Martha Beck’s African STAR retreat at Londolozi Game Reserve in South Africa begins with silence in the back of the Land Rover. The air is thick with a vibration so palpable it moves warm honey through my legs and up into my chest. Martha is entraining us all from the very beginning, and it works. We drop right in, and the animals can sense it. The giraffe is right there, so close we can hear her breathing. I am keenly aware that every giraffe I have ever experienced pales in comparison to this one. She is free to come and go as she pleases. She takes care of herself and doesn’t depend on feeders to nourish her. She is not here for our pleasure; she is just here, being her wild true nature, as all of us are yearning to be.
There are others like her, the hippos lollygagging in the watering hole mud spa. Boyd says if we live good lives this go around, we get to come back as hippos so we can swim all day and never worry about body issues, content in our corpulent selves to just be who we are, unapologetically.
Around the bend, a sole rhino stands in silhouette, reflected perfectly in the stillness of the water. We have no cameras for this silent game drive, but the focus of presence in those moments is so pure that I capture a perfect image in my mind’s eye, clearer than any photograph. The sun is starting to set, so the sky is deepening into lavender, lending its cast to the rhino, who looks almost bluish. The rhino turns to look at us, head on. There’s that tusk, so desired by the rhino poachers Londolozi has had to fight. It could gash right through me, and yet, I am not afraid. I feel my body relax.
Someone must have gotten a hot tip, because suddenly we are racing down a road, still in silence except for the thorn bushes that scrape the sides of the Land Rover. We turn off the road into the dense brush, and suddenly, I realize that these are no ordinary 4 Wheel Drive vehicles. Driving right over small trees without blinking, this puppy puts my Rav4 to shame, though I’m sure it wouldn’t laugh at the pale American versions of the cars that only dream of driving through the African bush. The brush gets thicker, and we progress more and more slowly, until suddenly, there it is- a pride of lions, resting, grooming each other, cuddling on the ground, legs in the air and paws swatting like kittens. Mothers and babies curl up in fur balls, and I wonder why we don’t do more of this as humans. We crave connection yet we separate ourselves. The lions don’t look the least bit lonely. Every one of them radiates a sense of belonging.
We are full, satiated as the sun sets further, trying to absorb the blessings, when a kudu alarms and Martha points into the brush. Kate veers off to the right. A bird calls. And there she is- my leopard. She is resting atop a grassy knoll, perched on a throne above her turf, radiating confidence. She is regal and beautiful- creamy fur with gold and black and sage green eyes that pierce right through me, as if she can strip back all the masks of me and see my soul. I am busted. She gets me. She IS me. At once, there is no separation, no Lissa and leopard but one merging, an initiation. I am being called into the shaman I am becoming, yet I hesitate. I don’t feel worthy. I’m not quite ready. It’s too much. I’m still learning. Others know so much more. I am in kindergarten and she has a PhD- yet we are not separate, so this means I am ready too. But am I? I fade back into Lissa as we say goodbye. Yet she is in my heart. I will see her gazing at me in my mind’s eye every morning before I awaken at Londolozi. She is now how I begin my day.
My vision is blurry with tears as we drive back to the lodge. The air smells like sage, but not like the sage in California or Mexico. It’s a gentler sage, which is the only thing gentler about Africa. Everything else is on steroids. The light is almost gone, but I can still see a lizard that runs past me, which isn’t just any lizard. It is red and yellow and has an iridescent blue tail that looks like a morpho butterfly. Someone once told me blue doesn’t happen much in nature, but that’s certainly not true here. The bird with the morpho butterfly wings flashes in the gathering moonlight, having apparently not heard, like the lizard, that blue is rare in nature. The vast sky also ignores this advice, blazing blue until it fades into pink and purple and orange, silhouetting the black leafless trees that interrupt the sky like fingers yearning for something. Just as we pull into the lodge, the sky is midnight blue, dotted with the stars that make up the Southern Cross.
I don’t yet know what is about to happen for the next four days. I am a little nervous. What comes next? My mind has been so short circuited over the past few months that I wonder how much it will handle without going crazy. The pulse of the earth is so dense here that I can feel it through my feet as I get out of the Land Rover and touch the earth. Thrum thrum thrum…it is slower than my heartbeat, but my heart slows with it until they are the same. I feel it more in my left foot. I wonder why, but this is just the first of many questions that arise. What else? Will cheetahs levitate? Will a kangaroo hop past? Will fairies alight and elves steal my underwear? Will an angel appear in this midnight sky with the usual warning of “Fear not?”
I don’t know. But then, that has become my motto. At 30, I thought I knew everything. At 45, I realize I know almost nothing. I don’t know what the next four days will hold…but I am ever curious. I am no longer a safari virgin, and I know I will never be the same.
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