It’s only when you go on a walking safari that you discover the biggest secret of the African bush – it’s littered with poop. Rhino droppings, elephant dung, lion spore, hyena muck and steaming minefields created by a herd of twitchy zebra all lie in wait for the unwary walker.
I discovered this glaring omission during a trip to South Africa’s Kruger National Park with my wife Michelle.Our base was a collection of tents pitched by a dry riverbed beyond which low, ashen trees created a silvery haze to the horizon. Standing sentry around the camp were terracotta-colored termite mounds and a few tall trees, adding a touch of welcome greenery.
The bush had a parched allure, but what really captured our attention was the lack of fences. We were completely open to the wilderness. Even the toilet and showers, built out of thin wooden poles, were roofless and had window-sized holes cut into the walls facing the bush, presumably allowing you to watch charging elephants while soaping your armpits.
We were up before dawn for our first game walk, along with our ranger Garth and our fellow walkers, four middle-aged Scandinavians. There was a frisson of excitement about setting out into such an untamed place and it was soon clear that Garth was in his element. Sporting an olive green shirt, stout boots and a worn safari hat, he was square-jawed and stern, dark eyes red-rimmed from constantly scanning for wildlife. Garth had been walking around the bush since he was a boy and felt he belonged there: “I have tried living in a city and having a normal job, but I could not do it,” he told us. ” I don’t like cities, I get lost in them, but here I can find my way anywhere.”
His skills became apparent as we found zebra and baboons, gave some warthogs an early morning scare and startled a female giraffe who cantered off in slow motion through the bushes. The walk had its own tempo, moments of stillness as Garth scanned the bush or examined tracks, interspersed with long passages of walking.
Making our way back to camp after four hours tramping, Garth suddenly veered off into a thicket, following a set of tracks. He signaled for us to crouch and then pointed through the tangled bushes. Barely 50 meters away stood a young rhino, surprisingly difficult to see among the gray trees. As Michelle and I wrestled silently for the best viewing spot, we heard a click and a whirr from behind us as one of the Swedes set his camera. The rhino, whose ears had been twitching nervously, paused for a second then bolted away, leaving Garth looking aghast and the Swede looking sheepish. We didn’t know it at the time, but it was the start of a severe decline in Swedish/South African relations.
After the morning walk we had a long rest at camp during the heat of the day before setting off again before dusk. This is where the impala trouble started. The Swedes seemed to have developed an almost fetish-like interest in impalas – gazelle-like creatures with brown, white and black. Which was fine. At least for the first half a dozen times. But every time they saw something move in the bush, Garth had to stop. And every time he stopped, it was for impala. After we got into double figures, I could hear Garth grumbling away, his hand twitching near his rifle.
“We’re definitely on the side of the bloke with the gun who knows where the camp is,” I whispered to Michelle as we finally moved on.
Back at camp that evening, dinner preparations were halted by a lion’s territorial roar, sounding terrifyingly close in the darkness.
“Sounds like he’s coming our way,” said Garth with a dark smile before instructing us to jump back into the truck. We were just about to set off to find the lion when we heard a shout behind us. One of the Swedish gents had been in the shower when the lion approached. I shone the spotlight on him as he came bounding towards the truck, dressed in nothing but a pair of baggy underpants struggling with the lens cap of his camera. His efforts were in vain. The lion had decided to skirt around us rather than suffer the indignity of being photographed by a half-naked European with a bald head and a big Nikon.
Through the week, the days began to take on a familiar routine. We would rise early and set out on a long hike. The Swedes would take a million pictures and insist on stopping for impala. Garth would frown and mutter, then continue scanning the track for signs of lions or elephants.
Sometimes we would see something exciting, like the tail end of an enormous herd of buffalo passing by, kicking up a dust cloud that swirled over the bush for minutes afterwards or the twin periscopes of a hippo’s ears in a watering hole moments before it reared up, unhinging its jaw in a flash of pink gums and foaming water.
When there was little to see Garth shared his knowledge of the smaller creatures. He showed us a dung beetle at work, a tiny Sisyphus rolling his rock, or coaxed a hairy Baboon spider, a type of tarantula, from its silk-lined burrow. Under his tutelage we tuned into the bush using all our senses, learning to smell and hear as much as to see.
The time to leave came far too soon and we both felt a little melancholy packing our belongings in the tent on the last evening. Curiously, it was left to Garth to lift our spirits. He had an extra spring in his step as he helped the cook prepare dinner. Throughout our stay he had made a show of introducing us to the dinner menu by lifting the lid on pots to explain what the food was. He did the same again this night, revealing a dark brown stew with a rich, meaty aroma.
“Tonight we have an authentic safari stew,” said Garth.
The Swedes leaned in to take a sniff.
“And what’s in it?” they chorused.
“Impala,” he replied with just the slightest arch of his eyebrows.