I’ve always had a fascination with African culture, ever since I was a kid growing up watching Lion King and listening to the music! It must have been something about the vibrant colours and insane harmonies in their voices that have always pulled me in. However, it wasn’t until much later in life that I got to experience African culture first hand.

Having been lucky enough to visit South Africa on holiday twice, along with three deployments with Veterans for Wildlife, I’ve experienced African wildlife at its best.

But, what I hadn’t yet experienced in much depth, was the culture of the local people. So, when I was asked by Veterans for Wildlife to volunteer on a training package for a team of Zulu wildlife rangers, I was as excited as I was honoured.

As we drove from Johannesburg to KwaZulu-Natal, I wasn’t sure how the Zulus would react to a bloke from south London. But with a very open mind, and a learn Zulu easy app, I was definitely looking to learn as much from the rangers as what I was hoping to impart to them.

After spending the afternoon and evening settling into the accommodation, the next day we went off to meet the team. Two things became apparent as soon as we met with the rangers. First, I was going to have to slow down my London accent if I had any hope of getting anything across to the guys. English is not their first language. Second, there were some dominant characters within the group. But, it wasn’t long until we were all pretty relaxed in each others company.

My primary role within the program was to lead the physical training for the rangers every morning. Before they then moved onto the more tactical aspect of the work. It was an absolute pleasure to share my passion for fitness with the rangers. It was clear from the start that a few of them shared this passion too. Indeed, there were some extremely fit guys in the team!

Although having come from the hustle and bustle of London life, I was soon aware that things happened at a different pace over here. TIA (this is Africa), right?

As amazing and multicultural as London is, it’s completely different from being completely immersed in someone else’s culture. Over the next few weeks, I was lucky to enough to talk to all the rangers and hear some of their incredible stories.

One of the older guys, Richard, had miraculously survived being hit by a Black Rhino while out on patrol. Having felt the handshake of this guy I only hope the Rhino was okay too!

After getting to know the team, it was clear that they were all extremely passionate about the animals they were employed to protect. This wasn’t just a job for them, they truly wanted to keep these animals safe, which came through in how keen they were to learn and improve the skills that we were teaching them.

It wasn’t until the morning of day three that we really got to see their culture come to life. Around two miles into their first-ever Tactical Advance to Battle (TAB), the Zulu’s started to break into song, somehow managing to keep in perfect harmony despite the break into double time (running).

Although it was hugely motivating for them, I personally felt very calm listening to them sing as we tabbed around the African bush. They even sang songs about members of the training team individually, but it was probably for the best that we didn’t get those translated!

After that, the boys were often in song, one of the most memorable was one cold, wet KwaZulu-Natal morning singing around the fire. I tried my best to join in while two-stepping to the beat. With no real clue what I was singing about, but it was nice to find out after that we were singing about protecting the Rhino.

The two weeks passed mostly event-free, except for being mock charged by a Rhino while out on patrol! But it was great to see the guys go from strength to strength during their training. Not only physically did they seem like a much stronger outfit, but their skills and drills were now a lot slicker too. They took on everything we gave them with true Zulu spirit, and it was great to form so many friendships with them as well.

On the last day, we had a big game of football and a braai to celebrate all their hard work. That morning, one of the more senior guys, named Khanya, called me outside. He and a few of the guys presented me with an isiphandla. This is a wrist bracelet made of animal skin, in my case Impala, and is used not only as a form of celebration but also as a way of remembering their ancestors. I was incredibly honoured to receive this from the Zulus and just as honoured to have had the chance to share my knowledge with them and watch them grow.

They also gave me a new Zulu name, Siyabonga Khanya (Thank You Light) which is probably for the best as on the last day I found out that my English name, Dermot, phonetically translates as “the sh&t guy” in Zulu!

During the braai, as promised, the guys taught me how to “stomp”, the traditional Zulu dance. My first few attempts were far from successful, and I looked like the embarrassing drunk uncle at an African wedding. However, I eventually managed to get some form of rhythm, and we managed to put a few steps together, all to the amusement of the boys.

My experience hadn’t quite ended there! Some of the boys had finished their rotation on duty and were about to be dropped at home. The driver offered to take me with so that I could see the villages in which the guys lived. It was a real eye-opener to see rural South Africa. These people survive on very little other than the land on which they live. They are incredibly self-sufficient, and most seemed very happy. I was extremely privileged to be taken into the huts of one of the guys to meet his grandmother, who was 98 years old! 98 years of living with very few possessions or money but with the biggest smile on her face. What an honour.

My two weeks in KwaZulu-Natal were some of the best of my life, and I will always remember them very fondly. I’d like to think that the rangers got a lot out of the training package. But, on a personal level, I gained so much from being in their company as well. I’m still in touch with many of the rangers now, and it’s good to see they are still training as well as doing a tremendous job of protecting the wildlife. It really was a life-changing experience, and I’m incredibly grateful to Veterans for Wildlife for giving me that opportunity.