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Stalking Lichtenstein’s Hartebeest in the Kruger Park

Elephants passing

Don’t say I’m not ambitious.  On my first trip to the Kruger Park, I set myself goals.  I would be going there not to spot the clichéd big five, that’s for tourists and people.  No, I would be going there to find no less an animal than Lichtenstein’s hartebeest.  Look, I wasn’t setting myself the impossible task of spotting Pel’s fishing owl, an aardvark or rare crepuscular animals, but I would be man enough for Lichtenstein’s hartebeest.

Rare Animal Register

Rare Animal Register

Why Lichtenstein’s hartebeest?  Apart from being rare, I must admit the name imbues me with flights of grandeur.  “Lichtenstein” conjures up an image of a high Viennese aristocrat of the 19th century.  I could imagine a conversation between Lichtenstein and Prince von Metternich at a grand ball in the Schonbrunn palace outside Vienna.  Metternich.  “Lichtenstein old boy, been away?  Since I’ve last seen you, I’ve negotiated with Napoleon, fought a few wars, hosted the Congress of Vienna and brought off some significant diplomatic coups across Europe.  What have you to say for yourself?”  Lichtenstein:  “My dear fellow, tut-tut.  That’s nothing.  Went to Africa and named a rare antelope species!”  Of course they’d be in the most dazzling opulence, drinking champagne out of crystal flutes.  Whenever I missed the city in the Kruger Park camps, surrounded by smoky braais1, I’d have that vision of exalted civilisation to fall back on.

Which reminds me:  The South African braai is an over-rated dish, if one can call it that.  I must beg my fellow South Africans, please, please, when encountering sophisticated foreigners, especially Europeans, do not invite them for a braai.  They do not think much of it.  A French chef recently said to me “Brwaai?  What ees zat?  You make fi-yah, you put on meat (gesture: outstretched palm horizontal to the floor, pushed forward), you turn ar-rowned (gesture: turn outstretched palm upwards, push forward).  What cuisine ees zhat? (gesture: freeze panic stricken, flick palm away).  Neither should you ask sophisticated Europeans what they think of South Africa.  Just leave them alone.

But I digress, back to my quest.  So rare is Lichtestein’s hartebeest that it’s out of category in the Getaway magazine’s SmartiesTM game for eagle-eyed kids.2  Kids apparently have much less patience than grown-ups in game parks, and become easily bored.  Getaway magazine therefore suggests parents keep them alert by playing the Smarties game for spotting game.  The rarer the animal spotted, the higher the number and colour of Smarties one gets.  For example, an impala might earn one Smartie. Spotting a buffalo earns a yellow, a blue and a green Smartie.  A cheetah is worth a purple, a blue, a pink, a yellow and a brown Smartie. As for Lichenstein’s hartebeest, it’s not even on the list.  It’s easily worth a whole box of Smarties.

African Darter

African Darter

Undeterred, I entered the Kruger Park in a casual bravado, expecting the scenery to be like the wildlife programs on TV.  In urban life, you look at the TV screen, and there are the animals.  Isn’t urban life wondrous?  Instead, the Kruger proved to be a botanist’s paradise, especially for those specialising in shrubs and grasses.  There’s enough there for a geologist too.  As for animals, the only one I saw in my hour’s drive from Naledi Gate to Pretoriuskop Camp was a solitary guinea fowl, just like those that squawk and irritate around my home suburb of Oranjezicht.  Had I displaced myself 1800km to see pestilential fowls that abound around Table Mountain?  In despair, I tap out an SMS decrying the horror of the situation to Johan Bell, who tries to placate me with “but what type of guinea fowl was it?”  Yeah.

