It is a rare privilege and a wonderful experience to sleep out in the African bush. Two weeks ago, I was invited to go on a wilderness trail with 5 guides from the Wilderness Leadership School in the Pilanesberg in South Afica’s North-West province.
The indemnity form that you have to sign warns of the dangers – no liability accepted, and beware of possible face-to-face encounters with hippos, rhinos, lions, elephants, dangerous snakes etc. But I was fortunate that I was going with a group of experienced and trained guides, who briefed us carefully on how to cope with the unexpected!
This was to be a learning experience in the fullest sense of the word, and over the weekend we had to learn how to work as a team, take responsibility, open ourselves to whatever would happen, and to be at one with the world. This was not a democracy – Doric, who had the gun (our ‘insurance’) was in charge whenever we walked out from the camp – if he told us to ‘stand still’ or to ‘climb a tree’ when facing danger then that is what we would have to do. Our brains needed to be engaged and to ensure that we would always do as we were told and never to panic.
After arriving at Pilanesberg early in the morning and leaving our vehicles we had to walk into the camp area. This was situated in some trees, at the bottom of a low hill behind us, and looking out over a grass clearing. The camp was divided into 3 areas – a sleeping area at the back, a kitchen area adjacent to the sleeping area, and a camp fire area at the front by the edge of the clearing.
Our first task was to light a fire for tea and breakfast. The simple process of lighting a fire without matches or firelighters took about 45 minutes, as much of the kindling word was damp due to the recent heavy rains. It took about 4 attempts using sparks and some cotton wool grass. Eventually we managed to generate sufficient heat for the fire to catch. We had brought some firewood along the way – the wood was from cutting down non-indigenous or invasive trees elsewhere, and using this wood is preferable to collecting wood lying around the camp. So my first lesson was that we would do everything possible to ensure ‘minimum impact’ on the environment, and this would included minimum or zero use of resources from the wilderness area that we were in.
After brewing some tea we walked out of the camp on our first trail. We walked silently in single file, with Doric in front. Lee Dormer, a very experienced guide brought up the rear. The area around our camp is characterised as grassland/scrub, with thickets of trees and bushes. Although there had been a lot of rain, the area still seemed very dry. However, the rain had left a softer topsoil, which meant that we were easily able to identify a wide range of spoor/footprints – giraffe (in the camp), elephants, rhino, lion, various antelope etc. So although we saw very few animals on our trails, we knew that they were around.
Although South Africa boasts a rich diversity of snakes, these are seldom seen as they can hear humans coming and quickly get out of the way (except puff adders, which are more sluggish).
We would be sleeping in sleeping bags under the stars that night and would sit in shifts to keep watch while the others were sleeping. My shift would be for an hour and a half between 1.30am and 3am. Our job was to keep watch, keep the fire going, and ensure that we would be in no danger should any large animals approach the camp.
Well my turn came just as I was heading into a deep sleep when Doric came over and shook my legs to wake up. He had kindly brewed a kettle for tea. My watch shift was very uneventful. I sat and counted the stars in the Milky Way. In vain, I shone the torch out across the clearing, hoping against hope that some creature, even a small one, would reflect the torch light in its eyes, but there was nothing there. Not even a screech or growl for some night-time predator. The only sound was Lee – snoring from the depths of his sleeping bag. Even though I would have been a little alarmed if a lion had approached the camp, and hoped that I would have stayed cool, I was rather disappointed when 3am came and I had to wake Benita for her shift. As I crawled back into my sleeping bag I saw her vainly shining her light into the darkness – perhaps also hoping to share her shift with another living creature.
What do I learn from the weekend? For me, it was good to slow down for a while and to connect with the peaceful rhythms of the bush. And to find importance in small (and larger!) things – trying to light the fire, watching a dung beetle, seeing the stars wheel round in the night sky. Most of all, to hear some of the stories of my colleagues sitting round the campfire, and not to feel alone. And with that, to be fully appreciative of the gift of living and being in the world.