Johannesburg - Sometimes, you do wonder why South Africans visit game reserves. There are many who treat it as an extension of their Alpha Male/Alpha Female business life in the city and it becomes a race, a competition to see who gets the “best sightings”.
And, those best sightings tend to be the Big Five, which is why, as I have said before (to the annoyance of the Kruger fan club), that the way to spot lions in Kruger is to look for brake lights…
I understand why a pale person from Poland might, on a fleeting visit to Africa, want to tick off the Big Five on their list. But, those of us who were born in Africa – and who have been travelling to our wild places for years, if not decades – why are we so besotted with the big and brawny?
Why can we not appreciate the smaller things in nature, even though they don’t growl, run, jump or attack like the game reserve rock stars?
One early morning, years ago, we were sitting in the car next to a waterhole close to the Namutoni rest camp in Etosha National Park in Namibia. The sun hadn’t been long up and we were enjoying tea and rusks in silence… a silence rudely broken by the arrival of a car full of South Africans.
They stopped in a cloud of dust (we still travel way too fast in game reserves, don’t we?) and didn’t bother to switch off their engine as they scanned the spot for the “big sighting”.
Not seeing anything, they chatted a bit in loud voices before roaring off in another cloud of dust.
As that dust settled and we could open our windows, we sat and waited. And, a small movement in the bushes revealed a Damara dik-dik, one of the rarest of southern African antelope and one of the prettiest – and most serene – creatures in the bush. Its big, soulful eyes looked and, not feeling threatened, it moved on slowly.
The dik-diks are only found around this, the eastern, part of Etosha and in parts of Namibia’s Waterberg National Park. And we got to see one, close up.
When we went back to Namutoni years later, with kids in tow, we again saw the lovely little creatures in the same area.
And we wondered, on both occasions, how many other visitors had failed to see them because they were too busy looking for elephant or lion.
After you’ve ticked off the Big Five, it’s the Little Five (quick quiz: what are they? – answers at the end) and the little buggers that the game rangers tell you about.
You can spend wonderfully focused minutes contemplating the seemingly endless task of a dung beetle rolling a huge clump of the stuff (often many times its own size) off into the bush.
Or look, fascinated, at the crimped, angry-looking faces of terrapins which look much livelier and more vicious than their tortoise cousins.
What about baboons, the ugly stepchildren of the bushveld? Unattractive, vicious, smelly. But spend some time watching a troop and you’ll see interesting interactions between the members, and the touching affection the mothers have for their young.
Ditto with vervet monkeys, which can be a royal pain when you’re unpacking a car or trying to keep food secure. But I defy you not to look for the human expressions – naughtiness, normally – which seem to manifest themselves whenever humans are around.
And, at this point, what about the supporting actors in the drama of the wild – wildebeest, zebra and impala – which, because of their numbers, tend to be glossed over by tourists in search of more exciting quarry.
I admit that we, as a family, are guilty of this because we have for 20 years referred to impala as “Yabies” (from Yet Another Bloody Impala). But I do often wonder what drama we might have missed in passing these creatures without so much as a second glance.
Also, the chances of you getting close to a small creature are greater – and your safety more secured – than with the Big Five.
Another Etosha incident: evening around a braai at the Okakuejo rest camp. My wife’s 80-something grandfather and his brother (who was out from England) sat chatting as the rest of us headed to bed. Gradually, the English visitor managed to tempt a hovering jackal to come closer, so close it took a piece of braai meat from his hand before rushing off.
That little encounter meant more to him than the lion and elephant we saw in abundance on that trip.
(When I asked later if he was worried about catching rabies, his laconic English reply was: “Dear boy, I am 84 years old. If the world hasn’t managed to kill me before now, I am not worried by a dog sickness!”)
One of my favourite experiences with a lesser seen and appreciated animal was when we spotted an albino bat-eared fox late one afternoon at a small place in the Waterberg. Many people wouldn’t have gone there because the Big Five (apart from the odd nomadic leopard) were not in evidence, but we loved it.
Without the Big Five, you can walk and see bat-eared foxes. And you can startle an adult kudu as it steals the grass from around the chalet, and then bounds the fence in one leap.
The reality is that, by expanding your experience viewfinder, you get much more out of your trips to the bush… and you won’t complain that “we didn’t see anything”.
That, of course, is something the birders realised a long time ago. There is a lot more happening than just roaring and trumpeting.
(Answer: Elephant shrew, buffalo weaver, leopard tortoise, ant lion, rhino beetle.)