This is a guest Blog from Sicelo Mbatha. It was published on his website on 12 July 2021, and also in his memoir, Black Lion Alive in the wilderness.
Everyone who comes on trail wants to see animals. I understand that hunger. Our modern urban life deprives us of connection with wild animals, a connection which I know to be essential for expressing our humanity and feeling at ease in the world. In a society driven by instant gratification, where we are told that everything can be bought, this hunger can lead to people coming on trail with a ‘menu’ of animals they want the guide to produce for them. If they don’t get to see the animals on their menu, they feel disappointed and may blame the guide for not performing.
This mindset makes it hard to connect with the wilderness. It may create a predatory energy in the group – many animals can sense this and keep their distance. It also suggests a lack of empathy with the animals, a failure to understand that they too are sentient beings, that they experience us as much as we experience them, and they have a right to retreat from our scrutiny if it stresses them. A wounded animal, an elephant giving birth, does not want to become a spectacle for our entertainment, and can be traumatised by this invasion. Thirdly, this mindset can block people from connecting with what they do see and experience. You can have a life changing wilderness experience without seeing a lion, but if you are exclusively focussed on seeing a lion, you may be blind to everything else.
Instead of ‘ordering’ animals, I encourage trailists to invite their desired animals through telepathy. To open their hearts, use their mental energy to create an inner space and visualise their animal coming through this inner space.
The power of this was well illustrated by a trail I did in 2007, with a group of people from Europe. On trail was a Belgian woman who was very keen to see wild dogs – she was a scientist studying wild canines, and had done work tracking wolves in Russia and other parts of Europe. I suggested that she invite the dogs – empty her mind and invite the dogs to step into her inner zone.
I heard the dogs in the night, but was amazed to wake to their high pitched squeals and yammering in the morning, as they are not often sighted. There they were just beyond the water, still feeding on the waterbuck they had killed in the night. The adults watched us with curiosity but no fear, their great circular ears framing delicately patterned faces; the puppies tumbled over each other and tussled over the kill. It’s rare to see these animals so close. But they had been invited, and they had come.
We watched the wild dogs leading their wild lives, the puppies playing tug of war with the waterbuck head from the morning’s kill. Later, a group of wildebeest came down to the river – at first they were cautious with the dogs, but, when they realised the dogs were not hunting, they relaxed, and some mock charged the pups which chased them back. They’d sensed the wild dogs’ playful energy, just as the dogs had somehow sensed the Belgian woman’s invitation. We sat in the golden morning, alive with the joy that comes from a meeting with other species as equals and as friends.
Spending time tracking wild canines in the wilderness may have sharpened this woman’s ability to connect with them at a deeper level. The response to an invitation is not often so dramatic, but eighty percent of the time, when people invite the animals they will appear – perhaps walking to the river to drink, or foraging or hunting
Inviting an animal is not the same as ordering a guide to find you animals. It is a subtle communication between the trailist and the animal, which recognises the animals’ agency, and respects their wish to be seen or not. To invite animals in this way, people need to soften their intentions, to open their minds and hearts, to step away from their own desires and egos.
One of the ways I helped people to do this on trail is by doing away with time. We have no schedule, people are encouraged to leave their watches and phones behind, and I never mentioned the time. This creates a space of timelessness, space to just be with no goals to achieve or destinations to reach. This takes us back to the time of our ancestors, who spent three or four hours per day gathering food, and the rest of the day in story telling and contemplation.
When you enter this timeless state of being, this eternal present, as with when you meditate, you empty your mind, and reach a state of innocence, with no stress, no intention… you create a soft, open space that an animal can easily step into. There is no doubt that seeing an animal that a guide has found for you will be interesting. But seeing an animal that you have invited is truly transforming.
Thanks to Chris Bartlett for the photograph