My sleep is fevered, a malarial dream-sleep under the mosquito netting in our tent, dreams in which a mosquito kept biting me on the hand and I would paw at it with my other hand trying to remove my bitten hand like a glove. Sweating and rolling over in bed until my sheets were soaked, unsure if the buzzing I heard was inside or outside the barrier. When the alarm rings at 6:00 a.m. I am already awake, splayed and recovering. Exhausted like I’d been through rounds. I have 30 minutes before meeting Ben for our second trip to the veldt and I plan on spending it drinking tea darkly steeped.
Last night we saw giraffes, elephants, and lions, and today we’re hunting with cameras for a rhino. Truthfully I’m already happy. I don’t need to see a rhino for this safari to be a success. I’d wanted to see a lion, and we saw three last night. But what I also found was an unexpected bliss. Most of our 2.5 hours in the van last night was spent looking for animals, not at them, and I fell into a meditative reverie driving those long tangential dirt roads far west in Kenya where if you kept driving a little further along one of the roads you’d cross into Tanzania. Hands on the van’s frame where the roof detached, gently rocking with the terrain, the evening temperature cooling to something pleasant. The warm blanket of a sun. Air seeming to expand in my lungs after I’d breathed it in. My chest felt like it was bursting and I know at least some of that feeling was happiness.
Straight out of the gates this morning we see three lions padding through the savanna. Ben reaches into his bag and passes back two pairs of binoculars. We watch until they disappear into the bushes, and Daniel is surprised they’re so close to our camp. I hadn’t really thought about it but now that he’s mentioning it, it does seem auspicious. That, or ominous. Ahead the sun is coming up over the hills. A layer of dust covers the seats of our van.
We’re off the main path today and on smaller ones, snaking up the rolling hills and circling water holes. In the early morning we expect to find more activity. I watch Ben peering into the grass, knowing he knows where to find the rhinos, and when I see him looking only to our right I train my eyes that way too, from higher up above the roof. The dry grass whisks both sides of our vehicle and we gun the engine hard through some of the muddier patches, rutted where others have spun after the rains, our 4-wheel drive digging in and catching hold. There’s a singsong chorus of birds. A rare burst of a colourful bloom. The air is clean out here, carrying only the pollen of the red oat grass and motes of dust kicked up from our van.
Then to our left I see a hyena on a dirt knoll. Ben shuts down the engine and Daniel and I hurry to fire off a round of photos before it runs away. But it doesn’t run. Instead it tilts its head and starts walking closer. Ben whispers to us and motions straight ahead to another hyena walking toward us. It’s a bristly young one. And from the bushes emerges a third. The three of them come right up to our van and circle it, so close we can’t really see them, but we can see the antennae moving where one of them is swiping at it. Daniel lifts sharply from his seat and cracks his head on the roof’s support beam. His head starts to bleed, but right now he isn’t really feeling any pain. Just anxiousness. He leans over the top and sees a hyena chewing on our tyre. One of them lifts its head and rises onto its hind legs just as we realize our windows are open. Fuck. We need to shut them. If one of those things gets inside the van... but I don’t want to bring my hand too close to the opening. Ben revs the engine and the hyenas startle and give us a meter of space, but they recover quickly and come right back. I try to slide the window closed but my hand slips on the pane. The glass is too warm, my hand too sweaty. I try again and slip again. The third time I get purchase and the window slides and latches. Ben and Daniel are laughing and I feel a bit chilled.
In the evening we see a black rhino. It’s far across the field, and with my longest lens I can just make out its horn. The better photos right now are the ones of four other safari vans, slammed with tourists all facing in one direction like flowers in the sun. Some of them are trying to capture the rhino on their iphones. It’s laughable, actually. We’re exactly the same, with only the brands of cameras allowing for distinction. I take a couple of pictures, then decide to just be in the moment. To watch the slow movement of the rhino along the crest of the hill until it joins two more rhinos, the three of them then turning and moving into the longer grass until they’re barely visible. Then they disappear. Around us there’s a revving of engines and three of the vans u-turn and spin away, rushing south-west, circling around to where the rhinos were lost from view. Ben sits quietly and leans out his window. Daniel and I are braced against the van’s side panel, standing next to our seats, the warm sun on our faces. The sounds from the other engines die down until there’s just the cicadas and the rustling grass. The three of us breathing deeply. Just breathing. Absorbing everything around us.