The Vivid orphan

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I have been thinking a lot about my life lately. About where I’ve been. The road that I’ve travelled. Places I have seen and people I have met. I don’t think it has been a waste. Of course it could have been better. Can’t it always? But all round, I am not displeased. I've seen a lot of sunshine, slept out in the rain, spent a night or two all on my own, sings John Denver.

One thing is that I am maybe too much of a loner. Or that I have become a loner. Over the years I have isolated myself more and more from people. I mostly go life alone. Maybe it’s because of where I am in life. Single (OK, divorced), kids grown and gone travelling (at least for that part they listened to their dad). No home, no mortgage. No baggage … It’s been a long long time since I’ve been part of a team. Any team. Over the past years I have become used to travelling with less and less. Less luggage and less people. Until I was mostly always on my own. Sometimes I feel that maybe I’ve lost the plot a bit. That by going so solo, I orphaned my own heart ...

My thoughts about orphans and more got going while sitting at Moyo Restaurant at Zoo Lake in Johannesburg, South Africa. Although I’m South African and Johannesburg is my place of birth, I was the stranger at this party. There were 26 North Americans (mostly Canadians but a few Americans too). And Dawid de Wet, the kingpin from Toerboer, the tour operation facilitating the event over the next two weeks.

It all began with Shayne Traviss contacting Dawid. Since 2009, Shayne from Ontario in Canada has been inspiring people to live a better life with his project VividLife.me. After following many amazing paths, VividLife recently undertook a journey to South Africa. The project was called South Africa: Connection, Compassion and Courage. Connection because of life-long friendships made with like-minded people; Compassion because of volunteering time and love to children and orphaned animals; Courage for, among other things, camping in the true African wild. This is their story. This is our story …

So, there I was at the opening night, keeping to one side while witnessing this unique group, many knowing one another, with the rest getting to know new future friends. The anticipation of what was to come hanging heavily in the air. The only person I knew was Dawid, Mr Toerboer himself. We share the same love for Africa, for travelling Africa and for writing about Africa. Which brings me to why I was actually there – to help Dawid take the group into the wild. And to write about it. Another kingpin in this operation was Ernest Moatshe, the man behind the wheel of the tour bus. He was very serious about driving that bus oh so safely, but for the rest …

Unexpectedly, one of the girls (yes, not women or ladies, but girls) beckoned me over from their corner.

“Hi, I’m Paola,” she said, “and we’ve been wondering, who are you?”

“Are you Dawid’s partner?” Jeanette sitting next to her asked.

“Or his father?” Paola laughed.

“My white head and goatee always classify me. I have been grey since 25,” I answered and continued to tell them why I was there. They listened. I relaxed. Canadians are nice people. Less threatening than my own tribe. The ice was broken. This was the most conversation I’d had with foreigners in a long time. Heck, with anyone … Imagine, there I was, talking about myself.

Later on that evening, waiting for Dawid to sort out the bill and Ernest to get the bus, I ended up alone at the bar counter. Alone for a moment only. Suddenly a grinning face popped up on my left.

“Dennis Connor, let’s take a selfie,” he introduced himself, a happy hand waiting for my greeting. I accepted the proffered hand. This was not so difficult. His cell phone came out. We posed. Click!

“What will it be?” he asked.

“Whisky, thanks.”

“And for you, Shayne?” he enquired past me.

I turned to my right and looked into another face. A happy face. Content. Full beard, big grey-blue eyes. I had seen him earlier at the introductions. Shayne Traviss, the man from VividLife himself. This was his trip. Like all the rest, he made me feel welcome.

The next morning at sparrow’s the bus departed northwards on the daylong journey to Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre in the province of Limpopo. The word “orphaned” became part of the discussion again. This time, the orphaned animals being treated at Moholoholo.

At that stage, I’d met most of the group, but since the people-thing is not really my thing, I can only say I recalled six of them. Ernest behind the wheel, the four who chatted to me the night before, and Dawid.

As I had to help load the luggage, I was last in the bus. Everybody had been sorted out with seats and I felt their eyes on me while walking with the swing of the bus down the aisle, praying for an empty gap next to one of the few I knew. Well, sitting with Ernest and Dawid up in the front was out of the question. Paola and Jeanette were sharing. Out of the question. Shayne was sitting next to a guy I later got to know as Timm Emberley. Lastly, I spotted Dennis, but Mark Engebretson was sharing with him. I was hoping to disappear into the back (the same as many years ago in high school), but learnt that the seat was reserved for Laurel Geise to accommodate her injured leg.

