The best secrets

“Buffalo, I just want to see a buffalo”. Out of the big 5 this was the only one Anjou hadn’t seen. He came on a drive with me because he couldn’t face going on back home and not having seen the big mean black cow.

“Are you sure?”
“Yes, please no cats. I’m tired of them”
“Ok then, buffalo it is”

The reality of every lodge worker is that, unless you’re a guide or a tracker, your exposure to wildlife is quite limited. Because of this (and because of mental sanity) it’s normally common practice for guides to take people on a drive whenever we have an afternoon off. Everyone needs a little reminder of what the place we live in is so special and unique and the best way to remember that is to live it.

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Rolling together

The irony of it all is, every place where I have chosen to work, seems like cats are easier to find than the mighty Cape Buffalo – no big herds wherever I work, just the smaller group of the so called Dagga (muddy) boys.

The first thing we saw…. was not a buffalo. It was a dung beetle. A tiny little black insect rolling a big ball of crap. I got so excited and hyper about it and went on and on… and on, that eventually he had no other option but consider them nice enough to view (they’re cool, can we go now?). With little expectations of finding a buffalo, but a lot of hope we carried on looking for them. A waterhole was a good option, it was hot – a good chance for them to be in the water; of course they were not. But while we looked we found many more things, elephants all around us, hippos singing in the water, nyala posing in the golden light. Our hearts were happy and right that second, when everyone had been quiet for a little while, and while I was enjoying a moment of gratitude for all the beauty around us.. they there were! Three big bulls enjoying the mud. Anjou almost fell out. He was so happy, so ecstatic.

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A  rare (for me) sight of an entire buffalo herd 

“Now I can go home, I have seen them all”.

I didn’t think we would see them. I said to him there was little hope. I think I played little in the part of finding him, but I think this was a gift for him from the Universe. To me the gift was that one split second, that moment when you see something through someone else’s eyes for the first time. It’s a unique moment, an addiction that I wish I could explain. Like everything in Africa it’s only a feeling and it lasts only a moment, but it’s powerful.

We clearly didn’t go home because there was still light and still a while to go. So we carried on. It was a quiet day, not too many animals out and about so we decided to stop and enjoy the sunset. While we did, the Universe had a surprise for me. Out of the corner of my eye I saw it. My brain didn’t register and I turned around. I saw him again. Refused to believe it. Got the binoculars out.

“OH MY GOD.
Guys look, now
NOW
THERE!
I need to a take photo otherwise they won’t believe me!”

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“What is it Ale?”

“It’s a rhino, a black rhino”.

Hand are shaking, eyes got teary. A black rhino. A wild black rhino for the first time in two years. I’m still thanking all the Gods, the old and the new, for this. He was the first one spotted on the reserve in the last 25 years.

“Now you have seen them all, now you can go home”

Sometimes, the best moments in life are those fleeting secrets, the unexpected ones. The ones that your friends appreciate because of your emotions. The ones that remind you what it’s all about.

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Mmm.. Thursday?

Depending on our daily routine and of jobs, different weekdays can have an attached meaning and feeling to it. Mondays will always starts slow, Wednesdays are almost there, Fridays – you can feel the happiness in the air, Sundays you rest.

But…

What happens when you work Monday to Monday?

Life changes,
You’re exhausted,
You’ve never been so free.

I work Monday to Monday. Depending on the season I can start waking up as early as 430am or as late as 530 (yay winter!) and going to bed either at 830pm (this is a true life goal for many guides) or after 10pm – typical boma night.

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Somedays I wish I slept like a leopard.

Since we’re little, we learn to go by the calendar and respect the gods of the Days, but in my daily routine, weekdays have no meaning. It’s a strange feeling. I know it’s Monday because there’s a town trip, I know it’s Friday because we might have a party, I know it’s Sunday because the world has gone quiet, I normally miss Tuesdays.

