Is it calling me?

Kruger National Park | August 2020

Being a field guide during this strange time has been a learning curve, but there has also been joy in discovering a different perspective, slowing down and finding bliss in the little things. Without guests visiting the incredible wilderness that we are lucky to call home, we have become gatekeepers of nature. While our human world has altered and we are unable to share the magic of safari with passionate travellers, Mother Nature has carried on as she has always done.

One of our many duties is to ensure that the dramatic landscapes of our concession remain accessible for the day we are able to welcome our guests back. This involves cutting back the trees that frame the network of roads and making sure the roads and surrounds are clear of obstruction. One late winter morning a few weeks ago, our guiding department was busy with our bush tasks and I realised that I was perfectly content – I was spending time in one of my favourite places, surrounded by untamed beauty and thriving wildlife.

When I am out in the bush, time slows down and my senses heighten. I became aware of something out of the ordinary. I looked up and right above me on one of the overhanging branches that was in need of trimming was a little grey bird. As soon as he noticed me noticing him, he started making a loud “trrrrr-trrrr” call and then flitted to another tree down the road. With great excitement, I realised that the little bird was very special indeed. By looking at him, in some ways, I was looking back in time.

The bird was the greater honeyguide (Indicator indicator) which in my opinion has the most fascinating symbiotic relationship any bird has developed with man. And while I was cutting branches, I was inadvertently part of an ancient relationship that could have evolved over millions of years. A captivating and unprecedented partnership between bird and man started with a simple yet enticing “trrrrrr-trrrr”.  The honeyguide wanted me to follow him, the same way as his ancestors had compelled mine. The reason for this being, in times gone by, this little bird would lead hunter-gatherers (our ancestors) to wild beehives stashed in the cavities of tall trees and other hard to reach places. Man would then climb the trees, subdue the bees with fire and smoke, raid the hives, and make off with the sticky combs of honey, leaving the wax and the calorie-packed larvae for their little partners in crime! A rich pay-off through an unlikely business arrangement between wild birds and people.

I stood there looking at the little bird flapping its wings excitedly and could not help but feel a tinge of guilt as I knew I would have to disappoint him and break a primordial pact. Besides the fact that I am in the Kruger National Park, a protected area, I have never had the need to follow a honeyguide nor cut open a bee hive because of the development of the human species. As such, the role of the little bush bird is shrinking as most people follow directions to the neatest store to buy honey. Happily, there are still isolated pockets of hunter-gatherer societies that keep the tradition alive, most notably in nearby Mozambique and Tanzania.

As I watched the bird display again my thoughts turned from the past into the future, to the days when we have visitors again. Out in the serenity of the bush, with the Lebombo Mountains in the background and the call of the honeyguide in my ears, I vowed to myself to one day explore this ancient harmony between man and bird and follow the lure of the honeyguide, and share this history with my guests.