Animals and Americans
By Sonia Perna
The sun had not yet risen across the bushveld, but the animals were already awake and scattering through the dark. We walked with caution and used a torch to light the way on the dirt path before climbing into the open-top Landcruiser. A couple was already there, the woman yelling commands to our guide Thulani who nodded and smiled accommodatingly since he relies on tips. We later found out that he’s building a house in his nearby village, supporting a young son, and just got married the past month.
The couple introduced themselves as Brenda and James from Connecticut. We started down the bumpy dirt roads refreshed by the cool and welcome wind. The shouting continued.
Brenda said, “We want leopards today. We must have adult male lions. And don’t forget about the rhinos.” James set one of his camera lenses on the seat. He had three, each worth over $80,000. They also had pod seats on the flight over worth thousands of dollars. Later when we found out she is a teacher, and he is a firefighter, we wondered where they got the money. They soon revealed that they run a dog breeding business that pays for their travels around the world. All legal, they assured us with a wink before they said, “But don’t tell anyone.” During a bathroom break behind a large termite mound, my older daughter Nadia said, “I feel bad saying this, but Brenda looks like Doug Ford.”
“That’s exactly what I was thinking!” I replied. We then dubbed her Deb Ford.
We soon came upon two rhinos. “Their horns are cut off to prevent poaching,” soft-spoken Thulani told us. “The tourism money helps with conservation so that the animals aren’t killed.”
The sun is blood red and rising fast over the horizon. Brenda aka Deb is shifting excitedly in her seat, now yelling at the rhino who were lying down, likely still asleep. “Get up, you lazybones! Stand up. I want to see you. Get the camera ready, James.” The orders continued for the next three hours each time we came upon animals. We were told to speak softly and stay still, but there were no reminders.
I asked Thulani why the animals don’t attack us. “They see the vehicle as one large animal unless someone stands up or leans out.”
Other vehicles drove past with tourists standing and hanging out of the sides.
Thulani spotted two cheetahs, sisters he told us. He called the other guides to alert them, as was common practice, and soon three other vehicles arrived.
“Closer!” Brenda said, until our vehicle was a few feet from the cheetahs who ignored us completely despite the intrusion and their freshly killed warthog, on its back, belly ripped open.
That afternoon another couple joined us, Canadians from Ottawa. So quiet and mild-mannered, I can’t remember their names. The man didn’t say a word to anyone. The woman talked to us only at the end of the day before they were leaving the lodge along with “Deb” and James.
First off, she said, “I thought you were Canadians. I can always tell. The accents give it away. We’re from Ottawa, and it’s our last day here,” she told us. Then her voice lowers. “For tips, I asked the staff and checked the tour guidelines, and it says the tips are per room, not per person. And I’m paying in Canadian dollars, not American. Why do we have to pay in American? It’s worth 35% more than our dollar, and our dollar is just as good. I’m sure they’ll appreciate it.”
Confused we asked the camp leader about this, and she assured us that the tips were per person and were in American dollars. There was an impatient tone to her voice. I’d feel the same way dealing with cheap tourists who are much wealthier than most people who live in Africa, especially those in the service industry. The tips, however, are on an honour system, with guests leaving cash in a box the day before they leave. I wonder how many people are not so honourable.
The next day, we went on a bushwalk with Tom, another of the guides, but in his sixties compared to Thulani’s twenties. The Young Guide, they called Thulani. Was Tom then the Old Guide, I wondered? Tom picked up small, lightweight, black pellets, giraffe poop, handed one to each of us and encouraged us to eat it. Laughing, we threw ours away though two-way teasing continued throughout the walk.
“Hyena poo is white,” he said, pointing it out near the pathway. “They eat the bones and all.” The poo lesson continued for some time.
Near the end of the walk, I asked, “How long have you worked here?”
“More than forty-five years, since I was a young man of eighteen.” We marvelled at this length of time. “How did you learn so much about the bush?” I asked, expecting that another guide had taught him the traditional knowledge.
He continued with a serious expression now. “When I was a young boy, my family fled the civil war of Mozambique. That was a terrible time.”
The twinkle in his eye vanished as did his once ever-present smile. “We fled through the bush so that we were not captured and returned by the South African government who hated us and treated us like animals.”
“I worked here as a young man,” he continued, “but was arrested by the immigration police and returned to Mozambique. Still a horrible place. And I had no family left there. So another young man and I returned through the bush. Many days of walking, finding food and water when we could.”
He pointed at the dirt path. “We had to stay off the trails because the white immigration police were hunting us. They would shoot us on sight. We walked backwards across the paths to lead them the opposite way from us.”
He waved his hand across the vast, arid land. “I learned of the bush that way.”
“How long were you in hiding, working here?” I asked, amazed at his story of survival.
“Until Mandela came to power. Then we could live freely. He protected us and the other refugees from all over. I got my citizenship because of him.” I was relieved to see a warm smile on his face. And to hear of this happy ending, but wondering how many didn’t fare as well.
At the end of the walk, we saw a tall, shy giraffe, hiding behind a tree, watching us, with its head poking above the leaves, not hidden at all.
On the third day, we saw countless impalas. Thulani said, “We call them fast food.” He laughed softly. “See the M on their behinds, like the M of McDonalds?” We joined in his laughter, appreciating the joke though the impalas likely would not share in our humour at their expense.
