I’ve been out of my natural habitat. Frances and I went to Johannesburg, South Africa, to visit our younger daughter Hannah and her husband Niall and their three children. They moved there some months ago for an overseas posting from Niall’s employer. We stayed for nearly three weeks, our first visit to Africa.
Returning home to Scotland very recently, I found that I had formed some strong opinions about Johannesburg, a vast and extraordinary technicolor mixture of extreme ostentatious wealth and unspeakable poverty, with little in between except the omnipresent security industry which thrives on keeping the one somewhat separate from the other. Seeing an Armed Response vehicle patrolling the grounds of my grandchildren’s school was particularly chilling.
But you readers don’t come here for political or social commentary; you come here for Random Treasure. So in the following discussion I’ll attempt to maintain at least a tangential connection to my main theme. This might be tricky.
First, I ask you to exercise your imagination. Picture an elderly bookish urban Jew, seated uncomfortably in the back of a rugged open-topped 10-seater stretched Toyota Landcruiser, bouncing through the bush in pursuit of impala, elephants, rhinos, lions, giraffes, zebra, wild dogs, leopards. That’s me. Could anything be more incongruous?
But yes, while in South Africa I went on a safari weekend, something which I have never felt any especial urge to do, having throughout my long life until now been satisfied to observe wild animals in television documentaries or on occasional visits to city zoos. I have tended towards the view that if they’re getting on OK in the wild, then let’s leave ‘em alone to get on with whatever it is that they do, undisturbed by human intervention, which is almost invariably destructive.
People like me don’t belong in the bush. We belong in the city, nosing around charity shops and salerooms, heaving aside other humans, looking for second-hand bargains. I don’t mind interacting from time to time with friendly domesticated dogs and cats. Indeed, as I write I’m accompanied by our house guest Bailey, our elder daughter Sarah’s cat, for whom we are presently cat-sitting. But up to now, I have drawn the line at anything wild, from squirrels upwards through the food chain.
And yet, given the chance to go on a safari weekend into the African bush, I was only too delighted to go for it.
In the Bush
On safari, our family group of seven occupied two of the four self-contained units at the Naledi Game Lodge (https://www.naledigamelodge.com/), one of several such lodges whose patches of land fit together to make up the Balule Nature Reserve. This is a privately-owned area of around 40,000 hectares of sub-tropical wilderness adjoining the unfenced western border of the Kruger National Park. The reserve is co-operatively run by its joint owners as an ecotourism destination (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Balule_Nature_Reserve).
Leaving aside the thatched roofs, persistent attentions of monkeys in every doorway, and views of elephants and giraffes from the upstairs balconies, you might be in a five-star hotel anywhere in the world, with extreme luxury, friendly, informal service, and magnificent food served in delightful surroundings. The weather was superb, consistently around 27o during the day, and there were no insects other than beautiful dinner-plate sized butterflies and drone-sized dragonflies. Perfection.
Part of the deal in a place such as this is the game drives. In with the weekend package you get two three-hour expeditions per day. The morning outing starts at 5.30 a.m. so you are in the bush as the sun rises, and the afternoon session starts at 4.30 p.m., returning under a starry African sky. There were four drives during our stay, and I joined in all of them.
Despite my total physical, psychological and emotional incompatibility with everything to do with safaris, I was amazed to find that I enjoyed – no, adored – every single second of my twelve exhilarating hours trundling around in the bush. And oddly, curiously, I felt quite confident, quite at home. I wonder why?
Our family has a safari truck to itself, led by an expert guide and a tracker. The guide is called Oupa, and he drives the huge vehicle along the rough tracks in pursuit of animals, pointing them out to us and identifying them, and supplying a commentary on their habits and lifestyles. If an Interesting Animal – say a leopard or a hyena – is seen lurking a few hundred metres distant from the track, Oupa plunges the truck off-track directly into the bush to get us closer to it.
