Blogging is a strange phenomenon, a bit like having a one-sided conversation with the world at large. You talk about something you are passionate about and hope that you have caught someone’s eye enough that they read along with you. Each time I need to send a new blog out into the world I am faced with the immortal question ‘what should I write about this time’? Sometimes it is easy. Over the last 2 years I have been watching the Garonga Pride grow up and each group of guests that joins me on my vehicle sees them slightly differently to the group before. I cannot tell you how much fun I had trawling back through all of my footage to bring to you the chronicles of the Garonga Pride showing their development over the years (if you missed it you can catch up here). Sometimes there has been a favourite sighting that has set me itching to get to the keys (if you haven’t heard me waxing lyrical about the time I found a mother and a baby pangolin then you really haven’t lived!), but this time around I was stumped.
One thing that 2020 has reinforced for me is the vital importance of appreciating every moment – take nothing for granted! Putting this attitude in a wildlife context has exacerbated my previous lawyerish tendency to sit on the fence. I look back over some of my favourite sightings over the last few months and the emergence of our wildflowers (some of which bloom for only a single day) is right up there with spending time with my favourite elephant bull. Watching with bated breath as the Garonga Pride stalk wildebeest at dusk with the full moon rising behind us, sits neck and neck with watching a pair of dung beetles in an intense duel over the ownership of a perfectly formed dung ball! Whilst this is, of course, wonderful it does make the decision of what to write about a tough one!
A handful of my favourite moments from the last few weeks ©Sophie Barrett
I like to think of the bush as a treasure trove. Something different and unexpected can be hiding around every corner, under every leaf. It is part of what makes the life of a guide such a delight, no two days are ever the same and we never know what we are going to find. So this month instead of choosing one thing to write about I have chosen not to choose (expert lawyering 101 – message me for more handy life tips). Instead I want to try and share with you what makes the bush that I live in, and that we invite you to share, such an incredibly special place. Consider this my love letter to the Lowveld if you will.
No day is ever the same – you never know what delights you might find! ©Sophie Barrett
The more time that you spend in the bush the more obvious it becomes how incredibly interconnected everything is. The lions making a kill doesn’t just provide the lions with food and remove a herbivore from the balance. Hyenas will come to see if they can sneak away with any pieces of the carcass, jackals will linger on the edges waiting their turn and, of course, from the skies the vultures will arrive. But this is only part of the story, there is an entire range of decomposing insects that will be called upon to break down any pieces of the carcass that escapes the notice of these larger creatures, they in turn will attract a range of insectivorous birds – it is not uncommon to see francolins, spurfowl, guineafowl or even a ground hornbill (well ok this one is pretty uncommon considering how rare these birds are but still, you get the idea) loitering around the site of a carcass feeding on just those insects. With the incredible and efficient clean up crew that lives in the bush a carcass will go from fresh to virtually erased within 72 hours. And that is not even where the connectivity ceases. Months later when the land is dry and the trees have dropped their leaves, giraffe struggle to find enough nutrition. When this happens they will carry out a practice known as oseophagia, which means they will chew on bones! This bizarre behaviour occurs when giraffe sense that they need additional calcium in their diets and it is one of the strangest sights you can see! As I said the closer you look the more connections you find and I defy you not to have your breath taken away by both the intricacy of the connectivity and the delicacy of the balance that has been struck.
Nature carries out an incredible balancing act with an untold number of species linking together over something as seemingly simple as a lion kill. ©Sophie Barrett
For me there is no time of year where the connectivity within the bush is so evident as in the summer months. So far I have spoken about the connectivity of the denizens of the Lowveld without the mention of humans. In today’s world this is all too common an approach, and I think our sub-conscious distancing from the natural world has a lot to answer for in the ever shrinking wild spaces that we have. This, however, was not always the case. In days past humans once lived and thrived in harmony with the wild. Once the rains come through, the trees flush and the wildflowers emerge I feel a great connection with these ancestors. Few things are more fascinating than discovering the traditional uses behind the plants that surround us, and imagining the processes that people went through in order to establish them – the very early days of science! Some traditional uses are perhaps more suspect than others. The weeping wattle has been used as a treatment and a cure for insanity. As someone whose sanity is regularly questioned by the wider world I would love to know how the insanity was being diagnosed and moreover how it was determined when the cure had been successful. The veracity of the way the ruby gnidia is used to treat sexually transmitted diseases in men, is dubious and the evidence strongly points towards a disgruntled woman who came up with the treatment. However, numerous traditional medicines have proven to be highly effective over the years, so much so that modern scientists are examining a number of plants to see whether we can incorporate them into current medicinal practices. Their inspections have confirmed that the plants often do contain substances with the properties that they are being prescribed as having. This opens up a whole new world of possibilities that sit under the fancy title of Zoopharmacognosy – the technical term for animals apparently choosing certain plants or soils to self-medicate – but that merits an entire blog in and of itself!
Those of you who have met me will be unsurprised to learn that my favourite botanical uses are the ones that tell me what is safe to eat. In fact I have made it something of a mission to become a connoisseur in the various flavours that the Lowveld offers. Like the flowers, this is something that is most evident after our rains have appeared. Few things get you more connected with the bush than strolling through and sampling the tastes that it has to offer and it is something that I love to share with my guests. It is not uncommon for me to throw on the brakes and jump out of the vehicle in excitement in order to harvest some fresh delight for everyone to share. Knowing the difference between a sweet treat and a refreshingly sour one can make all the difference to your day, and of course to your guest experience! My only advice when you come to visit is to wait until your guide has eaten something before you try it. It is not that we are untrustworthy per se, rather that we don’t have TV and need to take our entertainment where we can find it!
I could continue with this love letter indefinitely because there is no end to the treasures that the Lowveld has to offer. However, the truth is inescapable, whether the bush is spoiling me with a treat for the eyes, a scent to soothe, a sound to make me smile, or a taste to tantalise, there is no way to deny the fact that I have found a home here, one that sings to my soul. I know that I am not alone. Guests come to the Lowveld for the self-same reason, of course, they want to be wowed by the Big 5, but (and this is something guests themselves might not even realise), I believe that more than that they want to feel part of this incredible circle of life that surrounds us. As a guide, I take enormous pride, and consider it a great privilege to be the person who gets to remind guests that they are already a part of this circle, no matter where they might live, and to be the one who helps to open their eyes to the incredible nature that surrounds us, whatever form that nature might take.