A dawn discussion about a big decision – in which direction shall we head today?
We had more or less decided to explore the area a bit and we had made a rough “fly” camp. It was under a stand of young and taller Brachystegia that formed a reasonably good canopy to keep the dew off us and our equipment and would provide shade over the hot part of the days. Around us, in all directions, lay many kilometres of unknown wilderness. We had some anecdotes about what might be going on around us from a small hunting party of local tribesmen we had come across a day or so earlier, and we picked up some signs as we toiled our vehicle through the bush, but other than that, and the night sounds, that was all we knew. The bush around us was richly varied, changing within less than a kilometre from, say, mopani shrubland, to taller knopthorn and marula, to more open fens with dense miombo. Anything was possible.
We could take just a short morning walk and be back at fly camp by about midday, or a longer one and get back by evening, or, we could just wander out for several days, following where the bush leads us.
Last night I lay listening to its breathing – mysterious rustles, incessant chirping, owl-words, a jackal calling for his mate, quite far to the north, thick branches snapping and a short trumpet sound; before dawn a leopard grunted in the depression below us, and there was the whistle of a reed buck.
It had been a generously eloquent night – and deliciously mysterious. What did it all mean? Was the leopard male, or a female? Did its grunts say, “Be warned, stay out,” or, “I am looking for a mate?” And the thick branches snapping off with cracks like rifle shots, was it a breeding herd of elephant, or a single bull, or a small bull herd? Were they resident, or just passing through? And what about all of the immense silence in between with just the simmer of insects? What did that mean? Had there perhaps been an old male lion, weakened and hungry and mean that had silently stood downwind, and contemplated his chances with us? Did a great tusker glide by on his giant pads, close, but quiet as a ghost? And did the jackal perhaps catch a whiff of our meal of last night and called to his mate so that they could come closer and investigate together, and when they stood with wet noses quivering to our smells, what were they thinking? What were they telling each other in their language of silent gestures?
The moment we step out of the camp, there would be lots more clues, written in arcane bush script: the transient language of tracks, droppings, plucked grass, bent stems, a few subtly scattered green leaves, dropped despite the nimblest of lips, scrape marks in the gravel, bruised and broken bark, broken (or unbroken) spider webs, the slow spiral of vultures… Bolder language too, of game paths and their direction, bush types and densities, pushed over or broken trees, tree stumps rubbed to a shine, mud wallows, water holes…
Ooh, it is like a gigantic lucky packet. Let us pack our supplies for a few days out, tidy up, secure things against opportunistic visitors like baboons or monkeys, and set out to respectfully sample the richness of the African bush.