The tracker is called Excellent. I’ll say more about him in Part 2 of this blog post. He is perched precariously on a high seat over the bonnet, and it’s his job to track and spot the animals, using his skills at interpreting footprints and other signs. With his long experience and his uncannily accurate eyesight, he misses nothing (although I miss much).
Oupa and Excellent are cousins, both big solid men in their late 30s or early 40s. We don’t ask them about their origins, but they are clearly from the area, and speak to each other in the local Tsonga dialect. There’s no mistaking that these guys are thorough professionals, highly educated, very well trained and keen to please us as their clients. They are completely fluent in English, Afrikaans, and several other African languages. They talk constantly on their mobile phones and radios to other guides taking other visitors around other parts of the reserve. If the local leopard appears, the word goes out and we all hurtle in its direction to see which truck can get to it first. This is sophisticated, high-tech tourism.
The virgin primeval African bush in these parts is mostly flat, with a few gentle hills. There’s lots of sky, and a distant view of the dramatic Drakensburg mountains. The vegetation is mostly grassland full of scrubby, thorny bushes and short, stunted trees, many of which are dead, having been stripped of their leaves by giraffes or pushed over by elephants. Beneath the tyres of the vehicle, the dirt tracks are pitted and bumpy. Skies are clear, with a few clouds. There’s no rain, but this isn’t the driest time of the year: there’s plenty of greenness to be seen and not much mud.
And the whole somewhat unprepossessing landscape is teeming with wildlife in the most diverse and extraordinary profusion. Oupa gives us a close-up view of the elephants and the lions and the giraffes, the rare African painted hunting dogs and the rarer leopard. At a slightly longer distance he points out a hyena scavenging, a troop of baboons running along the treeline, warthogs, wildebeest and impala, and vultures circling overhead looking for opportunities. Ask him about a colourful bird, and he will get a bird book out (disconcertingly while still driving) and show you its picture. When night falls, ask him about the stars in the sky, and he’ll tell you the stories of the constellations and how to look for due south and due north.
As for me, when it comes to spotting animals on a drive through the bush, I find that I’m clueless and useless. When told to look over there, I look in the opposite direction. Dead trees look like giraffes and giraffes look like dead trees. If a huge elephant is standing behind a small bush, I see the bush but not the elephant. A brown rock at the edge of the track stands up, yawns and stretches, and it’s only after the guides and my entire family have spent some moments gasping in awe and pointing excitedly that I notice there’s a lion right beside me. I haven’t seen a kudu yet, but everyone else in the Balule Nature Reserve has seen tons of them.
Everything about this experience should be turning me off. I’m the kind of person who gets in a panic where the streetlights end. I’m much more interested in David Attenborough as a noted collector of studio pottery than as a noted naturalist. My life has been dedicated to the evasion of physical risk, to the avoidance of strenuous outdoor pursuits, and to the appreciation of the Works of Man and Woman in preference to the Works of Nature.
Why, then, do I feel so exhilarated and so comfortable here in this utterly alien environment? Here’s the reason: because it came to me early on in the first drive that what Oupa is doing here in Darkest South Africa isn’t all that much different from I would be doing a few miles from home in Darkest East Lothian.
Guiding in Africa
In Africa, our guide Oupa’s role, supported by Excellent, is to show us what to see and to tell us what we’re seeing, as we lurch along the pitted tracks through the scrubby bush. For our benefit, he manoeuvres the truck as close as possible to the widest selection as possible of wild – or apparently wild – animals. Frankly, not many of them look all that wild. Many look quite bored.
Yes, of course they’re wild animals, but they are also animals who have had safari trucks full of humans pitching up in front of them at least twice a day on every day of their entire lives. They know we pose no danger, so they ignore us and get on with the business of being wild animals. This allows Oupa to provide us with a visitor’s close-up guide to how each kind of animal behaves.
We learn on our guided tour that a male impala gathers around himself a harem of up to 40 females, but is then so busy mating with them and guarding them from other males that he doesn’t have time to eat. After a time, he gets weak and tired and he’s open to challenge for the top job from other upcoming males.
