It’s less than 24 hours until I board a plane bound for South Africa for an indefinite period of time. I’m sitting here at my bench in my empty kitchen in my empty house wondering how on earth did I get here? I’ve travelled a lot in my time but never did I think I would find myself about to move to a developing country at age 31. Much less having quit a very good, stable job at one of the world’s largest corporations to do so. So how did I get here?
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly the moment that led me here but I guess the start was probably finding a South African ranger to marry a few years ago. Naturally it made a lot more sense at the time for him to move to Australia and start a new life here. His career as ranger (safari guide) is not really very relationship-friendly, unless I was going to work in the office at a lodge and that wasn’t something I was overly keen on doing (sitting in an office all day while my husband gets to hang out with elephants and lions is not my idea of fun). And also… South Africa vs Australia… well if you think about it rationally there’s a clear winner there in terms of government, stability, health care, crime, education, careers and online shopping (very important). Last time we flew to South Africa we were driving our hire car out of the airport listening to radio reports of how traffic was bad due to some sort of shooting spree between cops and some crims on the highway. Just another Thursday in Joburg?
Things were going well in the land of Oz but our yearly trip back to South Africa had become a lot more frequent – in 2016 we found ourselves on Qantas flight QF63 over to Joburg three times by the end of August. Of course we did happen to get married during one of those trips, but nonetheless it’s a lot of long-haul flights for a couple of weeks apiece. Truthfully, I realised I lost my heart in more ways than one during that trip in 2012 to Kruger Park and Timbavati Private Game Reserve. Even marrying my guide wasn’t enough to stave off my yearning for the African bush. When I was awake I was constantly talking about South Africa and when I was asleep I was constantly dreaming of South Africa. Well, it could almost be classified as recurring nightmares because I would find myself at these AMAZING sightings but for various reasons my camera either wouldn’t work or wasn’t there…. It was truly horrifying. Anyway I became one of those really annoying people that can’t shut up about their kids (or their cats)… but instead of going on about how my three year old was already reading War and Peace and recreating Van Gogh’s best works during finger painting sessions, I was annoying anyone and EVERYONE I met with ongoing tales of lion and elephant sightings. No one was spared. I even annoyed myself by how obsessive I was… but I just couldn’t stop.
The more time I spent in the bush finding lions and leopards, the less happy and fulfilled I was coming home to my job and general life. Due to the aforementioned obsession I had fielded the “would you ever move to South Africa” question countless times (probably by people really thinking “if you love it so much why don’t you shut up about it and move there”) but my answer was typically a resounding “no”. It just seemed so unrealistic to leave my successful Australian life where I had a great career, my own house, my family, friends and of course my amazing cat to move to a country where I would have none of these things. Plus the constant fear of being carjacked, shot, robbed, stabbed or otherwise killed. (joking. Sort of).
But that’s when I had my second defining moment on the path to finding myself here. I was having a bad day (which were becoming more and more frequent) and talking to my sister (context: psychology degree and qualified school counsellor) about how I didn’t know why I felt so sad – it seemed my life was pretty good so why did I feel that way? She told me I need to focus more on doing things that I loved. Then she asked me what things made me happy and my immediate answer (sorry family and friends) was being on safari in South Africa. And then I made a sarcastic comment about moving there, still believing it to be completely unrealistic. But my sister didn’t agree with me (as I expected) – instead she said maybe that was something I should think about.
I still remember that moment because I think all that time deep down I wanted to run away to South Africa but it was like I needed permission to really consider it. The permission of someone that I loved and respected (well, most of the time). All of a sudden I had a shift in mindset and I started thinking that maybe I could give up my awesome Australian life (at least for a little while) and start an even more awesome South African life with my new South African husband over in my second (and sometimes favourite) home. I COULD SEE ELEPHANTS EVERY GODDAMN DAY GODDAMNIT.
It still took me a bit more time to fully come to terms with and accept the consequences of such a decision. Leaving my job of almost 5 years at Microsoft. Leaving my family and friends. LEAVING OLI (the best cat in the world)… it’s too painful even now to write about it. But I must (not really but here I am anyway). We still weren’t fully convinced it was the right move, but we started doing some research into options for our life in South Africa. I really wanted to try and do something that would contribute to conservation but we also needed to find a way to survive without eating too much into our savings. I looked into anti-poaching efforts, to research organisations etc but these options were all extremely expensive – making me think they were more about a donation where the physical efforts were not as constructive (in other words we would just be a hindrance but they would put up with us for the money). Of course there are various animal-related parks that sell themselves as volunteering options but thankfully we know that those are typically pretty bogus and mostly actually contribute to animal cruelty – so not an option. After a little research and Van doing some networking with old contacts the stars aligned and the perfect opportunity came up. An organisation that trains guides, educates people on the bush and strives to further conservation goals and efforts. Van had previously trained and worked at EcoTraining, which made it even more perfect. They had numerous camps around South Africa, including in the North of Kruger as well as some in neighbouring African countries AND they were keen for us to get involved and live predominantly in their camps (so in the bush).
Best of all, they wanted us to help further their conservation goals! At the same time I was reading a book my sister recommended (and loaned me) – the Happy Economist. The content resonated with me because it talks about how we focus too much on chasing financial success and well-paid careers at the expense of our wellbeing and personal relationships. The underlying message was to try and rebuke this trend by focusing more on fulfilling jobs and more time with family and friends. IT MADE SO MUCH SENSE. More permission for me to chase my dreams rather than continue on as a corporate slave. Thanks to my sister Kelly and Ross Gittins (author of The Happy Economist) I then resigned from my job and made the necessary preparations to move my life over to the South African bush. So in summary, if things go pear-shaped I at least have someone else to blame, right?
It’s funny how many people have applauded the decision and even labelled it as ‘brave’. I guess in some ways it is brave to leave my career and pursue a totally different and much less lucrative adventure in a much less stable country. But in other ways I felt like it was the easy choice to make. I love South Africa, the bush and the animals so much that even if I am working over here and not getting paid for it – the fulfilment I will get will more than make up for the financial loss. It definitely flies in the face of what society these days expects of us. It is risky. There’s a lot of uncertainty. I may get Malaria, or be trampled by an elephant. Or maybe I will end up hating it, as unlikely as that seems. I don’t know what lies ahead, but I do know I’m excited to start this new adventure and I really hope I can make a difference, even if it is in a small way. Whatever happens, I’m going to be seeing a lot more lions and elephants than if I was home in Australia – and that’s enough for me.
Wish us luck and stay tuned for further updates!