The Pilanesberg game preserve in South Africa sits on a volcano that imploded millions of years ago before there was anyone around to understand time. It forms a large circle somewhere between the city of Johannesburg and the Botswana border, marked by mountains, hills, valleys, and open spaces—geographic entrails coughed up from the inward heave.
During the rainy season, everything turns green and tuberous; in the dry season, sun-baked, hard, yellow; so that there is a constant shift between green and yellow, wet and dry, give and take. Watering holes appear and disappear. Skies scatter into cloudless blue, then gather into towering thunderheads. Gullies and washouts scar the red dirt tracks. The animals, no stranger to cycles, breathe deeply and usher newly dropped young into rhythms determined long ago in some tectonic age.
Scrubby bushes hide sprawled lions, bellies swollen with a kill. Tall grasses are crushed underfoot by marauding rhinos. Hippos surface, spouting mud, then sink again. Herds of wildebeest, impala, and zebra roam the hill sides. They are often seen together in threes, compatible species who have learned to travel, sleep, and eat together, and warn each other when danger is close. Giraffe stand motionless in all their strange alien beauty, staring without concern across the valley, unaffected by the things we believe to be true.
And the elephants. These lumbering creatures, touchable and yet completely untouchable. Matriarchal families with complex and rigid social structures, belying uniquely human emotions, carry a deep sadness that comes from their unwanted collision with our desires. And yet they are full of life, with their happy trotting babies and their show-off youngsters, their grumpy old men and their great wise women, relentless in their stewardship, keepers of tradition. They walk in packs along the side of the road, their soft, soulful eyes looking away in search of peace as voyeurs snap pictures. We wonder how they could ever be angry. We forget all the many reasons why.
Everywhere the smaller, near-invisible, less glamorous members of the bush go about their business unnoticed. Chameleons cling to tree branches. Turtles scuttle under foot. Birds flit, dive, twitter. Bull frogs sing their guttural vibrations at pond’s edge, calling for suitable mates. Snakes lie coiled in the shade. Termite mounds disguise entire ecosystems of plumbing and venting, workers and queen.
Even the plant life in Pilanesberg hums with purpose. Thorny trees make a sharp tangle for an unsuspecting traveler but are food for giraffes who can digest the thorns. A particular leaf oozes a white latex that causes violent illness in humans but helps rhinos with upset stomachs. Camphor grows in abundance to soothe rashes and bug bites. Mushroom fields provide fertile ground for tree roots. If you know where to look, you can navigate for days the friend-or-foe labyrinth of root and stem, branch and leaf covering the volcanic hills.
Janco was eight years old when he was playing in the cage, scratching near the edge of a patch of grass looking for a snake he wanted that had slid out of sight. He moved slowly and carefully as he had been taught. Nearby was the lioness, Asha, who had nosed through the wire of the fence to her two cubs who were mewling in plaintive voices. Several yards away Janco’s uncle rummaged through the feed bins while down the road his aunt cooked in the house. The day was warm but clouds were already showing on the horizon, which meant it would rain later, maybe around dusk.
He scratched once more at the grass, aware of Asha pausing, looking his way.
An ant scrambled over the top of his shoe and waved its body in the air, in search of food or a fight. He flicked it into the dirt, watched it skitter through the cage. Suddenly he was bored. There were hours left in the day.
He turned to head back to the house.
There was a quick electric parting in the air, the low whoosh of paws on sand and an unearthly growl riding above it. Then all went dark with the impact, a swift and decisive greeting of flesh and claw and bone.
Two months later, he woke up in the hospital to metal in his head and femur, and the pink ropes of scars across his torso and legs. But he was alive and would recover.
Not Asha. Her two cubs were back on the farm, now motherless.
As he healed, as he came back into his body from the dream of confusion and searing pain, everything changed. He had broken the cardinal rule and turned his back on a lion. But in so doing, he would embark on a love affair.
Outside, the rain against our thatched roof sounds like a train. Lightning flashes in the room which darkens again to the triangle of lamplight in the corner. Moths prickle in the mosquito net. The smell of soap from the shower mingles with the rain and wet earth and the smoke from the campfire still on our clothes.
Flash of lightning again, and there—a zebra, staring in, ears cocked. But no. It’s just the rain in insistent stripes down the sliding glass door and the deck chairs beyond and the electric fence.
I wonder what he’s doing now, Janco. Whether he’s with his colleagues, organizing their equipment, consulting maps, reading about a new species of bird. Eating in the dining room. Planning his day off. Sleeping in a narrow bed. Dreaming of the mundane.
I think about how he survived the lion attack when he was a boy, and his face when he spoke of it. How he had made it his mission to learn everything he could about lions and their world, to walk their paths, to study their rituals, to give them the space they required. I think about space, how we think it is ours for the taking.
He drives us out in the mornings and again in the afternoons, stopping the truck every ten yards, full of information and enthusiasm, pointing here, listening there. Soft-spoken, capable, young. Alive. As alive with aliveness as I’ve ever seen another human being. Crisscrossing this old volcano, we who paid money to come here will never, ever understand—not really—but are nevertheless moved to tears at the sight of a lone rhino down in the valley, an elephant trek, the oldest migration of animal to water happening right there in front of us while our hearts beat harder in recognition. We know with despair in our hearts that we have removed ourselves from this ancient dance, and oh how we long to be invited back in.
In the storm, rain coming in sideways, trucks follow each other with headlights on. The procession stops. Guides’ voices crackle to each other over their radios. Janco grabs something on the dashboard, makes sure the truck is in gear. We sit forward, eyes searching in the dark.
Janco says, “Be very quiet and still.”
We hold our breath, hovering.
He shines a point of red light out into the night. Through the rain, we see a beige shape coming closer. The shape is a lion, a male we are told. The lion makes his way, unhurried, between our truck and the one in front of us. Janco keeps the light trained on him. He tells us that the red light does not startle or stress lions, that it’s for everyone’s own good.
For a brief moment, I feel the electric parting in the air as Janco did when he was eight. There is a steel frame around us; a rifle lies across the top of the dashboard within reach. Janco is a trained guide with countless hours of field time under his belt. He has spent nights alone in the bush. He has crept within feet of animals who could end him in one swift movement. He has survived such a movement, still intact. He is in charge of us, this twenty-three-year-old who understands more about the earth and its inhabitants and the stars than we ever will.
But we don’t need the gun or his protection. Fear is not present here. Instead, we watch, bracing against the seats. We have let this creature pass on, undeterred, ungrasped by our wanting, reaching selves. We have achieved something small and yet not insignificant. We have not turned our backs.
The lion disappears into the dark. Up and down the line of trucks, red lights switch off in a gesture of respect. The ceremony is over.
We lie on the bed holding hands, listening to the storm continue. Spent. Undone. Wordless.
We are here, in this place, regardless of name or rule or border, irrelevant to the monuments we have built to ourselves, the systems we blindly uphold, the violence we call just, the concerns we insist are real. We are here, somewhere between earth and sky, with animals who never needed us, and plants who offer without expectation, and storms that rage with cosmic abandon. And that is when we know.
We have come back. Back to the beginning.