“You can´t start the next chapter in your life if you keep re-reading the last one”
I don´t know who wrote this quote but it states the truth. You usually buy a book because of a topic you are fascinated by or at least interested in and from chapter to chapter as the story builds up. This is exactly how my story begins: As a little girl, I was fascinated by animals and wildlife. Heinz Sielmann, the German David Attenborough (in my eyes), was one of my favourite idols during my childhood. From a young age, I travelled with my parents a lot and they tried to bring me as close to nature as possible. We travelled all over Europe, stayed in tents and walked whenever the opportunity allowed. There is nothing better than a walking among nature, no matter where you are.
Daydreaming through life
I’ve grown since then and for the last 12 years, I worked at a German retail company. I travelled a lot, especially throughout Asia. I loved my job and I enjoyed seeing different places and the feeling of always being en route. I was successful in what I was doing and my job afforded me the means to travel the world. I travelled to places I used to see on documentaries and one place in particular I travelled to was Galapagos Islands. This childhood dream came true at the beginning of 2014. What a stunning place! It was a four-week journey through the rainforests of Ecuador and the Anden Islands. This holiday was just the beginning of my travel obsession. Each time I returned home I started to think about my next destination exploration. After many holidays at beautiful places, laying on the beach and enjoying all that all-inclusive services had to offer, I realised that I needed something more. Not more in the typical sense, I was seeking something less, that to me meant more. Something that would challenge me spiritually, that would satisfy my inner explorer.
But how do I do it?
It took me a while to figure it out, and at first, I didn´t know where to go or what to do. I didn´t want to be a tourist anymore. I wanted to do something meaningful and really get close to nature. After doing some research I decided on volunteering. At that point of my life, I thought it was the best way to learn more about nature, wildlife and conservation and I could handle it with my current job. I thought about different places and finally, I booked a programme in South Africa with Manyoni Private Game Reserve (formerly known as Zululand Rhino Reserve).
Why Africa? I can´t tell you. It was a place I have never visited before and the wildlife fascinated me from what I read in books and saw on TV. So, I gave it a try. It was an unbelievable experience that far exceeded my expectation.
We monitored wild dogs, did game counts, analysed and set up camera traps for leopard surveys and even relocated rhinos. I enjoyed the time with other people from all around the world who were as passionate as I was about nature. Then it just happened... only after a few days, I realised that this is not just another holiday for me. Africa was not a country I would come to for a holiday then go back home. I really had the opportunity to experience a lot of places around the world, but this time something was different. Something deep inside my soul told me that this is the place where I had to be. Not as a tourist, staying in a 5-star hotel or going on safari.
After a few weeks that felt like days, the time had come for me to leave Africa. I literally cried from my departure from South Africa until I arrived in Germany. In general, I am not really someone that shows emotions but this experienced awoken something inside me and in the midst of flying thousands of feet above sea level, I began to rethink my whole life. I didn´t want to leave South Africa and I definitely didn´t want it to only be a holiday.
Something inside me changed
When I landed in Germany, I knew my dad was already waiting for me at arrivals. I tried to convince myself: “Katharina you are 30 years old – stop crying like an 8-year-old child!" But as soon as I saw my dad I started crying again. I was so overwhelmed with emotion that I was unable to talk to him for about an hour. Just thinking about the last few weeks and what I experienced made me burst into tears again.
I needed to snap out of comatose
I fought with myself and tried to convince myself that I was just a little overworked and that it was time for a holiday again. But in this case, I lied to myself. Everything I was dreaming about since I was a small child came back to me. There is a way to fulfil my dreams and it is not as far and impossible as I thought.
During my stay in South Africa, I met a guy from Germany. His name is Daniel and he operates a German agency called NATUCATE. They specialise in educational nature experiences through volunteering, wilderness experiences and sabbaticals. We had a few long conversations and he seemed to have the solution for my next step. He told me about EcoTraining and I contacted him as soon as I was back in Germany.
