HI, and welcome to my blog! I am a field guide in a private game reserve in South Africa and below you will find stories and pictures of my amazing job!

February 18, 2013

Fear of the Dark

          Fear of the unknown is probably the only phobia that affects every single person on the planet.  There are many irrational fears peppered through the psyche of the everyday man (or woman) on the street but most are borne of unpleasant past experiences.  What has enabled human beings to rise to an unsurpassed intellectual plane is the capacity of the brain.  The gift of imagination has granted us the ability to invent ground breaking technology and to surpass nearly every hurdle that mankind has faced.  However, this talent has a flipside.  The power of imagination is so potent that it is capable of destroying lives and reducing the strongest of men to gibbering wrecks.  These terrifying thoughts generally need a catalyst, and the most commonly responsible is the dark.

          From an early age, fear of the dark has plagued young children.  Sleepless nights wondering what monsters await under the bed or what manner of aberrations reside inside the closet are common place.  As a youngster, I myself refused to sleep with a limb hanging off the bed due to an irrational fear of having it bitten off by a fanged menace loitering in the shadows under my mattress.  Even noises that are heard during the daylight hours and ignored are transformed by darkness into the ominous footsteps of objects of our own fear.  The human world is so dictated by its ability to see and analyze what is seen, that when that sense is removed, the true power of the brain is unleashed.  And such monumental creative power is hard to control.  Let’s not forget that fear of the dark has its roots from early man when we were perceived as prey by all manner of fearsome beasts that roamed through the shadows of night.  The discovery of fire was hugely influential in primitive engineering circles but perhaps more than anything, it gifted man the ability to overcome darkness and keep perceived and very real dangers at bay.

          The bush is home to some of the most feared land predators in the world today.  The power and reputation of the lion, the speed and guile of the leopard and the sinister hyena all ply their trade under the cloak of darkness.  Viewed during the day, the cats especially are often construed as large kittens and many a guest has wanted to rub the belly of a sleeping lion as it dozes through the daylight hours.  However, once darkness begins to envelop the land, these nocturnal nemeses come to life and undergo a transformation as extreme as that of a caterpillar to a butterfly, perceptually at least.  The inky shroud that drapes itself across the landscape transforms these slumbering felines into efficient killing machines.  Blackness is their ally.  Their behaviour changes, their demeanor changes, our perception of them changes. 

          When we view cats at night, that primal fear is once again resurrected by the Cimmerian shade overwhelming us and these magnificent creatures come into their own.  The comfort and warmth offered by the Sun has deserted us and instead, the brain starts to recall all the horror movies it has witnessed, adrenaline levels rise and the infinite power of their imagination is released.  The darkness seems to invade every pore in our skin and systematically undo all our common sense and principles.  It is the feeling of hopelessness and helplessness that the absence of light brings.  The knowledge that their eyes are able to penetrate the gloom with consummate ease; that these predators must kill to survive and that we ourselves could become prey lend itself to a very different experience.  

           At Sabi Sabi we are blessed with wonderful levels of habituation and when a 200kg male lion stalks past the open land rover only a few metres away, the inhabitants hold their breath as one.  Men, women and children alike shift slightly in their seats to put distance between themselves and the superior specimen.  When it makes eye contact with you, even though the spotlight is illuminating its visage, the feeling of insignificance is hard to shake.  The uncomfortable knowledge that you are being evaluated by a killing machine whose eyes seem to look right through your skin and into your very soul is a profound experience.  Your conscience struggles to balance the feelings of wonder and respect with that of ancient fear and the primordial instinct to survive.

          The ability to slink through the shadows without a sound yet seeing everything has enabled these great predators to thrive.  The psychological advantage that they possess over their quarry is as old as life itself.  Darkness always has and always will carry with it the stigma of danger.  Throughout history and every religion in the world, darkness is seen as a bad omen.  The lack of depth perception, the inability to evaluate a situation in relation to its surroundings and the feeling of cold isolation all play a part in amplifying the power of darkness.  Surviving a day in the bush is a far different prospect to that of surviving the night.  The playing field flips and all of the senses and skills that enable us to flourish under the comforting companionship of the sun are removed and those that relish the darkness come to the fore.

