February 19, 2015

Life's a Journey, not a destination

Commuting is a word that fills most people with dread.  All too often in the big cities, a commute means leaving early to try and avoid the inevitable traffic.  Invariably this fails and first experience of your day involves sitting in a line of cars becoming increasingly frustrated and inhaling a vile concoction of fumes.  All this to finally arrive at a dull office and mountain of paperwork that will consume you for the next 8 hours before facing the equally unpleasant return journey.

A 7 hour trip lay before me as my engine spluttered to life in conjunction with the Sun’s first appearance of the day.  As an instructor for EcoTraining, it is often necessary to head to one of our other campuses and today my destination was Makuleke in the remote north of Kruger.  In order  to avoid the current political squabbling in some of the townships, my route would take me to Phalaborwa gate and then a further 300kms north through the park.  Despite the length of the trip, I was excited – it has been a long time since I had driven through Kruger and while most of you would be sitting in your cars listening to morning radio, trying to quell the onset of road rage as another taxi cut you off, I would be meandering through 9000 square kilometers of game rich wilderness.

When we embark on a trip, the highlight is usually the destination.  This is because the trip to get there is often a rather uninspiring affair but, as I entered the park gates, I knew that this journey would be full of surprises.  A ribbon of tarmac snaked its way northward through the lush bush, the vegetation revelling in the in recent rains.  With not another road user in sight I set off with that familiar feeling of the anticipation of what would be around the next bend.  Perhaps 50kms from Phalaborwa I met a car by the side of the road, its occupants beaming and pointing eagerly at a majestic jackelberry tree close by.  They beckoned for me join them.  In the real world, how many of you would stop for a car parked randomly at the side of the road.  Experience and negative media has conditioned us to avoid this situation and I think most of us would avoid eye contact and continue.

This is Kruger.  It is a different world.  A world whose visitors share a common passion: that of nature in all its glory.  Road users in Kruger are usually only too happy to share their encounters and I pulled in behind them I saw what had them so excited.  40m into the bush, a leopard lay draped over a branch in the dappled light.  It looked like a piece of gold and black velvet as its muscular body hugged the contours of the limb.  Its lazy eyes watched us without concern for a few minutes before deciding that more solace could be found elsewhere, rose, stretched and gracefully dismounted from its perch.  Within seconds, its sleek form has vanished into the undergrowth and I was left with only a few photos as evidence the encounter ever happened…
Leopard draped over a branch in the Kruger National Park
This was undoubtedly the highlight of my trip but for the next 5 hours I bumbled through the heart of the Kruger.  My progress was controlled by me – no unexplained hold-ups, no dare-devil pedestrians, no reckless drivers, no smell of fumes and no traffic lights (although an elephant standing in the road has a similar effect!)  Occasionally I stopped to share in the delight of the frolicking impala lambs and the revel in the splendour of a vibrant European bee-eater as it scanned the roadside for an easy meal.  The mopani trees in the area had attracted a multitude of elephants and I was graced with multiple sightings of these gentle giants pruning the roadside vegetation, as well a 400 strong herd of buffalo, meandering its way to a waterhole to quench their thirst.  Perched atop one of these bush battering rams was a rare yellow-billed oxpecker!

Elephants next to road
Where else in the world could a drive to work be so enthralling.  To make those of you reading this from your office even more jealous, what lay ahead for me was 23,000 hectares of pristine wilderness and a week of walking within it.  Officially this constitutes work in my world but the word ‘work’ has such negative connotations.  It conjures up visions of toil and hardship, performing mundane tasks to which your involvement often bears little or no relevance.  During the next week I spent close to 50 hours on foot in nature’s playground.  I viewed both elephant and buffalo on foot, swam in natural springs and fell asleep to the haunting whoop of nearby hyaenas under a blanket of twinkling stars, the likes of which city-folk will never experience.  Work is the wrong word for this! 

Yellow-billed Oxpecker
Either way, my return journey was just as exhilarating.  What an honour to be able to travel to and from ‘work’ along such adventurous paths.  The destination was magnificent, make no mistake, but the road to get there was just as pleasurable.  We are graced to live alongside such areas of natural beauty, where every moment spent within it is precious. 

Blog and photos by Ben Coley

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