It was Churchill, having gone through the experience himself in the Boer War, who pronounced that the most thrilling thing in the world to be shot at—and
missed. Those millions of us who are amateur Walter Mittys have always assumed an equivalent peril: facing down a charging elephant or standing there wondering what to do when an enraged lion emerged from the African bush.
We have got news for you. The first thing you do is turn on your Kodak. The self-adjusting one with the zoom lens and no need for focusing and that takes pictures in darkness or light. That’s your only worry. Just aim in the right general direction. You have more danger of a hit-and-run taxi than you do of any beast of the jungle.
We are at the Sabi Sabi Game Reserve in deepest Africa. It is idyllic. Across the ravine, gazing over the groaning buffet table, just down from the swimming pool, we sip Bombay gin as baboons cavort in trees, impalas graze and wild birds shriek love songs. The sun sinks in the endless African sky and we are about to go out and tackle the mysterious animals in their native habitat.
Our beasts of journey are huge and indestructible open Land Rovers that contain three and four rows of seats, tiered as in a London theatre. They look as if they have just come from Montgomery’s victory at El Alamein. They are filled mainly with large and bulbous German tourists, dressed in shorts that large and bulbous people should not wear. An African with sharp eyes—the “lookie-lookie”—sits on a bolted-down chair on the hood.
The landscape, in truth, is rather monotonous, short trees kept short by the sun, unimpressive to a British Columbian raised on giants. Wildebeests seen at a distance. A warthog scurrying along, as ugly as its name. Waterbucks, distinguishable, as our rangerdriver explains, because it appears they have sat down on a wet toilet.
A giraffe is spotted far away. The animal lore of John, the bronzed ranger, is more interesting than the giraffe. How it requires a heart the size of football all that blood its
faraway brain. And, so the pressure won’t explode up top, how a delicate system of membranes drain it off. One now looks upon giraffes as not awkward, elongated teenagers but as intricate pumping stations.
There is the mother lion whose fat and lazy two sons are still with her and, in fact, are mating with her. (Don’t leave home without one.) If a stronger male appears on the scene, he will drive them off and kill and often eat the new offspring. Darwin rules. She has this morning been chased up a tree by seven hyenas. They are thought of in myth as cowards, but seven against one lion are too much.
The ranger’s main weapon is—not the “lookie-lookie’s” sharp eyes—but his intercom-radio. We roam the bush, crashing over fallen trees and bouncing down dried streams, but the radio constantly crackles. An elephant apparently has been spotted. When we arrive, there are two other Sabi Sabi Land Rovers,
armed with a year’s output from Kodak, lurking in the brush. He is old and tired, with just one tusk left, so yellowed and rotting that it wouldn’t provide a pound of aphrodisiac for Hong Kong businessmen. An elephant eats 18 hours a day. The ranger turns off the motor. We sit, as the German and Japanese and Kodak cameras click, 15 yards away from him. He does not seem interested. He could be a prop hired by the local tourist board. In fact, may be. We’re still not sure.
Things grow worse. The radio alerts us— thus alerting every other Land Rover released from El Alamein—that there is a sighting of a cheetah. The fastest land animal, which uses the long tail as a rudder to steer when travelling 110 km/h, is at dead slow, as a matter of fact reclining at dusk rather like a starlet lounging in her boudoir in a silk teddy. There are four cubs about, more confused than
at all the attention, while mother views the bulbous tourists—now 10 feet away—lanquidly. “We try to make it a rule,” says the ranger, “that no more than four Land Rovers at a time should be present.” With 12 or so cameras per vehicle, that gives Kodak its yearly dividend right there.
It is dark now when the animals, here for the amusement, come out to prowl and kill and eat. The radio tells of a leopard-spotting. The beautiful beast is found but, intruding through the foliage are the headlights of the converging Land Rovers, a “lookielookie” on each engine hood waving a spotlight—the better to service those unfortunate souls whose cameras cannot see in the dark. Sabi Sabi takes its name from the Sabi Sabi River. Sabi Sabi means “fear fear” since the river had a nasty
history. The only thing to fear here is eardrum damage from motor-driven cameras that cost more individually than this Land Rover.
Mother leopard, the only dignified individual present, looks for a discreet area of retreat. She looks left, right, behind her and—as if in weary resignation since she is pinned in by vehicles, headlights, spotlights and whirring cameras—moves down a path between. There is a sliver of a silver moon overhead and the lights make it appear a Hollywood set. For a moment, it reminds a reporter for all the world of a Michael Dukakis or a Jean Chrétien doing a main-streeting, handshaking tour while pretending not to know that half a hundred cameras are trained on his every grimace.
Mother leopard is said to be heading for the waterhole. When she gets there, there are so many blinding lights, so much a stage setting, that she gazes about and instead pads off into the bush. Undoubtedly looking for a Coke.
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