Finding out the lay of the land

Lay of the land

The bushveld savannah of Africa is shown on maps as vast uni-coloured blotches of yellow or green or brown or some other monochrome, with numbers inside them – 18, 21, 22… Reference tables on the sides explain that the colour blotches represent Woodland Savannah, undifferentiated or, Woodland Savannah, south-eastern areas and other such prosaic-sounding descriptions.
But the animals and the bush people that live there know that the bush is infinitely more variable than what the uniform yellow or green or whatever might suggest. It can change within a few hundred meters from mopani shrubland to tall knobthorn and marula, to thorn thickets, to vast forests of wild syringa, closed overhead and almost bare underneath, to soft brachistegia veld like in the background of this picture, to dense shrub vegetation under a canopy of majestic ana trees, wild figs and njala trees along the more moist drainage lines, and many more mixtures of seemingly endless varieties tree, shrub and grass types.
Each combination of vegetation types make up a subtly different eco-system and animals seek out the areas that suit them best – the ungulates go after the food and bush structure that suit them best and the predators follow, of course also seeking out vegetation structures that best suit their particular hunting habits – leopards are highly specialised stalkers, preferring areas with some tall trees, good cover and populated by smaller antelopes, pigs and primates, even larger birds and fish; cheetas need the same kind of prey, but they want more open terrain where they can utilise their superior speed; lions are more bush structure-tolerant as long as there is at least some cover from which they can ambush, but they need the presence of larger and less agile prey. To make things even more complicated, vegetation and the water situation change with the seasons and animals move in harmony with this.
Bush people, predators of ungulates themselves, develop an intuitive feel for what kind of bush would be preferred by which prey animal; also in which areas special care needs to be taken because of the possible presence of dangerous predators, even aggressive ungulates, like buffalo.
Although each dimension of the untouched bush (the vegetation, the topography, the animals, even the atmospheric conditions and the time of day or night) is in itself endlessly fascination, it is their complex interaction that I find completely enthralling – it is intricately complicated across many levels and, I think, only superficially understood in a scientific sense.
I try to seek out areas where I can experience all the dimensions in combination. Over the years of wandering the African bush I have also developed a bit of an intuition for what I am likely to find in a given type of bush, but still, arriving in an unknown area is like landing in strange city, say Paris, and having to find out quickly what goes on where – without Google or even a street map. Of course, neither Google nor street maps cover the virgin bush, so one is almost completely blind on arrival.
That is why one needs a local bush man to guide you. But if one moves quite long distances (beyond what can typically be covered on foot in say two or three days), even local bush men get out of the area they know and become unsure of themselves. It is then that meeting a local hunting party like here is pure gold. Gold, like beautifully poetic hints at the complex dynamics of season, topography, vegetation and wild life, “Nooo, that side there is no water,” (very significant) or “The buffalo? This time they are far. Thaat side, but the other two old ones, they did not go. They are that side,” or “The elephant they drink that side in the night, but then they go that side to eat the big grass,” or, “Au, that side, the lion, they are many…”
Apart form such time-saving, even expedition-saving information, chatting unhurriedly with such a hunting party is in itself a precious experience. The characters are often just great and the conversation is commonly flavoured with lots of other bush telegraph gossip and, if one solicits it a bit, intriguing views on issues as varied as the local bush situation to the political situation in the country and what the world beyond that might look like

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