Home is timeless, in the heart, near love, close to a river. Where the animals are.”
Boyd Varty, Cathedral of the Wild
“Are you sure you want to travel alone to Africa?” “Are you taking your anti-malaria medication?” “Is there really a psychology conference in a safari park?” My friends are hyper vigilant. They know my stubbornly curious spirit, that sometimes narrowly escapes getting me into pickles decade after decade.
Yes, I am sure I want to travel to Africa, I feel called to animals I have not yet seen but already love. I feel called to meet colleagues with foreign accents and names I stumble over. I feel called to understand the story of people who, shackled by a past of race prejudice, find their way to fresh air. I feel called to unmet children of Africa and learning centres, engulfed by joy and the love of those who care for their future. Go I must and go I do.
I go in search of the inner peace I remember in the southern Israeli desert, the stillness of daybreak that is broken only by the call of animals and birds I can neither see nor name. I go for the popping oranges and scarlets of the sky unimpeded by pollution, the sunset sky that implodes in my heart as it creeps over the horizon behind a tree. I go for the thrill of up-close photo hunts for animals as our Land Rover comes to the doorway of their savannah hide away. I go with every cell that is in me.
Husband John, far and away more the adventurer than I am, has been ordered by his stellar medical team to avoid remote safari camps where electricity can be a ‘sometimes’ thing. Part of our love is that we understand each other so very well. He gifts me this trip, no doubt quietly hoping that I will get this energy out of my system and act like someone my age. Doubtful.
My game ranger, Werner Breedt, an intensely handsome chap with a twinkle in his eye and a Wikipedia of information at his command, holds the secrets of the Sabi Sands and Greater Kruger region. He responds politely and enthusiastically as I climb into the front seat next to him. As we cover more ground, I begin asking many questions during the six hours we drive daily. Uninvited, we want to visit with dangerous predators like lions and leopards and elephants, rhinoceros and hippopotamus. As we approach a pair of leopards, Werner becomes intensely involved in the chase. He tells us we are about to leave the jagged dirt road and literally head into the cracking underbrush to get a front view of the two leopards that plan to mate very soon. And, if we are very lucky, we may see the three lions that make their way on the other side of our Land Rover. We creep to a stop as Werner reminds us for the umpteenth time not to stand up in the open car. Any unusual movement can generate fear based aggression in the animals who gingerly tolerate our presence. I manage to get mediocre shots of the unfolding scene. I am only able to capture part of one leopard’s body. But I am not there for the photo. I am there to intenisfy my awareness that we humans are but a minsucule part of this remarkable showcase of nature. And, should we consider ourselves entitled to plunder the technicolor splendour of the wilderness, we had better think twice. We are the tiniest star in the universe of throbbing animal blood that surrounds us.
Luck is with me. Precisely because I am travelling alone at Londolozi, the luminescent safari camp to end all safari camps, Werner invites me to join him for dinner. Over an uproarious fire, Venus and the sliver of the moon overhead, we talk about what life is like when one lives and breathes animals as one’s life blood. Werner sits back from our impeccably prepared four course meal, and speaks with passion. I know from being on these drives that the experience is for many, a peak lifetime experience. It does not dull with repetition. It intensifies as one realises the immensity of the learning about what it actually means to be fully alive. He has captured my sense of things and I nod in agreement. “Animals are more intellignet than we think. They need no institution to teach them how to live well. They just know. All leopards do the same thing; they stalk, they drink from the water, they patrol their home for danger. The innate capacity for intelligence puts human intelligence in perspective for me.” His words strike a chord in me as I think fondly of the remarkable leopard I photographed earlier that day. At 15 she is one of the oldest leopards in the world. This nameless grand dame of the animal kingdom is bone thin, and walks with the stiffness I feel when I sleep wrong in my bed. But she is majestic; she owns her life better than humans the equivalent of her age. I felt an immediate kinship with her.
Werner continued. “I want to showcase nature so people see it as a special thing. We live in an information bubble. We think about what we need to survive. Here, in the savannah, we get to think about somethiing bigger than ourselves.”I can feel my shoulders drop into relaxation as Werner states what I have experienced in the Land Rover over the last few days. We are born alone, and we die alone, but in between, we are one of a species of animals.
As I return to customary daily urban and beach life, I reenter civilization humbled and privileged by my time at Londolozi, I return with deeper wisdom of what it actually means to be human.
To consider: How seriously do you take your life with animals? Might your life be richer if you reconsidered their place in the lives of all of us? What might you learn if you did?
Written by: Judith Coche, Londolozi Guest