The Spirit of Southern Africa

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

– Ernest Hemmingway

The works of American literary writers such as Ernest Hemmingway had never really resonated with me, until the profile icon of our aptly named whatsapp group, ‘The Dream Team’ had changed to an image of a tree at sunset with these words painted across it. Africa was the dream for any wildlife enthusiast.  I had spent the last couple of years following the fantastic work of animal charities from all over the world; I’d signed up to newsletters and petitions, and followed live feeds as they happened on social media. I couldn’t imagine a world without wildlife and I wanted to make a difference. I had been transfixed by the beauty of these creatures I’d seen in wildlife documentaries, I had shed tears at the numerous petitions I’d signed calling stop baby elephants being separated from their mothers and sent to circuses in China, to ban trophy hunting, to kill the trade of ivory and Rhino Horn in the Far East. China and the US were both competing to rebuild the infrastructure of this vast continent, and in doing so, leaving a trail of political and environmental destruction in their wake.

The Spirit of Africa was calling out to me louder now, more than ever. I wanted to see first-hand how these majestic animals lived and moved across the savannahs of this wildlife mecca. Hemingway had himself been a hunting enthusiast, no doubt a product of the ignorant social norm entertainment of this time. Would I be stepping into the majesty of a BBC documentary, or the path of pain and suffering that global powers were leaving in their wake?

My “safari” would take me through South Africa, Botswana, and Zimbabwe. I would be camping for 18 days. This was rustic living and the only way to see Africa, and experience its living spirit. I would spend much of my time without any contact to the globalised world. Far removed from the distractions of an electronic screen, social media, and politics; we interacted on a face to face level, a rare experience in the technological age; there were no ipads, or TVs, and I went days without needing or even wanting to consult my phone. Mother Nature and ‘The Dream team’ was all the company I needed. ‘The Dream Team’ became a family of explorers, ready to create memories that would last a lifetime and change lives.

Khama Rhino Sanctuary – An endangered Heaven

We spent most of our first day travelling across the breadth of South Africa, from

Johannesburg through to Khama Rhino Sanctuary in Botswana, reaching the sanctuary in the late afternoon. The heat of the African sun had transformed into dark and gloomy rainclouds, which didn’t bode well for our first game drive. As the 4x4s rolled into the muddy trail, the skies began to clear, washing away the murkiness of the grey clouds, and re-painting the airy canvas with shades of blue, red, yellow and orange. Rolling along the dirt tracks, the long stems of grass began to clear, revealing a calm savannah and lakes.

Families of zebra, wildebeest, and impalas stood in their groups basking in the tranquillity of their haven. The rhinos, despite their bold armour, were hard to spot. They remained still and statue like, blending in with the peaceful landscape. It was hard to tell whether you were looking at an animal or a large rock. One baby stayed in the shadows of its mother’s protection as they sipped water from the lake. Its doting mother was keeping a sharp eye on us, monitoring our every move, evaluating out threat level. It was a breath-taking occasion, and one I felt privileged to see; they were an endangered species with an uncertain future. We moved quietly past them, making sure we didn’t disturb this precious moment. The sun was setting quickly, and it was time to pitch up our tents in the bush. There were no amenities, all we had to rely on for the rest of the night was our human instinct. This was what it was like to live the wild life.

We awoke at the crack of dawn as the sun was rising again. With 3 countries to cross, we had a long drive ahead of us. No two glances out of the window were ever the same; the crop fields in the UK did not compare to the vast landscapes of arable farming in Botswana. These crops would go onto feed the world’s appetite. Each field transformed in colour as we drove the long road, milk chocolate, golden deliciousness, emerald green, and grades of reds and bronze. The clouds moved earth bound, locking in the colours radiated by the fields like an oil painting. We passed by donkeys and cattle grazing by the road side; at their own peril from passing traffic. One donkey wasn’t so lucky unfortunately. Three men and their dog were carving up its carcass; no doubt they were in store for a feast that evening. This wasn’t uncommon. Bushman belief in Botswana was that what had been given by God to the Earth, would be received as a blessing to nourish its soul. The art of appreciation was a humbling sentiment.

The Okavango Delta – An Island beneath the stars

We were on our way to one of the world’s largest inland delta’s, The Okavango Delta; a maze of canals, flora and fauna. The only way to reach our campsite would be by taking a ‘Mokoro’, which simply put, was a hollowed out canoe steered by the local ‘Polers’. Gliding through the long grasslands, and bamboo, the lilac water lilies decorated the surfaces of the water like tea lights. One red legged frog had leapt off the nearby flora and taken shade, under the straps of my backpack, to take a break from the intense midday heat.

