I was a long way from home when I stepped out of the twin-engine prop plane that delivered me to Londolozi on the morning of Saturday, June 18. Trying to distinguish myself from the arriving guests, I skirted the ranger greeting line and approached a group of trackers, hoping someone would know where I was to be taken. Other than my name, I had no answer to who I was or what I was doing here. All I could tell the tracker was that the Varty’s were expecting me, and shortly after, Dave Varty, one of the few familiar faces in a very foreign place, pulled up to the airstrip to pick me up.
It was my second time to the bush, and upon arrival I found, as was the case my first time, that it takes a while for the mind to register the wild surroundings. The previous 24 hours had been a blur of jet travel, and the expanses of dry bush moving beneath a brisk winter wind required a drastic adjustment from the humid corner of the southern United States I call home. Tea at Varty Camp gave me a brief moment to settle in before I was handed over to Chris Goodman, the head ranger who would become my boss and close acquaintance over the next few weeks. Within my first hour, I was given a uniform, a contract, and a brief tour of the staff areas. That evening I was sent on a game drive where a leopard and a pack of hyenas feasting on a warthog kill served as a spectacular first viewing.
Despite the thrill of arrival, when I laid down in my Rondavel that first night I thought I could never feel comfortable amongst the names and surroundings I had just been introduced to. By the end of the next two and half weeks, however, which would go by in a blur of varied experiences, I would find myself to be quite a part of the Londolozi family and the exotic environment in which they work and live.
According to my temporary contract, I was a “gofor,” a title that comes from the our frequent duty “go for this” or “go for that.” My job consisted of whatever menial tasks camp managers, rangers, and others needed done. Menial tasks at Londolozi, however, can hold much more excitement that those that I could be fulfilling back home. For my first week, Chris put me in the hands of a different camp manager each day, his intention being that at the end of the week I would be familiar with the locations and staff members of all the camps. The camp managers had various things in store for me. Window washing, wood chopping, and lantern filling were my usual tasks. The tasks were by no means fun, nor particularly exciting, but having to do them in a place such as this gave them a feel that could never be achieved back home. Window washing was made interesting by the company of monkeys, and the curious bush buck that watched me hack a trail to the Founders camp power box added a sense of the exotic to the monotonous task. At the end of every day, I could wander up to the village Spaza bar to have a drink while watching Shangaan children play soccer in the golden light of the setting sun, an image that erased whatever disparaging feelings the days work had given me and reminded me that I was experiencing life in a remarkable part of the world that I was lucky to be seeing at all, and those were only the boring days.
One morning, Chris told me that I would be helping out while he, the habitat workers, and some rangers did a control burn of the Sparta/Dudley firebreak. To the rangers, this was a chore. To me, it was the most exciting order I could have received. With water tanks strapped to our backs, and fire-retardant Magic Guarri bushes in hand, we spent the morning amid the billowing smoke of a bush fire. Spraying and beating out burning piles of dung left in the wake of the wall of wind propelled fire.
Other days I found myself photographing wild dog pups on a trip to learn the roads of the reserve. Occasionally I would be asked to join a ranger on a game drive in order to make coffee or drinks for guests, where I would share in the guest’s excitement as Leopard hunted at an arm’s length from the vehicle. To wake up and have no idea if I was to be working amongst Leopard or setting tables in camp (which could sometimes be one in the same) is a feeling well fitting with the constant unknown of this place.
When I return to South Carolina, people will want to know what kind of animals I saw, or if I ever found myself in a dangerous encounter with the carnivores for which Londolozi claims its fame. But the truth is, the magic of this place is not completed by the animals alone, although they certainly lend a hand. The true wonder lies in the commonplace detail- The unmatched hospitality of the staff and the locals, the expansive beauty which lies in every direction, and the sense of adventure that allows a group of bush savvy South Africans to share a bond with a kid from the American South (even if constantly making fun of his accent is part of that bond).
The things I will miss the most about Londolozi are the people who welcomed me into their family. Many foreigners, when they arrive in the bush, experience a sensation that makes them feel as though they are returning to a long forgotten home. Anthropologists and Sociologists have attributed this to something within our genetics that millenia of evolutionary migration has failed to erase. But to me it seems quite possible that this sensation is due to a much simpler phenomenon: The un-matched hospitality and warmth of the people who live and work in the bush. When I return to South Carolina, I will have only spent a month at Londolozi, yet still I suspect that when I fondly think back on my time here, it will stir feelings not of bittersweet nostalgia, but of a much more distinct emotion, homesickness.
Written by: Cole Huey
Rich Laburn is filmmaker, photographer and writer who is based at Londolozi Game Reserve in South Africa. Spending his time capturing scenes of the wild and communicating the beauty of the African bushveld, he runs the Londolozi Blog as a way to entertain and engage people wishing to visit these wild lands.