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The Friends You Call Family

One touch of Nature makes the whole world kin. --William Shakespeare

Jean was the first to go. It was hard to say good-bye. She was the sunshine in our group. I could always count on her enthusiasm and wonder to lift things up, even on the most frustrating days.

We had our last meal all together on Thursday morning. As we sat around the table, it occurred to me we’d all be leaving soon. Jess was next. She and Lotte were going south to Kanaan. Hedda was heading up to Mangetti, and Eva was continuing her travels by way of Victoria Falls.

My final days were more of the same. Joining Helen’s team was such a relief, and I was thrilled to have more time with my friend.

We got to feed the “large cats”, and by that I mean slinging big chunks of raw meat into their enclosures.

There was also fence patrol, where we spent the day checking the electricity levels on the fences that protected the sanctuary.

We also got to see some rhinos, thanks to the group’s persistent pleading that wore our driver down.

With an influx of new volunteers in those final days, Bush Camp continued to fill up with people from all over the world. There was one young woman from Belarus; another from the UK; and a couple of guys from Hong Kong. I was surprised by my lack of effort to get to know these newbies.

I wasn’t mean or anything, but I didn’t try that hard either. It’s going to sound terrible, but I had my squad, and I didn’t need any more friends. We’d formed a tight-knit group that had a comfortable rhythm to it. I mentioned this at dinner one evening and was surprised that many felt the same.

It may sound harsh out of context, so I’ll try and explain. Showing up to a place like Na’ankuse is intimidating. There are tons of people from all over the world who all seem to know one another. It’s natural to feel like an outsider – I know I certainly did.

It’s also like walking into the middle of a conversation. You need to lay back and listen for a bit. It’s awkward, but also necessary. Otherwise, you don’t find your rhythm.

I now understood why the welcomes weren’t as warm and inviting as I’d imagined they would be. People weren’t unfriendly – they were in a groove. A groove they’d fought for by enduring the discomfort of finding their own way. We were at a different phase in our friendships and inviting in someone new slowed us down. We weren’t downright jerks, though. In fact, I think we were more helpful than others had been to us.

The realization shifted my perspective completely. I wish I had another week with this new outlook. I think it would have elevated my experience to an even higher level.

But alas, my time at Na’ankuse was coming to an end.

It was Saturday night, and I was set to leave the following day. Saturdays at Na’ankuse meant a weekly "brai" (South African slang for a barbecue) at The Farm. It was required, which meant no dinner would be served at Bush Camp.

We’d all gone down together the week before.

I didn’t love dining with the masses, especially on a Saturday night. The youngsters swarmed the bar like it was their last night on Earth, buying bottles of vodka with any mixer available. (Vodka and coke, anyone?) Their sole purpose was to get blasted, which made for a raucous evening and a reminder of my age.

Helen and I ducked out early. As we walked the road leading back to Bush Camp, she veered off toward the shortcut.

“Uh, I think we should stick to the main road, no?” I asked.

“Naw. It’ll take too long,” she said, charging ahead.

I did not like that idea. Not even a little. I distinctly remembered being told NOT to take the shortcut in the dark at our INTRODUCTION.

“Helen, I really don’t think we should go this way.”

“Come on, Liz. It ooh-kay. There more ah-fraid of ye.”

Yeah, I doubted that. And as I followed closely behind Helen with my headlamp light leading the way, there were eyes everywhere.

“Girl. I can’t do this.”

Helen laughed and grabbed my hand.

“We’ll be f-EYE-n.”

I’m sure I cut the circulation in her hand, because I clung to it, like a frightened, two-year old, feeling more city than ever before. We’d obviously made it back in tact, but the idea of repeating that fresh hell was so unappealing, I didn't care if it meant missing dinner. We’d opened a bottle of wine as the sun sunk behind the trees and decided we’d maybe go once we were finished.

Two hours later, we were polishing off my stash of beef sticks (a gift from my awesome colleague) with Carla. Yes! She was back from Kanaan. As far as I was concerned that was the best way to spend my final hours.

After we finished our drinks at the Activity Center, we stumbled back to Helen and Carla’s tent to open a bottle Carla had picked up on her travels. Only we didn’t have an opener. How do three drunk women living in the middle of the bush open a bottle of wine? With a rock, of course! Our time on The Farm had made us crafty. Helen found a metal rod which I held as she banged the cork into the bottle with a mini boulder.

We finished the wine, which was probably a good thing, given the fact I was getting picked up at 5am the next day. They walked me to my tent and we said our good-byes.

“I’ll get up see ye off,” Helen slurred as she gave me a tight squeeze and then stumbled off to bed.

I knew there’d be no way she’d be in any shape to make good on that.

I barely slept. Too worried about oversleeping and unable to ignore the rowdy lions didn’t make for a solid night’s slumber. At some point, I fell asleep long enough to have a terrifying dream about being eaten by leopards in the middle of the night.

I was actually relieved when it was time to get out of bed, despite the ungodly hour.

As I packed the last of my things, I listened to the lions roaring away, wondering if perhaps they were wishing me well. I also noticed that something was scratching at my tent. At first, I chalked it up to the stupid beetle bugs knocking against the exterior, but it escalated to a clawing sound, and I was sure something was trying to get inside.

Slightly panicked, I kicked at the tent and made a noise that can’t be translated into words. (If you’ve ever watched The Dog Whisperer, you’d know the sound I’m talking about.) But I’m no Cesar Milan, and my attempts to intimidate were futile. As the scratching got louder and faster, I went into full meltdown mode.

“Get away!” I croaked, bracing myself for all the things I’d imagined would come next.

The scratching stopped. I exhaled. And then it started again. I literally shrieked.

And then…LAUGHTER.

Freakin’ Helen! I was too relieved that it was not some crazy leopard to be angry, but man, was I convinced my life was over. Carla joined us a few minutes later. And as I shifted stuff around in my suitcase, Helen and Carla each took a bed.

Those final moments in my tent encapsulated so much of the best parts of my time at Na’ankuse: the camaraderie, the teamwork, and the sense of belonging to something bigger than myself, and somer seriously scary moments.

The sound of crunching tires signaled my ride was approaching and time to go. Helen and Carla helped with my bags, and I locked the door to Tent #14. We stood there for a moment, surrounded by the sounds of the wilderness. I hugged them good-by and was taken aback by the emotion I felt. We all shared something that is hard to explain, and even though I was excited for the next leg of my adventure I knew these women would always hold a special place in my heart.

The sun was coming up as I rode to the airport. It was the perfect end to an incredible journey: fiery orange, crisp pinks against the backdrop of a brightening sky. The roads were wide and empty, but my heart was full. I marveled at the beauty of the land and silently thanked Namibia for welcoming me into its fold.

A large antelope trotted across the road in front of us.

“Waterbuk,” my driver said.

I leaned in closer to make sure I’d hear him right.


“Yes. His butt looks like a toilet seat.”

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That summed it up. Africa was a spectacular place, filled with breathtaking beauty and unpredictability that, if you paid attention, could serve as an important reminder: We are all a tiny little part of a vast world. It took a minute, but I was finally starting to get it. And I never felt so free.

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