The Extraordinary Voices of Ordinary Women

In 2007 I spent a year in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park as a SANParks People and Conservation volunteer intern based at Twee Riveiren.

It’s difficult to put the isolation of this spectacular place in words but the experience of living in the Kalahari has been one of the most profound of my life.  My time in the Kalahari inspired the name of this blog – Pure Spaces.  Spaces/places have such significance for me.  The way they make me feel, the energy they give affects me emotionally and often spiritually. The space that is the Kalahari would definitely fall in the spiritual category.  And my name means “pure”.  So there you go…

What you quickly learn in a place like this is how important your small community is, you rely on each other for support, for companionship.  You have to get along because you don’t have a choice.  In my case the small community within the slightly bigger Park community were the residents of Blikkiesdorp (Tin Can Town).  Our lodgings being converted shipping containers.  Let’s pause for a moment to let that fact settle – a shipping container room in the Kalahari Desert!

So Blikkiesdorp, our little area of the staff accommodation of Twee Rivieren rest camp, was home to me, the intern, and two students studying Nature Conservation from Tshwane University.  Occasionally the field guides would visit for a braai.  But mostly it was just the three of us.  A resident cheetah researcher and his wife adopted me as did the border policeman and his wife which meant a welcome break from Blikkies for a yummy meal or even the luxury of watching a little television.

Don’t get me wrong though, I grew very fond of Blikkies as the year progressed and it brought out some very creative “decorating” in me.

Here is where I need to introduce Kerryn, one of those students I mentioned earlier.  A petite, feisty girl absolutely passionate about wildlife conservation.  Kerryn and I clicked almost immediately.  I say almost because she admits based on meeting my predecessor, she was determined NOT to like me.  But it seems our common love of the band Smashing Pumpkins broke the ice!  There is a good 10 year age gap between us, but I quickly began to admire her, particularly her determination to succeed in a (still to this day sadly) male dominated field of work.  I am thrilled to say that we remain very close friends today even with the many miles that separate us.

It started with Kerryn, this kernel of an idea.  By the time I had spent time getting to know Margie, the researcher’s wife, and Isabel, the policeman’s wife, as well women of the Khomani San community, I was overwhelmed by these extraordinary women I was meeting and the stories I was hearing.  None of them would describe themselves as extraordinary.  Most of their “voices” weren’t the voices of activists or feminists.  They were just ordinary women blooming where they were planted – creating, nurturing, learning, growing, caring, loving in that very unique way women do.

I have to share these “voices”, I thought.  Their stories deserve a place in the sun.  So here I am all these years later beginning this journey… I finally seem to have found my courage, to have found my voice.  This is the introduction to what I hope will be a series of posts over the coming months – the extraordinary voices of ordinary women.

Journey with Purpose: The Bigger Picture

What is the significance of finding your tribe?  You are in your element, time stands still leaving your open heart to soak up all you are experiencing, really seeing the people in front of you and really hearing their stories.  There might be no other purpose to this than for those people to be seen, to be heard.  But it could be that in this flow you are being given access to knowledge and understanding which moves you forward on your path.  For me those 14 days on our Journey with Purpose was the latter.  I feel compelled by all I have seen and heard to champion these stories, to spread the word about the incredible work of these passionate individuals working for wildlife and community.

Now I love nothing better than seeing the “bigger picture” and some of you reading will know how I love a good map!  And I didn’t see this straight away as we progressed through our itinerary, but I think I see it now…. What connects all our conservation and community stories from this expedition together is the increasing collaboration and building towards recognising the increasing value of Transfrontier Conservation Areas (TFCAs).

The Dream! Map source: https://www.peaceparks.org/about/the-dream/

Here is where I mention the Peace Parks Foundation.  Their single purpose is “to restore a tomorrow for life on Earth”.  Their dream – “to reconnect Africa’s wild spaces to create a future for man in harmony with nature.”  What does that look like in action?  Helping, guiding, supporting, facilitating TFCAs.  Creating a hub for a conservation collective in a particular region.  This hub transcends national borders and helps take these seemingly small, individual actions and bringing them together – the dragonfly effect

Jennifer Aaker and Andy Smith are a husband and wife team who have applied what they term the dragonfly effect to using social media to affect social change.  Their book – The Dragonfly Effect: quick, effective and powerful ways to use social media to drive social change –  is an interesting read.  They talk about the dragonfly being the only insect to move deftly in any direction when all four wings work in unison.  This effect is similar to the ripple effect and is used in sociology, psychology and economic circles to show how small actions can create significant change.  While their focus is the use of social media, I think the effect applies to the situation I am describing here.

