For as long as I remember, during my childhood, we had a dog at home. Different breeds, different sizes. At some point, we even had a horse, a pony, cats and a goat. Safe to say I was taught to love animals. So of course, as soon as I got married and we moved into a house, I wanted a dog. Then, when the kids came, we took a second one. I loved the fact that my kids grew up with pets. At some point, our household even counted 3 people and 4 dogs.
But of course, they grew up in Africa so pets was not all they got to know in the animal kingdom. We took the kids on safari. (The bad looks we sometimes received from tourists in the safari parks is a good point for another blog post.)
I do not need to explain that going on safari is not the same as going to a zoo, not by a long shot. In a safari park or game reserve, your mind needs to make the switch from "there is an animal on the road" to "we put a road through their home". The animal goes about its business and you should not disturb. I once almost missed a bush flight because there was a pride of lions on the road, and going off road is not allowed.
You'd be amazed what you learn about animals when you see them in the wild, and the motivation to listen to a guide or open a book to learn more is immediate. The respect and love just naturally flows from there really.
Guides by the way, are an incredible source of information, and a good example on how to behave when in a park. Also, to humour my kids the guides sometimes asked me what they would love to see and then did their utmost to provide that sighting. They would radio each other and rely on their own knowledge of wildlife and terrain and they very often succeeded, if not always. When my eldest asked to see a cheetah with cubs, I really thought she was pushing it, but he came through and we saw just that. In the Chilean part of Patagonia, I had the same luck and spotted a puma on day 2. Guides also taught us that monkeys are cheeky and will steal your snack if you are not careful, and that elephants do not sweat. To name but a fraction of what I even remember.
Once, I took my girls to Kenya to visit the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, an organisation that operates the most successful orphan elephant rescue and rehabilitation program in the world. There, you can witness the feeding of baby elephants, spend some time with them and adopt an ellie of your choice for a fee, which my kids both did.
In South Africa, we went to visit the penguins. The kids were so small, I assumed they hardly remembered but when someone asked them about in their teen years, one of them replied: "I remember they smelled badly". Okay then.
At the shores of lake Tanganyika, I was able to visit a family of chimpansees. Visitors can only go in small groups, and are only allowed to spend one hour around them, while wearing mouth masks - and this in a pre-Corona era. But I cannot describe the experience of making eye contact with a primate and realizing they are extremely similar to us. I can safely say that impact lasts a lifetime. It is still on my bucket list to see the gorillas in Rwanda or Uganda. Some day maybe. Hopefully.
And I deliberatley did my Padi-diving course in order to see sea turtles and tropical fish. I did not expect that I would love diving that much by the way, it is extremely tranquil and relaxing. The fact that you can explore this whole world you hardly know anything about, it was utterly amazing. (But the disgust caused by seeing the damage we do, seeing that people destroy whole coral reefs and overfish the oceans, grows equally.)
I do not want to make you believe it was always sunshine and roses. My dogs chewed more shoes and furniture that I want to recall. Seeing her first kill, made the daughter of very good friends cry. Having a snake in my bedroom, made my heart skip a beat. And I do not even want to remember how often we were (mock)charged by and elephant (and we surely had it coming). And there was that one time we saw a zebra foal of literally some minutes old, umbilical cord still attached, that chased our vehicle thinking we were the mother and we realized 'that little thing won't survive': simply heartbreaking..
Numerous good stories and anecdotes I think of when I reminisce about my time in Africa, have to do with animals. For instance, one time, we stupidly drove between a buffalo and its herd, separating them in the process. We found out this makes the single standing buffalo really aggressive, as he proved to us by running towards us in an attempt to attack our car. I was 7 months pregnant and remember thinking: if that child has PTSD, it is because of this.
We even contemplated giving both our kids a second in Kiswahili. The eldest would have been 'Swala' which is a gazelle, but Axelle gazelle might have been a bit much.
But they do not even have to be impressive, funny or eventful stories to make me homesick, just the recollection of sitting in front of your safari tent at sunset with a gin-tonic, the smell of dry dust on your khakis, while a hyena grunts or a lion roars somewhere in the bush. Bliss. I will vouch for the fact that it changes a person.
And I for one, am glad my kids are African bushbabies. Best gift I could give them.