I’ve just spent two weeks watching animals in the bush outside South Africa’s Kruger National Park. It was, of course, the fulfillment of a lifetime dream. Hundreds of lions, leopards, zebras, warthogs, giraffes, hyenas, wild dogs, rhinos, elephants—roaming free and often just a few feet away going about their usual lives as they dozed in the heat, nursed their young and ate stuff that wasn’t me.
One of the great things about the trip was that it brought back a feeling I haven’t had in the wild for decades, at least not in places where there weren’t roaming grizzlies or the threat of avalanche. That feeling? The thrilling sense of complete and abject fear. Not just your regular fear, though. A special kind of fear, the kind that comes from knowing that you are in a place where you don’t understand the rules anymore, the kind of fear that comes when you no longer have even any basic clues about what is safe and what isn’t.
When we came across our first lion pride on the trip, the guide turned around and said very quietly and calmly, “we are very secure, and we’ll leave the first second that I think we aren’t.” And I believed him. He had done this for three decades, 250 days a year. I trusted his knowledge. “But don’t stand up (we were in an open Range Rover; the vehicle carried no firearms and the guide scoffed at other guides so green and disrespectful of the animals that they felt the need for a rifle). “If you stand, you might be seen as a threat—or prey—and that’s not going to be fun for anyone. I’ll have to take you back to camp.” Who knew?
When we stopped for a bathroom break the first day, I obsessed every foot as I walked away from the vehicle to pee. The area boasts seven types of venomous snakes (“hibernating this time of year,” the guide explained, though later that day he showed me the tracks where one had dragged itself across the trail just outside the fence at our camp. “Unusually warm this year,” he backtracked. “A few must be out after all”). I had no idea what any of these snakes looked like—or how easy or hard they might be to spot against the sand, dirt and grass I was walking through. At the same bathroom break, I could see leopard tracks on the ground, but was told they were old (looked pretty fresh—and very large and intimidating—to me). The guide said I was perfectly safe stepping behind a bush for some privacy. The next day we drove up to a leopard napping in what looked to me to be exactly the same sort of clump of bushes; I never saw her until the guide pointed her out, half-asleep but still hyper-vigilantly watching us two yards away.
Later, when we watched a hurricane force, howl-raising lion tussle twenty feet in front of us, the guide got a mild kick out of my concern: “they are just deciding whether to mate or not. She isn’t interested.” I was sure they were dead seriously trying to kill each other. When the male turned his attention to the three cubs curiously and innocently watching the fight, I instantly regretted the whole trip. The last thing I wanted to travel 10,000 miles to watch was the quick, brutal snuffing out of the lives of a few incredibly cute ten-pound fluffies who might someday be competition when they at last sported their own impressive manes. Instead I got to watch the three cuties stalk a beast thirty times their size, leap on his mighty back, and the four of them roll around like goofy house cats for ten minutes or so. “He’s their father,” explained the guide.
Each day though, as these things naturally go, I felt a little more confident as I confidently strode just a bit further from the Land Rover during bio breaks. Six days into the trip, as I masterfully swaggered out into bush with some toilet paper and a cup of hot chocolate, the guide hurried out behind me. “This isn’t safe, we need to be back in the vehicle,” he warned, though to me it looked like I was doing exactly what I’d done several times already in the last week.
Here’s what seemed familiar in all of this. This constant edge of fear, this jolt of just a tiny bit of danger as I wandered through the unknown, used to be exactly how I felt in the Appalachians.
Fifty years ago on the first night I ever camped solo, the mouse loudly slouching up through the leaves in the dark outside a shelter just north of Springer Mountain sounded all the world like it was at least a rhino, probably a dinosaur, on the march—and sent me on the roof with my mighty Swiss Army knife at the ready for protection. Later than night, four ragged and (as it turned out) jacked up teens intently eying me as they slowly drove down the forest road in front of the shelter had me all ready for Deliverance—till I walked out to confront them: “Sorry man, we were just coming out to party,” the driver slurred. “Till we saw you here. Don’t want to bother anyone though. You have a good night.” More dangerous was the bear who quietly swaggered up a few nights later, gave me a bored “better leave me alone” look, slapped my ill-hung food bag from a tree, and slouched off with all my gorp and Mountain House.
Here’s the point. That sense of being in an unfamiliar, potentially dangerous world was part of what addicted me to backpacking all those years ago. But now that feeling is largely gone, at least for me. After hundreds of trips into the Appalachians, I now have a pretty good sense of the objective dangers of being out there. I know what the resident snakes look like; I know how to secure my food; I carry technology that will (probably) summon aid if I have a serious accident; I know (mostly) now to avoid or handle (I hope) the tiny minority of folks out there looking for trouble.
I enter the woods with a much less troubled mind. But, truth be told, I miss the excitement.
So here’s my modest proposal (cause it’s all about me, after all).
I suggest we do our part the help save African wildlife and, at the same time, goose up the excitement on our trails by importing a sizable group of new predators to our east coast hiking areas. I suggest we start, say, by seeding a dozen or so shelters on the Appalachian Trail with a few large, hungry, and unfamiliar beasts we haul over from Kenya or Tanzania. I’m sure you’ll all agree that it would be particularly right to initially concentrate these beasts in Pennsylvania, if for no other reason than to alleviate a bit of the boredom most of us eventually experience just weaving day after day among all those ridiculous rocks. I’m open to suggestions though. Think, for instance, how it might liven up a stroll through Mahoosuc Notch if you thought there were some chance that a couple of chilly, irritable leopards were down there among those cute little ice caves and all those drunken white blazes.
If you are convinced of the wisdom of my proposal, I hope you will join the cause and step up to support it. A good start would be a brief (though urgent) call or email to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. Or just stop in the headquarters when you’re next up in Harpers Ferry and ask to speak with someone important. Your voice counts! And thus far, the ATC has, sadly enough, hardly paid any attention at all to my perfectly reasonalbe ideas for bettering the trail experience we all hope to enjoy.