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Nice read for a change

You are here: Bush-Talk Forum General Information Environmental Topics Nice read for a change

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Nice read for a change

Link to this post 07 Jun 07

As a full time Trails Ranger working in Umfolozi Game Reserve, I have experienced moments of exhilaration, awe, joy, hilarity, frustration, anger and despair. At times I feel that I have a love-hate relationship with Wilderness Trails. To be sure, I am passionate about the wilderness and, generally, get on well with people, but constant exposure to people and the stresses of leading Trails frequently results in Trails Rangers experiencing the soul-destroying feeling of burnout.

We Game Rangers choose our careers because of a love of the outdoors, an interest in natural history and a strong commitment to maintaining the beauty and diversity of this planet. Very few, if any of us, have a particular desire to work with people. The irony is that leading Trails is one of the few jobs in the Natal Parks Board that allows a Ranger extended periods in the bush, which in itself is a privilege accorded to few individuals. But! and here comes the rub! We are almost never able to enjoy the bush in solitude or with people of our own choice.

To the outsider, a Trails Ranger is on a permanent holiday with no stress and no worries, as well as no responsibilities. This perception is enough to cause a rapid blood pressure rise in the burnt-out Trails Ranger.

Picture the scene:

I arrive at Mndindini base camp a little apprehensive about meeting eight strangers and being their guardian and protector for three days.

The scene that awaits me is like something from Gary Larson's cartoon strip, "The Far Side". A 65 year old German woman sitting in her bikini top, bronzed and wrinkled like a kettle-fried chip; an elderly couple of bleached geckoes from Birmingham just waiting to be transformed to a deep shade of luminous pink after five minutes in the sun; two muscular feminists from Denmark, spoiling for a fight; two South African battle-scarred veterans squinting through eyes that have seen a thousand African sunsets, each clutching at a "Klipdrift brandy and coke"; and an Afrikaans hairdresser from Pretoria with his blonde locks in a ponytail, who makes me feel uncomfortable every time our eyes meet.

The Veterans take no time to inform me that they have been on Trail with the legendary Ian Player and Magqubo Ntombela. They ask me how long I have been doing Trails. The first sign of burnout is when I inform them that I was born on a horse whilst my mother was hunting elephant with a longbow.

I start my briefing and then breathe a sigh of relief that it went so well. "Any questions", I ask, confidently in control.

"Yes", say the Feminists, "Why are there no female Game Rangers?" Now, any politician worth his salt would evade that question, but I, not being a politician, attempt an answer using the most diplomatic words I know. After being shot down in flames and abused for half an hour by the militant Feminists, I think the discussion is over. But the Veterans sipping the "Klipdrift" retort with, "A women could never make it, they should be barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen". This is when the I get a feeling of what it is like to be referee at an all-in wrestling match.

Then comes dinner and I proudly announce that we will be eating spaghetti bolognaise made with venison mince. The Birmingham Geckoes ask what they will be eating as they inform me that they are vegetarians and, how can I, as a conservationist, eat meat? The next unscheduled fight is between the Klipdrift Veterans, who are old hunters, and the Birmingham Geckoes. The Feminists back the Geckoes.

The discussion finally turns to sleeping arrangements and, with a sinking feeling, I realise that I can't put the Hairdresser in the tent with the German "Kettle-fried chip". This means that I will be sharing my tent for the duration of the Trail. Bang goes my private space and out of the window goes a decent night's sleep as I will be spending the next three nights with one eye open!

The next morning I awake to the sound of the hyaena whooping across the river from our camp. As I lie in my warm bed, I watch the first rays of light fighting their way through the early morning mist, whilst the drumming of the ground hornbill plays the beat for the raucous trumpeting of the hadedah ibis flying above.

I dress, pack my donkey bag and daypack, check my rifle, call to the Trailists to wake up, and then quickly go to the thatched gazebo overlooking the river to enjoy a cup of coffee and a rusk in solitude before the responsibilities of the day descend upon me. The White Umfolozi River flows lazily past the camp as I sit there watching and listening to the world waking up. The cacophony of sound increases in tempo as the birds warm up their vocal chords for the day's performance, all playing a different tune but all in harmony.

The Trailists stumble down in dribs and drabs, fiddling and faffing with their kit. It seems that whether I wake them at 4.30 am or 6 am, the Trailists are reluctant to sever the umbilical cord that is the Mndindini base camp and launch themselves into "darkest Africa" and we never seem to leave early enough.

