Two nights ago, Sab and I decided that South Africa was no longer for us. That in spite of what I had hoped for, I wasn’t willing — or ready — to manage that inaccessible lodge in the middle of nowhere. That it was time to take to the road again, a road that could potentially take me out of Africa, forever.
So that morning, when Morne told me he was taking a few clients out to Hluhluwe iMfolozi Park, I thought why not? I might as well join in.
“They have a few lions there, don’t they?” I enquired hopefully.
“Yeah. All the big predators — lions, leopards, cheetahs, even wild dogs —But let’s focus on rhinos. You are far more likely to see one of them. Have you seen one yet?”
“One. But I would love to see another.”
“This park is one of the best places to see rhinos in South Africa,” claimed Morne as we drove slowly through the mist and the velvet-green hills of iMfolozi. “We once spotted 11 of them during one single game drive.”
But as the hours passed, it seemed as if everything was out — or rather in — to prove him wrong. Sleepy buffalos — alerted to our presence by the breeze — watched us impatiently, as if daring us to make a wrong move. Vigilant impalas froze at our approach, while juvenile warthogs scampered into the shrubs, their tails raised stiff like little flags of defiance behind them.
To his credit, Morne did everything he could to make up for the lack of wildlife sighting. He taught us how to make toothbrushes out of the branches of Magic Guarri tree, or how to find flavor in the seeds of Wild Anaseed bush should we ever fancy cooking up a dish under the stars.
But a sense of melancholy had settled on me and by the time we stopped at the Hill Top Camp to grab some snacks for the drive home, I was resigned to filing away the day in the “so-so” drawer; captivating landscapes, average weather, a few animals which, as fascinating as they were, I had seen and photographed often, and not much else.
I thought of my time in South Africa; of how it had started with a promise of a job in a lodge which had never quite materialized and how it would end with an unfulfilled promise too.
I didn’t want to be ungrateful. But if I couldn’t even see a rhino in what was one of their strongholds in all of Africa, then what were my chances of seeing something like a cheetah or a wild dog, or ever making it in this strange, incomprehensible continent they called Africa?
And then, we crested a hill and suddenly, all the chatter in the car died. I looked up and oh my… There they were; the wild dogs of Africa!
Those most elusive of predators, and a long-time obsession of mine, play-fighting right there on the bitumen before us. Mottled browns and blacks, my breath held in a moment of incredulity, my camera shutter recording a moment of fleeting magic, a final look and then the last of the dogs had melted into the roadside thicket.
“Remember this moment,” whispered Morne, not daring to take his eyes off the dogs. “In eight years of guiding, I’ve only ever seen these guys, maybe 10 times. You all are… incredibly lucky!”
It reminded me of the first time I had seen a leopard. Back then, we had spent an entire day without seeing anything of note, and then, we had literally bumped into one when we rounded a bend in some dirt road; the king of stealth sunning himself right before our eyes.
Lucky? Perhaps we were lucky.
Or perhaps that was just the way of Africa; where the extraordinary tended to take place in the most ordinary of places. Where dreams came to die, and sometimes, just sometimes, stories were born from their ashes.