This morning I woke to the sound of a man’s voice calling outside our tent. I couldn’t make out the words, but I knew it was our morning drive wake-up call. There wasn’t yet a hint of sunlight in the sky and we would have to dress, eat, and gulp our coffee before there was.
I’d spent most of the night tossing and turning—not only because of the excitement of the elephant encounter but also because it was too hot to sleep. Now the air was refrigerator cold, and the bed felt like a warm, cozy hug. In fact, my pillow had never felt more perfectly fluffy under my cheek nor my blanket more soft and snug.
“Come on, we gotta get going or we won’t have time to eat by the fire,” Chris said. From the outline of shadow I could tell he was already poking his arms through his T-shirt and pulling it over his head. My own clothes sat folded on the bench at the end of my bed. I’d laid them out the night before, having learned my lesson after dressing in the dark, half awake, on the first morning.
“Maybe I’ll just sit this one out,” I said and pulled the covers close to my chin.
“Oh no you don’t. You can sleep when you’re dead,” Chris said. “You don’t want to miss anything.”
In the jeep, filled with warm porridge and swaddled in an army green boiled-wool blanket, I reminded myself that Chris was right. I didn’t want to miss anything. And I had to admit it was worth the trouble to get up before the dawn’s early light just to smell the sweet air and feel the last vestiges of crepuscular magic before the big red Botswana sun scorched the land.
As we bounced silently down the two-track on the hunt for any moving thing, I thought of an old song by The Tokens … In the jungle, the quiet jungle, the lion sleeps tonight …
Slowly the sky faded from indigo to periwinkle as kites, kestrels, and coots flew across it looking for a morning meal. TJ stopped the jeep and turned around to face us. “This morning we will take it slow and identify some birds for our books.” Mike pulled a golf pencil and a worn copy of the camp’s checklist from his shirt pocket, Susan prepped her camera and lens, and I dug around my backpack for binoculars, being extra careful not to drop our last pair.
Just then AT pointed to the side of the road ahead. Lion tracks. “A lioness and her cub, maybe two cubs, have passed here recently,” said TJ. “Let’s see where these tracks lead.” Then he gunned it and we left the established two-track and ripped across the meadow. As TJ threaded us through an ever-thickening bush, I stuffed the binoculars back into the backpack, gripping it with one hand and the jeep’s roll bar with the other. The army blanket slid to the floor, which was just as well. The sun had cracked the horizon.
Finally, we cleared the stand of trees to emerge into another expansive meadow. From his jump seat at the front, AT motioned for TJ to slow down. The ground had turned marshy. We came to a stop and AT surveyed the land. We’d lost the tracks. The two talked in Setswana. Then TJ put the jeep in gear and hit the gas, but the tires spun in place. He switched gears to reverse. Same thing. Forward to first. Back to reverse. More spinning.
Chris, Mike, Susan, and I all exchanged wide-eyed looks. AT and TJ muttered back and forth in Setswana. Finally, TJ said to us, “Stay in the vehicle. We do not know where the lions are sleeping. If they see you, it will not be safe for you or for us while we are collecting logs to build a road.” We sat in the jeep and watched helplessly as our guide and tracker collected branches from underneath the only nearby tree. As AT laid them out in front of the tires, TJ gave us a new set of directions. “OK, now you will need to get out of the vehicle so we can jack it up.”
One by one we plopped down into the spongy marsh. We gathered several feet away and watched the men work, wondering how long it could take to build a road with only a dozen or so branches. I scanned the meadow looking for movement. Was the lioness watching us? If she had a sense of humor, she was surely getting a good chuckle out of our lot. What a tasty breakfast the four of us would make for her little cubs. I looked down to see that Mike had worn flipflops. He shrugged his shoulders. “I thought we were birdwatching this morning,” he said.