Kudu Bull

Kudu Bull

Worse was to come.  In the camp’s reception office was an honours list where visitors who had spotted a few rare antelope species – among which Lichtenstein’s hartebeest tauntingly shone – had the right to enter their names.  Reviewing the airily sparse list of visitor’s names, I lost hope.  I was seized by the feeling that I would never, ever see any animal in the Kruger Park excepting for a stupid guinea fowl.  As I unpacked in my bungalow, a depression took root.  To further darken matters, a mosquito found its way through my anti-mosquito armour of sprays and oils and gave me a massive sting on the wrist.  Whaa!  I had not taken anti-malarial tablets.  What if this was an anopheles mosquito teeming with plasmodium, i.e. malarial?  I would get ill!  I already had malaria, I convinced myself.  I would be sick, sick, sick, destined to forever stoop around society in a pained, pallid crouch.  Shudders and shakes.  In a queasy unsteadiness, I spiralled into a chair.  Then, as bleakness caved in, my downcast eyes found focus on a crawling ant.  Ha.  Life.  Animal life!  I had spotted animal life!  Ah-ha!  I would see animals after all!  That single, insignificant little ant remounted my courage, my spirits lifted and I revised my aim upwards to, well, spotting the big five.

Elephants passing

Specimens of the big five presented themselves over the next few days, sort-of.  How do you spot a lion in the Kruger Park?  You first spot a pile-up of cars next to a road.  You slow down, stop, train your binoculars in the general direction of interest and search intensely for five minutes.  Finding nothing, you lean out of the window and murmur to the car next door “what is being sighted please?”  They hush “lion, lion”.  You look, and not finding it, whisper “where, where?”  They point to a mound behind some trees in the grasses far away.  You look again, and see a lion-coloured mound on which a lion may well be lounging.  Then it looks like a lion, then like a mound, and the lion and the mound are one, one-in-being, consubstantial with each other.  You then convince yourself that you’ve seen a lion in the Kruger Park.

On the whole, the park was passably fine to the committed urbanite that I am, and we even saw some nocturnal animals like the civet.  But leopards remained elusive despite our desperate attempts at following up on fresh sightings, which means I didn’t even get to boast the big five.  Saw two cheetahs racing across our path one morning though, but no leopards, none in nine days.  This however didn’t faze me.  I convinced myself that (i) leopards are overrated animals (ii) we had seen cheetahs and cheetahs and leopards are sort of alike.  If you don’t believe me, try the following:  Take a photo of a cheetah and a leopard to a street in Quinnong in China and ask passers-by which is which.  I bet they couldn’t tell the difference in their uncooked state.

Giraffes Ahead

Giraffes Ahead

Baobab tree - most Southern

Baobab tree – most Southern

White Rhino and Baby

White Rhino and Baby

So I didn’t spot the leopard, but it didn’t really matter.  As for Lichtenstein’s hartebeest, I might as well have looked for a unicorn.  But not having seen one really rankled.  However, I’m hatching a plan.

Fish eagle

Fish eagle

Nyala - male and female

Nyala – male and female

On my next visit to Pretoria, I shall go to the national zoo.  They’re bound to have a few specimens of Lichtenstein’s hartebeest certified as such by professional zoologists, who for benefit of the paying public, would have distinguished them from other antelope species they may closely resemble.  I should not be mistaken.  I shall at last sight it!  It’s bound to be an emotional moment.  My throat will bulge and my eyes will mist up, and in the ensuing mirage I’ll catch a glimpse of Lichtenstein and Metternich clinking champagne flutes among the notability of the grand ball room in Vienna.  On their magnificent tables will be platters not of South African braai, but of master dishes prepared by French chefs with names like Escoffier and Ducasse.  My heart will sing at this.  I shall see the crystal chandeliers and the gilded mirrors and the elegant dancers in white tie and sequined gowns gliding around the hall.  I shall even hear the faint wafts of a Strauss waltz played by the orchestra…

And in that sublime moment, I will reach into my pocket, take out my packet of Smarties and eat them all up.

ooooooooooooooooooooooooo

Notes:

1.  Braai = braaivleis = barbeque.  A hated South African habit of charring meat on coals and serving it in the great outdoors or in their back yards to the unsuspecting.

2.  Getaway Guide to the Kruger National Park, Cameroon Ewart-Smith, 2005, Sunbird Publishers (Cape Town), ISBN 1 919 93821 4, p.28.

3.  I have since established that the National Zoo does not have any specimens of Lichtenstein’s hartebeest.

4. My thanks to the Kruger Park salts of Pieter Kriel, Vaughn Webber and Daniel Polakow for their tips and general guidance on my first ever trip to the Kruger Park.

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