Stalk your walk.

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Ntshwe – Pilanesberg National Park

04h45…alarm call!

Through the gap in the curtain I see the grey dawn, time to get my khakis on. Today I take my first ever bush walk; through a game reserve that prides itself on hosting the African ‘Big Five’.

Jan introduces himself; it will just be the two of us on the walk this morning. Fantastic! A short drive later we arrive at the Bakubung Lodge walking concession, deep in the Pilanesberg Game Reserve. Before we set out into the veldt(grassland) Jan gives me walking instructions. “If we should encounter a lion, rhino, elephant…” My brain slowly wakes up and starts paying attention. It latches onto one instruction in particular. “Whatever you do; DO NOT RUN!” Right! No running! I am happy to comply with that, I don’t like running, running is a hot sweaty business. Walking is far more dignified.

With that cleared up we step onto the path that soon takes us into shoulder high grass. As I follow Jan deeper into the veldt my mind wanders; it’s getting hot, perhaps I should have put on sun block…hmm the lad has good legs, well defined muscl… the muscles suddenly tense as Jan comes to an abrupt halt. “Black rhino.” he hisses. The urgency of the two words cuts through my mental ramblings, I snap to attention.

Jan and his gun are on high alert. “Four Black Rhino on the right!”

Unnecessary bit of information. Four black rhino closing in on you at a fast trot are hard to miss. They push a wave of powerful energy ahead of them that injects my system with adrenaline, and pulls my thoughts into sharp focus. While the rhinos might want to get up-close and personal with me, I have no such desire. Jan whispers urgent instructions.  “They have seen us! Find a tree, don’t run. Quick!”

Make up your mind! We are exposed in the open grass, one solitary thorn bush is ten meters back, there are four black rhino heading towards us, at a quick trot, forty meters to the right. I should get behind the tree quick, but no running?

I discover I can move really fast without running.

Our attempts to hide behind the small thorn bush do not fool those rhino. The dry grass cracks as their rapid approach makes a strange hollow drumming on the hard earth. Hiding is not producing the desired result. Perhaps heroics are called for. Jan and his gun take action. He jumps up and, by shouting and slamming his hand hard against the butt of the rifle, he produces a surprising amount of noise. The rhinos veer sharp right, and by the time I have extracted myself from the thorn bush, have made their way far across the valley.

Jan turns to me nonchalantly ‘They were just curious.” I am not convinced.

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Black rhino advance

With adrenaline flooding my veins I am on high alert, all senses kick in, the world around me seems sharper, brighter; suddenly I smell the dry grass, the crack of the dry twigs underfoot becomes louder and louder. I adjust my walk, step gently on the earth, consider every footfall. As I start to control all the noise that I am making , I begin to hear the whirr of insect wings and the cacophony of early morning birdsong. My concept of game spotting is undergoing a short, sharp, shift into new territory. This is great! Totally different to animal spotting from my car. Out here I am part of nature.

Then a lion roars. Adrenaline roars through my veins. My primal brain has not worked so hard in years. A new mental connection is made. Out here I am not just part of nature, I am fair game! I see Jan and his gun in a whole new light.

Jan and I turn to face the sound. We will the world to be quiet as we wait for the roar to repeat, to allow us to pin down the lions’ position. The birds  sing and squawk, but the lion remains silent. We move cautiously forward, we are heading toward a small hill on the far side of the tangle of thorn trees that fill a dry river bed. The thorn thicket is crisscrossed with pathways, the intense trample of hoof tracks forces yet another realisation in my mind. These are all animal pathways, and the animals could be anywhere around us…

Jan ignores the crisscross of antelope track, stopping only to inspect rhino and elephant spoor. Animal droppings are everywhere, we seem to have walked right into a communal latrine. Jan inspects a dry pile of pooh, he picks up a small twig – “white rhino” he declares. Are you kidding me, how do you know? Before he can answer a snort of air and the low tock drumming of heavy feet on hard earth miraculously elevate us behind the nearest tree. Now I get it…no running required. In the face of danger humans are known to leap great distances.

