The hiss of the kettle coming to the boil on its nest of coals at precisely three o’clock was a welcome call to gather for tea and biscuits. Some had taken advantage of siesta time and slept, some relaxed on chairs on the lookout, some got to know each other better
“We are going to go the confluence,” Aron announced.
Happy sounds of assent greeted his pronouncement.
“I believe it really is an amazing sight,” Rozz said. “It would be such a shame to be here and not to see it.”
Tea drunk, anoraks and backpacks retrieved we headed for the game vehicle. There was some last minute activity in the small kitchen, as everyone organised drinks and snacks for the walk, and for the drive back camp.
We set off on what was now becoming a familiar track, heading east. As we gathered near the young Baobab, Aron looked anxiously heavenward. Clouds threatened, the light was not good.
“We will walk straight to the confluence this time, along the riverbed, and come back the same way.”
There was a delicious sense of excitement as we made our way down a steep path, and arrived on the riverbed. As we clambered onto a large outcrop rocks, a hippo rose up through a great swirl of water, took one indignant look at us, and fled, leaving a huge, white-crested wake. He stopped a short way ahead, and stood quivering in what could have been fury, or fear.
Aron and Absolom were in a hurry, but still made sure that each of us managed to climb the steep steps of the rocks, and that we put our feet on safe footholds. The hippo was shaking his head and snorting, looking around for fellows to join him in his condemnation of this intrusion into his domain, when there was a familiar rumble, a flash and the rain began to fall.
“The rain is coming, and it is not going to stop,” Aron was concerned. “Are you happy to continue?”
His anxiety made me uneasy, but we really wanted to see the confluence. We decided to continue. Soon the rocks were black and glistening, the light worsened. I felt my foot slip. I am an asthmatic, and did not know how my lungs would hold out if we had to make a dash for it. The hippo gave another flick of his enormous head.
“I’m sorry, but I am really not keen to carry on,” I said.
Aron stopped immediately. “The rocks are going to get more slippery. And we will have to come back up there,” he pointed to a barely discernible path on the lower slope of the bank.
There was a moment’s silence as everyone thought over the odds.
“I am also not happy with a weapon in the wet, which may not fire.”
With that, and another look at the agitated hippo, and we all agreed that turning back was the better option.
“We’ll go for a drive instead,” Aron reassured.
“Will we try again?” someone asked.
Both guides shook their heads.
“It’s obvious we are not meant to go the confluence. Let us listen to the bush.”
Once back in the vehicle, snacks and drinks appeared as we settled down to enjoy a drive in a part of Kruger Park where we were the only people.
We came across a bull elephant, and watched enthralled as he manoeuvred a tree trunk out of the ground, and then debarked it, delicate moves from one so large. We saw a pearl spotted owlet, close, only a couple of metres away, nestled in the fork of a tree.
“Look at that giraffe, he thinks he is sheltering from the rain,” we all laughed at the animal whose head towered above the shrub he was sheltering behind.
Night came fast, and it was dark when we arrived back at the camp, delighted to see the cheery glow of the log fire, and with the aroma emanating from the kitchen where Shadrack was working his magic.
It was a good day in the bush. Not the one we had planned, but a good day nonetheless, it was the day the bush ordained.
The air in the safari vehicle tingled with a sense of expectation as we left Letaba and headed south. Conversation was a little muted to begin with as we tentatively explored our new companions, and wondered if we would merge well over the next couple of days.
Aron assured us he would not be stopping for minor sights, but if there was anything we particularly wanted to look at we should alert him. Our first experience of his proficiency as a guide came as we stopped on the low-level bridge across the Oliphant’s River, where both his and Absolom’s knowledge of birds became apparent.
James, who had told us he really wanted to see Ground Hornbill was delighted a little later when we came around a corner and there was a threesome of the handsome turkeys. After looking our fill, we turned off, onto one of those delicious looking roads with a “no entry” sign. I have always wanted to go on one of those. I sighed happily.
