Black Lion—Alive in the Wilderness: Sicelo Mbatha with Bridget Pitt

Published by Jonathan Ball Publishers

“I am not a lion whisperer. I am an ordinary wilderness guide who has simply grasped some small part of the great wisdom of wild animals and the wilderness, and learnt a little about how to share this with other humans. As a guide, I share wild paths with wild creatures; I swim in the waters of wild rivers, where animals drink and wallow with freedom. I embrace both the scorching sun and the tumultuous midnight thunderstorms.

“My wilderness stories do not come from me. They have been told by rivers and streams, by the lonely buffalo and the woodland dove, by fluttering butterflies and singing frogs and the slow creeping chameleon, by fragile flowers blooming in a decaying stump in the heart of the wilderness. These elements have birthed me, and I am one with them.”

Sicelo Mbatha is South African wilderness guide with a deep connection to nature. A connection that is surprising, given that as a child, he lost his best friend to a crocodile when they were crossing a river while walking home from school.

Mbatha was born in a village in South Africa during apartheid’s final years. Although he felt he learned more from being outdoors than being stuck inside a classroom, his parents insisted that he go to school. So every day, from the time he was six, he would walk fourteen kilometres to his school and fourteen kilometres back, crossing a river that would sometimes be in full spate. This was how he lost his friend Sanele, an older boy he was close to.

In spite of the shock of seeing his friend taken by a crocodile, Mbatha never wanted to be anything other than a park ranger. His father was a ranger in a national park, and Mbatha used to visit him as a child, and these trips cultivated a love of, and respect for, nature. His classmates dreamed of big houses, flashy cars and large bank balances in the big city, but none of these interested Mbatha. He knew they would never satisfy, never be enough, and were hard to get—proven by the number of his friends who took to crime.

This is the story of Mbatha’s journey, from an unpaid volunteer at a game park to a wilderness guide running his own trails.

Mbatha questions the way most safaris are run. They are commercial ventures that promise tourists the “The Big Five” (lions, rhinos, elephants, leopards and buffalo), which they spot from the safety of a van. Mbatha believes instead that when people actually spend time in the wild, they learn to respect nature. They understand, for example, that rain during the safari is not going to ruin their day, but is a part of nature and something that all creatures living on the land deal with.

This immersion in nature can heal people and in turn, heal nature. When people understand how important the wilderness is, they will help preserve it. Mbatha tells of people who dealt with trauma and grief by spending a few days in the wild, away from the everyday world’s constant demands and, instead, having to be acutely aware of their natural surroundings.

Mbatha also feels strongly about involving local people who live on the edge of these parks. When the parks were created, villages in the area were cleared, and people were moved off their land. So the villagers feel they have no stake in the parks, which are seen only as catering to the rich. This sometimes leads them to become poachers. Mbatha runs programmes for children from neighbouring areas, teaching them—the way his father taught him—the priceless value of the land and its wildlife.

Mbatha says if you respect wildlife instead of threatening it, it will accommodate you. He recounts many wonderful stories. A group he was leading on a trail had to shelter in a cave from a sudden downpour. When they went in, they found a troop of baboons already occupying the cave. Once the baboons realized they were not a threat, they merely moved to one side so the humans could sit on the other.

Mbatha’s journey also reflects a changing South Africa, from the days of apartheid to post-independence.

His curiosity about the world around him comes through, especially when he visits Europe for his work. He brings a fresh perspective and finds common ground among the various cultures, even those separated from him by great distance. He writes with honesty and deep passion.

“This book is an invitation, to step into the wilderness with me, to heed the warning of the wind and wake up to the vibrancy of the earth, to open yourself to the transformation we need to heal our world.

“I hope that you will join me on trail one day, that we will hoist our packs onto our shoulders, smile up at the wide blue sky, set our feet on the path, and walk together.

“Past the bushwillows and camphor trees, into a better world.”

This is the sort of book that brings hope, that makes me feel that maybe we can still save some of our wild spaces, and ourselves into the bargain.

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