Conversations about Coming Home

Last night I attended a talk by Ian McCallum at the Yellowwood Café in Howick. He has just completed his expedition from the west to east coast of Southern Africa linking various elephant migratory routes and publicising the need for environmental action by focusing on pachyderms, a key species in the ecology of wild Africa and India. You can read about this trip on www.tracksofgiants.org

There are many things that struck me about Ian. He has an aura about him that is not just because of who he is (he is a qualified and working psychiatrist, author, poet, wilderness guide and expedition leader) but rather because he knows he is because of everyone and everything else. He is a true child of uBunthu: “I am because you are”.

He is thankful for everything and everyone that has coloured his life and allowed him to connect to this earth. He is practical as well, and made a strong point in the beginning of his talk of thanking everyone for very little thing they may do for the environment, no matter how small the action. It is these small actions that will make the groundswell that can change the world we leave to our children.

He told of a talk he did at Epworth primary School earlier that day. It was in a room filled with caricatures of wild animals. It was a happy room. He asked the children what they would feel if there were no more animals left in the world.

After some hesitation the first hand went up. “I would feel sad”, the child spoke.

I am sure Ian danced about the stage as he did with us, filled with energetic passion for the earth. He looked for more answers. It came from another child: “I would feel it was our fault!”

And the last child spoke out, sadness stinging his face: “what would we leave our children?”

His expedition was not so much about the giants of the bush as much as the giant within each of us that can change the world. We can all achieve so much, if we commit and try. The tragedy is not that we do not achieve, but that we aim too low.

At dinner I spoke with Ian about his first trail, which he undertook in 1981 with Ian Player and Maqubu Ntombela. It had a profound effect on him and his understanding of the world and himself. I remember it doing the same for me. The Wilderness Leadership School Erythrina leaf emblem encapsulates a simple philosophy of co-existence with the environment and one’s self: each of the three leaflets represents a core relationship in man’s life: Man to Man, Man to God and Man to nature.

I asked Ian why he had chosen psychiatry. “Because it was the one thing I did not want to do. So when I asked myself why I didn’t want to do it, and investigated it, I found it to be the very essence of medicine.” It echoed in me. I remember my time in the bush bring a clarity to my soul to explore the mind through medicine. I never got to being a psychiatrist, but certainly benefited from them.

Ian said of his first trail that he felt like “he had come home.” I know the feeling, and his inspiring talk made me feel like I had seen home again.

On Trail: Spring in Pilanesberg

I took a trail into Pilanesberg on 24 September 1984. It must have been varsity holidays and I was three quarters of the way through second year medicine.  It was a joy to leave the dissecting halls and the ingrained smell of formalin for the bush. Fortunately I kept copies of the trail reports I submitted to the Wilderness Leadership School. The opening paragraph of the report makes nostalgic reading for me:

The pickup went off well, and we drove via Hartebeestpoort. We arrived at Pilanesberg at about 6 p.m.”  Friday afternoon pickups were always stressful as trailists had to rush from work to get their kit and make their way to the Parktown Offices or WITS University Planetarium, where they left their cars and piled into the old blue and white Volkswagen kombis that the school owned. These vehicles probably did more off road work than most modern 4×4’s do!

“A few kilometres from Manyane Gate, having seen kudu and wildebeest, we saw tow cheetah. The light was not so good so we couldn’t make out if they were at a kill or not. We saw about eight rhino on the way to Driefontien, as well as sable and eland, with a lone sable running parallel to the kombi for a few hundred meters – quite a show.”

We would have arrived at out campsite in the northern wilderness area of the park and unpacked all the equipment and luggage. It was always a crazy time, with the trailists like children at a fun fair: bouncing all over the place. I would drive the empty kombi away to park it out of sight and then slowly unzip the rifle bag from under the second row of seats and load the magazine with three cartridges, thumb sized .458 soft tip bullets to stop a rhino or elephant. I would lock up the kombi, leave the key on the top of the driver’s side front tyre and walk back to camp in the darkness with a torch lighting my way. That walk was my treat for the weekend. After that it was fun, but hard work.

We slept in the open under an ouhout tree at the foot of a koppie, with the northern side of the camp defended by a large rock that was often still warm at night after a sunny day. The fire was made on the eastern side between the rock and the tree, looking out over a beautiful valley of grassland and bush higher up. There was a shallow nek in the lay of the land on the southern side that was traversed by a well established rhino path. On some nights you would hear the rhino walking past, hearing what sounded like the nylon stockings on an old lady’s legs rubbing together. It was difficult to see the rhino in the dark, except if there was a moon. Then the veld took on a shimmering silver appearance and emanated a sense of peace beyond what we deserved.

My trailists at the end of the trail at Manyane gate.