I get out of bed at 4 a.m. I move through my room with an old automation. There was a time in my life as a safari guide when this was how every day started. In the hour before the dawn, when the moon is low in the western sky and the world feels like a place of gentle secrets.
I splash water on my face and notice the gray in the stubble and the thinning hair on the top of my head. I am getting older. I consider how my early life as a safari guide had been a strange initiation into a different type of guiding. I am a kind of flawed mirror, by no means wise or actualized, but willing to be in the endless discomfort of asking “Is this life?” As a coach, I’m always challenging that question.
Putting on the clothes in my closet is like putting on an old version of myself. Faded khaki pants, a thick worn Teesav ranger shirt, the Veldskoens with different-colored laces that I have worn all over the African continent. The person who used to wear these clothes seems long gone, and yet he is standing in this room. I reach for my old tracking stick with a clubbed top, my knife, and my old leather hat. Anyone who goes regularly into the bush has a routine to their departure made of the things they carry with them into the unknown.
Outside, the darkness is lit by kerosene lanterns, and in the clear cold morning air they flicker with an old familiarity. I drive in darkness from my house to Alex’s, through the small village of Londolozi. Alex is one of the best trackers in southern Africa, ten years older than me, close enough to get into trouble together, old enough to guide me out of it. A true friend and mentor.
The thatched cottages are still and silent. It is before even the safari guides have begun to stir and prepare for their day.
Alex’s house is on the outskirts of the village, which seems appropriate. He lives on the fringe where civilization gives way to wilderness. His house is positioned at the limits of his tolerance for the domestic.
Alex is a paradox. He grew up first in wealth and then in poverty. He was fourteen when his family lost everything, and he told me he could recall a time when he had been so hungry he had waited for a chicken to lay an egg so he could eat. At other times, he hunted rabbits on the lawn of the local inn across from his home, much to the dismay of the local innkeeper. He lived between that reality and the reality of one of the country’s top boarding schools paid for by friends and family. There was inside him both a well-educated boy and a poacher. It was this paradox of his psychology that made him a successful tracker.
Alex lived by his wits. He had known an empty belly and was opposed to any authority that was not his own. He had arrived in the bush as a green nineteen-year-old from the coast with a single knowledge inside himself: that this was where he belonged.
His entry into the safari industry had been born of single-minded tenacity. After failing the ranger training course, he refused to leave the lodge. He took a job painting an ablution block and doing other camp chores for months before he was allowed back into the training for another go. He has been here ever since.
When the door opens, Alex appears dressed for a winter’s morning. He is short and stocky with a crooked smile and large expressive blue eyes. He wears a woolen hat on his head pulled up like a cone and slightly off to one side. He gives off an air of pending mischief.
Although Alex is white, the position of his hat is characteristically Shangaan. The Shangaan are a Bantu tribe of hunter-gatherers and traders who have lived for generations in the wild territories between South Africa, Mozambique, and southern Zimbabwe. With their curious sense of humor and flair, the Shangaan people have a seemingly endless gift for wearing hats with comic originality. The hat is the jump-off point for a full Shangaan greeting.
“Uri yini mgedeze?” he asks. What do you have to say, untouchable one?
“Avuxeni majombaan,” I say. Good morning, small boots.
“U vuyile I khale ndzi nga ku voni.” You have come back. Long time I haven’t seen you.
Alex is a superb linguist, and his understanding of the Shangaan language has allowed the thought patterns and outlook of the Shangaan people deep into his being.