When you’re young, you’re more immortal right; immortality measured on a continuum from bulletproof to just a tinge.
I thought so when I got the job. Sometimes I forget how woefully ill-equipped I am for the outdoors. I have always preferred my outdoors, indoors. And now this. Not only an outdoors, belligerent and unapologetic, but one that derived it's whole meaning from the Big Five, safari parlance for huge animals that like to hunt you down and kill you.
But back to the days of the news desk, and me leaning forward across it, facing the news editor, meeting his eye, nodding fiercely. I had never been out in the wild with a notebook, perhaps that was different. I would be out of the newsroom for a week and my husband could come.
But you do understand it’s a private game reserve? That means you’re going to see game, mingle with them. You do know how to handle yourself in the wild? Oh yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. I thought fleetingly of sitting low in the back seat of the family car as we glimpsed generic wild life way in the distance through several layers of thornbrush. Everyone in South Africa went to the Kruger National Park. It was like a giant car park with some animals in it.
I tried not to think of the nights at the camp in the quaint thatched rondavel with the stable door my dad liked to leave half open for fresh air. The way I never slept, just lay rigid waiting to be eaten, waiting for the mangy king of the jungle to vault the lower half of the door and come for me, saliva dripping from his yellow teeth. I conscientiously examined the ceiling, really just the inside of the thatched roof, with its framework of wooden poles. I planned ways to scale the white-washed walls and wrap myself around them. I measured in my mind the distance between my dangling ten-year-old legs and his gaping maw. I knew I’d have to somehow keep all of me tucked on top of the 5inch round pole.
But I was different now. I was newly married and full of a tenuous arrogance that came from being young, cooking my own food and having sex regularly. I was no longer an intern. I was full fledged. I got bylines regularly in my national Sunday newspaper. I was the ‘shorter reporter’ who had even modeled fashion for short women and been on the front page looking wooden and petrified. I was a bit of a brand already. Brands had no issue with nature and wild animals. It would probably seem tame.
In those days the safari cost about $1000USD a day. As I said, it was exclusive. It catered mostly to tourists from Europe who wanted their fix in Africa to be just like the documentaries; riveting, close-up, safe. It was so expensive because the parties were small, seven people and two guides with guns, one in front, one at the back as you walked straight out into the middle of where the wild things were.
I knew it was private. I knew it was exclusive, so I was surprised at how rugged and basic it all was and how rigorous the schedule would be.
On the first night we stayed in our most luxurious camp; khaki army tents complete with sandy floors and mosquitoes. We were at the main camp so the canvas between us and the Big Five seemed rugged enough and durable.
I had a chance to meet the rest of the party round the campfire. Mostly leggy Scandinavian single women. Things seemed stiff and awkward at first. Everyone on this trip was cooler than I was. This was no favorable context for the 'shorter reporter'. I was at least supposed to measure up. These people were worldly, well traveled, taller and more bronzed than I was. It was offputting. That and the mosquitoes.
Our main guide was hip and cool and definitely into the ladies. There was only one thing that got him more excited and that was the Big Five. The Scandinavians were giggly and flirtatious. They believed the Big Five were like cuddly toys you could unzip and put your pyjamas in at the end of your bed.
But I was intrepid, apparently, and I was the redoubtable shorter reporter. I was with my husband and we were there for free, not a cent. Everyone else was forking out extraordinary amounts of money. I had my reporter’s spiral bound notebook to lean on and even write in.
And I didn’t ruin everything until the last night, the night we spent under the stars on the bank of a shallow river, just us, our nylon sleeping bags and grass tall enough to hide elephants in.
By that time we’d daily washed in deadly rivers rife with Africa’s most dangerous predators: the not so comical hippos, their cohorts the irritable buffalo, as well as the resentful crocodiles that lurked in the very same river I washed my hair in.
We’d scaled trees to escape an earthshaking stampede of thirty elephants pounding right past us along a dry riverbed. We’d backed away from a stinking heap of black rhino, the excitable, charging sort, felt the shift of it’s giant leathery body in the ground beneath our feet and sensed the subtle wind shifts that could betray our proximity, our audacious proximity, sentencing us to certain death at the point of his casually vicious noseware.
In the meanwhile the human animals were enjoying a non-stop intercultural hormone fest. Every single woman wanted a piece of the chunky, devil-may-care guide. And he was not averse to pieces of them. He was like a wild animal himself, sniffing at the women and rampaging after the Big Five with his rifle tossed upside down over his shoulder. We had to run after him, too afraid to be out in the wilderness alone.
“Few people realize just how silent the approach of an elephant can be.”
Dirt brown, hairy legs stretched out, head thrust back, eyes closed.
"In this long grass you can’t hear them until they’re on top of you. Keep your eyes peeled. They don’t like surprises. Probably trample us to death."
The light faded. We each took hour long shifts as look outs. Watch the tall grass for the towering shape of an elephant, watch the veld across the river for anything else. I was swiveling my head around inhumanly on my shift. 1 am. It was turning chilly. Across the river, in the veld beyond, a lion roared. The sound reverberated all the way through the ground culminating in a slow, vibrating eruption in our chests. Everyone sat up.
Another thundering roar. They were coming closer. The sound of them was inside us. No-one could sleep.
We squinted into the darkness. Across the shallow river, glowing back at us, thirteen pairs of amber eyes. Everyone jumped up instinctively, clutching sleeping bags, trying not to act like prey. It is impossible to describe the sound lions make in the wild. It gets under your skin, triggers a primordial response beyond terror.
"Get into the jeep."
It was beginning to rain. We thought he was saving us. This pride could be on our side of the river in seconds. We piled in, wet and shaking. The guide sat inside the cab, his rifle on his lap. The rest climbed in the open back. Michel and I were left to share the rain slicked jeep roof, both of us crosslegged , clinging to the frame.
But he wasn’t saving us. He was heading straight towards them. He'd found a place to drive across the river and suddenly we, in our open jeep, we were in the middle of a glorious pride of thirteen lions. He cut the engine. The creatures circled within six feet of us, growling, twitching. Round and round. There were lionesses with their cubs.
Oh goody, the Scandinavians said in Scandinavian. They pointed at them with their flashlights.
Keep count, the guide shouted from inside the cab. Make sure you can see them all. His rifle was lying forgotten now, on the seat beside him.
The Scandinavians giggled and played their lights straight into the dark pupils of their wild, amber eyes. They have no idea, I realized. I was up now on my haunches trying to find a space to slide down and join the others in the open back of the jeep, trying to get away from being out in the open. One agile leap and they’d have us. Michel and I up there like dinner.
I flattened myself against the back of the cab, trying to melt into the cold metal . The Scandinavians continued playing 'spot the lion' with their roving flashlights. Provoking, provoking. These were mothers with their cubs; potentially the most dangerous group in the African wild. I lost my intrepidness. I started to cry, whimper. I was out of my body. I was livid, livid that the guide should risk our lives so cavalierly. I could taste myself in the lion’s mouth.
We have to leave. We have to leave. The tears were running down my face. I was partial to life. I didn’t want it to end now. I could smell the animal smell, wet from the rain. The fiery eyes, circled slowly, methodically. Michel grabbed my hand.
The engine came to life and we were moving. Slowly I could feel my legs coming back to me. I was thinking: Forgive us, forgive us, forgive us. We know not what we do.
I never regained my questionable cachet, certainly not in that group. I think they still thought lions were cute, cuddly little things and I was a crazed woman with little courage. It didn’t matter. A week later there we were, front page. The headline said ‘intrepid’, Michel got the photography byline.