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Rhino midden

Heart pounding, all my senses strain to find the source of the sound that my primal brain instantly classified as life threatening. As I stand surrounded by my own intense silence I realize that having a polite conversation about rhino pooh, while standing in the middle of a rhino midden, is probably not a good idea. I imagine the rhinos must find it a social affront, sort of like a rhino poohing in the middle of a dance floor.

As we hide behind the tangle of trees Jan points out that they are all fruit trees. Refocusing my attention I notice a variety of small blossoms and berries. Cracking one with my nail I gingerly taste the juice. It is sweet . Jan goes on to explain that these little botanical diversities are the result of termites, who dragged the fruits into the termite mound where they fermented, growing the fungi the termites feed on. The seeds, happy in this pungent mound, sprouted and grew into the tangle of fruit trees we are now sheltering behind.

A roar to the left, followed quickly by a low growling rumble to the right, wipes the fruit trees right off the priority list.

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Jan, scouting out that lion

Jan with his gun leaps onto a dead tree trunk, scouring the thicket to try to get a lock on the origin of the sound. “I think it is time we got to the top of that hill.” No argument from me.

We climb that hill straight up, double quick time ( this is not an activity for the infirm or unfit). From here we have a 360 view of the bush-veldt below. A lone Hartebeest makes its way slowly through the grass. In the distance a giraffe nibbles at the high acacia leaves that are soft green after recent rain. The morning light runs highlights around the trees and rocks, and the lion roars… Jan focuses in on the sound. “There he is!” I strain to see . “Lets go!” Go where? “Down there.” He points to where he just spotted the lion. Wrong direction surely ? But Jan has set off down the hill and back into the thicket. As the thorns close around us I smell the dry pungent smell of an animal. I move a little closer to Jan and his gun. He whispers a new set of instructions. “Stay really close, do not run. If this is your first on-foot lion sighting expect your legs to shake, your breath to shorten, your heart to race but DO NOT RUN! If you feel more comfortable you can grab onto my bag for support, but don’t grab me. Above all , have attitude. Big, don’t mess with me, attitude.”

I turn on, fully present yet respectful attitude, as we make our way through the dense bush. To minimise noise I match my footfall to that of Jan, my eyes sweep the shadows, my ears filter through the hard rustle of dry grass and incessant bird song, fully attuned to low round rumbling, soft breathing cat sounds. The wind turns I smell an animal – but what animal. Jan freezes “ rhino!” I look for the nearest tree “ white rhino” I relax – just a little. “Lets see if we can get closer” He whispers a new set of instructions. “Be very quiet , don’t step on anything that goes crack.”

The ground is littered with dead twigs and loose rocks. Dry grass and thorn trees surround us. Silently stalking an animal is not quite as easy as it looks on TV. Things that could potentially go crack are in abundance. I focus my mind, calm myself and sink into the moment. Jan moves ahead slowly, I am hyper aware of my foot placement, all the while keeping an eye on the white rhino. He disappears and reappears in the thicket. The wind shifts slightly, the rhino gets edgy, at Jan’s hand signal we sink  down on our haunches.

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My first rhino shoot on foot.

Without warning Jan breaks the silence by exhaling hard, amplifying his breath by using his hands as a sound bellows, then he smacks his lips, producing deep wet eating sounds. I glance at my guide – sun gone to your head – thinks I. But the rhino relaxes and produces exactly the same sounds as he resumes eating. The wind shifts again, our scent floats over to the rhino, he does his disappearing act. Jan indicates we will attempt to get a sighting from downwind. I fall again into the cat-foot walk required to make no sound. We round a tree, step into the open, the rhino sees us and, as he bolts, another rhino magically appears from behind a tiny tree , both vanish into the riverine forest.

I catch their scent – it is the smell of rhino I have been smelling all morning.

The lion has been silent for sometime now, the sun is high in the sky. Any sensible animal has withdrawn to some shady spot to wait out the heat. We decide to do the same. As we reach the car Jan mutters to himself ” It’s been a busy morning.”

Back at Bakubung Lodge I look at my meager haul of photographs, this was not my most successful photographic outing, but then, I was in full survival mode. On this walk turned stalk, I felt fully alive, every one of my senses was employed!  This game hunt with camera could become additive.

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