We came after dark through the close hot smell of grass and green fever trees and elephant dung. A scops owl was calling and a bush baby swung branch to branch in the marula tree overhead. As the Land Rover bounced through Londolozi Game Reserve, I replayed the afternoon’s delights: a red duiker parting the long grass in low pounces; warthogs snuffling the earth with their fierce, ugly faces; a giraffe floating into a run that scattered the tick-seeking oxpeckers from its back, the birds’ beaks splitting in alarm as their dinner table cantered away. … Our headlights suddenly picked out a pride of lions, and we idled in. Eleven lions lay heaped, rubbing heads and paws in a luxury of fur, newly blooded and content. The long drought has made good hunting.
We lingered late, then, encouraged bedward by their yellow-eyed yawns, headed back to camp along the river. Five minutes from home we startled a bloat of hippopotamuses, their jaws chopping sheaves of grass: hippos, puffy with cartoon menace, kill more people than any other single animal in Africa. “Hippos,” I recalled as they jogged off like fat men in rubber suits, is also local slang for the armored police cars that bulldoze into riots.
South Africa is fraught with such unexpected associations. One token of its oddity is that whites carry the world’s most enormous key rings; they then spend jangling minutes looking for the right chunk of metal to open the chunk of metal that guards the safe or the room or the car where the...