The fiercest of them all

I have always found giraffe as interesting yet harmless creatures. I cannot recall ever being completely besotted or fascinated by them but I think that if inter species friendships were possible; they would be my friends no doubt. To me they have always looked like the chilled, go with the flow creature in the animal kingdom; the way they move, they way the eat, the way the listen out for predators. My opinion of them as being strong and powerful animals only started to change when my guests and I nearly had one come crushing on us. If lions, and more precisely the Southern pride lionesses’ lead by the mighty Floppy ear were hot on your tail, you would run for your life with all the fierceness you possess. Luckily we lived to tell the tale and one of my guests even got the whole thing on video (which of course, got lost somewhere in the universe of my computer). Although we all survived the ordeal (humans AND wildlife) – and I was teased for months as being the only person ever to be charged by a giraffe – giraffes in general earned a little bit more respect in my books. There was an inner strength in that giraffe that I could only feel.

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After this particular incident my relationship with giraffes went back to normal and it fell back to our normal routine…until a summer day showed me again that wildlife has infinite more strength than what we give them credit for.

It was a particularly chilly afternoon so there wasn’t too much around to see after we left the hyena den. The young ones had decided it was too cold to be outside of their termite mound. We bumbled along afterwards however we only found a few frozen impala here and there, the odd elephant munching away; but everyone was slowly being consumed by the game drive’s lullaby and falling asleep. A leopard was called in so we decided to make our way slowly into that area waiting for our turn to see the elusive spotted cat.

Before arriving to that particular area, Elvis raised and had and said to me in Shangaan: “lots of vultures there”. Although it was a cold day and vultures are doomed to be grounded in the absence of the hot currents of air they use to surf the skies, something felt out of place. There were too many of them, we decided to go off road and investigate. As we approached – hoping for the lion we hadn’t seen – we could only see a giraffe staring at something in the distance.

Bummer!
“If the giraffe is so close to the vultures, chances are there is nothing here” – I thought to myself.
A giraffe wouldn’t stand so close to a lion.
“Let’s see what else there is”

When finally we managed to get closer to the giraffe we witnessed a sight I had never seen before and it took a second to register in my mind.

The giraffe is female. There are lots of hyenas around.
Maybe they stole a kill from a leopard?
There is something on the ground.
No. freaking. way.

We had come across a battlefield where a clan of hyenas had managed to kill a giraffe calf, no older than a year. Its mother would not give up and kept defending her baby to the advances of all the hyenas. It was however a loosing battle as the calf was already dead. It was a heart-breakings sight as she fought the hyenas over and over again to no avail. Her strength and determination however also made it a humbling sight, as there is no instinct stronger than protecting your own, even when the battle has been lost. For that she had all my respect and I could not utter any words and the events that were unfolding in front of us.

(Warning: the below video is not for sensitive viewers)

Did you hear her GROWL?! If not, rewind. I didn’t know giraffes where capable of such sounds.

We eventually left them, all convinced that although it hadn’t been a happy sight, it had been a special one for it reminded us very strongly of the law of the bush, and the balance between life and death. The hyena clan that was so fiercely fighting for their meal, had cubs to go back to and feed. We had just spent part of our afternoon with the little ones at the den and while we felt devastated for the giraffe, there was a silent realization of how raw nature is.

The following morning we decided to go back and see how the events had unfolded during the evening. Younger hyenas had been fetched from the den, and the matriarch and her offspring were gorging themselves keeping lower ranking hyenas at bay. The mother giraffe was still around, and it seemed she was starting to understand that there was nothing to do, still she had trouble “letting go”. While we were there, an unexpected visitor came into scene once more changing the dynamics of the unfolding events. All humans were sitting still, not making a sound as not to give away his position, but also not wanting to hinder the chances of any of the young hyenas of being able to make a quick getaway should they need to.

The male lion appeared and quickly claimed his prize, sending hyenas and giraffes scattering all around. The dice had been thrown, and the male lion had claimed what was at stake.

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‘Tis the season

“It’s not so bad, once you’re here you get used to it. There’s always a staff party”

In my time in the bush I’ve used this sentence on countless occasions to try and console first timers. Being away from family during Christmas and having to work can be a trying time if you chose to focus on home too much. The first Christmas I worked I was so homesick I refused to speak to my family. I knew exactly what they were doing, eating, drinking and even fighting about. I’ve never been one to be homesick, but somehow Christmas has always been a special family time for me; 2012 was the only year that I refused to hear from them, thankfully It’s gotten easier since then, after all “it’s not so bad, once you’re here you get used to it. There’s always a staff party” .

