Like wine, appreciating the wild may be something that gets better with age.
I have a confession. As a youngster, I hated going to the bushveld. I found it boring and monotonous and never understood why we’d have to stop the car every five minutes to watch lugubrious beasts eat grass. What more was there to see once you’d spotted them? Family trips to the Kruger felt like punishment; like being made to stand in the corner of a classroom. Except the classroom was an endless veld where nothing ever happened and the corner was a car window, with Billy Joel’s ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’ blaring from the speakers because my dad thought it made ruminating giraffes look like they were lip-synching. It made me wonder who did start that fire and if I could persuade them to start one where I was so we’d be forced to go home where I could race my best friend Steven to the mall on my 18-speed Raleigh bicycle.
When you’re 12 ‘the elders’ don’t care about your bicycle gang or that it’s Laureen from Dingle Road’s birthday on Saturday and she told Natasha who told Steven that she might slow-dance with you in her garage if you asked her. And that’s why I found myself in Swaziland’s Malolotja Nature Reserve with my grandparents on a weekend when I really wanted to be somewhere else.
If I thought Kruger was tedious, Malolotja was Test-match cricket. There was so little going on there we didn’t even have to stay in the car. This was
a place for walking, Grandpa declared, and I spent my Saturday plodding along behind his long socks, past stupid cycads and sneezing blesbok while Laureen was probably hanging balloons in her garage. The only highlight was a visit to Piggs Peak Hotel and Casino where there was a restaurant and a pool with a bar inside it and bright, flashing machines that ate money. Why weren’t we staying there? I got home and learnt Laureen had slow-danced with someone else, and I lied and said it didn’t matter because I’d been away gambling and drinking cocktails from a bar you could swim to and I never mentioned that miserable reserve at all.
A few weeks ago, on a road trip with journalist Ondela Mlandu (page 49), I visited Malolotja for the first time since. The cabins have taken a dive but the landscape was exactly the same. Except it was different. It was beautiful, and alive! The grass swayed, lithe zebras grazed with hulking elands and the sun filtered through the spines of large cycads. Warblers danced in the breeze, sugarbirds showed off their plumage and dassies commandeered the bows of rocks as if they were frigates and they were their furry captains. Blesbok were still sneezing.
It made me think of a letter that a reader sent in (Is this the lost generation? page 12), lamenting our youth’s lack of interest in nature reserves. I don’t know when I first really fell in love with the bush, but I do know that sometimes you can only appreciate real beauty when you’re ready. And now those memories of being in the wild with my family shine brighter than any mall or pool bar or flashing money-eating machine ever could. And I’m endlessly grateful they kept making me go.
Read more from this story in the May 2017 issue of Getaway magazine.
Our May issue features the ultimate guide to Addo, free things to do in your city, a photographic getaway to South Luangwa and how to get the best of Nepal.