Sipho Ntombela, the Game Guard, and I agree on a route, a ritual we go through at the beginning of each day. After a quick reminder to Trailists of walking procedures, a short climb takes us to a viewpoint overlooking the river. As the plaintiff "du?du" of the green-spotted dove wafts over the hill, my heart is moved to praise God for the beauty and intricacy of his creation. The rolling green hills clothed in a soft, woolly mist invite us to become enveloped in them and we move on, seeking to leave all the trappings of civilization behind.

Somehow, in three days I have to convince these people of the value of this wilderness gem. Or am I being conceited? Doesn't this gem speak for itself, doesn't it shout with a deafening roar and instil into all who enter it a passion for its continued existence. How can I be eloquent enough to describe the beauty and value to those who are with me.

I feel the sun gently caressing my arms as it peeks over the roller-coaster horizon. A waterbuck bull stands with the sweeping arcs of its horns pointing skyward, watching us with interest. As we get within its comfortable distance it bounds away into the valley. The Hairdresser starts as a grunting, growling sound is heard in the valley. "Lion!", says one of the "experienced" Veterans. I chuckle as I point out the impala rams running helter-skelter, jostling for dominance and fighting for the privilege of a harem.

As I walk, I recognise old friends. That old mnthombotie tree still showing scars of its early contact with a hungry porcupine. The shiny-leafed buffalo thorn, one thorn pointing forward, another backward, reminding all of their past and simultaneously pointing to the future, the scourge of horsemen but the vessel which carries departed spirits home from their place of death. A ghostly collection of tatty corkwoods, neglected and gnarled, the source of the Biblical frankincense and myrrh. Each tree that I walk past tells its own story, each is a monument in its own right.

A flock of green pigeons lands in a nearby sycamore fig, majestic with its green, flaky bark and clusters of ripe figs dripping off the trunk. All of a sudden there is a flurry of activity and the pigeons explode out of the tree. We go to see what the disturbance is. As we get close, a black sparrowhawk darts out of the bush. At the base of the tree lies a mortally wounded pigeon, puncture wounds in its neck. Sipho suggests that we retreat to see if the sparrowhawk will return. No sooner have we retreated than it comes flying back, like a spitfire to the kill, and descends on its victim.

Whilst walking, I have to cope with conflicts between marathon runners and couch potatoes; smokers and non-smokers; dedicated birders and those looking only for the "big five". One of the Feminists has no concept of personal space. She walks 3 cm from my right shoulder and talks incessantly, although the walking procedure has been clearly explained at the briefing. No amount of subtle comments change this. I find myself steering for buffalo thorn trees in an attempt to shake off this leech.

Within the first hour I realise that the Geckoes will never cope with a long walk, and decide to take it slowly and have regular stops. At one of the stops, on a cliff, half of the group get into that dreamy, lazy state that says, "let's stay here for an hour or two" and the Kettle-fried chip strips down to her bikini and lies spread-eagled in the sun. But, the Feminists and the Veterans have their packs back on within five minutes and are agitating to go.

We approach a large, muddy pan and hear the splashing, snorting and flatulating of a contented rhino. I check the direction of the wind and signal to the Trailists to follow me quietly. With the wind blowing towards us, we approach slowly. I reflect that eight humans seem to make more noise than a hundred elephants.

Fortunately for us, the rhino is preoccupied with rolling in the mud. We get within sight and my pulse races with excitement. I whisper to Sipho, "Bhejane!". He is immediately more alert, casting his eyes around for adequate cover for everyone. Conditions are right and we get to a clump of trees twenty metres from the black rhino. On the way there I have to grab the Kettle-fried chip by the scruff of the neck and stop her from walking straight towards the rhino from upwind.

The rhino stops rolling and flops into the water with a contented sigh that sounds more like a steam train emission than an animal. A small terrapin clambers onto his back foot and starts digging around in the folds of his skin looking for ticks. He moves his leg and the terrapin feasts in his groin. Another terrapin surfaces and begins to grub around under his tail. We are all transfixed with awe and totally absorbed in the scene before us.

