Day 201: Masego is Setswana for ‘blessing’

I arrive in Tlokweni with the aim of finding Father Noel. Everyone in Groot Marico has told me that this man is an angel and that my journey wouldn’t be complete unless I meet him.

Tlokweni seems godforsaken. The chickens cross the road before I do. There is no water in the village today, according to the old man who drops me off opposite the Roman Catholic Church. Children in school uniform smile as they pass by. I wave back, which sends them into excited chatter and laughter. Laughter at, not with. In that mocking way kids have with adults.

I knock on a door, but there is no answer. So, I walk towards the white church building. I have Father Noel’s number but am not sure if I should call him yet.

To my surprise I find the church open. The early afternoon sun enters through beautiful stained-glass windows. In the centre aisle I sit in a patch of blue light. Mary’s dress. I sit in the lotus position, breathing in the smells of many bodies leaning into God, exhaling white light. I read the story of the crucifixion as it’s told on the walls in a series of twelve murals – the Stations of the Cross.

When I ring Father Noel from his doorstep I hear one of those voices that sound like home. He is in Johannesburg, he tells me, but insists on having his right-hand man, Peter, come and meet me at the church.

After an early night at the Rametsi Game Lodge, where one of the staff brings me their personal bottle of bath bubbles to enjoy in the jacuzzi, Father Noel collects me the following morning. I thank him for booking me into such exclusive digs, but he waves it off. He is a gentle giant.

He tells me little about the life of a Roman Catholic priest in rural North West Province and I share stories of my uBuntu life on the road. When we get back to the church he says that he is leaving again today, on an organized five-day hike, and invites me along.

This outing is an annual event organized by the North West Parks and Tourism Board and 2010 is the tenth year of educating locals about conservation. Eventually the whole area between Madikwe and the Pilanesberg Game Reserves will become a conservation area.

Father Noel offers to pay the registration fee for me and within ten minutes he has phoned around and arranged all the camping gear I shall need. So starts a five-day adventure, walking with a group of around 150 people by day, and spending the nights under the stars.

There is magic in walking in the wild, lost in thought. I am intently focussed on ants team-working to transport some recently detached insect wing back to their nest when I wham-bam into the person in front of me. Why has Masego stopped? Ah, there in the distance, up on a hill, is an elephant. And right next to it another. And another. We see five altogether. Masego is super excited. He is an environmental officer whose passion for the bush is clearly evident. I find my heart sending off a wish for this man – that he may succeed in this field and make it to the top, with his passion in place. Our environment needs eco-warriors like him.

We get to camp early enough to set up before dark. Portable toilets and massive pots of hot water are waiting for us. Father Noel and I do not have plastic basins. This is my chance to help him, so I go off to borrow one from somebody and soon Father Noel falls in line with Zanele’s bright red basin while I crack open a can of beer someone has offered me.

As I sit there, eyes closed, I feel a presence approaching me – calm and peaceful. I open my eyes to see Masego standing in front of me. He is holding a basin in his hands from which steam rises. We smile with each other. He places the basin on the ground. He is here to wash my feet.