We come across a lion, a hyena, and a group of hunting dogs, a worried-looking impala in the background. Oupa interprets the scene as follows: the dogs have caught an impala, but the lion grabbed it from them and is currently noisily gnawing its bones, while the hyena stands by ready to snatch from the lion whatever is left of the carcase. The onlooking live impala is keeping very still, trying not to draw attention to itself and hoping not to be served up as the next meal of any of the aforementioned carnivores.
Like any good guide, Oupa is a performer. He spices up his narrative to give his tour group an occasional extra frisson. That one-tusked elephant over there is known to be aggressive and is looking at us in a funny way, so we’d better retreat. Yes, the lions will ignore us if we stay in the truck, but if we get down, they’ll eat us without a second thought. We’re impressed, alarmed, and find ourselves worrying about how many unwitting tourists like ourselves have been trampled and/or consumed in this very spot in recent weeks.
Guiding in Scotland
A few days after returning to Scotland, I resume my duties as a volunteer tour guide at Newhailes House, a 17th century Palladian mansion near Edinburgh owned by the National Trust for Scotland (NTS) (https://www.nts.org.uk/visit/places/newhailes).
Every Thursday afternoon during the tourist season I conduct groups of up to 12 visitors around the house. I tell them about the architecture, the artworks and furniture, and about successive generations of the family who lived here for almost 300 years, until their failure to produce heirs and their financial fecklessness forced them to pass the house and estate on into charitable ownership. I’ve done a lot of research for myself, and have had thorough training by a Trust-engaged story-telling consultant, to ensure that I say the right things and secure the appropriate level of engagement from my clients.
When taking possession of the property, the NTS decided against full restoration. Instead, they have conserved and presented the house exactly as it looked when the last owner, the elderly and reclusive Lady Antonia, left in 1997, ending a period of almost a century of steady decline and dilapidation. Now, 25 years later, the house remains in this arrested state, artfully preserved even down to the historic mould on the historic upstairs bedroom walls.
On my tour, I sensationalise the story by focussing on the scandalous bits – the cousin who accidentally shot and killed his brother, the drunken baronet found shacked up in a Brighton hotel with a young actress, the fifteen-year-old niece (right) who eloped with a dashing young aristocrat.
As we progress from the Dining Room to the Winter Sitting Room to the Best Bedroom, the ancestors in the portraits gaze out at the visitors and at me as imperturbably as the lions in the Balule Nature Reserve. I point out some wildlife in the form of a polar bear skin rug on the Library floor. I lead them into the rough terrain of the Servants’ Quarters through the Secret Door into the Butler’s Pantry. I reveal the arcana of the China Closet.
Real, natural, true
A ride through a section of the African bush, and a meander through a slice of Scottish history. In some ways they couldn’t be more different, but in others they are exactly the same. Two brief, harmless, exciting, educational, risk-free excursions, moderated by skilled interpreters: Oupa in exciting South Africa, me in somewhat more prosaic East Lothian.
As visitors to Naledi Game Lodge, we take it on trust that everything we’re seeing is genuinely wild and genuinely natural. We accept that the stunted, dried-up terrain of the African nature reserve really is untouched virgin territory able to support an intensive and varied population of large and generally antagonistic animals. Our highly-skilled guide Oupa and his colleague Excellent fulfil their roles admirably and convincingly, making sure that the excitement and exhilaration of each of our four drives is unparalleled. But we greenhorns have no way of verifying how much of an authentic experience we’re actually getting. Is this real life or is it a manufactured tourist experience?
