A zebra blew through its nostrils. It was faint, and not an alarm sound, just a casual snort. But I instinctively froze and checked the wind. There was a slight breeze, in my favour. I could not see anything, only make out muted snapping and rustling of foliage, and hoof stomping as they tried to rid themselves of the biting flies. It had to be quite a herd. They were moving through the thickets towards me, grazing as they went. They were getting close. I could hear the swishing of their bushy tails and the ripping as they plucked at the grass.
They sounded as if they were totally relaxed, but I knew they never ever dropped their guard. I was lucky to have become aware of them first – being in a herd made them less nervous, and the commotion of their movement helped too.
I stood dead still and waited. A mare and her foal of about eighteen months walked into the open some fifteen meters from me. She seemed to be pre-occupied and slightly irritated with her foal harassing her for a drink; she was apparently trying to wean him.
Suddenly she stopped, whipped up her head and looked straight at me. In a split second, she gave a snort of alarm and bolted away into the thickets, the foal half crashing into her backside in his haste to get away from something he hadn’t even spotted. The rest of the herd broke into frenzied flight too, some even rushing past behind me. They were of course not sure what she was running from, but they knew, there is safety in the confusion of moving numbers.
In less than a minute the bush calmed into its ancient rhythm and I was left standing quite alone in the silence, wondering how she had detected me. African animals have senses far superior to ours. With a few exceptions, their sight is astonishing. They instantly pick up even the tiniest movement. When you are on foot in the bush and not stalking with extreme care, they are likely to smell or hear you long before you could have them visual. I get the impression they are even able to detect vibrations in the ground.
They are super alert too, although less skittish when they are in a large herd. When they are solitary, or in a small group, they frequently interrupt what they are doing, and listen, ears twisting, and test the air with twitching nostrils. Even when they are moving, they would suddenly stop and stand dead still, sensing their surroundings.
It was almost uncanny though, the way the mare had so quickly detected me. It might have been the very slight flicker of movement as I operated the little idiot box camera. There had been only scant cover between us, but I was standing dead still despite the flies, in the shade, with the breeze lightly fanning my face. It was as if she had sensed my presence even before she saw me. African animals possess some kind of sixth sense that alerts them to alien presence, I sometimes think – not too farfetched; I have heard that expressed by bush people.