Virtual + reality: One afternoon in the African bush

In the far north of KwaZulu-Natal, where South Africa borders with Mozambique, there is a game reserve called Tembe Elephant Park. It’s home to thousands of animals, including more than 200 elephants, 50-odd lions and more nyala than you could count in one visit (and yet, Tembe’s lions kill 2,000 of them every year). Last week, Narina visited the park and spent an afternoon at Mahlasela hide, watching for animals at the waterhole; at exactly the same time and on that same afternoon, Mark tuned in to the hide’s webcam from his home in Pamplona. Half the world and two seasons apart, the two writers observed and recorded the same moments at the same waterhole. Here, as part of their Parallel Worlds cross-continent writing project, are their stories:

Pamplona, Spain (42° 49’ 12” N; 1° 39’ 00” W)

[words and photograph © Mark Eveleigh]

My seven-year-old daughter Lucia is propped forward on the edge of her little camp chair, watching intently for signs of movement around Tembe’s shrinking waterhole.

The air is filled with the buzzing of insects and the distant acacias are shrouded with the hot dust of Africa. Somewhere far off a siren wails and a car horn honks like a hippo. I wonder if she can even hear it; how completely can her imagination make the journey thousands of miles south to bushveld country she has never really seen?

Through the window to my left I can see that the unseasonal Spanish drizzle is continuing unabated. But for the next couple of hours we plan to escape into Africa.

I’ve been spending so much time on assignment lately in Asia and Latin America that I am now literally dreaming of Africa. Lucia is more excited about the idea of our “virtual safari” because it represents a sort of mini fancy-dress party and a picnic rolled into one. I’m wearing camo bush-shorts, my fotog’s vest and my battered old hat; Lucia has a beige skirt, the fur-trimmed waistcoat I bought her in Mongolia and one of my safari baseball caps. Her fluffy toy dog Paw-Paw lies on her lap. The flavours of Africa are represented by passion-fruit juice and fried plantains. I’m sipping San Miguel as a substitute for Castle or Tusker beer. We have Spanish serrano ham in place of biltong and I know that Lucia will be deliciously disgusted if we pretend that our slithers of fried peppers are mopane worms.

I have two laptops tuned to the webcam at Mahlasela waterhole. They’re set apart in an effort not only to simulate surround-sound but also “surround vision”. It’s a lame attempt to reflect the vast panoramas of Africa into our home. In effect, this little detail works well because, for some reason, there’s a delay of almost a minute between the images on the monitors so if something dramatic happens we’ll have an instant real-time replay.

Before 10 minutes are up, “safari syndrome” has struck. All bush guides know that when you stare too hard into the bush you start to see lions where there are only tree-stumps: Lucia starts to point out shapes in the trees that look like a reindeer, an orangutan and a clown.

“You have to have imagination to see them though,” she explains.

Lucia has never yet been to Africa but finds it intriguing that when I was her age I was living in Nigeria. I’ve never been to Tembe myself, but I’ve spent more hours than I can count waiting around waterholes and mineral licks in more than a dozen African countries. Unfortunately though there’s little happening on the screens. There seem to be three different cameras but the whole area is filled with a large herd of peacefully grazing impala. I try to share with Lucia the anticipation that comes with the knowledge that, somewhere out in the bush, the lions will be feeling the first pangs of hunger that will push them into the hunt. I describe how they’ll be stretching and yawning until finally one – probably an older female – will get up and saunter away in the direction of the grazing lands. I explain that we should watch the impala for signs of nervousness. Those twitching ears, alert stares and, most telling of all, the snorting alarm call will often be the only signs you will ever have that a predator is nearby.

I’m old enough still to be awestruck by the fact that I can sit here and watch life developing in real time around a remote waterhole in Africa. I try to inspire Lucia with the amazing “parallel world” concept that my blogging partner, Narina, is sitting at this exact same moment in the hide beside the waterhole. Naturally enough, for Lucia this miracle of modern technology is no more a miracle than watching water pour from a twisted tap. For as long as she can remember we’ve been able to communicate via computer monitors even when I’m on the other side of the world. She’s wary that we talk quietly too, so that the sound of our voices doesn’t scare the animals.

Distance is hard to explain to a kid, and the immense distance between our Pamplona home and Tembe is a strain to visualize for anyone. When you are only seven-and-three-quarters you have only a vague understanding of time too. I’m careful not to push this first little experiment in “remote safari” for too long. After all, I want to take her to Africa for real within the next couple of years.

Between chatting to her in hushed safari whispers I’m carefully making notes and recording times. We have been sitting here for exactly 53 minutes when she sits back in her chair, stretches and says: “How many hours have we been doing this now?”

For Lucia it’s time to disconnect from a glowing, golden African afternoon and zip ourselves back through the miracle of cyberspace to the Spanish drizzle.

I’ll leave a monitor tuned to Tembe through the evening, since the cameras are fitted not only with microphones but also night vision. Before Lucia’s bedtime we’ll have seen several nyala antelope and a herd of more than 20 elephants with babies.

