Ranger is on the right track
In the middle of the South African bush, Talley Smith asked herself, “How did I get here?”
She wasn’t lost.
The ranger was reflecting on the steps that took her from a job in banking in Bermuda 11 years ago, to a safari lodge.
“I never thought I’d be carrying a gun to work,” she laughed.
“It wasn’t as though I was sitting behind a desk in Bermuda thinking, I want to be an African game ranger. Something was missing and I wasn’t really sure what it was. It took me getting on a plane to South Africa and then pursuing the feeling that started there.”
She has worked at Londolozi, a private game reserve in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, since 2009. She remembers as if it were yesterday, the first time the extraordinary nature of the job truly hit home.
“I was on a game drive; we had been tracking a leopard all afternoon,” the 37-year-old recalled.
“We were following its footprints, but we hadn’t actually seen it. The guests wanted to stop for a sundowner drink, so we walked up this giant, rocky outcrop. We were watching the sun go down while having a glass of wine when this leopard just started calling from right underneath us.”
She hurried the guests back down to the Jeep.
“I was running down this boulder with a rifle in one hand, a bottle of wine in the other, with this leopard calling behind me and I thought, ‘Would I ever have imagined in a million years that this would be my life’?”
She and a friend had only planned on visiting the continent for two months.
“Once I went out on safari for the first time, I just knew it was going to be something more. I had such a deep connection with it,” she told Lifestyle.
“I grew up riding horses and I always loved animals. I loved nature and being outside. I had it in the back of my head that I should have gone to vet school, but it never happened that way. The reality is now, that I do work with animals, but in a different way than I would have ever hoped.”
Ms Smith’s story about leaving Bermuda to follow her calling was featured in a video on Londolozi’s blog.
“I wasn’t feeling fulfilled in what I was doing but I wasn’t quite sure what was calling to me,” she said.
“I think a lot of people go through that. It’s never going to be all laid out for you. You’ve got to take risks and put yourself in different situations to figure it out. A guest [who saw it] said, ‘I hope a lot of young women watch that’.
“It brought me back to being a teenager. As a woman especially, you feel like your possibilities are limited. You just see your life going a certain way.”
She did administrative work for Lion Sands Game Reserve, also in Kruger National Park, when she moved to South Africa in 2006. The life of a game ranger was then too intimidating.
“It’s a man’s world,” she said. “I didn’t really see it as a possibility for me.”
She met other women in the industry and was encouraged to start training. Nine years ago she became a ranger. She is one of two women who hold the post at Londolozi.
Through her training, she became an accurate shot, learnt how to approach dangerous animals on foot and became knowledgeable about the terrain.
“There were definitely moments where I felt like a fish out of water,” she said.
“A lot of the things initially seemed so intimidating — the vehicles and the rifles. When you push yourself to those limits, you learn to trust yourself more. It makes you more confident in what you do.
“We spend a lot of time on our own, on foot in the bush. You have to have your wits about you and be very aware if you’re going to walk into an elephant around the next corner. It’s also a very peaceful time. You’re in the wilderness on your own and can truly connect with yourself.”
Last year, she was made co-head, sharing responsibilities with another ranger for land care management and any emergencies.
Wildfires are common — flames can reach ten metres high — rarer is a microburst, a concentrated weather system at the heart of a storm.
“We thought it was just a normal afternoon,” she said.
“We were in an open land rover when the hail just started coming down. It was essentially just under the size of golf balls. We couldn’t drive, we couldn’t move, we couldn’t see where we were going.
“Everyone’s looking to you. Even though you’re scared and you don’t really know what’s happening, you’ve got to take charge of the situation. Bush life is very unpredictable.
“That’s one of the reasons people come here. You can’t predict what’s going to happen in the wild — it’s taking everything as it comes.”
She finds beauty in that.
“When you track animals, you look for signs,” she said. “It’s often a feeling that you get. Is this a fresh sign? Is it actually leading you to something worthwhile? Are you on the wrong path? We call them hot tracks.
“It’s a bit of a cheesy metaphor for life in general. Sometimes you’ll be following the track of a leopard that is three days old, and that leopard is long gone. You learn to recognise if that feeling is taking you in the right direction.
“When I first started my training at Londolozi, we were sleeping out in the bush. We had just set up camp and made a fire and this leopard came out of nowhere and watched us. For the entire night he walked around us. He was very curious.
“It was a sign for me. I knew I was where I should be. I’m in the right place.”
• To find out more, visit londolozi.com/en/ or see the video on vimeo.com/231828554