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A Safari Morning

In the early morning, mine is the only voice I hear.

You might think this odd. You’ll think, ok, this girl talks to herself. But it also has to do with reflexes. Tap my elbow and see my arm shoot out. Stand on my toe and hear me shout.
Show me a sunrise from a treehouse in the wild, the sound of elephants and that coo coo of a distant dove and listen for my woahs and wows. My unbelievables and you’re kidding me’s.

There’s the voice inside my head too, when the peace and quiet feels too good to disturb.
This is how a morning in my villa at Londolozi Private Game Reserve in South Africa begins. This is a morning in Africa, the wilderness.

Without anyone around, my hands dance from white duvet to coffee cup, slipper to nightgown, as I slip out through the sliding doors, closing them to keep the monkeys out (I’d much rather they played in the trees). I take my place in the moving gold light as it spreads over the entire deck, reminding me of the passing of time and seasons, even though I feel worlds away from these concepts.

There is more coffee and then the move from slippers to shoes, gown to jersey, inside voice to outside voice. I follow the trail through the trees to our game vehicle, our ranger and tracker, other guests, cameras and binoculars adorning our necks like ancient Egyptian wesekhs.

The scent of promise is in the air. The engine turns on and beanies are slipped over ears, scarves around noses, smiles across faces.

I do that talking to myself thing again (the outside peace still holding) and bet myself I’ll see an elephant first. Lots of them. Babies, curling through the legs of their mothers. A great troupe with trunks in the air.

I heard them first, at the villa, and I hear them again now, like clockwork, as they say. You owe me tea, I tell myself. The whole herd swims across our view as though floating in a deep river.

In that moment, I remember being on top of one of these greats, at an elephant sanctuary in South Africa, one of the humane few. I remember that inimitable slow sidling of their amble, like a wild lullaby. I remember the feeling of the elephant tickling my ear after our ride, back on terra firma, its hairy trunk, how its physical touch connected me to it, it to me, for life, in my mind at least.

But in the wild at Londolozi, even without touching, this morning family mesmerises us all.

We climb out of the vehicle and stand around the front while the ranger hands us more coffee, steaming like our hot breaths in the cold air, champagne, biscuits, Amarula… Sharing the same ground now as the wild things, feeling the earth beneath us, part of us, I wave to the last elephant. Safari njema, inside voice announces.

And this I promise you, as though hearing me and my heart’s fastening beat, the elephant waves back and then trumpets the final note in our morning song.

Read more about Relais & Châteaux in Africa and the Indian Ocean islands here >

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The Sweetness of the Solo Safari

It wasn’t merely that the animals were all out, on this early morning in the Nambiti wilderness. Not simply that we didn’t have to search too hard to find the rhinos and buffalo, the giraffe and lions, the wildebeest and waterbuck. What made the drive something special was what was not there. That is, other people.

I know, sharing is caring. But have you ever been on a game drive through the African bush, alone, just you and your guide?

No voices disturb the peace. No movement interrupts the stillness. And there’s the matter of time… of being in the wild, with its animal life, its birds and plants, sounds and scents, and having no need to leave before you’re ready.

There’s also the fact that I really like to take photographs. Lots of them. From all kinds of angles and with all kinds of lenses. I need time. I photograph best in silence, too, as a ranger tracks best in a quiet of his or her own.

Even with the camera down, resting in my lap, the peace creates a space to properly connect with the surroundings and myself. Space for me to offer the wild my entire attention. Space to see the little things, the details. The details of a lion’s nose or of the unfolding scenes… like the wildebeest elders gathering around their little ones to keep them safe or the alarm spreading across an impala herd as a predator nears.

Sharing can be sweet. But the notion of “the fewer the merrier” has its magic too. It’s what Esiweni Luxury Safari Lodge in the Nambiti Private Game Reserve of South Africa is all about. There are very few staff or rangers, only five suites, only two chefs, and the French owners, Ludovic Caron and Sophie Vaillant, play the role of maitre de maison. It’s a small family. And it creates the feeling of retreating to a villa in the countryside, in the south of France, with your people. Your nearest, dearest, or nobody at all.

