After a morning spent tracking a matronly leopard through acacia thorns and dry creek beds, we find the cat lounging on an old termite mound. Our guide, Pieter Pretorius – a sun-beaten, salt-and-pepper type with galaxies in his irises – inches the Land Rover forward.
This leopard’s name is Karula, but some call her the Queen of Djuma, the area we were now in. Pieter has known her for 11 years. He allows the rig to slide slightly closer.
As we zoom our camera lenses through the open top of the vehicle onto Karula’s immaculate rosettes, the leopard tenses up, utters a growl that turns my guts to overcooked pasta, and charges the vehicle fast and low – a strike aimed directly at the nearest human, our fearless leader Pieter.
The charge is over in milliseconds, before we even know what’s happened. Though the leopard could easily have leapt into the front seat of the vehicle and de-jugularized any one of us faster than you can say howzit, she settled instead for a bluff and then a nap in a nearby tree.
“That is what we call revving,” whispers Pieter with the calm of a hostage negotiator. “It’s her way of letting us know we got too close.”
Karula, he later tells us, means peaceful in Shangaan. We drive away and leave the leopard in her tree.
This is the daily grind for the WildEarth.tv crew as they track wildlife in the African wilderness with 4x4 vehicles and a brace of drones. Twice a day, they beam whatever’s going on out to the world as part of Safari Live, a partnership with Nat Geo Wild's Big Cat Week that features broadcasts from the bush so real you can almost smell leopard urine on the wind.
(Are you familiar with the scent of leopard urine? It smells like buttered popcorn.)
During my time with the crew, I saw impala, snakes, mushrooms, zebras and heinous little insects known as "ball-biter ants". I gawked at hornbills and hippos and horn-boring moths. I sat silently in moonlight as elephants gorged themselves on trees so close I could have stood up, yelled “Bangarang!” and jumped onto their wrinkly grey backs.
Pieter, my host for the week and one of the show’s lead presenters, tells a mean tale about nearly getting impaled by a rhino. I mean, he does if you ask him about it point blank. Somehow, in four days of hanging out, what it feels like to have a rhino nipping at your heels never came up organically. (If it had happened to me, you better believe I’d have it front and centre on my business card.)
Now, I’m not telling you all of this because I think it’s cool for people to get attacked by animals or because you’re likely to see someone get mangled while watching Safari Live. I only bring these stories up because the nature documentary industry has become littered with forged reality – recall the mermaid mockumentaries, Eaten Alive, Bear Grylls’ hotels or the rise and fall of Turtle Man. And this habit of stretching, twisting, and downright making up the truth goes at least as far back as 1958, when Walt Freaking Disney created the myth that lemmings commit suicide by chucking hundreds of them off a cliff.
And this is a shame. Because nature is interesting enough when it’s just doing its thing. We simply have to accept that most of the time you're not going to get a feeding frenzy when you watch animals in their natural habitat. Instead, you’ll probably wind up watching an ungulate chewing the cud or a predator snoozing through the heat of the day. This is not boring. This is reality. And if you look close enough, you’ll find all sorts of mini-dramas unfolding.
That herd of Cape buffalo standing there looking dumb as rocks? Zoom in and you’ll see vampire birds tearing into their flesh. That beetle in a pile of poop? It might be playing a crucial role in the ecosystem. That pregnant impala looking like she’s ready to burst? She’s about to pop out a calf and carry on a tradition 200 million years in the making.
This isn’t to say we should be ashamed of our desire to see blood and guts and action in our nature programming. In fact, one of the highlights of my trip was watching Karula the leopard feeding on an impala she’d hoisted up into the branches of a tree – and the shock that rumbled through the Land Rover as her gut tore open and four spindly legs unfurled into eight (the impala had been pregnant).
This was just a small taste of what it was like to feel humbled by nature and the knowledge accrued by people who spend every day in the African bush. Another was when Stef Winterboer, a guy with the name of a girl I had a crush on in kindergarten but the field presence of a viper, navigated us through two breeding herds of elephants while picking tiny leaves from nearby plants and telling us what locals use them for.
This plant is for thickening sauces. This plant is for making soap. This plant is for keeping insects away from corpses.
“This plant is for wiping babies’ bottoms,” he said, a bouquet of soft, pastel leaves in one hand and a loaded, just-in-case elephant gun in the other.
This is what it's like to celebrate the bush as we find it – wild, unpredictable, and simultaneously capable of vibrant beauty and everyday danger.
Top header image: Jason Bittel