by Elise Brooke
I had waited and waited bringing up a family of my own first finally at age forty it was happening…
Mesmerizing pictures of animals and breath taking scenery fill my screen I gaze in awe. I have wanted to see South Africa ever since mum told me about her home when I was only four years old. Goose bumps tingle my skin as I recall her voice.
I discover an organisation called Kuwantu looking for volunteers to work on their Big Five game reserve in exchange they provid accommodation and food. Paper work and applications complete I pack my 10kg back pack and board a plane with a thirty hour journey ahead.
I have to disturb an uppity lady next to me every time my mummy bladder urges or my legs swell up. The lights are all switched off for sleeping purposes only peoples screens can be seen. The uppity lady returns to her seat she stops and staring for a bit,
“Are you ok?” I ask.
Her face turns pale and ghost like. I take off my seat belt and reach for her she starts to fall backwards her eyes roll into the back of her head. She slips from my grasp collapsing in the isle. I am now unable to get past her to get help and start to panic,
“Is she breathing?” I think.
Flicking my reading light on and off rapidly like a SOS got the attention of two air hostesses who crawled out of the darkness. They attended to the lady and she regained consciousness. For the rest of the flight she was not so uppity to me. Even showing me the upstairs terminals on arrival in Johannesburg.
I step off the plane into day light the heat smacks me in the face. At first I have trouble breathing gasping until my lungs adjust. Entering a pokey little airport all I can smell is sweat no air conditioning here. The next is a spice smell coming from the food court. My mouth drools at the thought of a decent meal.
Port Elizabeth my mother’s home town is coastal similar to Tauranga except more industrious. Vast mountains, bushland and jungle can be seen in the distance no rolling green hills like New Zealand. Only Harsh dry dessert not a sheep or cow in sight. A ten minute drive from the airport and I am warmly welcomed by the staff at my accommodation. As soon as my head hits the pillow I’m out like a light I have not slept for thirty hours.
The next day the other volunteers from the U.K and Denmark arrive. Students doing their “Gap” year from Belgium, Sweden and Germany also join me.
I’m discovering a lot of monkeys around here. Not the least bit afraid of stealing anything that takes their fancy.
Our guide takes us an hour and a half drive arriving at Kuwantu six O’clock at night. We have basic meals here of rice, salad, and a meat dish with chutney. Breakfasts are eggs of some form, beans, sausages and toast or cereal and fruit.
Our accommodations are very simple volunteers slept together in dorm style cabins on bunks. The shower and loos are a five minute walk away. After checking under my bed for snakes and hoping our room did not have bats in the roof as the boys room I sleep on and off on a hard mattress.
I wake to the most memorable wonderful sounds. Birds of numerous varieties and insects. My favourite the lions and tigers from the rehab shelter roaring talking to each other.
It is the end of the African summer despite that temperatures still reach over forty degrees during the peak of the day dropping sharply to a bitter below zero at night. Unpredictable rains burst through the clouds turning into thunder storms fast. One has to dress and prepare for all.
The nights here are pitch black one cannot see their hand in front of their face. The sparse skies give a glittering display of stars I did not even know existed and the sunsets/sunrises are still the best I’ve ever seen.
The excitement we’d all been waiting for our first game drive. I am both amazed, scared and in total wonderment as we bounce around the reserve getting a bush massage as the driver calls it (all the bumps and jolts).
I see a jackal first, zebra, rhinos, spring buck and lots of birds such a glorious sight ingrained in my memory. Next we see giant termite mounds meters tall, wilder beasts, giraffe, hippos, a family of elephants with a baby calf, mongoose, buffalo, wart hogs, pea hens and starlings with their vibrant jade and green feathers.
We have to obey strict rules for our safety staying inside the truck, arms still, voices down and seated at all times.
We are taken to the rehabilitation shelter were animals recovering from injury or being bred are kept before being rehabilitated into the wild. Here we meet the white lions, tigers and cheetahs.
Thursdays we go to the school to feed the children. The rest of our work consists of fence clearing (digging up long grass with a spade along fence lines), vegetation control (chopping down cactus with machetes), mending fences, tree chopping and road maintenance (breaking up concrete with pick axes).
The equipment we use is poorly maintained and often dangerous. Work is expected to be carried out the traditional way using old fashioned techniques. Gloves are not provided many of us have long cactus needles stabbing in our arms and hands. I have blisters the size of two dollar coins on my palms which sting and bleed.
A volunteers blade flies off the handle of his machete it rebounds hitting the cactus in front of him before embedding itself in his shine leaving a nasty gash he is taken to hospital.
It is frightening doing fence clearing amongst the lions roaming as the electric fence must be disabled. Guides are trained to keep watch for any lions or beasts. At a moment’s notice a whistle meant get your ass in the truck now or be the lions lunch.
We work with plants in the nursery planting these in the bush. We help count the animals weekly to keep track of numbers. We hand feed baby orphaned monkeys from Brazil and a brilliant Makor takes a shine to me.
A herd of elephants pulls an elephant out of a large hole she fell into breaking her leg. The elephants stay by her side protecting her knowing she is vulnerable until she is well.
An elephant gives me the pleasure of visiting up to the fence behind our cabin. A magnificent bull male tusks protruding a meter out in front.
The local vet needs our help this afternoon we follow him into the bush to tranquilise and capture a lioness. She needs to be moved to another part of the reserve to even out the predator game ratio as too many Impala’s are being eaten here.
It takes hours to find her the vet darts her it takes ten minutes before she goes down. We wait for the vet to be the first to check she is asleep then load her into a cage and onto the trailer. A very surreal experience being up close and personal with the Queen of the jungle. Touching her rough fur and feeling her warm breath. She is much bigger than I expect close up one of her paws is the same size as both my hands spread out.
The whole time we attend to the lioness we are very aware we are surrounded by all eyes of the jungle. I count nine lions from the pride including a male hiding in the bush. Bones crunch under my feet as I walk across their feeding grounds back to the safety of the truck.
My experience working with these animals, the change of pace, the way of life, the people I met, and conversations I have all impact on my thinking changing my life from here on.
I have the space, quiet and stillness to hear my heart. I feel happiness experiencing my mother land, I feel a connection and a part of. This makes me realize how happy I could be when following my heart. It becomes obvious to me that I have not been happy for a long time.
Africa shows me how short life is in the jungle. Upon landing back in New Zealand I make big life changes to be happy now not later.
I quit my nursing job of eighteen years. Write two books about my life journey, complete a Creative Writing Diploma and fulfil my dream of a writing career.
I absolutely recommend this experience to others. Do whatever it takes do it now fulfill your dreams and never stop dreaming.
If you want to read more such experiences by Elise Brooke you can buy her book The New Zealand Dream here.