All of sudden, one of the Veteran's nicotine-impregnated lungs force out a phlegmy cough! The rhino jumps to its feet, spins around, splashing water and mud, lets out an explosive snort and thunders away into the bush. I sense a feeling of unease in my heart as I consider whether we should be there disturbing an age-old ritual. Everywhere man goes he seems to disturb, frighten or destroy. I long to just glide through the midst of the animals, to be at one with them and not to evoke fear in them. Maybe, if we never disturbed the animals they would lose their fear of us, or maybe we're lucky they fear us and don't know how puny we really are.

The heat is starting to take its toll and we find a pile of flat rocks under a grove of jacket plum trees near a cliff. Everybody flops down on the rocks. I lay out the lunch whilst Sipho makes a fire for tea.

The Geckoes then start whining about the lack of animals, even though we have already seen buffalo, impala, kudu, nyala, waterbuck, zebra, warthog and a myriad of insects, birds and plants.

Shortly after this, the interrogation into my personal life begins. When the male Gecko suggests, "You guys have such a wonderful, carefree life here, you should pay the Parks Board", that old, familiar itch on the trigger-finger starts to plague me.

Invariably, the person who has been bugging me the most asks, "Do you ever have difficult people on Trail?" This is when a large dose of self-control and much diplomacy has to be exercised.

After lunch I lie down on a rock, which feels like a luxury bed, my hat over my face and my head on my raincoat. A dreamy, sleepy state envelopes me as a kaleidoscope of images of trees and birds and animals flashes through my brain.

Contented snoring comes from the stressed Executive from Birmingham on my right and I am reminded why I'm here. Others stare hypnotically over the plains below, lost in the splendour and tranquillity of the moment.

I contemplate what a privilege it is to spend this part of my life tramping the hills and valleys of Umfolozi and learning her secrets. Everyday is a new experience and each minute spent within this paradise seems to impart years of unspoken age-old wisdom and understanding.

At times I get possessive and resent sharing this secret place with people, almost as if I am the first to discover it and yet when I see the effect it has on people's lives I am compelled to share it.

After a relaxed, easy-going afternoon of walking age-old rhino paths, we approach the camp to the familiar sandalwood-smell of umnthombothi smoke and the warm opulence of simplicity. We shower under a bucket, scooping warm water from a large three-legged pot and then relax around the fire, savouring hot, freshly baked pot bread and a simple bush meal whilst recounting stories of the day.

Bedtime comes quickly in the bush. I bid goodnight to the Trailists and retreat to the warm privacy of my tent, to look out into the moonlit night and drift into a peaceful contented sleep born of fresh air, sunlight, mild exercise and senses saturated with a myriad of colours, scents and sounds. This time, however this private space is shattered by the presence of an unwelcome "room-mate".

I awake in the middle of the night to the blood-curdling scream and final, choking cry of a baboon. The leopard grunts and growls, saw-like, as it carries away its prey.

I reflect on this primitive life-and-death struggle being played out all around me and, in my secure little cocoon, drift once again into a contented slumber to await another day of discovery and learning, whilst the Hairdresser spends the rest of the night lying shivering with fear.

By the third day of the trail, I think that I have instilled a wilderness ethic into the Trailists and it seems that they have had the wilderness experience of a lifetime. As I am smugly congratulating myself, the Veterans begin a discussion. "You guys should really provide a fridge at the satellite camps; ice-cold beers would dramatically enhance the experience." "Yes", say the Geckoes, "and what about digging a small, earth pool for us to cool off after a hot walk". The Hairdresser suggests that a nice long-drop toilet facing the river would make a nice addition. A reminder about fridges, pumps and permanent structures not being allowed in the wilderness results in, "Yes, but you could put up a windmill instead of a pump, and the toilet could have a wooden seat and be made to look rustic". And so the discussion continues.

After three days of this, I am looking forward to a cold beer and a cosy, romantic evening with my wife. I drive home slowly while a mild state of post-Trail depression and lethargy sets in.

As I walk into the kitchen my heart sinks further. My wife is sweeping pieces of glass off the floor, sobbing that after a hard day of typing Zulu minutes of meetings and dealing with the other "urgent" secretarial requests, she prepared a delicious meal which is now in the dirtbin. She informs me that the washing machine broke down three days ago, the cat has the remains of a lizard in the pantry, the drains are blocked, and acquaintances who haven't been seen for years have just discovered that we live in a Game Reserve and are coming to visit for the three nights that we thought were our own before the next Trail.

