Exciting Prospects

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I stopped the vehicle just behind the crest of the ancient dune’s gentle rise and climbed onto the roof with my binoculars. I was still some three hundred metres from the pan. It stretched away to a heat-blurred trace of trees on its far end, about two kilometres away.

There was something liberating in gazing out over such a vast stretch of space after three days of breaking through dense Kalahari scrubland, where the view was restricted to between a few meters and some fifty – maybe two hundred or so here and there, where it opened into beautiful Kalahari grassland savannah with larger trees.

The pan seemed completely devout of life – and of visible open water, although some dark-green blotches of vegetation towards the centre seemed to promise some, I thought. I had picked up signs of game in bare spots as I was driving up though, and I decided to sit for a while, enjoying the view and watching to see if animals would come. It was midday, and hot; the drinking hour. If there were game around, they were most likely to come down to slake their thirst sometime now. The wind was in my favour, I was quite well camouflaged behind the crest and some vegetation, and I was comfortable sitting on the cab roof with my feet on the bonnet – especially after I had quietly brewed myself a cup of tea. I even had the luxury of a sparse lacework of shade from the outstretched branch of the camel thorn next to me.

Back in my study I had spent hours pouring over Google Earth, and finally marked some pale blotches that represent pans, deep in the interior of the Kalahari. There could be water anywhere in the trackless bush, but the pans seemed to offer the best chance. It made sense to me to start with them.  Where there was water, there could be ungulates, and where there were ungulates, there could be predators…

There were no roads or tracks leading to the pans I had marked. A major part of getting to them would have to be through virgin bush. This was unknown territory to me – or to any living person, possibly.

Three days of bush driving had brought me here. There were four or so other pans that I had marked, and that I might also visit on this expedition, but this was the first. I did not know how long I would spend here. It depended on how the situation might unfold – perhaps I would be tempted to stay longer, simply because the environment was interesting. There were no obligations.

Thirty minutes ticked by before I saw something move – on the crest of the dune to my right, some five hundred meters away. A small herd of zebra came over the rise. They stopped as they came into full view of the pan, and stared out over its pale expanse for several minutes before continuing.  They stopped every now and then to check again. They were certainly not admiring the view. They were nervous. It told me there were predators around – lions or wild dogs, the only predators they would be so wary of. It also told there had to be water. Zebras have to drink quite regularly – every second day or so. Lions too.

At the edge of the pan they stopped and started cropping choosily at tufts of grass that still showed some streaks of green; like someone killing time cherry-picking from a dish they didn’t really want. Occasionally, one or two would jerk up their heads to scan their surroundings.

Eventually they did wander over to the dark clump, and drank, then doodled back closer to the edge, where they stood in a group, dreamily flicking their tails and stomping a hoof now and then to rid themselves of flies.

A lone black-backed jackal trotted by close to them. They hardly paid it any attention. On the far end, barely visible in the dancing haze, a lone wildebeest bull ventured onto the pan and stopped, apparently satisfied to just spend quiet time in the open where he would spot predators from a distance.

By now my comfortable seat had become quite uncomfortable. My bum was numb and my back was begging for a rest to lean back against. I tried sitting on the bonnet with my back against the windscreen, but that didn’t help much, especially not for the bum.

I did not want to disturb the animals on the pan, but the sun was dipping and it was time for me to find a place to camp. Through my binoculars, the dark seam on the opposite side seemed to offer some larger trees with canopies that would keep me free of dew overnight. I also wanted to scout the edge of the pan for animal signs before the light faded too much. It was time to move.

To my surprise the zebras did not break and run when I drove slowly down the slope. Even when I got quite close to them, they seemed to be relatively relaxed, staring at me intently with pricked ears – all but one youngster of some two years. He stood uninterested, with lowered head and cocked hind foot. I had noticed him lag behind when the herd moved onto the pan.  He half-stumbled along with floppy ears. He was either hurt, perhaps by a predator, or a kick from the stallion, or simply not feeling well. Lion or wild dog food.

These zebras were either quite used to vehicles, or fascinated by this strange mechanical contraption that was slowly trundling towards them, muttering as it came, I surmised. The former was quite unlikely– there lay more than a hundred kilometres of untamed bushland to the closest point where they were likely to have encountered vehicles. But, it was possible.

It was only when I stopped and got out to examine the tracks around the pan edge that they galloped away, the youngster trailing. But they did not go more than about two hundred metres before they slowed and stopped and turned to look back at me. It was a superb experience, even if a pity that I had had to disturb them.

A quick scanning of sign some hundred metres either side of where the vehicle was parked confirmed that, apart from the zebra and wildebeest, there were fairly fresh tracks of gemsbok, hartebeest, eland, some elephant, and hyena. Walking back to the vehicle I also picked up jackal and honey badger. No lion or leopard, but I was pretty sure they would be here.

I was highly pleased and excited. This clearly was an area that supported a substantial wildlife population.  I would definitely be spending some time wandering around. But for now, I needed to find a good camping spot; one that would accommodate me for a few days.

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