Kapama Lodge, South Africa: Predators and Prey
Some days blend into one another, but the five days we spent on safari in South Africa remain vivid and indelible. When we came to Africa, we lived at the Kapama Lodge, within the private game preserve that borders Kruger National Park.
The wake-up call came every morning at 5:00 AM, and we arose in the dark. By 5:30, we were being served coffee on the veranda, looking across the lagoon at first light on the horizon.
As we climbed into the large, open four-wheel drive Toyota Land Cruiser for our morning safari, the sun was just coming up.
The bush — technically a woodland savannah — was lovely in the early morning light, shadows stretching across the grasslands, the air cool even brisk, and the scents fragrant.
The Age-Old Drama
The bleached skulls and bone fragments lying alongside the road and the sight of vultures looming high in the trees gave a lie to the impression of serenity. The age-old drama, the life struggle between predators and prey, had been reenacted just hours before.
Both our ranger Cynit and or tracker Sidwell were born and raised in the bush, and their assuredness, even playfulness, helped put us at ease.
Cynit was a fun-loving man; he especially had fun with the guests. The tracker sat on a raised chair on the hood of the land cruiser, like an umpire at a tennis match, and Cynit referred to him as “bait.”
He told an elderly French couple when we came upon a herd of rhinos that rhinos preferred French cuisine.
Meeting Calvin Klein on the Savannah
We came to Africa to see wildlife, and each morning and evening we went out into the bush for three hours.
Our first morning as we drove along the dirt roads that weave through this large preserve (13,000 hectares), a male lion walked along the road toward us.
He paid no apparent attention to us in our parked vehicle though he knew we were there.
A lion’s eyesight is poor though his sense of smell and hearing are keen, and to him the four of us in the open jeep seemed a large animal. We were cautioned not to stand up or get out the vehicle.
Cynit told us that the rangers call this lion Calvin Klein. He was beautiful, but he did not have the same great heart as an old male lion in the preserve, who once took down a Cape buffalo after a three-hour fight, but who now, old and without teeth, would not survive the coming winter.
Family Life in the Pride
We slowly followed the Calvin Klein along the road and then off road into the bush, moving around large trees and over smaller ones until we came upon his pride — two lionesses, and seven younger lions.
We parked within ten feet of them, and for the next hour we watched the male sleep, the females eye us cautiously, and the youngsters roughhouse and climb low trees.
Once or twice, one would circle us, coming within five feet of the truck but never threatening us. Our guides were relaxed — the engine was shut off, and the rifle lay in its case on the floor of the jeep — and this gave us a sense of safety.
The animals rested during the hot day, coming to the watering holes in the morning and evening.
A Rose and Blue-Grey Sunset
We stopped in the midst of a pack of elephants, the calves sucking at their mothers’ teats. Elephants eat grass, leaves, and branches: they push down small trees, rip branches off them, and curl them into their mouths.
Midway through the evening safari, we would stop and have drinks and a small snack. Beside a grove of dwarf trees where a pack of wildebeests were feeding, we watched the sun set on the Dragon’s Back Mountains, turning the clouds to rose and blue-grey.
On the fourth morning, we rode elephants through the grasslands spotted with umbrella trees.
It was a cool, clear morning; a herd of impala leapt, graceful with their rear legs bent high above the trunk of their bodies. Zebras, springboks, giraffes, and wildebeests were everywhere, unthreatened by predators.
A Savage Attack
Later the same day at our afternoon coffee before our evening ride, we spoke about the playful tame elephants as if they were household pets.
Henry, the head ranger, a man about thirty-five, told us that thirteen months earlier he had been attacked by an elephant.
Before he could raise his rifle, the elephant was upon him, thrusting his tusk through Henry’s thigh close to his groin. He then pierced his back, the tusk forcing itself out the front of his chest.
The elephant knelt on Henry’s back to crush the life out of him. He played dead, exhaling and going limp. The elephant walked away.
Cynit, who came to Henry’s aid ten minutes after the attack told us he thought that Henry was dead. He surely would have died, except that a doctor was with him. He stabilized the wounds until Henry could be airlifted out to a hospital. Even so, he was in intensive care for five weeks and in rehabilitation for eleven months.
As we left, I asked him whether he now felt any fear of the animals. No, he said, except for the elephant that mauled him; he would not go near him.
That evening, as we watched an elephant flop lazily in a lake, and play like a child, my wife asked Cynit why the animal that attacked Henry had not been destroyed.
“He makes too much money for Kapama,” he said. “Jim, he is the elephant you rode this morning.”
When the elephant we had been watching finished his bath and came out of the lake just behind us, Cynit backed up, almost hitting the elephant so that he would get angry and we could see him trumpet.
As we sped away, I thought of Henry.
Jim Prevet is a free-lance writer living in Kennebunkport. He has traveled widely because he gets to tag along with his wife whose wanderlust is legendary.
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