Next a group of zebras crossed the dirt path, but soon started to run as the Landcruiser sped towards them, an adult running between us and a baby zebra, their eyes wide with alarm, the adult keeping pace with the baby to shield her from the approaching threat.
Near the end of the day, before we stopped for a sundowner, we had an encounter with an elephant bull. I had never felt afraid even though the animals were often so near us. I did, however, watch Thulani’s face when we were near the animals. The only time he looked scared, I noticed right away. The massive bull was near the back of the herd but saw us approach and sensed the nervousness of the other elephants who surrounded a baby who blared its tiny trunk at us in fear. The bull walked towards us with no signs of aggression that I could discern. But Thulani could. He quickly reversed the vehicle and sped away without a word.
We stepped out of the vehicle for the sundowner, dry biscuits downed by a gin and tonic to ward off the mosquitoes though we hadn’t seen one the entire time. Dry season apparently. Too cold. We showed Thulani pictures of us on a hike in the Rocky Mountains near where we live. And then one of our rescued huskies, Pika.
“She has such a big nose,” he exclaimed as we all laughed at the loud outburst from the normally mild-mannered guide. “I have a husky too,” he told us as we expressed astonishment that there was a husky in Africa instead of the cold climate of our home in Canada.
“Doesn’t she get too hot?” we asked. He replied, “We have a kiddie pool for her in the yard, and she loves the cool tile inside the house.”
After the sundowner, we arrived to see a leopard, our first time seeing one. One of the Big Five along with lions, rhinos, cape buffalo, and the elephant also on the list. They are labelled as such not because they are rare or protected but rather because at one time, they were considered pests and hunted relentlessly. It was originally a hunting term used by the so-called “great white hunters.”
Considered a rite of passage for the wealthy, American celebrities and heads of state and European royalty came to Africa to shoot them and pose in photographs, holding up the body, as they gloated in the background. The animals were also considered the most dangerous to hunt, so their death was celebrated, their heads and skins kept as trophies by the rich and powerful and heartless. Now most of these Queens and Kings of the jungle are relegated to game parks surrounded by barbed-wire fences.
Two other vehicles were already there. The leopard was atop a large termite mound, waiting for warthogs to run out of their burrow inside the mound. Our presence did not help her hunting, I’m sure. Suddenly, three warthogs exploded from the mound, each one out of a different hole, running a different direction, when one slammed against our vehicle, but immediately kept running. The leopard gave chase through the bush. The other vehicles left, but we kept driving deeper into the reserve. Thulani spotted the leopard again. This time she was just off the dirt road, watchful and still.
“She just had two cubs a couple of weeks ago,” Thulani told us. “They might be nearby. She returns to them after hunting. They are very vulnerable and alone when she isn’t with them. Most won’t survive to adulthood.” We waited in silence for a long time as the sky darkened. We heard rustling and soft mewing in the deep undergrowth of the forest. “There.” Thulani pointed with his flashlight. We saw the small, furry face of one of the cubs peek up over a den.
Thulani smiled broadly, all his teeth showing. “These are the first babies I’ve found. I get to name them.”
“When?” we asked sharing his excitement. “What will you name them?”
“I will wait,” he said, “until they are six months old. If they make it. Now it’s time to go back.” The mother was still there, standing guard, protecting the new life she has brought into this fraught world.
On the fourth and last day, two others joined us. A twelve-year old boy, Gus, and his grandma, from New Jersey. He asked to see tigers. Thulani smiled, “No tigers here.” During the ride, Gus struggled with eye contact and sometimes banged his head on the seatback in front of him. Grandma softly coached him and encouraged him to make conversation with my family and me.
We stopped for a coffee break and to stretch our legs. Gus now looked at us. “Any of you like Taylor Swift?” Thulani admitted that he has never heard of Taylor Swift, which seemed shocking to all of us. But I pointed to my seventeen-year-old daughter Natasha. “She’s obsessed.” He didn’t stop talking after that. “Why don’t you sit in his row?” I suggested to Natasha. His eyes lit up when she sat beside him. He turned to my husband, and in his New Jersey accent, said, “Better close your ears, Pops. We’ll be talking about Taylor Swift for the next two hours.” They commiserated on not getting concert tickets and shared their favourite songs and albums in incredible detail.
Gus quieted immediately, though, when we came upon the animals. Without fail, his eyes opened wide with a similar affection as when he looked at Natasha, a kind-hearted love, even.
On the ride back to the lodge, Gus was quiet again, head down, often sighing softly. Gus whispered to his grandma, “Do you think we’re bothering the animals? Would they prefer if we weren’t here?”
The last night at dinner, the wooden deck of the lodge was alit with lanterns and candles, the table set with a great and lavish feast of game meat for the ravenous tourists. Mournful howls travelled through the distance and the dark.
After we got home, I looked through the photos, some animals staring directly at the camera with haunted eyes and something else harder to define.
From the author:
“Teaching post-secondary, I deliver courses in writing fundamentals, literature, communications, humanities and sociology. I have published poetry in literary journals and articles in local newsletters, as well as completed a master’s thesis in literature. I have taken several creative writing courses and participate in a weekly critique group, which has allowed me to strengthen both my writing and editing skills.”