I have been in Africa for more than a month. That’s longer than my first trip last year, and it seemed like a good time to reflect on what I’ve experienced in the past weeks and what I hope for in the weeks to come. That’s why I decided to stay in at Thanda last weekend. It’s always tempting to go back to Rocktail Bay or even to a hotel for a night of unlimited water and Wifi, but I wanted to get the experience of being completely alone at the lodge.
Actually, I wasn’t completely alone. Some staff members work on the weekend—housekeepers, kitchen helpers, and a security team—but all the other volunteers were away so I pretty much had the place to myself. It was a very windy, stormy day with occasional sprinkles from the sky. Some people might be disappointed in that kind of day, but I love it when it’s really windy. The wind made me remember one of my last nights in the US when I stood outside my parents’ house, looking up at a clear sky full of stars and feeling the wind on my face.
I used my windy day to recharge for another 7 weeks of adventures in South Africa. I’ve picked up a little yoga, so I did that for a while. And then I did some Tai Chi that I learned from my mother who’s on her way becoming a Tai Chi instructor. Both of those activities make you think about breathing and the wind made it feel like the world was breathing with me. All day it was windy and cloudy, and I loved every single minute of it. Even without company, I didn’t feel lonely. Actually, I should say that I didn’t have human company. This is a nature preserve so I had a number of visitors during the day—a pair of warthogs, some impalas, a stick insect, frogs and toads, and plenty of praying mantises.
For me, it was a great day of peace and quiet. Maybe it wouldn’t be so quiet for hearing people because I’m pretty sure there were frogs croaking, crickets chirping and maybe even lions roaring in the distance. I haven’t exactly been able to hear the sounds made by wildlife, but that doesn’t really matter to me. I am getting better at understanding what is communicated through action—body language, facial expression, even eye contact.
On game drives or even in camp, I’ve had so many experiences where I’ve made eye contact with an animal. Once, one of our guides parked the Land-Rover right in the middle of a herd of buffalo. Some buffalo completely ignored us knowing we weren’t danger. Some started at us wondering what the heck were we doing. Some accepted us and strolled past as if having a Land-Rover in their midst was perfectly normal. One buffalo was right beside the Land-Rover. I was in the passenger seat which is a lot closer to the ground than the rest of the seats in the back. This buffalo locked eyes with me and I felt like I was under some kind of a spell. It almost seemed as if he was trying to communicate with me, warning me not to hit any of his friends and family members with the Land-Rover.
During this first month in Thanda, I have made eye contact with elephants, lions, zebras, and even warthogs, and I always come away feeling deeply connected to the animal. I don’t know what is it about this place, but it makes me feel closer to the wildlife, not just in body but in spirit. I think this love for animals has always been inside me. I remember that, when I was a kid, I never truly enjoyed going to the zoo. I always felt bad for the animals because they were confined in small areas and dependent on humans for food. I don’t ever remember making eye contact with an animal in the zoo. Maybe here animals look you in the eye because they are living on their own terms. Yes, they need people to protect their habitat, but within that habitat, they have grace and dignity. When an animal locks eyes with me, I realize that it has every right to live free from human interference and violence.
Even after a weekend on my own, it’s hard to summarize the experiences and feelings I’ve had during these first weeks at Thanda. I just know that I deeply love being here, and I can’t wait to see what the coming weeks will bring.