Confessions of a safari addict, by Mike Unwin
here it is! Just look at its little ears,” said the elderly English woman, sitting on the back seat of our safari vehicle. “Yes, yes!” exclaimed her friend. “Isn’t it beautiful! Oh, bless!”
Joy unconfined. The two travelling companions had at last laid eyes on an African scops owl. Finally, after a protracted struggle with binoculars to locate the tell-tale shape in our guide’s spotlight, they had it in their sights. Now, there it was in all its glory. You could see its bark-like camouflage streaks; the two ear tufts beautifully mimicking a frayed stump. Eureka!
Unfortunately, all was not quite as it appeared.
Let me set the scene. This was South Africa’s Kruger Park, late 1998. I had joined the two women, and a dozen or so other passengers, on a night drive from Berg-en-Dal camp in the southwest. Night drives can be hit-or-miss affairs, and so far this one had definitely been miss. We’d had no peek of lion, leopard or any other A-listers, and, except for two scrub hares, none of the usual nocturnal cast had made an appearance.
As the drive had continued – the spotlight dancing around with what felt like ever-increasing futility – a cloud of despondency had enveloped our vehicle. Clearly, tonight wasn’t to be our night. The two young children in the front row, who’d been bouncing with anticipation earlier, were now grumbling tearfully to their parents. Others were checking their watches or scrolling through images from earlier.
The two women at the back, however, were not giving up so easily. They continued to respond with delight to any sighting, however meagre. “Where? Let me see!” said one, as our guide pointed out yet more impala eyes. “How lovely!” sighed her companion, as he revealed roosting bulbuls.
This back-seat enthusiasm was all the more admirable given that both women seldom actually laid eyes on anything. New to night drives, they were invariably looking the other way or struggling to focus their binoculars when the beam found the target. Both scrub hares had eluded them. But no matter, they were loving it.
I was impressed by this cheerful persistence, and determined that it should receive its reward. Thus, when I spied the owl, I made it my mission to get the two companions a decent sighting. After all, they could hardly miss this one: there it was, perched on a dead branch, right beside the road. Textbook African scops owl.
“Follow the beam,” I said, gently redirecting their gaze. “See that dead branch? No, not that one: the vertical one on the left – yes, that one. Follow it to the very top. There it is. Got it?”
Our guide, equally determined to do something for the pair, began reversing slowly to allow a better view. And it was then – as the angle rotated, and the owl shape became larger, lumpier and progressively less owl-like – that I realised my hideous mistake. This perfectly stump-like owl was not an owl at all. It was, in fact, a stump.
“Sorry,” I called out, sheepishly. “Nothing to see. It’s just a stump.” Our guide shifted into first and began slowly to pull away. I turned to my friends on the back seat to apologise – but before I could open my mouth, I was interrupted by a cry of triumph. It seemed that the duo, so intent on finding the bird, hadn’t heard my confession. Worse still, they had just located the ‘owl’ in their binoculars.
“There it is! Just look at its little ears!”
The clarion call rang out in the darkness, transfixing me with guilt. What to do? Everybody deserves the truth, I suppose, yet it seemed cruel to snatch away their joy. The driver cast me a glance. Lips sealed, we continued onward into the night.