The Silent Invitation: What keeps us coming back?
By Lucy Stofberg

I often find myself wondering, what keeps me yearning for the wild? What is it that brings me back time and again to the untouched parts of the world? Whether it be open savannahs, craggy mountains, dense forests, mighty rivers or winding streams, there is a calmness that washes over you when you find yourself immersed in these places. To close your eyes, to hear the water spilling over the rocks, the wind moving slowly through the long grasses, an occasional bird song and nothing else; absolute silence, free entirely of man-made noises.

We are so used to hearing cars, trains, planes, an ambulance passing in the night and someone constantly talking into their cellphone. The world has gotten increasingly louder, and many of us have forgotten entirely what it’s like without it. But silence is not so easily won. A study by Yale University of North American national parks shows that over 327.5 million people visited the parks in 2019. As human populations increase, so too do the feet moving through these wild places. People flock to the wildernesses of the world to escape, but often find themselves listening to a highway, air traffic passing over, a fellow hikers’ music, or chattering.

Extensive research has shown that noise has implications on a host of chronic health conditions, such as high blood pressure, risk of heart attack, diabetes, poor sleeping quality and even cancer. A recent study on mice had them listen to two hours of silence for three days, and in that time, amazingly, the brain cells in their hippocampus increased (the part of the brain responsible for learning and memory). Playing Mozart had almost the same result, yet the effects did not last as long. What I take away from all of these scientific studies is simply that we have an intrinsic need for silence. I certainly count myself as one of the fortunate few still able to walk amongst the quiet left in the world. Kwandwe has one of the highest land to guest ratios in South Africa, meaning we have the privilege to sometimes not even see, or hear, another cruiser as we game drive across the plains.

One of the things I love most is being up in the northern valleys of the reserve. Ancient trees, overhanging branches and tangled canopies shelter an abundance of life below. A fond memory, engrained forever in my mind, is waking up very early one morning, wrapped in layers and clinging on to coffee flasks as we made our way up to the north. With nothing but the Milky Way above, lighting the heavens, and the odd Nightjar flying across the path, we settled finally in a valley to await the birds at dawn chorus marking daybreak. Sitting curled up in the front of a land cruiser in absolute silence is a feeling that can only be described as a belonging; of being part of the vast, silent universe around us and to listen to it, to really hear it. Sitting there in darkness, there is no photograph that can capture that sensation, no words to describe the affinity.

Early that morning, light appeared on the horizon and a symphony of bird songs and calls raptured the dawning. After a while, we walked from the cruiser to take a better look a little bird we suspected we had never seen before. As we stood looking with our binoculars, one of the rangers saw out of the corner of his eye, a leopard, not far from where we were standing. The cat sat perfectly still for a moment, almost frozen in time, and looked briefly at us before gracefully slipping back into the ever-quiet green. I once heard that beautiful things do not ask for attention, and it could not have been truer for this leopard.

You may see animals in a zoo, or look at a magnificent landscape (even though there are cars whizzing past), and it will be lovely. But to experience birds singing freely amongst the trees and to get even a glimpse of a leopard so elusive and dignified in its habitat, so befit under the veil of silence. It is that which I truly believe will always keep me longing for the wild.