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Hello, my name is Judas Gutenberg and this is my blaag (pronounced as you would the vomit noise "hyroop-bleuach").


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   seeing lions
Tuesday, April 1 2003

setting: Nyala Campground, Kruger National Park, Northern Province, South Africa

It was April Fool's Day in the bush, but I don't think it crossed my mind once today that it was no longer March. Our morning safari began where we'd had our sundowner last night, on the banks of the Luvuvhu River. From there we headed across the lowlands. The most fascinating things I learned today concerned the baobab. It turns out that they're not actually made of wood and cannot be "ringed" like other dicot trees. If they could be ringed, elephants would have killed them all off a long time ago. The base of every baobab in elephant country is all mangled from the effects of generations of elephants, which love to eat baobab bark. Baobabs are often huge trees, but they grow very slowly. Particularly large baobabs are thousands of years old. Even seedling baobabs are often dozens of years old. It takes them many years to reach the point where they have any foliage out of reach of elephants, and to get there they have to survive thousands and thousands of setbacks. Since they live so long, the greatest threat to baobabs is outliving their climate. Today Chris showed us two baobabs that had died in the past three years; he theorized that they'd succumbed to excessive water in the soil following a freakishly rare flood.
There's a great deal of history - yes, human history - recorded in the ancient baobabs. Some have been hollowed out by humans and used for shelters. Others have injuries and artifacts giving an indication of how life was once lived by people in the bush. I was particularly struck by a ladder of embedded sticks leading to a hollow that once contained (or perhaps still contains) a honey bee nest. Chris said that this ladder was something like 200 years old.
Today there were a great many clouds in the sky and their shade made today's walk considerably more pleasant than yesterday's. Nonetheless, walking back along the south bank of the Luvuvhu, we stopped for another refreshing soak in the river. Some distance further on, we saw our first crocodile sunning itself on a rock. We snuck up close enough to take pictures, but the moment it noticed one of us moving, it slithered into the water and vanished. The next crocodile we saw was very close to the place we'd been soaking yesterday evening.
Chris showed us the leaves of one of the shrubs growing along the river and explained that they made for good toilet paper. In addition, he said, the leaves can bring good luck. He then brushed each of us with them and said, "You will see the lion." His English was sort of choppy at that point and I thought he'd said, "You won't feed the lion," meaning that my luck would protect me from being eaten. Either way, it was luck I was thankful to get.
Lunch was identical to the lunch we'd had yesterday. Gretchen, who had never really liked baked beans to begin with, had begun to anticipate meals with dread. The black cauldrons of greasy meat quickly attained icon status in our conversations.

The Nyala camp might not have had electricity, but somehow it did have running water - flush toilets and even gas-heated showers. But they were sort of flaky and the water reeked of brimstone. Occasionally scorpions would show up. Our first night here, a pair of Dwarf Mongeese came tangoing in, their bodies entwined like animated pieces of rope. Suffice it to say, it wasn't a good place to be a prissy girlie-girl or otherwise too dependent on the creature comforts of the first world. This wasn't a problem with most of the people in our group, but this afternoon Gretchen came upon Chalice storming out of the showers shouting, "There's no fucking water!" She said this so loudly that I heard it all the way over in the dining hut. All Gretchen could do was laugh - at first she thought Chalice was joking, but she wasn't.

For today's sundowner, Chris drove us for two hours to the southeast, to a smallish reservoir frequented by large herds of wildebeest, elephants, zebra, and buffalo. On the way we came upon a large family group of elephants. They were concerned by our sudden appearance and one of them sounded the alarm, raising a trunk and trumpeting. Aeeeeeerararhhhhhh! This set them all in organized motion in a very Jungle Book sort of way, as if someone was beating a bongo drum to time their movements. Gretchen saw one little baby elephant holding its mother's tail as she led it away. Chris would normally have stopped to give us the opportunity to snap pictures, but in a situation like this, when one of them sounds the alarm, the herd can become extremely dangerous. He had a friend who was badly injured in a similar situation - he'd lingered too long and one of the elephants decided to pierce the Land Rover with a tusk. So we peeled out of there and kept on driving.
The herds of zebra and buffalo didn't disappoint. As for the wildebeest, they looked exactly like animated versions of the paintings of cows found in the caves at Lascaux. The range was rather open in this part of the park, so we could see them for a long distance from the road.
The openness of the bush permitted Barnaby to win the spotting award for the safari. As we were heading back for a second look at the buffalo herd gathered around the reservoir, he gently told Chris to stop, then back up. When that was done, he added, "another 10 feet." Then Barnaby confidently announced, "There, lions!" We strained to look and couldn't see anything at all. But then I saw one. Hundreds and hundreds of feet away above the grass was a tiny smudgy lion's face. "Well spotted!" Chris exclaimed.
We all got out of the Land Rover and began walking through the bush to get closer, Chris and Richard leading as usual. Richard carried his machine gun in his hands, not slung over his shoulder as usual, just in case. Gretchen pleaded with our trackers not to shoot the lions, not even if they leapt on her.
Somewhere between the road and the lions, we startled a sleeping buffalo, evidently the creature which the lions were stalking. They were pissed at us after that, and we could clearly hear the rumble of their low-pitched obscenities. Through the binoculars, I could make them out clearly-every whisker on their tawny faces. There were four that I could see, all spread out and agitated. When we were about four hundred feet away, I saw them begin to leave one by one in a direction perpendicular to the line between us and them.
That was pretty exciting - the sort of thing that can elevate a safari into a life experience. By now the sun was at the horizon and bathing everyone in golden light. It was time to take some pictures. Miraculously, my camera battery still had sufficient juice. It was acting like some sort of Chanukah candle - making the Energizer bunny look like he suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome.

See some photographs from the South Africa trip.

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