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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Intimate encounters: African safari features small, big characters

By Rich Landers For The Spokesman-Review

Predators capture the lion’s share of attention from safaris in Africa. But in a land of big, fast cats and toothy crocodiles – where a carnivore killing prey is considered the ultimate safari viewing experience – the gentler side of the wildlife spectrum can be equally fascinating.

Species of antelope are the main course for Africa’s lions, leopards, cheetahs, hyenas and wild dogs as well as the scavengers that get the leftovers.

More than 70 species are found in Africa. About 20 were on our wish list to spot in Botswana during our 22-day safari in March with Royale Wilderness (

Different adaptations of the antelope species help ensure that something is on the predators’ buffet in one niche or another.

They breed at various times of the year, so vulnerable young are frequently available.

While water access through the dry and rainy seasons dictates the movements of many animals, the gemsbok (oryx) and springbok can survive on the moisture in their forage for months without a drink in the Kalahari Desert.

Incidentally, the North American pronghorn antelope belongs in a separate family, the Antilocapridae.

In 1804, while the Lewis and Clark Expedition was exploring the American West, William Clark described the distinctly American pronghorn as “like the antelope or gazella of Africa.”

The label stuck. But modern wildlife authorities don’t consider it an antelope partly because it sheds its horns each year.

While our safari didn’t witness a predator killing an antelope, we were captivated by their behaviors, such as impala bucks defending harems and springboks suddenly launching into the air as if being flung by a trampoline.

Indeed, with their rump hairs flared, they would bound along for 10 seconds or so before settling down to graze with the tribe as if nothing had happened.

It’s called pronking – derived from the Afrikaans pronk, “to show off,” – and no one knows for sure why they do it.

One theory: It may signal to predators that this is a fast and healthy antelope that would be difficult to catch.

Meerkat manners

Rising to the top of the close encounters our group experienced occurred while hiking for a few hours with a mob of squirrel-size meerkats.

These cute members of the mongoose family can become totally at ease in the presence of humans. “The Lion King” musical tapped these traits in Timon, the meerkat character that sings “Hakuna Matata.”

We were led by a preserve ranger to follow the dozen or so meerkats as they scampered along a forage route in open savanna. The ranger told us to avoid moving quickly, no feeding, and don’t reach out or touch them.

On the other hand, the meerkats may choose to crawl up onto somebody if we sat occasionally and stayed still.

Several times as I took sit breaks during the walk, a meerkat would spring up my shoulder and onto my head where it would stand tall on its hind legs to scan the horizon for danger.

A special moment occurred when a jackal (an African canine similar to a coyote) appeared in the distance.

Instantly, one of the meerkats sounded an alarm squeak and all that were in the immediate vicinity sprinted to the nearest high spot.

That spot happened to be our friend, Dave, who was casually stretched out on the ground.

Nine meerkats scrambled on top of him, stood at full alert on their haunches in their classic upright pose and peered into the distance.

When the jackal saw us, it trotted the other way.

The meerkats relaxed, hopped off Dave – the envy of all – and resumed foraging in constant motion toward their den site.

Some wildlife experiences made lasting impressions without actual contact.

For example, I felt like I was making a cameo appearance in “Naked and Afraid” while I was showering under a water bag outside our tent.

As I squinted from stinging shampoo in my eyes, a hippo strolled by camp and snorted just 10 yards away.

“I take it that wasn’t you,” joked my wife, Meredith, who remained inside the tent behind a thin barrier of canvas from one of the most unpredictable and dangerous animals in Africa.

For the rest of the trip, Meredith would nudge me awake if I snored in the night and sweetly say, “You sound like a little hippo, Honey.”

Massive impact

The African savanna elephant makes a huge impression on safari visitors, who take time to study its complex nature and ponder what has transpired in its 60-year lifespan.

It’s no secret when elephants have been around.

They consume about 350 pounds of forage a day (compared with the 15-20 pounds of hay needed to feed the average 1,000-pound horse). And they reportedly return about 300 pounds of it to the earth each day, leaving huge mounds of pachyderm poop everywhere.

Still, it was surprising to be out for a hike seemingly with nothing around when a 10-foot-tall elephant weighing 8 to 10 tons would suddenly be right there, 10 yards away, looking you over through the thorny acacia tree’s leaves.

Their disposition is docile and affectionate, but elephants can burst into trumpeting rage and become aggressive and destructive.

Most often, they’re just cool.

One night after dinner, outfitter Johnny Ramsden drove five of us away from the campsite a few rough miles.

He parked the Land Cruiser on a track in an open spot about 25 yards from a bend in a small river and switched off the headlights. There wasn’t so much as a breath of a breeze.

The chorus of Angolan reed frogs sounded like glass raining from a moonless sky carpeted with brilliant stars.

Without a sound, we crawled out of the rig and slowly walked along the track a short way until Ramsden motioned for us to sit on the dirt. A ghostlike form materialized just ahead of us on a well-worn trail.

A great towering hulk of darkness flowed toward the water.

Its white tusks seemed to glow in the starlight and take aim at us as it gazed our way.

It rumbled a sort of deep-throated purr. Ears 4 feet tall were slowly fanning as it raised its trunk to sample our scent before dipping the massive schnoz into the river.

At such close range, we could hear a couple of gallons of water at a time being sucked into its hose-like snout, which is a unique combination of the nose and upper lip of an elephant’s mouth.

The trunk is used for breathing, eating, gripping, rubbing, demolishing, fighting – and it facilitates a sense of smell said to be twice as sensitive as a bloodhound.

In this moment, the elephant was focused on drinking.

We could see the trunk curl up and we could hear the water gurgle into its mouth. I virtually felt the vibration of it swallowing.

We sat motionless until it drank its fill.

It slowly turned out of the water and retraced its route with silent graceful strides past us, up the open slope and into the darkness beyond.

When we finally looked at each other, our eyes had adjusted to the darkness well enough to see the awe in each other’s faces.

My friend Scott whispered: “I can only describe that as spiritual.”