Tuesday 23 June 2009

Kruger Park

Where you can see the Big Five all in one day and then buy a zebra skin in the gift shop (which may or may not have died naturally). To clarify, the Big Five are: lion, leopard, buffalo, rhino and elephant. This has caused much debate. Why, at up to 7.5 metres high, is the giraffe not included? Nor, as long as the giraffe is tall, the crocodile? Nor, as the third most dangerous animal in the world as well pretty damn big, the hippopotamus? And why is the buffalo, essentially a cow, included? It's a hunter’s term used to refer to the five most dangerous animals to hunt. I’ve also read that it refers to the most elusive. Well, I’m sorry, but the buffalo is not elusive. There’s always a buffalo.

Buffalos don’t look particularly dangerous. Yes, they have those big horns, but they also have that middle parting which makes them look more sensible than unpredictable. In animal terms, ‘unpredictable’ is a quaint little euphemism, reminiscent of shouting at people who speak a different language, for ‘liable to attack’. If you get too close to a buffalo, or a warthog, or even a donkey, I think it is entirely predictable that it will attack. Instead, in an obstinate refusal to take a hint, we call that kind of animal behaviour ‘unpredictable’. During an episode of animals Caught In The Act, footage is shown of a herd of buffalo tossing a lone lion out of a tree and flipping it in circles though the air like a wet towel, even when it’s dead. The look of the lion as it tried to escape up the tree suggested that the buffaloes’ behaviour was entirely predictable. I didn't expect that, by pointing at a bird in a tree, I could send a herd of a couple of hundred buffalo scattering in panic, galloping across the road behind and in front of us. Our guide flicked his hand at me lazily and sighed. “You did that,” he said. “Sorry”, I replied weakly.

By the time we stopped for lunch, we had already ticked off four of the Big Five and all of the rejects. The only thing we hadn’t yet seen in Africa was the leopard (and a wild cheetah, but they’re not as big as leopards and, as prey, apparently a bit wussy). You can imagine our excitement therefore when, as the sun began to hang low and turn everything to gold, a car flashed it’s lights at us to tell us that a little further along, a leopard had been spotted. There was no mistaking the location, where 10 or 20 cars were jostling for a good position to catch a glimpse of the poor, stalked cat. Our guide may not have had the same charisma or enthusiasm of Animal, back in Amboseli, but the way he could find a whisker in a haystack in an instant was supernatural. They’re not the best pictures ever, but in the photos I took there is no doubt whatsoever that there is a leopard. The scenery wasn’t as breathtaking as it had been on the journey there, or in Amboseli, but Kruger delivered exactly what it says in the brochure.

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