The African wilderness can be many things. As I sit here it is a place of bird calls and harmony. One might even be forgiven for asking where all the animals are.
But, being in the wilderness is not all about dramatic sightings. It is not always possible to be in the right place at the right time, and if it were we would certainly miss the rest of the moods out here.
The magnificence of life plays itself out everyday across the expanse of the wilderness – from the immense diversity of its micro-relationships to its grand cycles, patterns and seasonal changes.
The privilege of coming to the wild is openness, experiencing life for what it is. Though it is often drama that makes its way to the page, the silence and subtlety that intersperses it is of equal grandeur.
That said, if each of the months were a mood then October would be the month for drama. The heat alone is an experience of Africa. As it builds up to sustain temperatures of forty degrees Celsius, so the waters dry and creatures from far and wide leave their seasonal pans to make their way, in great thirst, towards the banks of the Luangwa. Their weakening bodies are barely sustained by the dry straw grasses, who hide their nutrition in their roots - in their own quest to survive this harshest of months.
The patterns of movements of the various herds of buffalo begin to overlap to such a degree that they eventually merge into a mega-herd, numbering perhaps a thousand animals strong, circling their remaining water-points in a kaleidoscope of ever tighter patterns.
Over dry soils the great herds kick up clouds of dust that can sometimes be seen a few kilometres off. The dusts in the sky set the drama in glowing orange sunsets, in the moment of harmony before the eerie sounds of the night begin.
One can be sure that lions are never far behind the great herds, trailing their scent and sounds, constantly following, dropping back and coming forward… looking for thirsty and weakened stragglers and occasionally ambushing, rushing in to create chaos, before the herd can form its defensive ring of horns. The lions may not be visible, but it doesn’t mean that they are not there.
To be amongst this drama on foot is a great privilege. However, even on a walking trail, the sightings sometimes come to us and we literally wake up and find ourselves surrounded - right place at the right time.
This morning we woke to a sea of buffalo on the open grasses in front of camp. It wasn’t simply their movements that interrupted our sleep though, but rather their apparent unease. The panic of a thousand buffalo is a startling way to wake, to say the least.
The buffalo herd stampeded across the plain, crashing into the wooded thicket alongside camp. Then, following them, the reason for their panic emerged from the trees: a lioness… two…three… eight lionesses and a male lion trotted behind - to the terror of the buffalo. At the back, a young cub trailed but accompanied the siege.
The lions turned on the attack and singled in on an outlying female buffalo. The attack went out of sight crashing into the thicket. The empty field resonated with booming growls from the lions and bleating buffalo distress calls. But soon the herd thundered out onto the field again and, in front of them, the lions had turned and were fleeing for their lives.
The sun was rising behind the scene and the disturbed dusts surrounded the drama with golden light. The buffalo cleared off, leaving the lions standing in the glowing orange sunlit field. They ambled away from the buffalo and back towards the trees. However there was no sense of dejection or finality about them. Their quest was not complete.
A male warthog was not paying attention and trotted onto the apparently empty field. The lioness stalked and then charged. The warthog came running directly towards camp, tail in the air and legs spinning, squealing as he ran. The golden backlit dust spewed up behind him, connecting him to the lioness on his tail. The squealing chase continued into the trees, and just before it went out of sight, the lioness knew she was beat and abandoned her snack.
She sauntered back towards the rest of the pride and sat fifty metres across from us, watching us drinking our morning coffee. After enough time had passed they got up and again moved in the direction of the buffalo herd, preparing for the next onslaught.
We readied to leave camp to relocate the pride on foot and within ten minutes we had them in sight again, from behind a bush. They looked out in the direction of the buffalo. One of the lionesses spotted us and, as we had hoped she might, calmly regarded us; our presence was not a surprise to them after seeing us observing this morning’s scene. Suspicious behaviour from behind cover can unnerve animals though, and so we chose to come out slowly from behind the bush.
The pride regarded us and then casually moved off and into the thicket. It seemed that the buffalo had gone too far, for the time being. We watched as the lions moved out of sight to pass the heat of the day in the shade - and perhaps to trail the buffalo through the cover of night.