          Just because the majority of organisms on Earth need the sun to prosper, it does not mean that those who crave the sanctuary of darkness should be seen as evil.  Everything in nature has its balance.  Without some species being able to flourish in darkness, a perfectly good ecological niche would be wasted and the balance would be upset.  One cannot exist without the other.  To paraphrase the great Chinese philosopher Laozi, nothing exists in isolation.  For life to exist there must be balance. This implies the harmonic existence of two things or what philosophers call ‘duality’.  Man has woman, heat has cold, good has bad and light has darkness.     


February 8, 2013

The Return of the King

          A lone silhouette silently padded towards us.  The backlight from the second vehicle cast an eerie glow around a muscular physique and sand puffed up from under powerful paws as they glided down the road.  Sandriver was back.  Over a year ago, this mighty specimen was dethroned as the king of the entirety of Sabi Sabi by a younger male we have come to know as Xihangalas; but times have changed.  Xihanagalas has not been seen very much over the past few months and news of his absenteeism had been quick to reach the former ruler.  No longer did the breeze from the east carry with it the familiar scent and territorial calls of his old adversary as it had done before.  The door had been opened and the old warrior did not need a second invite to walk through.

          His posture and attitude said it all.  Fearless of any foe that he might meet as he moved deeper into his old territory, stopping to call and scent mark every few hundred meters, there was no doubt that he was making a play for his old domain.  The lonely life of a leopard is harsh but Sandriver walked with a confidence that comes from self reliance and he looked good with it.  Full belly and velveteen coat left no doubt that he was still at the top of his game, regardless of his one handicap.  His blind right eye, opaque in colour, glowed like mercury as the powerful spotlight rays glinted off it; a daily reminder of the titanic battle that waged against his younger conqueror all those months ago.  The metallic quality, coupled with the aura of authority oozing from him made think of the Terminator movies – a lone warrior whose indestructibility meant that, regardless of superficial injury, he was as efficient a killing machine as ever.

          We followed him through the reserve, as he delved deeper into his former territory.  His internal GPS seemed to suffer no consequences as at no point did he stop to evaluate his position.  A leopard’s knowledge of every inch of his domain is essential: knowing the best hunting grounds and escape routes should he encounter marauding lions on his travels.  

          Every so often he would stop and cock his head to listen.  As we strained to match the acuteness of his hearing, we heard the faint but familiar rasping sound of another leopard in the distance.  Sandriver’s pace quickened and his level of territorial activity increased as he made a beeline in the direction of the challenge.  He began to drool, saliva hanging from the corners of his mouth, a typical response in leopards to heightened emotions.  The smell of his pheromones wafted through the night’s air.  Best equated to the smell of popcorn, this aroma contains all the information another leopard needs to evaluate the individual.  Routinely he stopped at bushes to wipe glands situated on the side of his face and his paws on to the leaves, leaving no doubt to others that he was back. 

          Occasionally he lay down to rest, but never for long.  There was business to attend to and old scores to settle.  The other male’s calls grew louder as he closed in on their location.  Silently he drifted across the savanna but a leopard’s instinct never sleeps.  As if to prove to us, and anyone else watching, that his compromised vision did not hinder him, moments later his good eye focused on something on the ground close by.  In the blink of an eye, his toned legs propelled him through the air as he pounced on a petrified scrub hair.  The 75kgs of feline perfection made short work of the snack and the entire hare was dispatched in a few minutes, fur, bones and all.  But there was no time to savour the flavour as Sandriver continued his relentless march.

          Time was against us however and forced us to return to the lodge salivating at the prospect of what we might find the nest day.  We know that the calls heard by the old king were coming from the Mahlathini male and only time will tell if Sandriver’s confidence and experience will be enough to subdue to new sovereign of the north, or whether youthful self belief will be enough to keep the old campaigner at bay.  For those of us who have been at Sabi Sabi for a while, to see Sandriver’s return was a real treat.  It just goes to show that nothing in nature is finite and that the dynamics of territories and dominance are not set in stone.  Whilst we revel in change, a large part of me wants to see Sandriver’s empire return to its former glory and I cannot wait to witness to no doubt turbulent struggles that will accompany it!