And then, there he was…

You can listen to the voice recording, or read the text below.


We had been noticing fresh hartebeest, gemsbok and wildebeest sign since early morning, but we were in quite dense blackthorn and hookthorn country, and not expecting to actually see something. There were lion and leopard spoor too, and African ungulates, especially where they have to contend with predators (including the human kind), are extremely alert, and their senses are far more acute than ours.

But then, there he was.

He had already seen us when I spotted him through the blackthorn tangle – we had been moving quietly over the sandy surface, and the wind was in our favour, but we were in full mid-morning sunlight, and moving, and he was stationary. We were well inside his flight space. He should have burst away in panic, giving us just a departing flick of his black tail – the most we saw of other game we came across in the area. But he stood motionless, even as we inched sideways from behind the veil of foliage.

At first I thought that he was a territorial bull, indignant at our trespassing. But he was too young for that. That might come later, if he could fight his way up the hierarchy. For now, he remained relegated to the bachelor herds that roamed the areas around the territories of the dominant bulls.

It might have been his relatively poor eyesight that made him unsure of what he saw, combined with the inquisitiveness of his kind and his youth, that made him stand, staring at us intently. He gave Jan-Martin just a moment for this quick mobile phone shot.

I simply stood admiring him. He seemed so proud and sure of himself, standing with front hooves elegantly placed together and head held high, cocked for rip-quick action. He was like a ballet dancer pausing before the next movement – only more natural and, finer.

They are fast when they want to, these red hartebeest. Maybe not quite as fast as their cousins, the tsessebe, but still one of the fastest antelopes in the African bush – or anywhere. But this one, he was not interested in showing us his speed. He broke with a dismissive snort, tossing his head and rocked away in a swaggering gallop. Those long, impossibly thin legs seemed to toss him through gaps between the trees and shrubs in an exaggerated flaunt of his strength and agility and his disdain for our puny capabilities.

And well he could. He is a truly marvellous desert dweller. He is able to survive fierce predators and low nutritional food, and go almost entirely without water, utilising tubers and melons, and even metabolising water from his own body fat and protein.  These are conditions we could not hope to survive without the help of technology.

I let out a pent-up breath and we looked at each other wordlessly. It had lasted only a few seconds, but it was magnificent.

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