Anupam Krishnamurthy

The driver guide's folly

The Land Cruiser moved at a gentle pace through the vast, open grasslands of the Serengeti. The wide open spaces were filled with knee-high grass, for as far as the eye could see. This vast carpet of grass was parted by a straight mud road that stretched ahead as far as the eye could see, until it met with the sky that spilt into the horizon. Towards the left of the Land Cruiser was a herd of about a thousand wildebeest grazing, with four zebras to keep them company. The zebras appeared nonchalant as they munched on the grass, having delegated the constant need to be alert for predators to the massive wildebeest herd. The wildebeest on the periphery of the herd were vigilant, but their only source of bother at this moment were swarms of flies that they tried to discourage by flicking their ears, quivering the skin on their backs and wildly swinginowheir hairy tails. A lone baobab tree stood imposingly in the midst of the expansive grassy plain around it, with a group of vultures seated on its tall, thick branches.

"Can anybody tell me why the Serengeti has so few big trees?" Madoqua's voice rang out to his passengers in the back seat. Today, his customers were a couple from India, and their daughter Monica, who was watching the zebras with her little eyes wide open. Monica, was the type of student who would hazard a guess at every question her teachers threw at her. "Because the soil is not fertile enough?" she enquired. "A good guess, Monica," Madoqua replied with his deep voice filling the vehicle. "But the main reason is because about 6 feet under the soil is a thick layer of rock that does not permit the roots of anything larger than grass to grow."

They drove to the top of a small, grassy mound and got out of the vehicle to take in the scenery. The tall, well-built African guide dwarfed his Indian customers. The grass was surrounded by shrubs tall enough to hide a crouching person. The wind blew across the plain, making elegant patterns as it combed the grass. “The name Serengeti is derived from the Masaai word - Serengit, meaning endless plains,” added Madoqua as the family was transfixed by the scenery. They had been touring the Serengeti for a week now, but the grasslands still sparked the same awe and wonder in their minds. Monica’s father remarked how the nature documentaries they watched each night, spectacular as they were, do no justice to the pure feeling of joy one experienced on the plains of the savanna. Madoqua replied, “After all, we find ourselves in the birthplace of the entire human race. No matter where people live across the world today, coming back to the grasslands of the Serengeti is like returning to our ancestral home. The beauty of the savanna resonates and sends ripples across all of us. The senses and feelings we use to interpret the world today are the ones that were developed and sharpened here.”

They were riding in the vehicle again. It was the hour of dusk and it would not be long before they headed back. Madoqua slowed down the vehicle as they now passed thickets of shrub, where a pair of antelopes that were about a foot-and-a-half tall, surveyed their vehicle with wide-eyed curiosity and alertness. Monica pointed and exclaimed, “Baby deer!” Madoqua smiled and explained to her that these were actually fully grown members of a species of antelope called dik-dik. “Dik-diks live in pairs, and not in herds. They mark their small territories in the shrub with tears. They pair for life,” he added in a respectful tone and emphasized how this differentiated the dik-dik from other antelopes. Madoqua stopped the jeep so that the family could get a good view.

Suddenly, amidst the rippling grass behind them to the left, Madoqua spotted an odd movement that was very subtle. Madoqua’s well trained eye saw something that was invisible to other human beings, and even the dik-dik pair - a predator stalking in the grass. He turned behind to his passengers and placed his finger on his lips, imploring them to maintain absolute silence. They had to now be patient, and lay in wait. It was a tense, silent fifteen minutes. The predator was biding its time, waiting for the little antelopes to move closer. By now, the dik-diks had strayed some distance away from the shrub. All of a sudden, the dik-diks perked up. The movement Madoqua had sensed in the grass was now blatant, as the family could see a streak of spots bolting like a torpedo, clearing the grass as it surged forward. The leopard, realizing that its cover was blown, charged ahead. The dik-diks split up and ran in different directions. The female released shrill “dik” “dik” cries – from where the antelope derived its name. All the herbivores in the scene were now alert, and moved a safe distance away. The dik-diks bolted for the safety of the shrubs.

