Tuesday, October 4, 2005

Lions and Tigers and ... well, not tigers actually

We arrived at Tau Lodge about 3:30pm, were greeted with hot face cloths and smiles and handshakes all around, and then we tossed our bags into our rooms and hopped onto the Land Rovers. These things are massive vehicles, with seats for a driver and passenger in the front, and then three other bench seats behind, each higher than the last, so that everyone can have a great view. And no seat belts. No roof top. No roll bars. No airbags. Just a gun rack across the front dash (with a .458 rifle parked there at the ready), a radio, and lap blankets for all. (That’s “it” for the safety features!)

We set off as the sun was just starting to sink slightly lower in the west, but the light was still clear and good. Suddenly... “crackle, crackle, bzz, blah blah” -- noise came through on the radio and our guide, William, was all alert... a leopard had been sighted! Already! Ten minutes into the mission, and we’re on the trail!

We rounded a curve, and there high up on a rock, resting, was a huge leopard. They are just amazing animals. Spots (obviously!), great big paws, and an unbelievably muscular physique. He was up there, alternately napping and then pricking up his ears and looking out over the valley, and we all ogled him for a while. They’re quite hard to find, usually, as they hide out a lot because farmers shoot at them. There are only about 20 leopard in this park, which is about 70,000 hectare. (Yes, yes, what IS a hectare? I hear you. Short answer -- it’s a measure of land, and it’s big. I would look it up, but that would deprive you of the pleasure of doing so.)

Then off to search for more game. We next saw warthog, which are ugly beasts that have tusks that curl around in a semi-circle, and bulbous “warts” on either side of the head. They dig for things in the ground, with their piggish snouts. They usually start running away when they see you, and you can sometimes see whole families tearing away in single file. Their long tufted tails, looking like car aerials, stand straight up as they trot quickly away. Boing, boing, boing!

We saw blue wildebeest, or gnu, which are apparently among the stupidest animals in the veldt. When attacked by a predator, they run about 50-100 meters, then stop to look around to check if they’re still being followed. As our guide said, “It’s not a very effective strategy.” No, one wouldn’t think so. They look a bit like American buffalo, in silhouette, as they have a loopy, loping gait when they run. They are a bluish black, and wouldn’t win any beauty contests, let’s leave it at that.

And I know you were curious about why blue wildebeest are also called “gnu”. It’s so that people can ask,......... “What’s gnu?” ... groan... Yeah that was pretty bad. No, apparently the animals all have a South African name (in Afrikaans) (“wildebeest”, for example), and then an “international” name -- that would be “gnu”.

Then to make matters even more confusing, the guides call the animals by an African name in a language I forgot to ask about (turns out it’s Tswana, as in “Botswana”). For example, “tau” is “lion”. We determined about halfway through the weekend that the purpose of this was simply to keep the guests totally confused. I mean, why spoil the surprises? Because of course, the guides are radioing back and forth to each other, to tell where they’ve spotted this or that animal (as the park is big, and it would be easy to miss an animal or three). So they have this groovy secret code to keep us all in the dark.

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