As we were coming in for a landing, barely 100 feet above the dirt runway, our pilot suddenly jerked the nose of the propeller plane skyward — an elephant was calmly sauntering across the dusty strip. It was my first indication that, while humans may oversee Kruger National Park, they are not necessarily in control. “Welcome to South Africa,” I thought.
For two days in Kruger, I watched leopards hunt springbok, cheetahs mark their territory, lions torment a tree full of baboons, and water buffalo drink at an ever-shrinking river. Late one afternoon, a male leopard walked so close to our open Land Rover that he could have turned his head and licked my leg. Fortunately, past experience had taught him that people in cars were neither a food source nor a threat.
For two intense days, I observed animals as I sat in the Rover without moving, sometimes without breathing. Eventually, cooped up, I needed to run — to exercise, not flee. I casually mentioned I was going to go for a run to my ranger, forgetting that I wasn’t in a petting zoo. He gave me the hairy eyeball. “You’re fast food here,” he said. “No running without a gun following you.” Being trailed by a guy with a gun was not exactly what I had in mind.
The head ranger, Peter, happened to be a runner and said he’d join me. I wanted his knowledge, but feared his long, lanky strides. I’m happily a 10-minute-miler and knew I would struggle to keep up with him, and I really didn’t want to be the slowest runner with lions and leopards in proximity.
We started off fast, of course, and I cursed under what breath I could catch. This was going to be brutal. The winter tundra was dry under the bright sun and crackled in the breeze. Yellow grass brushed our knees and reddish-brown earth bounced as we ran down the path.
Peter stopped and pointed. A big circle was imprinted in the dirt ahead of us. “Elephant tracks,” he said. In front of the footprint, another swirling trail marked where the elephant’s trunk had dragged in the dust.
With renewed energy, we started off again. Down the path, we came upon a group of zebras grazing on grass. We stopped running. They stopped eating. A staring contest ensued as they looked at me with their dark, skittish eyes. I had gone from the observer to the observed.
Heading back to camp, fast-moving hooves crashed through brush and made the ground vibrate. A herd of springbok passed off to our left. They casually turned their heads, as if to see what animal ran so slowly. I worried about what was chasing them and checked for my friend with the gun. I felt a sense of relief and regret as we ran the last mile back to make lunch.
I had come to South Africa to see the animals in their natural environment. Often, I was so close to them that I could see their eyelashes or hear bones cracking as they ate their kill. In the vehicle, the animals ignored me completely. Stepping out of the perceived safety of the Land Rover to run down the road reminded me of my true vulnerability in their world. Even with the gun, there was a new order to the food chain and I wasn’t on top. I liked it.
Photo of lion in Kruger National Park, South Africa, by Steve Casimiro
Declination is other places, other spaces, and the things that happen there.