“Looking for a seat, Gerry?” I looked to the right, about four rows from the back. A beaming, smiling face, capped with wild blond hair.

“Are you sure?”

“It’s all good!”

“Thanks.” Again it felt like the early years in high school as I swung with glowing ears into the seat next to her. But this was cool Leslie Meldrum. “It’s all good…” Everything always ended up positive. She teaches yoga. It figures.

It took less than a kilometre of crawling along the highway for us to become buddies. Swapping divorce stories and war (read kids) stories. About halfway between Johannesburg and Moholoholo we took a sudden turn-off. Dawid juiced up the public address mike and informed us that we were to stop at the Nan Hua Temple, the largest Buddhist temple in Africa. As VividLife.me is all about helping to empower people to live a happy, healthy and wealthy life in mind, body and spirit, Nan Hua was a perfect opening move. A place to reflect about what was to be achieved.

I had become so far removed from religion over the last years that I wasn’t too sure about this visit. I didn’t want to get involved in anything. So at first I got off the bus and thought I’d just hang around outside. It felt safer to me.

Somehow, however, I ended up in the temple with Brenda Bryson and Jessica Rosebush. They were like sisters, one on each arm. A Buddhist nun gave each of us a stick of smouldering incense, demonstrating how and where to place it, and to express our innermost thoughts, needs, wants, asking Buddha to give us direction. Although I didn’t intend to, I too asked.

It’s all good.

Early that evening we arrived at Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre at the foot of Mariepskop, part of the majestic Drankensberg range. I was getting happier and happier, but this time it had less to do with the group. I was back in the bush of the Lowveld. Although it was already dark, I knew what it looked like. Endless khaki-green savannah and thorn bush. Wild country framed by the overpowering Drakensberg mountains on the western side. I smelled the dung on the ground and the dust coating the mopane trees. Heard the first frogs croaking in unison with the fruit bats sending out their radar signals. Crickets completed the symphony. Far away a single nightjar gave lonesome applause.   

Arriving is part of the travel thing. It felt good. Miles of monotony and suddenly you are there. You have arrived. It lifts the spirit and suddenly all tiredness seems to wane. The crew at Moholoholo certainly made it feel like a homecoming.

It’s all good.

The next morning the controversial and much spoken-about Brian Jones introduced the Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre to us. Moholoholo (The Very Great One) was established in 1991 when landowner, Mr Strijdom, asked Brian to establish and run the rehabilitation centre. Brian’s reputation for the work he did with wild animals preceded him. He brought a great deal of knowledge and experience with him.

The philosophy they believe in at Moholoholo is that awareness must be spread if we are to save our wildlife. Today this rehab centre has many orphaned (that word again) creatures recovering from injuries or poisoning.

However, once these animals have been humanised they cannot be reintroduced to the wild. So why keep them? one might ask.

They use them for breeding, for introducing them to humans who have never seen these animals before. To help them understand the value and need for the total spectrum of wild animals in our world. You might say it is artificial. But heck, ever since man started claiming land and putting up fences, the whole world became artificial. Some people even label the enormous Kruger Park a five million acre zoo. But we need to do as much as possible to maintain a balance. A human-induced balance in an interfered world is better than an imbalanced interfered world. Man has created the imbalance by separating the wild from ‘civilisation’. This caused loss of habitat for these animals and that is the real problem. There are no such things as problem baboons or problem jackals. All they do is what comes naturally; to look for food in what was once their habitat. We humans took their habitat away. For ourselves. For agriculture. And now we want to label something such as vervet monkeys picking oranges as ‘problem animals’…

The plight of Africa’s animals and helping to maintain the natural system has always been the main concern at Moholoholo. Whether the process is frowned upon and criticised or not, the work that Brian and his team do is remarkable. It offered our group a shortcut to an in-depth exposure to a vast array of African wild creatures and their ways. They handled vultures, cleaned cages, fed lions, leopards and more. Something they would not have seen or experienced otherwise in such a short time. Take Ntaba (Mountain in Zulu) for instance. He is the six-month-old resident baby rhino that ended up at Moholoholo after his mother died of natural causes. Now, there are some seriously criminal poaching gangs out there, day after day, in the South African bush, ruthlessly killing rhinos left, right and centre for the horns on their faces. Apparently for all kinds of medicinal purposes, but it’s all bogus; it’s just a money-making disgrace. I therefore take my hat off to the Moholoholo gang for saving one baby rhino.

