As I drift off to sleep, anticipating an early wake-up to run through the Leopard’s Lair concession adjoining Greater Kruger National Park in South Africa, the scuffle of my liminal brain is visited with ominous visions of giraffes. “I’m a little worried about giraffes,” Anton Lategan, owner of EcoTraining had said after a braai barbecue supper over an open boma fire. “One killed a tourist a few weeks ago. They can kick the length of this table.” He pats the 12-foot teakwood furniture. “If you do find yourself getting chased by a giraffe, find a small bush and crawl under it. Then it’ll leave you alone.” He laughs, assuring me it’ll be fine.
The next morning, I jog through the concession’s broadleaf woodland with my head on a swivel, scanning the canopy of redbush willow, mopane and ficus trees for long, spotted necks and tufted heads. I don’t encounter any, nor any of the lair’s namesake leopards, although I do happen upon a leopard tortoise plodding across the dirt path. During this trip, the attention is continuously drawn away from the Big Five to these more minute members of southern African ecosystems, and especially to their interrelationship with the larger world.
I’m here with Natucate, a German-based company specialising in conscious travel for those looking to connect more deeply with nature or retrain in an ecology-driven field, such as becoming a safari guide. The company was founded by Daniel Kaul, who was inspired by volunteering experiences as a student to ditch his IT job and facilitate transformational travel, whether it be whale shark conservation in the Maldives, rainforest research in the Peruvian Amazon, or rehabilitating wild mustangs in Florida.
Daniel and Natucate are in their tenth year of partnership with EcoTraining, and Kaul himself did the FGASA-accredited Field Guide Level 1 Course. He had only planned to visit for a few days, but after seeing his first elephant, opted to stay for the entire 55. I get it. The pull of the bushveld is hard to resist, particularly when you have educators of the calibre of Anton Lategan. There’s something of the evangelist in Lategan – who grew up in nearby mountains, attended school with Elon Musk and trained as a lawyer before opting for a life in the field – he has a magnetic clarity of vision and purpose and the gift of seeing patterns that extend across all iterations of life, from the subatomic to the societal.
“In nature, each organism has a niche, and if that organism finds its niche, or develops in its niche, it is supported by a myriad of interrelationships and that's what allows for happiness and success,” he explains from behind the wheel as we embark upon a game drive. “I mean that in a broad sense, it could be financial, it could be your health, your mental health, your family...”
We rumble through damp mudded tracks in Pridelands, a conservancy area that he has been instrumental in rewilding. Formerly a big-game allotment that profited from hunting, Pridelands is now used to educate. Its 1,800 hectares currently boast healthy communities of black and white rhinoceros, leopards, elephants and lions. The local pride is nicknamed Ngati – blood lions – for having survived the era of canned killing that took place over the past two centuries. Morris Chovede, an indigenous Shangaan-Tsonga tracker working in this area for 26 years, perches on a seat cantilevered out in front of the Toyota’s bonnet, scanning for big cat spoor.
While we cast about for leopards and lions and cruise through parades of elephants, dazzles of zebra and herds of impala, Lategan highlights some of the more innocuous animals. We’re given a masterclass in avian wildlife, from lilac-breasted rollers to the genus of eagle that has proliferated across southern Africa. We pitch up next to a nest where Matabele ants are performing a raid to steal termite larvae. A fellow journalist anthropomorphises the moment by noting how outrageous it would be if someone took it upon themselves to stage a home invasion, break all your shit, and abscond with your babies. The ants are known for being bellicose and it’s reflected in their taxonomy – they’ve been named after the Matabele tribe, a splinter group of the Zulu, renowned for being fearsome fighters and raiders.
Coming up a slight incline, Lategan points out sickle bush trees and explains their niche. He notes that it was one of the first types of plant to grow back after nature was left to take its course in a rewilding effort. They are succession pioneers that stabilise the ground and improve conditions, paving the way for new species in the sub-climax and climax stages of ecological progression. Let’s frame that in terms of punk rock. The pioneers might be The Ramones, sub-climax is Black Flag, and climax Blink-182.
They are succession pioneers that stabilise the ground and improve conditions, paving the way for new species in the sub-climax and climax stages of ecological progression
“You will be the pioneering sickle bush tree in Botswana,” Lategan tells me and the two other journalists in the vehicle. Natucate has organised for us to travel to the Tuli Block reserve in Botswana, just across the border from Zimbabwe, to Pitsane – a camp that’s currently being set up and has never hosted guests, where we’ll help blaze walking safari routes and learn the ins and outs of what it means to be a safari guide. We’ve been given the unique opportunity to be the first through the doors, helping to prepare the ground for future groups.
Bidding farewell to Lategan and his wife at Leopard’s Lair, we strike out on a 6-hour drive from Greater Kruger through a range of steep hills swathed in eucalyptus groves, upwards across flat plains of ranch and farmland into the northern reaches of South Africa, where we pass safari lodges and rippling sandstone ridges and kopjes. Finally, we pull up at border control, get our passports stamped, and walk with our backpacks to the Limpopo River.
We cross in a cable car from South Africa into Botswana, ferried across two-by-two above the churning water, then meet our guide. Mike Anderson arrives with a bandolier of bullets around his waist, a .375 calibre rifle, Stetson hat, and the revealingly high shorts of a wilderness guide worth his salt. Anderson also works as a television presenter for the Wild Earth programme and is an engaging, enthusiastic steward across the next five days.
