Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

January 17, 2004 Animal notes.

Driving back from talking to Absen the night before, a pair of hyenas on the side of the road. From a distance I thought – I hoped – that maybe they were leopards, but just hyenas. Not so bad, though. Kind of scary creatures they are, as if they were like dogs, but they aren’t, not at all.

At dawn, a herd of buffalo dozed in a clearing on the riverbank next to the camp. A dozen or so. For a long time they gazed at us and we gazed at them. A youngster straddled a fallen log and scratched his

belly on it, a grin of pleasure on his face. A few adults shuffled in the grass grazing. Others piled around each other and slept, one eye open watching us. The young one kept scratching. People came and went, with binoculars, with cameras, we watched silently and then meandered away in search of breakfast. When I returned later the herd was gone.

On the railroad bridge crossing the river some half a mile a way a troop of baboons running lithely up and down the girders, stalking across the top, dropping down to the rails, playing as they slid down and scampered up. In silhouette a parade of animals marching purposefully along the tracks, tails held high in single file. Then break ranks, sit like statues lining the bridge, youngsters dancing and tumbling while old fellows watched and mothers chatted.

On a causeway over the Sabie River, great piles of rocks that are a riverbed when there’s water to make it a river. Grey and white and tan and brown, lines of color in the rocks smoothed by centuries – perhaps millennia – of water running over them and wind and dust blowing across them. It feels like a beach, not a river. Concrete blocks among the rocks, an iron bar emerges from one, remains of some causeway before the one I’m watching from. In a pool a few hippos lounge, surfacing their nostrils to breathe and snort and

grunt, then disappearing below the surface leaving nothing but ripples to mark their presence. Perched on a tree an African fish eagle – almost like our bald eagle, but his white hood hangs down to his shoulders instead of just covering his head, while his white tail is less distinct than our bald.

Up the hill from the riverbed, a troop of baboons take over a tree, hurling fruits to the ground in a constant volley. On the ground a few large baboons contentedly munching, oblivious to the continuing hail of fruit around them. Males chasing a female, her red bottom swollen

to attract them. More fruits raining down, a baboon troop could strip a tree of all its fruit in no time. Maybe that’s what it needs, baboons to get its seed to the ground where it can use the nourishment surrounding it, and grow to create more fruit trees. Or maybe these baboons just wipe out the tree, parasites instead of creatures helping the tree to reproduce.

Giraffes at a turn of the road, tall, elegant, long necks waving like the grass. Small red-billed birds on their backs, picking off the bugs. Bright blue bird flashes by in an instant, sky blue with sharp black marks. Too quick by far to get a good look, but beautiful. Two impala with graceful horns, gently butting heads. Kudu off in the trees, stripes on his side mingling with the shadows. Great big male elephant grazing by himself, fine long tusks. Excellent to make his acquaintance, he became a friend at once. Four zebra walking primly down the road, perfect black stripes in shimmering patterns. Fish eagle perched over the Sabie, surveying his territory, white head flashing in the sun. Hippos in the river, a dozen of them. A lovely spot to take a dip, cool water flowing fast around the rocks. A hippo yawns and stretches, great white teeth and huge pink mouth open to the sky. Lovely spot for hippos to take a dip, anyway.

At the camp in the evening, a broad terrace overlooking the river. Big shade trees. On the bank below us the grasses are chopped clean, by hippos grazing in the night. Above it visitors having a drink, watching the animals, chatting quietly. Warm breezes in their air. A crocodile swims smoothly past, just a bumpy back breaking the surface. A fine big water buck watches from across the river. The moon comes out in the dusky sky, a star or two. One by one the hippos clamber out of the river on the opposite shore to begin their nightly meal. By twos and threes the visitors wander off in search of their nightly meal as well.

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