Of course this countryside has big cats and great giants roaming its hills and plains, but the sense of nature, and of Provençal bliss, is very much there. Dining slowly under the open skies, with fresh breads and pastries, and every kind of cheese accompanying fine wines, just the crickets chattering and streams trickling, it feels like a moment stolen from the continuance of time. A world apart.

One night, on one of our solo game drives, my guide, Pemba and I watched the sun set from a clearing in the bush, as a lion announced himself only metres away to his approaching brother. His deep gravelly roars seemed to never end. I could feel them echoing inside my very core as night fell over us. As though we were together in a vast ancient cave and not in the open plains.

Another night, we chose to join the owners for sundowners and stories of lions and leopards under a lantern-lit tree, while a giraffe ambled in that slow giraffe way right past us. Even in the company of other souls, sitting around a campfire, the peace of the place held its incantation.

And yes, sharing is sweet, but I felt the real, quite rare charm in being able to return to a big villa on a cliff face looking out over the Sundays River, soaking in the solitude with nothing pulling me away. With no voices to disturb the peace. No movement to interrupt the stillness. And no need to leave it all before I was ready.

 

The girl in the doorway

There are some scenes that are a little uncomfortable to photograph. Sometimes even write about. For different reasons, I find the Darajani Market in Stonetown, Zanzibar one of those scenes. The writing comes more easily, but the process, the moment of capturing it all on camera not so much…

There is the dead fish problem. This is not a metaphor. It’s not that people with vegan-leanings shouldn’t go to fish markets; it’s just that photographing the departed is never easy. Whatever they are. There is also the matter of people. Photographing people who haven’t offered themselves up for photographing feels sneaky. Wrong. I can feel it in my blood and bones. This probably is a metaphor.

The point is to take some kind of “natural” photo, not posed, but the minute permission is requested, the subject stiffens or smiles or shows off.

There’s also the problem of why.

Why am I taking this person’s image? What am I saying in the image? What am I saying about the person I’ve photographed to the person who will see the image? My perceptions will likely show up in the shot. What are those perceptions and are they right? Can the image be incorrectly judged and perceived by the viewer to distort my perception? These are the spanners in the works of art.

Still, as a photojournalist, the mission is to capture the scene. The on-the-ground moments. The stories unravelling, the life, the lives. The mission is to photograph the dead fish. The mission is to capture the people. Excluding them both omits them from the retelling of reality. Mission failed.

So I lift my camera to the pearl white octopus curled up sweetly with its tentacles, as though night and not death has arrived. I lift it up over the counter of fish bigger than those I’ve ever seen in the great oceans and click, taking home a glimpse of those blue spots on red flesh and black dots on yellow edgings.

You feel too much, I can hear my parents, an ocean away, saying.

This is how people make their living, feed their families, eat, survive. This is the circle of life. The beautiful, natural, circle of life.

I capture an image of a fisherman passed out, sitting on the cold table top, his knife laid down beside him. I can feel his fatigue. I am grateful his eyes are closed. I capture a fruit seller cross-legged on the counter beside his carrots and aubergines, as though with friends at a gathering. I have brought you all here today…. I catch the glances of men, women and children walking past, a look head on, a glance to the side. Women exchanging shillings. A man chopping and tying bunches of danya.

Sometimes I divorce the hands from the people, zoom in on the fingers, the fruit and vegetables, the herbs, the coffee beans and tea leaves. But the bigger picture is what’s important.

I am not the first photographer here. I remember that. Tourists come for sightseeing. They don’t think about the process. Or about what their images mean. I remember that, but our mission is different.

The meat market I move through faster, but to be honest, it fascinates me the most. There is something that looks like a tail, the hair removed, the body removed, just a bare, naked tail. I have never seen this before. Nor have I seen the next sight: a bull head. Just the head. The hair still intact, along with the ears, but a cross-section of the neck is revealed. The man behind the counter thinks I want to purchase it. I’m getting too close, I realise. I step back. I lift my camera to the air and make some kind of face that I imagine asks, May I? The sellers always nod, sometimes I get a smile. But a nod is all I need. I zoom in. Click. I’m unlikely to ever share these images, but I keep clicking. Because now, I am fascinated.

There are furry cloths hanging from a hook. The man sees my puzzlement and says, stomach.

