Tread Your Own Path - Michael Jeh

Michael Jeh, an eloquent advocate for ‘life after sport’, has created his own enviable post-limelight lifestyle.   

The Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket now runs highly regarded lifeskills training for elite athletes and schools for most of the year. The rest of the year his body, heart and soul resides in Africa, on safari or helping out the residents of Humani, a central Zimbabwean village living side by side with the Big 5. 

Navigating his own survivor guilt, a by product of surviving (and thriving) after his parents were forced to flee war torn Sri Lanka for Australia in the mid 1980s, has led him down an unexpected path. 

After a luck-filled first safari, he was hooked. The African wilderness became a salve to former traumas and a way forward for making a difference. 

Now, after earning his wildlife ranger status, Michael leads tours with avid fans of his style of travel. 

His Barefoot in Africa Tours feature the twin satisfactions of close encounters with Africa's magnificent wildlife and contributing to a better life for villagers living beside lions, elephants, and rhinos. 

Michael’s tours teach you to ‘read' the bush and track the Big 5 on foot. They are also an African bushveld experience replete with high-quality safari lodges and 5 star service. 

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Wildiaries spoke with Michael about his passion for Africa, logistical challenges and the karmic influence of wildlife sightings. 

Q. Could you describe the African environment the first time you travelled there (and now particularly your favourite parts of it)? 

“First time I went to Africa was in an April after a long winter in Europe.  I just knew I’d love it but the speed of that love affair was astounding, even to me.  

“Within hours of arriving, I was in a private game reserve in South Africa (near Kruger National Park) and in the first three minutes of our game drive, we saw a lioness and three cubs.  We spent 20 breathless minutes with them.  Later that same night, we saw a kudu being taken by lions in front of our eyes.  

“Unbelievable stuff but I foolishly thought that every game drive would be like this.  Little did I know how incredibly lucky I was.  “Cupid’s arrow was cast – I was now officially in love with Africa.”

Q. Can you describe your favourite reactions from visitors when they see their first glimpse of the African veldt?

“Their reactions tend to be about the vastness and the assault on your senses that a TV documentary simply cannot replicate.  The smells, the warm breeze, the sounds of birds and insects, the dust.  

“I have never had a guest yet who was left unmoved by that first realization that this is not a zoo but a living Eden.  

“The first animal you see also leaves an indelible impression and quite amazingly, it almost always tends to be an iconic species like rhino, elephant, giraffe, zebra or lion.  

“Rarely do you see a gazelle first up, even though they are by far the most common species.  It’s like Africa serves up a treat to get you hooked.”

Q. What are some of your best moments in your career, and your earlier life? 

“In a wildlife sense, the best moment is always the next one.  I wake up every single day on safari and I’m as excited as if it was my first one. 

“I am genuinely excited at seeing another elephant again, despite having seen thousands of them.  When I’m guiding guests, I often pinch myself (literally) because I can’t believe that I’m doing this for a job.  It must be a dream.

“In a non-wildlife setting, a similar story.  Playing professional cricket, being paid to do something I adore was just too much to believe.  Especially after my rocky start to life (as a refugee).  Every single day of my cricket career, without fail, I thanked God that this was happening to me and please, if this is a dream, please don’t let me wake up!”

Q. What are your biggest challenges, what challenges does the region you take travellers to face?

“Biggest challenge is the logistics involved in getting to Africa and convincing guests that it is worth the time/expense.  This is not a Bali/Phuket holiday that you can get on a $300 special rate with Jetstar.  

“Africa is rarely an impulse decision and guests need to be convinced that it is safe and realistic.  

“Another challenge is to give them a point of difference for coming to Africa with me. I’m not a local African, I’m not born in the bush, I don’t know everything about wildlife but I love it as much as any African.  Sometimes they want to be shown Africa by a local.  

“But my passion and the fact that I’m a foreigner, seeing Africa through those eyes, actually makes me a better guide because I don’t take things for granted.  

“I explain things from the perspective of someone who assumes nothing.

 “The region has a perception of safety issues (like street crime, etc) which is overplayed to a large degree but perception is reality.  My role is to reassure people that, with due care, those risks are no worse than travelling anywhere and the upside is worth the risk.  

“People also fear that it is primitive but they are surprised that it still has so many of the amenities that we take for granted (broadband, shops, running water, electricity etc).  The contrast between what a tourist can avail themselves of (all these first-world facilities) and what the villager has to live with is one of the beauties (and sadnesses) of the region.

Travellers just need to arrive in Africa with the right attitude and the continent always rewards those people with amazing experiences.  Good things good happen to good people, never truer than in Africa.  I’ve lost count of the number of good people who have had amazing wildlife sightings for example, sometime on their very last game drive.  And the reverse applies too!”

Q. Is there a shared vision for Humani and its people?

“Not that they’ve articulated because they’re too busy surviving.  But for someone like me, the vision is to create a place where wildlife and humans can co-exist in a semi-harmonious way, mindful that Utopia is a waste of breath.  

“The people just want better lives (don’t we all?) but they want it on their terms without having to feel obliged for merely wanting what the rest of mankind accepts as an inalienable human right. 

“My pragmatic vision is to make them proud of their country and make their lives better in realistic ways, in so doing, showing them that wildlife tourism (and the benefits it brings) is more than just rhetoric.

Q. What sustains that, or gives you hope for that vision?

“To some extent, my Survivor Guilt partly drives that vision but in a positive (selfish) sense because I want to assuage that guilt in a place I love that has no personal connection to trauma for me. 

Q. “ I’m sustained by absolute love of African wildlife and the people of southern Africa.  

“I’ve seen the difference I can make for the lives of humans that I can see, touch, and hug - so that sustains me.  I want my kids to see rhinos and elephants in 50 years time.  

“But most of all, I now truly believe (hope) that I can actually live an extraordinary life (not in terms of money but in experiences) and this is my abiding, enduring passion (apart from my family).  “Nothing, not even cricket, comes close to my obsession with African wildlife.  

“If a refugee boy in rags can go on to become an Oxford Blue, play pro cricket, marry a beautiful woman, have three kids and become a wildlife guide in Africa, the dream is still alive….”

Wildiaries • September 2014