Night comes swiftly in the African bush but never quietly. As the sun drops behind the Chyulu Hills, so the pipe and whirr of frog and bug ratchet up a few decibels. It is like a million high tension wires being pinged and twanged. If you listen with both ears it can drive you mad. Likewise, if you allow yourself to succumb to the night’s sticky heat and the hypnotic scents of thorn flowers, then do not be surprised when the sudden scream of a tree hyrax stops your heart.
But we are not going mad. And our hearts are just fine. We think we have cracked this Africa lark. Well sprayed with insect-repellent, all accessible parts covered as can be, anti-malarials ingested, it seems safe to sit out on our veranda at Kilaguni Lodge and do some night-time big game watching.
Below our room is a barren stretch of red volcanic earth, and a water-hole lit up by two search lights. The illuminated circle that the lights create is like a stage set. It seems we are seated in a mysterious wildlife theatre waiting for the cast to appear.
The contrast is disturbing. By day, this self-same set is furnace red, littered with volcanic spoil; it is the haunt of the cadaverous-looking marabou storks and the occasional zebra. By night, all is softer, surreal. You feel you might dissolve through the light into perpetual darkness; for out there the night goes on forever, doesn’t it?
And so we go on gazing at the scene. It takes some time to realize that small groups of impala are emerging from the gloom. Their stillness is mesmerizing. Perhaps they are not there at all.
The impala are wary. You can almost see the charge of anxiety ripple through the herd. We hold our breath and stare into the dark behind the lights.
And then we see them – black hulks gliding through the thorn trees. Elephants. They have come so silently, walking always on tiptoes, their heels cushions of fat to muffle their footfalls. Slowly they move in from the bush. Even in the dimness beyond the pool, their hides glow red, irradiated by the igneous dirt they have blown over themselves.
In the wings the elephants pause. It is hard to say how many are there. After a few moments two peel away and the rest of the group retreats again into darkness. Two large matriarchs now head for the pool. At the water’s edge they part, and in matched strides stake out the water-hole from opposite directions. There’s an angry trumpeting when an impala fails to withdraw fast enough, and only when the entire bank is clear do the elephants go down and drink. But they have hardly taken a couple of gulps when they move back and take up guard duty, one at each end of the mud bank.
We are transfixed. We cannot fathom the plot, but note that, despite the elephants’ aggressive stance, there has been a concerted gracefulness to their routine. It crosses my mind that the great choreographer, Balanchine, once made a ballet for elephants. Now we see they have dances of their own.
And so we wait.
Slowly the rest of the group reappears, moving as one in the tightest huddle. As they enter the spotlight we understand. Tucked safely between the legs of four large cows are three infants. Like precious celebrities surrounded by an escort of heavies, the youngsters are guided to the water. There, with tiny trunks they cannot quite control, they drink their fill. The whole thing takes only a few minutes. Then, with this life-and-death task accomplished, the sentinels re-join the group, and the small herd leaves as silently as it came, melting into the backdrop.
So: this drama is over; the stage empty. After the thrill there is anti-climax, a strange sense of banishment; depression even. We go to bed, suddenly overcome by the heat and with too many insects on the brain.
Inside, though, the room is hotter still; windows shut fast against malarial mosquitoes. Even so, and despite the rock-like pillows, we sleep for a time. At midnight it is the menacing whine of a mosquito that rouses us to a bleary-eyed seek and destroy mission. At 2 a.m. we are awake again as two waterbuck lock in high-snorting combat below our veranda.
G. huddles back in bed. I press my nose to the window. It’s at times like this that Africa looms largest, that you know you are out of your element. Night stretches ahead like a herculean trial. I stare once more at pale stage in the bush. The impala have drifted back to the pool again, but they barely move. It is like watching a Samuel Becket play where nothing much happens.
Suddenly the antelope are on full alert – rigid stance, ears pricked, noses twitching. I stare and stare. At last I spot movement, a sinuous shape pressing through the low scrub. The impala rise on hoof-tips, torn between staying and fleeing, and then the lioness steps out from the grass and pads down to the water.
The impala draw back, still unsure of the big cat’s agenda. The lioness parades around the waterhole, but does not drink. Instead she finds a clump of grass and lies down, head up, still as stone, commanding the pool – a heraldic lion couchant. Now it is clear. None of the animals can drink. The tension is visible. This is a new kind of drama: feline power play.
But I cannot wait for the denouement. Worn out, I return to my hard pillow and tangled sheet.
The next time I wake it is light enough to know that I can abandon all efforts to sleep. It’s a huge relief. While G. slumbers on, I step out into cool of the veranda. In the dawn light I see that last night’s set has mystically expanded into a vast new backdrop. Now the Chyulu Hills rise above the dry plains, a vision of impossible greenness that belies the violence of their birth. For these hills are new, erupting around the time Sir Francis Drake was bowling off Plymouth Hoe and ignoring news of the advancing Armada. It’s hard to believe.
But this is not all. To the west, the snow-capped crown of Kilimanjaro breaks free of the earth and floats high on a wreath of pink clouds. It makes me want to hoot with laughter. Who does this Africa think she is? Does she really expect me to be taken in by all her absurd illusions? Poof! The mountain snuffs out and leaves only sky. (Is this possible?) And I, like the victim of some worming parasite, know I am becoming infected. All our defences are useless. This land is creeping under my skin and invading all my senses. More likely than not I will never be the same again.
© 2014 Tish Farrell
Chyulu Hills. Photo: Abercrombie & Kent