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Said every person safari person not working during the holidays

Eventually, the more Christmases you work, the easier it gets, and the people you work with become your tribe. There’s a tacit agreement to listen to everyone’s Christmas traditions and stories; to make sure your neighbour always wakes up on time for morning drive; that you don’t drink too much at the staff party; and that everyone gets a decent white elephant present. It’s a time of silliness feared by managers, maybe caused by the sense of holiday carried in the air.

Christmas has always meant family to me. It’s always been that time of the year where no matter how much drama there’s been, everyone comes together to make Latvian cookies, Venezuelan hallacas and taken on together the challenge that is Gianfranco’s Christmas lunch.

As the year draws to an end, I always become a bit nostalgic and start focusing on all the things this time of the year used to mean to me.

And so, I start to remember.

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The first thoughts always go to cookies and pine trees.

I remember believing up to not too long ago that Christmas was actually meant to be celebrated on the 24th. That’s when my parents normally made us open their presents, and that’s when we went for Christmas dinner.

I remember always feeling puzzled as my direct Italian family seemed to celebrate things differently. I always felt Latvian during the lead to for Christmas Eve.

I remember the Christmas we all secretly laughed at Ricky for being convinced he had somehow managed to steal Santa’s hat while he slept on the couch next to the Christmas tree.

I remember the time Gimli managed to pushed down the tree and there was chaos.

I remember being little and feeling special by getting Christmas dresses from Opi. Omi might have been involved too, but it was Opi the one that took the spotlight in making sure everyone was at its finest during Christmas Eve dinner.

I remember being old enough to think “wtf” during Christmas service when the pastor got too political over the years.

I remember my mom singing all the hymns in Latvian. I knew one, I don’t remember it anymore.

I remember playing Barbie dolls with Fede on a brand new “Barbie lounge set” and eating the ice cream of the “crystal plates”. It was cookies and cream.

I remember the pride I felt the first time I was tasked with kneading the dough to make Pirags (Latvian bacon buns) by my Omi. I remember the subsequent arguments with her every year after on making so many cookies when not everyone came to help out.

I remember eating my weight in pirags with “guasacaca” and Pepsi, because Tico and Vilis decided that this was how they tasted best.

I remember making hundreds of “hallacas” that I would never eat because “ew, raisins”

I remember my mom always washing dishes and plates on Christmas Eve to make sure Omi would for once enjoy an evening. I remember growing a conscious and starting to help her.

I remember the 25ths belonging to the Italians and to Sebucán. The never ending challenge of getting past half of the dishes that Gianfranco had prepared for all of us and never winning.

I remember the honor I felt when I was asked to contribute with a dessert.

I remember the exact feeling when my mom woke me up in her ever tactful fashion “Wake up, we have to go to the cemetery. Nonno died”. I remember feeling broken inside because I didn’t know how to be there for my dad.  I remember being so incredible grateful for our family friends and their inappropriate jokes that kept my dad going through the day.

I remember the exact moment when Christmas was forever be changed.

I remember fireworks at midnight. I remember trikitrakis.

I remember the saga that it was to find a Christmas tree. I remember the treasured decorations that got stolen at Tia’s wedding.

I remember everyone having a set unspoken spot in the living room for opening presents.

I remember having one my most memorable mornings on safari and almost being trampled by buffalo while they escaped hunting lions. It was amazing.

I remember management decorating the tree at River Lodge in most hideous fabric.

I remember there always being a storm in the African summer.

I remember watching guests during their Christmas dinner at the lodge and feeling content for sometimes there is good in the world.

I remember being grateful for my family and friends as I grew older and hoping that if I could send them a wish across the sea, it would always be for them to be happy.

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Because my heart is in my stomach

Every year, doesn’t matter if I’m working or not, I have learned that there is a special quietness to this time. It’s a time to be kinder and thankful, and with a nostalgic air thrive to be a better human.

Although in 6 years I have only managed twice to not be at work for Christmas, the family I grew up with and the family I have chosen is always present, even when I refuse to speak to them. Wherever you are, I hope your ones in all their shapes and sizes, are there for you too.

Merry Christmas!

Letting go

The bush has a funny way of reminding you that nothing (or everything if you want to be sceptical) happens by chance. What you see, what you witness, what you experience is a product of a series of events that are meant lead you somewhere that you might miss, should you not listen. The meaning is not always clear, but things have a funny way of always working out… in the end.

