By Sara Kyoungah White
My visit to South Africa begins with darkness. Disheveled from the twenty-hour flight, I step into the room at the bed and breakfast and find the light switches will not work. The last time I had sat in total darkness was several months before, out at the family ranch, where the Milky Way evanesced out of the night sky and my husband snored beside me. But my first night alone in South Africa, I have only the flashlight on my phone.
Strangers in a foreign land need blind courage; exhaustion saps me of any of that. I find the bed and lean back. At home, my children are watching the clock in the classroom, willing the minute-hand to click toward the dismissal bell. Here in the dark, on the other side of the world, the white sheet is over my head to keep the mosquitos from whining in my ears, and the temperature is unexpectedly cool. I am like a corpse in a morgue.
Lying in the darkness, I begin to hear the sound that punctuates my sleepless nights in Johannesburg and, later, at the lodge in Pilanesberg National Park.
The red-chested cuckoo emits this distinctive three-toned call for which it receives its Afrikaans name, Piet-my-Vrou. Its call fills my days and nights. Later, I learn that female cuckoos sneak into other bird species’ nests to lay a single egg, which it then abandons. The egg incubates quicker than those of the host, and when it hatches, the orphaned cuckoo chick’s first instinct is to kick the other eggs out. The unsuspecting host then raises the chick as its own. Records show female Piet-my-Vrous laying up to 20 eggs in one season, leaving in its wake entire broods of unborn chats, thrushes, and flycatchers smashed on the ground. There’s something familiar about it.
In the daylight, the call of the Piet-my-Vrou is lost in a gaggling audioscape of insect and bird calls I do not recognize, cackling and rattling and whooping like a thousand unseen hosts. I look for eggshells on the path between my lodge and the viewing deck, where there is an artificial water hole, a perfectly round circle of greenish blue.
1,200 million years ago during the Mesoproterozoic Era, when the supercontinent of Columbia was breaking apart and sexual reproduction was first evolving among eukaryotes, a volcano erupted in what is known today as Pilanesberg National Park.
The park is molded from the fiery bowels of the earth, a millennia-long imprint of a colossal eruption that hurled boulders and masses of land as if they were handfuls of dust. Three concentric rings of hills, known as an alkaline ring complex, provide a uniquely transitional habitat between dry Kalahari desert and the moister Lowveld vegetation, which we witness with each turn of the safari truck—grass and sand on one side, low-lying trees and hills on the other.
The rising or setting sun tinctures everything with a ruby gold light. Dawn and dusk are when the shadow of the ancient red fire passes over the land, glowing still, calling out life like a dare.
Life answers. The animals are out, grazing, walking, mating, hunting. I catch a glimpse of the silhouette of a giraffe against the green hills, towering above the trees, and I can imagine a time when there were dinosaurs here.
It is late November. Winter is at the threshold at home, knocking furiously on the door and shaking snowflakes to the ground in thick, rolling blankets. But in the southern hemisphere where I am, the rainy season of summer is beginning. Only the sun shows its quiet fury, and the red-chested cuckoo is calling, as if I have dropped through a portal into another world.
When I was a college student, I lived at a children’s home in the South Korean countryside for a year, teaching English. My home that year was a small two-room annex off the office building, facing the houses where the elementary-aged kids lived—the Joseph House for the boys, the Esther House for the girls. Most of the children who lived there were either abandoned or unwanted by their families.
I was a mediocre teacher, and the classroom left me feeling flustered. It was my first time so far from home, and I began to feel like an orphan myself. In my off-hours I would find refuge in the nursery, where there was a single baby girl and her caretaker, a quiet elderly woman whose wrinkle lines had settled into a perpetual good-natured grin. The baby girl’s name was Soo-yeon. They had found her in a trash can.
Something about being alone with a baby makes you completely un-self-conscious. I sang to Soo-yeon, something I would never do in front of anyone else. I held her little hands as she slept in my arms and made silly noises to make her smile when she awoke. I watched her grow from a tiny infant who mostly slept into a baby who could follow me with her eyes; from a baby who could sit without being held up, into an almost-toddler who could take wobbling steps. Years later, when I would have a baby girl of my own, I would think of her often.
One day I came to the nursery, and Soo-yeon wasn’t there. The caretaker told me she had been adopted.
Our field guide at Pilanesberg is a long-legged, cheerful Afrikaans woman with a small face and broad shoulders. Her name is Lara, but everyone unwittingly keeps calling her Laura.
Someone asks her, “What is the latest you’ve ever been out at night by yourself on the reserve?”
She replies with only a few second’s hesitation, “Midnight.” She heard the call of a leopard one night, like a handsaw ripping through tree trunk, and leaped out of bed to find it.
