Even a short visit to Africa can create a lot of lifetime memories. Events, scenes, and happenings that are spectacular, stunning, fantastic, or unbelievable seem to happen with surprising frequency on this magical continent.
They have a saying down in Africa that they regularly use when confronted with something extraordinary and memorable: “Another shit day in Africa.” And most of these “shit day” moments seem to happen around or at sunset, even when the sunset itself isn’t that great.
Irony, it seems, is alive and well in Africa.
Driving south through Botswana’s Tuli Wilderness one evening, tired after a long, hot, exhausting day of road repair, all anyone could think about was getting back to Serolo Camp, eating a quick dinner, taking a shower, and collapsing into bed. We couldn’t get back to camp fast enough.
As we approached the edge of Kudu Ridge, where the rough dirt road follows a natural break known as Elephant Neck through the ridge, one of those special African moments suddenly appeared before us. There, in the fading light, a lone steenbock stood perched on a rocky outcrop, standing at attention at the highest point. In the gloaming, that time after the sun has crept below the horizon but before the last light is completely gone, the animal and the entire landscape were awash with a gentle pink-orange glow. As I struggled to snap a photograph of this moving scene, our guide Andrew hardly noticed. He was too busy looking at the body language of the steenbock.
“Predator!” he yelled! “Lion, leopard, or hyena!”
He slammed on the brakes, jumped out of the vehicle, and took off running towards the rocks where the little steenbock was perched. It was only then that I realized that Andrew had not actually seen a predator; instead, he knew by observing the body language of the steenbock that it was keyed in on a predator.
I watched in awe as Andrew deftly ran up the side of the cliff. The steenbock saw him too, and was now more concerned than ever—there was only one easy way up and down that cliff, and Andrew was taking it. In what it must have seen as a split-second decision literally between a rock and a hard place, the steenbock decided to evacuate its perch and take the only sensible way down. I watched from the parked vehicle, 100 feet away, and couldn’t help laughing at the sight of Andrew and the steenbock running in opposite directions, passing each other only a foot or two apart, the steenbock deathly afraid that this agile human was a predator and was going to attack it. Meanwhile Andrew was so focused on getting to the top of the outcrop as quickly as possible that he now seemed oblivious to the presence of the steenbock (and I verified with him later that he never even noticed how close he came to it).
As soon as he was on the high point of the ridge, Andrew immediately began scanning the area out in the mopane trees where the steenbock had been keying. After a minute or two, a look of disappointment washed over his face. He saw what the steenbock had seen—a tuft of dark fur out in the distance, bobbing up and down between the mopane. It looked an awful lot like the tail of a lion, but it wasn’t. “Wildebeest tail,” he yelled down to us. “Oh well. The sunset is going to be spectacular from up here. Why don’t you come up for a few minutes?”
The rest of us got out of the vehicle and scrambled up the rock. It was the ideal roost for wild animals to do what they are programmed to do—watch for predators or prey, depending on which side of the food chain they were on. It was an equally perfect spot for us civilized animals to do what we seem to be programmed to do—enjoy the scenery.
We stood on top of the rock where the steenbock had been just a few minutes earlier and took it all in. A spectacular vista opened up before us, at first saturated with shades of calming pastels, the contrast gradually increasing before our eyes as the light faded quickly, the landscape taking on a new intensity as it struggled with futility to stay alight for just a moment or two longer.
On the surface, it was just another sunset, one of thousands I had seen and would see in my lifetime. But something made this one of those special moments I would remember for the rest of my life. What made this so special? It’s hard to say exactly. A bunch of things happened to come together perfectly, converging at that exact place, at that precise moment in time, turning the ordinary into the extraordinary. You can’t predict when magic is going to happen. Just sit back and enjoy the show.
As the sky took on its most vivid colors, a moment or two before the sunset started to fade away and we headed back to the vehicle, Andrew turned to me with a big grin on his face.
“Another shit day in Africa, eh, Matt?”
This story was first published in my book Back to the Bundu (May 2013).