So I have been in South Africa for four full days now. The first three days I was practically solo – just myself and production coordinator Andrew Sheppard. Yesterday the rest of the film crew arrived, bleary-eyed and jet-lagged and happy to be on solid ground after 30 hours of straight traveling.
We are now 8 in total. It feels good to have everyone together. It’s like the first day of camp, as we move in to our cabins, set up our gear and gather at the main lodge for meals and meetings and such. No doubt we will be singing ‘Oh they BUILT the ship Ti-TAN-ic, to SAIL the ocean BLUE....’ in no time.
But where are we, exactly? We are on the Eastern coast of South Africa, right on the Indian Ocean, about 150 miles north of Durban. It is also Zulu land, which is WHY I am here (more on this later).
The lodge itself is juts against the ocean and wetlands on the one side… but mostly we are in the thick of parkland.
And I do not mean parks with swing sets and playgrounds. We’re talking Provincial or State-sized parks, like Algonquin or Banff or Yosemite. These are big game parks, and most of them carry what is known locally as ‘the Big Five.’ Quick, can you name the big five?
Lion, Elephant, Rhino, Leopard and Buffalo (you can be forgiven if, after a list like this, you find yourself humming ‘lions and tigers and bears, oh my!’)
So far I have not personally seen any of the Big Five, and I’m okay with that. I will get the opportunity to become better acquainted with the B5 at the end of the shoot, since Anton our cheerful host (more on him later) has planned a proper Safari for the crew.
Our neighbors to the south have several giraffes, however. As pets. Which leads me to wonder: do the giraffes have names? Why am I thinking about ‘Rusty’ and ‘Jerome’ from The Friendly Giant?
I HAVE seen warthogs, antelopes, impalas (not the Chevrolet variety), several species of birds, bugs, critters, a moth the size of my fist and – best of all – monkeys. Yes, monkeys. You see the neighbors to the north own an enormous pineapple farm. And if you were a monkey, where would YOU go for breakfast? Exactly.
So my first morning here (technically, 11pm Toronto time) I wanted to shake off the jet lag by going for an early morning run. No need to set the alarm - the chorus of squawks and chirps outside my door was incentive enough to get out of bed. I throw on the sneakers, head past the lodge gate, round the corner and—
Monkeys. Munching. Busted! They look up, surprised to see me (so it’s mutual) and they scram and they scurry; caught literally red-handed with their paws in the pineapple patch! And yet I’m the one who feels guilty for intruding. ‘Sorry fellas… as you were. Say, you done with that?’
Our host Anton is a robust Afrikaaner straight out central casting: no-nonsense demeanor, fabulous accent, and countless stories. He’s originally from Zimbabwe, and so it’s clear that some stories he’d rather forget. He was also in the South African military, before, during and after 1994. In other words, when blacks got the vote and Mandela was freed from 27 years in prison.
So, yes, he’s got stories.
‘Chaos,’ he says, and leaves it at that.
Anton also talks brightly about his days as an anti-poacher policeman. He’d go out into the bush, for weeks on end, binoculars and handcuffs in tow, and hunt for hunters - illegal hunters. When caught, he’d cuff the offending poacher, take him to a command post and wait for the REAL police to show up.
‘Bist job I ivah hid,’ says Anton, ‘fifteen thousand dollirs a week.’
A word or two about the series I am directing/producing. For the sake of non-disclosure and intellectual property laws I can’t go into too much detail, but I doubt the lawyers will barge down my door if I share with you the title of the series: ‘Vanishing World.’
It’s an up close and personal look at various cultures around the planet; their traditions and rituals. But rather than being a National Geographic-type travelogue, we are not mere observers. We are active participants in… well, in everything.
Yesterday I spent the day meeting many wonderful local Zulu, including a shaman figure known as Sangoma. The Sangoma are a deeply spiritual people who are ‘called’ to be healers. Steeped in tradition, they are connected to the spirit of their ancestors. They also practice herbal medicine, throwing of bones, divination, etc.
It was, to say the least, a very powerful experience.
I also met a Zulu groom-to-be named Kaya, and we are invited to his wedding ceremony this week-end, complete with traditional garb, singing, dancing, stick-fighting (nobody gets hurt… at least not intentionally)… and home made beer. Ah, yes. Canadian to the core, our crew is very much looking forward to the wedding.
So I emerge from the day, thinking mostly about the Sangoma. ‘What needs healing?’ the Sangoma might ask. ‘What needs protection?
These are good questions. Not limited to the physical world of pain, or material things like protecting ones’ house and home. But emotional considerations, spiritual questions.
What needs healing? What needs protection?
Healing the past. Protecting the future.
Even here in Africa, working on a documentary about different cultures and disappearing traditions; here, where a KFC or McDonalds just might get built on top of the ancient burial grounds of Zulu warriors: What needs healing? What needs protection?