Safari: The Emotional Side

One Eyed Leopard

Let’s face it, when the time comes to set out for a safari, most of us have a pretty simple checklist.  We want to see amazing animals in wonderful natural settings.  Among the most desired animals are predators – big cats, crocodiles, hyena, eagles and whatever other top animals are around.  But, we don’t just want to see these animals lounging around napping lazily under a tree.  No, we want to see them active, animated, and hunting.  The capstone moment of most safaris, the holy grail if you will, is the kill.  That moment when a leopard bursts from inaction or casual stalking into the embodiment of  natural selection – a sleek, powerful, awe-inspiring killing machine.

Wild Lionesses - South Luangwa, Zambia

As it happens, you find yourself breathless with excitement. Sliding to the edge of your seat, looking on, body locked into place. It is the type of heightened attention and expectation every movie director dreams of.  It is addictive – long in the making and ever so brief in the realization.  Then, usually in near silence it ends.  The predator catches its prey, locks its jaws onto it, and begins to bleed away its life force.

Wild Leopard at Night - South Luangwa, Zambia

It’s at that point that reality hits you. The realization that you’ve just participated in an ancient tradition: the theater of death.  The Romans had their colosseums, the Mayans human sacrifice  and we…well…we have war footage and reporting, with the occasional hanging or lethal injection thrown into the mix. For me it brings to mind the mental image of a crowd assembled, gathered in front of a raised platform crowned by a red-stained wooden block.  The gathered throng of humanity chanting in glee, excitement building, riding that balance between disruption and expression.  Then, the fall of the axe, the end of a life, and the euphoric sense of life retained that washes through the crowd followed by awkward silence.

Leopard Kill in Tree - South Luangwa, Zambia

As a species we are fascinated by our own mortality and all of the ways it can be explored.  As we advance, the majority of us become further and further removed from death.  We live longer and lose our friends and family far less often. Our food comes to us carefully cut, prepared, and pre-packaged.  We are the world’s most successful predators and death dealers but, we are also simultaneously often the most removed from death and the act of life-taking.   These traits combine with our somewhat unique ability to feel empathy for all living creatures into a strange cocktail of life and death.

Lioness Feeding on Hippo

It’s one thing to watch a clean kill, the type of kill when a predator goes head to head with a healthy adult and wins.  Either because of superior strategy or  surprise and power.  But, when that kill ends up being a newborn, it is far more difficult to watch.  The indiscriminate brutality of nature violates the way we emotionally connect with other species – from the  polar bear or lion that kills and eats their cub to the crocodile that feasts on a baby water buffalo while its mother watches helplessly from nearby.  These are the moments that often reduce safari-goers to tears. A mixture of the cold, harsh nature of natural selection combined with the beautiful reality of the way the world works.

Hyenas Feeding - South Luangwa - Zambia

But even more difficult are the complicated kills.  The kills which include a mother baboon and her still dependent baby or slow kills made possible through disease or injury. It is in these moments that you find yourself most torn.  The moments where every fiber of your body demands you act and involve yourself but, intellectually you know you are supposed to remain the neutral observer.  I recall watching footage of a baboon kill made by a leopard.  As they’re prone to do, the leopard dragged the corpse up into a tree but was then surprised to discover a baby baboon still clinging to its mother’s corpse. The baby was just weeks old, still un-weaned. The footage continued with the leopard trying to adopt the baby baboon. Cleaning it, keeping it close, and gently caring for it. What happened a few hours later I cannot say.  But it was brutally hard to watch.  I can only imagine the heartache it must have caused for the people on site watching it unwind in real time.

Hyena Feeding - South Luangwa

My baby baboon moment came in South Luangwa when we came upon an injured hippo. Large and powerful, it’s back bore the scars of countless fights. When healthy, I doubt there was another creature besides other hippos and the rare elephant within 100 miles that could have challenged or threatened it.  Yet it had broken its hind legs somehow.  Stranded and able to stand on its front legs in a sitting position, but unable to do more, it was just a matter of time before nature ran its course and the predators felt safe enough to approach. It faced an ugly death – the piercing bite of a predator or the slow pains of starvation, sun stroke and dehydration.

