Safari A-Z: N is for Night Game Drive

29 09 2008

Things that go bump in the night.                        (Etosha, Namibia)

There is a quiet and intermittent ticking coming from the cooling engine. Everyone sits silently in the open-backed vehicle, mouths open, listening intently for any noise from the surrounding bush. Hands swat at mosquitoes while eyes strain for the slightest movement as they slowly grow accustomed to the engulfing darkness. From the right, there is a low rolling rumble, a deep breath and a heavy rustle. The guide gestures with his hand.  We can see nothing. He turns on a hand-held spotlight, and there, no more than 30 metres away, a herd of elephant drifts almost silently past us.

 

It’s not possible to do night game drives everywhere in Africa. Many parks restrict movement after dark in an attempt to curtail the activities of poachers. But where they are available, they are amongst the greatest and most unique wildlife experiences.

 

During early morning or late afternoon, it is rare to have a disappointing game drive in any park in east or southern Africa. Even the drive from a park gate to a lodge or campsite usually rewards with giraffe, antelope, zebra or elephant. Night game drives are different, however, and it is not unusual to return from several hours of searching having seen almost nothing. While it is much more difficult to find the Big Five than during the day, there’s a much greater likelihood of finding some of the lesser-known nocturnal species that the vast majority of visitors will never see. Things like honey badgers, anteaters, porcupine or certain wildcats. But any encounter at all at night takes on a magical quality that makes it truly unforgettable.

 

Close to the equator, darkness comes in the early evening and the intense heat of the day quickly evaporates leaving a biting chill. The best night game drives take place in open-backed or open-sided vehicles with nothing providing separation or protection from the mysteries of the night. The driver and guide scan the bush with a powerful hand-held spotlight, hoping to catch a hint of movement or the reflection of a pair of eyes. Sometimes, the vehicle is just stopped, the engine turned off, and you just sit in the bush and take in all the sounds.

 

Sitting amid a pride of lions and listening to them grinding into the bones of a kill is a daunting experience that sends rippling chills down one’s spine even in broad daylight. But at night, when you can only see the lions that are in the spotlight yet can hear them all around you and know there is nothing to stop them from leaping into the open vehicle except habit, that terror is taken to primeval levels.

 

But not all is dark at night. African hares bound through the long grass ahead of the headlights, their comically-long ears and enormous feet evoking smiles. Heads dart towards movement in hopes of a leopard, only to find a small nightjar flitting through the bushes, while the notoriously-shy shaggy brown hyena watches warily before loping off into the darkness like Bigfoot on all-fours.

 

Taking photographs on night game drives is very difficult, but then that is what daylight is for! Night game drives provide you with a unique opportunity to not so much see the wildlife you’ve travelled so far for, but to sense them, feel them and hear them.

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

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One response

2 10 2008
Ross

I think I might give such a phtot shoot trip a miss. I am delighted that you found the experience so exciting. However I dont think I would enjoy the sound of lions chomping on the local wildebeestes, whatever. In Aussie land we have our crocs in the far north, but nothing like a lion or elephant to chase us around the bush. Thanks for the excellent writeup.

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