Fr Chris Townsend: A Priest’s Rest
Fr Chris Townsend takes time out to birdwatch on his annual holiday in the Kruger Park. In his column he describes the importance of getting away from urban life.
Every year for the past ten years, a friend and I have taken off the first few weeks in January to travel to the Kruger National Park. That is the highlight of my year, and every year it seems that I need the break earlier and earlier…
One of the saddest stories I remember from a priest friend was how parishioners had generously given him a week of timeshare at Umhlanga one year — but while he was there, all he could afford to eat was bread and Marmite.
I thank God for the space and time to be able to get away for these two weeks. It seems like a small thing, but the more the shortage of priests impacts on us clergy and the workload increases, the more important do these moments of rest become.
This year, as I am writing this article at the end of a day in the Kruger Park, I have shared this trip with a good friend and my godson — who has just finished matric — and his sister. I’ve had to pack four adults and our luggage into my Volkswagen.
Some of the places we have stayed do not have all the facilities (these are only for those who can afford to book them) and so we also had to pack coolers and utensils.
I had to practise some very astute 3D Tetris Packing — making me marvel at how my parents packed three boys into a car for holiday! And now things are so much more complex — nappy bags and three wheel prams. Impressive!
The Trip Begins
As I save up for the year for this break, being here gives me the chance to rest. The Kruger has that effect on me. I usually have to watch myself driving as the training to relax, to take things at the much slower pace often causes me to fall asleep. I’ve been very glad for the extra drivers in my car this year.
This year our odyssey began with a journey up from Pretoria to Pafuri Gate. I never really feel on holiday until I have passed Hammanskraal, site of my old seminary of St Peter’s.
From that exit on the N1, I began to actually leave the parish behind. That’s a very difficult thing to do, but I think with experience I’m getting better at it.
The northern part of the Kruger is very much quieter. On our first night we stayed at Pafuri River Lodge, in tents on stilts. Here we met an old farmer who has the storyteller gene. With his gammy knee, wheezy breathing and spider tales, he regaled us with stories of the bushveld and farming communities while we marvelled at the near 40°C temperatures from the very small pool. It was so nice being the one listening to stories rather than the one telling them—and he was brilliant!
From about Tshipise we also had no cellular reception — for a full 24 hours. What a way to start a real break — a break from technology and the demands and tyranny of social media — although we did use our phones to take some really fun pics as we crossed the Tropic of Capricorn.
The Kruger Park operates at a different pace and with a very different attitude. On a couple of occasions, I was reminded by the generally wonderful staff that we can’t impose our big city mentality—rather, there is time for chat, for kuier, for smiling and greeting.
Animals and People Joy
My favourite animal is the elephant. The wise and wrinkled have this amazing presence. Imagine my joy at having the first animal sighted being an elephant! And that was the pattern for the whole day.
As I age, I also find great joy in birdwatching. My father is an avid birder, but as I was growing up, it was not something I could relate to. But being in a car with four enthusiastic birders, it is remarkable how this twitching — the act of travelling long distances to see rare birds — allows you to step out and marvel at the most spectacular of God’s creatures.
Every year, I meet up with parishioners in the park for a breakfast feast that includes their own speciality of Nutella and peanut butter. This sugar rush has to be balanced out by protein, otherwise you have to sleep off the hangover in a car park. It’s a blessing to be able to see parishioners when both you and they are in a different situation.
Clergy are entitled to four weeks including weekends out of the parish. Many find this very difficult to do as we struggle to find replacements. Of course, there are those who invert this and might be found in their parishes one out of four weeks a year — but that’s a story for another day.
Spare a thought for your priest — ask first if he has taken a proper holiday!