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 a 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 Africa wasn’t willing to show me one of her rhinos in what was one of their last strongholds in all of Africa, then perhaps I was never really meant to be there.
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.
“This moment… You guys are lucky,” whispers Morne. “In eight years of guiding, I’ve only ever seen them maybe a dozen times. Remember this moment.”
I remember the first African leopard I saw; an entire day spent driving around in the heat of summer, dust-smeared faces and camera lenses, fleeting impalas and not much else at all. And then we rounded a bend in some dirt road on our way out of the reserve and there it was, a male leopard, the king of stealth laying without a care right in the middle of the road.
Lucky? Perhaps we were lucky.
Or perhaps that was just the way of Africa; where the extraordinary tends to take place in the most ordinary of places. Where dreams come to die, and sometimes, just sometimes, stories are born from their ashes.