(part of the Africa series)

For centuries, kings, emperors, armies, and navies have fought to control the territory known today as South Africa. Dutch settlers arrived in the 1600s. Some of them believed the land was their gift from God, and unfortunately they behaved like a lot of other folks who have believed God chose them over everyone else. The British sailed in, determined to extend an empire that already spanned the globe, while native tribes battled both the newcomers and each other for dominance. As recently as the 1980’s, this nation was still trying to come to terms with who it was and how it would be governed.

So who won the battle for South Africa? Ironically, it was none of these. While all these people and their descendants battled for control, today their descendants remain merely guests. South Africa is clearly, unequivocally controlled by the animals. Humans may act like we’re in charge, but it’s clearly their barnyard, so to speak.

To illustrate, let’s play a game I call “Animal Bingo.” The rules are simple. Think back over the last week. For each type of wild animal you have seen:

  • standing or sitting beside the road, score 1 point.
  • crossing the road, score 2 points.
  • sitting or standing in the road, score 3 points.
  • eating one of the other animals, score 5 points.

Bonus: score 10 points for any animal that you saw approach a human and try to steal something from it.

How many did you score? It doesn’t matter, because I scored more. I win. Thanks for playing. We have seen every farm animal imaginable; in Africa, animals have the right-of-way, and more than once we have come to a complete stop while they stare dully at us and wonder what all the rush is. A few days ago we had to thread the needle between two donkeys who had decided to stand on a highway. They stood, we weaved.

Besides goats, sheep, and geese we have also encountered pigs, dogs, and the occasional emu. Don’t have a fenced pasture to graze your herd? Hey, why not just send them out by the highway to graze on all that free grass. Good idea (or at least it seems to be one here).

Going home for the night? Only if the geese decide to let you (yes, that is a road…sort of).IMG_5503

And those mountain hiking trails we frequent work just as well for cows (we stepped off to let them pass since they outnumbered and outweighed us). Alas, the cows are not trail-trained, so they do what they want and we step over what they did.

And so on…IMG_5509.JPG

…and so forth…IMG_5510.JPG

And oh my…


These live here (they are native to South Africa) but were not actually on the road, which is good for their sake:


And guess who retired here after his stint pitching beer ended? Spuds MacKenzie! He lives at a kind of surf shack overlooking the beach with a small herd of dogs and their human servants. The story of his death in 1993 was a ruse so he could escape to the Wild Coast of South Africa.IMG_5626

The most aggressive animals, by far, are the baboons, which are, to put it politely, ‘not as nice as they look.’ We visited one monument that had equipped its employees with the latest high-tech gear (sling-shots) to run them off; it didn’t really work, as we watched one ape playing hide-and-seek around a car with one of the guards. A few minutes later another one ran up to a member of our group and grabbed the water bottle in his hand, leading to lots of excitement.

This kind of encounter is not unique to Africa; visitors to Ireland frequently spend time waiting for sheep to cross the road. One exciting day in 1989 we watched an escaped calf run down a street near Purdue University as police, Ag students, and random thrill seekers tried to corral it. The interface between ‘us and them’ is sometimes chaotic, and frequently frustrating, in part because we feel fairly superior to all those ‘lower animals’ we share the planet with, and we are busy people. My favorite human win has to be the prairie dog vacuum removal truck, but the animals have scored their share of points as well.

In some cases animals manage to do thing humans can’t do (yes, I know fish can breathe under water, but I’m not talking about that). When the Soviet reactor at Chernyobyl exploded in 1986, scattering radiation over an enormous area, the humans wisely packed up and evacuated; more than 1,000 square miles were sealed off to prevent human entry. Surprisingly, in the thirty years since humans fled the area, animals of all kinds have moved back in. Many, including a species of wild horse that was once endangered, are flourishing. “Animals rule Chernobyl,” one headline reads, and the latest studies confirm that despite the health hazards in the area, all the wildlife really needed was for the humans to get out of the way. Also to stop blowing up radioactive things.

On our occasional trips to Dallas, we pass what appears to be the remains of a drive-in theater. The strangest part is that, except for the rusting frame of the screen, you would never know it had even been there. The acres of open space where the cars once sat and the children once played are now indistinguishable from the surrounding fields, with brush just as thick, and trees just as tall.

Nothing is permanent. “As hard as concrete” describes something that seems permanent, but most concrete crumbles in a few decades, often less. If you have a few hours to kill, The History Channel has an amazing series called Life After People, in which they lay out, year by year, how long it would take for nature to reclaim every square inch of land that humans have ‘conquered.’ It’s a lot less time than you might think.IMG_5667

(South African grassland reclaims a road)

In short, when it’s all said and done, everything you and I have said and done will be gone and forgotten, most of it within a few years and all of it eventually. This rule applies to the most powerful warlord or CEO and to the young man we met here whose village of 500 lies off the edge of most maps.

And while you may find that perspective to be depressing, let me suggest that such a view can actually free you to enjoy life more. I’ve linked to a fairly lengthy article on this topic at the end of the post if you want to dig into it, but here are a couple of reasons it’s true.

  1. I’ve written before about the role of experiencing ‘awe’ in finding happiness. Awe is, by definition, the experience of feeling small, of recognizing that you are less and being overwhelmed by what you are less than. I can’t imagine our current President feeling awe about anyone or anything, since such a feeling would require him to admit that something else might be more impressive than he is. Until you acknowledge your own limitedness you will fail to see and appreciate the amazingness of the things, and more importantly the people, around you. It makes for a lonely, unhappy life.
  2. Self-important people define themselves, not by what they believe, but by what others believe. They invest enormous time and energy becoming what others say they should be, and striving for achievements that others will value and respect. A woman who defines herself by her job title is dependent on her employer to maintain her self-identity; a man whose life is defined by a bank balance or a club membership is at the mercy of the economy and the shifting rules of the social contest. In contrast, the man who has accepted that he is who he is, regardless of titles and honors, is free to pursue the things that he believes really matter, regardless of how well or how poorly the world may view his pursuits. This perspective is almost the definition of maturity and self-actualization, and has happiness all wrapped up within it.

This perspective is hard for many of us, especially those of us who have done well at ‘playing the game.’ Next time I’ll share a bit more about how taking a break from the game can yield the biggest win you will ever achieve.


Read Laura’s blog to get more on our adventures:  MarkAndLauraPhillips.com

Article link: The purpose of life is to be a nobody.