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  • Abinaya

Scent of the Savannah

Victor eases the 4x4 jeep through the tall grass, the dry blades crunching in resistance. He signals us to remain seated, quiet. We approach the cluster of towering trees, standing in stark contrast to the sea of grass that stretches till the horizon. “Look through the branches too, lions sometimes take their prey above, away from other predators,” Victor murmurs. He would know, he’s been a safari guide at the Kafue National Park for over 20 years.

It was he who had spotted the feline’s paw prints, a few moments earlier. “They look fresh!” his African accent more prominent in excitement. He had then turned the jeep directly into the savannah grass, abandoning the beaten track altogether. My heart raced – this is the moment I had dreamed of while traversing across the Indian Ocean, taking three layover flights – aching to see the mighty African lions. The bitter cold wind had numbed whatever little skin I had left exposed, the result of two hours’ driving through a foggy August dawn in Kafue National Park. Third day’s a charm, I hoped, thinking of our previous days’ failed missions.

I had met Victor two days ago, when I had arrived at Mukambi Safari Lodge, Kafue National Park, after a 4-hour drive from Zambia’s capital city, Lusaka. After brief introductions, a round of pineapple juice and cookies, we set off to cross the Kafue River by boat, to the safari starting point. As we slathered mosquito repellent on ourselves, Victor had set a small tin ablaze at the back of our jeep. “Elephant dung,” he explained to our startled expressions, “It wards of tsetse flies.” Ah, the infamous sleeping sickness parasite carrier. I threw my jacket on hastily.

At 4 pm, the National Park was awash in a rich golden light. The savannah grass swayed as though in silent welcome as we bounded past them. The refreshing scent of the dry grass grew stronger as we ventured further, their tips tickling my arms. The Kafue National park is the largest in the landlocked African country of Zambia. At 22,400 square kilometres, it is almost equivalent to the state of Meghalaya. It is home to the wild African Elephants, Lions, Cheetahs, Leopards, Wild Pigs, Hippos and several species of Antelope, like the Lechwe, Imapala, And Puku. The latter had been our first sighting. “Impalas and Puku are close antelope cousins. The difference is that impalas have a white streak on their bellies, and shorter, tuftier tails,” Victor explained, as a herd of puku galloped across the plains, some pausing to stare back at us curiously.

A few bumpy minutes later, Victor paused beside a leafy Acacia tree. Part of its trunk was missing the outer bark. “Wild elephants devour the inner white portions of Acacia trees. This damage looks fresh, there must be one nearby,” he remarked. And sure enough, we soon spotted a moving mass of grey in between the branches, a few feet from the jeep. Almost immediately, Victor sped the jeep across the track, crossing the moving mound entirely – “Stop, we’re crossing it!” I shouted - and came to a halt a few feet ahead. We gasped in unison. “Elephants are herd animals,” he whispered, so as not to disturb the glorious sight in front of us. “If you spot one alone, its herd must be nearby.” I barely heard him. A deafening silence had fallen upon our jeep, punctuated with short contented grunts from the dozen or so wild African elephants grazing in front of us. Some 15 feet tall, some hardly 3 feet, it was a family of mothers and baby elephants. “Bulls usually tend to roam in bachelor herds,” our faithful guide quipped.

I hesitated to press my camera, fearful that the sound will crack through the bush silence. But I didn’t have to wait long. A tourist in the neighbouring jeep had decided to get a better look, standing up on his jeep. The serenity broke like a gunshot. The 20 feet tall matriarch in the front raised her trunk high in the air, trumpeting in warning. The others followed suit quickly, and a cacophony erupted as they thumped their feet on the ground. They began to retreat, pushing the younger ones away into the bush. “Elephants don’t usually discern between jeeps and rocks. But if the shape of the jeep is disturbed, they sense it as an enemy,” Victor sighed, as we ruefully watched the herd stroll away into the pink-orange glow of the sunset. Lesson no.1 from the Savannah: If you desire for more than what you have, what you already have will also be lost.

A lesson I remembered presently, as we circled the patch of trees for the fourth time, hoping to catch a glimpse of a dark brown mane, or a flick of a tail. I knew it was in vain. Two days of sitting behind Victor had taught us how to read his every movement– the sudden turn of the head meant he had spotted something, a shift in gears meant he knew there was nothing. So watching him shift from gear 2 to 3, I realised we would go home not seeing any of the cats today either.

By now, the sun had risen well above its pinkish glow, and was a steady white against the clear blue skies. The landscape shifted from a sea of golden-green savannah plains, to bright green grass fields, where several Impala and Puku grazed, to extensive woods with tall rubber trees. The sun filtered through the leaves, lighting up the sand we kicked off in our disruptive drive through virgin bush. We spotted a few zebra far in the distance, an African Nile crocodile in a tributary of the Kafue River, enormous hippos who immediately rushed into the water upon hearing our approach, and even a few wild baboons clambering in the trees. Still no brown mane, no spotted feline.

As we slowly pulled over beside the river bank, to wait for the boat to fetch us back to our lodge, it reluctantly dawned on me. Though tinged with the disappointment of not seeing the cats, the safari was a wholly unique and transforming experience. Perhaps there’s more to a safari then just seeing the big cats, I tried to assure myself.

Victor turned off the engine, jumped out promptly and lent me a helping hand. The other jeep pulled up beside us shortly after, jubilant expressions on the tourist’s faces. They’d seen an entire lion pride, at another section of the park. We had been there last evening. “There were also four tiny cubs with them,” their guide informed us. Victor noticed my sulk. “You can’t control Mother Nature. She teaches you the importance of patience,” Victor assuaged. I sighed. Lesson number two from the Savannah, noted. "Yeah, I guess she showed us who’s boss, eh?” I replied, finding my spirits lift slightly as Victor laughed. Perhaps mild disappointments, and learning to live with it, is what an authentic safari experience is truly about.

We walked back to the boat, the scent of the African savannah still lingering on my clothes.

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