It is dark. Pitch dark.
A tall man of the Tsonga people called Amos has driven me two miles out from my camp at Timbavati, a reserve adjacent to Kruger park. After our bumpy journey the jeep comes to a stop at the foot of a ladder. I shine my torch up and see a simple platform built in a tree. I will call this home for the coming night.
My possessions are limited to a toothbrush, a book and a warm sweater. Amos follows me half-way up the ladder, puts a radio in my hand and makes me test it. While he climbs down, he shines a torch into his own face and looks me straight in the eye. He smiles but his voice is serious: "Whatever you do, don't come down!”. I closely listen to the rumble of the jeep disappearing, until I can hear it no more. I am alone.
This is my third night on the African continent and I am completely by myself in the wilderness.
Surely, hadn’t I been longing for an experience like this? And didn’t the manager of the lodge assure me the treehouse was safe? Well yes, one of the guides had told me in colourful words how a few years ago they had found a leopard in the bed of this same treehouse. But I need not worry, it had been completely rebuilt since then to make it leopard-proof. Right.
I realise I should have inquired about the snake-proof part.
I drop down the shutter of the treehouse and firmly lock it. I look around.
There is a bed made for me, covered with a mosquito net. It looks very inviting, but I highly doubt I will have the guts to go to sleep. There is a small chemical toilet that I can’t get to flush, a can of mosquito repellent and a box of tissues.
The only other thing there is a bench. So I sit down on it.
I gaze out and wait. Slowly my eyes start adjusting to my surrounding shadowy world. The new moon is rising and I distinguish a water hole in front of me and thick bush behind me. But more than my eyes, my ears start coming alive with a wide array of unknown sounds. My heart beats loudly, so I have to focus.
After about 20 minutes, through the rich carpet of sound I hear something that makes my hair stand on end. It is a soft sound, but it is clearly approaching. I immediately stand up and look out over the waterhole. Nothing there. Then I turn around and from the egde of the bush I dimly see a huge creature coming my way.
How amazingly soft its feet touch the sandy banks of the waterhole, while it pursues a clear direction to quench its thirst.
A few meters away from my high abode, the elephant halts. It lifts its trunk up and searches the air, then points directly at me. I can’t believe I have been noticed by this magnificent animal. I am no longer alone here.
I know the elephant is just getting my scent, but to me it feels like a greeting, a glorious welcome to South-Africa. I watch in silence and stretch my hand out. My own trunk, so to speak, to extend a greeting in return.
After what seems a long precious while, it continues its course towards the water hole, drinks and splashes water around, before slowly heading back into the bush.
I stay on my bench for a little longer.
Reading the book I brought along is out of the question. But as I keep staring out, another book comes to my mind that I’ve red quite a while ago. Jack Turner’s The Abstract Wild.
In it he explores the question: “How wild is our wilderness?”.
In many of my own experiences I have reluctantly agreed with his conclusion: 'Not very wild', as we have accepted bit by bit and over many generations a heavily diminished wild. But here in the African treehouse, it seems a different question is more appropriate: 'How wild does this wilderness feel?'.
With a mostly sleepless night ahead of me, followed by an early awakening from the lions roar close by, I only have myself to answer to: Wild !