The leopard singled out the crying female, gaining on the prancing creature with giant strides. The chase happened alongside the track, in the direction of the vehicle, and Madoqua followed the action at a respectful distance. The dik-dik proceeded in a zig-zag pattern, pitting its nimbleness against the weight of the leopard. However, the leopard was so much faster. All of this was unfolding so quickly. Presently, the dik-dik in pursuit was a mere 10 meters ahead of the leopard, and changed direction to streak across the jeep path, to the safety of a large bushy patch to its right. The leopard followed in hot pursuit, using its tail for balance as it turned. Just when it looked like all was lost for the antelope, the dik-dik darted through a shortcut within the bushy patch, cutting through a route that shut out larger animals, and emerged on the far side. The leopard tried to flank the large bush, but the dik-dik had gained too much distance by now, and it gave up its chase.

“Today was not her lucky day,” Madoqua explained. “The change in wind direction had revealed her location a little too early.” As he spoke these words, the leopard crossed the jeep track about 20 meters ahead of them, pausing to look directly at the vehicle, and moving along as if it were of no consequence. Monica’s eyes were wide open and her little heart was beating faster than it ever had. Madoqua relayed the sighting of the leopard on a walkie-talkie attached to other driver-guides in the park. “As often as I see these chases, dik-dik hunts are rare. Dik-diks are elusive and alert creatures,” he added. The family was delighted. The leopard was the only animal that they had not sighted among the ‘big-five’, and thanks to Madoqua’s intricate knowledge of the jungle, they were fortunate to have witnessed it in all its breathtaking glory. The moment the dik-dik escaped into the bushes, Madoqua had heaved a sigh of relief, as he had a special corner in his heart for dik-diks, the reasons for which go back to the days of his childhood.

*****

Madoqua grew up in the little village of Haributi in the northern provinces of Tanzania. Sighting wild animals on the horizon was commonplace in his village, where herds of elephants and gazelles would often pass by. Madoqua was at home in the wilderness. He had played in it as a youngster, and had developed a keen understanding of its ways in a manner akin to that of animal understanding its natural habitat. He now lived in a city, and at times, as he drove past its streets and houses, the experience of living in its crowded streets seemed alien to him - as though he was dreaming.

There was only one school in the village of Haributi and Henry Odumbaya was its principal. The school building had been built with the help of a charitable trust, and was U-shaped, with a courtyard in the middle. Mr. Odumbaya, had come to Haributi as a young, idealistic teacher from the city, and through the course of his career he had had a transformational impact on the school’s education. The children of Haributi were caught in a divide between a remote tribal heritage and a future of modernization. Mr. Odumbaya realized that a good education was the only medium through which this chasm can be successfully negotiated. Madoqua had been taught by Mr. Odumbaya for years, and as a bright pupil, had developed a deep respect for him.

One day, when Madoqua was a nine-year-old, a dik-dik was found in the outskirts of the village, its leg caught in a snare set by a poacher. The hapless antelope, a female specimen, was brought to the village. Mr. Odumbaya, a naturalist by training, took it under his wing. He nursed and bandaged its wound, and the dik-dik lived on the school campus for about two months, as its wounds healed. Madoqua stayed back with Mr. Odumbaya after school hours, helping him gather plants for feeding the dik-dik and changing its dressing. Whilst its wounds were getting dressed, the antelope would get agitated, crying out “dik” “dik” in panic. Madoqua would then stroke its fur lovingly, soothing it, as Mr. Odumbaya changed its bandages. In time, the dik-dik learnt to respond to his gentle caresses by looking him in the eye and trusting him enough to stop trembling during the painful ordeal. It was during these days that he learnt a lot about the dik-dik, and was fascinated. He observed that the dik-dik never drank water, and had learnt that its digestive system was efficient enough to get all the moisture it needed from the food it ate. This fact filled him with wonder. He remembered how soft and pleasant it felt to stroke the dik-dik’s fur. He had observed how the antelope stood on its tiny hooves, with its big eyes and thick eye lashes. From time to time, he would see tears streaming down the eyes of the dik-dik which the little animal tried to smear on walls. He had later learnt from Mr. Odumbaya that these were secretions with which the antelope marked their territory in the wild. After a couple of months, the dik-dik was moved to an animal rehabilitation center, and Madoqua was sad to see it go. In the years to follow, Madoqua and his friends would seek out patches of shrub outside their village that were once inhabited by dik-diks, to play in them. Madoqua would run through intricate paths within the bush, imitating the cries of the antelope that he had grown to love so much.

