Beginners' luck under a full moon
Novelist Gillian Slovo hunts for lion in KwaZulu-Natal
ALTHOUGH it was still light when we set off that first afternoon, a warm, velvet darkness quickly enveloped us. What had previously seemed like tame scrub now felt menacing. We walked in single file, behind and ahead of our 14-year-old daughter, Cassie, like protective pachyderms in unfamiliar terrain.
At the front of this nervous family line strolled our formidable guide, Bheki Buthelezi, shotgun resting on his paunch, mellow voice spinning out secrets of the bush. Nightjars called, undergrowth rustled and Bheki bantered about how ancient wisdom, a sixth sense and a true heart were the only way to keep poisonous snakes at bay.
Suddenly he stopped. "Shhhh." That was all he said. That was all he needed to say. We stood, hearts pounding, trying to figure out what had silenced our loquacious guide. Some terrible threat? Some glorious animal we could not see? "There." Bheki's broad hand was pointing upwards. A bird of prey perhaps? Up went our collective gaze, high into the sky as Bheki kept pointing. Still nothing. "Shhh," Bheki said again, letting the silence stretch until finally: "That," he said, "is what we in Africa call . . . the full moon."
It was pure theatre. We knew he was teasing, but as we made our way back to base we could not help feeling that we had notched up our first real bush experience.
We were in the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Park, a nature reserve in the heart of rural KwaZulu-Natal, 170 miles north of Durban. Our cluster of dwellings, shared with friends, was the Munyawaneni Bush Lodge in the Hluhluwe section. Ten miles away the main camp, Hilltop Lodge, was sited behind a barrier of protective wire, but here nothing separated us from the bush save for a few rickety wooden steps.
Four two-person thatched rondavels, each with its own bathroom, were linked by a wooden walkway that led to the communal eating hut. This was the bush close up, in stereo, encircled by knobwood, Natal mahogany, pigeon wood and buffalo thorn trees. From private and communal balconies we overlooked a slow-running river, home to hippos and crocodiles, and where all manner of animals came to drink and roar at night.
It was a first, not only for an entranced Cassie, but also for me. Although South Africa-born I am as much a child of the city as any other Londoner. I had spent my first 12 years in South Africa without even catching a rear view of a wild animal. Since then, although I had done the game-reserve thing, I could never quite get used to the idea of sealing myself up in a car to experience the wild.
The lodges in Hluhluwe (pronounced shlu-shlu-weh, a name derived from the Zulu word for the rope climber plant) are not at the top end of the market. Although they come complete with a game warden and a cook, who produced three meals a day from supplies we had brought, this is hardly the white-aproned, sundowner service of the movies. Instead, it is more like home from home, the running of the camp organised by our party, the walks and meals timed to fit our whim. This lack of luxury means a bush experience at a price well below that of any private lodge.
On our second day out we saw a lion. Woken at 5am by Bheki, we drove to a part of the road where a lioness was breakfasting on a giraffe that had conveniently dropped dead. To be so close to such a beast, to the enormousness of her head, the spread of her jaws, the length of the giraffe's sprawling and exposed white limbs and, hovering all the while, white-backed vultures, even uglier than anticipated. We sat and gawped. But we were not alone on the road. Soon it began to feel a bit like game spotting in a traffic jam, so we moved on to a spot chosen by Bheki.
Here, before we started walking, he delivered the bush credo he had sketched briefly the previous night. Always walk in single file except when a lion is nearby; never run from lion; ignore the sleepy white rhino, but should its bad-tempered black relative charge, head straight for the top of the nearest tree. With our anxiety levels tweaked up to a sweat, we set off.
We spotted plenty of game as we moved through the dew-laden high grass - delicate nyala, impalas, waterbuck and kudu, ambling giraffes, quirky zebras nuzzling ticks off each other's backs, bad-tempered buffalo and lumbering rhino. We eyed the last gingerly, trying to identify one from the other since, despite their names, the difference between the good-humoured critter and the chap that likes to charge lies in the shape of the jaw and slope of the neck rather than in the colour.
Two hours later, with the sun climbing and our trousers soaked from the dew, we walked back to the car - and an enormous breakfast prepared by our cook, Simon. For the next three days we settled into an easy routine. In between walks we consumed more (and better) red meat and red wine than could ever be dreamed of in the UK, sat out on the wooden decks marvelling at the all-consuming magic of the place or slept through nights broken by hyena calls and distant roars.
By our last day, we had grown into almost blase, professional bush walkers, with no fear of the wild. And then we saw them - three lionesses with five or six cubs ahead of us a mere hundred yards away. We followed Bheki's outstretched hand, straight into the unblinking stare of a tawny lioness within odour distance. All nonchalance fled. This was a serious ground-to-ground challenge. Guttural warnings issued from the beast's throat.
"Bunch together," Bheki whispered, "so she thinks we're one big animal." He did not need to say it twice. Never did three puny white folks cling so desperately to one big black man. For a long, very long moment we faced each other, then she lost interest, turned and stalked away, entourage in tow. That was the only time I ever saw Bheki sweat, perspiration pouring off him as he uncocked his gun.
Not bad for a curtain call.
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