So I haven’t posted in a month. It has been a difficult month filled with
disappointed hopes, winter illness, a family health scare and a somewhat
overwhelming feeling of disillusionment.
For me, I often have these feelings of overwhelm at this
time of the year. I am beginning to
believe it is the universe’s way of telling me to slow down, pause and take
stock – what is urgent and essential and what can simply wait a little while
until it is addressed. This is seasonal,
cyclical…. And perhaps something I should be able to plan for by now…
It also seems to me at times like these that the only
solution is to reconnect with nature.
Not something I can always act on easily with living in the city but
this year the opportunity to retreat presented and I took it…
Disclaimer: I am about to reveal just how much of a
Professor JRR Tolkien geek I am!
I retreated all the way to the end of the second age of Middle Earth…. It is truly wonderful how much of Middle Earth is easily accessed right here in beautiful Aotearoa/New Zealand. In a little corner of Northland not far from Whangarei I found another little piece of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. To me it felt like the forests at the very end of the Second Age or the very beginning of the Third Age when the Dunedain first establish the Kingdoms of Arnor and Gondor and High Elves still linger in Greenwood the Great. There is a peaceful watching of the Sacred Kingfisher and magic on every path up ahead and around every bend. Magic also sparkles in the song of the waterfall and the trill of the Grey Warbler.
It was cold – the fog rolling in of an evening and a light frost in the morning. Just as it should be this time of year. The perfect space to get back in the natural rhythm of things. A better perspective on the first world problems that brought me to retreat in the first place. A moment to refocus in gratitude at the grace afforded me and mine.
Today is Nelson Mandela’s birthday – 18 July. I chose today to share the story of this incredible woman, Di Wilkinson, because she has chosen to commemorate his birthday in her own amazing way.
I stumbled upon Di Wilkinson’s story on social media.
Hoedspruit, South Africa holds a special place in my heart. I spent many happy school holidays in that
area as a kid. The Drakensberg
Escarpment provides a dramatic backdrop to the mixed bushveld plains that
stretch eastwards. The scenic Blyde
River winds its way through the area bringing the waters from the escarpment
down to these lowlands. Interesting rock
formations abound. This unique mix of
habitats supports a wide variety of flora and fauna. It is a place of orchards – citrus, mango and
macadamia. It is also a place of game
reserves and over the years has become a hub for conservation research and wildlife
rehabilitation. There are a number of
wildlife rehabilitation centres and orphanages in this area. I follow one of them, the Hoedspruit
Endangered Species Centre, on social media.
And this brings me back to Di Wilkinson of The Platter Project.
She is a wonderfully talented artist who produces these
beautiful drawings. Most are inspired by
the wildlife of Southern Africa but as I mentioned at the start, she is
currently sharing a special print with a portrait of the great Madiba.
She “sells” these beautiful pieces – started on platters and is now mostly A3 prints. All the money you pay for her art goes to charity. Specifically charities focused on wildlife conservation, like the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre, and organ donation. A strange combination of causes to support, perhaps, but there is more to her story.
In June 2013 Di was diagnosed with kidney disease. Serious kidney disease requiring dialysis
five hours a day, three days a week.
Miraculously, in May 2018 she found a compatible donor and underwent a
life-saving kidney transplant.
To think of all she has gone through during this time but not she has not given up on life, on her family, on her creativity, on her passion, on community. In fact to still have that generosity of spirit that shares her talent with the world and using it to support lives outside of her own…. Di is a truly an extraordinary woman!
And there will be more to her story too. She will be a partner, a mother, a daughter,
maybe a sister, a friend – all those things that make us who we are. But I suspect if we asked her she would
simply say she was an ordinary woman just trying her ordinary best in space she
I find her creativity spectacular. I find her resilience inspiring. I find her care and generosity moving. I find her “voice” extraordinary.
Be well, Di Wilkinson 💚
Check out her beautiful work on Facebook – The Platter Project or
on Instagram @theplatterproject.
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.
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
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
So we couldn’t get to Gilé to help with the elephant collaring project. But it turns out a new purpose was playing itself
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 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.
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…
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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…