Through this encounter, Madoqua had deepened his bonds to the African wilderness. His respect for Mr. Odumbaya and his attachment towards the dik-dik would serve as beacons for the life ahead of him. In time, he grew up, graduated from school and trained to become a driver-guide, with a degree in African tourism. Through this degree, he learnt a lot of facts about the grasslands and the wilderness he inhabited. He could now explain that zebras used stripes to repel insects, hippos and crocodiles coexisted peacefully, and hyenas used their longer rear legs to tirelessly pursue their prey, among many other facts. All this knowledge helped him discover his surroundings in a new light. He could now complement his natural affinity for the wilderness with facts and reasoning that that were rooted in science.

Madoqua started his career as a forest guide in a big hotel chain, but for about 5 years now, he was working for a tourist company as a driver-guide. The driver-guide was a profession that was unique to the African jungles. Drivers on safari doubled up as naturalists, enlightening their customers with interesting facts about the African jungles and its natural wealth. He found his second job to be more fulfilling, as he traversed vast stretches of the savanna, sharing its beauty, unveiling its secrets and sparking wonder in their eyes of his guests. Mr. Smith, the owner of the tourist company, was a Scottish expatriate. A stern man with a no-nonsense approach to life, he was an exacting employer who demanded nothing short of the best from his driver-guides. At the same time, he would reward them amply wherever it was due. His driver-guides were evaluated on the basis of feedback provided by his customers, with lavish bonuses for guides whose customers made return trips.

Through the 5 years of working with Mr. Smith, Madoqua had risen quickly through the ranks to become one of the Serengeti’s most trusted driver-guides. He had worked with people from all corners of the world, spanning various cultures and mannerisms. Each trip into the jungles represented to Madoqua, a challenge to delight the group that rode out with him. His continued attempts to excel at his profession kept his job interesting despite repeated trips along the same routes. However, he always felt that his abilities were constrained when he was working for the tourist company. He had to operate within several of its rigid guidelines, which kept him from being the best he could at his profession. When he was with a senior colleague, he had to defer to his wishes – stick to areas of the park which were not particularly bountiful or to keep his trips shorter than he liked. It substantially curtailed his earning potential by letting him keep only a small part of what each customer paid the company - an amount that Madoqua thought was incommensurate to his efforts. Over the years, Madoqua had come to the conclusion that he would be better off as a freelance guide. He now had a sufficiently large network of customers, and had established enough contacts at the jungle lodges, hotels and resorts to obtain discounted rates for his customers. The only thing holding him back was that he did not have a vehicle of his own, and he was determined to realize this at the earliest. This ambition ensured that Madoqua relentlessly pursued every important opportunity that came his way.

One day, Mr. Smith called Madoqua aside, and informed him of a special assignment that awaited him. He looked the driver-guide straight in the eye, and said with a firm and purposeful tone, “Robert is a great friend and we go back a long way. I have known him since we were two kids growing up in Edinburgh,” Mr. Smith said. “His family is here on vacation, and are visiting Tanzania this weekend. He is scheduled to go back to Scotland on Monday, and I want to ensure that he has a great time here. He loves the African wilderness, but has a special fascination for Rhinos. Remember, that he is not just a customer, but our esteemed guest. I want you to ensure that he has a great time in the Serengeti. I am confident that you will do a great job with this.” Saying so, he patted reassuringly on Madoqua’s shoulder and left. Mr. Smith was a laconic man and rarely did he lavish more than the most necessary detail. Moreover, special assignments were reserved for the more experienced guides, and it was widely known that the rewards for executing them successfully were bountiful. Madoqua drew in a long breath and sighed, as he realized the importance of the opportunity that lay ahead of him. He looked up the assignment and saw that his guests for next weekend were Robert Patterson, his wife Emily and their teenager son, Geoffry.

