If I were a game ranger, my heart would sink every time a South African climbed on the back of my vehicle.
South Africans must be the worst people to take driving around the bush when there are foreigners around, especially if those South Africans have been on even one game drive before in their life. Any South African who has ever spotted a wildebeest on the Rhodes estate while in traffic on De Waal Drive fancies himself an expert.
“Oh yes,” we’ll nod wisely to the German couple beside us, “the buffalo is the most dangerous of the Big Five. You don’t want to follow him into the long grass!”
Then we’ll narrow our eyes and look into the middle distance as though we’ve all been following buffalo into long grass since we were six years old.
South Africans on game drives have different techniques for showing off what bush veterans they are. There’s the habit of giving the animals abbreviated names to show how familiar they are: “Do you think we’ll see any ellies today? Oh, I do like an elly.” It’s the equivalent of once seeing a celebrity in an airport and calling them by their first names ever after.
Some make a point of asking the guide questions that are really just designed to show off that they know something: “We probably won’t see a pangolin, hey? They really only come out at night, don’t they?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“Mmm. Very nocturnal animal.”
“Ja, totally nocturnal.”
Others will make a big show of being interested in only the smallest, dullest and most uninteresting creatures. This usually means birds. These individuals just luuuurve birds. They do this to show those Swiss and Italians that they have seen all the large animals, and frankly they find them a bit obvious. Only the true connoisseur of the bush has the finer sensibility to notice the small brown warblebeak sitting on that rock over there. “Tsk,” they’ll mutter under their breath, just loud enough for everyone to hear, “they’re not usually this far south at this time of year.”
Is it interesting to know that small brown warblebeaks are not usually this far south at this time of year? I do not think so.
Then there are the other irritating individuals – like me – who have their supply of jokes, and will make them over and over again at every opportunity. “Hey, make sure we stop at the zebra crossing,” I’ll say, and and take special care to ask every wildebeest I see, “Why the long face?” I must be unbearable.
But just recently I was preparing to go on a game drive and I was dismayed to discover that my heart wasn’t in it. I know it’s a magnificent experience and a privilege and people pay lots of money and travel long distances to do it, but frankly I get bored. It’s not the drive that bores me, it’s the stopping and looking at the animals. It would be fine, if only we didn’t have to hear the same things all the time.
“You know, they flap their ears to keep themselves cool,” the guide will say, and you have to look interested and say things like, “Oh!” and “Huh!”, because the guy’s just doing his job and he wants us to be having a good time and I don’t want to be one of those jerks who makes him wonder if all that training and game-ranger school was worth it.
But it bothered me that I was so jaded. It’s true that I’ve been on a lot of game drives in my life, but how can anyone have been on too many game drives? How small does your heart have to be, how closed off to natural beauty that you start to think of a game drive as a chore? This was not the person I want to be.
So I had a heavy heart as we set out. I had a feeling I was heading out there not to see the magnificent wild, but to confront the grumpy, wizened, embittered old bore that I had become.
Around the first bend we saw some impala and my heart did not leap. One of the other guests thought they saw a wildebeest, but it wasn’t, which gave me the chance to say, “No gnus is good gnus.”
It’s true, I thought: I am ruined. I am a wretched cynic. I don’t deserve this experience.
But then we crested a rise, and the warm wind was on my face and the land dropped away below us to trees and plains and the golden glint of a river in the setting sun and I breathed in the smell of the bush, of hoof and dust and horn and berry and air that has been heated by the sun and suddenly I felt it again, my heart opening, the muscles in my face relaxing. Unexpectedly, there it was: the perfect moment, and nothing could spoil it.
“Stop! What’s that little bird over there?” one of the South Africans said.
Darrel Bristow-Bovey is a columnist, screenwriter, travel writer, author - follow him on Twitter
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