South African-born Kiwi Chene Wales-Baillie loved her life in New Zealand and her family remain here to this day, but there was something about the animals and wildlife of the big game parks that ultimately drew her back to the country of her birth. She works as a guide on a game reserve in the Lowveld of Mpumalanga.
The area has the highest density of big game in south Africa.
“We’re very lucky because a lot of the animals in our area are habituated to safari vehicles and we’re able to actually view animals nice and easily and really have great experiences with them as well," she says.
Wales-Baillie still considers herself a Kiwi, but the call of the wild and call of her vocation has seen her reconnect with South Africa.
As a guide she wakes up early, greets her guests at the lodge, then goes on a three-hour game drive.
“Walking is also a great wilderness experience, to get out there and be on foot with the animals.
"It was a place were originally was hunting farms and back then there was actually a fence between Kruger National Park the game reserve, but in 1993 they decided to stop all of the hunting and concentrate on conservation and sustainability of the reserve and so the fence was dropped and it became more of a tourist destination.”
The park has the Big Five – lions, leopards, buffalo, elephants and rhinoceroses. They are the top animals people like to see, and originally most dangerous to hunt on foot in old hunting parlance.
Her favourite animal is the leopard.
“There’s something about them. They are my favourite. They are really beautiful, almost mysterious animals and now that we are in an area where they are habituated and we are able to see them from day-to-day and we’re able to understand them more as animals, how they actually behave. It’s something I love very much.”
She says giving the animals the respect they deserve goes a long way to avoiding an attack or scary situation. “I haven’t had any bad experiences with them so far.”
Carrying a gun is standard practice. Animals can see people as a threat.
“It really is as a last-case scenario. Just in case anything really goes go pear-shaped. Just as you would walk into someone’s personal space ‘bubble’, the animals have their own and as long as you know how to keep a fair-enough distance they’re not likely to just come and attack you.”
She feels the frequent proximity of people has meant the animals feel more at ease that human contact.
“Potentially yes, over time, they could become more habituated to people on foot than they are at this stage.”
When she first started her profession she was nervous of elephants, their mere size being intimidating enough to prompt her to drive as quickly the possibly away from the scene. Now her approach is more measured as she’s familiarised herself with them.
“When you learn to become a guide you learn the behaviour and you can see the signs those animals are giving you and now I love elephants and I’m quite happy to have a herd of them surrounding our vehicle.
“Obviously the distance you can be between an elephant on foot and in a vehicle are two different things but you definitely feel much more comfortable now that I’m aware of their behaviour.”
Wales-Baillie says nature has the potential of healing the fractured human psyche and connecting with wildness is something we should all strive to do in some fashion.
“Nature is definitely something that can help all of us heal from and it’s definitely something that does take us all back to our roots.”