Greater Limpopo TFCA. Map source: https://www.peaceparks.org/tfcas/great-limpopo/

Our JWP01 South expedition took us into two significant TFCA areas – the Greater Limpopo TFCA and the Lubombo TFCA.  The people we got to meet and spend time with, the projects we got a little glimpse of on our journey were some of these small pieces working to their strengths and their passions.  Placed in the bigger picture of the TFCA landscape there is more than a little hope of significant, lasting change both for wildlife and wild spaces as well as the human communities coexisting here.

Lubombo TFCA. Map source: https://www.peaceparks.org/tfcas/lubombo/

For me this sort of hope is especially inspiring as I am on my own journey where I am currently planted to demonstrate how this dragonfly effect can work for conservation and community upliftment anywhere in the world.

Journey With Purpose: Finding A Tribe

A map of the original journey. Our itinerary had to change after Cyclone Idai hit the Mozambique coast in March 2019.

It’s been a month since one of the most profound travel experiences of my life so far began.  For my last blog post on May 4th I couldn’t even find the words I was so excited about the upcoming adventure and so just posted a pic of a recent painting.  But here I am at the other end of it and still processing. And while I have been posting photo highlights in Instagram @dragonfly.travelling, it is taking time to reflect in writing.

In the days since I got home and back into my “life as usual” routine, I have also spent a lot of time writing about this journey.  This writing has been with the hope of being published on a few different travel platforms that help champion Blue Sky Society’s Journeys with Purpose.  Now that task is mostly complete, I have time to shift focus to reflecting in my Pure Spaces way.

To be honest I did not have any real expectations about this trip.  Rare for me but I decided to just be in the flow of the moment, so utterly grateful for an opportunity to set foot on African soil again.

Now as I continue to reflect on these past weeks, I am starting to put pieces of a much bigger picture together.  I have decided the universe works in some mysterious ways. It will take a couple of posts over the coming weeks to show what I mean by this.

Let’s start with introducing Carla Geyser, the founder of the Blue Sky Society Trust.  The organiser and leader of our expedition and the brains behind Journeys with Purpose. In 2016 I’d read about the Elephant Ignite Expedition, the first of Carla Geyser’s epic African journeys – an all-female crew travelling 10 000 km through 10 African countries raising money for conservation NGOs, raising awareness for the plight of African wildlife and raising the profile of women working with wildlife.  At the time I wrote in the margin of my journal “blue sky society trust”.  Then life happened.  Fast forward to November 2018 and Carla opens applications for JWP01 May 2019 – fundraising for Elephants Alive and the expedition being to collar elephants in Gilé National Reserve, Mozambique.  Without hesitation I applied.

On 15 March 2019 Cyclone Idai hit the Mozambique coast making landfall at Beira and causing devastation up and the down the coast as well as inland.  JWP01 going ahead in May seemed doomed.  But Carla got straight onto Plan B and JWP01 South eventuated.

I now have the honour of calling Carla a friend and kindred spirit.  Sharing the road with her, Dora and the rest of our small crew was infinitely rewarding and so so much fun.  And that is saying something for this introverted wanderer who travels alone most often.

Dora is Carla’s 22 year old TDi Defender short wheelbase landy well kitted out and beautifully branded with her pink accessories.  She has oodles of character just like proud “mom”, Carla. 

JWP01 South Day 1 – Dora & Charles at OR Tambo International Airport, Johannesburg

So we couldn’t get to Gilé to help with the elephant collaring project.  But it turns out a new purpose was playing itself out…

And so on a cool, clear May day five adventurous ladies set out on an overland expedition to visit some out of the way places in north eastern South Africa, northern eSwatini and southern Mozambique over 14 days.  Our Journey with Purpose was to immerse ourselves in the African bush to soak up some Mama Africa time…. Oh so good for the soul!