I move on, into the spice market. The alleyways are thick with people. Behind the camera here, I suddenly feel invisible. Obscured. Lost. I photograph a man sitting high up between bags of wheat flour and grain, a scale in front of him. A mix of patterns and colours and shapes fills the scene. I’m not sure what any of the items on the shelves behind him are. I don’t recognise the packaging. I am not at my grocery store back home. I am in Zanzibar and the writing… is it Arabic?

Beautiful bunches of brimming-with-life green herbs lie together atop stacked boxes. I photograph them when really I want to run the top my hand across their silky bodies. Nutty brown coconuts pass between hands. Brightness everywhere. Red and green chillies. Thick branches of ripe and unripe bananas. An old man sitting between them, his hands together, fingers crossed, in his lap, looking down. And then beside him, I see it in the image only later, back home, a man on the phone with his hand over his face. I want to apologise to him.

The next images are all herbs and spices: star anise, saffron, turmeric, ylang ylang, cinnamon, ginger powder, lemongrass. Willing subjects. And then I hit a section of the market, where the light starts to peep in from where the canopied stalls end: men smiling. I lift the camera, more smiles. Oh, bless you, I think. I imagine myself in their shoes and I know a smile wouldn’t come as easily.

But I get it all: a taste of real life in Stonetown, Zanzibar. A man with his feet up, reading a soccer newspaper. A man extracting peas from their pods in a basket on the seat of a scooter.

We are on the street now, exiting the market and making our way through the winding road that leads, eventually, to the waterfront. We pass women and men in the traditional Muslim hijabs and jilbabs, a cat with plastic wrapped around its neck as a collar, bicycles, scooters, every pattern of sarong and fez, and then the shot that gets me: the girl. The girl in the doorway.

Standing there, with her white and red dress and her little eyes peering out of the shadows. And the dark wood, fine carvings and gold bolts of the Arabic doors. I don’t ask for permission. I take the shot. She runs inside. She runs back out. Looks left, looks right. Runs back inside. Eight shots. She is all I want to photograph, her and that door. The most exquisite of all the doors I see that morning in Stonetown. The most exquisite girl. Soft face, curious eyes.

And in her eyes and the older woman in the background, in the bottles and jars of preserved fruits on the doorstep, in the doorway and the dark room behind it… I see the bigger picture.

The girl re-emerges and I wave, trying to take the next step. In the hopes of getting the whole picture.

Jambo, habari gani? Hello, how are you?

You Never Forget the First Tree You Plant

As published on the Relais & Châteaux Africa blog

The mountain stretched out its path before us.

“Follow me,” the winding red clay road said. Small rocks, like unruly tortoises, scattered the trail.

With each roll of the tyres, down the declines, along the flats, up the climbs, I saw the drop beside us grow.

We were headed up into the mountain but it’s never really as simple as that. When it comes to climbing mountains, when it comes to getting to the top most peaks of the Cederberg, one must go down too. Up and down, up and down.

I watched the cliff, the sun and the clouds, the ups and the downs, the tyres on the left of the vehicle – Bushmans Kloof’s game vehicle – like an eagle getting the lay of the land.

We weren’t here to see animals, we were on our way to plant the endangered and endemic Clanwilliam cedar tree (Widdringtonia cedarbergensis) in the mountains named after them. The Cederberg. But there is something about a game vehicle – an open sided 4×4 and the fresh African air – that makes your eyes perk up for the slightest hint of movement in the distance. These are the animal eyes of the safarigoer.

After the bontebok, klipspringer, red hartebeest, grey rhebok and zebra, the aardwolf, African wildcat and bat-eared fox of Bushmans Kloof Wilderness Reserve & Wellness Retreat, these mountains, a short drive from the lodge, pointed us to rock rabbits, baboons, tortoises, the great African Fish eagle and Black Harrier.

Arms would stretch out of the vehicle in slow motion as passengers pointed to their sightings, uncertain if it had been real, or a figment of safari imagination, of mountain elevation.

Because out in the middle of the Cederberg away from any view of city streets or lights, any sound of man, it seems unbelievable that anyone or thing could live here.