As the heavens fell into darkness, the starry constellations lit up the night sky. Each of us from a different part of the world, gathered together on this remote island in the middle of delta and bonded around the burning fire; playing competitive card games, cooking meals, swimming in the delta surrounding our island camp site, and learning the art of mokoro steering; not as easy as it looked. What if every day could feel this raw and amazing?

The sun rose and the sun set; we traversed the plains in search of wildlife. We walked through the grassy plains silently in single file, so as not to disturb or scare the animals. To be wild meant that their behaviour was unpredictable, and we were mere aliens in their kingdom. I was literally walking in their footsteps! Lion paw prints imprinted themselves in the muddy soils of the plains and I could feel my heart jump; my senses became heightened. So this is what it felt like to survive? We came across several herds of zebras and wildebeest who travelled around the delta together; whilst zebras are known to have poor eyesight, wildebeest suffer from poor hearing; a symbol of the symbiotic relationship between the two species. Together they were a force against any predators, apart, they were only as strong as their weakest link. They would run away every time they saw us. Walking through the marshy delta one morning, however, rather than running away from us, the large herd of zebras lined up in a row to face us, with the head of the herd, taking a step forward to assert his rank. Time felt like it had stood still as our eyes flickered left and right. It was a moment of mutual understanding and acknowledgement – perhaps they recognised us? We weren’t a threat, but simply there to admire their beauty. Moments passed slowly but and they soon turned away and disappeared into the bush.

There were moments in the delta when we were waist deep in water, not knowing what aquatic creatures lay beneath. As the morning broke, the heat of the sun glared down. Struggling out of the swampy water, my clothes dried within minutes of being exposed to the sunlit air. We stood on the banks of the delta, keen to stay out of the water, and clear of any crocodiles. Spotting a family of hippos, we knew that the crocodiles were nearby. All we could see were their round, greyish, boulder like bodies bobbing on the surface of the water, with an occasional ear flickering above water. They seemed happy and relaxed. They never fully revealed their bold bodies. After a few moments, they all began to turn to face us, aware of our presence. But like the zebras, they carried on basking nonchalantly, in the cool of the water. Hippos have a reputation as being one of the animal kingdom’s most dangerous animals. In battle, if two male hippos face off, research has found that in the presence of humans, the weaker male will seek safety by walking away from the battle towards the nearby humans. Unfortunately, we were stood on the banks of the swampy lake, and with the sun intensifying its gaze, it felt like the right time to return to the shelter of the shaded campsite.

On this night, our last on our own island paradise, we danced around the camp fire like silhouettes in the night, and the locals serenaded us with traditional Botswanan folk songs. In the midst of the darkness, I looked up and saw my first shooting star soar across the sky. You’re supposed to make a wish when you see a shooting star, or so they say. But my wishes were already coming true; nature was my haven, and Africa was my spirit.

Elephants – Giants of Africa

The next day we were back on the road, on our way to the Salt Pans of Nata. The dry heat transformed the landscape, into a golden dessert. In the salt pans, the animals were few and far between; mainly horses, birds and the odd wildebeest, stood with their new-borns drinking from the sparse pools of water dotted around the landscape. We came across one bull elephant taking shade under a lonesome tree. His wrinkly, drying skin, and mammoth size, suggested he was one of the wise elders, known for wandering around on his own. His trunk and ivory tusks stretched the height of the tree, almost becoming a third leg. He had tears running across his ears which, were flapping to keep him cool. These were signs that he was on heat; we didn’t dare disembark the bus and risk him charging at us. The sheltering leaves began to take effect, and he drifted into a slumber. Hopefully he would stay safe dozing by the roadside. But with the increasing prevalence of poaching within the African subcontinent, I feared for this wise old man’s life and tusks. Ivory is big money globally, and the superstitious and wealthy of South East Asia are prepared to pay top dollar for it. Where once up to 25 million elephants roamed the African wilderness, now an elephant was being butchered every 15 minutes for its ivory. Following a survey spanning 3 years’ worth of research, National Geographic reported in 2016 that elephants were being slaughtered at an annual loss of 27,000 per year. Stripped of it’s wild beauty and soul, the majesty of these giants would be reduced down to nothing more than a tiny, futile ornament sitting idly on a mantelpiece.

Chobe National Park – Botswana’s hidden Gem

However, there was still hope – gliding along the quiet of the Chobe river I witnessed a family of what must have been 30 elephants, of all different ages and sizes gracefully plodding to the shores of the river where they all took it in turns to gain some refreshment, with the elders of the herd watching over the young and for any hidden predators that may have been nearby. I know I certainly spotted crocodiles lurking near the rivers’ edge. May be one I would return to see these babies all grown up, and having escaped the greed and vanity of this world.

The freedom these animals had seemed infinite; driving very slowly around the park, we saw giraffes eating from the dizzying heights of the trees, a male and female lion lounged in the shadows, gazelle locked antlers in a battle for supremacy, and colourful birds perched in treetops taking in the panorama of the park. I surprisingly saw more animal life in Chobe national Park than the more famous Krueger National Park in South Africa.

