Editor’s Letter: What Bush Walking in South Africa Taught Me About FearBy Angelica Malin
Here I was, deep in the bush of Pilanesberg National Park, South Africa, promising to use my bread maker more. It had been sitting in my flat since May, and I’d not even got it out the box yet. £85 that cost me, and a lot of false hope about the prospect of freshly-baked bread in the morning. In fact, I was promising many things: that I’d take up adult gymnastics like I’d been talking about all year, that I’d spend more time with my family, that I’d stop buying things from Amazon, watch more Netflix documentaries and use my social media channels to do more that promote the sale of avocado on toast. You see, I was making a pact with God, if he’d only let me survive this bloody bush walk, I would be better.
I didn’t know what a bush walk was before I found myself on one; I naively thought it would be a gentle walk through nature, looking at the flora and fauna of South Africa’s outback, stopping to admire the trees and the birds. I didn’t, for one moment, realise that it was a walk looking for wild animals on foot – that we would be discovering the big 5, in their own environment, up close and personal. To be fair, I really should have Googled it.
So here I was, in Pilanesberg National Park, with two rangers wielding guns (“just in case, we’ve never had to use them” they re-assured me), searching for lions and leopards. There was no way back; we were deeper into the bush that I’d ever imagined I’d be. I was physically shaking – my hands gave away my vulnerability (“careful” one of the rangers joked, “they can smell fear”) – and I was sweating from places I didn’t know could sweat, like the back of my knees and my inner thighs.
Each step we took, I was sure we were heading closer to death – I could hear the sound of my footsteps intensified by a thousand, each crunch underfoot alerting the animals to our presence. Full disclosure: I’m not really an animal person. I don’t have an Instagram account for my pet, I don’t coo at the sight of cute dogs or crave to live in the countryside and own some chickens. I’m a city girl – a Londoner through and through – and the closest I’ve ever got to wildlife is squirrels in Primrose Hill and watching David Attenborough documentaries. I was way in over my head.
But I made a decision, in that moment, that I could either spend the next 2 hours having a total meltdown or I could put my trust in other people – believe that this outback was their office and they knew what they were doing. In took 30 minutes and lots of deep yoga breathing (silently thanking myself for that expensive annual pass to triyoga I bought) to garner a sense of pleasure in the walk – appreciating that we were in one of the most stunning national parks in the world, surrounded by incredible wildlife, and if I didn’t soak it up, I’d regret it for every more (I was walking with squinted eyes for lots of it). So I stopped looking down at my feet. I stopped wishing it was over. I stopped counting down the minutes in my head. I lifted my eyes up the trees and the birds and into the distance, to the Kudus and the Zebras, and, at once, I felt like bloody Mowgli from the Jungle Book.
Of course, I was all namaste until we actually encountered some animals. It happened with Zebras – we turned a corner, and all of a sudden, we were in a field of around 20 Zebras. We stared at them. They stared at us. We stared back. This went on, a strange game of chicken with some Zebras (sorry). “Do Zebras” charge I asked – everyone laughed at me, “They’re like horses with stripes” the ranger replied. So we kept walking, and the Zebras joined in, walking side-by-side us, like a personal entourage. It was probably one of the most amazing 19 seconds of my life, and I’ll really never forget it.
Once my nerves had calmed sufficiently about Zebra-gate, our next encounter happened. This time, we were searching for Rhinos – and boy did we find them. Four huge, majestic Rhinos by a pool of water, having a great time on a scratching pole, giving their bellies a good rub. It was all going so well, under we got too close for comfort – the Rhinos had got a whiff of our scent in the wind and the male Rhino wasn’t happy, stomping his feet and bucking his head. Apparently male Rhinos are very protective about their ladies, and we’d caused a right domestic. “Allow them to sort their own relationship issues out” the ranger said, “it’s all about respecting the animals”. We retreated backwards, like an awkward girl band in single file, our hearts in our mouths.
That wasn’t all the drama in the bush walk – we scared off Kudus, watched Warthogs race through the forest, saw the circling of crows (a sign that a lion had had his lunch of Aardvark) and identified the tracks of where the elephants had walked. The bush walk was the closest I’d ever been to nature, and my eyes couldn’t take it all in. I was having such a wonderfully romantic time, that I’d totally forgot to feel scared anymore. The bush had transported me somewhere totally new and I emerged like a new person, willing to see the world in technicolour.
Bush walking in South Africa taught me so much; in the space of 2 hours, I felt like I’d developed more as a person than my whole time at university, drinking cider and watching Disney films with a raging hangover. You see, fear clarifies things in your mind. I thought of all the things I wanted to achieve in my life – the ones I’d been to scared to say out loud, for fear of failure or judgement. Like how I wanted to be on stage more, hosting events and bringing people together. And, gosh, dare I say it out loud – I wanted to be on screen – on television, presenting. Once you’ve got it into your head that you might not have a chance to do these things, it really does propel you forwards. I came back to London with new energy, zeal and enthusiasm, to make my life the best it could be. Ironically, fear of death chased away fear of failure, for me.
The other thing I learnt is that fear is just one side of the coin – the flipside, of course, is trust. I realised that once you place your trust in other people – their abilities and knowledge – then there’s really nothing to fear at all. I trusted our rangers, and once I put my trust in their hands, my own clammy fear disappeared. So next time you’re questioning whether to go out of your comfort zone – whatever that might mean to you – give it a go, you might be surprised where you end up. Next time you wonder ‘what if’, my advice would be: feel the fear, and do it anyway.
For more information about South Africa, see here.