The Spirit of Southern Africa

“I never knew a morning in Africa when I woke up and was not happy”

– Ernest Hemingway

Africa; a popular haven for wildlife enthusiasts and vast and ever changing landscapes. Adventurers and explorers have spent centuries travelling the length and breadth of this majestic continent, crossing its borders from Cairo to Cape Town, hungry to experience all the wonders it has to offer. Having spent the last couple of years at least delving into the depths of wildlife conservation and welfare worldwide, it was only natural that I would eventually take the next step into the wildlife mecca that is Africa. It was one thing to read, hear, watch and sign every petition pertaining to animal welfare that dropped into my inbox or graced the screens of my social media accounts, but it was another to actually witness these grand creatures, “Living the Wild Life” for themselves. It goes without saying that nothing quite prepares you for the beauty, love and serenity of the Southern African (in my particular Case) savannah, and how gracefully the people welcome and encourage you to share their lives with you. I only returned to the UK with more questions, not about the new home away from home, but about the western lifestyle I’d spent a lifetime living.

I’m not going to lie, here I was embarking on an adventure I had dreamed about for years, finally I could realise my true passion in life and see these animals in the wild and not just surrounded by restrictive gates in a zoo or park of some sort, yet instead I was filled with sensations of both anxiety and excitement. Three countries, 18 days, travelling with people I’d never met before, camping, and in spite of everything I had seen, read or heard via the plethora of mediums available to us in this modern age, I would be entering into a culture I knew very little about. Worst of all, having read all the western headlines about the ever worsening state of the poaching crisis, and baby elephants being taken from their mothers and sent to live out their lives in some Chinese circus, I feared the pain I would feel if this ever became my reality.

One of the first experiences we had was of Rhinos at Khama Rhino Sanctuary, in Botswana. Considering their size and weight you’d think they were easy to spot, but turns out each time my eyes would fool me and it would end up being a rather large bush, we were out in the Botswanan grasslands after all. As we entered the sanctuary you could see the storm clouds forming above as if to warn its inhabitants that the humans are coming, be on your guard! The skies painted shades of grey, blue and red and I sat in my waterproof jacket waiting for the heavens to open up, but the rains never came. Had the heavens granted us safe passage? The peace and tranquillity of these grasslands was particularly noticeable. Being able to observe (at a distance) a female rhino and her baby drinking water is a breath-taking occasion. Within the quiet of the sanctuary, it seemed every family; whether they were zebras, wildebeest, impala and the Rhinos, were at the start of a new life with their new-borns and I was at the start of a new chapter in mine.

We all knew that there was a long drive ahead of us, especially crossing through 3 countries: South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe. But, no two glances out of the window ever looked the same. The land was so rustic and untouched. The crop fields were so vast they’d make fields in the UK look microscopic, but then you’d have to remember that these fields were feeding a worldwide appetite; the fields were a kaleidoscope of colours; milk chocolate, golden deliciousness, emerald green, and grades of rich reds and bronze, with the low descended clouds locking in the colours like an oil painting. Donkeys and cattle grazed freely on the roadside. One donkey however, wasn’t so lucky. But, the 3 men and their dogs that were carving up its carcass were in store for a feast that evening. In the west there is quite a stigma attached to meat of an equine capacity, but it’s a much enjoyed meat in Botswana.  Having said that, donkeys are not farmed for their meat and the meat is only consumed as road kill. I learnt, there was a strong bushman belief that nothing sent by or given by God should be wasted and should be received as a blessing. The art of appreciation was a humbling sentiment.

On the road to Nata, Botswana, we came across one of Africa’s giants standing under the cool shade of a tree away from the scorching midday sun. I always thought that if I were to see elephants anywhere it would be in Hwange National Park, home to one of the largest populations of elephants, but in fact we came across many elephants grazing by the road side. A lot of them were either elephants that had branched off from their herds, or had been kicked out of the herd for challenging the elders of the group only to live a solitary life, or were found in small groups of Bachelor herds. But there was one very special guy that I don’t think I could ever forget. He had tears running down across his huge ears as he flapped them to keep cool, and his trunk had grown so long, it had almost become a third leg. Although we observed him from the confines of the bus, we had to be careful around him, as the tears and the long trunk often means that these elephants are on heat and need to mate, and  can therefore be very temperamental.  After a few moments he began to relax and drift into a slumber. Let’s hope the siesta didn’t last too long, I feared for his long, intimidating yet vulnerable ivory tusks.