The antelope we saw seemed nervous, and after a quick look at us, all ran away. I wondered if it was because they seldom saw vehicles, or if it was a sign of fear inflicted by poachers. The temperature had gone from 36 degrees the previous day to the low twenties, and clouds were gathering. We stopped for a leg stretch and a log-gather, and had our first taste of walking freely in the bush.
The sun was dipping fast, and Aron showed us his artistic side as he stopped for us to record the sunset, far from the hue and cry of civilization.
Night fell fast, and just as the journey seemed interminable we came to a gate, guarded with skulls and horns. A quick indication of the location of the four huts, and toilets, and an injunction to meet when we were settled to hear about the “Politics of the Bush” had us scampering off smartly. By the time we had claimed our bags, checked out our rooms, a cheerful fire had been made, and our two guides were waiting for us. The excitement, and for some, terror, of a slender snake slithering across the boma floor alerted us to the need to look where we were going!
It was later identified as a reticulated centipede eater.
The ground rules were simple: no food in the rooms, keep the toilet seats down or deal with any thirsty squirrel that might have drowned in the bowl, how the gas geysers worked. Our morning call would be at 5 am, water would be provided in a basin outside our rooms, and we were not to leave our tilley lamps untended in the rooms. Dinner was served shortly thereafter.
Chef Shadrack did us proud, so with full tummies, and the thought of rising before dawn, most of us headed for bed.
Language can be such fun!
A few days ago I was left a copy of our local newspaper, and was reading the classifieds (the only pages worth reading) when I came across the following under a section entitled “Livestock and Poultry”:
3 saws and 1 boer +-55kg
I was delighted and hooted merrily. But it got me thinking about language, about communication, about words. After all, I’m supposed to be a writer and this is all a part of my craft. I realised that, certainly in this part of the world, it is all about what is familiar. I don’t know about you, but I tend to link strange words or ideas in order to remember them and I guess this is what has happened here: sows and boars are not familiar words, but everyone knows what a saw is, and boers? Well, in this part of the world we know all about them!
For those uninitiated, boer is the Afrikaans word for farmer, but in the apartheid years the word took on a different connotation, describing a race of people who were to be feared, and yes, hated. The boer was the nationalist, the hater of blacks, the representatives of the apartheid regime.
On the flip side, the word is also an acknowledgement of the root characteristic of the Afrikaner people, tough, hardy folk of the land. In the light of this, is a boar so different to a boer? Boer is a word that is familiar, and so it is easy to substitute it for boar.
Another gem much flaunted in this country is the word “temporal” which is consistently used instead of “temporary”. The latest one is a sign saying: “Beware! Temporal exit!” outside and enormous building site. I have visions of lines of tipper trucks heading into outer space through some eternal portal, and wonder if they are off to prepared the highway for the rest of us mortals who, for now at least, are earthbound.
Which brings me to my favourite sign of all:
It gives me such pleasure to know the crocodile has a flatdog!
I was fortunate to be invited to spend a night in Swaziland’s premiere game park, Mkhaya, recently, where I took this picture of a small family of kudu.
It occurs to me that whilst there has been a huge outpouring of horror in Britain, and here in South Africa at the killing of a famed lion, Cecil, by a dentist from America, it is just possible that there is a large mass of people out there who do not understand how aberrant trophy hunting is to many of us who live in the beauty and wonder of Africa.
The thought that sightings like these I have included might become a thing of the past makes us angry. Angry because it is mainly people who do not live here, who have no affinity for our bush, who come and callously take lives for a reason that to us is unfathomable, be it rhino horn for potency, ivory for decoration, or heads to sightlessly adorn walls. I have watched television programmes where people foreign to Africa come and claim to be “Lion whisperers” and ponce around the bush yelling and screaming at the dignified kings of the savannah, waving sticks in their faces to make them cower, showing their “respect” for the great white man from across the ocean! The utter savagery of the cheek of such egos, the total lack of regard or respect for these great cats, sets my teeth on edge.
