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Adventures in South Africa with hearing loss!

South Africa with hearing loss

As the first-ever Phonak hEARo from South Africa, I would love to explain what it is like to live in the culture and environment of South Africa as a person with hearing loss.

I feel I’ve been somewhat remiss so far in sharing my experiences living here. It’s a continent filled with beauty and adventure and incredible people. It also has a wildness to it that is both beautiful and dangerous all at the same time. A wildness that demands respect. For those of us living with hearing loss, this is something to keep in mind if you ever step out into that wildness – you must respect it enough to stay alert and use your other senses.


We may be living with hearing loss, but human beings have five main sense and scientists are recognizing additional sense as well. If we focus only on what we’ve lost, can’t do or perceive, we dilute our experiences and could compromise our safety. I’ve got one story that could only happen in Africa which I think illustrates this beautifully!

My experience in a South African national park

A few years ago, we went on a family holiday to the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi national park. Located near St Lucia in Northern KwaZulu-Natal, it forms part of a protected National Heritage site, with the uMfolozi* river meeting the St Lucia estuary in a rich, diverse area of national wetlands that used to provide ample hunting grounds for the Bantu** kingdoms settled there. The reserve has a large population which includes the Big 5, which makes it quite an attractive tourist destination.

We were lucky enough to stay in one of their lodges as a whole extended family. We were a party of around 10 or so, and mostly did the usual game drives, evening braais*** watching the river for game, visiting hides and so on.

However, we also had the opportunity to do something that many other nature reserves don’t offer. A guided hike through the reserve in the company of one of the game rangers. We jumped at the chance!

It’s one thing to go on a game drive, safe behind the heavy metal frame of one of the park’s official vehicles, or the glass of your own car’s windows. It’s quite another to step out into the expanses of the veld. You notice far more when it’s just you and your wits out there. With the tough grass crunching underfoot, the heavy heat of the humid air making the sweat roll down your back, and your blood singing in your veins as you search for whatever lies in wait out there in the bush.

“It’s one thing to go on a game drive, safe behind the heavy metal frame of one of the park’s official vehicles, or the glass of your own car’s windows. It’s quite another to step out into the expanses of the veld.”

Every movement is easier to catch. As birds dart from branch to branch, from one thorned acacia tree to the next. Our guide led us down paths dotted with the spoor of impala, kudu, and waterbuck – to name just a few. Excitement set in when we found the large pawprints of an elusive leopard. One of the least commonly seen animals in any reserve due to their stealthy, solitary nature. In 27 years of living here, I’ve yet to see one in the wild.

As we crested a ridge overlooking a bend in the river, we spotted a sleeping male white rhino. We came up downwind of him, which was lucky on our part, as rhinos have a keen sense of smell and a rather grumpy disposition. The ranger guiding us had us turn around and go back down the bank we’d just come over. He had the intention of taking a wide loop around our sleeping beauty.

 

South Africa with hearing loss

Entering into danger

As we came down the bank, three things happened at once. Firstly, the wind changed. This meant that we were now upwind of a rhino. With its acute sense of smell in what he would deem a vulnerable position to unknown predators. Secondly, our ranger tensed up and started moving very warily. You could sense that he wanted to move us on as quickly as possible from what was turning into a potentially dangerous situation. He did this without alerting the group to it and thus keeping us all calm to prevent the situation getting worse in the event that anyone reacted badly to the pressure. Thirdly, as I noticed this, we came down the bank we’d just climbed and rounded a clump of reeds, coming face to face with a female black rhino and her calf.

That was the moment where time seemed to slow down. The calf shot off past us, leaving momma confused, angry and worried. She also happened to be facing our group. Naturally, she saw us as a threat that had come between her and her offspring. The next couple of minutes, and it can’t have been any longer than that, though it felt like an eternity, had every single sense screaming information into our consciousnesses.

The ground shook as the weight of rhino momma thundered towards us. The wind continued to blow. The tops of the reeds waving gently in the breeze as it carried our scent towards the sleeping white rhino. My hearing aid picked up a “huff, huff, huff” sound, like a dog that wasn’t sure whether to bark or not.

“My hearing aid picked up a “huff, huff, huff” sound, like a dog that wasn’t sure whether to bark or not.”