ALE_2100Amongst guides there’s a famous book called “Guides guide to guiding”. When first training to become a guide we were told to read this book, and find out where we fit amongst all the different approaches. There are many types of guides, the hero guides, the wannabe guides, the scientific guides, the risk takers and so on. I cannot recall all the names but the one that stroke me is the guide that guides for nature and not so much for people. I always had these conversations with Allan when things got deep at the end of a long day. I’ve always been the guide that deals with (some) people as a price to be out in the wilderness everyday. Not because I dislike people but because I like animals more. On a particular occasion this was all I could think of when a met a group of ladies that were bound to spend 2 nights in the bush with me. I was excited to have an all girl team as it can be a lot of fun, but one of them was having none of it.

“Hi, nice to meet you. I’m Ale”

“Hi, it’s nothing against you but we don’t want you”

When you meet someone and these are the very first words spoken to you… well, you sigh. All of a sudden 2 nights seemed an eternity. Their problem wasn’t with me. They were repeat guests and just wanted the guide they had on their previous visit, but had forgotten to make a request so the lodge had assigned them to me. While it was an understandable disappointment, rudeness should never be justified.

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As the days went on I found out about their lives as they did mine. We shared conversations about conservation, poaching and wildlife behaviour while enjoying some great sightings in the bush. The one lady however was still set in her ways. Forcing myself to smile while pouring gin and tonics, I was caught in the crossfire between her will and the lodge’s logistics. When she couldn’t get to me in terms of knowledge she then decided to show her displeasure of me being a foreigner in someone else’s land, all her attention and questions were then addressed to the tracker, as I wasn’t good enough, because I’m a foreign girl living in Africa. I had ruined her vision, and she wanted me to know.

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In the end, I had a lovely time with the rest of the ladies and had some unbelievable sightings. The attitude of this woman however got me thinking in the quiet driving moments of a safari about life, and about a part of life I’ve been struggling with this year:

“Why is it so hard to let go?”

She could have had a better time should she not have spent the better part of two days trying to tear me apart because I didn’t fit her plan, her vision of what this specific safari would be. Why couldn’t she let herself be surprised in the company of someone else? There was a stubbornness to her that got me thinking that we are all at some point guilty of allowing our minds to play us, making ourselves our own worst enemies when it comes to enjoying life.

Why is it hard to let go of an idea we had in mind of how things are supposed to look like, feel like and adapt to our given circumstances? Does it have to be this hard? Why is going with flow so challenging?

In a year where things have constantly been up in the air, where I have become a nomad once more, I have struggled to go with flow, to adapt to life rather than ragingly react. The Universe has shown me very clearly (like the “accidental” branch to the face the lady got to for being terribly rude on one occasion) that the anxiety comes from wanting to control everything, wanting to have all the answers when I don’t have all the puzzle parts. For not being able to let go I’ve struggled more, I’ve stressed more, I’ve fought more and I’ve been unhappy.

Letting go of what we thought would be or should be can lead to the most magnificent and rewarding experiences. It’s not a hippie easy-go-lucky life mantra for me, it requires hard work and perhaps the bush is reminding me it’s time to let go again. To learn to dance in the wind with the leaves, to get wet in the rain and to let the sun dictate where I go.  It’s time to let myself be surprised by what’s in store rather than trying to stick to a plan and making it work. It’s time to learn how to let go of the plan, the anger, the expectations and learn how to hold on to the beauty of the ever changing possibilities around me.

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After all, learning to let go and embracing a new curve ball is what lead to my biggest adventure yet.

Look the other way!

Warning: this is not a glamorous story.

People associate me to different things, but those who really know me often associate me with cycadas: “I need to pee” is probably the most typical phrase I will every say. A phrase that much to everyone’s –and my own- despair is spoken in the worst and less opportunistic moments.

Just because I work and live in the African bush surrounded by hippos, lions, rhinos, buffalos, elephants and leopards, it doesn’t mean that I won’t man up and hide behind a bush if I have to. The problem is that I suffer from the constant need to drink coffee, water or tea much until I’m about to burst.  Even if I don’t suffer of “stage fright”, here in Africa I have to watch my back so that I don’t get eaten.

On a particular day, and being very silly, David –my coffee friend and I – went too far. After 2 coffees and the first pit stop, we carried on drinking water to no end.

“It’s summer, we have to stay hydrated” he said.
…What a dumb think to think! Hydration and its direct consequences are not to be overlooked. Ever.

