Our tracker, Shadrack, leads the way through the African bush. My family and I have spent days adventuring with him in an open air land cruiser. On safari! Encountering all the big five. A pride of lions camouflaged in long yellow grass, feral eyes staring. A herd of elephants, a meandering trail of forty or more, great heads and ivory tusks swaying, pausing as they pass us, grey leathery ears flapping. Buffalo, rhino, and a leopard in a tree. And vultures circling in a clear blue sky, the watchers over this vast land, and its untamed beauty that enthrals us all.
But now we have left the safety of the vehicle behind and walk among the paw prints smudged into soft brown soil. Winding along a dusty trail through thorny undergrowth and small sparse trees, the smell of dry grass and animal dung all about. It will be another month before the rains begin filling the rivers and waterholes, and transforming this thirsty land into thriving shades of green. Shadrack points out the tracks of each animal that has ventured this same path as we move further into the wild. He teaches us to grind soap stone, make a toothbrush from a twig, and weave strips of bush fibres into rope.
Then we move on again until Shadrack halts. Turning to face us he raises his hand, the hand not carrying a powerful rifle, motioning for us to slow, to hush, and come in close. We gather in a circle tight by his side. In the barest whisper he tells us to keep close and be very quiet. He moves forward noiselessly, stepping carefully heel to toe, not a snap of twigs, nor the crackle of dry leaves beneath his feet. We try to emulate his silent stealth but, despite our best efforts, by comparison our small group sounds like a charge of buffalo stumbling clumsily in his wake.
We reach a river bank and Shadrack signals for us to crouch down low and move forwards. On hands and knees we crawl awkwardly, slowly shuffling through the sandy soil. Under the cover of low-hanging trees we reach the riverbank edge to overlook the waters below. Some thirty metres away a pod of hippos laze on shore, basking in the sun. A family of twelve or so lying peacefully, snuggled gently together, with an occasional snort or sigh.
Enormous and powerful, apart from man and mosquitoes, these hefty animals kill more humans than any other creature on this continent. Those massive jaws can snap a man in half. And we are so close, holding our breaths, soaking in this special experience; gazing on them in their private moment, their huge bulks dozing and nestling in the winter’s midday warmth.
After some time Shadrack shifts, and I look to him surprised at his unexpected sound, then realise it’s deliberate. Hippos raise their heads, uncertain. One, then another, lumber to their feet; listening, and sensing. With a smile at us and nodding to the herd, Shadrack snaps a twig. On masse the ancient water horses start to all fours and charge to the river, plunging into the dark wet in a stampeding explosion of alarm and foaming spray. Only when submerged in the safety of the river depths do they turn; heads, snouts and ears floating in the calming waters, assessing the peril, and snorting their displeasure at this startling African encounter.