The next 14 days held so many delightful wildlife moments and new landscapes to explore. The mixed bushwillow plains around the Hoedspruit area with its stunning escarpment backdrop providing dramatic vistas at every turn.  The autumn colours of the Mopane bush around the Letaba area in Kruger National Park.  The top of the world rocky outcrops of the Lebombo Mountains in eSwatini.  The coastal plains, undulating grassy dunes and tangled forest of the Maputo Special Reserve in Mozambique.  The clear, blue waters of Maputo Bay edged in mangrove.  We saw so many species – insects, reptiles, birds and of course all the iconic mammals.  Special moments with elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion and leopard, spotted hyena, giraffe, zebra, impala, nyala, kudu, hippo, a pod of endangered humpback dolphins and so much more.  I think our leopard count was 5!  The one lion sighting was this lioness up a tree!  For me the rhino sightings were extra special as they are my spirit animal.  I think Cat was okay with our cat count as they are her favourites.  Remke loved the ellies and the monkeys.  And I think Carla and Bella got a kick out of everything wild we saw.  All of us aware of the privilege to encounter this wildlife at all.

A stunning moment with this beauty who took very little notice of us as she went about her day.

I felt so at home travelling with these amazing women from the very beginning.  If I had any trepidation in the lead up to a trip like this it would be how five strangers would get along in such close quarters.  I don’t think that was a problem for us at all.  In fact it was the evening of day 3 and we were sitting round the fire at the end of an incredible day in the bush tracking elephant when I voiced to the group that I felt I was among my tribe.  That evening proved quite profound for me.  A feeling of absolute peace like I haven’t felt since I was a child.  Feeling truly at home and among my tribe.  And all this to the soundtrack of the Fiery-necked Nightjars and the calls of the Black-backed Jackal.  Bliss…

The Tribe from left Remmie, me, Bella, Cat and Carla outside the Elephant Museum, Letaba Camp, Kruger National Park

Valuable

Duomo Firenze
Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence, Italy, 2006

I have been privileged enough to stand inside and outside this particular cathedral twice in my life. It is a mind-fumblingly incredible experience – the grandeur, the history, the craftsmanship, the creativity of humankind. And this is just one example. I have had similar thrills in castles in Scotland, exploring the Roman Forum and Colosseum in Rome … and standing outside Notre Dame de Paris.

Over a billion dollars raised for the rebuild after the Notre Dame fire in just two days … I am floored. What does this say about how we place value as a collective? Is it because a rebuild like this is in our control? We can clearly see where the money will go, assured of the outcome?

Morning Light on the Savanna, 2010

My creativity is sparked by Nature. I want Nature, my muse, to stay around for many, many generations to come. Intrinsically valuable and infinitely inspiring just because it is.

I think my concern for the natural world is shared by many other humans including the likes of Sir David Attenborough, Leonardo DiCaprio, Dr Jane Goodall and the delightful Greta Thunberg. It seems even with this calibre of activist we cannot raise $1 billion in two days to put towards restoring Earth?

The conservationist

Very introspective at the moment…. a middle age thing perhaps? Today I have been thinking about the label “conservationist”. I have thought of myself as a wildlife conservationist since I was probably 10 or 11 years old.

At 3 maybe 4 years old, sitting on the back steps by the kitchen door looking out over this part of the Highveld that would one day soon be taken over by the southern suburbs of Johannesburg.  Our house was one of the first in the new subdivision, still surrounded by the grassland and mixed acacia bushveld typical of this area.

It’s May on the Highveld and everything is tinder dry.  A black patchwork shows where the veld fires have been this season in the Klipriviersberg Nature Reserve just across the road from our house.  Walking through one of these patches bits of burnt grass crackling underfoot.  Then the dull thud of footsteps on dry, baked red earth.  But always life – the titter of a group of red-faced mousebirds in the acacia, the screech of the fiscal shrike, the various species of dove cooing, the flash of red from the black collared barbet darting by, a rustle in the grass maybe a snake or the flash of a tail as a mongoose disappears deeper into the bush and, of course, the black-shouldered kite sitting on the powerline surveying all.

As I got older we ventured further afield, driving during family holidays to protected spaces to witness this life, to immerse ourselves in it temporarily.  The most natural thing in the world, where else would you want to just BE? Kruger National Park, the Soutpansberg, the Drakensberg, Umfolozi, Mkuze, Karoo National Park, Tsitsikama National Park to name a few.

