During the chaos of lockdown, I took a long, hard look at my life and decided it was time for a change. At the ripe old age of twenty-four. I’d spent three years working in the music industry and while the excitement of dealing with artists and contracts had sustained me post-university, I had a creeping sense of restlessness I just couldn’t shake. So I fired off an email to NJ More Field Guide College. It was time to head to the bush.
I spent five months imagining what shape my new life would take before I set out for the college on the morning of 10 January 2021. I decided to enrol in the Career Course. If I was going to change my life, I wanted to change my career too. But I had my doubts. How many other girls would be there? What kind of roommate would I have? Oh my word, what if I couldn’t stand my roommate? (She’s wonderful by the way). Panic and fear and a bubbling anticipation that comes with such a drastic change.
The entire drive from Joburg to the Marataba concession, where our camp is located, was a tennis match of internal conversation going between: What have I done? to Why didn’t I do this sooner?! The voices in my head were immediately stilled when we drove through the gates of the college. As we snaked our way up the driveway, I glimpsed a pool under a marula tree and tents that looked out onto lush vegetation that spoke of good rains and new beginnings. This would be home for the next six months.
We hit the ground running with game drives, first-aid training, basic mechanics training, and identifying bird calls. If seven months ago you had told me I’d be able to change a tyre using a high-lift jack, I would have politely laughed in your face and questioned your sanity. If a week ago you had told me I’d be able to safely load and discharge a .375-calibre rifle I would have laughed in your face and questioned my sanity. It’s been seven weeks of adventure. Seven weeks of facing my fears head on and overcoming them.
The work is tough. We’re up most days before 5am. Some days, when I’m on duty and responsible for prepping the vehicles for game drives and waking up the camp, I start as early as 4am. The days are packed full. We drive, walk, study, learn, eat (the food deserves its own blog – honestly, we are spoilt) and in between all of that, we laugh a lot. It’s a wonderful group of people. A mix of nations and languages and ages that somehow gets on perfectly out here in the wilderness.
When I’m not learning the botanical name for a buffalo thorn tree (ziziphus mucronate) or coming up with a donkey bridge to remember a southern black tit’s call, I’m immersed in the privilege of living in the bush. How many people can say they’ve snuck up on elephants playing in a dam and watched them from behind a bush at the water’s edge? Or experienced the excitement that comes with spotting a lifer on a Tuesday morning drive, while eagerly paging through their bird book, still glossy with newness?
So far, the most memorable moment for me has been sitting in an elephant bull sighting, while I was driving, with the bull maybe a metre from the car. I used to be scared of elephants. Now, I can sit peacefully (admittedly with a hitched breath or two) and watch them exist with a deep appreciation for their presence.
There’s still a tennis match or two going on in my mind. Often, I doubt whether I’ll be able to pull off my Advanced Rifle Handling assessment or worry about what will happen if a buffalo charges me up a tree while we’re training towards our Back-Up Trails qualification. But mostly, I feel a deep sense of belonging.
It’s bolstered by the incredible team we have here at the college and the life-long friends I’ve made in the short time I’ve been here. I could wax lyrical about how the bush has restored my confidence and how it’s forced me to be present and alive. Instead, I’m going to listen to the Burchell’s coucal calling outside my tent and thank life for another day of adventure.
Words & Image by: Gabi Shabangu, NJ More student