Before I became a safari guide I was a mechanic on one of the Platinum mines in the Limpopo province of South Africa. At different stages, during my apprenticeship, I was placed at one of the declines. That is where you drive Underground instead of going down in a cage in a shaft. At one point I was on night shift. starting work at 10 p.m. And finishing at 6 a.m. I really didn't mind it, there were no "bosses" around and most of the time it was just myself my assistant, Ace, a very old Setswana man. We would generally get through our work quite quickly and then wait for a breakdown. This often left us with some idle time, so Ace and I would sit behind the workshop in a small, open piece of veld and talk. Well, mostly Ace used to talk and I used to listen. Ace quite enjoyed talking. :)
I will never forget, one night as we were sat in our usual spot behind the workshop, Ace asked me to sit still and listen, and to tell him what I heard. At first, I was just focused on the artificial sounds around me. The nearby vent shaft or a truck reversing in the distance. But after some more guidance from Ace, to block out the artificial and to focus only on the natural and the immediate, I sat still and listened again. After a while, he told me something that I would not fully understand until later on in my life. He said that if you sit quietly in nature and listen, but really listen, that sometimes you can hear the trees whispering their secrets.
At first, I thought that Ace had finally gone mad. The ramblings of an old man. But the more I have actually sat quietly in places of wilderness, the more I think that there may have been something to what he had said. Now don't get me wrong. I don't think we can actually hear trees Whispering their secrets, rather, maybe, just maybe, in moments like that, our world is finally quiet enough for us to hear what our own heart is saying.
That underlying theme, that nature and more specifically Wilderness experiences are meant to play a much larger, more significant part in our lives, has formed the foundation on which I have tried to build my life and from which I base all of the safari experiences that I guide.
Wilderness. A fairly simple word, but one that blooms into something quite beautifully complex if you delve a little deeper. Authors, philosophers, poets, and conservationists have long struggled to define wilderness. For some, it is a concept, a state of mind, an already fading memory. The Oxford Dictionary defines the word "Wilderness" as an uncultivated, uninhabited, inhospitable region. The WILD Foundation, an organisation dedicated to preserving Wilderness areas, defines "Wilderness" in two ways. As a biologically intact area, in that, the biodiversity of the place maintains its integrity. And, a legally protected, natural area. A friend of mine defines wilderness as not a place but a way of life. Edward Abbey, the American author, said about Wilderness; wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, it is as vital to our lives as water and good bread.
So why do we need Wilderness areas, wilderness connectivity in our rapidly urbanising, technological world? I think each and every one of you reading this knows the answer to that in some form or another. It is simple really. It is because it is good for us, no, it is vital for us. It is vital for our physiological and psychological well-being. A short search will reveal a large and rapidly growing body of scientific evidence, from a variety of different fields and disciplines, that show that direct experiences with nature have tremendous beneficial effects on the health of the human body and mind. With wilder, more authentic, real wilderness areas having a far greater impact than the watered-down and dissolved nature areas that we are more easily exposed to today if we are lucky.
Wilderness areas serve as critical habitats for animal and plant life. They maintain gene pools, sustaining the diversity in all forms of life and provide the backdrop or foundation for the vast macro ecosystems that support and feed ancient global cycles. Today, as we continue to learn more and more about climate change, we are realising that we too are deeply and inseparably connected to nature. We genuinely are all interconnected in a complex web of life, and that the survival of our own species is ultimately dependent on the survival of wilderness areas.
Sadly we are spending more and more time in an electronic world and less and less time in nature. NDD, Nature Deficit Disorder is real in our day and age! With almost half the world's population now living in cities or semi-urban environments. American adults spend more than 11 hours a day watching, reading, listening to or simply interacting with media, according to a study by market research group Nielsen. Approximately 9 hours a day are spent in front of a screen, be it a laptop, tv or a cell phone. And you can be certain that Europeans are not far behind. It is a vicious circle that transcends generations and it is exponentially getting worse. E. O. Wilson, the renowned biologist, believes that humans are born, preprogrammed, with an affinity for nature. A hypothesis he calls biophilia. Sadly though, research is beginning to show that if children do not have the opportunity to explore and develop that biophilia in their early years that biophobia an aversion to nature may take its place.
We need nature. We need nature to be more incorporated into our cities and our continually urbanising lifestyles. We need more parks and trees and flowers. But we also need wild, untainted, natural Wilderness areas. Areas that will provide us with authentic Wilderness experiences. I can talk to you about how important Wilderness connectivity is to us. Many people, more qualified and knowledgeable and influential than I have and will continue to do so, but unless you have had a meaningful Wilderness experience yourself, it will just not be personal enough to have the power to shift your mindset significantly enough to have a profound impact on conservation.