Sacred Combe Safari III
Two rivers have flown through my adult life: the Liffey and the Luangwa. I mostly know the Liffey from obsessive rereading of Ulysses; I know the Luangwa from my obsessive need to return to the Luangwa Valley. If a book or a place is deep enough and rich enough and packed with enough meaning, there is more to be gained from an ever-deepening relationship than with unsatisfactory experiments with novelty.
There is always something new in Ulysses; there is always something new in the Valley.
I woke in my tent at Flatdogs Camp and went for a morning drive with a guide named Jonathan, and on its course I learned something new. A visitor to the Valley sees more impalas than any other mammal: but they’re not animals to get blasé about. No more elegant antelope has ever evolved: and none more athletic. When startled by a predator they go in for dramatic leaps to put the pursuer off: a height of three metres and a length of 11 metres have been claimed for a single bound.
Towards the bottom of those slim hind legs there are black bands, one to each leg, like a garter. I confess I had never really noticed them before: but Jonathan told me that they are glands, called fetlock or metatarsal glands. Impalas are the only antelopes that have them.
No one is precisely sure what they’re for, but Richard Despard Estes – who wrote the great book on mammal behaviour that I always lug out with me to the Valley – suggests that they are for use during those balletic flights from danger. They release a powerful scent as the impalas scatter in many directions, and this allows the herd to reconvene, even in thick bush or tall grass, as they smell each other out.
I had never seen these glands before; now I will always see them. I made a mental note to point them out to our guests.
Later that day I linked up with Chris — co-leader of this trip and founder and CEO of Wildlife Worldwide. After lunch we set off to the airport to pick them up: nine guests, our companions for the next ten days. Let’s hope they’re nice. Let’s hope they’re the sort of people to be impressed by fetlock glands.