Scrub Mopane often keeps you from seeing things until you round a bush. Vast vistas of grazing wildebeest is more an East Africa thing. In the south this is the more common landscape. You really have to look to see. This is such beautiful country to me but it takes some getting used to.
It was a shock to me to find out that I was blind. And when I thought I had eagle eyes. It wasn’t till I first got to Africa and spent time with African trackers or hunters in an environment where spotting game in the bush was a way of life. Southern Africa is not like the open plains of the Serengeti where you can see for mile upon mile. Mopane trees or Miombo woodlands, often with thick undergrowth obscuring your view to mere meters is the norm. You might see 100 meters in wildlife areas, but much of the time it is less. Our guides would patiently point out an elephant only 60 meters away and I would stare into the brush and leaves trying to pick out what should be a pretty big thing to see without the slightest contact. As they tried to “help” me see, they would point out a tree, which I could see and then a particular branch and the dark area next to it, and maybe a tail flicker. Finally, after long minutes of groping with my eyes, I saw something…possibly an elephant. By this time they are saying, “Oh, look at the little baby!” and “Look how stressed they are. See the darker dripping down from the temples?” It was really embarrassing! Sometimes I found my self just saying, OK, I see now when I had no idea what they were seeing.
It is critical that you see things like this old buffalo bull before he sees you. Or at least before you are so close he thinks he needs to put a horn in you. Buffalo don’t mock charge. When they come, they are coming all the way to you unless you stop them. You must always be “ON” where there is dangerous game.
The interesting thing is that now, as a licensed guide, I find myself on the other side of that, trying to help guests to Africa see what, to them, are nearly invisible sights. The instruction to see well becomes an art form as well as the seeing. Cher is always reminding me not to say, “Oh, look there,” Rather, “Look at 5 o’clock down between the tree trunk and the stone….” A few years ago Josh and I went on for what seemed like 10 minutes trying to get my sister, Lu, to see a leopard not 20 feet off the road. It was starring right at us. She could see nothing but bush. Leopards do have great camo, but it was probably as frustrating to us as it was to LuAnne, to not be able to get her to see this beautiful animal when she wanted to see it so much. We finally told her to just take a picture of this area of bush and then enlarge it later and then it would be obvious. Of course, the leopard ran off just as she looked down to get her camera and it was gone.
This is another very common landscape look in the south of Africa. Do you see the 4 Zebra? This is a great example of degrees of difficulty in spotting game when the camouflage is so great. You may only see the 4th with a tail flick. Who would have thought the black and white was such good camo? Hint: the 4th one is at the back of the other 3.
I remember being out on an impala cull on Lemco Ranch in West Nicolson area of Zimbabwe in the 80’s. Culling is not hunting. It is purely game management. (Impalas reproduction is rapid. They can eat anything in the bush being browsers as well as grazers, so in a time of drought when specialist feeders are all dying off, the impalas carry on eating everything like goats and leave nothing for other species. You end up with thousands of impala and less warthog, kudu, even rhino as well as many other animals as food disappears. Some might say that we should just let nature take its course, but management has turned massive areas of cattle ranching into wildlife area as farmers see the financial benefit of having game instead of cattle. While culling is not hunting, you can certainly learn a lot about shooting and shot placement and other related skills that are requirements for a good hunter and guide as you do the management side of conservation. The culls are done at night with a light that you shine on the animals and then shoot. I started out shining the light back and forth in a smooth waving arc, trying to pick up the sparkle of eyes. Everyone was able to look at what I was looking at because it was predictable and following a path. I saw groups of impala and some Zebra and the odd thing. I thought I was doing pretty well at this but after a short time Dudley Rogers told me to give the light to Choice, the tracker, for a while. The light was all over the place, way out in front then back close the tires of the vehicle then up in the trees and then back about 40 meters out on one side of the road and then 20 meters out on the other. It was fast and erratic and I was going crazy trying to follow the hectic path of the light. But Choice saw everything! And whenever Choice saw something he would stop on it and give a little shake of the light and hold for a bit to let us see what it was. We saw hare and warthog looking out of holes, baboon, monkeys and little night apes in the trees, antbears and brown hyenas, porcupines and pangolins that I had never seen during the day. The night came alive with a whole new Africa that I had not known before and I loved it. There was a deeper appreciation of my surroundings, knowing that there was always so much more around me than I was seeing. I just had to FIND it. After I got over the erratic-ness of the style I could see the reason for it. I found myself taking on this new style of looking. It was a kind of splattering your vision around instead of staring at things. This is a totally unnatural, definitely learned, art that takes practice to get right.
Felix, one of our trackers. I learned so much from these guys it is amazing. Sadly so many have died of AIDS. Choice and Felix are only a few of those. This picture was taken on my PH practical in Hwange National Park. A good tracker changes everything. It is a real team thing that is a pleasure when you are working together.
Our eyes are tricky things. They don’t always go where we want them to, even if we know what we want from them. As a pilot, when I started “instrument flying” in the clouds, I was trained to scan my instruments instead of what is the common thing. If you do what is natural, you will fixate on one instrument and all the other things fall apart. We work at making our habits to look at the instruments and then outside. When we are in the clouds, we scan the instruments in a priority. First the Artificial Horizon (AH), which tells us our attitude in relation to the ground. This is primary. Then we go to the airspeed and back to the AH. Then the Directional Gyro, which tells us our heading then back to the AH. Then the turn and bank, which tells us how we are co-ordinated and back to the AH. Then navigation instruments and back to the AH. You want to almost gaze at one instrument while glancing at the others.
There is a way to look at the gauges and radios in a scan to not fixate on one thing to your peril. I had an old chief in Zimbabwe come to look at the plane. As I showed him the cockpit he said, “OH, So many watches!”
Then there is the perhaps not “politically correct” concept that it is possible to just look at things wrongly. I got a call from my friend, Trevor Lane, from the Forestry Commission of Zimbabwe. He was in charge of the wildlife department and had really built up their hunting side. Since he had a Cessna 206 that was US registered, I helped him from time to time to keep the aircraft maintained. He had just brought the plane up to Harare to drop off a client and was hoping to get a few things fixed while there. This client had just completed the hunt of a lifetime having shot a very nice elephant that had charged him and been charged by a lion as well, which he also shot at very close range. He took a magnificent buffalo and had many African adventures with animals to make stories for around the campfire for many years to come.
Like your mom always said, look both ways! 1 Peter 5:8
He had been taken to Meikles Hotel and, after calling his wife and telling her how happy he was, he took a refreshing shower and went out on the town to do a bit of shopping for souvenirs for his bride.He stepped off the sidewalk after looking the same way he had looked all his life and was instantly collected on the front grill of a city bus. We drive on the right in Zimbabwe and he had looked the wrong way.
There are similar ways of looking at life. We often see all our problems and it is easy to fixate on them, often to our detriment. It becomes difficult to see solutions in the overwhelming flood of input we take on. Literally like an eclipse of the sun, which is giving off massive amounts of light being blocked out by something as small as the moon. Although this is fascinating to see on occasion, it is not where we want to live. Besides just the pure enjoyment of a life spent looking to see more than we otherwise would, there is a satisfaction that comes from letting go of the things that actually block our view. A peace that comes with a proper focus on what is important. Maybe this is why the Bible says in Hebrews 12:2 “fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith…” (ASV). So we gaze at Jesus and glance at the troubles. I like that.
Mopane woodland. Higher trees but still very broken visibility. I love Mopane.