Entering the Wild
Packing for the trail, and it’s fun to get minimalist. It all has to fit in the provided backpack. Already provided is the bedroll, the sleeping bag, and some part of the kitchen to carry. For me, it’s a fifteen pound bag of food, and a giant spaghetti pot to set on the campfire. I use my packing skills to stack everything into my knapsack so I can still fit my blow-up mattress.
And already, my inner game is afoot. I realize I am one of the eldest in the group. I feel like an auntie. Others have the definition of muscle in their cute little shoulders and petite upper arms. Others seem like sweet little meerkats, and I’m the water buffalo. “Stop it,” I tell myself. I put my face to the sun, and breathe in the warm spicy African air. I remember that my great great grandfather was of West African descent. I picture a few of my African American women friends I admire most for their beauty and strength. They are not meerkats. They are strong, curvy thick, fit. “This is Africa and I am strong and thick and fit.” My mind has to go through this strange association game so that I can calm down and claim my body again. I realize I just expended energy just to make my own body OK. Is there a way to live without this game?
Before we begin our walking journey into the wild area, away from cars and roads and humans, we sit under a tree near an old watering hole. Baboons come to the edge of the clearing to watch us as we sit on our sleeping-roll part of our packs to enjoy the ritual of entering.
We are led by two local guides, trained wilderness experts who carry rifles that could take down an elephant if they absolutely had to. But we all know that they’d much rather take out a human poacher than ever harm one of the animals in this beautiful place. They assure us – it’s never before come to shooting an animal. But you can’t be too careful.
Zondi (pronounced ZOHN-Di) is a quiet smiling gentle soul in the body of a beautiful strong Zulu man. He is all quiet dignity and gentleness until you tease him enough to get him teasing back, and then he is guardian protector, patient teacher, and playful watchful companion.
Sotelo (pronounced See-TCH-eh-Loh) is a great big bear of a Zulu man, with a smile and infectious laugh that kept us giggling from the moment he entered the van, boisterously introducing himself with the widest smile I’ve ever seen on a man so big. He is also known affectionately as “Big-C,” because he really does seem like your jolly big breather. But Sotelo is also a man of sacred devotion. And as we sat under the tree by the watering hole, our nerves rippling through our bodies with anticipation of entering the wild, he reverently arranged some Helichrysum herb on his aluminum camp plate.
“My friends, I do not speak of this as just hiking. I enter this place with sacredness. This is a special place. Here, we share the land with the animals. We use their trails. We are quiet in our voices and our energy, so that we can meet the animals and not disturb them. They will be seen only if they choose to be seen. It is up to us to arrive with purity, with good energy.”
He lit the herbs on fire, allowing the smoke to billow up. I began to weep again, feeling the poignant power of this moment, and the commonality with my own shamanic practices.
“I gathered this herb from the mountains with my own hands. It is special to me. I am honored to share this here with you. Smudging is a ritual used in so many cultures. My culture, the Zulu, came here to South Africa, from as far north as southern Sudan. My ancestors drove out the indigenous San people who used to live here, driving them up into the difficult mountains. Everywhere, indigenous people have been driven off of their lands. But we still have some ways, like smudging, that we all use everywhere. Let this smudging ritual clear us, purify us, and allow us to enter this sacred wild place with the right energy.”
We passed the plate around, letting the herbal smoke flow through us as we purified ourselves. This was the beginning of our quieting. And then we silently helped each other haul the backpacks on, clicking the wide waist belts so the weight could ride on our hips, and we began our walk into the wild.
After this opening ceremony, the land would open to us. As I’ve experienced before, ceremony allowed us to drop into a new relationship with this sacred community of trees and critters and soil. The magic ramped up. I’ll tell you more about it…