Every morning I wake up to the ambient sounds of the African bush; hippos grunting from the near by waterhole, a scops owl sounds its last chorus before retiring due to the rising sun, some animals awakening and others returning to a deep slumber. I step outside my room into the morning chill and gaze across an open patch of ground with a thin layer of mist covering it, and half way across it I can see my goal… posts. I am referring to the piece of open space that can be found in almost every village, town and city in our country; it is the soccer field.
As I walk out into the cold air preparing myself for the morning game drive, I think of what I have discovered in my time here; this dusty and uneven soccer field signifies something different to many people around the staff village. I take a few seconds to appreciate the stillness of this open space and I can see a male Nyala slowly making his way across it into the receding darkness beyond. For me the goal posts are reminders to remain focused on my goals and why I am here in the northern parts of South Africa and at Londolozi. I make my way down to the camp and can already feel the small amount of excitement rising at the prospect of a game of soccer or touch rugby later on.
The field is a place where many of the staff come to exercise by running laps around the boundary, as there are few places to run out in the bush without entering the food chain. Still others enjoy themselves in either a competitive game of soccer or touch rugby that normally kicks off at around 11h30 in the morning and can sometimes be heard from other areas of the staff village, particularly when Victor from Central Stores scores another goal and proceeds to celebrate enthusiastically, or the unison cry from the rangers in a heated game of touch rugby, “That was a forward pass!”.
The ranging team normally partakes in a game of touch rugby after the soccer players have departed and while we are a family and are constantly supporting and helping each other out on game drives every day, as soon as a ball is introduced into the equation, our competitive natures skyrocket. To me this field is more than two goal posts and a semi-inclined patch of open ground; this is where many laughs occur and people engage with each other.
Guests regularly partake to show up their rangers. However this field is not for the faint of heart and often takes a few victims that are not able to remain on their feet. It’s been the site of many a grazed knee, more than a few sprained ankles, a cut chin and at least one fractured collar-bone. Ranger Alex Jordan also somehow chipped a tooth there recently (we’re still not quite sure how!).
I have heard stories from many veteran trackers and rangers from the past that the original soccer pitch was a much smaller dusty patch that was situated in the heart of the staff village, and one would often have to weave in between staff houses to either avoid opposition or find the goal posts (the corner of tracker Elmon Mhlongo’s house and a suspect empty crate) that would move depending on who was in goals at the time. The games were usually abandoned swiftly after the first or third window was broken.
Sport has played a large part in the behind the scene motivation of the staff over the years which has lead to the renowned fixture that is highly anticipated every year.
This field plays a major role in the annual exhibition soccer match between the Londolozi Leopards – a fiercely competitive unit from the back-of-house staff – that have thoroughly enjoyed a long string of wins against the more amateur Londolozi Hyenas, a team comprised of rangers, camp managers and those unlucky enough to not know what they were signing up for when they agreed to play in the game. It’s a highly supported match that leaves every one in good spirits at the sound of the final whistle with many high fives and subtle teasing at the Hyenas tactics and dress code of Ranger James Souchon.
There have been whispers in the wind of a new pitch that will be a 5-a-side arena, set to be created in the heart of the village, much like our predecessors’ hallowed ground of the former years, a prospect met by smiles from Elmon as it’s no longer near his house and his windows are more likely to remain intact. The Hyena’s team management also face a much easier prospect finding 5 people to play than 11, come the Christmas day exhibition match.
All in all an empty piece of ground that is filled with laughs, screams and cheering as a comeback goal is scored by the Londolozi Leopards, a place where peoples’ determination is to grind out their day to day stresses by running lap after lap and where a magnificent sunset can be viewed from our humble home in the African bushveld.
Our field of dreams.
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I love this post, Liam! The soccer field is one of my favourite spots to watch the sun go down, and while I might not enjoy running around on it, I love what it represents to this community. Thank you for a great post.
I really enjoyed this blog post. My husband and I lived in Cote d’Ivoire for 3 1/2 years, and we were able to travel to South Africa. Soccer (Futbal in francophone west Africa) is universal, as are other sports. We witnessed many games played on less than perfect fields, and the enjoyment of the players, whether rivals or teammates, was so open for all to share.
I hope to visit Londolozi on a future trip. We’ve been to Kruger and Madikwe reserve, but Londolozi seems special.
Great Blog Liam, this patch of ground has special memories for me as it is where I played my last game of rugby with my two sons just as my father did 30 years ago. However I may be tempted for another try at New Year, such is the feeling of an old rugby player who can never hang up his boots. I can still recall James taking an outrageous dummy and scoring.
Great post Liam, fantastic to see how sport continues to be a unifier of people and communities