In the Wild With Simba

“Look, another DLT,” our traveling companion said, already sounding jaded.

DLT is a “deer-like-thing” and was probably yet another impala on this African photo safari. The first impala resulted in a mad scramble that almost overbalanced the rugged little minivan carrying a group of Americans. Cameras whirred and clicked as the herd regarded us for a moment, then bounded off into the distance.

The impalas would be an opening act to the main attraction – the big guys. Elephants, rhinos, giraffes, lions.

We did see elephants, zebras, giraffes, and even, as the guides communicated on the radio with urgency, “Simba! Simba! Simba!” that led us to sleepy and, to be honest, somewhat mangy-looking lions.

My husband and I were with a small group of Americans determined to see animals that we were worried would disappear because of environmental devastation. In our orientation, we had been told repeatedly about having a small footprint on the land; no littering, no reaching out to snag a bloom. We were here simply as observers of animals that were precious to the earth.

You would think that the possible impending extinction of animals would fill us with wonder at every furry encounter, but the truth was, the DLTs were an awful lot like the deer back home that you could see anywhere. Their very ubiquity made them boring.

The second, third, and so forth herds of impala yielded fewer and fewer photographs until not even a few half-hearted snapshots were taken.

After almost a week, even the big animals were met with fewer frantic photographs.

I had expected to feel connected to these majestic beasts, to be filled with wonder at every turn, but the majestic beasts were on the other side of a window and I was inside a van. The van was hot, the roads so rough that I felt jostled and bruised even wearing a sports bra, and all that jostling meant an almost constant urge to pee.

As the day ended and the sun set, the guides turned toward the luxury hotels where Americans stayed.

And that’s when it happened.

Our van stalled. The air conditioning still worked – thank god – but our van wasn’t going anywhere. The other van in the party drove ahead to let off its fortunate riders and to come back, presumably with a mechanic.

Our driver kept the headlights on, cones of light cutting through a vast, impenetrable darkness.

We sat. One of our fellow passengers, the one nobody liked, had for some reason hoarded cheese from lunch. He broke it out, but he did not offer to share.

For me, need overcame modesty.

“I have to pee,” I told the driver. “Can I just quickly go right over there and come right back? It won’t take long, believe me.”

He shook his head, looking regretful.

“I can not allow that.”

I knew I was supposed to be ecologically responsible and not leave anything behind, certainly nothing as toxic as urine. But still, I was at the squirming stage.

“Come on, can’t you make an exception?”

“No, ma’am. I am responsible for all of you and if you go out there…Simba might think you are dinner.”

Oh.

We were more connected to the African wilds than I thought. In fact, we were an intricate link.

It just wasn’t at the top of the food chain.

I sat back in my seat and peered out the window at the darkness, listening to night sounds that could be very large beasts. Now I felt the wonder that had eluded me earlier.

Helen Mitternight
Helen Mitternight is a former AP reporter and current freelancer living in downtown Charleston. She headed up public relations for the Humane Society of the...

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