I guess I’m kind of funny in that I do not enjoy my first experience of anything I do, no matter how exhilarating it may be.
This includes but is not limited to my first day at school, my first open water scuba dive, my first motorbike ride, my first bungee jump and many more firsts that I probably shouldn’t mention. It takes me a couple of times to get into it and I then usually decide if I enjoyed the experience or not.
Surprisingly, this didn’t happen to me on my first trail. I probably had some misgivings when I climbed into the ranging vehicle on our way to the Sweni trail, but after the first night at camp I knew this experience was for me and something that I would do over and over again.
I think that what made it particularly memorable for me was the little speech that Robert Bryden made the first evening around the camp fire. In no way do I suggest that this was a prepared speech, it came over very naturally and he probably repeated the same concepts a hundred times to other visitors.
Traditionally, the trail rangers use the first evening to go over the ground rules regarding the camp and the hikes and you get half an hour or so to chat with them before enjoying dinner.
This evening was different though. We were a boisterous group of experienced trail veterans (I was the only newbie) and there was a lot of joking and teasing going on around the camp fire. I think one or two of the jokes were probably targeted at Robert and me (I was the only male in the group between Deidre` and all her female buddies), so I guess I naturally gravitated towards Robert and more male-oriented conversation, and his stories fascinated me. When it was time, Robert quietened everyone down and started.
“Hi everyone and welcome to the Sweni trail. This is probably one of my favorite trails with some of the best memories I have of the bush. The area encompasses about 50 000 hectares with pristine savannah bush and the Sweni river as its focal point. We regularly see kills as the river serves as a gathering point for game, and where there is game there are predators such as lions, leopards and cheetah.
We’ll probably run into some scavengers such as hyena and jackal, but I doubt it if we’ll see wild dog due to their small numbers.
The trails are fun and exciting but I would like you to think of a couple of things while we’re hiking tomorrow. Walking in the veldt you realize just how insignificant the so-called civilized human species really is. You are surrounded by all types of danger. Iimagine getting lost in the bush. How would you survive?
Strangely enough there are still tribes that live off the land as hunter gatherers. Some tribes hunt dangerous game with only a bow and arrow or a spear. They have learnt to survive and adapt to this way of life.
The Shangaan people have managed to become ingenious trackers, following their prey for days. They can identify a single animal by its spoor alone; figure out if the animal is injured, its approximate age and how many days it was ahead of them. If you had to track an elephant, would you even know in which direction it was travelling? I bet you wouldn’t.
In our culture of fast food and instant gratification, how would you adapt to having to stalk your dinner for days and risk getting injured in the hunt. Breaking a leg or busting a rib? Out here there are no hospitals that will treat you; you are left to your own devices.
Would you know which plants serve as natural antibiotics if you have severe septicemia? Simple things like brushing your teeth, how would you do it? With what would you make a bed? Where is the best place to make a bed?
And how about fire, the most important tool to be harnessed by civilized man. With fire we are able to cook our food to help us ingest the energy quicker. It wards of dangers in the night and uplifts your spirit and keeps us warm. What would you do when the last of your lighter fluid runs out? How would you transport your fire or smoldering coals as you travel?
Where would you get water and how would you carry it if you had no vessel? What plants are safe to eat and how would you know that? Where do you hide from an Elephant, behind a bush or behind a tree? And a rhino?
Why are cattle so important to the Maasai people? For the meat? Guess again. They drink their blood as a source of protein and to cure hangovers.
All these questions seem simple until you get confronted with the harsh reality of surviving in the bush. And you will be amazed at how comfortably the indigenous people live. There are even plants that serve as a source of alcohol (not, it’s not the Marula fruit) and to cure hangovers.
So, on our menu tonight is lamb stew with potatoes, mealie bread with jam, three beans salad and a leafy garden salad. Just imagine how long it would have taken us to gather this bounty! And trust me, I have had far better meals with my Shangaan friends than we’re having tonight. Fish, game meat and Mopani worms with Marula tea and palm beer. Delicious!
Let’s enjoy the food and remember what we talked about this evening when you’re hiking tomorrow. Try and get back to your roots and figure out what being human is all about. What are the actual important things in life and why we shouldn’t sweat the small stuff? Think about how amazingly fortunate we all are to be here.
Enjoy the evening guys!”
Robert left to go dish up but I remained at the fire to think about what he said. I could see the other members of the party were also visibly touched by his words. We enjoyed our meals in silence, pondering on the fact that an enormous amount of energy went into gathering and preparing this meal.
I cracked open a beer and proposed a toast to the growers of hops and barley. Everyone joined in and the festivities commenced.
The next evening, on the way back from the night drive, Robert stopped the truck and switched it off. He killed all the lights and asked us to switch of all our torches. We sat in bewildered silence for a couple of minutes until our eyes adjusted to the dark. We could hear the night sounds, frogs croaking and all kinds of weird chirps and tweets that I couldn’t identify. I heard a rush of wings close by as a night jar took off.
I secretly wondered if I would be able to survive the night on my own. I looked up at the stars and once again marveled at the wonderful perfection of it all.
Robert started the ranging truck and we roared back to camp. I had experienced a magical day.
- Arno Joubert -