After two days of living with these creatures, helping them cope by feeding them and cleaning their digs, it was time to get the wheels rolling again. This is one of the true elements of travelling – to move on you need to say your goodbyes. Goodbye to Brian, Bertjan, Fabian, Mkhonto, Raechel and all the wonderful people of Moholoholo; goodbye to the animals; to the beauty. One thing that was different this time though was that I didn’t walk out of there alone like before. I was also on that bus as something a bit more than just a witnessing journo. The next stop was Daktari Bush School and Wildlife Orphanage (that word again …).

With Accurate Ernest behind the wheel, the bus started grunting its way along the gravel track towards the main road. This time I was sitting next to Karen Burwell. What an awesome person. She and her son Colin were on a mother-and-child-reunion with this trip. And so too Colin’s wife Carla Sinclair and her mother Gaye. Lucie and Louise Nadon was another mother-daughter combo. I had discovered quite an extended happy family …

Karen and I chatted non-stop. I told her that Anne Katzeff and Peggy Kornegger had been wondering at breakfast when we would see our first giraffe. That was quite a strange request, I mentioned. I could understand someone not from Africa wanting to see a lion or an elephant, but a giraffe?

“Giraffes don’t get as much publicity as the Big Five,” Karen answered. “And to a Canadian, not used to these animals, a giraffe is a very peculiar animal.” Considering it afresh, yes, a giraffe is rather strange …

About an hour later the bus was wiggling its way down the sand track towards Daktari, when Rosa Copano let rip with a shriek that any Stephen King producer would’ve paid good money for. She was pointing out the window … There they were! Three giraffes right next to the bus. Rosa’s scream was replicated throughout the bus, followed by the non-screamers hushing the screamers. Then all you could hear was frenzied camera clicking. It was great to witness their elation. I was rediscovering this long-necked chequered animal with its horn stubs through their eyes.

Where Moholoholo’s primary focus is the animals, Daktari is first Bush School, then Wildlife Orphanage. Every Monday the school welcomes a new group of between eight and 10 underprivileged children from one of a number of local schools in the area for a week to discover, learn and become passionate about wildlife. They are taught that conservation is the key to this heritage that is as much theirs as any other South African’s. In addition their school curriculum taught in English, maths, environmental job opportunities, life skills and social issues subjects are also supplemented. And this time, we were the teachers.

The greatest thing about Daktari is that there is nothing fancy about Daktari; it is functional yet fantastic. But it is also a bit French, we discovered, when we met Michèle Merrifield, the grande dame of the Busch School. Her story is a fairy tale come true. It easily ranks among the Lion Kings of this world.

In 1998, while working for the Formula One Hotel Group in her native France, she came on holiday to experience the South African bush and booked a few days at Tshukudu Game Lodge, also near Hoedspruit in the Limpopo Province and close to where Daktari was later established. Arriving at this lodge changed her life forever.

“Alors … I was basically seduced by the surroundings, the wildlife and the people of South Africa. As well as Ian …” she explained in her French-scented perfect English.

“Ian? Our Ian …?”

“Oui …Yes Ian, this Ian Merrifield was then Tshukudu’s head ranger. He took me on game drives, but I’m French, you understand …” she laughed. In the beginning she wasn’t sure whether she stayed because of him, the game and the bush or the people. In addition she also suffered at first with the English language – as a true Frenchie should – but she discovered that she didn’t need English or French; she and the animals had their own language. She started caring for injured and orphaned animals at Tshukudu. She was happy, but was still not sure whether she gave up her life in France for the animals, the bush, South Africa or Ian.

Then one day, while Ian was out on a game drive, her world changed again. He fell off the game vehicle and ended up severely injured and fighting paralysis. She swapped the bush for his ICU- ward and for a while she nursed only one injured mammal back onto his feet. And she finally knew why she was had stayed.

Ian recovered, but his days of physical game ranging were over. With both of them not wanting to leave the bush, they opened a restaurant close by where they inherited a young local boy, Thabo. Ian and Michèle soon realised that Thabo, as well as most of his friends, lacked knowledge of wildlife and the environment. And exposure to the restaurant made it clear that they also lacked life skills. The Merrifields automatically supplied these skills and knowledge. A concept was born. They told friends, Philip and Gerty Kussler – who owned a piece of land in the area – about this. One thing led to another and Daktari was born.  

