What is it you love about being in the African bush? Is it the wildlife? The wide open spaces? The feeling that you are back in the place you belong? The glittering night sky? The sunrises and sunsets that seem unmatched anywhere else in the world?
For me, it’s all of those things – but the magic I find most difficult to describe or capture is the way an African safari awakens your senses.
Louise Monsey – Wilderness Safaris Botswana Guide Trainer
As guides, we learn to tune back in to our senses, especially that sixth sense that most of us have learned to ignore, in a world where your senses are often assaulted by too much information, or should I say, information of the unnatural kind.
When you sleep under the stars, there is no hum from the refrigerator or the TV on standby, no artificial lights to impact your sleep… and I even breathe more easily in the fresh air, not cooped up by walls or windows.
My morning safari often begins to take shape in the middle of the night, as I am stirred from sleep by that most evocative of African sounds… the call of the lion. I will never forget hearing my first lion in the wild. I sat bolt upright in bed, every hair on my body standing on end and a tense excitement surging through my veins. It doesn’t matter how long I have been guiding or how many lions I have heard since, I still feel that same nervous excitement. Every. Single. Time. I think it awakens a primal fear in us all. You may never have heard that sound in your life before but your primal self knows. Your ancestors feared that sound and I believe it has been passed down in your genes. Your instincts are still strong.
I try to establish in my sleepy slumber the direction the lions are calling from, and my subconscious seems to track how close the calls get and where they are headed. The wolf-like wails of the black-backed jackals also throng the African night.
As I walk to meet my guests, I’m already checking for tracks. As my guests arrive for morning coffee we hear the lions call again and we grab some of those freshly baked muffins and brewed coffee as takeaways. As I hurry my guests onto the car, the excitement and anticipation grows as we try to beat the sunrise, knowing this is the best time to catch predators on the move. The eerie, low, whooping call of the spotted hyena adds to our excitement.
I breathe in the fresh, crisp air and smell the aromatic wild sage as we drive out of camp; I feel the cool morning wind on my face and count my lucky stars that I get to do this every day.
As we watch the sun appear from the horizon, I stop and switch off the car so that we can just watch. It always amazes me how quickly the sun rises and that no one sunrise is the same.
Tracks are easiest to see in the early morning light and I read the freshness of each track by the morning dew, any disturbance in the track and the presence or absence of other tracks on top.
If we’re lucky, we find those lion tracks and our search continues…
The early morning call of the francolin or spurfowl encourages a contented smile and I may later rely on their alarm calls to alert me to the presence of that lion.
I ask the guests to open their ears to the sounds of the bush; often it is difficult for people from busy cities to single out the sounds and calls when they are used to zoning out to so many noises, and I explain that we use alarm calls to inform us of where predators might be.
Then suddenly a baboon barks loudly and I scan around; a large male is sitting at the top of a sycamore fig tree, which looks bright yellow in the early morning light, and on further inspection I see he is looking east into the river. Then a francolin alarm calls and vervet monkeys start going crazy further east. I tell the guests to keep their eyes peeled in the direction of the calls and suddenly there she is – the exquisite beauty of a leopardess padding silently through the sandy riverbed. We would never have seen her if it had not been for other animals alerting us to her presence. Her rosette spots blend beautifully into the riverine vegetation to camouflage her perfectly from all but the most vigilant eyes, and she makes our morning, vocalizing with the classic ‘see-saw’ cough. This leopard is not hunting but advertising her territorial boundaries to other females.
We set off for a closer look and photo opportunities of the leopard, and even though we lose visual for a while, we find her again through the alarm calls of impala and a tree squirrel this time – and the distinct smell of ‘popcorn’. Yes, you read that right, a leopard’s scent-marking smells (to some noses at least) quite a lot like popcorn. It takes a while to pay attention to the smells too… to open your nose along with your ears.
Now a smell you can never forget is if your guide mistakenly drives through the scat of a lion: it is something no guide ever does on purpose, as the smell is really quite repulsive.
As my guests and I are laughing about my rookie error I stop to show them some scratch marks on a tree; as we piece the puzzle together we decide that due to the height of the marks, their size and distance between claws they were likely made by a leopard like the one we had seen earlier; but both leopard and lion will mark their territories in this way, and leopards will leave scratch marks when climbing into and out of trees.
We drive in silence once again, appreciating the beauty of the dawn chorus and feeling grateful that we woke so early to be a part of a morning that we could have missed if we were lying in bed. I consider identifying some of the birds for the guests but we have such a human tendency to have to name and classify everything, that I let them just listen in wonder to the African morning. I do this with stars at night too and whilst sitting watching elephants. Some moments are too magnificent for words and would be spoiled by them. I even encourage my guests to sometimes put their cameras and binoculars down and just see through their eyes rather than through a lens. To be mindfully in the present moment is as important, if not more so, than that perfect photograph – and those are the memories that will last forever.
We’re back on the tracks of the lions now, two large males, when we hear a kudu bark. ‘Kudu never lie’ so we drive in the direction of the alarm call, and as we gaze in the same direction as the stunningly beautiful kudu bull, there they are in the golden, relentless African sun. Two huge, black-maned Kalahari lions, and we wonder if this morning could have been any more perfect.