After taking in the babies to their indoor sleeping enclosure just before sunset each night, we normally rush back to the Mountain Lodge for showers, dinner, and relaxing. Instead, for my last night, as well another volunteer’s, Rebecca aka The Vet, we all walked down to the Olifants River beach with wine and snacks to wind down in peaceful nature. After 10 minutes or so of happy sipping and chatting, we realized we were not alone. Just down the beach and in some bushes we were also joined by 2 male elephants. Our excitement grew as we judged the distance between us. Even remotely close proximity to elephants is not safe, but thankfully we were a safe distance if we remained quiet (and the wind direction did not change). We peered into the eyes of other creatures that call this area home, admitting the subtle wonder in which we are all connected.
It is customary that a volunteer is not on the schedule their last full day at C.A.R.E. The day flew by as I ticked off small projects, took pictures, visited baboons I wanted to talk to, and areas I wanted to sit at and reflect. I felt weird leaving C.A.R.E., mostly overwhelming and confusing.
An 8 hour bus ride later and my 9 weeks of Baboon Living in South Africa came to a close. In Plot 5 of Grietjie Nature Reserve, there exists a small bubble of a community. It is a 40 minute crazy bumpy drive through the bush just to get out of the game park, thus visits into the insalubrious city of Phalaborwa are not frequent. The workdays are long and occur from sun-up to sun-down, 7 days per week. No grocery stores, hiking trails, or restaurants exist in Grietjie; there are no escapes. Long walks outside of C.A.R.E. are not safe: leopards and lions roam the park of their own free will in search of prey. It is just you, other volunteers, baboons, and the bush. Nine weeks of somewhat repressed freedom was not my idea of ‘home,’ yet somehow that is what it became.
Installed in a backpacker’s hostel in Johannesburg, I wondered where I was and what I missed. For starters, the night of arrival Rebecca & I walked to a very close Chinese restaurant for dinner. We purchased some sweets from the shop and walked back carrying them in our hands and eating them. Huge change! Baboons are extremely sexist and do not respect females, and most will attack and/or steal from any female carrying food outdoors, regardless of quantity. Plain and simple, one could not walk out of the house at C.A.R.E. with ANYTHING uncovered in hand; we all became regular under-the-shirt stuffers. I went to bed at 7:45pm on arrival night, and rose at 6:00am, apparently still quite attuned to C.A.R.E. time, just a little bit earlier. That morning I was not awakened to baboon ‘Wahoo’ calls, chattering, screams, playing on the roof, or the stirrings of humans. Instead, I dreamt of baboons and heard Rebecca talking in her sleep!
There were some aspects that did feel very natural; however, and encouraged the reunification of some missing aspects. The backpacker’s is clean, refreshing, tidy, spacious, well-maintained, everything works, great hot water and shower pressure, and electric blankets on the beds. WOW! I have washed my hands at least 5 times in those first 24 hours and finally do not see mounds of dirt swirling around the sink at each wash. I luxuriated in a hot shower and washed my hair with loads of pressure. Double WOW! Apparently I have missed a few ‘modern’ aspects of life.
Now the question is… how will I choose to integrate what I’ve learned and experienced so far in South Africa with my daily life in the States? As I integrate and digest my 9 weeks of baboon, fire, and other life experiences, 4 weeks remain in my journey in South Africa. My discovery continues of this country, the animals, the people, and myself.