Last night--the first time in my twenty-one years that, in the absolute presence of the moment, I feared for my life. It was fleeting, but it left my pulse like a machine gun for the entire night. I mean this with honesty. This if fucking Africa.
Star studded, moonlit nights on the Wild Coast are transcendental, in a very Emerson-esqe sense. The sky, the sea and the forest melt into one dark, musical mass that suspend your momentarily weightless matter within a rhythm and outside of time. This is the kind of night in which I found myself, on the beach with my good friend JQ, tossing about in a conversation, on the look out for shooting stars and UFO’s. We were heading back to the Haven, along the beaches of the Eastern Cape. As we approached the tide pool crossing, which essentially functions to split the beach in two, several things become apparent: my torch is inadequate, we are covered in sand, and we are not alone.
Ahead of us are silhouettes, embedded in the black backdrop of the sand and the forest. We pause. I flip my light straight ahead. It hits its target. Six sets of yellow eyes are staring back at us, about 20 meters ahead. We freeze.
Before I continue, I feel as if I must clarify to my audience what exactly is meat when I say the Wild Coast. This is a part of South Africa, notoriously secluded, remote and untouched. It is a place of limited development and limited infrastructure. It is a place that is often fenced off and put aside as nature reserves, often with little knowledge of what wildlife actually exists within these areas. Still, today, estimates of present species biodiversity and biodensity are poorly researched and at times, unknown.
In this reserve Dwessa-Cwebe, there are many animal species--white rhino, jaguar, several large antelope species, alligator, baboons, vervet monkeys, zebra, smaller predatory cats, green and black mambas along with an entire slew of others, some big and some small but all wild. Of course, the terrestrial life is one thing, but with the reputedly shark infested waters offshore, it becomes fairly evident: this place is on the edge of the map. The nearest hospital is 2 hours drive along a single pockmarked and punched-out road. Helicopters cannot land here. Needless to say, it is in one’s best interest to tread softly and cautiously.
With that in mind, we now return to our story.
Our minds race for an explanation, and one that will allow us to ignore our already rising heart rates and get home. Our first thought is horses, we know there are some on the reserve. No dice, the glowing eyes can’t be horses, for the coloring and brightness is caused by a tapetum lucidum (a shiny covering on the back of the eye ball that assists with night vision), which horses lack. It can’t be the local jaguar for these animals are solitary and reclusive. As for being baboons, this is unlikely because otherwise, we’d probably already be running for our lives. The shadows remain mere shadows.
We quickly realize our options are limited as this is the only way to get back home. I draw my pocket knife and with it, a false sense of courage and security (note: the sarcastic presentation of my faux-manliness is meant to belie the actual fear in my mind). I am an idiot. A pocket knife against some of these animals would be like trying to kill a gorilla with a toothpick. Either way, hats off to a bravery born of ignorance--we started walking forward. My flashlight is fixed on these creatures, which slowly become slightly more defined as we get closer and closer. Its funny, even as the picture of these animals became clearer, the racing of my mind obscured my rational ability to actually discern what I was seeing. At one point, I could have sworn it was a pride of lions. Shortly after, it seemed more likely to just be some driftwood. Finally, I was convinced that it must be a dragon of some sort. The point is, we still had no idea, and now we were within 10 meters.
What happened next is still up to debate--it was sudden and our actions were purely a reaction to a potentially false stimulus. It is at this moment that JQ exclaims, “Holy shit, its coming toward us.”
Wether this was actually the case or not, I have my reservations, however, in the moment, this was more than enough to send us sprinting headlong in the opposite directions. We were trapped, between this terrible shadowy creature, a shark infested ocean and a long, long beach. Surely, we would be overtaken and inevitably eaten by something. It was only a matter of time.
Luckily, it wasn’t long before we realized that whatever it was had not decided to follow us. We glanced nervously in their direction. Between our heavy breathing and occasional holy-shit’s, we devised a plan to walk along the opposite side of the tide pool, cross it up stream (as it was only a few inches deep at max) and make our way back. This plan, carried out with fear and fervor, was successful and we soon found ourselves safe and sound on our cozy roundeval porches. Both of us, scared for our lives just moments before, calmly recounted our story to JQ’s half-awake roommate. Of course, the news of unidentified monsters on the beach just a kilometer away did not help her get back to sleep anytime soon. I assured them both that I would get up early and head back to the tide pool in an attempt to identify these mysterious animals.
6 am: I woke up from what was otherwise a poor excuse for a good night’s rest. I got on some sandals and headed back to the beach, hoping to find some tracks, some poop, or any other type of evidence that might help us identify the cause of the previous night’s panic. Upon reaching the beach, however, no clues were needed, as our would-be-assailants were still waiting in the sand beside the tide pool. I walked up next to the group, took off my sandals, and started running through my morning yoga routine right next to them. I burst out laughing.
Lounging lazily on the beach next to my was a small herd of cattle, chewing their cud in a manner that seemed to mock the absolute fear of the night before. Apparently, my laughter seemed to annoy them, so they stood up and strolled away down the beach, leaving several heaping piles of well digested grass in their stead. Just the night before, these innocuous, beef wagons had sent us, in all reality, running for our lives. To be fair, all of these cattle were bulls with a few descent sets of horns between them. Not that they would consumed us whole, but the thought of sneaking past these guys in the dark is still not entirely appetizing. Regardless, I have lived to tell the tale. And JQ will forever know that, when frightened, I scream like a little girl.