Little Things, Found Things

Posted by Hlengiwe on Fri May 24, 2019 in RETURN Wildlife.

In the care of a knowledgeable guide, a walk in African bushveld nourishes our curiosity. We learn that the little treasures of the natural world can sometimes create the best memories.

The pleasures of game drives don’t need an explanation. I’m constantly amazed at how close we can get to animals without even provoking a glance. I’ve been in an open vehicle and so close to lions that I could smell their breath.

What about walking safaris? The idea of going into the bush on foot can result in some puzzled looks and a stream of questions from folks who have never had the experience. Why would you do that?

The answers are many. Firstly, it’s not an either/or: our guests enjoy both drives and walks. Apart from the tarred road from Pafuri Gate to Luvuvhu Bridge, the concession tracks are private, so if there is an interesting sighting on a drive, ours will usually be the only vehicle present. We also use vehicles to access walks, and it can be quite a distance: The Lanner Gorge is over an hour away. These drives also provide plenty of chances to spot wildlife.

But the vehicle is not a cage. The freedom to get down anywhere enriches the experience – to take a short walk into the Hutwini Gorge, to climb a koppie for the sunset, to circumnavigate an ancient tree and photograph it with the best light.

It’s on longer walks that we come to realize what is missing when in the vehicle. Game drives are primarily a visual experience, while in walking we use all our other senses too. It’s a deeper dive into the natural world. To inhale the scent of wild sage in the understorey of the fever tree forest. Touch the perfection of a little tortoise shell. To learn a little of hippo dentistry. Peer into a recent burrow. Discover the broken larval casings of the dung beetle, excavated in the night by hungry ratel. To run your fingers on the bark of a fig tree, or taste a baobab fruit.

Walking is not about getting close to the big mammals, although it is exciting when it happens. The aim is to not disturb natural behavior – to spy on them without their knowledge of our presence is ideal. To stay awhile, listening to the chomping of elephants is somehow better on foot.

It does not take long to learn to take pleasure in the little things, the found things.  I once met a guide who told me he spent an entire training day in the Kruger and saw nothing of interest but an African land snail. But the point of the story was how weird that was. That day he was deep in mopane bushveld, away from sources of water. On the contrary, with the rich ecosystem in the Makuleke concession it’s impossible to go 100m without finding something worth a stop.

In every single walk, I’ve discovered new or surprising things. One day, we drove upriver from the trails camp, to where the Luvuvhu gorge narrows. We took off our boots and paddled in the riverbed, skirting the deeper pools where the crocodiles lie. It was a pleasure to feel the sand between my toes, the water cooling my shins. We scanned the sandstone cliffs above us, where white splashes showed the presence of roosts and nests, most likely speckled pigeon.

I glanced down and there by my foot was a tiny bird. It was the chick of a plover or lapwing, crouched down in a scoop in the sand. Staying still while the adults are away is an effective defense, especially when so well camouflaged, and I was happy not to have stepped on it.

While admiring that little bundle of feathers, a stunning butterfly landed on the sand nearby. In terms of camouflage this was the polar opposite, black, white and a vivid powder blue like a neon sign in the night. Back at home, I went for help to the forum at sanparks.org and the friendly gang there identified it as a female Large Blue Charaxe (Charaxes bohemani). In Afrikaans it is a Bloujuweel-dubbelstert, roughly translated as "Blue Jewel Double-tail". It is attracted to fermented bananas and mangoes as well as carnivore droppings and tree sap.

It was one more little encounter to add to my mental list, the sort that can’t be had on wheels.

Author: Hlengiwe Magagula

Feature Image: Return Africa

1st Image: Morgan Trimble

2nd Image: Morgan Trimble

3rd Image: Morgan Trimble

4th Image: Dawn Jorgensen

5th Image: Dawn Jorgensen

6th Image: Dawn Jorgensen