The Wake-up Call
© Copyright 2021 by Nancy McAtavey
expected my African safari experience to be like one of those
episodes on a travel documentary: happy vacationers aboard a Land
Rover, listening to their guide point out the exotic animals and the
ever-changing landscape of South Africa. My travel brochure never
mentioned just “how up-close and personal” this adventure
The phone rings. The digital reading on the alarm clock says 5 a.m. I close my eyes and fumble for the phone on the nightstand. RING, again! Still groping, I remember that the phone’s not on the nightstand. It’s in the living area of the bungalow. RING, RING, RING!! It’s on the other side of the room; I have to get out of bed to answer it. RING, RING, RING, RING!!
“Good morning, Nancy. This is Arman. It’s 5 a.m. I will be at your door in thirty minutes, at 5:30.”
His tone is matter of fact. There is no opening for talk about the morning adventure or chit chat about the weather. This is Arman, our safari guide, who leads us on our daily excursions into the Sabi Sands Game Reserve in South Africa. His mission is to show us wild game, exotic birds and the ever-changing landscape of this country.
“Thank you, Arman,” I lie. “Jim and I will be ready.”
I cross the room back to the bed and find Jim sitting up.
“Coffee,” he says. “Plug in the tea kettle.”
I plant an early morning kiss on my husband’s cheek.
“Just a few more minutes,” I plead. “Hit the snooze alarm for 15 more minutes. When it goes off, we can slip into our big white robes and wait for room service. We’re on vacation, right? There’s always room service.”
“No more sleeping,” he says. “There’s no snooze alarm today. And you can nix the room service, too. Arman will be here in 20 minutes.”
I sulk back to the tea kettle and empty packets of Nescafe instant coffee into two cups. I add a packet of sugar and 2 packs of non-dairy creamer into mine. There’s no way I’m drinking this stuff black.
Five minutes later, I’m out of the bathroom. I’ve splashed cold water on my face, brushed my teeth, applied sunscreen and swiped deodorant under both arms. The tea kettle whistles and I pour the boiling water into the crystals. It smells like coffee, I say to myself. And it does have caffeine, I rationalize.
My safari clothes are stacked on the back of a chair, right where I left them after yesterday’s late afternoon adventure: long-sleeved t-shirt, cargo pants, wind shirt with built-in UV protection, socks and sneakers. The many pockets on my safari vest contain all the essentials: iPhone, mosquito repellent, a broad spectrum SPF 31 lip balm, Immodium caplets, a travel size packet of Kleenex and a small plastic bag, essential should I have to use those tissues behind some bush.
The coffee is hot and sweet. I turn on the outside lights, open the curtains and crack the door. Beyond the deck, the hippos grunt and groan in the still dark lake. Something rustles in the bushes. An antelope? A bushbuck?
One more sip of coffee. One last trip to the bathroom.
“It’s time,” Jim says.
My Fitbit reads 5:29. We gather up binoculars, fleece jackets and baseball caps. One minute later Arman emerges from the darkness of the walkway and steps into the pool of light by our front door.
“Good morning,” he says. “Did you sleep well?’
“I think we did,” Jim says.
I smile to myself. Jim always sleeps well. He falls asleep when he goes to bed and wakes up when it’s morning. According to his Fitbit sleep chart, there are no interruptions once his head hits the pillow: no tossing and turning, no getting up twice a night to pee.
We follow Arman down the path. He’s dressed exactly as he was when he walked us home last night; dark green pants, long-sleeved shirt, fleece jacket, scuffed leather boots, brimmed hat with the chin strap already tightened. He carries a rifle under his right arm. There’s no conversation on this short walk to the main lodge. Our shoes crunch on the gravel pathway. There’s a rustle in the bush to our right and a snort somewhere behind us. I follow Arman closely, the toe of my sneaker almost touching the heel of his boot. We pause at the walkway to another bungalow. David and Helen, two Aussies from Perth, Australia, open their door and join up with us.
“Morning,” we all say.
At the main lodge, we join Andy and Robin, newlyweds from Scotland. For the next few days, we’ll be Land Rover mates on our morning and evening safaris. Arman nods his head in approval. His six guests are on time and ready to go. In addition to us, there’s a dozen more people assembled in the great room. A large table is spread with juices, coffee, tea and assorted muffins and pastries. A little something to hold us over until we return to the lodge for the big mid-morning breakfast. Around us it is dark, still night. The lake is in front of us, but we only hear its sounds: loud grunts, shrill calls, low moans.