Countries such as China and Vietnam have become powerful investors within the African economy, and one can only speculate that considering ivory & rhino horn has become even more valuable than the once sort after Gold and platinum, it may explain why poaching has become more prolific. But what does ivory and rhino horn actually do? Most may say, nothing, it does nothing but sit as an ornament on a mantelpiece. Nonetheless, it represents wealth and status to those of us with more foolish tendencies (in my own opinion of course). Whilst ivory from elephant tusks partially consists of enamel, rhino horn simply put, is made up of Keratin, which can be found in our own human hair and nails, so why go to the trouble of trying to poach it and murder Rhinos and Elephants to obtain it?

All my questions were answered when we were offered the opportunity to visit Matobo National Park in Zimbabwe; where we got not only to talk to the rangers, trackers and conservationists about their views, but also track wild Rhinos, visit the bushman caves and village, and understand a little more about the symbiotic relationship wild animals have with one another to keep them out of shot of any danger. Living in London, you learn to block out your senses to the frantic chaos that surrounds you because it can be overwhelming to the point of dizzy, so fine tuning my sense of smell, sound and touch was a welcome relief in this tranquil retreat. Call it cheesy, but every plant had its story and every bird had its song, and that was to alert the larger beasts that a very dangerous predator was on its way aka the humans. It really is a moment of dumbfounded awe when you see white rhino in person, and you can get as close as 10 metres to them. Their horns had been removed by the park rangers to reduce the risk of them being poached; however, on my return to the UK I discovered that another Rhino had been killed by poachers, despite his horn being removed. I felt numb and devastated at the same time. The desperation of a minority never ceases to amaze me, yet the natural beauty this earth has to offer, just astounds me.

Having spoken to the trackers and conservationists, one of them felt very passionate about raising money not to invest within the national parks, but to be sent abroad to educate people about the consequences of their actions. He felt this could be what could kill demand. A lot of stories in the media that have focused on the poaching wars, have pointed the finger at the Chinese, forgetting that cultures such as the Vietnamese have displayed an equal if not more prolific hunger for ivory and rhino horn. If ivory is simply carved up into an ornament, what’s would be the difference between that and artificial ivory? Surely the worth we place on them is generated by man and ego, rather than scientific fallacy?

One of the trackers in fact, revealed that by heart he was a hunter and it was only later on in his career he turned to conservation. The two words as far as I was concerned, were too dichotomous in nature to even fathom; a conservationist but also a hunter? He revealed that he still believed in hunting, and in fact had led many trophy hunts to satisfy the appetite of many, often western tourists. Now, if these tourists wanted to part with tens of thousands of pounds to kill an animal then, who was he to stop them? Nonetheless, he wouldn’t take these tourists to just any old big game challenge. The animals that they targeted would be old and nuisance animals at the end of their lives, those that would trample through villages, destroying everything in their path. This “trophy” money would only go back into the local economy and enrich the lives of the local inhabitants; feed more people, repair local facilities, grow more crops, and help the local wildlife. As much as my own stubborn ego troubled me to admit, he had a point! It was the local people and wildlife that benefited from the money raised by trophy hunting whereas as for the egos of these “tourists” and their need for any kind of trophy, it makes you wonder that with that level of insecurity and ignorance, can they ever be fulfilled?

Although I understand Trophy hunting a little better, I certainly don’t think it should encourage more people to go out and engage with it. Whilst we as humans, stand alone at the top of the food chain, as the world’s most fearsome predators, we should NOT by any means underestimate and disrespect those that may fall beneath us. This was never truer than when I had the honour of watching a family of 9 lions, from elders to cubs, co-ordinate a hunt. Despite the prey not being visible to me, their senses were very much attuned to their environment around them, and they moved with such grace, stealth and synchronicity. I was beguiled with what one may call the ‘telepathic’ communication with one another. They each knew what, why, when and how to move. The animal kingdom has spent centuries evolving and perfecting the skills of the wild hunt, they are masters of this realm, and we as humans should not disregard their significance on our Planet Earth.