“Ok, in a 100m when we get to that bush. That seems like a good place”.
“Wait. What is that? Is that an impala alarm calling?”
“Let’s carry on, I prefer not to have my bum bitten by a leopard”
“Hmmm. Let’s cross onto the other side of the river, seems like I’ll be able to hide better over there”

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“Crap. Of course there had to be buffalo here”.
“Move cow, move!”
“Great, two wasn’t enough, it had to be FIVE of them.”
“Let’s try somewhere else”

When I thought things were getting serious, we came across a herd of elephants and all biological needs were forgotten. My heart was beating fast. I said hello to all herd members as if they could (or would) like to know I was happy to see them. I took my camera out besotted by a tiny little baby. My love and excitement lasted a while until I realised the elephants were walking our same path, our same route at a very…very slow pace.

45 minutes later we were still behind them.. and somehow we got stuck in the middle of the herd. How did this even happen?!

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Great, just great.
“Ladies, get your young ones and hit it”
“Should we maybe go back and take the long way back?”
“Uhm. Guys, huge male ellie coming towards us”
“… and he’s in musth”

Thanks to the power of collective positive thinking, this potentially grumpy and full of testosterone male decided to walk away from us, leaving a fence of Tamboti trees between us. He took his time, stared at us, made us very aware that we had no escape route should he decide to get grumpy.

After what felt like an eternity, he moved on. We all wanted to believe it was all under control as we joked around to hide our relief.

When the big bull left, David and I jumped out of the car.

“Don’t go far from the car Allie”
“I’ll go behind the car, you go to the front! Don’t look this way”

When I’m finally starting to feel human again, caught in the middle of it, I hear:

“Allie…… uhm… You might wanna hurry”
“Why?” (like you could speed this process up)
“There’s a big a male ellie to your right. Hurry”.

“WHAT?!”

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About 20m away from me another big bull was approaching. Thankfully this one wasn’t in musth but he stared straight at me anyway.

“Honestly, what does a girl have to do to pee in peace in the bush?!” “Buffalos, cows, a murderer elephant and now this?!”

When I told Claudia my anecdote, she said that in Caracas this happens to her everyday, however the elephant is her friend and it’s at least polite because it always looks the other way. I think next time I’ll put my wish out there in the universe for a little privacy… or a little less coffee.

 

Baby season

In May every year we have a bush festival of sorts, with its own music and in which adult act like teenagers and you only participate if you’re an impala. It’s a big party because females come into heat. All of them. At the same time. The amount of hormones fluttering about make all the males lose their focus in everything else. They can’t stand one another. They’re constantly chasing each other, and if they can, they stab each other. They’re in a constant grumpy mood where females (as many as possible) are the only prize able to satisfy their “thirst”. Male impala become more.. well, more basic and primordial in all possible ways.. with all.

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“Ag, when will they shut up?”

Nature is so wise it will reward the female’s patience with a unique gift: coordination. Seven months later after this rutting festival, all females tend to drop their babies and flood the plains of amusing little lambs. The time of the “impalitas” is one of my favourite because with their little head bands they remind me of Nana and make my heart a little happier.

The arrival of the first rains makes future moms look big and heavy.. and while probably a little bit offended of being called big and heavy – they also take to solitude to have their young. Finding the females on their own it’s a good indication that the impala time is fast approaching. It would seem however that it doesn’t matter where I go, Tristan always beats me to the first one.

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The closes I’ve ever been to witnessing a birth. Found it a few minutes too late

“If anybody is interested there is a manpinpan mala on Warthog Wallow” (2012).

“Oh I forgot to tell you, I saw the first baby impala today” (2017).

Every time.
Every year.
Every single year.

Little by little the tiny ones, and all of a sudden a new generation altogether, will flood the the savanna. The impalitas. As Megan would say “what a time”. Definitely one of the few things I enjoy about the summertime – besides not being cold all the time of course.

While I love this time of the year for heartfelt reasons, there are many that love it for stomach-full reasons. I love baby season for the impalas, Tristan loves baby season for the leopards. During this time of the year predators might spend less but eat more. Some sort of cosmic super coupon that makes leopards stroll around with full bellies most of the time. I have seen greedy leopards with their cubs enjoy a 3-for-1 meal in the same tree. I have counted 5 kills in less than 3 days.

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The eternal question

The cycle of life is at its toughest during the baby season. The young ones have to become strong and learn to run and jump as quick as possible if they are to survive. The odds are mostly stacked against them but nature, gifting them to be born at the same time, has giving them a fighting chance. From the get go, they are giving a fighting chance to become the mightier version of themselves.