I am writing this, sitting here, in quite a pleasant yet uncomfortable state and it is not because my sunburnt skin can feel every fibre of my shirt scratching its surface, or the layers of sticky after sun I have put on to try ease the pain of what could be described as a full bodied second degree burn.
It is because for the first time in a long time I had a moment to reflect on what has happened in my life of late. An incipient place as it was only a few days ago that I fell asleep in the shade that quickly became direct sunshine and proceeded to turn this home sick Zambian into a medium to well done cut of 30-day aged and already worn out safari guide. However, after I had looked in the mirror at this roasted human, laughing, (those laughs that hide your true feelings), the words “Andrew you are an idiot” were uttered about a hundred times, and I realised that for the first time in months, at least, I was able to reach back into my memory so vividly and relive some moments of the last year and beyond.
Up until now it has been a fruitless effort. My thoughts, like sonar, sent its pulses through my head in a hope to bounce off a memory and return to give me clarity of what had happened in the last week, the last month…anything. But nothing, the pulses just traveled into the fog without so much as a hint of insight.
It is not uncommon for safari guides to run out of steam and enter this “autopilot” state. In fact, it is probably so common that most keen safaris goers have experienced, unknowingly, a guide who is doing the dig through these very trenches of exhaustion and confusion.
After years of guiding in a lodge or camp and another sojourning myself around Johannesburg trying to find myself a home in between packing for and unpacking from various safaris around the continent, I became quite familiar with this state.
Fear not however as it is rare that you will even notice as even though he is the “auto pilot”, he is a well-trained pilot. Trust me, I spent years on auto pilot! I am not sure of all the elements that contribute to this state, but I know of a handful that I am confident are pretty consistent from one “patient” to the next. Most lodges these days are quite happy driving their guides into the ground, keeping them in the field non-stop. Sixteen-hour days, six weeks straight. Drive, interpret (not all guides can comprehend this), walk, interpret, drive again, host, sleep (a bit) and repeat. Then you spend your two weeks off resting, reading, eating well and meditating…if only. No, we drank the pubs dry, spent all those hard-earned tips on important things such as more alcohol and…mostly just alcohol actually.
Inhaling bottomless bar-one milkshakes to wash down one-kilogram steaks and fries only on those special occasions that came about four times a week. Then returned to work a wreck to start the cycle all over again. This, plus time…and enter burnout. Some may last years like this, I certainly did, others perhaps only a few cycles before the crash, and some, I presume, develop a numbness for it all and just keep going, and in many ways, good for them. I was not one of these cases. Although I was in this state, however, I knew my job, I loved it and executed it without fault…but it was not without its sacrifices (a conversation for another time).
So, what brought upon this sophrosyne break through. This wave of stillness, contempt and control. I’ll tell you. It is so beautifully simple. For twelve hours, at home, on our farm in the far out reaches of the southern province of Zambia, I was cut off for the first time in years. We have never really had much in the way of internet nor cellphone reception on the farm and as a rebellious teenager who needed to escape the real world of my insecurities, I remember seeing this as an immense problem.
Growing older I began to respect the value of not being reachable more and more but nothing to the extent I realized that day. No alarm woke me, forgetting my phone charger in South Africa meant I couldn’t even turn my phone on to stare mindlessly at my Instagram page as it was last loaded. No emails, (although an impending corona virus lock-down made sure of that regardless of the internet situation). My one-eyed ginger and white cat woke me. I gave him the scratch he demanded then threw on a pair of running shoes and went for a jog around the farm (don’t worry I put pants on too). My path took me out the front gate and then along a path towards the old dam. Its February now so after a few months of rain the path was overgrown, and I often had to brush branches and tall grass out my way as I ran. The scent of wet and clean earth and air filled my nostrils. Only the sounds of birds, the wind rushing past my ears and the occasional eruption of a screaming spurfowl from under your feet that to this day makes any guides sphincter split atoms and turns every dark object around him into a cantankerous buffalo on its way to lift your frightened ass into orbit. The spurfowl leaves the area, you gather yourself, give the bird menace the finger well telling it to “bugger off” before tripping over your adrenaline filled shaky legs in an attempt to continue your jog.
After recovering fully, I ran myself to a place my brothers and I, as kids, knew as the “sand pits”. The excavation of sand for building purposes left deep holes in the ground and left the perfect foundation to build forts to withstand marauding brothers or to launch your own sieges from. On my haunches, looking into the one of the holes memories came at me like a flood. I could hear the laughter and the shouting back and forth in the native tongue between us and our friends from the village. I could speak the language again! (ChiNyanja, a southern province dialect that I thought I had mostly forgotten). I must have spent an hour there. Sometimes eyes closed just feeling the memories. Sometimes walking along side my twenty-year younger self as I went in search of another hole that I remember, now, lay about seventy meters northwest of this one. Now hidden by a grove of trees and tall grass. But there it was.
