I remember the heat and that heavy atmosphere that made me certain that any moment there would be a crash of thunder and the heavens would open. The air smelled like mud, but the ground below my heavy walking boots was still as solid as rock. I didn’t care if it rained, I’m not even sure I’d have noticed if it did, because the ranger in front was beckoning me forward.
My heart was racing and my eyes were fixed. About 10-feet ahead was a wild lioness looking right at me. I wasn’t in a vehicle or behind a fence, but was actually there in the African wild, with nothing between us. It was my first game walk and I knew that moment would never leave me.
I watched from the edge of our volunteer group with baited breath as our guide’s hand signals changed: Stop. Get low.
Inching closer, I heard one of our team gasp; we’d completely overlooked a muscular adult female lounging a few feet away from the others. Through the long grass she sat poised, eyes fixed upon us, ears twitching under the pesky buzz of flies.
Swallowing hard, the advice ‘never try to outrun a lion’ echoed in my mind as I tried to test the logic of the ‘right thing to do’ when locked in a staring contest with a powerful predator.
Fortunately, this incredible force of nature met my panic with a sense of boredom, and broke the stare to flop down on her side. All that remained of her in my line of vision was the end of a beating tail, swiping backwards and forwards at the flies like an upside down pendulum.
I spent a total of 13 weeks volunteering at Shamwari Game Reserve in South Africa, which is home to two Born Free Big Cat Sanctuaries – and every moment felt new, fresh and inspiring.
Born Free also has sanctuaries in India and the USA, but Africa was the top choice for me. I’d never been before, but for years I had read books, watched documentaries and even collected magazine cut-outs of majestic scenes of African nature at its most proud.
In reality, every day and every experience during my stay was unique; it felt like I’d just been born and this was my education on the world.
A land of surprises and wonder
I was lucky enough to encounter lions many more times during my trip, including one unforgettable day we trekked at dusk. We had trawled the reserve in search of elephants, to no avail. But as darkness cloaked the savannah our lion pride exercised their voices.
The anxious energy in the air was palpable; it was clear that this would be a night for hunting.
As the heavens opened, the spine-tingling low rumble of lion voices called out from the distance – and we saw it as a sign to get out of nature’s way. I had not anticipated as the Land Rover’s engine roared into life, that we would come face-to-face with our missing elephant herd.
I’d like to say the first time I saw elephants in the wild, the ground shock and the earth rumbled. It didn’t.
In fact, to my own surprise, it was the most natural feeling in the world, to see a small herd sweep through the bushes and thorny acacia trees, as keen as we were to leave the lions to their grisly business of the hunt.
It didn’t feel unnerving to have these beautiful, gentle giants walk into my life — because I knew in my heart it was me who had walked into their lives. The earth beneath my feet, the plants, and even the hot, dry, slightly dung-scented air, belonged to these creatures — not to me. It was far more humbling than epic.
I had originally chosen to volunteer because I wanted to feel I was making a difference. But now, I have a different perspective: I want to inspire other people to make a difference, because conserving Africa, and indeed our planet’s amazing wildlife, is not just a one-woman job.
Back to the beginning…
After entering the Wildlife Blogger of the Year competition at the end of 2018 and receiving an honourable mention from the judges (you can view my entry here if you missed it), I’ve realised that after 7 and half years of blogging, my site has come full circle.
My first ever post in July 2011 (coincidentally) described exactly the same day and experience as my final post of 2018 — witnessing the wild scenes of South Africa, hearing lions roar and spending a few months at age 18 (full disclosure; I’m now 28) volunteering at a now blueprint example of a re-wilded and ecologically rich area of South Africa.
I’m pleased to say I feel my writing style has come along way between the two posts, and there’s certainly a level of blind optimism at the beginning which is perhaps less prominent now (I’m sure many working on conservation can relate), but I find a unexpected comfort in realising my truths and motivations still resonate from the same place.
For this reason, my next series of posts will be a look back on my love affair with the wild, first fully realised on those long wintery South Africa days experienced as a teenager. For better or worse, I will be publishing extracts from my diaries at this time, and tracing back my journey of the last decade of my life. I literally haven’t opened these journals since the time of writing, so have no idea what’s in store — but I’m pretty excited to find out!
Join me on Sundays over the next few weeks (starting the 20th January) for the Shamwari series… Gulp! You can read Part 1 here.
IN OTHER EXCITING NEWS! This blog post will feature in a brand new book, The Wildlife Blog Collection: a compilation of 70 amazing stories celebrating some of the most memorable, entrancing and exciting wildlife moments as told by top nature writers from across the globe. Order your copy here