A little over 12 months ago, after several days of travel and having crossed two entire continents, I discovered a new land. A land which is sparsely inhabited, but filled with acres of untilled soil and hordes of untamed beasts. A land whose borders are securely fenced and where entry and exits are strictly controlled.
A land whose people are rarely exposed to television or the internet, who are far from pubs and clubs and who are advised not to venture out from their secure enclaves after dark... Contrary to appearances, this is no foreign state.
This land is Kruger. “What do you think of South Africa?” was one of the questions most commonly posed to me after I arrived from the UK at the start of last year. It took me several months to appreciate that the views, feelings and interpretations I had made of this new ‘country’ were not necessarily representative of South Africa as a whole.
Kruger, often described as being the size of a small country (Switzerland, Israel or Wales depending on your mood), is not only an island of pristine wilderness and wildlife; its remote, isolated and undeveloped situation makes it a unique world in itself. Inhabitants speak a strange language of gate times, sightings and rations and count in BUN numbers, rifle calibres and millimetres of rain.
They live in the middle of the South African bush and are forced to shun most of the trappings of modern civilisation. I feel immensely privileged to have spent a year working in and exploring this land.
But, as with any new immigrant, adjusting to a different culture wasn’t always easy. The clean air, the weather, the wildlife, the sounds, the language (even from those South African’s who call themselves ‘English’) were all new to me.
The work ethic and social culture were at odds with my experiences and South Africa’s unique social structure is represented here as well as in any urban township or rural settlement. I’m not sure what my most enduring memory of Kruger will prove to be.
It could be the several occasions when I was berated by visiting tourists for not being able to speak Afrikaans (I soon learnt to stop referring to myself as ‘English’, instead, clearly stating that I was ‘from the UK’).
Or the broad smiles and laughter created by my strained efforts to greet and thank staff in their native Tsonga tongue. It could be feeling the velvety-soft skin behind a rhino’s ear or around a giraffe’s nostrils, holding a feathery-light baboon spider in my hands or standing just feet away from a totally wild elephant, separated only by a flimsy looking fence and returning its studying glance as if telepathically communicating with one another.
Or the two-week period in the autumn when my life was seriously threatened by a charging hippo, a stalking leopard and a malevolent tree in quick succession. Most visitors to Kruger would not expect the misleadingly gentle-sounding apple leaf tree to be a threat but don’t be fooled – perhaps, having been classified as ‘valueless’ by the botanical namers, these large plants are out to prove an alternative view?
There’s always the macho game ranger stories, most often recited by wannabes striving for a time and place that no longer exists. Or the sounds of leopard, hyaena, hippo or elephant just yards from my canvas-covered bed.
Maybe it will be playing soccer on a dry ‘field’ of dust with unscheduled breaks in the game as elephants wander a little too close to the touchline. Or watching a vervet monkey punch an impala (twice) on the nose when it approached its relaxing logtop seat, invading its personal space.
Being charged by elephants, meeting the latest crop of new impala calves, watching the fall and rise of Kruger’s rivers through the seasons; dining with black-eyed bulbuls, glossy starlings, southern yellow-billed hornbills and natal francolins; being roused from my sleep by the screeches of arrow-marked babblers or the frisky comings and goings of the local tree squirrels.
There are numerous daily and more unique experiences that I could choose from.One of the guide books I read before my arrival in the land of Kruger advised visiting tourists to adjust to Kruger’s pace in order to get the most out of their visit. If you do that, this land becomes as bustling and hectic as any of the world’s busiest cities.
Just watch Kruger citizens like the red roman solifuge racing around the ground on the hottest of summer days, antennae outstretched to feel its way to potential meals. Or duck your head to avoid the incessantly buzzing cicadas flying kamikaze-style into any bright light source at full speed.
My entry permit for the land of Kruger expired at the end of January this year and I’m now experiencing a whole new culture in the entirely different location of South Africa’s capital city.
I have no stamp in my passport to mark my Kruger visit but the memories of a year spent in this magical land are certainly indelibly imprinted in my mind. Anna Faherty volunteered in the People & Conservation Department, Letaba Rest Camp through the GVI/SANParks Internship Programme.