01.11.2010

Out of Africa

Africa exudes a feeling of coming home, even for an Aussie
Ancient song lines hum for Helen Patrice

"I can't pat the cubs right now, I have to feed the monkey."
"Bloody leopard gave me another bite!"
"Who's cleaning up poop in the tiger enclosure today?"
"Are you sure we're not raising those rabbits to feed to the lions?"
"Are you kidding me? Three vegetarians cutting up a cow leg?"
"Those cubs aren't hungry. They're using the dead chickens as toys."

I went to the Wild Kingdom version of Disneyland, where dreams do come true. For two weeks, I lived in a hut-like chalet, and woke early each morning to tend to lion, tiger, leopard, and caracal cubs. I got bitten, clawed, hissed at, snarled at, my hair tangled, clothes ruined beyond all reason, and so much raw meat under my fingernails that I could have opened a butchery. I skinned and gutted semi-fresh dead chooks, watched grown lions tear into cow heads, and had a three week old tiger cub have diarrhoea on my wrist (colour of mustard, not the same smell as mustard).

I was living the dream.

There were moments when I wanted the simplicity of my cats. Brush them, pat them, let them walk on my laptop and send random emails. When all I wanted was to sleep in past 6.30am and not face African dust, dry air, and cutting up raw cow into tiny pieces to feed to two mad caracal kittens. When I wanted a simple meal consisting of the variety and quality of fresh vegies in Australia. When I longed for my own bed, my own shower, and no chance of ticks and leopard bites.

And then there were the other moments.

Coming out of night into early morning over Africa, looking down and seeing the cradle of the human race. Seeing down past the pale brown dust to pale, blood-coloured land and feeling..... extraordinary. A homecoming. That yes, hundreds of generations ago, I came from here. I am of Celtic origin - English, Scottish and Irish - some few hundred years ago. Red hair, pale skin, freckles, body obviously ready to milk cows. Not built for Australia at all.

Yet, something in me said, "Home". I shut my eyes, and let images come. Wide grassy plains of faded yellow, washed out sunlight, thumping heat and ever present dust.

Slow moving dark, hairy prehumans, crouched over and then coming upright to scan the horizons. Everything I'd seen on Walking with Cavemen.

I was compelled to look out of the plane window again and stare at the land. Not look away, not give in to imaginings, but ground myself hard in the solidity of the earth. Peru, the Singing Woman talks of "the clay that makes up our bodies", and it's that I felt, humming up at me. I came from this earth, and one day would go back to it. Somehow, my ancestors grew up out of this clay and dust. I swallowed hard, for this was unexpected, this fundamental feeling of belonging. It was more than a past life flash or déjà vu.

Johannesburg and Pretoria were all very well, but it was out past Kroonstaad, when I was at Boskoppie Lion Lodge, and daily had dust on my feet and clothes, and could look beyond the large animal enclosures across ancient land that something resonated in me. I am Australian through and through, and used to seeing dried paddocks and large skies. The landscape itself was not dissimilar to Oz. Even the colour of the dirt, in its brownish reddish hue, was like the Red Centre. But, I knew, in my guts, this was Africa and my atoms had been here before.

And I finally got to fulfil a dream - to live with, work with, be with big cats. I've been a mad cat lady all my life and my house currently sports four cats. All moggies, all characters, and I'd have more if I had the money, the time, and wasn't secretly afraid that I was indeed a Mad Cat Lady and would begin collecting old newspapers and empty bottles at any moment.

Still, it was lions and tigers that called to me. My mother recalled me seeing A Lion Called Christian on television when I was eight years old, and just standing and screaming wordlessly. She could not get me to articulate, and possibly, I couldn't. I remember the moment. I knew that one day I would touch and hold lions.

If there was, or is, a big cat documentary on TV, I'll watch it. I'm a member of Friends of the Zoos. I once begged the local Holden dealership to give me a lion poster they had in their window.

In late September, I went to South Africa, to Boskoppie Lion Breeding Program, and held lion cubs. I have photos of three month old cubs, flopped across my lap, chewing my camera case.

And I remember looking into cubs' eyes, past the big caramel depths, and seeing the same open plains, tall grasses, and the movement of creatures crouched down low.

A moment of true connection with Muzumba, a three month old, cheeky lion cub, the naughtiest of a group of five (I have a soft spot for the ratbags in family groups). I sometimes have the ability to rise up out of my body and drop down into an animal's mind, without impacting on them. I did this with Muzumba, and could see myself sitting, looking down with a silly, indulgent grin on my face. I looked out of his eyes at the cub enclosure. And I felt, in the mind's eye, the paw-pad connection to the land, the pull of plains and waterholes. It wasn't something he knew, born at Boskoppie and hand reared. Yet it called to him the way it did to the human Helen who sat with him.

We were both still, caught in a yearning to crouch down low on the ground, feel heat rising through our bodies, feel dust embrace and support. To walk surefooted across the plains and see other animals move like dreams through sun haze.

When I came back to myself, Muzumba resumed chewing my camera case, with occasional ventures to my kneecap. He did not acknowledge my gentle excursion inside his head. Next moment, he nibbled the soft part of my wrist and I pushed him off. It was time to go cut up more meat for his dinner anyway.

Home in Melbourne now, I cannot shake the connections. To my own astonishment and wonder, I am out of Africa, belonging, as does everyone on the Earth.

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