Krueger National Park

Krueger, a haven for wildlife lovers, was one of the last stops on our tour but I found it hard not to make a comparison with its Botswanan counterpart. The only way to get around the vast expanses of the park was to drive. With the exception of several herds of wildebeest migrating through the park, I was surprised at how few animals I saw driving through

Krueger National Park. Some of the animals seemed a little spooked by our presence. Giraffes strode through the tall grasses, turning to check how close or faraway we were, and zebras cautiously crossed the road, remember their sight isn’t the best, so they were probably checking the sounds of our engines to gauge distance. The speed limits were very low and strict so animal safety was placed first. But with humans once again encroaching upon their natural habitats, animals were still falling victim to modernity, and being killed by the increasing vehicle and human traffic crossing through the park. Was this tourism gone wild? I felt a sadness for these animals. In trying to understand and learn more about their kingdom, where did we draw the line on how close we got to them?

One old wise elephant, stood alone, coming near to the end of his days. I wanted to wipe away the tears streaming from his deep eyes. He had lived many a year and had created many memories. My heart and soul prayed for him, that peace would arrive soon for him. He’d travelled the plains of Africa gracing it with his wisdom and beauty. Both he and his pre-historic ancestors had helped to maintain vital ecosystems for other species, as well as contribute to the rich biodiversity of their habitats, and now it was time for Earth to give back to him.

Victoria Falls  – ‘The Smoke that thunders’

Ten days had been and gone – leaving Botswana, we crossed nervously into Zimbabwe. I’d heard and read about stories of political upheaval, and corruption in Zimbabwe, so I was certainly feeling a little tense about the time we’d spend here. Throughout our time in Zimbabwe, we were stopped very randomly by the police, not for any traffic violation, just because they could. The instinctive sense of every man for himself was a stark contrast to this country’s natural beauty. We would be staying in a campsite very close to the Zambezi River, where one had to cross the awe-inspiring Victoria Falls, also known as ‘The Smoke that Thunders’ by local tribes in the 1800s, to travel between the borders of Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Walking along the winding trails of Victoria Falls, we were transfixed into a state of wonder at its grandeur. Water cascaded into its pools like a bucket overflowing with water. The vapour and condensation from the torrential currents filled the air, creating misty clouds over the canyon. Rain poured over us from one end of the trails to another, as we followed the rainbow which radiated across the skies from the Zambian border to the border of Zimbabwe.  All that separated the formally unified countries was a bridge over the river. Intimidating Police officials paced the border check points whilst people queued up to one of the world’s most famous bungee jumping points, in search of their adrenalin fix. Neither were to be messed with. The wrong move and you would land your selves either on the wrong side of the border, or the ominous side of the law. The rainfall was relentless and it had soaked through my apparently “waterproof” jacket. Time to leave for drier climates outside this biological dome. However, as we left the heavens opened, and within minutes, we were wading through flooding water that was rising in level every second all the way back to our campsite. I nearly lost my flip flops several times. We were met by a very muddy campsite with our only relief being a nice hot shower, if not the rainbow’s pot of gold.

The Pot of “Gold”

But gold had little value in the African economy, in comparison to the prolific poaching to rhino horn and ivory. Countries such as China, Vietnam and the US were competing to get a piece of whatever part of Africa they could lay claim on, and with that came a power hungry ego and set of fallible beliefs. Africa’s kingdom was suffering. In Matobo National Park in Zimbabwe, the rangers were given permission to shoot any poachers on sight. My faith in humanity hadn’t been lost – these people were risking, and in some cases sacrificing their lives for mother earth and her kingdom of living, breathing, feeling creatures. As we followed the rangers through the rocky landscape, pushing the long grass and untamed plants out of our way, we could hear the birds calling out above. They were alerting the other animals that the humans were on their way, beware! All creatures great and small depended on one another. The white rhinos, a now rare sight anywhere in the world, huddled together under a tree. The mother and daughter faced in opposite directions, no doubt so they had full sight of the scenery around them. We were advised to crouch and move very slowly so as not to rattle them. If they charged us, we had no chance. The park rangers had removed their horns to reduce their appeal to poachers.

