England was the country of my birth, but my parents, who were of Indian descent, were born in South Africa. (Just to confuse things I was raised in Quebec and spent my formative years there before returning to London, by way of France.) I have an ambivalent relationship with their homeland. After all, they left when it was under apartheid rule. I know how much they suffered, the casual indignities and hardships they faced. I also know what a dangerous place it can be to live now; its soaring crime rate is rooted in the inhumanity of the previous era – a sort of karmic reckoning.
My father is no longer alive, but when my mother talks about South Africa it’s always with fondness and affection: she remembers growing up in the countryside with her brothers and sisters, fishing, collecting crabs and wild plants – they were hard-up so they had no choice but to forage – baking bread in rudimentary earth ovens, shimmying up trees and steering clear of poisonous snakes. Once, she reminisced about the time she hiked up Table Mountain in a sari, shortly after marrying my father, something I, with my walking boots and rucksack and breathable t-shirts and shorts, find a little surreal. Later, when they were comfortably settled in Canada, my parents would occasionally holiday in South Africa, where their days were spent on lazy drives to a beach or maybe a wildlife reserve. That is, when they weren’t visiting relatives who seemed to spend whole days cooking, eating and not budging from sofas.
The first time I went over I was six: I remember playing in the mud and eating rice pudding on freshly plucked banana leaves, hiding under my mother’s sari folds (later, in Canada, she switched to jeans and skirts) and refusing to emerge, that is until someone placed a puppy in my hands. I remember, too, the signs outside the loos and the beaches and funfairs we could not stop at because they said ‘Whites Only.’ That left a funny taste in my mouth and even then I knew it wasn’t right. It was a long time, whole decades, before I no longer flinched at the idea of returning.
When I did, I’d be stirred by the music, the wide open landscapes, that particular quality of wildness and a warm, elemental embrace I couldn’t quite put my finger on, but which never failed to move me or make me feel that yes, a part of me belonged here too. At other times I felt horribly constricted: not being able to wander freely without fear of being mugged (or worse) can really dampen your enthusiasm. Camping in June, the start of winter, on the bank of the Blyde River was a nightmare – I had no idea that it’d be so perishing cold at night or that I’d feel so vulnerable. Remember to lock your valuables in the vehicle, said my guide, in case someone breaks into the camp. But what about me? What about my safety, I wondered. And the uneasiness that still exists between races was disconcerting for someone for whom multi-culturalism comes as naturally as breathing.
Early this year I was lured back. A friend had lent me a book about the rare white lions of Timbavati. The lions are revered as sacred by the local people: they consider them, quite literally, to be a gift from the stars – star lions –their role to restore balance to the ecosystem. Timbavati, they say, sits on a leyline called the Nilotic Meridian, a sort of energetic heartline, on which all of the sacred sites of Africa – the Sphinx, the Pyramids of Giza, the Nile River, the Rift Valley, and Great Zimbabwe – lie. It is also the ancestral heartland of the white lions, the only place in the world where they naturally originate. Tragically, many of the lions have been forcibly removed and held in zoos and circuses or bred in captivity and then hunted in a confined area, from which there’s no escape.
A woman, whose story and connection to the lions is too extraordinary to do justice to it here, has made it her life’s mission to rescue them and ensure their survival. Funds were raised, a Trust and team formed, near insurmountable obstacles overcome, and now, on 4,400 hectares of protected land in the Timbavati live twelve free-roaming white lions. An opportunity had arisen to learn – or rather, to begin to learn – the art of communicating with animals, including (from a respectful distance), the lions. When I heard this, I knew I had to go. I’ve long been inspired by the way the indigenous people I’ve met on my travels engaged with the earth and all her inhabitants, seeing animals as sentient beings and potential allies.
It’s not like you wave a magic wand of course, there’s an art to listening to nature and the land that intently. But the desire for this kind of connection, beyond the simple pleasures of observing and admiring had been ignited within me and I hungered for ways to feed the flame.
I’ve often walked in the woods near my home in a leafy south west London suburb and thought: how do I send love to the wildlife? How do I connect with the horses in the fields nearby, or the fox in the backyard, or the heron that occasionally perches on my fence? Or the Egyptian geese, which unlike the other waterfowl on the tiny lake nearby, don’t scatter when I walk past? Who would help me? And where might I find the real deal? This South African thread seemed worth following in pursuit of an answer.
The morning after my arrival, I rose from my rondavel and wandered along the dirt tracks. The air was still cool and I wanted to greet the land, quietly, in my own way. Almost instantly, I came upon a family of vervet monkeys, gentle and wide-eyed. Turning a corner I nearly collided with a small, toffee-coloured antelope with big, silky ears – later, I’d learn she was a female nyala. I watched until she bounded off in a graceful, soundless leap, over a cluster of bright pink bougainvillea.