*****

“Jambo, jambo bwana,
Habari gaani, myzri sana”

Madoqua’s voice rang out to his passengers as the Land Cruiser rumbled along the moist track. Madoqua often taught his passengers these Swahili lines of a popular Kenyan tune, and they were usually echoed with great enthusiasm. Today, however, he noticed that only Geoffry responded, rather mechanically. Seated beside him was Robert Patterson, who donned a safari jacket with a rhino print, and looked rather glum. It was Saturday evening, and the safari had been a washout until then. The trip in the morning had been cancelled due to rain, and there were not too many animals to sight that evening. Sighting animals on a safari tended to depend a little on luck, and there were days when the most skilled of guides had to contend with sightings that could be disheartening to their guests. Madoqua had carefully planned the route he would take for this journey, factoring for the time of the year and the rhinocerous haunts that he was familiar with. However, the morning’s rain had upset all these calculations, leaving him frustrated. He slowed the vehicle down, as he approached a thicket, and noticed some movement within.

“A pair of dik-diks. These antelope don’t need to drink water, and have highly efficient digestive systems that get all the water they need from the food and the dew drops they consume,” he stated. “Humans are the greatest threat to dik-diks”, he continued. “They are hunted for their skin, out of which gloves are made. It requires the skin of an entire dik-dik to make a single glove.” Madoqua punctuated the statement with a pause. Whenever he spoke about poachers, a feeling of disgust filled him. Madoqua hated the poachers. Madoqua held that the expanses of the Serengeti were the purest and most primeval form of beauty known to mankind. Poachers were vile beasts who could stab at this beauty with their knives, without as much as batting an eyelid in their greedy pursuit of wealth. In Madoqua’s opinion, this made them the most inhumane of people. However, it seemed as though his passengers today couldn’t care less about these sentiments as his words were met only with a cold silence, as the wheels of the Land Cruiser rumbled along.

Over the course of the safari, Madoqua had realized that Mr. Patterson’s obsession with rhinocerous bordered on the fanatical. This was quite unlike any other passenger he had seen, and it seemed as though the rest of the African jungle and its spectacular embellishments were only secondary in Mr. Patterson’s eyes. In recent times, rhinocerous spotting had been rare, owning to heavy poaching. Furthermore, the shy animals retreated to the remote depths of the jungle during the rainy season. “I will try my best to see that we get a good view of a rhinocerous and her baby that I have spotted lately”, Madoqua had told Mr. Patterson when they had started their trip. Presently, the sky turned orange, and this meant that Madoqua had to turn his vehicle back to the resort and end that day’s safari, flustered that his meticulous preparation had to yield to the vagaries of the jungle.

The onset of sleep, which was usually spontaneous, had evaded Madoqua that night, as he lay contemplating in bed. His colleagues were jealous of his quick rise through the ranks, and his current assignment would result in his further alienation from their lot. His thoughts also went to his family. Madoqua’s life was always alternating between his house and his time on the road. During his time away, he sorely missed his little daughter and his wife. His mind then flitted away to his dreams of securing his own independence. Land Cruisers were expensive! He knew a couple of places where he could get good deals for a second hand piece, but the price was still a tall ask in a country like Tanzania. He thought about how the pursuit of buying his own vehicle had consumed him in recent times. The clear relationship that effort shared with reward in his profession kept Madoqua motivated. He would always push harder to keep getting better – going the extra mile to please his customers, being available at a time when there was a scarcity of drivers, and working ceaselessly for special incentives. However, all of this came at a price. There had been occasions during the last tourist season when he had not returned home for three months at a time. There was a lingering tension in the household when he did return, due to his prolonged absence. At times, he would notice that his little daughter had grown significantly during his time away. These were drawbacks that Madoqua was aware of, but he justified them in the face of the rewards that his job brought. He fell asleep, dreaming of him singing Jambo Bwana, his daughter echoing this tune, riding behind him in the Land Cruiser, and a rhinocerous joining the chorus from alongside the road.

