Arlena Markinson shares the profound impact that the wildest regions of Africa have had on her across years of adventurous travel….“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do, than by the ones you did do. So, throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore, dream, discover!” Mark Twain
In spite of being born and raised in New York City, I’ve always felt a calling to the wilderness and wild animals. As a result I have done my best to experience my world, my way, discovering extraordinary new cultures and connecting with the world’s natural wonders. I’ve immersed myself in the life of a number of countries; experiencing them by biking, hiking, kayaking, walking on glaciers, skiing, riding elephants in forests and camels in deserts. I’ve been blessed with incredible experiences, brimming over with excitement and discoveries. And along the way I have realized that I would never be satisfied simply playing the role of an observer. I never want to have regrets over missed opportunities. So when the idea came to me to trek to the gorillas in Rwanda, I knew it was next on my bucket list.
Over the past eight years, I’ve been lucky enough to visit eight countries in Africa: Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, Namibia, Uganda and Rwanda. Each possesses its own natural magnificence. Namibia is a desolate, savagely beautiful place. In some areas of the country it is an otherworldly landscape, with lunar canyons, grand and primeval, like a planet the day after creation. Driving through, I experienced no sound, no colors, just boulders and rocks strewn across the terrain. I felt totally isolated and experienced a sense of abandonment from the world I know.
Flying to another region, Sossusvlei is a jaw dropping adventure. There, the tranquil beauty of the huge, sinuous sand dunes run unchecked until they hit the sea. It is like being in fantasyland. Undulating, razor-edged and brilliant clay coloured, some rise a thousand feet high. They were formed over millions of years by the buffeting of ceaseless winds into perfect whipped cream formations in the thirst-parched Namib desert. It is a feast for my eyes and heart.
Kenya is the “cradle of humanity”. Archeologists discovered hominoid skulls here that date back almost two million years. Tanzania is the largest country in East Africa where snow covered Mount Kilimanjaro dominates the landscape and is the highest peak in Africa at nearly 20,000 feet. These countries are joined together in the cycles of drought and rain. Here I visited remote and isolated camps and saw the drama of life and death played out amongst the animals. The violence of the kill seemed sudden and cruel to me, and yet my heart went out to the hungry predator seeking food for itself or its hungry cubs as well as to the helpless prey. I was mesmerised by the skillful stalking, patience, timing and attack. A meal for the predator is the same as the fresh grass of the plains is for the wildebeest and zebra. During the Great Migration they are chasing the rains in search of grass and water going ceaselessly from Kenya to Tanzania and back again in the Serengeti. Day and night, the movement of life in the wild hardly ceases, the tenacity of life always set amidst the proximity of death. In contrast the busy waterholes draw impressive herds of varied wildlife. Here things are so peaceful and heartfelt, like a Noah’s Ark in harmony. The animals are cooperative and supportive of each other, showing emotion, caring and a reasoning ability, more than we think.
The Impenetrable Forest in Uganda is impossibly steep with lofty volcanoes that form a natural border with Rwanda. It represents harmony of nature in all its life forms, with each mountain possessing its own unique character and silhouette. Together they form one of the most isolated and visually dramatic ecosystems in the world.
And then there is Parc National Des Volcans in Rwanda, home and haven to over half the world’s few remaining mountain gorillas. It is here that I experienced the most intimate and poignant of wildlife encounters. Looking into the eyes of a gorilla in his own environment is bewildering and overwhelming. I was stunned by the non-verbal meaning and understanding I experienced whenever I exchanged glances with the silverbacks, their young ones and female harems. They looked into my eyes, at me, not through me, making connection. Observing them in their own environment was like watching a human family at a picnic, playing, nurturing, eating and talking to each other. There was energy and vitality, joy and contentment. I wanted to reach out and touch them, but of course, I knew that was too dangerous.
When I was hiking out of the jungle, my body still reverberated with the energy of the strong eye contact I experienced with them. I felt it dissolved any boundaries that I held between myself and all animals. I was experiencing a new inner awareness of truly being one with the universe and accepting responsibility for my thoughts and actions, so that I can make a difference in preserving our planet.
Wild Africa. It is beguiling, mystical, beautiful and majestic. It is visceral, life affirming. Stunning mountains and boundless landscapes, incredible sunrises, and setting suns cloaked in red and gold. Exquisite wild animals from the mighty elephant to tiny insects, all free in the vastness of this astounding panorama.
When I am there, I feel that I am where I ought to be. I feel that I have returned to my beginnings, to where I once lived side by side with the wildlife. Every cell in my body feels this is where I came from. Is this a genetic memory? Did I previously live another life as a Bushwoman or animal? Are these brief glimpses into my distant past? These thoughts overwhelmed me the first moment I set foot in the African bush in 1975. I knew I was home because it is a world that I remember in the deep crevices of my mind. It is the wild kingdom that I have loved and missed, from an unexplainable time that once was. It is where the basic truths of life exist for me. They bring me one step closer to a better understanding of who I am today. When I am in wild Africa there is no other place I want to be.
Existing in the bush is a daily battle for humans as well as animals. I can feel this sensation as my mind vacillates between the present and the past. I have witnessed that animals also show emotions such as affection, aggression, fear, joy and sorrow. There is the fear in an animal that is being abandoned or separated from its mother. Or of being sick and weakened, having to face its attackers. Others suffer from loneliness, hunger and thirst in the endless stretch of arid land. I’ve seen animals slink away in silence and withdraw after an attack, their desperate gaze betraying their misery. Elephants standing over the death of a loved one, mother or infant mourning their loss. Animals express stress, especially young ones triggered by being alone and unprotected. Was I an animal in the bush that suffered a major injury? Do I have more animal in me today than I think?
Wild Africa holds a special healing power for me, and stamps its imprint on my soul. It is the simple life, rhythms of existence and a stillness, where my soul find its true expression. It fulfills my need for space, freedom, independence and silence. It’s the silence that engulfs me, the deafening lack of noise. It is here that I can ignore the demands of the modern world.
In the western culture we’re taught to see the world as one place. The Bushmen’s knowledge is more profound and ancient. When they are dancing, their sounds are strange, wordless, but melodious. The beats of their drums reverberate and touch my heart. Their vocalizations are from the days long before language was invented. As a result every time I am in the bush, I realize how out of touch I’ve gotten, how separated I am from my beginnings. The convenience of today’s high tech society, advantageous in some ways, also obscures many truths about basic existence and our past. Somewhere along the way I believe we have lost a number of essential secrets to the mystery of life. And the wilderness and this way of life, so vital to man’s emotional and spiritual survival, is being wiped out. In a world of war, want, riches and poverty, we have to find the means to learn to care for each other. If we learn to care for each other we will begin to care for our environment and the wild.
So may we never forget that wild animals are far more than subjects for photography, poetry, human commentary or objects for trophies. They are living, vital and essential parts of the story that is life. Arlena Markinson.