Walking in the Wild
As we walked, the animals were already showing themselves to us. The baboons with their red behinds. An older male giraffe with darker coloration. Spotted deer. A big dusky buck. Every time an animal revealed itself, I feel something in my heart mending as inwardly I exclaim, “You’re ALIVE!”
My grief is pulsing through me. This is a grief I didn’t realize I had so deeply. I am shocked to see these “zoo” animals alive and radiating such peace and happiness. Something inside me has been grieving the loss of so many endangered species. I had become hopeless I guess. I had become cynical. I had given up on wild animals. I had assumed there was no where left on the earth where these giant beasts could possibly be happy. I realize that to a great extent, with the loss of natural habitat from the virus of humanity, this is becoming true.
I grew up visiting the San Diego Zoo very often. I would sit with the animals, watching the elephants, the giraffes, the big cats. I could feel that they were often depressed, listless, neurotic. But these animals in this wild place – they were watching, awake, present, peaceful, confident. They were truly ALIVE. And witnessing this, and even thinking about it again now, has me weep with a strange mix of grief and relief and joy and hopeless hope.
How is this dichotomy reflected in how I am in my body? How we all are in our fleshy animal bodies? How does my vanity keep me in my own enclosure, neurotic and caged in something that tries to approximate my own natural habitat?
We walk on. Black rhino foot print. We begin our quiet lessons about the tracks of the resident animals. Birdsong. Hazy gorgeous African light through the grasses. A family of White Rhino grazing peacefully nearby. My tears wash the dust from my eyes, so that’s convenient.
More baboons, chillin on the rocks like lazy frat boys drunk on beer on a football Sunday. Their spirits are so light. On top of the world. And I can feel their joy pulsing through me. Yes. Wild ones still exist, in this balanced environment, co-existing with the other creatures in harmony. Yes. It is possible to simply relax on the rocks at the river and enjoy life.
We remove our shoes to wade through the river we will be drinking from for the next week. Nearby we hear a grumbling growl and moaning roar. “Ah. The lions are mating,” says Zondi. “We will camp here so we might see them. They know we are here. They see us. Perhaps we will see them.”
Camping in the Wild
We set our first camp on the rocky ledge over the river that the baboons usually use to sleep, since it is an easily defensible space. We camp on the northern ledges, and let the baboons have the ledge as it extends beyond brush to the south.
It’s hot, and we are tired even though this was our shortest walk day by far. Three of us women climb down the rocks, strip down, and lay like crocodiles in the cold water. (This, after the guardians checked it for crocodiles and gave us permission to do so!). We squeal in body-shock and ecstatic joy as the crystalline water sends goosebumps all over our bodies. We keep saying “we are in Africa” because we still don’t believe it fully.
The serpentine river winds through course sand, spotted with the dung and tracks of elephants, hyenas, giraffe. And appropriately, the theme of the next group talk is poo. “Here, there may be times when you feel you must release with your body. We do not call this number 2. We call it number-number. And we must be careful where we do this. Here is a spade. Here are the leaves that you can use to clean yourself. Do not use these other leaves, as they are toxic. If you must use a piece of TP, then you burn it with this lighter before you leave the ash behind. We leave no trace for the hyenas or dung beetles to spread. We are guests here. We number-number away from the river. It is safest if you only do number-number when the sun is up, and never go alone.” In this particular campsite, the place to number-number was up a 100 foot almost-vertical climb rock step “path.” As part of orientation, we scramble up to this number-number spot around sunset. Well worth the climb. We acclimate to what we’d be experiencing the rest of the week as well – something I came to refer to as “poo with a view.”
I sit on my bedroll, a few feet from the cliff’s edge that drops to the river below. Listening to the growing sounds of the frogs, the creatures, the occasional rumble of the lions mating a few hundred yards upstream, I am shocked to realize I feel completely safe. Protected. Home.
First night watch
That first night sleeping on the rocky baboon ledge was a dreamscape experience. We each took turns standing watch. So early in the morning, when the full moon was almost set, and the cold dew was wrapped around us, I was awakened by the gal before me, and handed the big flashlight. She whispered to me her report. Lots of lion mating sounds. She saw a hyena she thinks. Apparently a water buffalo met his death downriver, and the hyenas were actively celebrating the open meat buffet. I rubbed the sleep from my eyes, and realized I’d woken briefly a bit earlier, to the sounds of the dying animal, and thought “Well, someone’s dying tonight, so it won’t be me!” And another time I’d awoken when someone whispered there was a lion. I had grabbed my binoculars to peer at the far off creature moving in the flashlight beam so far away, thinking I was looking at a lioness. But by the morning, the guides had ruled it was more likely the hyena I’d caught sight of.
Anyway, on night watch, it was my job to keep the small fire going, to keep the kettle water hot for tea, and to patrol the perimeter of our small camp with my big flashlight beam, ready to wake the guides if I saw eyes flashing back to me in the darkness above or around our camp. Really, though, night watch was about watching the critters come to the river – to drink, to hunt, to live. And to listen to the sounds of the bush alive in the dark.
There were times when the frog-song chorus laid down such a groovy beat, I broke into hip-hop moves, and was tempted to break our rule of quiet so I could boisterously rap about the bad-ass-ness of this wild world. But instead, for my night watch, I donned my wool cap, my fingerless gloves, and sipped my tea, praying that I wouldn’t have to number-number, because there was no way I was scaling the cliff in the middle of the night! When the moon and stars showed me that about an hour and a half had passed (we had no watches, devices, or any other way to tell “time”), I woke Naomi, the one who would enjoy watch after my rounds were over. Then I climbed back into my sleeping bag and passed out for a precious hour or two before a blazing gorgeous sunrise woke us all to watch the animals come down to the river for their morning drinks.
The next day brought even more adventures, as we deepened into the wild, and into the silence. Read on to continue the journey with me.