To my thinking, killing simply for the sake of it, call it sport if you will, shows a further lack of respect for God’s creation. I know there is an argument for cows, sheep, goats and pigs too, but in the main these are slaughtered humanely, there is no question of extinction hanging over their heads, and they are killed as food, not trophies. There is a distinct difference.
The onus to stop the killing is being put on the heads of African governments, which is fair to a degree. But I think the governments of those nationals who boast the most about their killing sprees should also take some initiative. Start a register of hunters, limit permits allowing trophies to be brought home to their countries, introduce laws to protect their own wildlife and above all, educate, educate, educate about the value of the natural world around us.
I don’t know what all can or should be done, but I do know that I want the killing to stop. I don’t want to be confronted with photographs of mutilated rhino carcases, and pictures of magnificent lions, elephants, buffaloes, bears, alligators grotesquely posed with their murderers grinning maniacally in victory.
It is fortunate that, whilst I have people living close to me, I don’t have neighbours in the traditional sense of the word, given the happenings around here first thing Monday morning.
We had some much needed rain over the weekend, accompanied by freezing temperatures. There were heavy snowfalls on the Drakensberg mountains of Lesotho and neighbouring kwaZulu-Natal. The winds sweep off these mountains onto the plains and valleys of this little Kingdom, rattiling badly fitting windows, draughting under ill-matched doors, all essential building faults if we are to survive the heat of summer, but a killer at this time of the year.
Unseasonal rain in the middle of the dry season and the inevitable happened. Water got in where it should not have, and the borehole pump went silent. There are five houses drawing water off this borehole so the sound of air emanating from the tap in the kitchen is cause for instant alarm. Torch found, coin tossed as to who would go out in the dark and wet to check if there was anything to be done – that was a no-brainer, the youngest lost the toss!
The pressure gauge was dormant – a quick jiggle of the wire housing and the familiar purr started up. Thank heavens. Not only was it night, it was Saturday night, and in this part of the world weekends are still traditional rest times for the majority of businesses and services, so the chances of finding anyone to help were remote.
We got through Sunday. Monday dawned clear and glorious, rain washed mountains glowing in the pre-dawn light, no smoke, all fires quashed by the weekend rain. I woke up the younger member and we stood enthralled by the view in the early morning chill, then we noticed a strange movement along the side fence of the yard. A heavily garbed man was moving cautiously along the narrow pathway, stopping now and then, crouching, then moving on. This is a farm, there are many workers, maybe he was checking the canal which brings the irrigation water, so we didn’t pay much heed initially.
But his movements were strange, so I left the refuge of the doorway to find out what he was up to. As I rounded the corner of the house, I saw, to my horror, water cascading out of the elevated water tank. From no water to overflow, which was worse? I had to stop it, fast!
I yelled at my son, who said “Switch it off at the DB”.
Now, to get to the DB I had to lose my coffee cup, ideally don a raincoat, and figure out how to open the board. Thinking on my feet I ran and turned on a tap to mitigate the flow cascading earthwards, balanced the coffee cup on the little shelter for the switches, and manfully tried to slid the cover off the db board while being showered from above with freezing water! Bear in mind I am clad in gaily checked winter pyjams, topped with a warm sweater, disreputable crocs on my feet.
Meantime the strange figure on the other side of the fence had now been joined by another. In between trying to stop the deluge I asked them what they were up to.
“I’m looking for my chicken,” replied one.
“What chicken?” I asked. He lives in a room close to me and I had never seen any chickens around.
“My chicken,” he repeated, a slight hint of hysteria in his voice.
“Is it alive, or dead?” I asked (You can tell I was not functioning too well) at which point the poor lad broke into siSwati. “It is a big chicken from the homestead, and it is missing.”
The saga of the missing chicken has continued unabated for two days. Not dumb, this homestead bird, it scarpered at the first chance it got, and is happily buc,buc,bucking around in the sugar cane, and giving the occasional yodel to let us all know it lives yet.