She has seen a thousand elephants in her lifetime, but she never seems bored. She and the other field guides spend hours each day driving gaping tourists and their cameras all over the reserve, scanning from left to right, right to left, to spot a rhinoceros or a hippo, hoping for the rare glimpse of a caracal. They speak sightings of animals into their radio with a holy pronouncement. On their days off, they go out together just to watch the dung beetles roll their perfectly-shaped balls. “I could watch them all day,” she says, and she has.
Her eyes can spot the curves and shadows of creatures from miles away, like how one might guess the silhouette of a loved one by their limps and proportions. Each time she stops the truck to point into the distance, it takes us a moment before the transformation happens: what we took for inconspicuous rocks morph into a herd of kudu on the hills or a white rhinoceros lumbering.
When night falls, Lara whips out a giant searchlight from the seat beside her as if conjuring it out of the darkness. One hand on the steering wheel and the other gripping the lamp, we bump along as she scans every tree and bush, sweeping the light from left to right, right to left, up and down trees, under bushes.
“I’m looking for the shine of eyes!” she shouts back at us over the roar of the engine. She doesn’t put the light down until she’s turned the engine off back at the lodge. She is still hoping to spot the leopard.
What is it that drives her? She and the other field guides do this day after day, and yet her wonder rivals ours, her depth of knowledge coloring our vision brighter. Her whole vocation seems to me a search and a prayer. She is like the woman who turns over the house to find her lost coin, or Samuel calling into the night.
We once lost our three-year-old daughter on a Sunday at church. My husband and I ran up and down the street, shouting her name, ran into rooms and out of rooms, asked every passerby if they had seen her. It was like being trapped inside an hourglass, the dread burying us deeper with each passing second, until the glass shattered and we found her. She was sitting in the back of the sanctuary, laughing, attended by a host of adoring college girls who were feeding her marshmallows.
We learn that what appears to be unspoiled, virginal terrain is carefully restored farm and mining land, wrought at great cost. I wonder to myself if anything is compromised by knowing that Pilanesberg is more curated Jurassic Park than wild jungle.
In the early 1980s, entire buildings and villages were dismantled and hauled away from Pilanesberg, every person and non-native species transplanted. In one of the most ambitious relocation projects ever, nearly 6,000 animals were then moved to the reserve from other parts of the continent. A buffalo grazing in a field would suddenly black out and wake up blinking in the light of a completely unfamiliar place.
Project Genesis, they called it. One article in the Los Angeles Times describes it as “rivaling Noah’s efforts with his ark.” The park spent nearly as much on the game fence surrounding the park as it did on the game itself.
We come across a lone elephant bull in the road, and Lara tenses. She checks all the signs carefully to make sure he is not in musth, an annual time of heightened testosterone levels that makes adult male elephants unpredictable and aggressive. He’s not, so we drive toward him, and he rewards us with a glorious saunter across the road, bathed in the orange filtered light of dusk, his tiny wrinkled eye never looking directly at us.
I later find out that when elephants were first brought to the reserve under Project Genesis, young orphaned bulls reached sexual maturity ten years earlier than they should have and went on wild rampages, resulting in the deaths of 17 rhinoceroses and several people. The issue was resolved when older adult bulls were brought in, and the young culprits were culled.
For how large he is, the bull elephant in front of us treads impossibly softly. He passes within arm’s reach, and his footfalls are all rustle rather than thunder. There is hardly a puff where his massive feet touch the earth. He is a dust-covered cloud, an apparition of the gloaming whose bearing is edged with mournfulness.
That night when I lie in bed, listening to the Piet-my-Vrou call ceaselessly through the hours, I begin to think in my delirium that it wants me to hear something. It dares to repeat, over and over again, something I have forgotten.
When kids who grow up in children’s homes turn 18 in South Korea, the government hands them a check for a few thousand dollars, and they are left to fend for themselves. Many turn to gangs, drugs, and prostitution and have kids of their own they cannot care for, continuing the cycle of abandonment.
One night while I was living at the children’s home, I was almost asleep when there was a terrific rattling of my front door, as if someone were trying to break in. The next morning, I learned that one of the aged-out kids had returned. The annex room in which I’d taken up residence was also where he would often spend the night.
I did not interact much with the older kids; they were sullen and cold to outsiders like me, unwilling to extend the possibility of being hurt. They had been hurt too often. But the children I taught were friendlier, maybe because of their age. They were boisterous, quick to laugh, whip smart, unpredictable second to fifth graders. One darling girl with sass would be happily reciting the Lord’s Prayer with the class one moment and then hurtling chairs across the room the next.
