Lessons from the Wild
I can say with absolute confidence that I found the truth about myself and my purpose out in the wild.
For 5 years I had the rare experience of living on an island in the middle of the Okavango Delta whilst working in the Botswana safari industry. These were probably the most challenging, yet the most invigorating years of my life, jam packed with life lessons and unusual scenarios that required every ounce of resourcefulness, resilience, determination and courage that I could muster.
It is only when we put ourselves in extreme circumstances that we really realize our true nature and the extent of our potential, both from a coping perspective and in recognizing that actually there are no limits to what can be solved or achieved – out in the middle of the wilds there is not much of a choice, you have to face up, step up and use the local catchphrase of “I’ll make a plan”.
The islands are remote, most of the year surrounded by the delta flood water which makes access to amenities pretty non-existent. I flew into ‘work’ at the beginning of the three month work cycle on a small Cessna 206, traversed the bumpy Kalahari sand tracks to the boat station, hopped on a staff service boat and took up residence on the island that accommodated a twelve bed luxury lodge.
For three months at a time, that island was my home – my “house” was a timber and canvas structure with a corrugated iron roof – freezing in the winter, boiling in the summer –underneath a Mangosteen tree.
When the fruit fell from the tree it sounded like a bombardment, some sort of attack and I was often late for work as without fences the wild animals roamed through the camp and you could guarantee that when you needed to be somewhere an elephant would be right in your path.
My companions were one other expatriate manager, a local manager and twenty local employees from the surrounding rural communities. For three whole months at a time we were together, doing our best to ensure that the international tourists had the best possible safari experience. It sounds like the dream job. It was and, at the same time, it so wasn’t! Whilst the local employees remained pretty consistent, the managers were constantly changing – both couples and singles embarked upon this adventure of a lifetime, their dream lifestyle, only to recognize very quickly that it was not the romantic notion they had envisaged and that life was pretty hard. After all, you couldn’t just pop round the corner to the supermarket if you forgot to order tomatoes! This led to interesting cultural dynamics. As you started a new assignment you could almost feel the staff looking at you with a degree of skepticism, wondering how long ‘this one’ would last. It made building trust relationships very difficult and in the extremity of these circumstances the need for support and teamwork was absolutely essential.
Behind the scenes was a very different story to the performance that was presented in the front of house. I cannot think of another situation where on a daily basis I have been faced with such duality. The guest areas were luxurious, the food was sumptuous, the entertainment was seamlessly executed, every need was catered for and most guests staying their two or three nights had an experience that they will never forget. A true break – no mobile phone signal, no internet, no hair dryer, and limited electricity generated from batteries that were charged by a generator only when the guests were out on game drive – complete and total silence in one of the wildest and most beautiful places on earth.
Africa gets right under your skin and into your heart, and it stays there forever.
The stories I have to tell about those five years would be beyond belief for most – the ‘close call’ situations that turned out well and those that didn’t. The silly things people do and say when they are under duress. The silly things people do and say when they are not under duress! The cultural nuances, sometimes completely incomprehensible, that resulted in ridiculous negotiations in the Kgotla (tribal meeting) style trying to keep the camp running and everyone working. The unpredictability of daily life and uncertainty of waking up every day wondering what had happened during the hours of darkness. The sheer relief and satisfaction felt when a “bush plan” worked out against all possible odds. So many crazy, crazy stories.
However, this isn’t about those stories. This is about sharing a few of the things I learned from that wild and unpredictable environment. Firstly, what I learned about myself:
1. I am a lot braver than I ever could have imagined – courage comes in many forms and the bravest thing that you can do is keep showing up regardless. Face whatever the world has to throw at you, safe in the knowledge that you are only given what you can cope with at any one time, no more and no less.
2. I learned to use all of my senses and not to underestimate their power. Initially I was so dependent on my eyes to give me the cues and information needed to interpret a situation and the environment. I learned very quickly that your eyes can deceive you and you have to engage all of your senses all of the time – taste, sight, touch, smell, hearing and that sixth extrasensory perception that is the one that will save you when you get conflicted information from all of the others combined!
3. I discovered that I have all of the answers I need within myself but in order to access them I have to believe in myself and confidently step into uncertainty. I developed as sense of knowing in my heart that it would all work out the way it was supposed to for everyone involved, as long as I just let go of fear and embraced my inner personal power without doubt.
4. I became responsive not reactive. Reaction in the wilderness can get you killed! I learned to recognize when there was a trigger in my environment and detach from it, in that moment, so that I could observe what was unfolding without an emotional knee-jerk. Composed, decisive, objective behavior prevents the escalation of situations that might have a simple answer if you give yourself the chance to evaluate them from alternative perceptual standpoints.
5. I was unceremoniously forced to evaluate my belief and value systems when presented with cultural alternatives that were so far removed from my own socialized understanding and view of the world. I learned that black and white thinking is a limitation and that I had to become comfortable with not knowing and the ‘grey’ areas of life.
Everyone has their own truth and their own filters through which they create their version of events and reality. I learned to first seek to understand and then seek to be understood.
It was an amazingly expansive and empowering experience.
Additionally, there were life lessons that I took away from my time in the wilderness, some of these were that:
1. Things will never go as planned but what is guaranteed is that the sun will come up and the sun will go down. Learn from yesterday but leave yesterday’s problems exactly there – as the sun sets release the unresolved issues into the sun and watch them descend until they are gone. Then try again tomorrow with fresh eyes, a revitalized approach and the belief that today will be better.
2. You cannot control anything that is external to you so do not waste your energy. Approach your environment with an open mind and an open heart, accept your environment for what it is and do not project onto it what you want it to be. If you work with the natural dynamics not against them, life becomes a lot less stressful.
3. You have to like people and believe that they are essentially good. Instead of being threatened or influenced by differences, you need to seek similarities and common ground. Meet every person exactly where they are in the moment that you engage with them. You have something to learn from everyone you meet. Listen carefully to others as you never know where your next answer or moment of insight will come from and usually it is from the most unlikely source.
4. The simple answer is usually the best one. The need for status, to feel important and to matter, even if it is just to ourselves, often leads us towards over complicating things just so that when we solve the problem we get more satisfaction because the issue or challenge was really difficult to overcome. Keep it simple, life is hard enough without creating unnecessary drama.
5. Expectations are dangerous. If you have expectations of other people or situations and the outcome is not as you anticipated then you set yourself up for disappointment. This leads to feelings of resentment and confusion which creates doubt in your relationship with both yourself and others. No expectations means no disappointment! The expectations of others always need to be managed – find out what the picture in their head looks like, focus on what can be done and under-promise knowing that there is a high probability you will over-deliver and blow that expectation out of the water creating an absolute WOW.
These are just a few of the insights I was privileged enough to take away from my time in the wilderness. The environment was extreme and therefore the learning was extreme. It was an experience that I would not change for the world. There were good days and bad days but the key to survival for me was to be adaptable, relax into the natural order, acknowledge and appreciate the beauty, be grateful and respectful of the fragility of life and go into every day wanting to be the best version of myself uplifting and investing in every person that was around me. Together, with a common purpose and the desire to help, support and serve each other we are so much stronger.