By Elise Brooks
I had waited and waited, bringing up a family of my own first. Finally, at age forty, it was happening…
Mesmerizing pictures of animals and breathtaking scenery fill my screen as I scroll gazing in awe. I have wanted to see South Africa ever since mum told me about her home when I was only four years old. Goosebumps tingle my skin as I recall her voice.
I discover an organisation called Kuwantu looking for volunteers to work on their Big Five game reserve. In exchange they provide accommodation and food. Paperwork and applications complete, I pack my backpack and board the plane for a thirty-hour flight.
Stepping off the plane, daylight and heat smack me in the face. Port Elizabeth is a coastal industrious town. Vast mountains, bushland, and jungle can be seen in the distance, no rolling green hills and not a sheep or cow in sight. I am warmly welcomed by the staff at my accommodation, as soon as my head hits the pillow I’m out like a light I have not slept the whole trip.
A guide picks me up to take me to Kuwantu. Volunteers sleep together in dorm-style cabins on bunks. I wake to the most memorable wonderful sounds, birds of numerous varieties and insects chirping, my favourite the lions and tigers roaring. Temperatures reach over forty degrees during the day dropping to below zero at night. An elephant gives me the pleasure of visiting just over the fence behind our cabin. He’s a magnificent bull male with tusks protruding a meter out in front.
We set off on our first game drive. I am both amazed, scared and in total wonderment. I see a jackal first, then zebra, rhinos, springbuck, many birds— glorious sights ingrained in my memory. Next, we see termite mounds meters tall, wildebeests, giraffe, hippos, elephants with a baby calf, mongoose, buffalo, warthogs, peahens, and starlings with their vibrant jade and green feathers. We witness a herd of elephants pull an elephant out of a large hole she had fallen into.
In the rehabilitation shelter, animals recovering from injury or being bred are kept before being released back into the wild. White lions, tigers, and cheetahs are here and orphaned baby monkeys from Brazil. We got to hand feed them.
Thursdays are spent at the local school feeding the children. Other work we do includes clearing fence lines of long grass, vegetation control (chopping down cactus with machetes), mending fences, tree chopping, and road maintenance (breaking up concrete with pickaxes). When needed, we plant plants from the nursery back into the bush, or help count the animals weekly. Fence clearing is frightening because we are amongst the lions roaming, and the electric fence must be disabled. Guides are trained to keep watch for any lions. At a moment’s notice a whistle meant “get your ass in the truck now or be the lion’s lunch.”
I enjoyed helping the local vet the most. We helped tranquilise and capture a lioness. After the vet darts her, it takes ten minutes before she goes down. We wait for the vet to check that she is asleep before loading her into a cage and onto the trailer to be moved to another part of the reserve, to even out the predator/game ratio. A very surreal experience, up close and personal with the Queen of the Jungle. Touching her rough fur and feeling her warm breath. She is much bigger than I expected; one of her paws is the same size as both my hands spread out.
Nine lions from the pride, including a male, are hiding in the bush. I am very aware we are surrounded by all eyes of the jungle. Bones crunch under my feet as I walk across their feeding grounds to the safety of the truck.
My experience working with these animals, the change of pace, Africa’s way of life, the people I met, and conversations I had, all impacted on my thinking, changing my life from here on.
I had the space, quiet, and stillness to hear my heart. I felt happy and connected experiencing my mother’s homeland. I realized how happy I could be, It becomes obvious to me that I have not been happy for a long time. Africa showed me how short life is in the jungle.
Upon landing back in New Zealand I am determined to be happy now not later. I quit my nursing job of eighteen years, completed a Creative Writing Diploma, and went on to write three books about my life, fulfilling my dream of a writing career.
I absolutely recommend this experience to others. Do whatever it takes now to fulfil your dreams and never stop dreaming.
© 2021 Elise Brooke
Elise Brooke grew up in Hawkes Bay NZ and now lives in the beautiful east coast Gisborne. She has written and published two autobiographies in her book series, “The New Zealand Dream,” under the pen name Sheila. She wrote these books to inspire and give hope to others. Her passion is creative writing in the genres of fiction, non-fiction, poetry and online content. Her website is https://www.mynzdreamblog.com.