Under African Skies

Life at an African waterhole is about to be disturbed as an unknown predator approaches.

Image Credit: 
Public Domain

The cold rum and coke from the flask are excellent, matched only by the parade of animals at the waterhole on a hot December afternoon. The man, safely ensconced in his hide, watches and photographs the absorbing characteristics of the wildlife adopting various stances in their attempts to drink in comfort and safety after a herd of elephants, now trumpeting in the distance, have turned the water brown from their muddy gambols. Giraffe with a non-drinking sentinel facing away from the waterhole. Kudu watchful after each sip and never staying too long. Zebra flinching nervously as they quaff the vital water. A bevvy of gate-crashing wildebeest rudely splash their way into the centre of the waterhole: We don’t care about others cos there’s a lot of us and we stick together—see! A warthog scratches his backside on an old tree stump having retreated from the stampede. Kingfishers and bee-eaters dart brilliantly in and out of the water to feed on insects and larvae disturbed by the clumsy wildebeest. A large white rhino glides silently onto the scene as though from nowhere and grunts with pleasure as, on bended knee, he slurps the muddy water. A troop of excitable baboons just to the west of the waterhole add a variety of shrieks to the bleats, grunts, snorts and slurps of the drinking animals. The whole orchestra plays out against a monotonous cacophony of shrilling cicadas entrenched in the surrounding trees. The sun moves one step nearer to its nadir as several nyala appear among the bushes on the eastern periphery. The lead stag, nervous of gait, pushes forward to sample the wind before the whole herd breaks cover to lap nervously from the edges of the pool.

Happiness is a bellyful of dirty water.

Suddenly all sound and motion cease.

No inkling of danger has reached the senses of the man, but he seems alone in that ignorance. A family of mongoose are first to react. Squealing warning signals, they scamper into the shrubbery. The wildebeest are next, kicking, pushing, jumping and snorting, they depart as unceremoniously as they arrived, leaving clouds of dust across the veld. The zebra and kudu follow suit before another hush descends.

Fear is the common denominator.

The old guard baboon leads his charges into the trees while the giraffes stride away from the unknown threat. Even the armour-plated rhino ceases his lapping, raising his head in a querulous gesture before plodding reluctantly from the scene. Deprived oxpeckers flee to the trees to sit quietly in wait for new dining tables. Only Mkhulu the giant old bull elephant remains. He is not afraid of anything and stands in defiant mode as the sun’s disk loses its shape. Vultures appear in the mellowing sky, circling ominously although no carrion can yet be seen. A flock of Hadeda ibis pass over, their high-pitched onomatopoetic calls adding to the surreal atmosphere before they fade into the distance leaving the menacing silence to hang like a shroud over the waterhole once more.

The man knows that the local lion pride moved north a month ago so it is not they who spread fear to the waterhole. He lifts his binoculars to scan the horizon—nothing yet, but he is prepared and has waited long for this moment. Mkhulu lifts his trunk high into the air, then stomps one leg heavily on the ground, unafraid yet wary. The man sets the binoculars down beside the camera. They will not be needed. He and Mkhulu have noticed the movement under the acacias to the left.

There are four of them.

Mkhulu trumpets in anger as he turns to face his would-be assassins.

Four shots ring out, their staccato echoes dancing across the water into the wilderness. The man emerges from the hide and waves to Mkhulu. ‘Goodbye old friend,’ he calls as Mkhulu dips his trunk safely in the water and the vultures tighten their circle. He walks away, accompanied by the evening cicada ensemble singing that all is now well in the world.

Born just six months before WWII ended, Brian was fostered to his paternal grandparents in the North when he was barely six months old.

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