The next morning, Madoqua spotted a serval - a wild cat with cloudy spots that required his expert eyes to spot it as it lay camouflaged in the grassy background. Servals, majestic cats that looked like miniature cheetahs, were nocturnal, and it was only in the early morning hours that one had the remote chance of spotting them. Madoqua had also led the Pattersons to a pride of lions that was perched on a tree. Lions are not the most natural tree climbers, and this was a rare sighting. In the evening, the group had spotted a large herd of hippos, basking in the evening’s sun alongside crocodiles, their friendly neighbours. Nevertheless, none of these sightings particularly excited Mr. Patterson. Despite all of his preparations, it seemed as though destiny had dealt Madoqua a sore blow. To make matters worse, another guest at the resort where the Pattersons had lodged overnight, had seen a rhino and her calf, the previous evening. Dusk was descending fast on yet another fruitless trip, and it was soon time to return. All of a sudden, Madoqua’s radio unit crackled to life.

“There has been a rhino spotting about 30 km away, near a giant baobab tree,” the driver-guide quipped, and for the first time during their trip, Mr. Patterson’s eyes lit up. Madoqua revved the vehicle up and started in the direction of the rhino. His heart beat faster, as he saw a glimmer of hope appear before him. This trip could end well, after all. It was not going to be simple as it was already the late hours of dusk, and he needed to move fast. Madoqua sped his vehicle up to 50 km/hr - the maximum speed that vehicles in the reserve were permitted to travel.

About halfway through, he quickly glanced at his watch, and realized that the time was 5:45 PM. The remaining distance to the rhino would take about twenty minutes, and then there was the time Mr. Patterson would spend admiring the rhino. 6:30 PM was the cutoff time for all vehicles to be back at the resort, and the forest guards would be on the prowl for interlopers. If caught, Madoqua could be prohibited from driving in the jungles for a year and face a heavy fine. Madoqua was bothered by these thoughts as the Land Cruiser sped along the jeep track towards the rhinocerous.

Madoqua thought about the route ahead, and the unforgiving timeline that was closing in on him. He should have glanced at his watch before announcing the rhino sighting to his guests, but now it was too late. He mulled whether he could go a little faster, and increased his speed. He was deeply familiar with the route to the rhinocerous, and the path was mostly a straight road. He was an expert driver, and had occasionally strayed, within bounds, past the speed limit. At about 10 km left, Madoqua and party were cruising along at 70 km/hr. His eyes were fixated and focused on the road ahead of him, and he was now oblivious to the reading on the speedometer.

About 5 more kilometers left, and the lone, giant baobab tree appeared next to the roadside, close to the horizon. The radio unit crackled again to inform them that the rhino was beginning to retreat into the jungle, away from the path. They were so nearly there! At the very least, they deserved at least a glimpse or two of the retreating rhinos. Madoqua knitted his eyebrows and could see the giant baobab draw closer, his eyes now fixated on the destination rather than the straight path that led them there. In a flash, something appeared to move across the path ahead of him, taking him by surprise, and as soon as Madoqua’s eyes sensed this motion, he jammed hard on the brakes. An animal whizzed past the vehicle, barely escaping to its right. However, there was a small clunk, and the vehicle skidded to a halt, exposing another creature, writhing behind them on the pathway. Madoqua turned back to glance over the vehicle and saw a dik-dik lying on the road. He got out of the vehicle and rushed to its side. With every passing second though, Madoqua realized that nothing could survive the impact of the blow the vehicle had dealt the hapless creature.

Madoqua picked up the little antelope in his arms, as he saw it convulsing. Several visions flashed in his head – of his childhood, running along paths in the shrub, the injured dik-dik he had nursed smearing its tears on the walls, Mr. Odumbaya’s wise smiling face when he showed him his degree in African tourism, and the vile look on the face of a poacher who was once arrested in his village. Madoqua held his temples with his large palms, as he shook his head in disbelief – his reality had been irrevocably altered in that fateful minute. A short distance away, the overrun antelope’s mate called out helplessly in characteristic shrill yelps. The big man lay the antelope on a grassy mound by the wayside. The Pattersons looked on as he knelt down beside it and wept loudly like a child.

******