By the time I was a teenager being back at home in the big smoggy city felt strained.  I felt cut off from the natural world where I belonged.  Even in a city like Johannesburg where the wildness of Africa still finds its way in to the urban space, I still felt uneasy. And so I came to understand the fragmentation of wild spaces and how I would want to spend the rest of my life speaking for the voiceless.

What a strange journey it has been and continues to be… my conservationist journey.  It certainly hasn’t been a linear career path and there have been many times when I thought I had lost my way completely.  Thinking how could where I am and what I am doing right now possibly be about following my passion.  But what I have realised recently is that every apparent detour I have had along the way has equipped me with a rather unique world view.

It quickly became clear that my work was not going to be that of the traditional conservation ecologist.  I have had to come to terms with the educator within.  To work through the discomfort I feel as an introvert to relate to people of all ages and stages in the course of sharing one all important message – wild lives and wild spaces matter.

The upshot of all this is that the model of conservation I was immersed in as a child is no longer valid, if it ever was.  We cannot hope to make a difference for wildlife and wild spaces by putting fences up and keeping human communities out of the picture.  Wildlife conservation should be an everyday practice for all of us wherever we find ourselves on this planet.  We need to learn to live in harmony with the other living beings we share this planet with.

Sometimes in my more selfish moments I think over the incredible moments I have had in wild spaces and those magical close encounters with elephant, hippo, leopard, and cheetah – wild ones in wild habitat.  Not ones that I had to pay an awful lot of money for in a contrived 5 star luxury safari setting.

But more often I want people to have these sorts of magical encounters with wildlife in their own backyards so to speak.  Let it be a normal, everyday occurrence – reconnecting humanity back with nature.

These days my original passion for wildlife conservation feels closer, my course more true…. My journey as a conservationist continues…

Part of the journey – no entry road, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, 2007

Ubuntu

A Zulu proverb referencing our humanity and connection to others

I have always loved this word – Ubuntu – the philosophy and the worldview behind it.

Here is a little reflection one month out from my upcoming African adventure.

I am not sure of a lot of things but one thing I am definitely sure of is that we are all connected. We impact each other every day for good or ill.

What I find particularly profound about Ubuntu is there is still room for individuality within this human story. To me this means that my actions count. Who I am and what I do makes a difference and is significant in the greater scheme of things. How empowering! This gives me hope in the face of all the tragedy and heart ache I see every day.

Taking this idea one step further I like to think of “we” as all the other living beings we share the planet with. I believe we are connected also. And while some groups of humans have not figured this out yet, I can be a voice for the voiceless. That tends to be what gets me out of bed in the morning, heading to work to teach conservation education to the next generation. A very urbanised, disconnected next generation.

And so I have been led to connect with people like Carla Geyser, founder of the Blue Sky Society Trust and organiser of the Journey with Purpose expedition I am embarking on in a month’s time. Here is woman who by her actions and what she has chosen to do believes in the power of Ubuntu. Definitely a kindred spirit!

Due to the ongoing effects of Cyclone Idai in Mozambique, our itinerary has had to change. We will head further south. The original collaring project in Gile National Reserve will hopefully go ahead later in the year.

I also follow Dr Michelle Henley on social media through the work she does with Elephants Alive. Here is another individual dedicated to wildlife conservation but not leaving humanity out of the picture.

Obviously much of the focus in my news feed will be about my beloved corner of Mama Africa and the amazing individuals dedicating their lives to helping wildlife as well as communities of humans in this part of the world.

But I also work with passionate conservationists everyday. Check out this link to an amazing wildlife experience in Sumatra. The incredible woman who put this together is also a wife, mom, team leader, field conservationist and all round inspirational human being!

And I could go on and on with examples of humans who work everyday on the assumption of Ubuntu… our individual actions bringing us together, uniting us in our efforts to make the world a better place.

What I love about this is that conservation of wildlife and wild places can no longer be seen to separate humanity from the picture. We have to take this journey together, learn to live in harmony not just with each other but with all the species we share the planet with. It is a huge responsibility and we cannot see the kindness and compassion it takes as a weakness.

I will finish off with a mention that the fundraising efforts continue, even though the itinerary has changed. And again, I do know that we are all saturated with requests for money for a million different good causes… but maybe this one speaks to you? A bit of Ubuntu