Thursday, March 14, 2024


 Michael - Alternate Thursdays

When I'm at Olifants River Game Reserve, I feel I'm at a place where I'm at home. That isn't really true, because I am, and always will be, a visitor. I've written about this before, but somehow the idea keeps coming back to me when I'm here.

A view of the bungalow I share with two partners overlooking the Olifants River

Olifants River Game Reserve is part of a group of game reserves open to the Kruger National Park. Its huge attraction is that the Olifants River, one of the few true perennial rivers of southern Africa, flows through it. The river is the center of life in the game reserve, because water is always the center of life.

There are always new things to see. They may be small things like fruit moths flocking to the dinner table to share the red wine or large things like elephants enjoying the river. This week the river in front of the bungalow is home to a mother hippo with the smallest baby I've ever seen. It was too far away for a picture but wonderful to see the near new-born trying to scramble onto its mothers head in the water. Her head was easily big enough! A hippo is born under water, tossed up to the air for its first breath by the mother, and thereafter its eyes and nose covers immediately close so that it can submerge again and suckle.

Buffalo coming to drink across the river from the bungalow

But this piece isn’t about seeing wonderful things in the African bushveld.  It’s more about how I feel in this natural area and about what these sorts of places mean to me. I’m not talking about conservation imperatives to which we all subscribe – preserving nature for diversity and future generations and so on.  I’m talking about what it means to me personally to experience this environment and to be part of it.

Of course, we are all visitors.  No matter if we come once for a couple of weeks or if we’re here for months every year.  We have other priorities.  Families, friends, jobs.  These things – for most of us – are concentrated in large towns or cities, so that is where we need to spend most of our time.  In the bush we now live with electricity, vehicles, appliances, cell phones, the internet.  This is hardly raw nature.

The elephants turn

So what draws me back here?  Of course, it includes the wonderful animal and bird life, but the complex interconnections of the systems are endlessly fascinating.  Huge blobs of elephant dung at dawn are sifted pancakes by dusk as dung beetles convert it to an incubator for their eggs and a nursery for their grubs.  (Watch for them rolling balls to a suitable burial place as you drive; a neighboring reserve has a welcome sign reading “Dung Beetles have Right of Way.”)  Caterpillars are hosted and fed by ants for the sweet juices they exude.  In the soft sand below our deck is a minefield of conical antlion holes waiting for unwary ants.  It’s not all feel good.  A baby impala is wonderfully cute but at the bottom of the fauna food chain.  Then, there is a low chance of catching malaria.  Bad luck, bad timing.  Pretty much how you get injured in a car accident in a city.  (There aren’t too many of those here.)

I suppose most people’s personal feel for history is related to their parents, grandparents, great grandparents and so on.  For me, to be in a place like this is to experience the Africa of the past.  It makes these things meaningful to me in a way that no historical description can.  The African bush speaks to me about my mother’s grandfather who was a missionary from Belgium to what was then the rural Transvaal, and of my father’s great grandparents who took part in the Great Trek in ox wagons to the north of the country.  And it reminds me always of my mother who spent the happiest times of her life in wild Africa.

A relaxed leopard

I assume that most people feel this sort of connection with their physical, historical, and natural environment.  I can’t imagine that it matters if it’s the African bush, a forested lake in the backwoods of Minnesota, the Australian outback, or (insert your favorite natural place).  I think these areas hold us and remind us where we came from.  I never want to lose this link to what southern Africa was and still is.  Even though I remain a visitor.


  1. I love this post, Michael, and find it so true, at least for me. I have two "adopted landscapes" that I always go back to and, visitor or not, are always on my reasons to live list.

  2. Thanks, Wendall. A reasons to live list? Sounds a bit scary!