Dreaming About Africa
I would like to take you on a journey to a place that is far from the chaos of the world today. Take a minute to close your eyes and visualise the sweeping plains of the Serengeti with herds of wildebeest stretching to the horizon, the winding chocolate Mara River and enormous crocodiles basking on its banks. Listen to the snorting and grunting of hippos jostling for position in the mighty Luangwa as a herd of elephants cross the channel downstream. Feel the tension as an impala detects the scent of a leopard nearby in the Sabi Sands, and feel the power of a lion’s roar as the sun dips below the horizon.
The Serengeti, Tanzania
On the plains of the southern Serengeti, below the slopes of the mighty Ngorongoro range, almost 2 million wildebeest are preparing to start their annual migration North, towards the Maasai Mara where the seasonal rains carry the promise of greener pastures.
Over the last two months hundreds of thousands of calves have been born and in this short time have strengthened their legs and their maternal bonds, both of which will be tested to their limits in the months to come.
The calving season is an annual highlight for the predators of the Serengeti as there is an unrivalled abundance of easy-to-catch ‘food’. With each passing day the calves become swifter, stronger and more nimble, while the lions, cheetahs, leopards and wild dogs know that soon they will have to become re-accustomed to the feeling of an empty belly.
The Serengeti is a bucket list destination for wildlife photographers but this year the spectacle is going on without us.
The Maasai Mara, Kenya
160km north as a vulture flies, in Kenya’s Maasai Mara, a coalition of male cheetahs known as the Five Musketeers are patrolling their range. Even now, before the arrival of the wildebeest herds, their territory is bountiful and there is no shortage of general game.
Hunting as a team they are able to take down larger prey than is usually on the menu for cheetahs, which are the most lightly built of the big cats. With the high prey density comes the inevitable danger of competition. The main threat for the Musketeers is lions, and there is no shortage of them in the Maasai Mara.
They need to be vigilant at all times and right now I can picture them lying on a termite mound in the shade of a lonely tree, constantly scanning the surrounding terrain.
Over the years the Five Musketeers have grown famous throughout the world as the subjects of wildlife documentaries, coffee table books and award winning images. But right now, there are no photographers around to see them. In fact the Maasai Mara, usually abuzz with safari vehicles, is almost devoid of human life altogether and for the first time in many, many years the epic sagas that are played out on the plains will be seen by no human eye.
South Luangwa, Zambia
Let us move south now, to the untamed wilderness of South Luangwa National Park in Zambia. In the wet season much of the park is unreachable, but now the rain clouds have blown over the escarpment and soon the waters will recede. Even the small, outlying pools will dry out making the Luangwa River the only reliable water source in the area.
As you read this the wildlife is concentrating along the water course; the highest density of hippos in the world congregate in the deeper pools, elephants visit the water’s edge daily to quench their massive thirst, antelope are drawn to the lush riverine vegetation and the big cats and wild dogs are not far behind.
With such a density and diversity of life, spectacular interactions between species are common place and draw photographers from around the world, but not this year.
The Sabi Sands, South Africa
Let us now move on to the final destination of our journey, the Sabi Sands game reserve in South Africa. In a stand of dense woodland close to the meandering Sand River a small herd of impala is on high alert. Heads held high, ears and eyes searching desperately for a tell-tale sign of the leopard who’s scent they have just caught in the breeze.
To turn and run now, without knowing where the cat is stalking from, would be fatal – for now they must hold their ground. They share this land with the highest density of leopards in Africa so this is not something new for the herd, at just 4 months old even the foals have had their share of close calls. The leopard in question is young, less experienced in hunting impala than the impala are in being hunted. She needs to wait for the herd to lose interest and go back to feeding but she is hungry and impatient.
She edges silently closer, closer, almost close enough, and then “SNORT!”; the nearest impala ram detects her movement in the undergrowth. The whole herd pick up the loud snorting alarm call that will alert everything within earshot that there is danger lurking nearby. It will be some time until dinner.
There are only a few local rangers remaining in this vast tract of wilderness so, for now, these interactions are for the most part unseen.
As our journey comes to end and you return to your living room, home office or hammock in the garden, remember that even in this difficult time life the wild goes on, and that with each passing day new stories are born while others are laid to rest. We don’t know what mysteries lie ahead but the time will come when we can once again set out to explore, to appreciate and to celebrate the natural world – hold on to this thought, dream it.