That’s how Jessica MacLarty felt the day she first walked onto Varty deck to meet her guests. That was 2009, and it was her debut as a game ranger at Londolozi. Having arrived at the lodge in 2007 as a children’s programme coordinator, a year and a half later, Jess had enrolled in the ranger-training course, admitting up front that her inability to talk to anyone over the age of 12 might hamper her efforts (Jess gives some tips on how she overcame her fear of people below).
It’s now six years on and Jess – having proven herself to be one of the most talented and engaging rangers that we have ever had – has moved into a position alongside Gogo Mo Groch, Lina Lamula and Reckson Dlamini, to coordinate, guide and steer, many of the forward-thinking projects that are transforming the Londolozi village.
Ryan James recently caught up with Jess and discussed, among other things, the strengths of the rainbow nation, the vision for Londolozi’s futuristic African village, and looking to the African continent for inspiration.
Ryan: Jess, you have been at Londolozi since 2007 and worked in a number of different roles. What is it about Londolozi that keeps you here?
Jess: That’s an easy one. It’s the people. Whether it’s the elders who have been here for years or the new rangers and camp managers who come in an out a little more frequently, there is something about this place – aside from the intense beauty – that attracts world-class humans. I love being part of that.
Ryan: South Africa is full of opportunity, energy and passion. What do you love most about this country and what do you think we can teach the rest of the world?
Jess: The standard answer is that I love that we are a rainbow nation. But actually what I love most is that the “rainbow” doesn’t always come easy. We’re honest about our challenges and we make a plan to keep moving forward. That said, I think we can teach the rest of the world to be honest about human challenges – never bury your head in the sand.
Ryan: You speak about Londolozi’s vision for a futuristic African village. Tell us more about that vision and how it ties into the original vision for Londolozi.
Jess: It has always been the mission of Londolozi to contribute in a small way to the success of our country and our people. With each step forward, we want to emulate the spirit of our country and also push boundaries: become a small example of what South Africa could be. I love the word “sustainable” but it can be sweeping. We have tried to make small steps over many years so that we are always asking ourselves: Is this is a place where humans and nature live in harmony? Are we creating a culture of respect, trust and empathy throughout?
Ryan: You recently travelled the length of the African continent. If you could choose a country that you would look to for inspiration as you take on your new role, which would it be?
Jess: Without a doubt, both Duncan – my husband – and I fell in love with Kenya. You are immediately struck by the welcoming and kind nature of the people. But more than that, they seem to have struck a balance between progress and tradition. Kenya is one of the most exciting economies in Africa, but it is also so careful to enjoy and protect its culture. That’s the vision of the village team at Londolozi: create a place that is innovative and out-of-the-box, with new ideas, but stay true to our own truths and the traditions that bind us to the land and together as people.
Ryan: You are new to this role, but you already seem to be approaching it with such a great balance between wisdom and sensitivity. What have you learnt about yourself in the process?
Jess: First, I have learnt to listen. Most of us will never master the art of listening, but we underestimate how important it is. In any small, isolated community – and especially one that has a big vision – communication will make or break the ability of the people to unite and work together. Second, I have learnt to embrace “long-term.” Progress and change do not happen overnight.
Ryan: You mention that one of your biggest personal challenges has been working on your “shyness”. Do you think that guiding has helped your confidence?
Jess: As you know I was previously a game ranger at Londolozi. But to become a game ranger, I had to get over my phobia of people over the age of 12 (Jess laughs). The thing is – I was desperate to become a game ranger. I clearly remember Boyd Varty sitting me down one day and saying: “Jess, you either get over it, or you don’t guide.” I realised then that this wasn’t a long, complicated issue that I needed extended help with. It was black and white: you either take the leap or you don’t. There are moments in life that are like that, and I am just so happy that I took the leap. After I made the decision, it was small steps, and to be honest, I spent a lot of time talking to myself in the mirror!
Ryan: Guests come up into the village everyday to see what is “behind the scenes”. Tell us more about the Village Walk.
Jess: The village walk is a way for guests to see and experience our vision for a future African village. We’re talking everything from our “guerilla” gardens and water recycling systems, to our digital learning centre model, which has won awards and is challenging the “how” of education in rural Africa. One of the highlights is “Nelson Mandela Way” which meanders up to the traditional Shangaan village – but I won’t give too much away. What I will say is – if people would like to find out more about our village, they can read all of our 2020 Vision stories on the blog by clicking here.
Last note: There is so much about Jess that will surprise you. She has her pilot’s license, she was once an apprentice for a mechanic, she is a qualified masseuse, and she has taken part in “The March of the Living.” Here’s one more: Jess was brought up with many Zulu values and traditions as a child. In fact, she was christened in a Zulu ceremony and her Zulu name is Nomphumelelo, which means “one of success.”
Jess – we wish you every success in your new role!
Written and Photographed by: Ryan James, Londolozi Blog Contributor