Hyena Feeding - South Luangwa - Zambia

By that evening, the first predator had found his courage.  It was a leopard who carefully stalked and explored the hippo’s range of motion and ability to defend itself before eventually starting to feed at one of the two soft points on a hippo.  Given the hippo’s thick hide the only place most predators can get through the tough skin is right underneath the hippo’s neck, and/or beneath the hippo’s tail. Our leopard had begun to tear into the soft flesh beneath the hippo’s tail.  Satiated, he strolled a few feet away and settled down to clean himself just as we arrived. He watched as two hyena approached the scene. The hyena picked up where the leopard had left off digging deeper and deeper into the hippo as blood covered their faces and pulsed onto the ground.  Through it all the hippo could only lay there, periodically pulling itself up on its front legs, a silent witness to its imminent death.  Video chronicling the entire process from start to finish is available here.

Hyena Feeding - South Luangwa

We couldn’t interfere. Oh how we wanted to!  Our guide had a gun, the hippo was obviously not going to survive.  Even had it regained the ability to move its legs, the gaping hole where its anus had once been left no doubt that death was quickly approaching.  Would it really make a difference to shoot it and to end its suffering?  The reality is that it would.  Our role was to remain neutral observers and not to interfere in the natural cycle;  to look on and experience nature’s will.   We did – fighting the inner battle to look away but drawn to the wildness of the spectacle unfolding before us. When we couldn’t take it anymore we headed back to the comfort of our camp; to the casual half-truth of hippos sleeping happily on river banks and lazy leopards napping in grass fields.   To see the darker side of nature was hard but after all, this was part of the reason we had come –  to see nature, all of nature, at work.  To follow the process, the circle of life, and to face the harsh realities of the African bush.

Hyenas Feeding - South Luangwa - Zambia

There was a certain beauty to it all.  Not in the hippo’s suffering which lasted for hours as more and more hyena showed up and continued their feast.  But, rather in the sum of the experience.  What had started with an afternoon spotting of an injured hippo, turned into a two and a half day process as we watched the hippo’s corpse feed hundreds of animals.  What had started with the leopard and hyena, quickly was followed up by a small army of hyena, small scavengers, and then at least a hundred vultures. Where I expected rot and waste, we watched as the corpse was picked clean in just over a day until all that was left was the white skull and massive spinal column that had once given the hippo life.  There was beauty to the full cycle, to the interaction between creatures, to the efficiency of the natural food chain.

Hyenas Feeding - South Luangwa - Zambia

While I still feel shreds of guilt over not being able to do anything to end the hippo’s suffering, understanding the role it played in the greater circle of life makes a huge difference.

Embracing death is part of the safari experience.   It can be shocking and deeply unsettling. It provides an insight into nature and into our own hearts and minds. It explores who we are, where we come from, and is a cold reminder that life is built upon other life.

A special thank you to our guides at Shenton Safaris who kept us safe and walked us through the process.  

Iguazu Falls, the Devils Throat and Wild Beasts: Adventure in Northern Argentina

The Falls - Iguazu Falls, Argentina

View part one of this post: A Traveler’s Dream and Natural Wonder of the World – Iguazu Falls in Northern Argentina.

My legs pumped furiously.  The burn forced a slight grimace. Mossy step after mossy step I launched my 6’4″ 200 pound frame up the narrow staircase. Still damp from my swim in the falls and in a subtle supplication to the region’s tropic environment, I’d long since sacrificed my t-shirt. My jeans were darker around my waist, revealing where I’d lazily pulled them on over my still-wet boxer briefs. Pausing briefly to look up and take stock of my location, I quickly realized I was nearing the top of the island – the Isla de San Martin. A gorgeous spire of land that stands resolute against the falls. Located smack dab in the center of the river, the one-time peninsula has gradually been overwhelmed leaving a small island with steep cliff faces, a wealth of local wildlife, and incredible views of the falls.

