The sun was already high in the sky when we started the drive. We had no way to get into the Kgalagadi Transfrontier National Park at sunrise, and now just had to hope there was an animal or two resting under shade where we could see it.
As luck would have it, two cars pass us, each telling us there’s lions under a tree some 20 kilometers in the opposite direction. A third one mentions a cheetah, moving from shade to shade with her two cubs a few kilometers past that.
We drive through the undulating expanse of small red sand hills, green brush, dry yellow grass, the white gravel cutting across it into the horizon. We later come to realize that no animals are ever visible on this part of the road, besides a mole digging up the red dirt right where everyone drives over it. Like clockwork, every few hours, a new mound of red dirt is formed, and then promptly flattened by tire tracks, before eventually erupting again.
We don’t know why. Perhaps it is too open here. Perhaps there is no where to hide, too far from water? We don’t know.
Eventually we reach the crest of the main hill and start the descent down, watching the dry landscape of the Kalahari stretch out in front of us. We can see cars up ahead – there is something to look at over there – and immediately spot the herds: wildebeest, springbok, gemsbok, coming over the next hill, standing awkwardly in the field, crowding around the waterhole.
Their movements are hesitant – they do not look like they are a threat to one another and yet they proceed among themselves with caution. They stand fiercely still. A quick step, step. And then they stand still again, staring off into the distance, focused, unmoving, yet skittish.
It wasn’t until we drove to where the other cars were parked that we realized a mere two hundred meters from the waterhole was the tree where the two lions were sleeping.
Animals in the wild are something else. They are more immense, more terrifying than you could ever hope them to be in a zoo. The lions, lazy in the heat, were lying on the dirt on their sides under the shade of the acacia. We waited a few minutes for the shade to move, hoping it would prompt the lion to move, stand up, show himself, but when the sun hit his leg, he merely rolled onto his back, paws in the air like a kitten, and stayed that way beside his still flopped over companion. Even from this distance, a hundred meters, maybe less, I could see how massive they were. Do we have different lions in Canadian zoos? I wondered. Because I’m never really impressed there. Here, I was quickly terrified at the thought of their presence.
We went a few kilometers further, but the cheetah must have been long gone. The afternoon heat was already beating down on us, and like the animals, we quickly escaped to find shade.
Our early morning drive is similarly eventful. A lone red hartebeest, a few hornbills, an elusive black-backed jackal.
Another lion, another ton of muscle, lazying under the shade of a tree. When too many cars turn up, he stands, and saunters slowly away from us, up the dry grassy hill, out of view, and out of human access.
It was hot. It was damn hot, the hottest it’s been in 21 years here at the park, it’s rumoured. The winds start. We don’t know where to turn. It’s too hot to stay in, too windy to stay out. The cloud cover comes within half an hour and is a blessing for the rest of the day.
We drive out for the sundown, hoping to see more and see…nothing. The gemsbok and the springbok, despite their colours, their odd masquerade-like markings, are just not exciting in their large numbers, aren’t considered ‘sighted.’
Nevertheless, with nothing else in sight, we park where a herd of the gemsbok and wildebeest are grazing on both sides of the road to watch them in silence for a while. Eventually, with no one else around, they go back to grazing, go about their lives, though still eyeing us suspiciously every once in a while. A zoo does not have the ability to show you animals going about their daily lives.
One by one, the gemsbok slowly cross the road into the large field. There is maybe ten of them, and I spot it immediately. Their focus. They all stare in one direction. More gemsbok cross over to them, but they too fall into line, face the same direction. They advance by a step, and then stop. They stare, a focused, rigid stare. It could only mean one thing – a predator – but as I looked into the field to where they were looking, I couldn’t see a thing in the knee-high grass.
The gemsbok advance another step. Stop. Stare. Step. And then abruptly rush in the opposite direction, spooked, but only for a few meters. They turn back around and stare. Step. Stop. Stare. Spook, turn and flee, but only for a few meters. We turn the car around to get a better view. And there it is: a dark spot moving in the grass. Cheetah! Invisible from where I was looking off into the distance, the cheetah was only a few meters in front of the gemsbok, her two dark cubs following nearby.
She gracefully made her way through the grass, occasionally turning to glance at her cubs, at the gemsbok so intently keeping an eye on her and like a tentative army, following her step by step. She would never attack them for food, she was too thin, too petite, but must have given them a scare if she thought they were getting too close.
And so she made her way across the plain with them not letting her out of their sight. A diva, impervious to the crowd of cars that was slowly congregating around her – our cheetah – she lay down in the middle of the gravel in front of us, her loose skin almost folding into the ground, her two cubs playfully tumbling around her.
She stayed that way, posing, for only a minute before another car approached and she swiftly stood and walked off and up the hill on the other side. Her two cubs played another second before they realized she had left, trusting they’d be fine, and they too followed up the hill.
Attentively, like the rest of the onlookers, the gemsbok stood on the field at the edge of the gravel, staring after her until she disappeared over the peak.