just turned his head and looked from lamp-like eyes. He did a little shuffle as I started to die with happiness, back in Africa after an age, wanting to roll in its red dust like a delighted dog.
I manage not to roll in the dust, but as we set off into the surroundings at first light, wrapped up in blankets in open-sided jeeps, the urge to touch the landscape we're driving through, the urge to walk in the wilderness, just grows and grows until I think I must scream - which, of course, would be sacrilege here, so I'm thinking I'll have to implode silently instead, but then our ranger Danie says, "Would you like to go for a walk and look for lions?" That's up there with the best line ever, and we spill out of the jeep in silent wild glee.
We slot in behind him and his rifle, in front of fellow ranger Chris and his rifle, in single file as instructed, picking our way through fynbos (Afrikaans for ‘fine leaves'), heading towards the rockiness of a riverbed. We know not to talk too loudly, we know we need to stop if Danie raises his hand, we know the bush beneath our feet is as crisp as the air, so we tread softly through both.
We walk and we walk and we think we're being pretty observant of the hues and we're watching hard, not wanting to miss anything, and in all our watching we have no idea that we're mere metres from walking into a mother lion and her two cubs, behind tall grass and bush.
Danie somehow senses this and points right, rather abruptly, and we veer off to the side, and not until we're a little distance away does he say, "Lions".
We still can't see them. This is because we are not trained trackers and because we can't see as Danie and Chris do, through thickets, patterns against patterns, and also because these are white lions, so even when we do focus on them, at first they are almost ghosts in the bright light and bushes, slowly solidifying in shape as we stare harder.
Blood sings with excitement, watching the mother pad about, the cubs playing peek-a-boo though the grass. We could stand and watch for a long time, but the mother lioness is getting restless and rustling about, and so we walk slowly away, listening to whispered stories about lion charges, and how you should never run, about how one man once, remembering not to run when a lion approached, did jump up and down on the spot, but it was OK because that was a mock charge.
Apparently the silent sleek charges are the deadly ones, and with those there's really no point in doing anything unless you have a gun. When lions huff and puff themselves up, that is probably a mock charge designed to frighten you, and the lion should stop about five metres away from you. Chris says a warden must not shoot unless the charging lion is less than that distance away: he says it happened to him once - "it was not fun" - but the lion did stop at five metres, so he was pleased.
They are full of bush facts and lore, Chris and Danie, little details as well as big ones. We follow Chris halfway up a rock face to see ancient rock paintings by the San people, and Chris tells us about the trances that the shaman would have experienced in this sacred spot.
We watch our step on the slope down, and so can't help paying close attention to the plants by our feet, works of art in them- selves. Some are twisted and blackened, like corpses after a fire, others vibrant as flames. We drive away into a different vegetation of sprawling shrubs, and Danie and Chris stop to pick and hand round fleshy bulging leaves that they call Baboons' Grapes, for us to taste. They are delicious, slightly salty, and would make wonder- ful canapés, but I'm told they don't agree as well with people as they do with antelopes, providing them with vital moisture when there is no water to be had.
We watch some of these antelopes against the hills as we drive on, springboks obediently springing, stately kudus with spiral horns, a line of elands along the crest of a hill, creating an elegant frieze between a vast landscape and an endless sky.
A little way on, Danie gets out and creates another silhouette against the sky, looking for white rhinos, and runs down having spotted three, so we bump and jolt in the jeep, making our way as close to their vicinity as we can.
We are given tips that might be pertinent. "They can't see very well, but that makes their sense of smell and hearing very acute. And they move faster than you think."
We get incredibly close to them on foot, Danie and Chris calculating our approach according to how the wind is blowing, feeling lucky to be near these rare beasts that bring to mind prehistoric creatures complete with armour-plated skin, which, tough as it is, still isn't enough to protect them from poachers' bullets. We watch in absolute silence, and when I plant my palm on a thorny shrub that embeds several hooky spines in it, I manage not to mew. But this is not good enough, because when two rhinos start blinking and bumbling their way towards us, I am just staring instead of moving swiftly into the jeep, and then I catch Chris and Danie exchanging a glance and realise I need to speed on.
It's good not to have been trampled and gored by rhinos, because there's another walk ahead, an absolutely glorious one in late afternoon golden light past silvered acacia trees with elegant thorns and over an expanse of sand and quartz - a blinding combination in the sun.
We wind our way in to some hills and try to find a cheetah who is proving incredibly elusive, and two hours later, some people are considering the unthinkable and wondering if we should head back to the road and the jeep, and some people are thinking we've been going for so long, surely, surely she's here somewhere, we can't just give up now and we keep walking while deliberating, and suddenly there she is, solitary
in her splendour, stretched out - and somehow she makes me feel sad.
It's her utter solitude in this big space, it's her beauty, and it's also Africa, hard, hot, brutal, beguiling, doing that thing it does, striking the soul like a spear. It's all there, in her spotted skin and lonely eyes. And in the middle of the happiest day, it hurts.
"I felt that, too," says Danie, as we stand by the braai in the bush in the dark night, some hours later, remembering the cheetah and the day. The smoke from the fires is saturating everything, and it must be this, I think, that is making my throat burn.