And so, my story continues... After only one week back in Germany I made a booking for an EcoQuest course with EcoTraining. To know that I was going back to the place that brought me serenity and gave me the peace to sleep again. It took me 32 years to actually realise my dream of living in the bush. The place that conquered my heart and gave me the feeling of utter satisfaction and the sense that I had found my home. I managed to finally continue my life story and happily living the next chapter of my book.
The next chapter of my life starts here
I returned to Africa in February 2016 for the two-week EcoQuest programme at Mashatu camp located in Botswana and Makuleke camp situated in Northern Kruger National Park, South Africa. The EcoQuest course was the perfect combination of being out in the bush and learning more about it. I felt at home again. Having the opportunity to be immersed in nature spoke for itself and the people I met were amazing.
I was introduced to a whole variety of the bush, flowers, trees, birds, grasses, insects, tracks, behaviour, geology and how these ecosystems work together. We had so many encounters with elephants in the bush. It is difficult to describe in words the humility that is harnessed when encountering majestic herds of elephants. I always felt a spiritual connection with elephants because there is something about these animals that when I look into their eyes I could instantly feel it. In the end, I knew that this was the place where I belonged. I had some insightful conversations with the instructors of EcoTraining and shortly before I had to leave for Germany again, we sat around the campfire and reflected on the past exciting weeks. We shared what we had learned, what we would take back home and what it meant to us. Once again, I felt tears swelling up in my eyes.
The time had come where I needed to make a decision that would change the course of my life.
When I returned home to Germany this time round, it was a different experience than the last time. My dad was waiting for me at airport arrivals and he immediately realised something has changed in me. No more tears, but instead I returned more fierce, confident and empowered as a human being. My mind was already made up that I would return to Africa, it just wasn't an option anymore.
This decision to go to Africa was not an easy one and it was a difficult process for not only me but my family as well. My loving and concerned family did not initially support my decision to leave Germany, with a good job, stable income, comfortable apartment, all those things that afforded me a safe and comfortable life in Europe, for a life in Africa. They felt that Africa was too far and asked me if Africa was really worth giving up life in Germany? I responded, "absolutely, without a doubt". Over time, my family and friends grew their understanding of what Africa was really about and instead of holding me back, they supported my dreams of a life in Africa.
There is this one picture taken during my first trip to South Africa. Nothing special, just me driving a car. But to this day my family and friends still say that looking at that picture, that they can´t remember ever seeing me that happy.
Daniel from NATUCATE and I became good friends and he helped me to return to Africa. Still today we are in contact and I made the booking for the one-year field guide course with EcoTraining through Daniel. I resigned from my job at the end of November 2016 and left Germany at the beginning of January 2017 to join the Professional Field Guide course.
Life after Europe
I would lie if I'd say it was easy. The first weeks were especially quite hard for me. There was just so much to learn and although I was interested in all the topics it was a struggle from time to time since English was not my first language, but I managed it. Learning in the bush is about seeing, feeling and experiencing. It is truly a unique experience being so deeply immersed in nature surrounded by overflowing wilderness. I look back now and realise that I was close to missing out on my true calling and proud that I did not give up on my dream.
I locked eyes with an Elephant bull
I remember a night in the Selati camp in mid-January 2016. I was in the restroom and heard something rustling behind me on the outside of the wall. I was really frightened at first, but then I realised it was an elephant. He walked around the corner to the front of the entrance. Our eyes locked as we stood face to face with one another. We stayed in this position for quite a while before the bull continued feeding. I felt no fear at all, although it was quite close and the elephant was very relaxed. At the end, I was stuck there for about half an hour together with my tent roommate Kia. It was an incredible experience. The next day I told everyone about what had happened and it all came back to me...why I came to Africa and how grateful I was for those who helped me to find my way to Africa. I aspire to be one of those people that can give the same advice to others as those have done for me.
Today already a half year has passed and I have just qualified as a Field Guide and Trails guide back-up. In a few days, I will start working as a back-up for EcoTraining and I am just extremely excited for the adventures to come.
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