We are all still groggy from sleep but everyone is excited for the morning drive. The talk is animated. Hands are flourishing.
“Did you see the size of that elephant last night?”
“I swear the leopard was two feet away from us!”
I wrap my hands around the cup of steaming coffee. Rebecca, the morning waitress, catches my eye and points to the tray of pastries.
“Eat something,” she says quietly. “It’s hard work being out there. You need food for energy, to keep your stomach from growling like those big lions.”
She rolls her eyes upwards and I break out a big smile. “You’re right,” I say. “Thank you!”
At 6 a.m. sharp, Arman approaches our group.
“Well, we’re all here. Time to go.”
We glance at each other, lower our coffee cups and swallow the last bites of our pastries.
We are the first to reach the parking lot. We decide who wants the front, middle and back seats and then climb up into the big Land Rover. Arman is already at the wheel, his rifle on the dashboard. Sidney, his tracker, sits in a seat perched on the left front bumper. He smiles and tips his baseball cap at us. There are warm blankets on the seats and insect repellent and sunscreen in the seatback pouches. All the necessities, I think. Arman is a man of few words. As soon as he sees that we are settled, he starts the ignition and we inch our way from the parking lot to the main dirt road.
“Today, I do not know what we will see. The radios are all very quiet this morning. But I think we must first drive to the reservoir. There we must see some animals, no?”
“Yes,” we all answer at once.
The morning sky blushes pink; the sun still sits below the dense jungle growth. We huddle under our blankets as we pass antelopes, bushbucks, gazelles and impalas. Within five minutes we are at the reservoir, one of the largest waters of the Sabi Sands Game Reserve. It is a quiet morning. No hippos, crocs, elephants or giraffes in sight. Arman turns off the Land Rover’s motor. David, our resident photo buff, scans the banks of the reservoir with his telephoto lens. The rest of us peer through our binoculars. Up front, Sidney’s body is perfectly still. But his head turns from side to side, listening and watching.
“There’s nothing here this morning. Very strange,” Arman notes.
He starts the ignition and we’re on the move again. Up a hill and across a dry river bed. Over pot holes, washouts, rocks and boulders.
I glance at my Fitbit. We left the lodge an hour ago. Now the sun is up: it’s warmer and we can see further up the road and across the short brush. Bushbucks graze on the side of the road. They raise their heads and then return to the grass. Birds fly high in the trees, their songs a series of squawks and shrills. Arman adjusts his earphone, listens to the crackle of the radio, turns the dial.
“Very quiet. Very unusual.”
He slows at an intersection as if looking for approaching traffic. He turns once again and accelerates down the dirt road. Sidney slowly raises his arm and points to the right. Arman nods his head. We’re all expecting to see something big: an elephant under a shade tree or a giraffe reaching for high, green braches. But Arman points down into a grassy area. What is he looking at? And then we see them. Late morning sleepers lying here and there, scattered across the field.
“Well, well. What do we have here?” Arman whispers. “Look at this. It’s a pack of African wild dogs, nicknamed the painted dog or painted wolf. Look at the color of their mottled fur: red, black, brown, yellow and white. Each one is different; they seem to blend right into the land.”
Heads begin to pop up out of the short grass. As we watch the four or five dogs by the road, we notice others, farther back into the field. They, too, begin to stand up, stretch their legs, shake their heads.
“I can’t believe this,” say Arman. “This is a very large pact. I have not seen them before. They are nomadic and roam over many, many miles. They seldom stay in one place for long.”
Minutes go by. Now the pack has gone from stirring about to full blown play. They chase each other in circles, then stop and change their direction. We stifle our laughter as they mount each other, nuzzle necks and snip at ears. We’ve all seen dogs like this at home, playing with each other and with their pups.
“It looks like play,” Arman notes. “But it’s actually what they do just before a hunt. Look at them. It’s almost like a ceremony. They’re circling one another, touching, exchanging twittering and whining sounds.”
We all try to count the dogs. Ten, then twelve. One more stands off to the side. Finally, we agree on thirteen.
“Is there a leader?” asks Robin.
“I can’t tell. But there’s an alpha breeding pair in every group. They’re in charge. The others look out for the welfare of the pups, the sick or older dogs. They take care of the group. The female can have from 2 to 20 pups, the biggest litters of all the wild canines.”
Suddenly, the play slows down. One dog walks toward the road. He looks right at us and lifts his nose into the air. His large round ears seem to swivel like radar dishes. He turns and starts to walk away. One by one the other dogs stop their play and focus on the road. We’ve been here ten, maybe fifteen minutes. David’s camera stops clicking as the dogs begin to head away.