Between drives, I try some gentle probing in a brief conversation with Kjell, the genial white Afrikaner owner of the black-operated lodge. If some of the animals (the leopard, the hunting dogs) are as rare as they’re cracked up to be, how come we have been seeing them so readily in this small section of land attached to a huge national park which is almost as big as my home country of Scotland? How is it that all these beasts happen to be loitering picturesquely within a mile or two of your lodge just at the time the paying guests want to see them? It’s obvious from their flat-topped noses and slightly embarrassed expressions that the rhinos have had their horns sawn off to deter poachers, but how much other intervention takes place? For example, we saw a lion limping with a large gash on its hind leg. If a rare and photogenic specimen is showing obvious signs of illness or injury, will you always let nature take its course or do you get the vet in for a house call? It’s natural, but how natural?
I learn very little, except to be told how fortunate we have been on this occasion to have seen such a wide variety of wildlife. Kjell does reveal, however, that one method he uses to attract animals to his location is to dig some artificial watering holes for their use. Presumably he is also equipped with an armoury of other techniques to keep the wildlife on the doorstep. From which I deduce that despite appearances, what we are experiencing is not quite 100% natural.
It’s obvious, really. If Balule was in a virgin, primeval state, it wouldn’t have tracks running through it. It wouldn’t have a luxury hotel with air conditioning, wifi and swimming pool. If the animals were entirely free from human influence, then they would run a mile at hearing the fearsome and unfamiliar noise of a diesel truck loaded with excited, overawed tourists. But they don’t run. They get on with their lives indifferently. To this extent at least, these wild animals are tame. For the safari industry to work as wonderfully well as it does, there must be elements of careful backstage management, elements of curation in what we experience.
It didn’t matter to me. It didn’t impair my enjoyment. I was absolutely content to suspend any scintilla of doubt, any iota of disbelief, and to immerse myself completely in the moment, with its strangeness, its beauty, its excitement, and its carefully-modulated risk.
At Newhailes, there’s no wandering wildlife (other than a few moths inhabiting the polar bear skin rug) and the influence of the curator is easier to discern. I try in my tour to bring the house to life: here’s the desk where Lord Hailes wrote the Annals of Scotland; here’s where Miss Christian spent the night before the Battle of Waterloo mopping up water leaking through the Library ceiling; here’s the small bedroom where reclusive Lady Antonia lived for two decades alone in the house with only her cats for company.
My stories for the visiting parties are true, but are a carefully selected and edited version of the truth, in the same way that the property itself as displayed to visitors is a managed version of a historic house. Because to some extent it’s a construct, a real 300-year-old building with real 300-year-old contents, but at the same time a theatrical set dressed and presented for an audience, complete with a children’s playground in the walled gardens and a café and gift shop in the old stables.
In the end, are the South African safari and the East Scotland house tour real, authentic experiences, are they natural, are they true to life? Up to a point, yes. It’s real, but it’s also theatre. It’s natural, but it’s also engineered. It’s a true story, but the telling of it is selective. And of course although we feel like observers, in fact we’re participants.
In each case the authenticity of the setup is affected by an alien invasion: a crowd of sensation-seeking tourists, led by a guide trained to big up the exciting bits and filter out the boring and the mundane. Our very presence in in the middle of the Balule bush or in the middle of the Newhailes Library signifies that it can’t really be real, natural or truthful at all.
None of the doubt or artifice prevented the drives through the South African nature reserve from being some of the most exciting and memorable experiences of my life. In Balule, the guide Oupa did an outstandingly good job of pressing my excitement and interest buttons, as any conscientious guide should do in any environment anywhere. I’d like to think that the tourists who come on my Newhailes house tours think likewise about their tour guide.
Obviously I’m not Oupa. We’re doing the same job in the same way, but with some regret I’m forced to admit that the Newhailes experience is rather more limited in its capacity to amaze and to thrill than its astonishing counterpart in Africa.
On our safari weekend, I felt a strong fellow feeling with our guide Oupa, because my guiding job here in Scotland is so precisely similar to his job there in Africa.
In a different way I felt the same about Oupa’s colleague and cousin Excellent, the tracker, because, back home in primeval Leith, I’m a tracker too. Further musings in my next blog post: Natural Habitat: Part 2