Sandy soils and thorny trees, mountain peaks and coral reefs. This little slice of planet Earth has it all. Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa. Its head rest on top the Drakensburg mountains, its toes are dipped in the warm Indian ocean.
This is the land of big skies, of elephants rumbling, whales breaching, eagles soaring and Lions roaring.
I spent a year here, working as a Field guide or “Ranger” as we call ourselves, embroiled with the wondrous nature of it all and understanding its dark underbelly. Before I was placed on a reserve, I needed to be introduced to the industry and environment.
I arrived at the start of February to begin immersing myself with the myriad of floral and faunal life and the climate. It was hot and don’t even get me started about the mosquitoes! The transition between an Irish winter and an African summer was not gradual. I was truly stunned by the infinite forms of life, every other day finding something new and an incredible encounter with something or other every now and then.
I studied Zoology in university, so I quickly caught up to speed on the species that could be found around here and soon shelved the books for chasing butterflies around the forest or crawling on my hands and knees through the bush trying to sneak closer to a secretive bird.
You learn quickly that there are few guarantees on a game drive. You can come across anything on any particular drive, perhaps a leopard out patrolling the road, or you can come across nothing but Nyala. That’s both the beauty and the frustration.
The ‘Bush University’ where I studied was situated within reach of some incredible places and I was fortunate enough to visit many. Sodwana Bay has some intense diving. The remote, white sand beaches of Kosi bay are pristine! Leatherback and Loggerhead turtles nest here. The stunning landscapes of the Drakensburg mountains, home to bearded vultures, and the marshes of the iSimangaliso wetland park stand out for their beauty. And of course, Kruger National Park. Huge numbers of wildlife and during school holidays, traffic jams!
For all the trails walked, game drives driven and animals encountered, it is the people with whom I shared those experiences, and that forest with that will leave the longest impression. Countless hours spent by the fire ‘braai’ing, shooting pool, hanging out at the bar or jamming in the tents. People with whom I shared such passion for wildlife.
The course consisted of three parts. Vehicle passed guiding, trails walking and marine guiding. Walking trails takes the cake.
Once you step out of the vehicle and walk the same dirt paths as the animal you are tracking, you transform. Every thought, every worry, every emotion melts away. You become acutely aware of your surroundings. Your mind changes. Your eyes look for sloping backs against the vertical stems and trunks of the vegetation. Sensitive to colours that don’t fit in and movements that plants don’t make. Glancing down at the path your walking, ensuring sure steps, looking for tracks. Your ears await the crunch and rustle of leaves, the snapping of branches, the alarm call of a birds or monkeys or the hand signals of your friends. You breathe deep through your nose, filtering the air for any scent indicating something’s presence. Always looking at the position of the Sun and the direction of the wind. This is trail walking, there is simply nothing like it.
Away from the rumble of engines and the smell of diesel. Away from expectations and assumptions. Nothing between you and wilderness around you but the rubber on your sole and what you packed on your back. Here you can discover yourself. The wilderness doesn’t want or demand anything from you. It doesn’t advertise anything to you. It doesn’t want you to be somewhere. It doesn’t even know you exist. It exists with or without you and in that you can simply just be.
I spent two weeks out in a reserve walking trails. Encountering enough animals on foot to be qualified to back up a lead trail guide. There are no fences here. For all the breathtaking views and astonishing gorges and paths we walked. It was night watch that brought me closest to my surroundings. You let your ears keep watch. Your eyes are drawn deep into the fire, lured by the dancing flames, bushman’s T.V. It is during this time that your mind wonders, about the day’s events, about yourself, who you and where you are but also to no place in particular. A place inaccessible at other times and at other places.
We walk with a .375 calibre rifle. During watch, it lies on a ledge nearby, loaded but not cocked, tucked into its carrying bag with just the butt and trigger protruding. There to be swiftly readied should the need arise.
One night, as I scan around and down the river bank I see two pairs of red eyes oscillating fluidly in the blackness. They are far off, nothing extraordinary there. A few moments pass before I scan again. They are moving along the river’s edge towards camp. They disappear behind bush and earth. Two brown shapes emerge a moment later. The hulking bodies of two massive Lionesses are visible, one is radio collared. I’m pretty sure my heart fell into my guts as a wave of electricity pulsed through every nerve. The lioness’ looked at me, and I looked back at them. Eye to eye, 20 metres of sandy earth between us. There they lay down and they watched. Curious to what this light was flickering in the night. After 20 minutes, their curiosity was quenched and they moved off. We rose two hours later at first light to begin following their tracks.
After getting qualified to conduct drives and walks, I started working at a small unfenced lodge contained within a 20km² reserve. Being a field guide I obviously spent more time in the bush then most people, encountering many secretive and seldom seen animals. Hyenas howled at night, sometimes next to my cabin, rumbling my bones to the marrow. Their tracks circle the lodge most nights. Leopards patrolled the roads, simultaneously seeking a mate and destruction of intruders. For the most part, I was the only guide. This gave me incredible freedom to do what I wanted in my spare time. But it also put a lot of weight on my shoulders. I was also responsible for maintenance and upkeep of the lodge. Any issues with plumbing, electricity or any mechanical issues, I dealt with it, or at least tried to. There was simply no one else.
Days could be long. Sometimes waking up at 5am and hitting the sack at 11pm. Work cycles were 30 days on and 10 days off.
Water was always a worry. This place is mega dry! It hardly rains, and when it does, it’s not enough. There are no natural sources of water on the reserve. It has to the ordered in by the truckload. There is a pipeline but water doesn’t flow through it. The demand on it from the neighbouring villages is too high.
One morning I woke to the news that one of the Rhinos had been poached. Shot through the neck. Dead instantly. Other rhinos are not so lucky. Some are just tranquilized. The reserve has an anti-poaching team, but that didn’t help. They posed by the carcass for a picture, smiling.
Its gut wrenching to see an animal you’ve been following and bumping into for months reduced to nothing more than lifeless flesh. All for a substance with the same make up as nail and hair. Flakes of his horn still littered the scene. It’s worth more than its weight in gold.
Rhino poaching has sky rocketed. The problems seep into every aspect of society. People are poor and money talks. Poaching can be committed by, and involve anyone. Local villagers, even the rangers and guides… even the anti-poaching team. People seemingly there to protect, but sometimes protecting nothing but their own financial desires. The roots of greed and corruption run deep here.
It’s not just Rhinos being poached. Wire snares are left out to snag anything that steps in it. Usually for the meat or hide. Local cultures hold Leopard skin as a very high status symbol. If you can get the skin of a leopard, you’re the man.
It is in witnessing the beauty of these few places that one realises their uniqueness and their fragility. The elation of encountering such wildlife is equalled by the grief when it is destroyed. You need to see these places and animals to understand the magnificence. To know why it is important not to lose them, to keep some ‘wild’ for the future.
There are no words to describe to elation of bumping into a Leopard or a Lion on a drive. You’ve followed his tracks and smelt his scent and then there he is. Gravity seems to increase for a moment. You turn your head to the others around you and express all the words needed in a single wide eyed glance, smirking through an open mouth.
Those sightings are what it’s all about.