“It’s just us?” I asked Mariné, our pretty young guide, as we climbed into the back of an enormous jeep.
“Yes. Just you this morning.” She spoke with an Afrikaans accent, her R’s hard-edged, the vowels flattened.
“Let’s see what animals are out this morning. If you have questions just ask. And if you spot an animal tell me. I have to look at the road as I drive, so I might miss something…”
With eager eyes peeled, we set off down the bumpy red dirt road, April in the middle seat, and Charlie happily attached to mama’s milk-supply. Our route took us around the watering hole, where we had seen hippos two mornings previous. Slowing to a stop, Mariné pointed toward the water.
“Do you see the hippos?”
There were two dark shapes in the water, a few hundred metres from where we sat.
“There was one out here yesterday morning, but they usually like to stay in the water. We have six hippos – five females and a male, but the male is still too young for the females.”
She told us how hippos walk along the bottom, holding their breath, and then kick themselves up to the surface for air.
“They can stay under for up to six minutes, but they won’t usually do that unless they feel threatened.”
Around the corner from the hippos, we came upon a herd of wildebeest. These are black wildebeest, she informed us. There are black and blue, which are distinguishable by their coats and slope of their horns. The black curve forward, and blue, up to the side.
“What interesting about them,” she said, “is that their horns are straight when they’re babies and only begin to curve later on.”
“We joke that when God made the world, the wildebeest was made from the leftovers. The tail of a horse, the hind legs of an antelope, and the horns of a buffalo.”
As we continued on our drive, I began asking about the plants. “What’s the one with the pinkish-orange flowers,” I asked.
“It’s a pig’s ear,” she told us, pulling over and picking a leaf to show us. This succulent plant is named for the shape of its leaves, which look, unsurprisingly, like pigs’ ears. The Khoisan, the original inhabitants of the region, used these as medicine. They would mush the spongy leaves into a pulp and use it to heal wounds.
Other plants used by the Khoisan were the acacia or thorntree, a favourite food of giraffes and rhinos. They would use the two-inch long needles for sewing bags for their supplies, and the leaves and bark had various uses: for sore throats, sunburn, skin rashes.
I asked about another bush with finger-like leaves, which prompted Mariné to stop the jeep again and hop out. She returned to us with a small piece of the plant, out of which was oozing a white substance.
“This is the milk bush,” she said pointing to the white ooze. “This latex is poisonous, so the Khoisan used it for hunting and fishing. They would put it on the tip of their darts, or drop a piece of it into a little dam, to stun the fish.”
“So it wasn’t poisonous enough to make them sick when they ate the fish?” I asked.
“They would chop off the heads and gut them, so they wouldn’t eat the poison,” she explained. “They didn’t have shops or chemists so they used all of the plants as their food and medicine.”
As we continued driving, Josh high-fived me.
“I can be a giant nerd!” I whispered to him, grinning from ear to ear, “and there’s nobody else here to groan at my questions.”
We passed another returning jeep and Mariné had a quick exchange with the guide in Afrikaans. We drove on for a few minutes before she slowed to a stop.
“Look up there, do you see the white rhino?”
She pointed toward the hill, and after a moment of scanning, I saw the beast in a clear patch.
“Do you see it April?” Josh asked. April looked toward the hill. “Look over there,” he said, pointing toward it. Suddenly, her eyes brightened.
“I see it! I see it!”
Mariné then explained the difference between black and white rhinos. The white have wider jaws and flatter teeth, because they are grazers, eating mostly grasses. Black rhinos are browsers, eating leaves from bushes, so their faces are longer and they have pointier teeth.
“What’s interesting is when the mother white rhino is running from a predator with her baby, she runs with it in front of it. But the black rhino runs behind.”
On we went, and once again, just a few minutes later, Mariné slowed to a stop. I looked around, but saw nothing.
“Do you see the giraffes?”
I looked up the hill and suddenly saw it: a long tall dun-coloured neck sticking out above the trees. Then I saw another, and another.
“The males are darker brown. But when the babies are born they all look like females and get darker later.”
“The other way to tell male from female is to look at their horns. They males are flatter and bonier, while the females are more brush-like.”
More giraffes appeared from behind trees, and I leaned forward, trying to count.
“How many are in this herd?” I asked.
“We have about fifteen. And there are some young too. But do you know what a group of giraffes is called?”
Josh and I shook our heads.
“It’s a journey of giraffes.”
The rest of the drive was quieter. We drove on asking questions about the plants and insects and birds. The zebra eluded us as we drove to where they had been spotted earlier that morning. Finally, after driving up the rocky mountainside, we gave up and returned down toward the watering hole. I saw a flash of black as a large buck ran past the jeep.
“What was that? A black buck with long horns and a white stripe?”
“That’s a nyala.”
Then, a few minutes later we saw a few springbok, and Josh spotted a brown mongoose. As I looked at the long grass where it was running, I saw a yellow mongoose as well.
Finally, we drove back toward the entrance, past the three tame elephants, and a massive flock of Egyptian geese on the water.
“Sorry you didn’t get to see more animals,” Mariné said as we assembled our things and climbed out. “They were all hiding.”
“We’re happy,” I said, looking at Josh.