This was all so fantastically removed from the English winter I’d left behind that I had to remind myself this was my parents’ homeland. I may have felt ambivalent about the country and uneasy about the sinister canned-hunting operations beyond the boundaries of the conservancy, but I knew I was in a safe and secure place. A place where humans and animals and every element of the land, seen and unseen, was treated with respect. How often do you find that? Not often enough in modern Western society.
So caught up was I in my happiness at being there that it was a few moments before I registered the enormous grey hide of an animal roaming freely beyond the camp fence. Was it an elephant, I wondered? No, the shape moved – and fleetingly I was gazing into the eyes of an eland, a giant antelope with horns that twisted and spiralled magnificently.
Already, I was feeling that particular brand of enchantment that only time on African soil can bring. Was it these vast skies with their galaxy of stars, the red earth, the wildlife, the kaleidoscope of cultures, the deep reservoir of indigenous wisdom, the sheer profusion of life? Was it that my parents once breathed this air, that it was in my DNA too?
It wasn’t all rosy. I was in a group for this week in Timbavati, complete with a handful of know-it-alls who I immediately wanted to throttle. But then one of our guides told us that interspecies communication was our birthright, innate in each one of us, and I was all ears. She was matter-of-fact, level-headed. The key, she said, was to get out of our heads – at least the part bound by rationality – and burrow into a more intuitive, feeling dimension. Our hearts. This particular language was to be deciphered through intuition, images, feelings. A bit like twiddling the dial on a radio station, till the static gives way to a crisp and clear broadcast. Have no expectations, our guides reminded us. However, everything is possible with practice and trust. So we practised and practised with the camp’s beloved canine, who lay at our feet, lapping up the attention. A ridiculous level of detail poured confidently out of the know-it-alls’ mouths, but I floundered much of the time. Not always though.
Out on the Savannah, the sun was fierce and the wheels of our vehicle threw up red dust: the South African summer isn’t for the faint-hearted. I glimpsed a small herd of wildebeest, some impala, a ‘dazzle’ of zebra – one of whom was to become a lion feast later in the week – and a jackal. Our ranger pointed out Leadwood trees standing sentinel with white-backed vultures perched high atop them. We spotted beautiful lilac-crested rollers, yellow-billed hornbills, the hoopoe, with its vivid ‘mohawk’ crown, and chanting goshawks – the birds’ names were ridiculously exotic to my ears.
Finally, in a clearing we spotted a flash of a creamy flank: two white lion brothers sprawled out, their patrician faces in profile. One stood up and stretched and turned towards the vehicle. Suddenly I was starting into a pair of blue leonine eyes, as dazzling as lasers, framed by a face of such nobility that a deferential lowering of my own eyes was the only response. When you’re in the presence of the sacred, you know it. Lazily, the lions circled our vehicle as if drawing us into their world, and then dropped down in front of it. We sat in silent communion for the next hour (even the know-it-alls). Cameras and phones were banned, thank god. We weren’t here to click, click, click and record, but to connect. [Editor’s note – the accompanying photograph was taken on another occasion by lion biologist Justin Turner] I struggled to tune in. My mind running rampant, I was off-kilter and took ages to settle. But even I could sense the lions’ approval of our non-camera clicking presence, our stillness, our willingness to be with them on their terms. Many months on, I can still conjure that hour at will.
On the afternoon of a lunar eclipse, when the earth, the sun, and the moon were in perfect alignment– an auspicious time, we were told – we headed off for a two-hour silent hike through the bush. Porcupine feathers, termites’ nests, and animal tracks offered themselves up for our greedy eyes. I was more curious about the trees: there was one called a Crying Farmer. As Christmas approaches its blood red berries drop all in one go and create a pool of crimson blood.
On my last night, when the moon was high in the sky I left my bed – mortifyingly, my snoring was irritating my rondavel mate – and lay on the camp hammock. There I rocked back and forth in the cool night air, unaware that a python had snuck into camp and draped itself across the hut furthest from mine. In the distance, I could hear a lion roar, a thunderous rumble that thrilled me to the core. I’d like to say ‘and maybe that was communion enough’. Except it wasn’t and the hunger, like the hope, lingers.
JINI REDDY is an author and freelance journalist who has written widely for national newspapers and magazines in the UK. Her first, award-winning, book Wild Times was published by Bradt in 2016. She is currently working on a new book for Bloomsbury.
Photography credits: copyright JASON A. TURNER (the header to this essay, and the lions, Matsieng and Zukhara), JINI REDDY (Path near camp)