In a normal life you eagerly await for the weekend to feel free, and feel defeated on Sunday evening because “well, gotta go back to work tomorrow”. Here… well things are a little different. The lifestyle is more a “carpe diem” style. Any day of the week is a good day to go out, to celebrate, to have a special occasion until very late (which is 11pm thanks to our curfew). Excuses like “I have to work tomorrow” are never uttered and never respected. The only thing that commands complete absolution is “I ran out of money”, or “I’ve had a long cycle”. Because all great gifts come with a price, we get tired, we work hard and we look forward to those precious days of leave. The first few days of leave are indeed spent recovering, sleeping, regaining the lost optimism (which probably left us by week 5 of a work cycle).

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Because every morning my mane looks something like this.

It’s a tough life, it’s a fun life. To me, it’s been a life lived more because it’s taught me not wait for the weekend to go out, not to wait for 5pm to laugh, to have fun, it’s taught me to enjoy the chaos of times, but it’s taught me to appreciate the silent times. It’s a challenging way of enjoying the present and feeling utterly free. It has been one of the greatest gifts I have ever received and one to work really hard for.

If I can wish something for everyone today, is that you find a life that sets you free and makes you happy for the most part, even when you’re at your worse. Then you know you’re truly alive, and that’s all that really matters.

 

 

New girls on the block

Every property has a superstition attached to it, “scientifically” based on the animal movements. If you want to find rhino you go this way, if you want to find elephants you go to the river, if you want to find lions you go North and if you want to find leopards you go East.

On a morning of explorations, I was on my favourite road during a winter morning. We had been driving for a while, without seeing much almost making me regret my route choice. Sometimes you follow your gut feeling, and sometimes that gut feeling, you learn, can disappoint.

As we came into a junction I slammed on the brakes. Unknown to me as to how, my tracker and 3 guests missed the spots that walked right in front of us. At first a blur, commotion and screaming; we then realized that the blur was actually a mother and two cubs!. Hands shake, I’m too afraid to call it out loud, they’re going offroad, low range goes in, let’s do this. Hands stil shake. Cameras are going click click click click click click click. Heart has stopped. I can’t think.

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A few seconds after we spotted the,

We had never met before, but when she saw me she only glanced at us and then carried on. My heart was about to explode. She was taking her two cubs to a kill. I was alone in the West and there was a jungle ahead of us – the Universe granted us this much of privacy as everyone else was too far to join. I snapped a few photos to try and figure out who this mystery girl was and then they disappeared into the wild.

A few weeks went by I still hadn’t managed to find them again. I drove the same road, the same area, always with the hope of finding a sign of them. Their backyard was too big, I didn’t have such luck until one day Enock made my luck change. He found them and called me back, I saw them again playing in the tall grass and was completely taken by these larger balls of fluff.

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As it happens, one of them was more outgoing, one of them was shier. They were both entertaining. We were to become great friends after that. I would go West on my own looking for them and on more occasions than not, they allowed me to find them and spend time with them on their daily goings. A privilege that demanded a loud Thank You to the stars. They became my favourites, part of many storied and encounters and always there on the most unexpected days.

Outcrop and her cubs became of the best gifts I ever received.

The Charleston

Lion prides are probably one of the most interesting creatures to see over a period of time. Seeing them just once might prove boring as the myths are truth, they do sleep like the kings and queen on the jungle. Many an hour have been spent by all rangers in hopes of them raising their heads, start yawning and getting up after the afternoon slumber. It’s the hope of greatness when they move or roar that keeps making you come back. After all, you can only feel truly alive when you’re amongst lions – or so they say.

When you combine all the things you’ve seen them do, all the news you’ve been told, and all the stories you’ve heard, chances are that lions will surprise you, proving that their dynamics are anything but peaceful and tranquil. Game of thrones holds nothing against them.

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One of the “cubs” guarding a giraffe kill from advancing hyenas

The first we saw them it was by pure luck. Ian looked to the right and spotted them, Allan didn’t like lions, we only stayed with them until the rest of the rangers arrived.

“Thanks! We’ve been looking for them all morning”
“Who are they?”
“The Charleston pride“

It was just the beginning of the ill fate for this pride. The first and only time I would see a glimpse of a former glory. When I got see them again a few females and a few cubs had been caught in the crossfire with a larger pride, decimating this pride and reducing it to a one lioness pride, leading 3 young cubs. This particular lioness became some sort of a legend, and the favourite of many. Mother of one, aunt of two, she eventually lost her daughter but succeeded in raising the two male cubs on her own. Some were sceptical about her success, some wondered what would happen, but as the cubs grew healthier and stronger she earned the respect of many, became the favourite of the East.