I thought about Capstick’s Death in the Long Grass. Then I remembered—how had I forgotten?—what the assistant had told me at the optometrist’s office in Montana. I was buying a pair of prescription sunglasses for the trip, and she asked where I was going. I told her on an African safari. “Really?” she said. “My grandfather was killed on an African safari.” I’m not kidding. She really said that. She said he had been hunting lions. Apparently one had hunted him instead.
A-weema-weh, a-weema-weh …
While we debated our options for escape in case of attack (hide under the jeep?), TJ hopped into the driver’s seat and with a little more maneuvering got the vehicle unstuck. “OK, let’s go!” He waved us back to our seats and AT put the jack away.
As we bounced through the meadow looking for spoor, a voice came over the radio. TJ grabbed the receiver from the dashboard and spoke with the person on the other end.
Cheetahs! … A mother and her ten-month-old daughter … at a watering hole nearby. “Hold on, everyone!” said TJ.
AT and TJ took us right to the pair. TJ explained that the mother was teaching her daughter to hunt. On the menu today was red lechwe. With forelegs noticeably shorter than their hind legs, lechwes are antelopes designed to escape the jaws of lions and cheetahs and what have you in swampy places like the Okavango Delta.
Our young upstart hadn’t yet mastered the skill of stealth. She was eager and obvious and made rookie mistakes like charging too soon. Patience was the key. For the cats and for us. We all sat silently, waiting and watching, waiting and watching.
Then, BAM! Like spotted rockets they flew across the meadow, closing the hundred-yard gap between them and the herd within seconds. Ears back, heads low, muscles turgid. These cats, the fastest land animals on earth, bookended a young lechwe and culled it from the group.
By now another jeep of safari-goers had pulled up and we all watched the scene like spectators at a boxing match. When the mom lunged onto the antelope, who was kicking and splashing for its life, everyone cheered. For a while all we could see were hooves, legs, and waterworks. As the mom pinned the lechwe down by its neck, the daughter looked on until breakfast finally gave up the fight and dropped its head into the marsh.
That was the apprentice’s cue to bite into the lechwe’s rump, making several tears in the hide until finally she was able to make purchase on a piece of flesh. Meanwhile, half a dozen ewes stood in a semicircle just a few hundred feet away from the kill. In the middle, and a bit forward of the group, a ram stomped and huffed as his former herd mate morphed into a morning meal.
Now … I know this is how nature works. In the end we eat and we are eaten, every single one of us, by maggots or wild animals or bacteria or whatever. And that makes sense, scientifically speaking. So why were tears creeping down my cheeks? Here was everyone happy for the cheetahs. I was happy for them too. But there was something disturbing about the way the other antelopes just stood there and looked on, scraping the ground with their hooves. And that ram … he was mad! Or so it seemed. Of course, I have no idea what any of them were thinking. Or if they even do think. Maybe what goes through their heads is just …
a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh …
Later that evening, our last one in Botswana, we lingered at the dinner table sharing stories and laughs. TJ indulged us with tales from his job and even a few things about his personal life, like that he had a young daughter at home who longed to have a puppy. A German Shepherd.
I asked if he ever felt scared walking at night with killer animals all around. “I am not afraid of animals,” he said. “I know the bush. I grew up with these animals. If you are a coward, you cannot walk alone at night. But if you are a man you can. A real man can walk alone.”
“You sound like Moz,” I said, resisting the urge to roll my eyes.
He laughed. “Maybe, but I would also be sure to take the shortest route and avoid confrontation … always.”
“Do you have a favorite animal? Any that you admire or feel a kinship with?”
“No, not really,” he said. “I don’t think of the wild animals here that way. They are just part of the environment, part of everyday life. My favorite animal is the house cat.”
“Are you serious?” I asked.
“Yes! I like that they are independent and intelligent but they still let you pet them. My daughter, though, she wants a puppy, so we will have a dog … eventually.”
Without further ado, I whipped out my iPhone. As TJ swiped through photos of my own house cat, oohing and ahhing and chuckling, I thought about how I would soon be home showing my friends photos of TJ’s cat … the one sleeping in the long grass somewhere, engorged with rotting elephant head.