We drive another three hours through green meadows and gentle escarpments. The recent rainfall has gummed up the roads to create various impasses, but it has also triggered mass life in the fields, which are blanketed with a pale yellow flower named devil’s thorn that lends the landscape an impressionistic Van Gogh vibe. We traverse multiple drainages to arrive at a long knoll. The scene is edenic. A bounty of water and vegetation ensures that animals of all shapes and sizes are fat and happy. A warthog wanders by accompanied by its clan of shoats, elephants plod through the grass, ripping hanks of it up with their trunks, zebras cavil nervously as the Toyota rolls past, snorting and starting.
The sun has set and we arrive at the Pitsane Camp in darkness. It’s spread underneath a shepherd’s tree, which the San people are known to use for water – its little nooks and crannies often form potable puddles. We all have our own tents with cots and there’s a shared cold water shower and two drop toilets. Divorced from the beck and call of smartphones, it feels like utter luxury. We’re instructed to check our shoes for scorpions before putting them on and told not to be overly concerned about solifuges – otherwise known as camel spiders – which are drawn to the heat of the fire. They might be able to give you a painful bite with their outsized teeth, but there’s no venom to worry about. Still, when I see one, I yelp and pull my legs up onto the chair, disconcerted by their erratic, lightning-fast movements.
I wake to the grunt of a lone baboon traipsing through the forest. Strong black coffee sees us off blazing new walking safari trails as dawn breaks. The senses are ratcheted up to eleven as we pick our way through equally spaced trees that are reminiscent of orchards. It feels like every nerve of the brain and body is standing to attention when we cross paths with a pack of spotted hyenas. The furthest south we make it is to the Shashe River, a tributary to the Limpopo, keeping our eyes peeled for crocodiles on the riverbanks.
As we walk back to the vehicle, an airborne tube darkens the sky above us like the hand of god. Five brown eagles perch together in the skeletal arms of a dead leadwood tree nearby, scrutinising for chinks in the armour. Stretching from one side of the horizon to the other, a miles-long flock of red-billed quelea follow each other in slipstream. They’re small birds, only inches in length, yet the susurration of their feathers in flight shatters the empty morning sky. It’s accepted that there are more than 1.5 billion red-billed quelea, the most numerous wild bird on earth, and we seem to be experiencing a good portion of that. There’s a mind-bending dissonance in such small animals creating such a sublime spectacle, and a reminder of what nature would have been prior to the depredations of modern humanity.
As if to drive the point home, while we stand stock-still on foot, nine bull elephants emerge from behind marula trees, then amble past unbothered, paying more attention to each other and the abundance of greenery than they do to us. Askari is the Swahili word for a small group of warriors, and the one applied to these male-only groups, where younger elephants are mentored and taught how to survive by a more experienced bull. Stumbling upon this many elephants feels like a lot, but pre-colonial parades often numbered in the thousands.
We park the game viewer at the top of a copper-hued creekbed, walk down to a trickling waterfall, then bathe in the turbid brown waters at the base of the rocky staircase. The cooks from the camp – Rosie and Nelly – have accompanied us, and we negotiate the sharp decline to the pool hand-in-hand. Immersing ourselves in shin-high water, with our feet and bottoms in the muck, we distribute plastic glasses of gin and tonic, carve up a lime with a penknife, and shoot the breeze. The columnar roots of a large-leaved rock fig spill over the shelf of basalt as if liquid themselves.
The columnar roots of a large-leaved rock fig spill over the shelf of basalt as if liquid themselves
Something that Anton Lategan had said about fig trees back in South Africa replays in my memory. In the Southern African environment, there are two predominant fig trees, the sycamore fig and the large-leaved rock fig. “Sycamore figs adapt to grow on the top of rocky outcrops, whereas rock figs germinate and propagate on the edge of rivers, dams, and wetlands, developing into massive trees which support complex life such as green pigeons and fig wasps,” Lategan had explained. “In knowing their niche, or establishing themselves in a niche by whatever natural mechanisms, they thrive, and then support everything around them - the whole complexity of life, from antelopes grazing below to baboons eating from their branches.”
On one of the final game drives, I’m haunted once more by giraffes. Two infants shade themselves beneath a shepherd’s tree, lying on the ground with their legs tucked beneath them as their mothers promenade on the hillside a few hundred metres away. I’m told that giraffes make feckless parents. This strikes a little too close to home, being uncontactable on the opposite hemisphere while my partner soldiers away at her job, ensuring that our child is safe and healthy. Unbeknownst to me, she’s fallen and torqued her ankle enough to incur a hairline fracture. I feel a sudden, urgent need to get to my niche.
Nature can be a powerful instructor if you take the time to read its spoor. Leaving here, as I head back towards my life in London, I feel more keenly aware of the ecosystem in which I operate and its biomimicry, the ways in which it resembles nature. I think about the interplay of give and take between colleagues, friends and family and the nutrients I’d like to bleed into it. As I prepare to head home, I am excited to rejoin the space I have grown into, and hopefully live an integrated and interconnected life. In the past, I’ve returned from the African backcountry supercharged with wanderlust. In this case, it has made me grateful for the ecosystem that I inhabit.
Experience it for yourself
7–14 days from £1,152. Eco Training EcoQuest courses are available in Kruger National Park, the Greater Kruger area in South Africa and Botswana. Excludes flights.
Guide Course Southern Africa: Professional Field Guide
335 days from £16,260. The one-year Professional Field Guide training course provides students with the official Fields Guides Association of Southern Africa-endorsed Professional Field Guide certificate. Excludes flights.
Guide Course Southern Africa: Field Guide level 1
55 days from £5,306. In 55 days you will learn the essentials about the interplay of the reserves' flora and fauna from experienced and highly qualified instructors. The programme focuses on delivering training and further education directly in the wild. Excludes flights.
Find out more at natucate.com