The symbolic importance some cultures, including those in the west, appear to place on material such as ivory and trophy kills, focuses on desire and wanting, rather than needing. Yet, I found my tour through South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe a sobering experience. The people opened their hearts, minds, homes, lives and souls to our western tribe. Many of them lived now as they had done thousands of years ago, as portrayed by the Khoisan paintings found in the caves of Motobo National Park. A kill would feed a family for up to 2 to 3 days and research studies found that some of them would even go for up to a month without eating. Approaching life from a waste not, want not perspective made me ask myself “who are the real fools”? Whatever angle I approached this question from, I found myself facing a titanic ravine between the extraordinary heart of Africa and the rest of the world. We disillusion ourselves into thinking we need our phones, iPad, TVs, and our diamonds to satisfy our egos, to control our own lives, to find happiness on some level. I’m not saying we should live without these technological advancements, but it’s more about perspective, about the value and dependency we have on them, as oppose to the life experiences we more often than not, take for granted. I was blown away by the generosity and kindness of people everywhere we went. They knew who they were, and as a result lived such simple and happy lives.

This was never more evident than when we visited the Okavango Delta and camped out in the bush with the locals for 3 nights. First of all, to get to our camp site required us to travel in a ‘Mokoro’, which is much like a canoe, guided and steered by the ‘Polers’. Simply put the passage of the Delta can only be described as an oasis of tranquillity; gliding through the woodland of bamboo, the lilac water lilies floated along the surface like tea lights. We were joined in our ‘Mokoro’ by a red legged frog that leapt of the shoots and landed on my foot, then finding shade underneath the straps of my backpack. I’ve never know such peace; it was ecology in its most organic form. As day fell to night, we sat around the burning camp fire, laughing and telling stories, with an ocean of stars lighting up the darkness above. In the midst of the nightfall, I looked up and saw the rarest diamond of them all, a shooting star. Did I make my ‘wish upon a star’? I just smiled to myself. I knew my life from this moment on would never be the same again.

The Okavango Delta was buzzing with this infinite energy. It was the place where my fellow explorers and I bonded and unified as a ‘family’ away from the distractions of Facebook and any modern facilities. Meals were cooked on a camp fire, we swam in the delta to cool down from the scorching heat, and we played card games, told jokes and stories to entertain. Interaction was face to face, spontaneous, unpretentious, and artistic. So this is how we lived pre-social media! All the senses were awakened! This is how every day could, and should be.

This rustic way of living also meant tracking wildlife on foot away from the safety of a 4×4, which was a very exciting prospect. Throughout our trip we saw many zebras, wildebeest, elephants, impala and even hippos. This meant we had to adhere to ‘wild’ etiquette in order to blend into their kingdom and family. This was never more apparent than when we came face to face with a wall of zebras and considering the zebra is the national animal of Botswana; this was a particularly poignant moment for me. Prior to this meeting, the zebras had always generally run away from us, but this time they all lined up in a row, mimicking our behaviour with the leader stepping forward to action his dominant place as the head and elder of the group. We stood and watched them as they us; for a moment it felt like time had stopped. There appeared to be a mutual understanding that neither was a threat to the other. But their wildebeest counter parts were also never too far away. As zebras have poor eye sight, they rely on wildebeest to warn them of predators and vice versa, wildebeests rely on them to listen out for danger. Similarly, on our trek through the wilderness we stumbled upon a family of 8 hippos basking in a waterhole to escape the intense African sun. In spite of their reputation as aggressive beasts, they simply watched us from their happy oasis, peeking their ears up out of the water, and flicking them back and forth. We too have a symbiotic relationship with hippos, and during a battle between 2 male hippos, if a human is nearby, the weaker of the two will remove himself from the situation and walk towards the human for safety.

I could wax lyrical about my love of Africa. Our journey took us to world famous locations such as Chobe and Kruger National Park, feeling the wrath of eternal cascades of Victoria Falls (a bit of advice to anyone venturing through Victoria Falls, waterproofing is futile but a truly awesome experience!) and having to heat my own water shower, pour it into a bucket and pulley the bucket above my head, and then finally turn the valve to get the water running like a shower; it was genius! They say home is where the heart is, and if that’s the case, then I think I left mine in Mama Africa. My aim when I started this journey was to observe wild animals I had always loved in their natural habitat but in doing so, it restored my faith in the love of people. They mesmerised us with their traditional dances, singing, beautiful vistas, and affection for their wild animals far beyond traditional sights. They were the soulful voice of Africa. Western attitudes towards this vast continent have often been founded on rhetoric we learn from the news, that this is a nation and culture that “needs” our help and is forever in crisis. When, in fact, I would suggest that not only in the west, but anywhere in the world, we could learn so much from a culture that is loving, sharing, open and most importantly happy. I walked away from this chapter feeling rich with the new friends and family I had made, always knowing that I would return.

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