Guides say that if you see 1% of what sees you in the African wilderness, you are very, very observant. This is mostly because every living creature makes use of camouflage, whether to hide from predators or sneak up on prey. It is also because guides know that our over-stimulated and under-utilized city senses are pretty much good for nothing in the jungle.
On a recent safari in the Masai Mara, our hyper vigilant guide caught sight of lion tracks – two young males and their female relatives. We drove slowly along, eyes straining and seeing nothing. When our guide stopped the car, we all peered into the bushes and saw, well, more nothing.
Until some ears emerged followed by the slinky line of a big cat’s back and tail. It turned out to be a young male strolling lazily from where his sisters were dozing to where his brother napped, belly up, under a tree.
We never saw his sisters until one lifted her head to see where he was going. She was actually closer to the vehicle than her brother, which was very disconcerting. We literally overlooked her as we admired him.
Watching about 200kg (440lbs) of killing machine stroll into focus from the surrounding savannah made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. If we barely saw him when he didn’t care if we did, we certainly would not have seen him if he made an effort not to be seen. I suddenly felt very sorry for those dainty nervous wrecks also known as impala.
It’s hard to imagine how a predator this size can disappear in knee-high grass and blend into the surrounding environment so perfectly. It was a little like those image-within-an-image graphics that do the rounds on email – when you see the face in the jar, or the figure in the tree, you can’t un-see it, but until you do see it, it’s completely hidden.
When you suddenly see a lion where before there was only innocent golden grass waving at you, it sends a mammalian thrill down your spine. It reminds you that, in this world, you are edible. In this world, your senses are pitifully dull and you would not last a day without your guide. Which makes you tear your eyes away from the young male lion (posing beautifully as he gazes out over the Mara plains) and look very, very carefully at the now sinister grasses right beside your safari vehicle…