A question often asked by guests at Londolozi is, “How do you remember your way around?”. There are a few hundred kilometers of dirt tracks that criss-cross the bushveld on Londolozi Game Reserve; some are barely visible under long grass, some are prominent accesses to the lodge and are driven a bit more regularly. All have names, and all are stored in the memory bank of each ranger. We learn the roads by walking them. This is generally done in the earlier months of the year, a time when the bush is slightly thicker and when walking can involve being drenched by rain and then scorched by 40 degree heat within a few hours.
Ranger Richard Burman took a camera on his long walks this year. He documented his time out in the bush, and what follows is his account and video of the experience:
Before I set off explaining my epic journey I feel that it is necessary to explain what it is that I was tackling.
To become a ranger at Londolozi is no simple task. Obviously, there are certain boxes that need to be ticked, but additionally they look for something special in each individual – a certain kind of special character within. As part of the training course, all prospective trainees are required to do seven days of long walks on their own within the reserve.
The objectives are rather straight forward. Each day you are given a specific route to follow and you have to leave the camp at 6:00am and return at 6:00pm. Some routes are longer than others, but on average 30 kilometres are walked every day. The goals of this experience are for the trainee to firstly learn the many tracks that criss-cross the property. Secondly, it is for the trainee to learn as much about the environment as possible, which includes a variety of birds, mammals, insects, grasses, and trees, among other things. Thirdly, and probably the most important of all, is for the trainee to learn about himself and to discover the fire that burns within him.
From the beginning, I always thought that it would be extremely unnerving to walk amongst some of the Earth’s most fearsome creatures, but I was soon to realise that it was not exactly the case.
As I started walking, listening, I was suddenly aware of a slight trembling and then in almost milliseconds, the bushveld exploded as a male lion, not 150 meters away from me, started to roar. I imagined that I would want to curl up into a ball or run away in fear, but what I felt was very different. I was obviously very aware of the situation and my nerves were about to explode, but what I felt was a burning excitement, almost an amazement, an indescribable feeling that one only feels in incredible moments. This feeling lasted the entire 7 days and it grew with every step I took as I wanted to know more and wanted to experience more.
It is too difficult to give a minute by minute account of my walks, so I have chosen a few experiences to illustrate what I experienced, enjoyed, and learnt.
Leopard on dead Leadwood
The day was nearing its end and my concentration was starting to wane at arguably the most dangerous time as the late afternoons are when the animals start to get active again. I forced myself to walk slower, listening harder and looking more intently. As I walked around a rather thickly vegetated corner, I suddenly noticed a birds nest in a tree, roughly 10 meters off the road. I raised my binoculars to see if I could see any eggs or chicks, or even just to try and get a clue as to what type of birds nest it was. No sooner had I lifted my binoculars when I heard an explosion of growls and branches breaking. I spun round to see a leopard tumbling out of a dead Leadwood tree which arched over the road about 30 meters from where I stood. A flash of spots whizzed down the Leadwood branches breaking off as the leopard crashed down the arch of the tree straight past me into the thick riverine vegetation.
I stood motionless trying to work out what had just happened and what my next move was going to be. I stared intently into the thick bush, trying to find any glimpse of the leopard, but I could see nothing, not even a moving blade of grass. The bush was suddenly extremely quiet and very different to the loud chaotic sounds a few seconds earlier. I slowly moved past the spot where the leopard had acrobatically leapt out of the tree and there in the soft sand were two perfect leopard tracks. To me, those two leopard tracks signified a sense of reality, the leopard was really there and what had happened was no dream or illusion, it was very real!
Each day brought something different; different animals, different surroundings, and very different feelings. Londolozi is known for its leopards, which are mostly found in the thicker riverine areas, or on the bald rocky outcrops. However, it was the large open areas toward the south of the property which had the greatest impact on me. By the fifth day, I had walked almost 140 kilometres and I was physically, mentally, and emotionally utterly exhausted. My journey was starting to shift focus from a natural learning experience to a personal struggle. And then I moved out of the thickets and sporadic clearings into the large almost never-ending open areas.
As I walked for hours through the large open expanse, I experienced new emotions. A never-ending expanse of beautifully red-coloured grass covered the plains, creating a sense of never-ending possibilities. The plains seemed open and barren, but like most things in life, never judge a book by its cover; the open plains are bursting with life. Breeding herds of elephant and buffalo would move through slowly, peacefully devouring the nutritious red grass. The animals seemed calmer on the plains and life seemed to slow down.
Something else that was extremely evident on the open plains which made walking difficult was the fertile black cotton soil. The soil is a dark black colour full of nitrogen and phosphorus which allows the red grass to flourish. Unfortunately, when the black soil gets wet it gets sticky and cakes on the bottom of your shoes which makes walking tiring and frustrating.
The incredible thing, however, about the open areas was that I never felt tired. It was as though they energised me, creating new life within.
Lost and Lonely
From the beginning, I knew that at some point I was bound to feel lonely and isolated, but it didn’t hit me until the sixth day. I was casually walking in the deep south of the property known as Dudley where roads aren’t clear and the bush is thick. I thought I knew exactly where I was going, but suddenly I found myself staring at a T-junction where there should have been a four way intersection. I back tracked, thinking that I had made a mistake, but I couldn’t work out where I had gone wrong. Time started to tick by and after I had walked past the same tree for the fifth time, I started to get a little frantic. It was then that I realised how alone I was. My personal struggle was in full swing and only I could pull myself out of it.
I sat down and looked around me, nothing, no one to help, so I picked myself up and walked back to the last position which I was 100% sure of. From there, I tried again but I came out at the same T-junction, which should have been a four way intersection. I then went all the way back and started again. By now my water was vanishing at a rapid rate and I was down to my last orange. To make things worse, I estimated that from where I was, I still had about a 3 hour walk back to camp and it was nearing 2:30pm and I had to be back at 5:30pm, so time was of the essence.
I started to walk again, but with a new plan. I wouldn’t take the first left that was indicated on the map but I would go further and see if I could somehow find the intersection with the four roads. On and on I walked until almost miraculously the four way intersection appeared and I was once again on track even though I was about two hours behind time.
Getting lost proved to be more than simply losing my way. It was me finding the inner courage and strength to be able to get myself into a problem and then to solve it on my own. I was starting to learn that I was the controller of my fate and I could either lie down and panic or I could keep going, keep trying, until I succeeded.
The Smaller Things
The bush is known for everything that is big, but the smaller things, in my opinion, are where the real beauty lies. As the walk progressed, I started to take a deeper interest in the smaller things, not that I hadn’t before, but now I was suddenly more in touch with the environment and my eyes were suddenly drawn to the smaller beauties of the bush. Porcupine quills, a little dung beetle rolling his dung ball away from other hungry beetles, and francolin scratching around in elephant dung for seeds and insects.
The most beautiful part of my walk was stumbling into an explosion of pink and white Impala Lilies. The life that this little flower injected into me was amazing.
The walks developed a deeper appreciation within me for the natural environment which I really didn’t have before. Not only did I develop a deeper appreciation for the area in which I was to be living and working, but I gained a deeper understanding of myself. I had walked for 7 days, a total of over 200 kilometres, there had been instances where I had been lost and exhausted, but as a person I had won!
Written by Richard Burman