Yesterday, I told you how you can enjoy the bush without seeing any big animals. If you’re new here, I went down to South Africa’s wild Lowveld for a family holiday. I’m not finished dining out on it quite yet, so today I’ll tell you how to enjoy not seeing animals at all.
One morning we were having breakfast on the stoep (patio) with a gang of thirty five mongooses.
A couple of Vervet monkeys had come down to see what all the fuss was about. Don’t worry, I haven’t been drinking; the Vervets and the mongooses weren’t the animals we enjoyed not seeing. They were happily waging psychological warfare against each other. The monkeys were dashing in to see if they could find a fallen scrap of food (my kids are not tidy eaters. We haven’t had to feed our dogs since they were born.) and the mongooses were ganging up and driving them off. It was all very entertaining. Then this happened.
Well, not quite that. That’s a couple of Vervets watching a leopard on someone’s TV through their window. Vervet Monkeys are starved for entertainment. But one of our Vervets made exactly the same noise. The effect was electrifying. All the birds that had been serenading us with their morning racket suddenly went silent, and the mongooses disappeared in an instant.
Vervet Monkeys are pretty smart little buggers. They have something approaching a rudimentary language. They’re actually usually fairly quiet, but when the need arises, they give alarm calls. Complicated alarm calls. There’s one for eagles and other birds of prey, one for snakes, and one for predators on the ground. There’s even one for humans. Oddly enough, the one for humans is closest to the one for snakes. Make of that what you will.
Our Vervet was giving the ground predator call, the one they save for land animals big enough to eat them. It’s an electrifying experience to hear it when you’re sitting outside with your kids. Monkeys have an advantage over us. They spend their time in the tops of trees. Which means they can see much further than us. And our guy had definitely seen something. As alarm calls, go, this one sounded pretty damn alarming.
We bustled the kids inside, just in case whatever he had seen was close by. And that’s when the unseen animal action started. First, we heard this.
That’s an Impala alarm call. Impalas are not quite so smart. They have one alarm call. But it’s a pretty distinctive one. And they only give it for animals big enough to kill them. Oddly enough, their alarm signal doesn’t always mean “run away!” For it to mean that, they have to be running themselves. Sometimes it’s not so much a signal to each other as it is a signal to the predator they have spotted. Then it means “I see you, you bastard, and you’re never going to catch me. Try again another day.”
But that’s not what this call meant. It meant “run”. I know this not because I speak Impala, but because we could hear them running. It was all very exciting, but there was a problem. They were close. A few hundred metres away across a dry river-bed. But the bush was too thick, so we couldn’t see a thing.
We cut our breakfast short and took a drive over to the general area, but there are no roads that lead to the spot where we heard them, and we saw nothing. Oh, well. It probably meant nothing. Predators, you see, aren’t all that good at predating. If they were, there wouldn’t be any prey left. Most attempted kills do not succeed.
We came back home and went about our business. We filed the incident away as a cool little diversion, and let it slip from our minds. Until bedtime.
When we’re down in the bush, we sleep out on the “sleeper stoep”. It’s a deep, raised patio under the eaves of the house, caged in with mosquito netting and chicken-wire, on the basis that if it’s strong enough to hold in a chicken, it’s strong enough to hold out a lion.
It’s a wonderful place to sleep. You can feel the breeze on your face and smell the rich tapestry of smells wafting in from the surrounding wilderness. But more than that you can hear the sounds.
You hear lions roar and hyenas whoop. You hear mysterious rustlings in the leaves right next to you, and the patter of feet on the hard stone tiles of the stoep. Buffalos cruise through the undergrowth without bothering to go round anything, and elephants smash trees with a sound like a gunshot. Lions roar and hyenas whoop. It’s all very atmospheric. But there’s a problem. My son is not too keen on the dark. We can talk him through most noises, but how do you explain this?
Sorry about the dongs. That was the best clip of hyenas laughing that I could find. And besides, those aren’t dongs at all. Those hyenas are all females. As god is my witness. But I digress.
Hyenas laugh like that when they are excited. Or scared. Hyenas are ludicrously courageous animals. They weigh in at about 50 kg, and will take on lions weighing three times that. But it scares the crap out of them to do so.
And they were doing it across the riverbed from us as we slept. Or failed to sleep. And they were doing it in the exact spot where the Impala had been that morning. One of them had failed to make it. Hyenas are not the pure scavengers they’re made out to be. They hunt a lot of their own prey. But if something dies in their back yard, they’ll be there.
So that was it. One of Africa’s ancient life and death dramas had taken place within a few hundred yards of us. And we hadn’t seen a thing. What was it? We’ll never know. There were lots of lions around last week. We saw their tracks round every corner. But it could have been a leopard, too. It could even have been a hyena.
But we were given a clue. You see, we weren’t quite done with our unseen animals. The next day, I tried to settle down for an afternoon nap. I try this fairly often, but always fail. But at least this time I had an excuse for my daytime insomnia. Because I heard this;
I’m scared of elephants, so that is a bone-chilling sound. Elephants do that when they’re frightened, like the herd in that clip, or when they’re cross. Not a little cross. A lot cross. Enraged. And the one that gave me an excuse for my failure to nap was doing it over and over again. In the same spot across the river-bed.
Elephants don’t get that cross very often. They don’t need to. They’re bigger than anything else. They do get cross with each other. And they get cross with us, because we keep killing them to steal their teeth. But they get cross with lions, too. Lions kill elephants. Not often, and not adult elephants, but they will kill and eat the youngsters. And elephants never forget.
As I said, it was a clue, not an answer. Maybe the trumpeting wasn’t connected to the action. A coincidence. Maybe the killer was a leopard, and the elephant was short sighted. Or just practising for the next lion that crossed its path.
That’s the nicest and the worst part of enjoying animals you can’t see. It’s not just about sound. There are other ways of not seeing things. You might see vultures drop from the sky onto an unseen spot. You might smell a distinctive smell. And when you do, you can let your inner amateur detective run free to come up with a thousand different potential explanations. But never an answer.