The meaning behind the term “conservation” has been challenged by trophy hunters over the years, with many claiming that their kills have been in the name of conservation; they were culling the wildlife landscapes to control numbers and remove “nuisance” animals as a threat to the ever expanding residential communities around the continent. With China and the US investing heavily in the African infrastructure and economy, animals across Africa had been losing their habitats at an alarming rate, leaving them confused and lost as to where to call home. One ranger had revealed that he was both a wildlife conservationist and had led many hunts. It was a dichotomy I wasn’t sure I would ever fathom, nonetheless, I was curious. These trophy hunting expeditions that he had led, included people from all over the world, predominantly Americans and Europeans, as well as the rich and ignorant from Asia. His argument, if these people wanted to part with tens of thousands of pounds to kill an animal, he would happily take their money and enrich the lives of the locals who could use it to feed more people, repair local facilities, grow more crops and help other local wildlife. These hunts targeted “nuisance”, ageing animals, at their end of their lives, as if somehow these justified both the means and the ends. Whilst human populations boomed, it had caused animal populations to plummet at an unprecedented rate. Who came first, the dinosaurs or humanity?

We were playing with a vital ecosystem, created by the natural world. What right did we have to kill these animals for sport, where once man had hunted for survival? Had human instinct reduced itself down to a level where only money talked? In the struggle for power, we have been placing animal species on the endangered list and pitting the locals into unnecessary battles with their four legged neighbours. As we travelled to Hwange National Park, we were lucky to watch a pride of lions and their cubs in the midst of a hunt. Their prey wasn’t visible, but their sense were very much attuned to the environment surrounding them. They moved with grace, stealth and synchronicity, as if they were communicating telepathically; each one knew when and how to move through the long grass so they remained hidden from their prey to make that timely attack. They had spent centuries evolving and perfecting the skills of a wild hunt. They were the masters of their realm. These animals killed quickly and didn’t let their kill suffer. They had evolved, yet it seems human life’s lustful desire for blood, was in regression. Upon returning to the UK, I learnt that the one of the rhinos I had seen, had sadly been slaughtered by poachers.

Cecil The Lion Heart

Is there ever really any excuse to kill any life for sport be it human or animal? A year after my trip the semantics behind the term ‘trophy hunting’ would transfix the world and its media. His name was Cecil the lion, named after Cecil Rhodes. A lion and his pride that was being studied and tracked by a team at the University of Oxford. He was killed by a poisoned bow and arrow and then dragged his exhausted, wounded and dying body for 40 hours of suffering and agony before giving into the poison and dying. His body skinned, his tracked collar removed and his head decapitated from his body. Broadcasters, politicians, celebrities’ and, animal activists roared at the heart-breaking news; online petitions gaining rapid momentum. Airlines began to ban the transportation of trophy hunts. Trophy hunting would continue in the years to come, but anyone who dared make a claim, would have blood on their hands and the world would hunt them. Walter Palmer escaped criminal proceedings unlike his hunter guides, but he’d lost the respect and compassion of the world. No doubt he was hiding behind within the walls of his empty heart, drowning in his own self-pity.

As for Cecil’s pride, his brother, Jericho, would assume his position as head of the pride, and uncharacteristically for new pride leaders he continued to protect Cecil’s cubs.

Unfortunately though in July 2017, Cecil’s son, Xander would become another victim at the hands of sad and pathetic trophy hunters. Cecil’s sacrifice brought the tragedy of ‘trophy hunting’ to the world’s attention. It would continue, but not without a face off; compassion versus ego. Powerful billionaires such as Arsenal FC owner Stan Kronke ignored the outcry of the public by broadcasting his hunting and blood sports channel, all for money and greed.

There were tribes and communities in Africa that lived now as they had done thousands of years ago, relying on the land around them for sustenance. Evidence of this had been found on the Bushman paintings located in the Caves at Motobo National Park. Research studies had revealed that a kill would feed a family for up to 2 to 3 days, as every part of the animal would be consumed and nothing was left to waste as I had seen earlier in the trip, by the roadside in Botswana. The animals that were killed were respected and cherished, and thanked for sacrificing their lives. These tribes would kill for the thrill of the chase, and it has been found that some tribes would go for up to a month before they hunted their next meal source.

What you take from the Earth, you must give back because Mother Earth certainly has a funny sense of humour. This blog is my gift to mother Earth. It is my voice and fight to save its stunning and necessary wildlife. Having seen these awesome creatures roam wild and free there was absolutely no way I’d be able to ever tolerate seeing them caged behind the bars of a zoo, trapped, waiting for an end. I was in awe at every single animal I came across; each one was individual in its own right and deserving of living freely and peacefully. But this trip also restored my faith in people; for all the barbaric, vain and superstitious nonsense that fuelled people’s greed to hurt these animals, there were wildlife warriors placing their lives on the line to keep their legacy going. I was overwhelmed by the generosity and kindness of the people we met as we travelled through its southern countries. They opened their hearts, minds, homes and lives to our western tribe. They mesmerised us with their traditional dances, singing, beautiful vistas, and affection for their wild animals. 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’d left a piece of my heart in mama Africa and I walked away from this chapter feeling rich with the new friends and family I had made. I was more determined than ever to fight and give a voice to these enigmatic yet voiceless creatures.

 

 

 

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