The experience is weirdly hypnotic and I go to sleep listening to the shriek of monkeys and the whoop of a hyena. A car splashes along the road outside my window, but somewhere beyond the nearby acacias the hunt is underway.


Tembe Elephant Park, South Africa (27° 2’ 5” S; 32° 26’ 48” E)

[words and photograph © Narina Exelby]

If you look carefully and with patience, you will find – almost every time – something within nothing. It’s a lesson I’ve learnt from my dad, a free spirit who understands the way of the earth, is more at home in the bush than anyone I’ve ever met, and who has yet to run out of interesting stories. This afternoon is a perfect example of “nothing”: the Mahlasela waterhole is empty of animals, and the hide almost full of humans. You might be tempted to leave. But please, stay a while. I’m here with my dad, and I’m convinced we’ll have something to show you.

You probably thought, when you walked into this hide, that it was quiet. But it takes only a few moments for your ears to tune in to the wild. Listen to the air as it pushes through a million leaves – the long, skinny greens of the acacias, and the broad, oblong leaves of the wild fig. From up here, you can watch the movement of air over trees before you feel and even hear it; a rich current of green that rolls from light into dark into light again. A gentle soothing movement that, when it reaches you a few seconds later, is literally a breath of fresh air that carries with it a constant tune of beetles and bird calls – cuckoo shrike; golden-breasted bunting; green-spotted dove.

It’s just past 3pm and usually, by this time, elephants have gathered to drink up and cool off. Even though it’s autumn, the temperature today has been over 30 degrees and the humidity only just bearable. The elephants come to the waterhole herd by herd; they seem to know when the group before them has left, and when it’s their turn to wander into the area to drink. There is a common understanding out here in the bush and even the most territorial males – wildebeest, impala, nyala – will tolerate “foreigners” of their species and allow them to pass through their territories to get to water.

My pencil scratches self-consciously into the quiet of this cool wooden cocoon, recording the lone male wildebeest who’s lying in the shade of a mahogany tree, and noting the couple who’ve been at this hide, they say, since 8am. Between their cameras, whose long lenses rest on a copy of Robert’s Birds of Southern Africa and a bean bag, is a board game called “Othello”. Every now and then, they clack-clack-clack plastic discs around the hard board.

Not all species need to drink, Dad whispers as he sits on the bench next to me and offers a slice of biltong. We both peer from the gap between the thatch roof and creosoted wood wall that creates our window; a tiny yellow butterfly flitters past, but still no animals. The little red duiker get all the moisture they need from leaves, Dad continues, you’ll never see them here; impala will drink if there’s water available. Bigger animals need water to survive but many of them, like giraffe, don’t need to drink all that often. Elephants can go without water for quite some time but for them, the waterhole is a recreation spot – a place for them to gather, to fling mud onto themselves to get rid of ticks and parasites, and to cool off. When he was here two weeks ago, Dad says, he saw Isilo, the park’s largest pachyderm, whose impressive tusks only just miss the ground (according to park literature, Isilo’s right tusk weights 65kg, and the left 62). He usually has two askaris close by: young but mature males who roam with him as bodyguards.

Look! Dad’s finger quickly traces a path to the left of the waterhole. A vervet monkey scampers across the grass and over the bare earth. See how alert he is, says Dad, and how quickly he moves; an eagle could easily take him out there. The monkey rests when he gets to the shade of the elephants’ scratching-post tree (you can tell from its smooth, shiny trunk, and the dung scattered in an elephant-length circumference around its base). He looks around cautiously, moves down to the water for a quick drink, and scampers off again to the safety of the trees.

Have you noticed you can watch time from up here? See the sand down there? Watch how its colour gets richer as the sun lowers into late afternoon; how the imprints from the feet of nyala, wildebeest, warthog and giraffe form shadows that reach further and further into early evening.

While the animals will be on high alert this time of day, the earth seems to relax as the sun sinks. Colours deepen; lines soften; the earth breathes out, and the smell of grasses, wood and raw earth expand to fill space. On the far fringe of trees, a few female impalas morph from the bush with their young. They hang around for a while, their deep ochre hides reflecting the softening light, but they don’t move towards the water. When you look for them again, they’ve disappeared.

The thunderstorm last night means that the bush will have been drizzled with puddles today, says Dad. It will probably continue to be very quiet here into evening. It doesn’t matter though. In this landscape – where your senses have tuned into the slightest movement, the most delicate smell, the purest noise – you could meditate on only the breeze for hours.


  • barry zettergreen says:

    thank you for your wonderful story -i felt like i was sitting right next to you
    as i read every word- even though i was 10,000 miles away

  • ruthpinto says:

    Beautifully told, it kept me hooked. Seeing Tembe from the perspective of all four of you has drawn me closer to Africa. Thank you.

  • Thanks for your comments Barry and Ruth. Glad to have you with us. Really enjoying working on these parallel world projects because they have a way of making you look at the world from different angles. Hope you manage to get back to check in from time to time. Cheers ME

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