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The mighty Charleston female

Being a lion is no easy task, being a lioness and having to raise cubs to adulthood might prove even more difficult but her perseverance and tenacity won. Her legacy lived on, as the two cubs became the rulers of an area that condemned them in their youth to live like outcasts, and seek the safety of the Sand river. Last time I saw her, true to herself she had two new male cubs and had accepted the presence of an unrelated young male. She still commanded the respect from the rangers that had met her.

A year later I’m grateful that her body wasn’t found. She went away like the empress she was. Quietly, gracefully, royally. Safe travels girl, your legacy lives on.

Tree anthem

What is that one?”
“I don’t know”
“And that one?”
“A jackalberry…?” “Ouch! That hurt. Was that not one a Jackalberry?
“They both were, pay attention”
“What is that one?”
“Knob thorn”
“Latin name?”
“Acacia nigrescens”
“That one?”
“Acacia…?”

“Oh, third one wrong. Off you go, hug and apologise to it”

“Hug the thorny tree?”
“Unless you want to walk home…”

“I’ll hug it!”

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Sickle bush (Dychrostachys cinerea) flowers

Self inflicted love for trees was something that I didn’t see coming from Allan’s unusual training methods. During our ranger training he truly believed that getting hurt while hugging spiny trees (mostly Acacias or sickle bush) was the best way to learn. It was effective – you can only get them wrong so many times before the shape of every thorn becomes an all too familiar feeling on your skin.

We would spend hours driving around trying to identify African trees correctly – get it wrong and you will hug thorns, apologise publicly to the tree or be driven into a branch while on the tracker seat. Can’t say it was a very nice part of training, but it made into an effective game.

As a kid me and my brothers were taught the tree anthem in preschool, along with all the basic kiddies songs.

“To tree we owe unrequited love,
we should never forget
they’re the work of God”

DSC_0868Growing up I loved trees mainly because I could climb up and build a treehouse that consisted mostly on a plank on a branch – but alas this was my kingdom. As life got in the way I always liked climbing them, but didn’t pay much more attention other than “oh! it’s in flower, pretty”.

A few years down the line I have come to realisation that if trees wished so, they could rule the world. Maybe even one day the world will end smothered by the roots of these ancient rulers. In my new life I keep becoming more respectful and mesmerised by them. Their deadliest weapon is being able to observe us, quietly, everyday, in every routine until the end of time. They can grow anywhere, survive for longer than turtles, speak to each other, help each other and have distinct personalities. Invisibility to human eyes is their super power.

If impala are ninjas, and frogs superstars, trees are definitely the Einstein of the world – not Africa’s, the world. Tamboti trees with their toxic latex (like the “innocent” Christmas trees we welcome to our houses), are able to prevent sapling from other trees to grow where they are (talk about tree racism right?). Leadwoods are able to stand for centuries after dying, Acacias and their fluffy flowers are able to alert other Acacias of the impending danger of hungry giraffes, Sausage trees in all their greatness have evolved to be pollinated by bigger bats instead of tiny insects.

After spending about 6 months trying to identify different trees, their medicinal uses, how they change every season, what are their characteristics, I learned to let myself marvel and be more humble before any trunk with leaves. You have to understand; from an impala poo sized seed, entire trees grow and stand for centuries. CENTURIES!. For so long they see us pass by, make mistakes and they won’t say a word, they will just give us the air we need to survive – talk about martyrs and hidden sacrifices.

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Velvet bushwillow (Combretum molle)

I now travel and notice them all around me, in Africa, in the cities, anywhere in the world. I see them and wonder what they, what they do, what colour their leaves will be, what animals eat them, why they look so funny…

I’d like to have a prairie of a garden so that I could have a Leadwood, an Apple leaf with its beautiful tiny purple flowers, a Sausage tree to climb, an Impala Lily to fight with, a Baobab for symbolism, a Weeping Willow because they remind me of Neverland, and an Araguaney for home.

Oh the ecological damage I’d love as a garden! Kew, you could be proud.

Reality, you let me dream.