My earliest wildlife related memory?
I am sure there are more before this but none come to mind.
We were at uMkhuze Game Reserve in Kwa-Zulu Natal. My father was working as an honorary officer there, and as so we had certain perks. This is a long time ago when guests could still do their own night drives. I was in the back with my older brother and younger step-brother. My then step-mum was in the front and my dad was driving. I think one of us had a spotting light, but I no longer remember.
My dad stopped the car so suddenly that I was sure it was a leopard or lion, or tiger or bear… I was only about five or six and did not yet know about animal distribution and the lack of tigers and bears in South Africa.
I was horrified when my dad got out of the car and bent down in the road, he picked something up. I struggled to get a view of him through the headrests. He was suspended in the cars light on the caramel coloured road, the night sky was a deep blue and the stars were mesmerising. On either side of the road was lined with an inky blackness, the trees on the unique sand forest ecosystem seemed to be getting closer to him. But nothing jumped out from them, and dad returned to the car with the front of an impala’s leg, severed just after the metatarsal glands.
Of course, I gave my father a good telling off for running around in the wild at night. He chewed his lip to hide his smile and nodded, promising me that he would always be there to keep me safe.
Later in the night we encountered the parks pack of wild dogs. They had made a kill on the other side of a grassy mound and were darting about in delight, dripping with fresh blood and energised by the vigour of a successful hunt. All I could see of it was a bloody stain. They bounded past us and away, disappearing into the trees where our lights could no longer reach them.
Since then I have had many more wild animal encounters, including on foot in recent years, and have gained a great deal of knowledge and scars.
The next memory would have to be one that shaped my love for a misfit.
It was 2008, Easter Weekend. I was once again with my father in uMkhuze, helping with honorary officer duties. This time we were searching for a spotted hyena with a snare on its foot. It had been seen near kwa-Msinga hide. I was the one who saw him. I had spent so many hours in this hide that I knew its placement of every pebble and there was suddenly a rock that had never been there. I even leant my head out the gap to have a better look. Yes, those were dull spots. I called the ranger over and as I did the creature uncurled and looked up at me. I am still trapped in those pleading eyes. I picked up the small digital camera around my neck and took a photograph that haunts me. The ranger darted the hyena, he barely even got to his three remaining feet. It took only a moment before he lay unconscious on the ground.
So for the first time, I was allowed on the outside of the hide I had spent so many hours in. he was on the other side of the water and we skirted it cautiously, it had been years since anyone had seen the crocodile that has used it as a hunting ground, but one could never be too safe.
When my dad said it was safe I reached out and touched him. His fur was coarse but not as harsh as it looked, I could feel his bones wherever my hand went. Absently I plucked a tick from his neck, staining my finger with his blood.
They looked at what was left of his front foot. The dried out bone, the suppurated flesh. The ranger made the call to do the kinder thing. I helplessly watched as they dragged the creature out of sight and then my dad told me to look away but you never forget the first gunshot and the way it tears the air open in a resonating crack.
Had I been the person I am now, I think I would have fought harder for the hyena. I was only thirteen and was trying to decide why I creature documentaries had taught me to hate as thieves had left me hollow with grief and regret.
In more recent years I have called the photograph Immortality and use it as a cruel reminder of the bitterness that this world can bear.
The incident with the snared hyena inspired me to learn a little more about then and since then I have fallen in love with the tenacious hunters. I won’t bore you with the facts of a hyena that are so often misrepresented but if I could undo one thing in my life, it would be the silence as they agreed to kill a creature that I am sure could have survived with a little help.
That’s it for this time,