Giant Lizard - Iguazu Falls, Argentina

As I reached the top and the narrow stairs gave way to a wider path, I found my attention swinging sharply to my right as a rustle in the underbrush startled me to alertness. As I hopped back slightly a large lizard about the same size as a fully grown iguana slowly stalked its way out of the underbrush. Harmless (to the best of my knowledge) I still kept my distance, quickly reaching for my camera and video equipment. All the while eyes locked with the creatures armored scaly flesh and piercing dark eyes. Tongue periodically flicking out, it carefully stalked across the path before being startled in turn by a passing tourist, at which point it launched itself forward and into the brush.

The Falls - Iguazu Falls, Argentina

What had started as a perfectly cloudless day had now evolved into something far more picturesque. Still sweltering hot with leave-you-drenched humidity, puffy made-for-Hollywood clouds had formed up and drifted in. I found myself facing a fork in the road. Two paths, each to different sides of the island and different views of the falls.

The Falls - Iguazu Falls, Argentina

With a chuckle at the decision facing me I quickly started to meander happily along the path to the right with a gentle hum on my lips and a skip to my step. My initial fears had been proven completely unfounded. This truly was a natural wonder of the world and a destination that I’d already realized would go down as one of my favorite experiences to date.

The Falls - Iguazu Falls, Argentina

As the jungle gave way to bushes, small pools, and grassy areas it was obvious I had entered the more recently cut/oft flooded area of the island. I could hear – almost feel – the roar of the falls and found my glasses constantly misted by the water in the air.

The Falls - Iguazu Falls, Argentina

Iguazu’s charm isn’t just that it’s one of the largest waterfalls in the world. It’s the contrast of  stunning rich green moss and vegetation cut by vibrant white falls all set against incredibly blue skies. In some areas large clumps of moss and flower-covered stone appear to hover in space, suspended by white pillars of water.

The Falls - Iguazu Falls, Argentina

The view from the lookout was incredible. Located immediately next to and over parts of one of the major falls the sound was thunderous, the spray from the falls invigorating, and the plant life in bloom. All the while, inexplicably, a small army of gorgeously colored butterflies survived the humid river air and waterfall spray, to flutter in and around my head.

Strange Bird with Intense Eyes - Iguazu Falls, Argentina

After a few minutes spent in consideration and perhaps relaxed meditation I struck back to the center of the island where I came across the most peculiar of wild birds. Mostly black, the little creature had two vibrantly colored blue eyebrows which left it looking more like a comedian than avian predator. I slowly stalked the strange creature pausing to take several photos and enjoy its odd coloring before striking down the island’s second path.

The Falls With a Vulture - Iguazu Falls, Argentina

The route wound me along the opposite side of the island and gave me a view of the Brazilian side of the falls, as well as my first taste of what I’d later come to learn was fondly called the Devil’s Throat. As I walked I paused, once again, to capture an incredible combination of sights. A large vulture was resting in one of the branches which left a view of the falls perfectly framed. All the while one of the local tour boats – boats like the Maid of the Mist at Niagara Falls – rushed at, and into one of the smaller falls before being driven back by the force of the water. Though obviously modern, I couldn’t help but feel as though I’d been transported back through time to a distant, wild, and undiscovered jungle. Places such as this must have served as ample inspiration for authors writing great romanticized texts like the Lost World.

The Falls - Iguazu Falls, Argentina

As I wound back down, caught the small ferry back to the mainland and began my trek back up towards the top of the main falls I found the path full of wonderful delights. Small places that demand a brief pause, some to enjoy the brightly colored flowers, lazy fluttering of butterflies, and others a beautifully framed view of the falls.

The Falls - Iguazu Falls, Argentina

The path back towards the top of the falls offered fantastic close-up views of the falls. The amount of water, and the sheer power of the falls themselves is staggering. It left me feeling small, insignificant, and fragile.

The Falls - Iguazu Falls, Argentina

One of the things that makes the falls so gorgeous is the different types of falls present. Some are mighty chutes, others are long thin curtains, yet others are tiny streamers spitting out tiny trails of water.

