It’s been three weeks since I returned to the Linyanti, and the all-consuming strength of this October sun has given new meaning to the term “hot and bothered.” They call this “suicide month.” The air is as dry as the bones of animals too weak to run from hungry predators. Dust and the young buds of summer make for watery eyes and patience about as short as a pinhead. On one particularly hot afternoon, the only thing preventing me from screaming at the next person who addressed me was the knowledge that at 4:00, nearly twelve hours after I had arrived at work that day, I would be able to jump into the pool and find relief from the sun. When I heard that a single guest would be remaining in camp after teatime to sit by the pool, preventing me from jumping in myself, my eyes stung with tears. I recall this with total honesty and little shame. This is the kind of manic desperation and unruly emotion commonly experienced and witnessed in the weeks before November rains. Humans are most certainly not the only creatures affected by the temperature. The earth is parched. Elephants pull down trees with increased vigour in an effort to acquire fresh leaves and bark. The heightened competition for food leaves the stench of death all around us.
Two evenings ago I was privy to a close viewing of a scene that is common at this time of year. The impala are nearly ready to drop their young. Most of the females are pregnant, and this renders them less able to run from predators. The three wild dog packs in this concession seek to take advantage of this weakness as often as possible. We cannot paint them as cruel; they too have growing young to worry about. Feeding ten adults and ten puppies requires frequent hunting, and this day was no different.
As I made my way across the boardwalk to my house, I had sleep and work on my mind. Unfinished orders were looming, the heat was pressing, and in thirty minutes I had to come back on duty when I all I wanted was to cocoon myself in a corner of the walk-in-fridge. My train of thought was broken just long enough to see an impala bolt between the boardwalks of two guest tents. A wild dog followed in hot pursuit. I quickly followed them to the edge of the boardwalk along the water’s edge, but they were nowhere to be found. Curious, but still pressed for time, I continued walking along the boardwalk and prepared to descend the stairs onto the pathway that led to my own house. My eyes met with another wild dog, eyeing me from only a few hundred feet away. Something told me to stay put, and perhaps only a minute later, a second impala came crashing through the woods, another dog close behind. I ran to the balcony of the closest guest room and saw the scared impala nearly submerged in the water, a wild dog watching intently from the bank. Just then, a third impala ran towards the water, and this time I knew escape was impossible. Six dogs descended upon the female, and in less than ten minutes, a few bones were all that remained. I was in such a daze of shock and awe that I had little time to consider the weight of what was transpiring. Six of Africa’s rarest predators had hunted and killed a few metres from where I stood, gazing at me with faces covered in fresh blood. I saw a yellow-billed kite swoop down and fly away with the antelope’s heart, while another dog picked up what appeared to be a newborn impala. Of course this baby was still a few weeks from its birthdate. Slowed by her impending labour, this mother stood no chance against her attackers. Now they enjoyed a feast of not one, but two impala.
I had often wondered if I would be able to withstand the gruesome sight of wild dogs hunting successfully. They kill viciously and rip into flesh without pause, while the animal still struggles for breath. In silence I stood listening to birds sing from treetops as the late afternoon sun pounded down upon an unborn baby torn from its womb and tossed in the grass. Despite the sadness and brutality of the scene, it was one I knew I would remember vividly and with immense gratitude. I had heard of and imagined moments like this one, but never considered that I might one day pull back the curtain on the wildness of beasts. In the span of a few minutes I witnessed nature’s precious interchange between life and death. Two lives are taken to feed twenty. The impala mate and drop young at the same time each year, so that these inevitable losses will not prevent a mass of new life emerging. This balance is maintained without the influence of man or machine, and has been for thousands of years. A life within this kingdom of hunter and hunted is the stuff of wishes whispered to a universe we pray is listening.
The heat still bears down on all of us. I drift between frustration, exhaustion, and twinges of madness. Each time we hear distant echoes of thunders our hearts fill with hope for rain. Brief storms have offered only a few hours of relief, but the earth remembers them. Driving along the road to camp I see a lone green shoot of grass that was not there the day before. No drop of rain is wasted and each afternoon is a little cooler than the last. In a place where the storm comes before the calm, we discover that every bit of water counts. Instead of dwelling on a bright sky that cannot be willed to open, we find respite in the first signs of summer, in the kind words and laughter offered by those whose patience exceeds our own, and more than that, in the wonder wrought by the trials and victories of creatures who have suffered and survived this season long before we made our homes here. Hot and bothered, we find our dreams fulfilled.