When you look closely (when you are accompanied by someone from Cape Nature, like Conservation Manager,  Rika du Plessis) you realise how inaccurate it would be to describe the region as barren. Remote yes, isolated yes. But not barren. Life has adapted to the terrain here in many different forms. Dung beetles, snakes, scorpions live side by side with the odd village donkey and the Cape Floral Kingdom.

The reason for the scarcity of cedar trees has more to do with the influence of the human hand than nature. Deforestation has ripped these icons of the area from the picture. Wild fires have not helped, nor the fact that cedars like to take their time. They’re slow growers, these trees.

To attempt to counteract this, Cape Nature and Bushmans Kloof host this annual Clanwilliam Cedar Tree event at Heuningvlei in the Cederberg Wilderness each year.

About 300 conservation volunteers, school children and families from all over the Western Cape unite to plant cedar saplings. To rewild the area. Participants include the Wildflower Society, the local branch of the Botanical Society and the Cederberg Conservancy, as well as local schools.

At a clearing high up in the hills, our vehicle parked, alongside the other treeplanters and guests. Our trees were waiting for us –  mature seedlings a hand tall that had been birthed and cared for in Cape Nature’s nursery.

Our feet took to the ground and we made our individual paths into the grove and the surrounding wilderness. Burnt skeletons of cedars past stood tall trying to hold onto the shifting sand beneath them. A few trees remained, signalling us with their bright Christmas tree green amid the browns and blacks.

Beside a stump for company, I dug my hole and planted my sapling. I covered her up with the sandy soil around her and sprinkled cold water over her.

And as though watching, attentively, to what our gathering was up to… as though hearing our soft words of encouragement and wishes to the plant gods, the sun slipped behind the clouds and rain erupted over us.

Over the dry earth. Over the donkeys and eagles and snakes. Over our young trees.

It’s difficult not to be a little mystically minded at moments like this.

The area, the whole of the Cape, had been in the midst of the worst drought in 100 years. Rain was not common. And yet here we stood, drenched by what felt a whole lot like the earth trying its best to help us grow some trees.

It was all up to Mother Nature now.

We climbed back into the game vehicle and rolled back down (up and down, up and down) the mountain to the lodge, to our bontebok, to flooding gardens and puddled dirt roads and a great hopes to return in a year to see our handsome cedars still standing, tall and green.

“Until you dig a hole, you plant a tree, you water it and make it survive, you haven’t done a thing. You are just talking.” — Wangari Maathai


Highlights of the Event

Everyone, strangers, friends, locals, travellers, coming together.

Even little ones… who were given cedar seeds to plant, to grow into saplings for next year’s tree planting event

“It’s the little things citizens do. That’s what will make the difference. My little thing is planting trees.” — Wangari Maathai

Searching for animal life in the peaks and valleys

Planting – for some of us – our first ever tree

The beauty of the Cederberg and its rich, unique life

The inspiring introduction from one of Bushmans Kloof’s Chairmen, Michael Tollman, about the sustainability projects at Bushmans Kloof and the importance of the cedar tree event. Watch the talk here > 

The song and dance that concluded the event in the mountains… compliments of the local band and Reil dance troupe

And the lunch and sweet treats in between, from Bushmans Kloof Executive Chef, Charles Hayward

Returning to Bushmans Kloof for the night… A beautiful, welcome highlight without a doubt.


Read more: Good Hope FM breakfast host Dan Corder gets to know CapeNature and watch the video.

“Music melts all the separate parts of our bodies together.” ― Anaïs Nin

Ellerman Sessions Parlotones 13

One Night With The Parlotones

As written for the Relais & Châteaux Africa blog

 