Strange Grasshopper - Iguazu Falls, Argentina

Growing a bit tired from my hike and having already burned through my entire bottle of water I was thrilled to stumble across a small store and food stand sandwiched back and away from the falls. For a relatively reasonable price I was able to buy a mediocre sandwich, new bottle of water, and small soda. As I ravenously set upon my sandwich I quickly discovered a new friend – an odd grasshopper/cricket with incredibly long legs and antenna. As we enjoyed brunch together another of the area’s local creatures, a Coati, emerged from the underbrush and began to make his rounds. The raccoon-like creatures are the size of a mid-sized dog or large cat, have long noses, large tails and tend to be particularly friendly, though I avoided trying to give him a scratch on the head.

The Falls - Iguazu Falls, Argentina

Re-fueled and ready to renew my adventure I struck out along the path that offered an incredible look out over/along the leading face of the falls. Viewed from the top, rather than the middle or bottom, it really dawned on me just how expansive the falls were and how much water was passing over them.

Butterfly at Iguazu Falls - Iguazu, Argentina

My next destination was the fall’s main cutting edge – the Devil’s Throat. The path to it was a small adventure in and of itself. A raised metal walkway which cut out and across the massive shallow-water river. The walk spanned a number of small islands, was mostly raised over the water, and lasted some 5-10 minutes. The small islands along the route (most the size of a small house) were full of gorgeous butterflies, and the water offered the periodic sight of a large catfish or turtle lazily relaxing in the gentle current.

Devil's Throat - Iguazu Falls, Argentina

As I approached the throat I could hear it roar, and see a small plume of mist. Obscured by the smooth curvature of the water’s forward face as it gently bent before breaking completely into a churning cauldron the true size of the Devil’s Throat was invisible until I got closer.

Devil's Throat - Iguazu Falls, Argentina

A giant V, there is a semi-dry island which serves as the secure base for the raised platform which stretches along one side of Devil’s Throat offering otherwise incredible views of the falls.

Devil's Throat - Iguazu Falls, Argentina

The thunder of the falls made conversation difficult as I paused to talk to several other travelers. The view out over the falls was spectacular. With thick mist obscuring everything down river, the whole area was turned into a magical wonderland. Decorated by rainbows, birds were diving in and out of the mists. It left me feeling as though I was floating in a magical city.

Devil's Throat - Iguazu Falls, Argentina

As spectacular as the rest of the falls were, I think the most magical part of Iguazu was the view out over Devil’s Throat. The way the water was ejected out off of moss and grass covered cliffs into the mists, with bottom in sight left me feeling as though I was on one of the floating islands from the recent blockbuster Avatar, or the magical Cloud City in Star Wars. I’ve never seen anything like it. It was….dare I say it? Mist-ical.

Devil's Throat - Iguazu Falls, Argentina

My state of awe seemed to slow time and left me enjoying the sheer wonder of the falls for what may have been a few minutes, but was more than likely closer to half an hour. Even now, several months later, as I think back to that moment I can close my eyes and feel a sense of awe wash over me. Aware that I was burning, hungry, and exhausted I eventually tore myself away from the falls, made the walk back to the small in-park shuttle train, and then found the bus back to Puerto Iguazu.

The falls at Iguazu are one of those places that I hope everyone will visit in their lifetime. The weather can be problematic, the route to get there expensive and time consuming, but I can say with complete confidence that it’s all worth it. Travel always touches us and leaves us changed. There are some places, however, that go beyond that and captivate our hearts. For me, Iguazu Falls was one such place.

View part one of this post: A Traveler’s Dream and Natural Wonder of the World – Iguazu Falls in Northern Argentina.

Questions? Have your own experiences at the falls? Please share them in a comment or as a tweet and remember, you can subscribe to this blog by RSS OR get my updates delivered directly to your e-mail. Thanks for reading!

Like the photos in this post? They were shot on a Canon G11, check out the latest version the Canon G12 on Amazon.