Another fork in the branch of the ziziphus

In the Zulu and Swazi cultures in particular, Ziziphus Mucronata or the Buffalo Thorn tree is strongly associated with burial and death. It is said that if someone dies far from home, a twig from the tree, which is rather uniquely covered with both a curved, backward facing thorn and a straight forward facing thorn at each growth node, must be taken to fetch the body before a burial. The backward facing curved thorn is said to capture the soul of the deceased, and in that way bring it back home with the body. At the funeral the twig is buried with the casket and the straight thorn then points the way to heaven. Where no body has been located, the twig alone is brought back and symbolically buried alone.

The Buffalo Thorn can however also be associated with life. Each of those young twigs make multiple turns, zigzag-ing as it grows. In that way it represents the choices and multiple forks in the road we face in life. At each zig and zag a set of the mismatched thorns grows. The curved thorn that points backwards then reminds us of the past and all that has come before us and the straight thorn points us to the future and all that is yet to come. In the buffalo thorn tree that represents your life you will go through many of these junctions in the branches, representing personal growth, and at each one it pays well to stop and heed what both the thorns are trying to tell you.

I came to one of those junctions recently. Well, more precisely my journey may have started more than 3 years ago when I set myself the goal of visiting all the SanParks National Parks in South Africa by the end of 2018. I came close by the way. But somewhere along the way, possibly driving the back roads of South Africa very early on, I decided to pursue training as a field guide. I got a few brochures from various training institutes but all of them required significant time off my day job to complete the training. I put it off for a year before stumbling across the actual Field Guides Association of South Africa website and then emailing them to find out how I could do it without spending 6 months in the bush. It turns out it actually possible to do the theory correspondence course and sit the theory exam without needing a day away from work. Then I found the one institute that offers to complete the practical assessment in 2 short weeks – Africa Nature Training (Or ANT)!

A few emails later and I realised that I was just a little too late for the 2018 courses so I put it on the back burner again before finally registering myself in November last year. A few more signed forms and emails later and I received all my study material from FGASA and I was off and running. I remember sitting in the Kgalagadi waiting for cheetahs to move and reading about etiquette a Field guide should follow. Then not too long after, going for a game drive and observing the guide leading the tour follow the outline. Safety on board the safari vehicle, outline of the expected drive and special interests. Once I returned from the December 2018 trip (read about it here https://wordpress.com/view/lifeofpiluckan.wordpress.com) I came back and got down to studying the theory and in May this year, sat my theory exam which I passed more comfortably than I initially thought I would. Half way there I thought.

After all the practical would be a walk in the park right. Literally. Two weeks in the bush in a camp on a private reserve, fully catered with two game drives a day. It sounded more like a holiday than getting assessed. The first few days were indeed more getting involved with the reserve, but closer than I’ve ever got on any game park visit. One the very first afternoon we went looking for a cheetah female with a cub at her den using telemetry. We didn’t get her because she was moving around in a valley and we could not pin point the location. The second day saw us already helping with the relocation of a new cheetah, helping carry the freshly killed wildebeest into the enclosure he was to be held in for quarantine and watching the magnificent male leap out of his transport box. Then we woke up early the next morning and went to see if we could find a group of wild dogs who had skipped through a hole in the fence from the neighbouring reserve. After two hours of trying to track them, again using telemetry, we started to question telemetry and whether the dogs had not slipped across the fence again during the night. But we picked up a signal as we went over and ridge and after going back and forth for a while we decided to stop at an outlook point and just look for them. And sure enough the keen eyes of one of the other trainees picked up the group of 6 wild dogs running along the next ridge line. They were definitely heading back home so we were dropped of a some fresh supper was laid out across the fence to lure them back.

After an exciting first three days we got down to the business of learning about the bush and being a guide. We soon settled into the routine of early morning wake ups so that we could be out in the bush by 6am, then back for 9:30am lecture and review of coursework before breakfast at 10:30am which was one of my favourite parts. Short break and then back to lectures, afternoon study time and the afternoon drive. The drives were magnificent with each day holding a new encounter, elephants, rhino cows, buffalo, lions and on one occasion cheetahs who walked right up to the clearing we were standing in discussing termites and sat down beside us nonchalantly. But we were also learning about the trees and birds and smaller creatures such as baboon spiders and termites. The mentor would hear a bird and ask us to hazard a guess to which bird was calling and guide us through animal behaviour and how the entire ecosystem depended on each of it’s parts. And best of all, every third drive was my own so I got to put what I was learning into action, as daunting a task as that was.

We each mapped out the route we were going to drive for the assessment, found the points of interest to speak about along the route and began getting as good at our routines as we could. I chose a morning drive as I felt it would best compliment my own knowledge of birds, which surprisingly also grew in the 10 days before the assessment. I picked out the Marula I would speak about, the waterhole ecology, hyena scat (which is white and highly visible), a massive aardvark digging and termite mounds that complimented it, gravestones of earlier farmers that helped give history of the reserve and the province as a whole and added a few interesting trees on the route including the Buffalo thorn. Animals could not be arranged as precisely so knowledge of any we would encounter was needed so that we could speak about them.

I went last so I got to see my fellow trainees complete their drives and even helped identify a Klaas Cuckoo which happened to perch on a nearby branch on the second drive. The morning of my drive dawned and before I knew it we were well on our way. The birds were kind to be immediately spotting a Black shouldered kite, a lilac breasted roller and surprisingly a black bellied bustard (which could easily be confused with a red-crested korhaan) who was wondering through the burnt veld. I got through the story of termites and how they make for good eating just lightly roasted in a frying pan and how mountain aloe was sometimes used as an additive for snuff and my own grandfather used to grind them down as well. A martial eagle was harassed by two smaller birds was then the highlight in terms of animals as we were coming close to the end of the drive. We then ran into the elephant herd and my talk on the tamboti tree and sycamore fig with it’s mutually beneficial relationship with the wasp that pollinates it had to make way as we watched the matriarch lead her family through the bush and to the water hole for a morning drink.

And just like that the practical assessment was completed, I was found to show the required level of competence and I could become an apprentice field guide. I completed my first aid course at the beginning of October and by the end of the month I was then certified as an apprentice field guide (to guide in the Thanda Game reserve and surrounding parks). I am completing the workbook for the savanna biome and then will be able to guide through all of the savanna region of South Africa which is about 1/3 of all of the country.

So now I come to my branch in the ziziphus. Given that I can now be a guide, should I walk away from all that I know and become a guide? It is something I have been giving serious thought to and have begun researching (I do a lot of front end loading, I am an engineer after all). Or will all this prove to be just a side distraction. A nice to have that serves no real purpose. A whim that will be overruled by sense and sensibility. I don’t know but hopefully will soon take a step forward in one direction or the other. Only time will tell I guess…

Post Script: I began writing this post and never got a chance to publish as my dad fell ill and never recovered, passing away on the 6 November 2019. His passing is another branch or fork in my own journey and has me contemplating the way forward more earnestly. Life, as they say, is too short to live with the regret of opportunity not seized…

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