2018-06-01 / ReBooted

Where the Wild Things Are

To me, adventure is a sound. When traveling, I often am struck by how far I’ve wandered from the familiar when an exotic, if not necessarily new, sound reaches my ears. The notes of a bagpipe drifting through the open window of my hotel in downtown Glasgow. The Muslim call to prayer echoing through the medina of the Moroccan city through which I’m strolling. The way a storm, wind and rain, sounds lonelier and far lovelier along the Irish coast than anywhere else I’ve been. And so it was in South Africa.

It was not the comical and sweet African penguins I’d encountered at Boulders Beach, or even the baboons perched casually alongside the road outside of Cape Town. It was the jackals that whispered welcome to me during that journey. I was sitting in a large, open Jeep-like vehicle. Night had come and with it the end of our game drive. We’d arrived at the Mabula Game Lodge in the Limpopo Province late and had missed the best time to see animals, the lions and elephants, hippos and buffalo and so much more that roam the African plains. We were heading back to the lodge when I spotted what I thought was a dog in the white light of the truck’s headlamps.

Our driver pulled to a stop and the beastie turned to us, utterly unconcerned with our appearance. I realized it was a young jackal, not much older than a pup, and beautiful, with big, pointed ears and a long snout. It put its head back and howled, a long, doleful, surprisingly high-pitched cry. The driver shut off the headlights as one by one, from every direction, an answering yowl spilled into the dark.

The young one howled again, raising goosebumps on my arms, and again the pack answered in response. It was so foreign, the sound, so unlike anything I’d ever heard before. I remember thinking it was one of the strangest and most gorgeous moments of my life. This, I thought, is Africa.

The next day we saw more animals than we could count — herds of zebra, wildebeests, too — including one gleefully taking a dirt bath, all four hooves waving in the air — and charming giraffes, with their long eyelashes and graceful strides. We observed a lone elephant from far off, but nothing topped the female lions. They were just a bit down the road from two male lions we spotted — brothers, our guide told us. They sat indolent and impassive in the sun, their manes glorious, panting gently. Their mates, however, were in the midst of eating a kill, something rendered unrecognizable by their teeth and claws.

I was fascinated, struck silent by the blood on their faces and paws, the sound of bones cracking and crunching beneath the force of their jaws. We were so close to the animals, perhaps 15 or 20 yards away — close enough that a man sitting behind me muttered his dismay, exclaiming that we were at risk from the big cats. What if they decided we would be tastier than whatever was in their mouths?

And then, with no preamble that I could catch, the lions roared, one leaping atop the other as they tumbled through the brush, fighting over the choicest morsel, snarling and growling.

The strength of their bodies, their muscles bunching and stretching taut in the sun, was incredible. I never for a moment felt concern for our safety, open vehicle or not, but the man behind me was now terrified. He began hectoring the driver, telling him it was ridiculous that we were this close to things capable of killing us with one bite, a solitary swipe of a paw. The driver assured him we were fine and the rest of us shushed him, intent on seeing how the power struggle played out. It was over as quickly as it had begun, but like the howls of the jackals, the noise of their conflict will stay with me. Adventure is a sound — if you’re bold enough to listen. •SCM

For more information about the Mabula Game Lodge, visit

Jill Gleeson is on the biggest adventure of her life. Follow her journey on her blog at and via her column at

Return to top