Emerging Writers. Under African Skies, by Angela Rieck
Under African Skies
I have traveled to many exotic and interesting places. I have been mesmerized by the deepest cerulean blue of oxygen-starved icebergs near the Antarctic Circle. I have absorbed the mysticism and spirituality emanating from the temples of Angor Wat. I have been transformed by the serenity of the Buddha in Thailand. I have marveled at the beauty of the Sydney Opera House and Botanical Gardens. I have seen the wonder of America’s cities and its national parks; been entranced by the history of Europe and Rome. Yes, I have been very, very fortunate. From each trip, I returned satisfied and enriched by the experience--but there is one place that calls me back, that I must return to…Africa.
My daughter and I went to South Africa this fall. And I must confess that while I am an adventurous traveler, I require comfort…camping was reserved for times when I had no choice in the matter. Once I hit my 20s, tents became an uncomfortable memory. So we chose to stay in places that had individual guest bungalows. Cape Town was lovely, but it wasn’t until we went to Kruger National Park that our world changed.
Our park experience began before dawn, when we blindly put on as many winter clothes as we could (it was in the 50s) and jumped into an open air Range Rover accompanied by a driver (an experienced ranger) and a tracker, who was seated on a jump seat in the front of the vehicle allowing him to track and find the animals. We began our safari feeling the cold, dry, expansive air and experiencing the African sunrise. We marveled silently as the large red sphere climbed over the horizon to welcome us to our homeland. The air is large, the fragrance both complex and indescribable. I asked one of our guides which bush was the source of the scent, but he looked at me puzzled, these are African skies.
We were jostled and bumped to see our quarry, one of the big five (buffalo, lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant) or our favorites, the giraffes and zebras. We were under strict orders to remain in our vehicle, while we watched the animals that crossed our path, moved along side of us, and allowed us into their world. It took all of my willpower not to touch them, we were so close. Part of the excitement was the danger, but mainly it was being able to watch the richness of a natural life. We stayed out for 3 hours, and then returned at dusk to watch the red African sun set and spend another 3 hours watching the night show. Most animals emerge at night—the prey under the cover of darkness, the predators using their other senses to conquer their food. Even the hippopotamuses are no longer submerged in their river sanctuary.
But it was under the African skies where we felt most at home. We could feel how our ancestors trekked over these lands. At night, we ate in a BOMA, a communal outdoor eating area where we dined on food roasted on the open fire.
One particularly cold night, the fire was smoking so badly that my asthma kicked in and I had to go to my bungalow to get my inhaler. Since our bungalows were away from the main house, we were required to have a ranger walk with us in case we encountered some unhappy predators. However, I grew weary of this requirement, as our rangers worked on Africa time and it could take as long as 20 minutes to find an escort. So I started to sneak out on my own, only to be discovered by a very handsome, tall 30-something ranger who insisted on accompanying me. However, thirty feet in front of our bungalow, he grabbed me by the waist and moved me to the side. A 30s version of me would assume that he was putting a move on me, but a 60s version of me knew that strained credibility.
“Stop,” he whispered. “Do you see that leopard over there?” He pointed his flashlight to a spot 4’ from me and I saw her eyes. “She is not the one I am worried about, I can’t find her mate.” And he slowly pulled the knife from his back pocket.
I had known from an earlier lecture that our rangers are trained to slit the throat of an attacking lion or leopard; and are able to shoot to kill a charging rhino or elephant in a single shot; so while all of my senses were heightened, I did not panic.
“What do I do?” I whispered, exhilarated and grateful that I had allowed him to escort me.
“Let’s just stand here until she takes her eyes off us. That will be the sign that she is not interested in us.”
So we waited in absolute silence, my asthma attack vanquished by the adrenalin that was now flowing inside me. Then at his silent signal, we slowly and calmly walked to my bungalow.
That night I heard the loud, anguished growls of these leopards. Like the African sky, this growl must be experienced; an unnatural, intense guttural moan. Their cries surrounded and vibrated through my bungalow. I found out later that it was a pair that were mating and using my bungalow grounds as their “love nest.” The female had chosen a new mate, cheating on the dominant male with his handsome son. As we have discovered in the human kingdom, the handsome younger guy turned out to be a disappointment. A female leopard is driven by a need to reproduce, and will mate every two hours, this male was quite content with his single conquest. All night they growled at each other in mutual frustration—he wanted to be left alone and she was singular in her pursuit.
Despite my apprehension, I instinctively opened the windows and went outside to replace the heavy wooden doors with screens, oblivious the cool air and ignoring the danger of two angry, wandering leopards. I needed to be a part of that African night. I needed to absorb and listen to those strangely familiar sounds that had been encoded in my DNA.