The next morning I join the Trailists for breakfast. This is a pleasant affair, except that I experience indigestion at the thought of the pile of Post-Trail Questionnaires which await perusal by the boss. The strain of being constantly assessed and monitored hangs like a guillotine over my head.

And people say that there is no such thing as burnout!

I am reminded of a talk on burnout by Tugela River Guide, Chris Hurlin:

"Burnout is not merely exhaustion, it is a soul-searing tiredness that gnaws at every aspect of your life and work. It becomes increasingly difficult to shake off a sense of depression and feebleness from day to day, week to week. Communication with others is a burden, one is ratty and aggressive at the least little thing. Some people in this state of mind have been known to drop everything and walk away from the job, without the slightest idea of where they are going."

Why do we Trails Rangers experience burnout? This seems to depend on the individual's personality and circumstances. It does not necessarily correspond to the amount of time spent on the job. Some feel burnt-out within a few months and others seem to go on forever, although even they admit to a sense of malaise at times. Sometimes I feel that I can carry on leading trails for the rest of my life and at other times the mere thought of the next trail makes me sick in the pit of my stomach.

We experience burnout for a number of reasons: Trails Rangers seldom extend themselves physically on Trail, but working seven days a week, and whilst on Trail, 24 hours a day, takes its toll. We experience the strain of trying to be, or sound original at all times. After telling the same story fifty times, one sometimes cannot remember if this group has been told already, or if one is confusing them with the previous group. Other stresses are: Many short-lived relationships with Trailists who arrive as strangers and leave as friends; the sheer strain of leading inexperienced city slickers through big game country; and expectations that the Trails Ranger should know everything.

At times I feel eloquent, knowledgeable and confident. Other times I can hardly remember my own name, never mind the name of that non-descript little bird in the bush 500 m away. Sometimes I realise that, although I crave the company of my wife or close friends, when they want some of my time, I immediately start seeing them as just another Trailist and resent their intrusion into my valuable time alone.

The Trails Rangers' sense of personal worth is an important factor. Most of us are well-educated but have little status within our organisations and earn poor salaries in comparison with the average Trailist and our friends in business and industry. There is often an implication that we are playing games and wouldn't make it in the "real world".

For performance-orientated individuals like myself, there is no reliable yardstick by which to measure performance. The feeling of not achieving anything pervades day after day.

Burnout can also be accelerated by unresolved personal or work problems left behind, financial worries or family tragedies. People living in cities can't understand that it is not always possible to attend family gatherings, weddings, etc, at short notice because the Trails programme has been set and any changes will inconvenience everybody in the operation. Long-term planning also becomes very difficult as the Trails programme cannot be worked out too far in advance. Wives get tired of being at home alone without any extra-mural outlets or non-Parks Board people to socialise with. Single Trails Rangers have little opportunity to socialise and meet single women, even on their time off.

There are probably as many causes of burnout as there are Trails Rangers.

When I finally say goodbye to a Trails party I say goodbye to some with a sense of relief, and to others with some sadness. For all of their bluster, the Veterans are entertaining and good company; the Feminists provided stimulating discussions; the Geckoes invite me to contact them anytime I visit the "UK"; the Hairdresser and I proved to have a common interest in plants; and the old Kettle-fried chip was jolly good fun. Often Trailists have the potential to be good friends but it is seldom possible to maintain that initial spark of friendship since even old friendships from way back are difficult to maintain when living in the bush.

When all is said and done, I wouldn't swap the privilege of having worked as a Wilderness Trails Officer for anything. I have experienced Nature at its best and at its worst. I have walked in heat waves and in unseasonal, driving, winter rain. I have tracked elephants and have sat spellbound watching dung beetles at work. I have watched people who have never walked off a paved sidewalk becoming transformed, and have had letters of appreciation and thanks from all over the world. As a Wilderness "Salesman" I know that I am "selling" one of the most valuable commodities that the world has to offer, the Wilderness Experience, and have the honour of doing so in the historical and beautiful Umfolozi Wilderness Area.

Barry James
Brousse-James & Associates
Ecological & Environmental Services
PO Box 1304
Howick, 3290
South Africa
e-mail: brousse(at)
Tel/Fax: +27 (0)33 3304984
Cell: +27(0)828954089

found on [URL=][/URL]

Link to this post 07 Jun 07

Great piece Carsten. Thanks for posting. Haven't yet gone to the above website, but if this guy hasn't yet written a book, he should!