When I was fourteen I met the love of my life.
Alright, I admit it, he wasn't human.
He was a small Arab gelding. Dark chestnut and flaunting a blonde mane and tail, he danced along with all the grace and elegance of his breed.
And for me - during my fraught teenage years - he epitomised everything joyous and good.
Of course being highly strung (the horse not me), he also had his foibles. For example, he refused to set hoof in puddles (not an issue in the Arabian desert but endlessly problematic during Melbournian winters). But his most distressing eccentricity related to jumping.
Without fail, we'd come galloping boldly up to a hurdle, only to have him slither to an abrupt stop with his chest almost against the bar. He'd then carefully inspect the far side of the obstacle and, once he'd ascertained a lack of large, fanged beasts lying in wait, he'd rear up on his hind legs and leap the obstacle from a standstill. As you can imagine, this was miserably uncomfortable for me, and utterly heart-stopping to watch. Nevertheless it seemed to work, and the dire predictions of everyone who'd seen us in the jumping ring (that sooner or later he'd kill us both) never materialised; he remained my dearest companion for almost 25 years.
Why am I telling you this? Because since coming here, I've realised that my horse's idiosyncratic approach to show jumping wasn't that idiosyncratic at all.
Take yesterday for example. While out on our evening stroll, the dogs and I met a kudu. Now kudus are my all-time favourite antelope. They're regal and stately, and they stand 1.4 m (4 ft 8") at the shoulder. They remind me of those computer-enhanced images of lingerie models, where the elegant legs just go on and on. Clothed in soft fawn or dove grey, kudus are drizzled with trickles of white, to break up their outline and help them blend in. And their faces are simply gorgeous: huge ears, an irresistible bambi nose and big dark eyes.
Yesterday, as we ambled along a track that follows a game fence, the dogs heard something in a thicket on the fence line. Trembling with eagerness, the pair dragged me forward. I couldn't see what was hiding there (kudus put their camouflaged coats to good use, freezing in the face of danger) until we were about 12 m (40 ft) away. Then a huge kudu bull leapt out. Much to my surprise he didn't gallop away from the fence, he just gave one massive leap (from a standing start) up and over the 2.3 m (7 ft 6") fence. There was a ricocheting boing as his forelegs rapped the top wire and the fence swayed precariously, but the knock didn't slow his flight and within seconds he was gone.
With my usual photographic ineptitude, I failed to capture the event but I did snap a dreary photo of the kudu-less fence, once all the excitement was over.
|The fence the kudu leapt. Grubby husky included for scale.|
|Careening kudu. Renowned for their jumping ability, greater kudus can easily clear 2.5 m (8 ft). Photo by Arno & Louise Meintjes.|
Thanks to this impressive disregard for fences, kudus are free to indulge in seasonal pilgrimages. I don't see hide nor hair of them in the wet season (because they're off roaming far and wide) but once food gets short, they all come trooping back, to hang out near the koppies and the river. Kudus dine almost exclusively on foliage and, because of their size, they need plenty of it; especially the males (who are 50% heftier). Late in the dry season, I often come across emaciated bulls tottering about, and many starve if the rains are late to arrive. A study in Kruger found that a six-year-old kudu bull (who's just attained adult size) has only a 50% chance of reaching his seventh birthday. In contrast, svelte lady kudus often live to fifteen.
Fortunately, all the kudus I've met this year are looking OK (thanks to the heavy rain last April) so I don't have to feel guilty about chasing them over fences. But the prodigious leap I witnessed was by no means unique. I've also seen impala, bushbuck, duiker and eland leap over large obstacles from a stationary start. And, thinking about it, both my dogs and cats jump from a standstill. Maybe my darling horse was just behaving naturally??
|When love is in the air (around May), kudu bulls slap on the neck muscles. Why? Because rival males lock horns and neck-wrestle to win the hoof of lady kudus.|
Photo by Arno & Louise Meintjes (who clearly share my love of kudus).