The run home was an emotional one. I wasn’t balling my eyes out, relax! But a man’s past is as much a part of him as his present and future. Without one or the other you are lost. Those memories were an unwilling sacrifice that was too great to lose for too long and their return remined me of the immense power that the purity of nature had on a conscious sole and reminded me of something that I was and had let wither for too long…wild. I was soon on the lawn in front of the house bathing in this very power, that needs little more than fresh air and bird song to take its seat beside you and take your bleeding hand in hers. Gorging on memories that either, depending on what the memory was of, came flowing back in like a gentle stream or like a barking and electric jack-russel that hadn’t seen his owner for days.
I thought of Maurè and those other two French girls making casual fun of my canoe and how it sank deeper, at the back end where I sat, than everyone else’s. That was ten years ago whilst guiding a canoeing safari down the Kafue river in Zambia. I remember a disco-themed party we threw whilst training to be guides in the Makuleke province of northern Kruger National Park. I won’t burden you with the abominable thought of what I wore to that, to this day, very controversial “throw down” that may have prevented the consumption of alcohol by students on courses like that for several years afterwards. There’s always that one guy who ruins it for everyone right! Let me actually take the time now to apologies to all those students who had completely unnatural and sober guide courses.
I remember being surrounded by elephants in the Luvuvhu riverbed whilst on a walking safari. Tess and Rich behind me and their son Mat were from Australia. This was their first safari. Their travel agent threw them a lemon saying my rustic trails camp was a luxury, five star, big-five, jeep bound dawdle through some zoo-like game reserve. I remember tears of joy running down their eyes while, what seemed like, hundreds of elephants went into the typical maniacal state as elephants do when they reach water after a long morning of grazing in hot and dry Africa. I remember sitting there in absolute bliss, the rumbling and screaming of happy elephants all around us. Completely oblivious to our presence.
I remember Dave. The old and giant elephant bull that called Makuleke, and who knows where else, his home. I remember grains of sand being blown onto my ankles from the tip of his trunk as he sighed, deciding to fall asleep only a few yards from me.
I remember Tim “Nighthawk” Smith (not that I could forget the maddest and funniest Australian on the African continent) and our adventures through Namibia. I remember him, myself, Rob and a few others with wicked senses of humor dubbing ourselves with ridiculous nicknames such as “Nighthawk” and “Dewclaw” after a student on our level one course, regrettably, thought it was a good idea to reveal his nickname to the crowd on the first day of the course in one of those “everyone introduce yourself and tell everyone something about you” ice-breakers. “Raven” must have thought everyone had kiff nicknames.
I remember Tanzania, as a fly-fishing guide, and the years I spent chasing after the “river dogs” of the Rhuji and Manyera river. Tiger fish were trophy fish that earned their name through almost unnecessarily sized teeth and beautiful stripes flowing down their bodies. I remember chuckling at grown men crying like a kid who’s ice cream dropped on the floor, after consecutive twenty pounders jumped off their lines. I remember leaning over my shoulder and shouting at Pamela and John in the Sabi Sands. “Wild dogs! Hold on!”. Receiving the news on my radio about a sighting of the elusive animals we never did see on that safari no matter how much I pulled that Land Rover through its ass.
I remembered how little it mattered to them that we didn’t see the dogs and how we laughed our way through that entire safari. I remember Eric and Pyper, the Piccadilly female leopard on rhino-pens road, MalaMala Game reserve. Flicking her sassy tail at us while we followed her on her daily activities. I remember blushing at the uncomfortably raunchy but hilarious conversations between Lauren, Elden and Alice while searching the plains of the Masai Mara. I remember the banter around the fire at our Mara Camp with Deji, Nick, Sanjvee, Jessica and Scott, Jen, Kim, Russ, Adrian, Dustin and so many others.
I remember talking about everything except photography with Dennis while searching for hunting leopards in the oxbows of the South Luangwa river. I remember sharing a smoke and a gin with Engin and Sacit in the Ngorongoro Crater. I remember the sound of the first crossing I witnessed. Like thunder. I remember exactly where it was, the two prehistoric sized crocodiles that inhaled a few wildebeest as if they were sipping the foam off a cappuccino. I remember firing my camera off like a machine gun but without any idea of what I was trying to get a picture of. I remember the bumps on my arm as my hair started to rise when I heard for the first time that deep and ghostly hum of Maasai song.
I remember, now, the first time I sat next to a silverback in the forest of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. His dark eyes, how could I forget those eyes. I remember the joy on Jill’s face as she watched two young gorillas wrestling their way all over jungle floor, above it, along vines…anywhere where a footing would allow for another blow or hair grab. I remember the fall of the Simien Mountains. Falling to where my optic capacities failed me. That cold and clean mountain air filling my lungs. That endless range of unfathomable beauty. I remember the taste and the roughness in the back of my throat of the dust I inhaled after falling out of the way of two fighting Gelada baboons and nearly falling off the Simien Mountains themselves. I remember the laughs with Mursi tribesman. All of us lost in translation. It didn’t matter though because we all smiled, organically, and that alone had the power to break down any indifferences we may have had. I remembered the why, the how and the when.
I remembered… exactly why it is that I do what I do.