“One last thing, where does the name Daktari come from?”

“Bien… In the Sixties there was a popular TV series, Daktari, but since South Africa didn’t have TV yet, you guys don’t know it. It was about a veterinarian in Kenya taking care of wild animals. Daktari in Swahili means ‘doctor’.”  

So for five days we were the teachers helping to fulfil this beautiful dream. At first when the kids arrived I saw them eyeing these pale North Americans with hesitation. Day after day the space between teachers and pupils shrunk. Until eventually there was just friendship left. And respect. Humanity. Love …

It was amazing to see the First World stepping away from its lifestyle, accepting the basic, down-to-earth life at Daktari while simultaneously the Third World went spiralling upwards, becoming empowered with new knowledge and perspective.

Every day, a part of the team not actively teaching that specific day, went out to schools with an offering from Daktari: trees. Small indigenous saplings. We planted 60 in two days at four different schools. It took a gang of foreigners to get me to plant indigenous trees in my own country again …

Daytime was serious and hard work, but night time was fun time. I remember one night we had a bonfire, African dances and a drum session before we ended up in the dining area for a nightcap. Then, out of the blue, our bantering was interrupted by the clear, loud roar of a lion. Now, there are lions in cages at Moholoholo, so everybody recognised the roar. The problem, however, was that there are no lions in captivity at Daktari. This one may have escaped from one of the many neighbouring game reserves. And Michèle still had to walk home, about half a kilometre through the bush in the direction of the roar … But this brave French girl just gathered her dogs on their leashes and pocketed the handgun. “Au revoir,” and off she went. We just looked at each other. Someone started singing In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion roars tonight … At about this time Ernest arrived on the scene with laughter glinting in his eyes. A few days later when he imitated the sound of two dogs fighting, the penny eventually dropped.  

On the last day at Daktari, saying goodbye was an emotional affair. I remember watching the teachers and pupils wanting to cling on to what they had created. I am not yet sure whether it was the teachers or pupils who benefitted the most from the experience. Everyone was the richer for it, though. It was hard to let go, but when the bus departed from Daktari, the unforgettable memories were on it. As for me, I was happy to have been involved in something more than just my own world. Yes, it’s all good.

The next four days went by like a dream. More bush and more wildlife every day. With loads of giraffes … At one stage, we visited a rural Shangana village. Now, through my travelling life I have been to many villages of many tribes in Africa. Many times I have had to ask permission from the chief to be there, to stay and to eat with them. So before this event, I was kind of blasé about it. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt. But it wasn’t about me visiting Chief Soshangana, it was about being part of a group who were visiting a chief for the very first time ever. To rediscover it was the magic.

We camped wild one night on the bank of the Letaba River in the Kruger National Park. No fences, nothing between us and the Big Five (and giraffes) except a campfire and some seriously well-trained game rangers. Unforgettable. At that stage, I was so much part of the team, I even cooked dinner on the fire that night. A properly spiced pumpkin and green bean curry (recipe available on request …).

After dinner I sat back, looked at the circle of friends around the fire and I listened to their voices floating towards me on the night breeze.

“This has transformed all of our lives and we will forever be connected to the people, the animals and the country,” I heard Eloise Morrison say.

“South Africa has taught me to come from my heart so I can love more.” Lucie Nadon.

“The wilds of this beautiful land experienced through the eyes of its people touched me deeply. My heart is full.” Leslie Meldrum.

“Touring South Africa felt like a magnifying glass to the soul. Connecting with new friends forged relationships to endure a lifetime, connecting with the land revealed the magic of nature in a new way. I am forever shifted and have endless gratitude for the opportunity.” Carla Sinclair.

“This trip was much more than just collecting a passport stamp and saying I went to South Africa. It was all about interacting with the South African people and immersing myself in their culture.” Tosh Bene.

“South Africa has transformed us all, each of us in a unique way. But we are better for it and because of it and for that I will be eternally grateful.” Shayne Traviss.

As for me, well, I didn’t accept a new higher order. A new religion. A new life philosophy or anything new. No, but what I have accepted is myself. And new friendships. It was valuable to be part of something again. Being in the team. However, walking away from them after saying a long goodbye at the airport, I suddenly realised I was alone again. But that’s okay, it’s all good.

Because my heart is not an orphan anymore …

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