Welcome to deep dark Africa!
I never really knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. In my mind I had this glamorous idea that I would somehow become a famous photographer, a world class horse jockey or the next Dog Whisperer. All I knew was that where ever I went and what ever I did I would work with animals and I would somehow be famous. Imagine my surprise when out of the blue I found myself doing the 3.5 hour drive from my small animal farm holding just outside of Durban for an interview in the heart of Zululand.
With no guiding qualification, no experience and in the middle of savannah bushveld, I was hurled into the bush to find my own way. It was the height of summer and the sweltering heat coupled with high humidity levels made the days almost unbearable. I lay awake most nights trying to familiarise with the evening songs and feeling almost terrified that my door did not lock and that someone could walk in at any moment; having to constantly remind myself that I was 20km in a Big5 game reserve and there was more of a chance for a lion wandering into camp and gobbling me up than a human intruder. My demons had shadowed me from the city all the way into the bush waiting for the moment to consume me.
I remember a particularly hot day when my employer sent me into the bush with a more experienced guide and simply said, “learn as much of you can from him, he knows his stuff.” It was my first time out on foot and with this stranger at my side and rifle in hand, we began the long trek in a direction unknown to me and expectations I could only imagine. With my water bottle strapped to my backpack swaying to the rhythm of my step and slowly leaking down my leg, I trudged through long grass with my eyes fixed to the ground scanning for snakes and other creepy crawlies. Only 15 minutes in to our walk an Mfezi (Mozambican Spitting Cobra) stood up from the spot he had been sunning himself in along our path and enthusiastically hissed at me. Before even being able to identify the sly serpent, I let out a loud yelp and jumped at least 1.5m in to the air, over the creature and in to the arms of my unsuspecting protector. The snake sunk back into the grass and quickly moved off the path out of sight.
Everything in the bush is bigger, scarier and fiercer than what it is in the city. Giant African Land Snails, Lunar Moths, Red-Legged Orb Web Spiders, Rhinoceros, African Elephants and African Rock Pythons; just to name a few. Every waking moment is spent scanning the ground, horizon and skies for giant creatures to head in your direction. Blundering over rocky then muddy terrain in a Land Cruiser learning how to shift gears, steer and examine the bush for starry eyes peering back at you is a skill that can only be learned with hours of practice. While the days present you with the constant challenge of dodging spider webs and hover craft beetles missiling towards your head, the nights are pitch black and the vehicle lights attract insects which must be waved away amidst all these tasks. An ear twitches in the long grass and a flash of red reflects the spotlight. It’s definitely a cat but I cannot make out what species in the dark. My tracker and I exchange a knowing glance and I take a sharp turn off the dirt road over large rocks and small trees towards the reflection. A lioness nonchalantly turns her head in our direction as she casually remained relaxing in the long grass.
Africa is full of the weird and wonderful, dark and delightful, fierce and fantastic and to take it all in and truly appreciate what the bush has to offer takes years of soaking in the mystery and magic. It has been one year since I took my first steps into the reserve and everyday is a new experience to learn and gain a greater appreciation for an earth I don’t think I will ever be able to fathom or fully understand.