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It was a Thursday afternoon, and I was in the middle of the northern Kgalagadi, sitting in my 4×4. I was alone, except for a huge black-maned lion, which was lying just a few metres away in the shade of a camel-thorn tree.

He looked at me. When a wild Kalahari lion stares directly at you, it’s predatory gaze fixed on your human frame like a missile locked onto its target, there are two things that happen.

First, everything else on your mind tends to disappear instantaneously. Right then, there is nothing else in the world that matters, except the lion and you. Work, obligations, anxieties, ambitions, dreams… they all evaporate in the golden glare of an animal that cares only for you as a food item.

Second, you can’t look away – and you don’t want to. A primordial fascination rises up, and something stops you from averting your own gaze. It’s a unique emotion that I’ve never experienced elsewhere, a mixture of fear, enthrallment, vulnerability and excitement.

The stare of a wild lion can teach us something.

The stare of a lion, for me, epitomises the feral experience of the Kgalagadi, a vast semi-arid, sandy region in Southern Africa. Here you are ripped out of your quotidian modern-day existence, your own personal, insular life story and thrust into a much larger world. In places like these geological time reigns supreme, the animals are truly wild, and humans are patently just another species.

The immense size of the Kgalagadi is itself intimidating. Spreading across 38 000 square kilometres, the Transfrontier Park traverses Botswana and South Africa, and is one of the world’s largest protected areas, bigger than some European countries. In today’s world, where only a few pockets of nature remain, the Kgalagadi is one of Earth’s biggest untouched wild places. For this reason alone, it is a global icon of conservation.

You drive for hours along sandy tracks, not seeing another human or man-made object. Springbok, gemsbok and wildebeest drift like phantoms through the intense midday heat. In the early morning and evening, cheetahs, spotted hyaenas, black-backed jackals, leopards – and lions – patrol for their prey.

Camel thorn trees stand forlornly and resolute in the dry riverbeds of the Auob and Nossob Rivers, which flow only every few decades after exceptional rains. Here, centuries and millennia can pass without anything really changing. Timelessness is everywhere, and so is beauty, grandeur and reverence. Here, your calendar, email and Facebook updates seem ridiculously superfluous and irrelevant.

One night I set up camp at Polentswa, a small campsite on the Botswana side of the Nossob. The area is famous for its resident lions, which amble through the unfenced camp whenever they wish.

As I lit my fire, I watched lightning crack on the distant horizon, too far away to hear but illuminating the clouds ahead. Above me, however, the sky was clear and the stars blazed. The barking gekkos and crickets began their chorus, filling the dense night air with a symphony to rival any orchestra. Jackals started howling, most probably to alert the neighbourhood of the imminent arrival of the three resident lions.

Sure enough, a few minutes later, the lions started roaring. How perfect, I thought. My heart soared and my mind drifted in a peaceful meditation that lasted until I climbed into my rooftop tent and fell into deep sleep.

But I would have happily stayed awake all night. The day-to-day reality of the Kgalagadi trumps the sweetest dreams of any man. I didn’t want to be anywhere else on Earth.

This presence, this awareness, this deep contentment, this absolute gratitude for the current moment is called the wilderness effect, and it is why we need to protect every last bastion of nature and feral Earth that we can.

How different things were a few years ago for me. Battling depression and anxiety, I lived in a big city, worked in a corporation, sat in traffic and paid the bills. I had all the luxuries and accoutrements of the modern, urbanised world, which promised much but of course never delivered happiness or meaning. I sometimes used to lie awake all night, anxious and fretting. I didn’t know why, and I couldn’t figure it out, so I saw several psychologists and psychiatrists who prescribed me drugs to alleviate my depression, anxiety and insomnia. They talked endlessly to me about a lot of different things, not much of which I remember.

None of it worked. I was moving through life like a robot, going through the motions and hoping things would improve on their own, hoping that meaning would somehow appear from nowhere in my vacuous existence.

Then one day, because I had to, I left the city, the job and the modern world for a while, and headed to the Richtersveld National Park for several weeks on my own. I still don’t know why I went, but those desert mountains at the southern end of the Namib desert pulled me like a magnet. (Are we subconsciously attracted to wild places somehow?) It was the middle of the southern summer, and there was no one else there. Like other remote, wild areas, the Richtersveld is intimidating, intense, beautiful, dangerous and revelatory.

For the first time in my life, I felt like I belonged. Surrounded by the ancient mountains, and staring up at distant galaxies at night, I realized that my place on Earth is a product of billions of years of evolution, that I have a right to be here, and simply existing is a miracle and wonder in itself. The DNA that has built my body has also built your body, and has built every other creature on Earth since the beginning of time. We share this remarkable connection with every other animal and plant. This is what science tells us. And it’s true.

But what science doesn’t tell us is that we’re happy in these places. At first, yes, wilderness seems foreboding, but after a while, once you have shed your addiction to the instant gratification of city life, you find meaning and wonder. My immersion in wilderness connected me to the rest of life and to nature. You start seeing – and appreciating – how truly remarkable and miraculous life is. The smell of rain on dry Earth, the flight of a bird, the emergence of the crescent moon in the night, the crawl of a beetle… and the stare of a lion.

