“If I tell you turn the lights off, don’t ask question, just turn them off.”
The South African ranger with sand-colored khakis and wide-brimmed hat tells this to my ten-year-old son and the British girl next to him, while handing each a high-powered flashlight.
The sun dips low in the sky. I’m sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with twelve tourists on an elevated van, ready for our night safari.
“Shine the light,” the ranger tells the kids. “Look for animals. If you see something, yell, Stop.”
A crooked smile. “But don’t say it too loudly or I’ll slam on the brakes and send you all flying.”
I imagine us airborne, like bats, wings flapping, shrieking across South Africa’s Kruger National Park.
“One more thing…,” he says. “Don’t shine the light into the animals’ eyes. It might make them aggressive.”
We’re not in Kansas anymore. This is not Disney World. Don’t expect safety nets. Don’t expect a crew to run through the dark and save you. We’re on our own… in the dark.
The red sun slides below the horizon, and the parasol-shaped acacia trees dance like shadow puppets.
The ranger places one hand on the wheel, the other pokes around the floorboard finding the rifle. He cracks it open, looks down the chamber, then leans it against his leg. Face forward, he eases the clutch. The engine sputters. We’re off in a cloud of dust.
The van lumbers side-to-side like a charging elephant. Our guide bounces in his seat, springs squawking, plunging down to the rugged Olifants River.
Why a night safari? Lions, hyenas, and leopards sleep all day conserving energy for the night hunt.
We spiral down in this stygian void...no house lights…no city haze…not even a utility light nailed to a post. It’s just us and our flashlights circling, as if looking for escaped convicts.
When my eyes adjust, I see silver glowing orbs.
We’re high off the ground. The top enclosed. Otherwise, a leopard could drop in from a tree. While I’m thankful for the top, I obsess over the sides…wide open.
Lion…lion…lion. Spotlights search. Ten feet away, pacing. He’s stopped by the light.
No one speaks. No one breathes.
The ranger starts the engine. We’re off.
We spot black rhinos, hyenas, a mother elephant with her baby, and a strange gray rabbit with impossibly large ears.
I think of Joseph Conrad: “We penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness.”
The night is thick, dense, absolute black. It goes on forever. Yet, when I look up, a glitter bomb arches over the sky...the Milky Way. A yellow-orange orb dances on the horizon. Mars…the closest this planet has been to Earth in sixty million years. Because I’m seated in the heart of darkness, I can see this.
The ranger slams on his brakes. We spring forward, bounce back.
All twelve of us jump (though we’ve been warned not to do this). Necks crane, binoculars lift, feet trip, bodies push and sway.
A leopard steps out of the tall, brittle thatch. He snarls, shows his long, pointed teeth.
We’re in this thick, velvety dark with an angry leopard pacing mere feet away. I stare at the open windows, wait for the thump, rip of flesh, screams….
My mind pleaches with Conrad: “Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings.”
Early humans must have sat on this cold spot, witnessing this star-studded sky. Who was the first to pick up bits of wood, scrape them together, make a spark?
A week later, we speed under the amber street lights of Boston, over the red-lit Zakim Bridge. We weave in and out of taillights, headlights, street corner lights, shop lights, warning lights. Our cell phones glow in our palms.
At home, I gaze at the sky. Where is Mars? Where’s the Milky Way? Where are night’s mysteries?
Debbie Hagan is the book reviews editor for Brevity literary magazine. She is the author of Against the Tide, and her writing has appeared in Harvard Review, Hyperallergic, Critical Read, River Teeth, Superstition Review,and Pleiades. Her essay “Portrait in Red” will appear in the April issue Dillydoun Review.