Musicians are just like us. They too are travellers. Adventurers. Their sunshine and starry nights are also often seen in new towns, with new people, while drinking in the unfamiliar. Like us, it’s not uncommon for them to fall asleep in one time zone and wake up in another. Sometimes, there’s no sleep at all. For us both, there are always new minds to encounter around tables, in the clear light of breakfast and the dizzy daze of dinner. There are always strangers who feel a lot like home, and strangers who get stranger. Every trip, every gig, is different from the next. Each one finds a way to open your mind a little more. Sometimes, with the right combination of thrill and soul, one day, one night, can feel like a lifetime. It can fill the heart with all the spirit it needs to go on. On every trip, every gig, there are moments you can’t shake, moments that linger in nerve and sinew. Adventure and soul are what travel and music have in common. Even for the audience, caught in the voodoo of the electric guitar and the wild beats of sticks on a drum. There is a journey in the listening as much as the playing. Sometimes the lyrics and their message take hold of us, pick us up like hitchhikers on the side of the long open road, and carry us from one place to the next. From the quiet red earth desert to the thick dripping rainforest. From memory to memory. For musicians, as with travellers, there is a sense of purpose. No time to waste. Only more life to chase and sink into. Of course there are different kinds of musicians just as there are different kinds of travellers, but in our hearts we’re made of the same stuff.

That’s how it felt watching the first of the Ellerman Sessions at Ellerman House in Cape Town. That’s what came to mind as The Parlotones, South Africa’s most successful rock band, spun for us, the travellers gathered in the Wine Gallery, the stories behind their songs. In between sets, Kahn Morbee, Neil Pauw, Glenn Hodgson, Paul Hodgson and Rob Davidson bared their hearts, told their truths, and took us on a voyage. Sitting with the band in their villa at the hotel, watching the sun dripping over the ocean through distant clouds, we spoke of the most unusual places they’ve played, the favourites, the never-go-back-to’s. We spoke the language of travel… of the airplane tickets, shot glasses and hotel slippers we’ve collected from each far-flung home. Of the adventures that become songs, the songs that become adventures. But most significantly, we spoke, musician and traveller alike, with the same soul.

Discover the other artists lined up for Ellerman House’s Ellerman Sessions here, and take a look at some images from the first night below.

Things I Didn’t Know I Didn’t Want to Know

Published first in the Sunday Times’ Accidental Tourist – 13 May 2018

They say there are things we know we don’t know and things we don’t know we don’t know. The unknown unknowns.

Before going to the Seychelles, I knew there would be blue sea and white sand and coconuts and I had heard talk of bats and turtles. Other than that, I knew I was going in blind. And that excited me. I like not being a know-it-all. Perhaps I have no choice in the matter, but the surprise element was very appealing. I wasn’t prepared, though, for the things I discovered that I didn’t know I didn’t know.

The best case of this came one evening on a beach on a private island in the archipelago – the remote North Island that had taken three planes and two boats to access from Cape Town.

We had been hiking through the jungle terrain of one of the island’s peaks, slipping down fallen palm fronds and scrambling up giant black boulders. The guide led the way as we emerged from the wilderness onto white beach sand. I hung on her every word about Seychellois animal and plant life like a young Gerald Durrell aching to take them all home with me.

Standing before the Indian Ocean, we watched the sun drop from view and blackness fill the world. And then we saw it. The long path leading up from the water to where beach met forest. We saw, in the light of the moon, turtle tracks.

At least, the guide saw them and pointed them out to me, before scurrying about like a turtle mother about to lay eggs herself – which is what she was looking for. A female about to lay eggs.

We snuck up to the end of the turtle’s trail – as marked by hind flippers trying to haul one heavy hulk on land. And there, above the high spring tide mark, we knelt down beside a huge green turtle and watched as she concluded the uncomfortable task of digging a hole. The remarkable part for me came when she reversed her tush over the hole and began to lay her offspring.

Having made an egg myself – in a frying pan in the kitchen – I expected a hard shell to drop from her. I didn’t know that I didn’t know that these ancient reptiles lay their young in soft, leathery casings that can land gently in the nest of more than a hundred sisters and brothers. In the dim red light of our torch, the eggs looked a lot more like ping pong balls (but with the softness of mascarpone) as they plopped free from Mum.

As the guide continued her soliloquy of I-know-more-than-you-isms, another fact came to light that I had never thought to think about: how to have a turtle daughter or a turtle son.

In the human world, old wives tales encourage you to drink a cup of coffee 20 minutes before sex if you want a boy. To conceive a girl, it’s recommended the man wear tighty-whiteys and the woman eat plenty of vegetables and sweets. In the 18th century, to ensure a son, men were advised to cut off their left testicle.

