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It’s five-fifteen in the morning, and my father is waiting outside my door. As I open it, I’m struck by his size. In my late twenties, I’m now bigger than Dad, but I don’t feel it. In my mind, I still come up only to his shoulder. He has the weathered quality of a lifelong outdoorsman, his skin like tanned leather—a bit worn, but hardened by the elements.
“Bushveld morning. Best thing in the world,” he says with a smile. Dad passes me a shotgun and a handful of shells, and we casually begin our morning stroll upriver, toward the safari lodge. At this time of year, it’s best to be at it early, as by midmorning the heat will make further work impossible.
The dawn is just beginning to break into the pale blue that is precursor to the gold of the rising sun. Already the urgent cackle of the partridge-like francolin—what the bushveld locals dub “government chicken,” as they’re a ready source of dinner—can be heard from the riverbed. The air is fresh and cool, and the grass has been dampened by heavy dew that wants to crawl up my pants. The sun peeks over the horizon, catching the dew as it sparkles in the light.
The game path runs along the bank of the river and has been well worn by heavy animal traffic. Lions, leopards, elephants, and hippos use it for easy access to the river. A large, steaming, splattery pile of Cape buffalo dung is dead center.
“Whoops, look sharp here,” my father says.
Also known as “Black Death,” Cape buffaloes are one of the Big Five—the most prized and deadly prey of big game hunters—all of whom reside at Londolozi Game Reserve. (The other four are lions, leopards, rhinos, and elephants.) It’s been said that buffaloes look at you like they owe you money. Armed with prodigious swooping horns, they’ve been known not just to attack but to track and ambush hunters and gore them to pieces. They can even run lions up trees. I notice a buffalo track pointing toward us; the buff has already moved past. If we were going to bump into him, it would have happened already.
“You’re losing your touch a bit,” I tell my father. “Too much time in the city, not enough time in the bush.”
“Tell me about it.” He’s smiling.
Dad looks up ahead. “The guests always say, ‘I’m going back to the real world’ when they leave. But as far as I’m concerned, this is the real world, and back where they’re going is the fake one.”
Far off, a lion starts to roar. We can hear the distant baritone boom as he winds up, the sound carrying miles in the cold winter air. The glorious rumble, however, is quickly drowned out by the cough and growl of a nearby Land Rover as someone revs the engine. Really, Land Rovers are useless first thing in the morning, until they warm up.
For a rare moment, the lodge is calm and relatively quiet. The guides, who will man the Land Rovers, are on the main deck drinking coffee, preparing to take guests out on safari. Early mornings are the best time to find animals, as they like to move in the cool of the day. Tracks from the night before are still relatively fresh, providing critical clues to their whereabouts.
Soon the guests will join the rangers on the deck. This takes some time, as each guest must be escorted from their room by an armed guard, lest they bump into a lion or leopard strolling down the path. It’s quite common for animals to come right into the confines of the camp. We once found a muddy set of leopard tracks on the bar counter. The guests will arrive on the deck dressed like they’re ready for an alpine experience and be stripping down within an hour, as the sun rises.
That’s August in the bush for you.
Excerpted from Cathedral of the Wild by Boyd Varty. Copyright © 2014 by Boyd Varty. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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