by Rebecca Reynolds, President and Founder, Rebecca Reynolds Consulting

Dropping down over the Drakensberg escarpment, an immense shelf of land that gives way in great carved ravines to the vast plains below, I was awed by its magnitude. Instinctively, I felt my arrival in “the bush” and began to prepare my mindset for this first safari in Mpumalanga province, southeast of South Africa’s Kruger National Park.

As a traveler, I fall generally into the category of “when in Rome…,” as opposed to the type that looks for (or demands) the closest approximation of home and hunkers down there. As a “when in Rome” traveler, I use a curious, attentive disposition to notice the many signals of a different culture. The bush offers a plentitude of them, which could be classed more as directives than subtle cues. In other words, when you’re in the bush, as I was told, a definite protocol is what stands between you and peril.
So, on my arrival at camp, I took careful note of the “rules:”

On Game Drive: Wear dun-colored clothing and closed-toe shoes; Stay in the truck, until the ranger says otherwise; Keep all body parts in the truck; No sudden movements or animal calls; On walk back use single file, keep voices low, watch ranger’s gestures, do immediately as told.

In Camp: Don’t leave your room at night; Stay on established trails; Never go for walks without a ranger; Don’t be late for game drive.

These rules made varying degrees of sense initially, but after 24 hours, I saw the clear purpose of each. Incredibly large, incredibly wild animals get incredibly close, both in camp and on drives, so doing as little as possible to provoke them makes incredibly good sense.

Safari rules make a bright line in one’s decision-space, resulting in limited but easy choices. This contrasts to my normal world: fast-paced and full of options with very little risk, where decision-making is not only constant, but also, at times, overwhelming. To help us decide, we hire consultants and coaches (I should know, I’m one of them) and still sit with second thoughts. I found it oddly refreshing to live by safari’s prescriptive code.

On my third game drive, two new women appeared in our truck. That’s how it works: one day you’re bonding with people over a malodorous, rotting lion kill and the next, they’ve vanished, replaced by “strangers,” who, in turn, are family by the day’s end. It’s like that in places where life is lived on the edge: we bond faster because we need each other more. This too attracted me: the deep humanity found in an open-air truck, bumping down the road.

The two women were middle-aged Canadian professors just off a consulting job, ready to unwind. This was their seventh safari in a year. So, it seemed odd that one of the pair didn’t follow safari protocol – at all. She wore loose sandals and bright colors; wandered off during sun downers (the evening stop for cocktails and snacks); was routinely late to game drive; and couldn’t get the hang of single file on walk back.

I observed the woman as I did the animals beyond our truck – I watched, trying to discover her motive for such blatant disregard of safari code. She so amazed me, I was more awed than annoyed (unlike others in our truck, who fumed over her lack of protocol).

After several drives, I couldn’t stand it. With the ranger off scouting wild dogs, I leaned toward the woman and asked gingerly had she not heard about wearing only beige? She looked down at her bright blue shirt and then back at me. With a blank look she said no, she hadn’t known. No umbrage, no recrimination, nor any regret colored her reaction. And the next day, she was just as friendly and just as oblivious, sporting a brilliant fuchsia top.

I’ve thought a lot about this woman and the meaning of her behavior. I’ve asked myself what explanation could there be for so complete a disregard of safari code? Was she an anarchist proving a point? Was she a nincompoop, a nihilist, a naïf? Or was she some kind of guru, teaching that life is life, and no amount of beige is going to protect us from it?

In the end, I just have to laugh, since I can make no sense of it whatsoever.

This piece is the seventh in a series on South Africa by leadership expert and consultant, Rebecca Reynolds. Reynolds works with leaders, explores leadership issues and contexts, and writes on leadership lessons.