For turtles, the gender of juveniles is determined by the temperature surrounding them during their 60 days of incubation. Turtle fathers everywhere must be rejoicing! Cooler nests give rise to a male-dominated clutch while warmer nests produce females.

Just how these turtles do the fandango is a whole other nest of mascarpone balls and a particular detail I was quite confident to announce that I knew I didn’t want to know. We watched the mother tuck her babes in for the long sleep ahead and then switched off our light to let the family rest. And because, sometimes, not knowing how a story ends is part of the great mystery and delight of life.

 

Safaris & the Art of Being Yourself

First published in the Relais & Châteaux Africa blog.

“To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.” – e e cummings


This is not a topic that concerns animals, but it is one that they so naturally teach – the art of being yourself.

It is a topic that separates us little bipeds from the wild world of our animal brothers and sisters. Sure, who knows really what a woodpecker mum gets up to when hidden inside her nest. But I doubt she is worrying about whether she is being a good enough mother, or if her feathers still have their youthful lustre. She is beyond even the stage of acceptance – she simply does not think about it. Sure, she doesn’t quite have the brain structure for such neuroticism. And we do, which gives us the task of overcoming self-doubt and learning to accept and embrace, all through life.

On the subject of neuroticism, let’s take my morning face, for instance. There is nothing like a 5 am game drive, I discovered on our safari at Mara Plains Camp in Kenya, while trying to pose naturally for a camera, to make you doubt yourself.

You might have had the coffee and the hot water and lemon and the muffin, but your face does not lie when it still desires an hour extra under the sheets. When the cold air blows and mascara rolls silently down the side of your face, you are presented with that great challenge – man versus nature, self versus other.

Bundled in khaki scarves and windbreakers with extra buoyant morning hair, do you ignore the reflection in the mirror and focus on the great male lion shaking his silky mane in the golden light of dawn?

Yes, you do, and you think nothing of it.

There is no time for ego on a safari. Only awe. Getting back to nature in any way strips you of the me-me-me thoughts, because suddenly you find yourself in a phantasmagoria of scents and sounds and sights. Attention shifts – the elephants call on you to be present for them. One look down and you could miss the grand show of flapping ears or a little one’s first steps.

Embraced in the right way, a safari is a truth-seeking journey. A simplifying and a refocusing of life. It is learning to concentrate less on yourself and more on the exciting world around you, which, in turn, helps you to be more yourself.

It’s that look after a long day out in the savannah and bush, a day spent riding horses in big cat country and bumping along in 4X4s over river beds and along dusty dirt paths. It’s the freckles popping on your sun-kissed nose and the mud on your boots. It’s the tired red eyes from hours of looking through a camera, darting from one eagle to another. It’s the peace that comes with it all – having let go, having jumped in, wholeheartedly – and it’s the smile that shows not a care in the world.

That look is the look of someone on safari, of someone who has stepped into themselves.

Thank you for the lesson, Mara Plains Camp.

Take a look at a few images from our safari to this beautiful part of Kenya – on the northern border of the Maasai Mara – below.

 

The Peculiar Virtues of a Cactus Garden

When we speak of gardens, we all imagine different things.

Some of us conjure up images of wild jungle-like spaces with towering palm trees and human-size ferns taking over ponds, or secret paths winding under pockets of cool shade from giant oaks and dappled light created by ancient cedar trees. These kinds of garden lovers are the dreamers and adventurers of the horticultural world and, like their gardens, they prefer not to be tamed.

Their fingernails, toe nails, nostrils and brows are all marked with the soil they excitedly embrace with a whole heart. They are easily distracted by the call of a bird – one wonders if they have not created their garden solely for the enjoyment of these winged vagabonds. As a place for the birds to enjoy and for the garden lover to enjoy the birds. You can detect this with the countless bird baths, handmade suet balls and seed feeders scattered around the greenery. And the chairs set up beside them.

Some of us settle on an image of a prim and proper English rose garden, manicured and sculpted like the people who saunter through it in their fancy garden hats. These types of garden lovers always wear gloves and quite like to sip tea while seeing to the perfect petals that swim out of cherished rose buds. They are also fond of rolling evergreen lawns and fountain statues of angels with water flowing from their mouths. They would never use the word spewing although it is more fitting than flowing, and they would never pick out the other kind of angel statues, with water emanating from a lower orifice. Ducks are fond of following them around, awaiting a crumb from all those cucumber sandwiches.

