You can’t buy experience.
Nor can you buy a grey cap in the Londolozi Boutique shop.
The colours we have on offer there are khaki, black, white and then there’s a cool sort of mustard-brown coloured one I’ve seen before, but I don’t think we stock those anymore.
My point is that despite there being no retail availability of grey caps, this is the common colour you’ll see amongst the headwear of the Londolozi guides and trackers. You might think that the lodge reserves the grey colour exclusively for its employees, but this isn’t so.
No, the grey cap is something far more than a simple head covering with a visor. It represents time in the field. It represents experience, and – probably most importantly – it represents being part of a team.
No one who owns a Grey (I’m just going to call it that from now on to save type space) hasn’t put in his or her time out there.
All grey caps started their lives as black caps, but as many things do over time, they fade. The hot African sun beats down, buffalo thorns tear at the fabric, and sweat and dust infiltrate the material on a daily basis so that repeated washing is essential. And over time, the black colour slowly starts to disappear.
It takes at least 6 months for a cap to properly start becoming grey, if not more. As a ranger or tracker, you’re probably looking at over 1000 hours accumulated time in the field over the course of 6 months, and I’m factoring in going on leave as well. Not all of the field time will necessarily be in the sun (although most of it will), but you will be rained on, wind will scour the cap, hail will occasionally fall on it, and in all likelihood the cap will be sat on more than a few times by accident.
Each ranger’s cap starts to take on a personality of its own. Sweat stains, slight colour variations formed by different substrates of the various roads the individual prefers driving; it’s seldom that one has to closely examine a cap left in the Ranger’s Room to identify its owner. Far more likely that you see it on the table and know that it belongs to Jess, simply from the tear to the right of the logo, caused by that Knobthorn when she was tracking the Ntsevu Pride, or Souch from the slightly brown section along the rim just above the peak…
Of course not everyone favours the peak cap as their headgear of choice. Head of Technical Services Chris Goodman has been at Londolozi for over 10 years, having started as a ranger, and he probably boasts more hours than anyone else under the African Sun over that period of time. Chris has chose a wide-brimmed leather number from the beginning, and since I’ve known him (mid-2010), he has only had to change hats once. “Change” is a term loosely used as the original one literally started falling apart:
I’m digressing slightly here as we could go off on a completely different tangent about iconic hats, so let’s get back to the Grey.
You’re highly unlikely to find anyone with a Grey Londolozi Cap who hasn’t been or isn’t currently a ranger/tracker here. The sheer volume of hours out in the field needed to transform the original item into one of status is seriously hard to come by unless actually on the job. The only thing I could suggest would be to buy one and just leave it on the roof for 6 months. Throw it in the wash a few times. Kick it around in the dirt.
And if it fades just enough, then on your next visit here – although you might not be openly lauded or have your praises sung – when your ranger and tracker team greet you at the airstrip, they’ll notice the faded wash of what was once your black cap, and there will probably be a knowing look that passes between you.
And it will likely remain unspoken, but the feeling of pride you will certainly feel will be closely tied with another, which is often more elusive.