“When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.”- John Lennon
Recently I got to spend a whole, glorious, selfish week doing exactly what it is that makes me happy. Out of all the possible things you may think this was, I bet it’s not what you’d expect.
In the dense summer bush, in temperatures that soared to 40 degrees centigrade, in downpours of rain and in amongst an abundance of wildlife, I walked alone over 140km through Londolozi. It was sheer bliss!
What really stood out was a surprise encounter with two of our shiest predators.
These ‘long walks’ are something that rangers do as part of their training in order to learn the roads, get used to animals on foot and for improving their confidence and awareness in the bush. When I first did these walks as a new guide five years ago I was terrified. Most of the time I was completely lost, probably due to the fact that I spent the whole time swiveling about looking for all the animals I thought were out to get me. But this time the experience showed me how presence and not fear is actually your greatest ally.
I saw lots of potentially dangerous animals but intead of thinking about how I needed to stay alert, now I was doing it naturally. I wasn’t thinking, I was being. The moment I was taught true presence is the one I want to tell you about though.
I was walking through a particularly thick area and so was walking slowly and quietly. Because of this I was able to sneak up on an impala standing on the road, which is strange as these animals are normally the most alert. Standing very still, I watched the impala for a while, wondering when he was going to become aware of me. For a few long moments he stood fully transfixed on something ahead of him, his ears perked up in concentration. He then actually glanced back over his shoulder at me, before spinning back around to look at the spot he’d been focused on a few moments earlier. Something was wrong.
Basically this impala had just told me that there was something ahead of him that was more of a threat to him than I was. It was almost as if we were in this thing together. He was telling me something was up ahead. If it had been a cartoon, he would have picked up a hoof, waved me over and pointed into the brush. I stood and listened with him. A few moments later the unmistakable wrestle of noise created by two mating leopards breaking apart sounded from the grass in front of us. The impala flew off the road and out of danger’s way. Apparently we had reached the limits of our friendship. The impala had saved himself and I was now on my own.
As the leopards broke apart they jumped out onto the road and were as startled by my presence as I was by theirs. The female leapt off the road and sprinted towards cover and the male slowly slunk off and lay down in the grass, cautiously peering at me from his flattened position.
Calmly sauntering by and avoiding any direct eye contact, I wondered past the leopards and down the road. I was trying to prove as much to myself as to the leopards, that this was a casual meeting and that no one had anything to be concerned about. I would just stroll by leaving them to continue as they were.
As I rounded a corner, out of view of them, I collapsed my hands onto my knees, giggling hysterically. With my heart racing I realised that I had just found myself at the pinnacle of what it feels to be alive. In that moment, I was totally present with those leopards. All other random doubts or concerns vanished and I was completely engaged. Instead of planning for the future or worrying about the past, I was forced to live completely in ‘the now’. Every day in the bush we live that experience in different forms, time and time again. It’s the key to survival here. The wild’s greatest lesson.
I had to walk 140km to find my entry to presence but it really doesn’t have to be that difficult. Take a breath, notice where you are, give thanks for it and unlock yours. And whether it be with leopards or not, it’s in the now that you’ll feel your most alive.
Written by: Amy Attenborough