Some of us envisage the greatest of vegetable gardens. These are the dungaree-wearers, who like to practice the art of staying in the moment while digging new little homes for their Swiss chard and fennel bulbs. They bring their whole selves to the garden each day, while sprinkling water over their herbs and harvesting their broccoli florets. Gardening is about more than mere enjoyment for them. It is a way of life. A turning away from the consumerism around them and an embrace of the concept of living off the earth.

Obviously, there are different degrees of veggie garden growers, but no man or woman grows an edible plant without the intention of eating it or selling it to someone else to eat. Their plants are what they stand for, they are all their hopes and beliefs tilled in between the dirt and roots and insects of the undergrowth, and watching them grow into thick, flourishing crops ready for harvest is enough to make them pop a wheelie with their wheelbarrows and dance in the buff with their spades as great warrior spears.

I am definitely this kind of loon. But I am also, deeply, called by the sparseness of a cactus garden.

The one day surprises that bloom out of the tall green pillars. Their covering of hairs, spines or barbed bristles. The unbelievable variety and kooky names – like peyote, prickly pear, hedgehog cactus, the Old Man of Perufee, Mother-in-Law’s-Chair, Horses’ Teeth, Elephant Feet and Bushman’s Grape.

Perhaps this, below, is why I consider myself a cactus person…

But it is also the peace of a cactus garden, the quiet, the honesty, the individuality and the character. The Sheilam Cactus and Succulent Nursery near Robertson is one of the best places in the country to see all 2000 or so species together and it is recognised by authorities as one of the finest collections of specimen plants.

I’d say the cactus gardeners among us are likely of the glove-wearing tribe. They also have the ability to see the beauty in the unordinary, in the unconventional. They are individualists, highly independent and, much like the cactus, often a little hard on the outside, but with a heart that supports and creates life. They hold a significant and lively interior world inside their spiky walls. That is their allure, their mystery. That is their peculiar virtue.

Here is a look at the Sheilam Cactus and Succulent Nursery from our latest visit. But we’ll be back.

 

 

In the land of lions and leopards

As published first in Instantsthe Relais & Châteaux magazine.

“You know you are truly alive when you’re living among lions.” ― Karen Blixen, Out of Africa.

Once you have had a taste of life, real life, as Out of Africa author, Karen Blixen saw it, it is impossible to turn your back on it. It holds onto the deepest parts of yourself and starts you on a journey to even greater depths.

More than 80 years after Karen published her tales of life in the Ngong Hills of Kenya, I ventured to the Great Plains Conservation’s Ol Donyo Lodge, where the Chyulu Hills stretch out and touch the plains of Kenya’s Amboseli, and to Mara Plains Camp, in the private Olare Motorogi Conservancy, on the edge of the Maasai Mara.

And those tracks Karen wrote of, the trails left by our safari vehicle moving across the land in search of wildlife, they still continue to wind themselves through my mind, long after I have returned home. Because to live, for a moment, among lions and other big cats – leopard and cheetah, the giant tusker elephants and immense herds of wildebeest and zebra, hyena and giraffe, topi and impala, secretary birds and go-away birds, is to feel life pulsate through you like never before.

It is the sense of fear and the unknown, it is the humility and the awe of being out of your comfort zone and face-to-face with the threat and majesty of wild animals. To not simply view them from behind a screen or fence, but to roam among them, sleep and eat beside them… that feeling keeps returning to you until you return to it.

At ol Donyo Lodge, our safari unfolded in the private 275,000-acre Mbirikani Group Ranch in south-eastern Kenya, next to Chyulu Hills National Park, with the summit of Africa’s greatest icon – Mount Kilimanjaro – in the distance. The ranch is owned by 4,000 Maasai and is leased from them by Great Plains Conservation. The full lease fee and per person conservancy fee goes to this community on the understanding that they will ensure the conservation of the ranch and the wild animals which call it home.