Far from depriving ourselves, are we not in fact saving ourselves by coming to wilderness areas? Yes, I certainly appreciate the comforts of the modern world, and I’m no Luddite. I’m using my laptop to write this, and my camera to take photos. I am the first to acknowledge the remarkable inventions of man.

But surely the pendulum needs to swing back a little towards simplicity, nature and wilderness? There is much meaning to be found here, and much reward; more meaning and more reward than any man-made thing can offer. My own ongoing journey to Southern Africa’s wilderness areas is as much an internal as an external journey. Wilderness taught me to be grateful not only for life itself, but for myself too, for my presence on Earth. It gave me an identity – animal, man, earth-dweller and miraculous creation. It showed me my small but certain place in the larger whole. Wilderness taught me how to love and respect myself.

In these wild areas, everyone is confronted with their own insignificance. We are small creatures, living just 70 odd years on a planet that has been around for 5 billion years. We can’t escape this fact when we experience the enormity of the Kgalagadi, the Zambezi Valley, the Namib Desert or any of the world’s oceans. Their size, their diversity, their wild animals, their remoteness and their sheer natural complexity help us acknowledge that we’re not nearly as powerful – or as eternal – as we think we are.

Indeed, our human story is very short: our species emerged in the last million years, compared to billions of years for the rest of life on earth. We are just one species out of at least 10 million on the planet, and one day we will become extinct, like so many other species before us.

Yes, we are special, but we’re not THAT special. Yes, we have a right to procreate, grow, invent and produce, using our remarkable brains and bodies to their fullest extent. But so do other creatures and plants. They too are equally special, and equally entitled to a fair share of this planet. Scientifically and psychologically, all animals are in fact our brothers and sisters, a family of life that goes back to the beginning of time.

Mountains, oceans, savannahs and deserts show us the larger perspective, and position us in our rightful place, alongside our natural siblings, not more important than other animals. In a place like the Kalahari, the playing field between humans and nature is leveled. It is here where we realise that we’re not in control of our destinies, even though we sometimes delude ourselves to believe so.

Every time I head into a wild area, when I stand on top of a mountain peak, when a breeding herd of elephant surrounds my tent, when a lion roars next to me, it becomes clear that most of what happens in life is actually beyond my control. Then something strange but beautiful happens. I stop trying to be in control. I give up the delusions of success as modern society defines it. I stop trying to prop up of my own ego and I let go of the inevitable insecurities and petty anxieties that arise from the need to satisfy the demands of the modern world.

And with this sweet surrender comes relief and joy. There’s joy when we realize that so much is beyond our control. There’s relief when we realize that we don’t have to be in charge all the time, that we don’t have all the answers. (Try being in control when confronted with a lion’s stare, an angry thunderstorm, a huge ocean swell or the relentless heat of the desert. For me, at least, it’s impossible.)

No longer are we burdened by our anxieties and false hopes. In their place comes acceptance of the unknown and confidence to embrace the mystery of a larger power. Wilderness is the doorway to a life of faith, to a path of humility and wonder. Wilderness itself didn’t save me, but it showed me the door to faith. I had to take the first steps myself, and I’m so glad I did. I’m still the same person, but just a little more aware of something larger, and better equipped, I think, to deal with my own challenges.

No wonder that the prophets escaped to the wilderness to be closer to God. As Laurens van der Post wrote: “Wilderness is the original cathedral, the original temple, the original church of life in which they have been converted and healed and from which they have emerged transformed.”

People in the modern world increasingly travel to places like the Kgalagadi, because they are reminded of a better world. It is the counterpoint to our relentless destruction of the Earth, and it shows us the paradise we came from and now are losing at a rapid rate. By destroying wilderness – and nature – we are in fact destroying ourselves too. We have mistakenly placed ourselves above other life forms, to our own detriment. As wilderness shows, we are part of the whole, not separate from it.

We cannot manage the planet, even though some scientists and politicians think we can. Nature is too complex to manage with mathematical models, science and government policies. We are not God, although we act like it. In this godless age, when we worship man and his inventions, wilderness can teach us reverence for Earth and for a larger power.

The African savannah is the place where we – as the human species – arose, barely a few million years ago. The natural, wild world bore us, sustains us and nourishes us. Wilderness is our original home, and it is home to every other living thing that has gone before us, and will come after us. Isn’t it time that we remember our true origins, where we came from? Today, these last wilderness areas are symbols of our origins, of our ancestry.

Surely it’s time to acknowledge our debt to wild places?

Surely we need to honour these sacred areas and protect them?

Surely the stare of a wild lion is now more important than ever?

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Photojournalist Scott Ramsay focuses on exploring the national parks, nature reserves and community conservancies in Southern Africa, taking photographs and interviewing the experts who work in these protected areas. Through his work, he hopes to inspire others to travel to the continent's wild places, which Scott believes are Africa's greatest long term assets. For more, go to or Partners include Ford Ranger, Goodyear, Cape Union Mart, K-Way, EeziAwn, Frontrunner, Hetzner and Globecomm.

Africa Geographic Travel
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