Summer is often the time for vacations, that necessary time to just be, and not just do, which I personally find very hard. It was almost a year ago when I committed to go on a trip to Africa, my first, to celebrate a dear friend’s birthday. There would be a large group of us travelling together, many of which we did not know. My husband and I rarely take vacations without our teenage children, and even more rarely such luxurious vacations, but I knew this was an adventure too good to pass up, so we did it! Returning home just yesterday it is now time to digest and reflect on all the insights that perhaps only an experience like this can teach us.
There is an African Proverb that says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” I first heard this proverb quoted in a speech, and I remember writing it down because of my love of good quotes. At the time it spoke to me about the power of relationships, of supporting one another, of team building, and of what it takes to change the world for the better. I saw it once again in huge letters on a wall at the Johannesburg airport just as I was leaving Africa. In the context of the trip I was returning home from, this quote took on a much deeper and more complex meaning. It is all those things, and so much more.
My trip to South Africa was my first visit to this majestic continent, and our twelve-day journey took us from Cape Town (photo above), to the Stellenbosch wine country, onto a early 20 century train for a 1600 kilometer ride to Pretoria, and finally, to Londolozi, a safari camp located in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve just a lion’s roar away from the border of Mozambique. All four pieces of this journey were spectacular, but it was the time at Londolozi that was the most magical.
This magic came in many forms but in large part from the relationships that were forged among the members of our group as we travelled the land together. After spending eight hours a day in a jeep with these people, I know we will be friends for life. Spending so much time with our group and having the opportunity to really get to know them was a gift that is rare in today’s world of fragmented attention spans and sound bites. Lesson number one: find a way to spend more quality time with friends, both those friendships that are established and those that are emerging.
Indeed, it was only when I slowed down, really slowed down, to take in the conversations, the personalities, and my surrounding landscape, that I realized how fast my life has become. The majority of my time is now spent plowing ahead full steam, only to screech to a halt long enough to catch my breath before taking off again. It did not take me long to realize that in Londolozi, this schedule would not work, because while on safari, you are at the mercy of the rhythms and movements of the animals. Lesson number two: be mindful of the pace at which you are flying through life, and try to slow it down.
Seeing these animals up close was a spectacular experience, but also yielded many surprises. One such surprise was the fact that we would almost never see an animal run. They would run when they were alarmed or engaged in a hunt, but the vast majority of their time was spent eating or sleeping. When they were on the move, their walk was graceful, measured, and intended to conserve their energy. Once I got over my fear that they might jump into the jeep and eat me, I felt my shoulders drop, my breathing expand, and my pulse slow; I was taking on their pace. Moreover, by just sitting, watching, and following, I became acutely aware of how much I tend to lead in my life. I am often the one to set the pace in my interactions with others, and while this is not a bad thing, it is not always a good thing either. Our goal in observing these animals was to witness nature from all angles, to slow down, and to be a part of it all. I realized that in always leading, in always determining the pace, I was missing the view from behind, from the sides, and all of the other angles that help to create a more fully formed perspective. Lesson number three: be both a leader and a follower, and sometimes just observe from the sidelines. If you find yourselves always being the leader, your perspective may not be all it could or should be.
A second surprise was the discovery that only a few types of animals travel alone. The proverb of travelling together was never more apparent in watching these creatures travelling together, eating together, and surviving together. Watching these rules for survival unfold was enlightening, inspiring, and heartbreaking at the same time, with two stories in particular that made a lasting impression.
The first occurred when we were lucky enough to come upon a large herd of about 300 buffalo. Our ranger pulled our jeep into their path, and within 10 minutes they were upon us, surrounding us as they walked slowly by. Our ranger called our attention to the young bucks versus the older males, the babies that walked tight to their mommies, and the precocious older ones that wandered farther away, and the relationships and personalities of this herd materialized before our eyes. After awhile, most of the herd had moved beyond the reach of our cameras and binoculars, but lagging behind was a mother and her sick calf. ( pictured above) We could tell the baby was diseased and were told by our ranger it was likely TB. The mother was a short way ahead of it and kept turning around to call her. She would look to the herd pulling away, then back at her baby, then forward to the herd, then back calling to her calf. We watched until our hearts could not take it any more and we drove away in silence. The mother would soon be saying good-bye to her baby; she would have to, and she was already mourning it. Togetherness. And not. Lesson number four: take the time to look back to see if there is someone not keeping up, then reach out, and try to pull them in.
In contrast, I then heard this story told by another ranger and a Londolozi family member about an elephant named Elvis. ( photo above) Elvis was born with deformed back legs that made walking difficult, and when first sighted the rangers thought she would not last long. However, what the rangers noticed over time was that the herd slowed their pace for Elvis and that some of the strong ones would surround her in times of a threat in order to protect her. Further that despite her extreme disability, she kept up. One particular day the rangers witnessed something that even they found hard to imagine. The leader of the herd found a water hole that was down a hill, and the elephants went down to drink. As Elvis approached the edge to go down they could see that she was worried. She managed to make it down but with her deformed back legs, she could not make it back up. She tried and tried with all the other elephants waiting, until finally one other elephant came back and pushed her from behind up the hill. Sometimes it is not about going fast, it is about just being able to go at all. Togetherness. Teamwork. Friendship. Support. Love. Lesson number five: if you see someone trying, really trying, do what you can to help them. Lesson number six: don’t jump to quickly to a conclusion about what someone is capable of, they may surprise you.
“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” This past week I sat in a jeep and watched some of the most majestic animals on earth gracefully walk around me, and I realized just how similar we are. Our relationships matter, they ensure our survival, but rarely do we give them the time they need to flourish. Whether it is personal relationships, or professional ones, they both require our attention and our commitment. Being aware of the pace at which we move through our daily lives and being willing to slow the heck down is so important. Just as important as the pace is the perspective. If you always lead you will miss out on so much, so be willing to follow as well. In nature it is often said that only the strong survive, and while this is certainly somewhat true, what I witnessed while on safari is the other animals showing deep compassion for their weak. How often do we stop to see who is lagging behind and try to help them. For me? Not often enough. My Africa visit may be over, but as I make the transition back into my everyday work life, I know I will never forget the lessons learned in this wondrous place. The challenge will be to actually follow through with them, but if I can walk among elephants without completely freaking out, then anything is possible.
A big thank you to ROAR AFRICA for organizing an amazing trip.
Previously posted on Linkedin
Written by Jacquelyn Zehner – Londolozi guest