The result is an area rich in wildlife, where you can glimpse Africa’s last giant elephant bulls and listen to the calls of the leopard and lion that are being pulled back from the brink of extinction in this region. We headed out on morning and afternoon game drives, with Maasai guide and photographer, Jackson Lemunge, and spent time among the antelope and birdlife. The predators remain elusive in these parts, but rather than being a drawback, it allowed for some exquisite hiking, horse riding and mountain biking over the plains and hills.

On one cycle, after a slow morning horse ride and a bush breakfast beneath the shade of an acacia tree, guide Nadine Ospelkaus and I found ourselves completely surrounded. Alone in the wilderness, we looked around to find an endless journey of giraffes making their way across the horizon in front of us. From right to left, a herd of wildebeest and zebra kicked up dust in their continuous trek, while behind a Maasai herder and his great horned cattle closed in on us to complete the circle. Rather than fear, we felt a deep sense of being part of the wildlife scene here, of being one of the players in this wilderness, one of the animals.

Further west, at Mara Plains Camp, amid a thick, riverine forest on a bend in the Ntiakitiak River on the northern border of the Maasai Mara National Reserve, I found myself in a land quite different. I found myself in predator country. With guide, Nicholas Ratia behind the wheel, we spent every possible opportunity in search of the wild things. Whether early morning, late afternoon or night, on a game vehicle or merely dining in camp or lying in bed in the immense canvas tents, the sounds, sights and smells of safari life took hold.

Watching lions mating, feeding, sleeping, playing, and mating some more; watching the sun rise over a leopard mother and her cub, the cats stirring, leaping and rolling together as the sleep left their bodies; these scenes were all the more special because of the camp’s exclusivity, its isolation as one of only five camps in the 100,000 acres of the conservancy.

For what felt like an entire morning, Nick, our leopards and I sat in silence together. Not another soul in sight. Mere metres between us. As the cub sniffed our tyre and curled her tail around the edge of our vehicle, it looked up at me sitting inside, its big blue eyes meeting mine. And I felt it… a deep sense of what Karen Blixen wrote of. I felt the life rush through me and I knew it would never leave.

Cycling with the Wild Things of Kenya

First published on the Relais & Châteaux Africa blog.

No matter how many times I get on a bicycle and head out on city streets or country roads or mountains trails, it is always Einstein I see. With his big lawless mop of white hair and his goofy “spent too much time in the lab” smile. And I hear his words about how cycling is just like life. “To keep your balance, you must keep moving,” the great physicist said.

It’s useful advice should you ever forget how to ride a bicycle, or, simply, how to do life. How to keep your balance in the continuous play.

You truly feel this balance when you’ve conquered something, like incline after incline, and when the smooth ride of the flats leads into a fast and glorious downward soar. It’s a feeling that is all the stronger when out in the wilderness, in big sky country like Kenya’s Chyulu Hills at ol Donyo Lodge.

Here, vast stretches of uninterrupted land surround you in every direction. Wild animals roam beside cattle and their Maasai herders – cheetah and lion, wildebeest and elephant.

Perhaps the most profound part about getting on that bicycle in a wild terrain like this is knowing that animals are out and about, while you move among them on two wheels.

The joy is in being closer to the land – as compared to game drives – and in finding yourself looking up at a journey of giraffe only metres away from where you stand. Because, needless to say, you will have to stop at some point and just take it all in.

The joy is in being able to move your body, your legs, and to feel not merely like a bystander, an onlooker, but a player, a member.

Our guides knew just where to lead us, along the sandy paths in the flat scrubland. We followed them to a giant boulder beside a thick canopy of trees (definitely a good place for a big cat, considering the bones scattered below) to catch the last rays of the day shining through an unruly swathe of clouds that looked for a moment like wild-haired Einstein staring right back at us, reminding us. Keep going, never give up.

The guides knew where to find the magic but they also knew how to keep us safe. In addition to that, it is said that due to decades of Maasai roaming the plains and living in and around the wilderness here, the predators have become used to people – used to knowing that they should stay away. On foot, they recognise us, but climb on a horse or into a game vehicle and watch the dynamics change.

We all ride for different reasons – some of us simply for exercise, for fitness, and some for that intense feeling of being alive. Alive among lions, giraffe and zebra, well that’s even better.

Discover more about ol Donyo Lodge in Kenya here.