I am thinking that it must be just about “coffee time,” my favorite part of the morning safari. It’s a stop in a nice, safe place where we can stretch our legs, relax and have a hot beverage before the return trip to the lodge. But there’s no mention of a coffee break now; Arman has other plans. He starts the motor and looks back at us, a small smile on his thin lips.
“Well, what do you say? I think we should follow them, right? There’s up to something. They’re headed somewhere.”
Before we can answer, the Land Rover is in motion, following the dogs down the road. Several are still in the grass, but still moving in the same general direction as the lead dog. This is not looking good for my coffee break, I think. And I’m not sure I want to know what they’re up to.
Minutes later, the lead dog stops. The big ears are up, moving back and forth. He leaves the road and takes off up the hill. Now the other dogs are all in motion.
“He’s headed to the dry river bed over there,” Arman yells.
The Land Rover accelerates and both my hands clench the seat rail. The vehicle makes a quick right-hand turn and then climbs a small hill, bumps down its side and crosses the dry riverbed. Arman leaves the road and crosses to a small pond. The dogs are there, circling around the perimeter of the water. Back and forth. Up and down the steep sides. It takes my eyes a minute to focus on the brackish brown water. But there, in the middle of the pond, is a small animal, with only its head visible above the water. Arman drives to within feet of the water’s edge and shuts off the ignition.
“It’s a kudu,” he whispers. “There must have been a herd of them. Maybe she was apart from the others when the dogs found her. They chased her down. Her only choice was to try for the water. Maybe she could wait them out. They might tire and move on to another hunt. Maybe she would have a chance.”
The dogs are all around the pond, still running back and forth. They venture down to the water, stick their legs in and then turn back.
From the back, Robin asks, ”How come they don’t just go in after her? They have her outnumbered.”
“Crocodiles.” Arman replies. “These animals are all afraid of the crocs.”
The kudu begins to swim toward the opposite bank. She stops, once again motionless. On the shore, the dogs run back and forth, dash in and out of the water. They come together in a huddle, then separate. But always their eyes are on her.
Either from exhaustion or fear, she makes one last attempt for an opening on the opposite bank. The dogs gather directly in front of her. She turns to head back to the center of the pond. One dog splashes into the water. There is no hesitation this time. He is after her. The other dogs flank the sides of the pond. She turns and bounds through the water toward the shore where our vehicle is parked. Her attacker is right behind, closing the distance between them. Then she’s in shallow water and he’s on top of her. They all are. There is one short, guttural cry as they drag her onto the shore. The twittering and whining and squeaking now becomes the chomping of flesh and the breaking of bones. They are not greedy. They take turns tearing and gnawing. One after another, they leave the carcass with a morsel of flesh or piece of bone. Their faces are pink. Blood spots their fur, even their white tails. Their multi-colored bodies now wear a new color. That of death.
Jim clears his throat. He has been filming non-stop since we arrived at the pond. I can’t turn to look at him, knowing that he’s trying to hold himself together, to keep his hand from shaking as he moves his iPhone back and forth across the water and now the shore.
Arman adjusts his earphone and turns back to us. “We’re going to leave now,” he whispers. “There is another group from our lodge on their way. We will give them a chance to see this pack, these wild dogs.” He shakes his head from side to side. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” he says as he turns the key and slowly backs away from the dogs.
A few miles down the road, Arman swings the Land Rover into a large clearing and parks beneath a shade tree. Sidney jumps down from his seat and unloads the large metal hamper that contains the makings of our morning coffee break. We climb down from the vehicle, leaving our cameras and iPhones and binoculars behind us. We stretch our legs and unclench our hands. Within minutes, we hold our steaming cups of coffee and tea and bite into warm muffins that Rebecca wrapped so carefully this morning. Arman reaches into the metal hamper and pulls out a bottle of Armarula, the South African liquor that’s made with sugar, cream and the fruit of the African marula tree.
“Well, we’ve had an amazing morning. A bit slow early on but a good morning, I would say. Anyone for a splash in their coffee?”
He’s made this offer on previous mornings but we’ve all passed.
I hold out my coffee mug.
“Yes, I’ll have a splash of that.”
“Yes,” the others chime in. “Let’s have a BIG splash of that Armarula!”
“A toast to this morning, then,” offers Arman.
There is a pause, a silent moment.
we all say in unison. “To this morning!”