Friday, August 19, 2016

The Chase by Moira Ashley

I gasped and sat up straight as a meerkat in the rattling Land Rover, but didn’t say a word. I’d embarrassed myself enough today. ‘Crouching lion cubs!’ had turned out to be nothing more than termite mounds; ‘White rhino!’ a sun-bleached rock.

The light was fading rapidly, both sky and dense fynbos the hue of the milky Rooibos tea we’d drunk on our refreshment stop a couple of hours before, high on the escarpment overlooking  the meandering Bushman’s river, on Amakhala Game Reserve, in Eastern Cape.

That afternoon, a feast of wildlife: inquisitive giraffes, velvety heads so close that their eyelashes seemed to stir the parched air round my head when they blinked; a family of zebra, moving bar codes over the belt of bush; a lone elephant -- minus his tusks, which might, according to ranger Martin, explain why he had been cast out by the other males. Dark tracks ran from his eyes down his creased cheeks. Not tears: he was in must and it was the dripping of excess testosterone which gave him his air of melancholy. We watched as he scooped up trunk-loads of dust into his mouth, to alleviate the all-too-common problem of toothache.

The animal was, said the ranger, probably on his sixth and last set of teeth. When these fell out, starvation would eventually lead to his death. The natural way of things, he assured us, unlike the senseless slaughtering that still went on in pursuit of ivory. As if on cue, the walkie-talkie crackled – one of the other rangers reporting a suspicious sighting. With a crash of gears and throaty burble, we bumped over to the perimeter fence, just in time to see the rear of a retreating vehicle. Thwarted – for now, but keeping poachers at bay was a never-ending problem.

We trundled westwards, a brief hiatus in the parade of fauna allowing us to study some of the flora on this unexpectedly green land: our elephant had resorted to dust, but bushmen had a choice of plants to assist with their dental hygiene. Martin leant out of the vehicle and plucked a branch from a brittle-looking shrub, peeling back the bark to reveal fibrous ends. Smelling vaguely of mustard and cress, it had antiseptic properties, and as I was chosen to demonstrate, aptly earned its nickname of ‘toothbrush tree’. The Devil’s Thorn bush growing alongside was altogether less benign looking and there were no volunteers to discover how effectively a strategically pierced spike numbed the gums.

Besides, the game once more demanded all our attention. A herd of wildebeest thundered past, savannah parting like the Red Sea as the earth shook: a prehistoric cave painting brought to life. Buffalo were more ponderous but ambled close enough for us to study their ribbed head armour, shiny as basalt, and the red-billed oxpeckers which rode their backs, obligingly ridding them of ticks.
Was the warthog camera-shy because she sensed she was not as photogenic as the more svelte hartebeest, impala and blestok with whom she shared these plains? Her face, with its knobbly forehead, shovel chin sprouting bristles, and bad-tempered squint may have lacked conventional beauty, but it brought a smile to my face as I adjusted the zoom.

By dusk, though, they had all melted away; only a herd of eland remained, spiral horns piercing the horizon before heads dipped in unison as they grazed. But just ahead of us, at the edge of the track, surely…?

‘Cheetahs: female and two cubs’, Martin hissed. So I had been right! A half-shade lighter than the grass in which they lay, parchment-pale fur smudged with ink spots, the fleeting gleam of amber iris as a head turned.

‘She’s seen the eland’, he whispered. ‘Could be going in for the kill any time. Needs to get closer though.’

‘I thought they could reach speeds of 100kph in just a few seconds?’

‘True, but cheetahs are sprinters, not marathon runners. They tire quickly.’

The ranger turned the headlights off and cut the engine, careful not to interfere in the unfolding drama; neither prey nor predator must be given an advantage. While the cubs lolled in the ochre earth, the mother advanced fifty yards or so in a series of fluid, slinky moves.

The eland continued to browse, apparently oblivious. Two calves hovered on the edge of the group. Vulnerable. Was one of them the target? The cheetah dropped to the ground. ‘She’ll go for the throat when she strikes. But it could be hours yet. She’s still not near enough and she won’t want to move too far from her young.’ 

In a sudden swoop, black and heavy as a pelt, darkness descended. ‘Well that’s it; we’ll have to return to the lodge, guys.’ Martin’s voice pierced the soft night. Wordlessly, I slumped back in my seat, unsure if relief, or disappointment, were victorious.


Moira Ashley is a retired lecturer who enjoys exploring countries near and far, with her husband, and has had several publishing successes in writing about her travels. Though, as someone who cannot swim, or even ride a bicycle without falling off, ‘adventures’ are rarely of the ‘daring physical feats’ variety!

Judge's Comment: We are dropped right into the middle of a South African game park: 'I gasped and sat up straight as a meercat...''. One of the story's strengths is the writer's self-deprecating humour: '"Crouching lion cubs!" had turned out to be nothing more than termite mounds.' Information about the wildlife is skillfully woven in to the author's personal narrative, with evocative images: '...the fleeting gleam of amber iris as a head turned...'