I grew close to the young boys of Joseph House, often helping them with homework and playing tag with them in the courtyard. Each of them came to trust me in their own way, and I grew fond of them, thinking of my own little brother at home.
But there was a darkness in them that always caught me by surprise. One day I came into their house, and it was too silent. I found them all in the back room, crowded around a small figure. With a sinking heart I knew it was the one they always bullied. They had put a bag over his head, and his hands were tied, like something out of a torture scene, and he was sobbing.
“I watched my father commit suicide,” tells me one boy who I grow particularly close to. He visits me often with his best friend, who wants to become the president of Korea one day. “He was drunk and cut his wrists with a broken glass bottle.”
Another time, a boy asked to borrow my phone. He was in fifth grade, and I, being a foolish young girl, said yes. I learned too late that he had stolen into the office earlier and pilfered his mother’s phone number. I watched in horror as his hopeful face hardened slowly into a raw despair, his mother’s frantic, anguished tone seeping through the phone. “You cannot call me again,” I hear her say clearly. When he hangs up, he hands back the phone without saying a word, his eyes like shuttered windows.
When we come across a parked pickup on the shoulder of a road, Lara slows and gives it a grim look-over as she drives past. It’s empty, with disheveled cartons and boxes rammed into the backseat. She mumbles something indecipherable about poachers, says something in Afrikaans into her radio, and kicks the engine back into high gear.
The rhino’s horn sells for more than gold or cocaine on the black market, says Lara. To make sure to get every last bit of it, a poacher will cut off the entire face, leaving behind a ghastly carcass. Poaching became a real problem during the pandemic, when the park was closed to visitors.
The rangers and caretakers at Pilanesberg recently made the emotional decision to cut every rhinoceros horn in the park down to a stub, in a last-resort attempt to deter poaching. So much of human–nature interaction these days seems to be a matter of choosing the lesser of two grave evils.
All the data show that cutting off a rhino’s horn has no ill effects on its quality of life. But Lara and the rangers have witnessed firsthand how the loss of a horn can impact the entire ecosystem. Take for example two young lion brothers, she says, who in a burst of immature bravado decided to go after a rhinoceros one day. They were underpowered and soon realized it. One lion went straight for the face of the rhino. It would have been gored to death had there been a horn.
I lie in bed awake and listen to a distant leonine desperation sounding into the blackness of night. I wonder if it is the same lion that attacked the hornless rhinoceros, the same lion we saw that morning, pacing a game trail and pausing to stare at us, black lips slightly parted.
I had never heard a lion roar before. I know they make many sounds. But the one I heard that morning was filled with such longing, I was unexpectedly moved by compassion, not fear.
I thought of my dog when he dreams in his sleep, twitching his legs, whining and baying for something instinctual. I thought of how babies can be comforted by a sweater that smells like the mother, or how a plant will always, however painstakingly, turn its face toward the light. I thought of the Piet-my-Vrou calling.
The lion we saw that morning scented a wildebeest before he saw it. From deep inside his chest came an anguished groan, like one who bore a curse, or one who knew what it meant to pray. I can never un-hear it.
When the people of southern Africa hear the call of the Piet-my-Vrou, they know the rains are coming and begin to plant their seeds. I had journeyed to the other side of the world without knowing that it was this call I had come to hear.
Every psalm I read that year in Korea reminded me of the children I lived with. Every night as I journaled my prayers, I sowed many tears on their behalf, praying for a reaping of joy, a bending of destiny. In the nursery, I often sang a Korean song over Soo-yeon based on Psalm 121. In it are bound all my hopes for her.
The Lord will guard you, He is your shade at your right hand. The sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon at night. Lift your eyes to the hills--where does your help come from? Your help comes from the Lord, who made you and loves you.
Prayer is like bird watching, says Rowan Williams. You sit for hours and wait for the burst of wings and color to flash before your eyes.
Or prayer is like a game drive. Sometimes you go for hours without seeing a thing, and then you round a bend to find a serval in the road. Sometimes you stare off into the trees and feel the prick of eyes—a kudu with whimsically twisted horns is cautiously looking back.
Day and night, you wait for the moment when the radio crackles to say there are lions in the east field; when you flash a beam of light into the night, and a pair of shining eyes answers in return. Day and night, you wait for the moment when you hear a call sounding. You wait for the moment when you call in return, and the answer is not rejection but love.
I pray for them still.
Sara Kyoungah White is a writer and editor living in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Her essays and poems have appeared in publications like Christianity Today and Ekstasis. She serves as a senior editor on staff with the Lausanne Movement, a Christian nonprofit.