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Chapter no 141

Spare

I VISITED BOTSWANA, spent a few days with Teej and Mike. I felt a craving for them, a physical need to go on a wander with Mike, to sit once more

with my head in Teej’s lap, talking and feeling safe.

Feeling home.

The very end of 2015.

I took them into my confidence, told them about my battles with anxiety. We were by the campfire, where such things were always best discussed. I told them I’d just recently found a few things that were sort of working.

So…there was hope.

For instance, therapy. I’d followed through on Willy’s suggestion, and while I hadn’t found a therapist I liked, simply speaking to a few had opened my mind to possibilities.

Also, one therapist said off-handedly that I was clearly suffering from post-traumatic stress, and that rang a bell. It got me moving, I thought, in the right direction.

Another thing that seemed to work was meditation. It quietened my racing mind, brought a degree of calm. I wasn’t one to pray, Nature was still my God, but in my worst moments I’d shut my eyes and be still. Sometimes I’d also ask for help, though I was never sure whom I was asking.

Now and then I felt the presence of an answer.

Psychedelics did me some good as well. I’d experimented with them over the years, for fun, but now I’d begun to use them therapeutically, medicinally. They didn’t simply allow me to escape reality for a while, they let me redefine reality. Under the influence of these substances I was able to let go of rigid preconcepts, to see that there was another world beyond my heavily filtered senses, a world that was equally real and doubly beautiful— a world with no red mist, no reason for red mist. There was only truth.

After the psychedelics wore off my memory of that world would remain:

This is not all there is. All the great seers and philosophers say our daily life

is an illusion. I always felt the truth in that. But how reassuring it was, after nibbling a mushroom, or ingesting ayahuasca, to experience it for myself.

The one remedy that proved most effective, however, was work. Helping others, doing some good in the world, looking outward rather than in. That was the path. Africa and Invictus, these had long been the causes closest to my heart. But now I wanted to dive in deeper. Over the last year or so I’d spoken to helicopter pilots, veterinary surgeons, rangers, and they all told me that a war was on, a war to save the planet. War, you say?

Sign me up.

One small problem: Willy. Africa was his thing, he said. And he had the right to say this, or felt he did, because he was the Heir. It was ever in his power to veto my thing, and he had every intention of exercising, even flexing, that veto power.

We’d had some real rows about it, I told Teej and Mike. One day, we almost came to blows in front of our childhood mates, the sons of Emilie and Hugh. One of the sons asked: Why can’t you both work on Africa?

Willy had a fit, flew at this son for daring to make such a suggestion.

Because rhinos, elephants, that’s mine!

It was all so obvious. He cared less about finding his purpose or passion than about winning his lifelong competition with me.

Over several more heated discussions, it emerged that Willy, when I’d gone to the North Pole, had sadly been resentful. He’d felt slighted that he hadn’t been the one invited. At the same time he also said that he’d stepped aside, gallantly, that he’d permitted me to go, indeed that he’d permitted all my work with wounded soldiers. I let you have veterans, why can’t you let me have African elephants and rhinos?

I complained to Teej and Mike that I’d finally seen my path, that I’d finally hit upon the thing that could fill the hole in my heart left by soldiering, in fact a thing even more sustainable—and Willy was standing in my way.

They were aghast. Keep fighting, they said. There’s room for both of you in Africa. There’s need for you both.

So, with their encouragement, I embarked on a four-month fact-finding trip, to educate myself about the truth of the ivory war. Botswana. Namibia. Tanzania. South Africa. I went to Kruger National Park, a vast stretch of dry, barren land the size of Israel. In the war on poachers, Kruger was the absolute front line. Its rhino populations, both black and white, were plummeting, due to armies of poachers being incentivized by Chinese and Vietnamese crime syndicates. One rhino horn fetched enormous sums, so for every poacher arrested, five more were ready to take their place.

Black rhinos were rarer, thus more valuable. They were also more dangerous. As browsers, they lived in thick bush, and wading in after them could be fatal. They didn’t know you were there to help. I’d been charged a few times, and I was lucky to get away without being gored. (Tip: Always know the location of the nearest tree branch, because you might need to jump onto it.) I had friends who’d not been so lucky.

White rhinos were more docile, and more plentiful, but perhaps wouldn’t be for long, because of that docility. As grazers, they also lived in open grassland. Easier to see, easier to shoot.

I went along on countless anti-poaching patrols. Over several days in Kruger, we always got there too late. I must have seen forty bullet-riddled rhino carcasses.

Poachers in other parts of South Africa, I learned, didn’t always shoot the rhinos. Bullets were expensive, and gunshots gave away their position. So they’d dart a rhino with a tranquilizer, then take the horn while the rhino was asleep. The rhino would wake up with no face, then stumble into the bush to die.

I assisted on one long surgery, on a rhino named Hope, repairing her face, patching the exposed membranes inside the hole that once cradled her horn. It left me and the whole surgical team traumatized. We all wondered if this was the right thing for the poor girl. She was in so much pain.

But we just couldn’t let her go.

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