Exotic Bird Bingo – A tale of victory and heartache
It was a pleasant end to the blistering month of March on a slightly breezy Monday afternoon in the South African Lowveld. The hornbills were flapping about gracefully and the sun was poking his head out just enough to keep you comfortably warm, but not so hot that you get super burny and sticky. It was a perfect afternoon for taking your elderly grandfather out looking for birds. We here at GVI however are fresh out of elderly grandfathers, and therefore decided to use what we had instead – a bunch of hyperactive young adults, hell-bent of gaining any form of bragging rights to any incident that could occur on this game reserve. The weather may have been welcoming, but the atmosphere between the two vehicles that left base unusually early that afternoon definitely wasn’t. The reason for this rowdy behaviour? Exotic Bird Bingo. Created by yours truly and definitely not ripped off a certain movie with a talking llama that a fellow intern may have mentioned once or twice on previous drives. Regardless – the stakes were high and our egos even higher. I swear I thought I was going to see someone’s head spontaneously combust with excitement. The aim of the game – spot 5 birds in a row on the meticulously laminated bingo card before the other team did. This might sound like a walk in the bush, but don’t be fooled, here on Karongwe the animals can and will eat you. And just like a hungry hungry hippo, the winning team (obviously mine) demolished their opponents with ease.
The drive started off with some amazing finds straight out of the gate. BOOM – Crested Francolin, BOOM – Helmeted Guinea Fowl. Just like butter we were on a roll. I don’t remember a time when the truck was so intensely focused. Heads were on swivel in all directions. There was a time we even stopped for a bird flying up ahead very, very far away and waited until it got closer. The spotter, a young girl from New Zealand with so much to learn said it was probably an African Fish Eagle. We all laughed, but soon had to eat our haughty chuckles. The Kiwi was right, she had nailed it. Another one crossed off the bingo card. After a multitude of sneaky side missions to all the dams in the area we were left with two birds to make our dreams a reality. It was up to a Marabou Stork or a Red-billed Oxpecker. The obvious choice was the oxpecker – naturally, one that is always seen on every other drive. Today however, we would have to work hard to earn our pecker and get that sweet, sweet victory. All we needed was some big game – simple enough on a big game reserve. A herd of zebra? No cigar. A huge giraffe? Unlucky. Three rhinos were called in on the radio – this could be our chance. After taking a standby for a possible bingo we approached the loc. But the rhino would not be our saviour this day. That was the shortest amount of time I’ve ever spent with one of the mighty Big 5, but our hearts and minds were focused on something far greater. Every road held the possibility of a better life, one in which we could enjoy the view from our high horses and remind the others of how simply amazing we are. That opportunity came to us by a very unlikely hero.
After perilously navigating our way around the dirt roads, our victory finally came – riding on the back end of a mighty impala. It didn’t stick around for long as our cheers of triumph sounded throughout the veld. But we had done it – our fierce competitiveness and ridiculously good looks prevailed and we got our oxpecker. Kate, our fabulous driver was on the radio faster than a majestic cheetah sprinting down a hill to declare to the world (the private GVI channel – we didn’t want the lodge guests on drive to get jealous of how much fun we have) that we had “an a-firm on bingo”. And as the rules stated, we received the announcement that the losers “were not worthy”.
Life couldn’t have gotten better for us – and yet it did. The African bush rewarded our achievement with the most stunningly beautiful sunset I have ever experienced in my life. A breath-taking end to the most extreme drive I’ve ever been on. We all experienced something spectacular that day – a fun and enjoyable way of spotting birds, or birding – if you will, and that, ladies and gentlemen, is a truly magical thing.
I’d like to thank all the birds that allowed themselves to be seen by us and not the other team. To my fellow team-mates, you bunch of legends. To Kate, for getting super into it and confirming all our birds like a boss. To the other team, just remember, it can’t possibly get any worse from here. To my mentor Leah, whose encouragement, wisdom, and access to a laminating machine helped me bring Exotic Bird Bingo to life. And lastly to the ectoparasites on that impala, I thank you. This blog would have had a very different tone to it had you not been all up on that poor animal.
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