You know it’s coming, you have heard it a thousand times before, yet you still try and anticipate it as if you’re waiting to be ambushed by an irate leopard. You try tell yourself “it’s probably still going to be a while, don’t worry, relax”. No sooner has that thought past your mind, the silence is shattered, your hart skips a beat and your body stiffens up as a once asleep iPhone screams its echoing, “flat battery” , morning chorus in your ear.
Its seldom a guide at MalaMala Game Reserve is not awake before his alarm, long dusty days searching the African bushveld and a permanently confused body clock make sure of that. You sit up like a drill sergeant just kicked the door down into your barracks, look blankly across your room like a buffalo deciding whether it’s time to chew the cud or not, slowly coming to the senses you left on the pillow case and stand… It comes to you now, the day makes sense, you think, splash face, brush teeth, find uniform, underwear if available, and socks not necessary, probably look for Casio G-shock of some form or colour. Looking down near the corner of the bed lies a snake den of cables and charges and a cluster of steady orange lights tell you that you remembered to charge your camera batteries. You slide these batteries into the breaches of your camera like a hunter slides his heavy rounds into his twin pipe.
Almost ready…remember your sunscreen, hat, ammo-belt, the little book you never write anything in. A wake up call, a last listen at the window for any vocals of nearby predators…“baboons barking across the river, they always bark there…I'll check anyway”, then race out the door and into an immediate U-turn and mad rush realising you have forgotten all of the above.
Caffeine and laughter are synonymous with the mornings at MalaMala Game Reserve, and a sunrise threatening to shine beautiful morning light on a previously imagined leopard on some high dead Leadwood on some high hilltop somewhere provokes an inhalation of blueberry muffin and coffee whilst on the trot toward the jeeps. One last check to see that your memory cards are empty and batteries charged, kick yesterday’s dirt outside the gaping holes in you vellies (bush shoes) you refuse to fix because it looks tougher like that. Wiping clean your dusty lens while reminiscing about the previous days on safari, previous sightings of leopard and lion and elephant, reminding your guests to check their cards and batteries, asking them if there is anything they would like to see that day whilst you’re completely distracted by your own plans in your head. You know what they want to see anyway. “ok sure let’s do that haha…”
The morning is still, the birds are quite, not a breath of wind, yet your mind is racing. “Why didn’t you tell the other guides about the alarm calling baboon” you shout at yourself in your head. “There’s probably nothing anyway” you feel better… You’re wondering what you could possibly show them. Three nights at MalaMala Game Reserve means that by the time the final morning comes there is not much the guests haven’t seen. You only have two hours to “end off strong”, an accidental promise you gave before you allowed your first sip of coffee. “Please produce something baboons!”
Light is starting to unzip “Picidilly triangle”, a well known and productive area of MalaMala Game Reserve, when you arrive on your quest for these once agitated baboons only to find them scratching and looking and bobbing and fully relaxed, enjoying some ray. Some, still, the young males, sit elevated and stare…northwards. You follow their gaze towards the rocky outcrops of Campbell Kopjies, your heart starts to race. “just maybe we will find something”. Something catches your eye on the road. The tracks of wild dogs pepper the road in front of you. You have finished the puzzle without finding all the pieces. “Fresh dog tracks!, we will get them you will see”. You shout more (usually broken) promises back to your now handle bar gripping, hat holding, wide-eyeing, grin splitting guests as you drop a gear in anticipation of the famed thrill of chasing after African Wild Dogs on the hunt…
Rounding the corner you notice the first thing any guide first notices when happening upon these rare super predators. White tail tips! Dancing and dipping and dashing through the bush. You did it. You read the bush like a pro. You made it look easy. You!... as usual…forget to thank the God of Luck who accompanies ALL us guides on a daily bases although some “rangers” do consider themselves of epic and godly status...
Dogs, meat and intestines spinning and twisting and tearing as they pull apart the remains of an impala ram. Pelican cases pop, binoculars and other now invaluable items drop and the shutter volley begins as lucky guest and guide fire away at one of nature’s rarest spectacles in an attempt to capture something great. Just when you’re satisfied of your picture count and the shutters slow down a tad, a hand grips you on your shoulder, followed be vowels and assonance but all messed and mashed into “aah mmmhaa thaa oooh deeh!” Desperate for answers and for the guest to release her talons from your shoulder, you turn to your frantic guest and follow her gaze into the tree next to you. You can’t believe it. You feel terrible about not telling anybody about the baboons now. There in a dead Leadwood barely three metres from the jeep, in the morning light…lies the mottled beauty of a female leopard furious with the dogs for stealing her kill!
At breakfast back in camp you can barely taste the delicious breakfast laid out in front of you as you recount the days spent on Mala Mala. Searching and Tracking and not finding…despairing…then finding and rejoicing then searching some more. You laugh at remembering the highs and lows of the epic quest to locate these incredible animals and watching them hunt and interact in endless ways. The thought of “what could I possibly show them now” has crept into every guides head at some point in their career. Here at MalaMala Game Reserve the thought still lingers on the occasional last morning drive but with little reason to stay as we find time and time again. There is always more to find here…
Back in your room that night you set your camera down, lens still smoking memory cards full, batteries empty. Your shoes filled with dirt from different places, your mind filled with more stories of great encounters provoking an eagerness to start the next safari, find the next leopard and chase after the next pack of wild dogs. One last sigh… "this is why I do this”. Sleep.