Everyone scattered into the bushes around the path in what seemed like slow motion as our guide interposed himself between the panicked mother and our group. I ended up directly behind him. I saw the sun glinting off the raised edges of the high-caliber round he was trying to chamber in his rifle. The golden brassy edges highlighted against the glossy wood of the stock and dark, dull metal of the breach.

The round caught at the wrong angle, then dropped into the long, wet grass further down the slope as he lost his grip on it. As she closed the distance, he raised the gun in the air and smacked the butt, rising up and shouting to make as much noise as possible and to make himself appear as large as he could. Scant meters away, the charging rhino started scrabbling, as the ground beneath her heavy feet started to rise. She was unable to find purchase as the rain from the previous night had left it slippery and treacherous. Her ears flicked with annoyance and concern as she realized that she was unable to reach us. She turned and ran off through the tall grass and reeds in search of her offspring.

The drumming footsteps, however, didn’t recede with her – a fact that didn’t immediately register as we all relaxed momentarily, watching her go. Scant seconds later, we were all diving for the bushes again as sleeping beauty, now awake and panicking, rushed past from the opposite side.

Needless to say, the rest of the hike saw several members of the group twitching at every sound! We eventually made it back safely without incident. Although that has to be one of the top highlights of my life here on the continent I call home.

What does this have to do with hearing loss?

Remember what I said earlier on in this post – you’ll see how many different things we noticed through the whole event, things that allowed our guide to protect us from serious harm, because we have other senses that we can use. We can read body language, temperature, and the emotions present in a room or area to sense potential danger. If you’ll allow me to add that last one to the list! I’m sure most of you know your own intuition and understand what I mean.

“Pay attention to your surroundings. We had plenty of visual cues to work with to check things like wind direction and the immediate presence of wild animals capable of dealing out serious injury or death.”

Pay attention to your surroundings. We had plenty of visual cues to work with to check things like wind direction and the immediate presence of wild animals capable of dealing out serious injury or death. Vibrations allowed us to feel the rhinos coming, and other sub-senses to touch allowed us to know where the ground was safe. You can apply similar principles for your own safety anywhere. Be vigilant and aware of your surroundings and make use of the senses available to you. Use common sense, and you’ll be able to avoid other, more mundane dangers than charging rhinos!

Beyond danger, however, using all the senses that we still have allow us to fully experience the world around us. There is so much on offer – and because it certainly bears repeating, I’ll say it again. Do not let your hearing loss distract you from what your other senses have to offer. You are far more than your disability!

*For the eagle-eyed among you who noticed that the second letter is capitalized in this name, this is actually the correct way to write it in isiZulu! The first part, “u” literally means “the”, singular. “ama” Would be plural, so when we talk about “amaZulu”, we mean a group of Zulu people. 
**The Bantu peoples are a vast, diverse group who covered much of Sub-Saharan Africa and reputedly migrated down the East Coast of the continent from the area that is today the Democratic Republic of Congo and Nigeria. Several kingdoms split off from them, including the Zulus, Swazis, Sotho, Ndebele, Tswana, Venda, Pedi…The list goes on! They are all linked by language, and you’ll notice many shared words and traits among the languages they speak even today.
***A braai is somewhat like a barbeque (NEVER call a braai a barbeque in the presence of a South African unless you want a snotklap****!) but over charcoal. Typical offerings at a braai include boerewors, chops, proper steak, and kebabs (We call them Sosaties). Garlic bread is also a common feature.
****Snotklap – (Noun): When you get hit so hard that the snot literally flies out of your head. (Thanks, Afrikaans, for the lovely verbiage you give the rest of us South Africans!)

Are you ready to plan your next trip to South Africa for adventure? Your hearing loss definitely won’t stop you!

markbarnard
markbarnard
Mark was discovered to have severe hearing loss - total loss in his left ear, severe in the right - at the age of 3, owing to a Cytomegalovirus infection. He grew up as part of the mainstream community, and only started regularly wearing hearing aids at the age of 15, when his hearing loss dropped to profound levels. Rugby has always been a passion of his, and he's never stopped playing since getting his first opportunity in high school. His greatest claim to fame is playing for the South African Deaf Rugby team, a position he also uses to advocate for the Deaf community. However, he is afflicted with an interest in anything and everything, which manifests in limitless Star Wars puns, comments on the things making up the fabric of society, requests for your favourite banana bread recipes, a predilection for painting 28mm sci-fi models and the inability to fit into any of the proverbial descriptive "boxes" society likes to place people in. He currently lives in Durban with his wife, Amy.