The Dog Ate My Homework (African Version)

One of our regular contributors, James Tyrrell, spent over a decade living and working at Londolozi Game Reserve. Although he now runs his media operations out of Cape Town, he shared this piece that he wrote when he used to fall asleep to the sound of hyenas and lions calling in the distance…

It’s human nature to become jaded.
The situation in which you’re living, whatever it is, whilst not necessarily becoming completely stale, will inevitably lose a bit of its gloss over time. This simply can’t be helped.

The 100th leopard hoist you see as a guide (that’s pretty excessive; not many hit that number!) won’t be quite as exciting as the first. The 15th pair of running shoes – to use a non-bush example – you buy as a trail-running fanatic will have the emphasis more on function and necessity instead of the thrill of the purchase and the opening of the box when it was your first pair.

The dopamine response we get from these situations loses its strength with repetition of the same stimulus, so that stimulus needs to be strengthened or changed for you to keep getting that same thrill.

Inevitably, as things lose a bit of their edge as you get used to them, comes the nit-picking, the pointing out of how things could be better.
As photographers we know this well: “There’s a branch in front of the leopard’s eye”, or “These lions aren’t doing much”, are things we’ve probably all said at one time or another. Yet by simply taking a step back and contextualising what those complaints are exactly, and the position we need to be in in order to make them, we come to realise just how special it is to actually have the “problems” that we think we do.

The title of this post comes from the fact that I had my favourite pair of bush shoes eaten by hyenas a few nights ago. Totally my fault, as I left them on my porch to dry after wading into the Sand River (no I wasn’t stuck!), and later that evening one of the local clan clearly took a liking to them and whisked them off into the darkness. I still haven’t even found a scrap left over.

Hyenas: a curse or a blessing? I vote for the latter, but I’m sure the local leopard population would disagree, given how many kills of theirs get stolen by the marauding scavengers.

Needless to say I cursed the culprit in the morning when I made the discovery of the missing shoes, saving some reprimands for my own stupidity at the same time, especially because these certainly aren’t the only shoes of mine that have disappeared along the same route. For the rest of the day I vented my anger at the general hyena population to anyone who’d listen.

Then I forced myself to pause and reflect, and ended up giving myself a stern talking to about just how fortunate I am to be in the position of having my shoes stolen by hyenas in the first place. Or my food being grabbed off my plate by one of the resident monkey troops. Or any of the myriad “problems” that come with bush living.

The pair of Lesser-Striped Swallows that nest in the eaves of my porch every year leave quite a mess from the materials they use to rebuild their seasonal home, but what a thrill it is to be able to look out the window and see the industrious parents daubing mud during the construction and then bringing in feathers to line the inside. And if I’m very lucky, I get to see their chicks take their first flights. Who cares about a little bit of mud spatter and some bird droppings on the balcony when that’s the only trade-off for being able to watch something so special play out over the course of a month or two?
They should actually be arriving any day now to start this year’s breeding attempt, and I look out my window daily, eagerly anticipating the sudden flutter of wings that announces that one of them has come in for a landing.

I wrote a post once about the gratitude we need to feel when we miss shots in wildlife photography, as the fact that we’re out there pursuing our passion should be the base reward, and nailing the shot is simply a bonus. It’s the same in our day-to-day. Are the things we classify as problems really problems after all? Or are they simply punctuation marks that reinforce the fact that we are living an incredible life immersed in nature. Glass is half full vs. glass is half empty approach. I’m not trying to be preachy here, these are simply some of my own musings that I use to keep myself in check. Right now I’m watching a painted skink burrow behind a cushion on a chair outside. I’ll probably get the fright of my life when I sit there later – having totally forgotten about the skink – and it rushes out cross my legs. And that’s brilliant.

There’s a great scene in the movie Good Will Hunting in which Robin Williams’ character is talking about his deceased wife, telling Matt Damon about how the so-called imperfections we attribute to people – particularly our partners – are not actually imperfections; they’re the good stuff. It’s the same thing anywhere. There’s no such thing as the perfect place to be or live, it’s just whether or not it’s perfect for you.

I’ll take my shoes being eaten by a hyena in a heartbeat.

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