Yesterday was my birthday. I’m about 45 I think. I know it has a 5 in it somewhere.
Les took me to Kruger, and as we drove along we talked about our first trip to the African bush together, exactly 5 years ago, when I’d had another birthday in the bush. I was just about 35 then.
Anyway, there we were on our favourite Kruger back road, trundling along and looking for trouble.
Close by to our left is a shallow valley; an old stream bed but just a depression now. Grass and scattered small trees.
A big mixed herd of zebras and wildebeest, maybe 60 or more in total, are grazing. We notice a few heads turning together in the same direction, north. Steady gazes and flicking tails; frozen in mid-chew.
The wildebeest herd bull notices too, although he’s way down at the southern end. He lopes all the way to the northern flank, head erect and purposeful, tail tossing; moving fast enough to get there quickly, but steadily enough to not panic the others.
The bull wildebeest, having covered about 400 metres, is now standing a hundred metres north of his herd, staring intently into the light bush. Off to his right, a line of zebras, every gaze locked onto the same place, every ear pricked forward, every tail flicking in agitation.
And there it is! A single lioness, walking steadily through the long grass; grass the identical colour to her coat. No wonder lions can get close when they wish to … she could be 5 metres away in this grass, and invisible.
But today she has other things on her mind, and the wildebeest and zebras know it. They watch her closely, shuffle uncomfortably for any few seconds that she drops out of sight. She passes, north to south, sometimes coming to almost within striking distance. But ‘almost’ is everything here; they all know they can escape her if they need to, and they sense that they won’t need to.
Nevertheless, once or twice some less experienced animal panics, startled by a phantom, and the herd dashes away for a few seconds, everyone keen to be no worse than second-slowest.
The lioness glances at them as she passes by, but shows no interest. She turns west, up the slope on the other side, where she spooks three spotted hyaenas into a clumsy dash away over the hill.
And then she’s gone. She’s over there somewhere, and so probably is the rest of her pride, lolling in the shade of a tree. But we see nothing, and the zebras and wildebeest start cautiously chewing on the forgotten bites of grass they’d been holding in their mouths untouched for the past ten minutes.
Happy Birthday to me.