I stumbled out of the khaki tent in my Batman pyjamas, sleep in my eyes, clutching my torch, urging my eyes to adjust to the darkness of the African bush.
It’s 2am, and it’s my turn to watch over the camp, ensuring that no dangerous animal gets too close. I reach the fire that’s been blazing through the night… “Did you know there’s a hippo right beside your tent?” my camp-mate and fellow nature guide trainee nonchalantly states whilst poking the flames. “WHAT?!” That’s certainly woken me up. I turn my gaze back and sure enough a 1.5-tonne hippo is merely a few feet away from the tent I’d just ventured out of, happily grazing away on the dewy grass.
I’m staying at Ebandla camp in the heart of Zululand and I’m training to be a nature guide in South Africa. The rustic camp is situated within the beautiful, Big Five, Amakhosi Game Reserve. The duty of night-watch is an essential skill that we must master as our tents are laid out in an unfenced section of this reserve – from 5-tonne elephants to 12mm scorpions, nothing is out of the ordinary here. Small, simple tents, containing nothing more than a sleeping bag and backpack full of books, looking out onto koppies that tower above a crocodile-filled river that shimmers in the afternoon rays. The trees, plants and flowers are wonderfully diverse, the creepy crawlies mind-blowingly fascinating and the air is filled with monkeys chattering in the trees overhead.
Earlier that day, we were ready to dive into the game vehicle and head into the bush to explore. My hand jumped to the sun when asked who wants to be on the tracker seat for the on-coming adventure. Many game viewer vehicles have a seat on the bonnet to enable that person to see the tracks of the animals before the car’s wheels destroy them, allowing you to anticipate what wildlife lies ahead. I sat on that seat as we revved up hills and slid down slopes, I stretched my feet out as we bounced through the rocky river and burst with happiness as we suddenly halt five metres away from two male cheetahs. The AmaZulu game reserve, once occupied by the Zulu Kingdom monarchy, is known for many beautiful things, and one of those is its cheetah brothers. Seeing these athletic cats in the wild is truly spectacular.
Within a further 20 minutes, we encounter a herd of 18 elephants, including six young calves. To sit in silence and observe a herd of elephants, to focus on their mannerisms, tender touches and interesting interactions brings about a state of pure bliss. This is, without doubt, my favourite wildlife sighting.
Surprisingly, a four-tonne elephant can sneak up a metre away without you hearing a single ruffle, and that is exactly what happened that day. A huge bull walked straight past our vehicle from behind to harass the females we were observing up ahead. And we didn’t hear a thing until he was just two metres ahead of us, incredible. For the entire drive home, all I could think about was the calmness I felt watching those elephants.
At dinner that evening, we heard that elephants were heading towards our camp. My mind immediately raced to all sorts of situations that I could find myself in whilst guarding camp from the giants. The thought of watching the dusty beauties at night was setting my heart on fire.
But when you’re woken up at 2am, sleep-deprived and disorientated, to man the fire, keep the kettles boiling, and fight the moths, naturally the game changes. Nothing makes you more paranoid than sitting in the pitch black of the African night.
There is no other feeling in this world quite like falling asleep in a tent to the croaks of frogs, under the starlit sky, knowing that the most dangerous animal in the world is grazing right outside your khaki home, but not feeling threatened.
To live as one with nature is my favourite feeling and one that I hope I can continue to experience for the entirety of my life. No fences, no gates, no worries, no judgement.
Alan Watts said: “If you go off into a forest and get very quiet, you’ll come to understand that you’re connected with everything.”
There’s no other situation to really evaluate your purpose on this Earth than away from distraction, immersed in nature.
What’s truly remarkable is that every aspect of nature, including us, were designed to live in harmony with each other. And the true importance in this world is that we protect the natural creations of our planet, so that each creature can live its life as it was designed to, in harmony and at peace. Wouldn’t you want to protect that?
- Jess Murray
- : I am a wildlife conservationist spreading awareness about nature and the animal kingdom through education and storytelling. I have lived in Africa for two years, qualifying as a field guide and working with anti-poaching units. I now work for WWF, leading on digital communications for the illegal wildlife trade, and alongside Silverback and Netflix on the Our Planet series. I love to help people fall in love with nature through my photography and writing, as well as helping people to understand the true importance of protecting our planet.
- : https://accordingtojess.com
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- : My conservation blog focuses primarily on my first-hand experiences with nature and wildlife, giving my audience a unique perspective of what truly goes on in the natural world. I love to educate and entertain through my writing, as well as showcasing my wildlife photography which includes everything from the beauty and behaviour of 5-tonne bull elephants to the intricate design of 3mm insects.
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- : This is the first time this story has been published.