Growing up on the farm, I was always out in the fresh air, following my dad around the paddocks, working with the dogs and sheep, keeping a safe distance from the cattle, jumping in icy puddles in the early morning, lying in the long grass in midsummer.
But then I learned to read. (Apparently). Reading and music and schoolwork and sport kept me inside more as I grew, but my younger sister and I still spent a lot of time helping out my dad when we could. In the winter on weekends and during our school holidays I would help my dad deliver hay to the animals in the mornings and evenings, on the crisp, frosty ground. In the late winter, it was time for lambing, and that meant all hands on deck. Summer brought a relaxation, but it was a good time to get on my bike and deliver my dad’s morning or afternoon tea if he was working a long way from the house. Sitting next to him with a cup of tea and biscuit, propped up against a fence post, on a summer day, is a happy memory.
At 17 I left for Bangkok, a city then of 6 million, and I never really lived in the country again. I was introduced to malls, and hanging out at Dunkin’ Donuts with Cee. The country was somewhere I rarely visited, especially once my parents retired and sold the farm. Still, now when I make the occasional trip over the hill into the rural Wairarapa (where some of our best pinot noirs and sauvignon blancs are grown and made), I take a deep breath. My heart rate slows, my head feels clearer, I have this urge to walk and run, and not to go home to the city, as much as I love it here. But the yearning fades and life goes on in the city and I forget the peace that comes to me in the countryside.
So I didn’t realise how much I would love being out in the African bush. The skies are big, and the land bigger. Being out at sunrise and sunset, two of my favourite times of day, was a treat, and I didn’t begrudge the 5 am wake-up calls (despite not being a morning person at all), or the freezing temperatures on the morning drives. On average, we spent about six (often more) hours a day out in the bush. We hunted animals (only with my Panasonic Lumix of course) in our landrover but took time to look at the trees, the insects, the birds and the small animals and even the stars as well as the Big Five or Super Seven. There was no shopping. Dress etiquette (especially at our first lodge) consisted of being warm, practical and comfortable. No matter who we were at home, we all took “bush breaks” – or sometimes “termite mound breaks” – when nature called. Life was very simple.
Usually on a holiday, it takes me a few days to wind down. Work issues whir through my head, and it can take a while to relax. But being out in the bush saw me switch off completely, and almost immediately. We met a lovely Belgian lady, who had done the “safari thing” a number of times before, who said that only in the African bush did she feel that her spirit was fully restored. We learned that she had cancer and maybe not a lot of time left. I met her again in the airline lounge as we were leaving, and said to her that I think now I understand what she means. She beamed delightedly. She was right. There’s no way you can think about work or never-ending and costly house maintenance when nature is all around, hippos are mating in front of you, or lions are fighting over the remains of a wildebeest, or a rhino is only a metre from your vehicle, or an elephant is flapping its ears and running at you, or you’ve almost driven over a dung beetle and his huge pile of dung, or you almost drive into a flock of francolin, or when the sun is setting and the sky turns that African orange. All you can do is breathe in, and out again. Slowly. Calmly. Deeply. Happily.