No amount of food throwing or cajoling has convinced it to come home. This morning our creative young man arrived with a dog in tow.
“Have you caught your chicken yet?” we asked.
“No, but I have brought the dog. The dog will find the chicken in the sugar cane and bring it to me!”
It is now late in the day. My friend has disconsolately returned his friend’s dog, and a few minutes ago, I heard a happy squawking from just within the confines of the cane.
The dry rasp of fresh wood smoke in my throat tickles me awake. I feel my lungs recoil, and hear their familiar wheeze of protest.
It’s fire time in this part of Africa, and a pall of noxious smoke smudges the landscape. For the most part, the burning is indiscriminate.
It’s honey time, we have large pine and gum forests that offer plenty of food and shelter to bees, so young men go and smoke them out of their hives. They make a few extra cents selling the dripping combs along the side of the road. The more entrepreneurial will strain and sell it in bottles of various sizes and hues. Frequently their smoking goes awry, resulting in furious forest fires, that cause millions of rands worth of damage each year.
Subsistence farmers believe that if they burn the grass at this time of the year, it will be healthier in spring. This legend is lent truth by virtue of the grass looking nutritiously green as it emerges from the blackened and charred matts. No amount of reasoning can persuade them that burning pastureland causes more damage than good – myriads of erosion ditches haphazardly littering the countryside fail to convince. Many huts are lost to fire at this time of year, and sadly a number of lives too, especially of children too small to run fast enough from the flames.
More controlled burning is done by the Sugar Farmers. Another myth is that cane needs to be burnt to increase its sugar content. In fact, it is burnt simply to tidy out the dead leaves, to make it easier for the cane cutters to do their job. There are probably thousands of acres under sugar along the east coast of Africa – a couple of years ago I drove under a pall of smoke from this valley in Swaziland to beyond Chinevane in Mozambique. I thought seriously during that trip of starting a campaign to ban sugar!
After all, we all know that too much sugar is bad for you, right? So no sugar, no smoke, no hips, to laboured breath was my argument. I also feel sad that where once citrus orchards and banana plantations flourished in attractive rows, the concerted green wall providing the promise of millions of calories now waves indolently in passing breezes. What happened to the health fad, I wonder?
But for me, the biggest blight of fires, is the one born of necessity. To so many of us electricity is a right, but to the vast majority of Africans it is a privilege to be coveted. The ugly spectre of poverty raises its head, as I see children with eyes red-rimmed from inflamed conjunctivae, listen to dry and hollow coughs, and notice the awful puckerings caused by burning logs, or trying to manage precariously balanced kettles of boiling water.
And all the while our politicians and leaders show little regard for the plight of the people they have promised to lead, focussed only on wiping each and every honeypot clean. Africans have long given up fighting this inequality, knowing they are dealing with people who have no conscience. Those who want something better for themselves, and for those to come after them, are the ones who flee north, willing to risk their lives, because either way, they will die.
I watch European leaders argue about what to do with the migrants, and I find myself shouting at the television – deal with the problems, the issues, deal with the leaders!
Then the story of Bashan breaks, and my heart, and that of many Africans breaks a little more
For me, it is always the logistics: what can be packed ahead of time; how best to transport all items; what to do with the cat while moving?
These certainly were the questions that pre-occupied my thinking as I prepared to move for the umpteenth time in the last three years. I was also making the worst of moves – a small distance from where I was
living. One always thinks those will be the easiest, numerous trips in the car, clothes left on hangers, seemingly simple, but the opposite is true.
Professional movers are not in abundance in this part of the world, so I had to look for an adequate vehicle, “for hires” abound, but finding a few well-muscled labourers, and willing hands to go with the hired vehicle is another matter.
So imagine my relief and delight when I received a message from a friend to say their farm tractor, complete with able-bodied workers, would be available to move me on a certain day. It was twenty-four hours ahead of my planned move day, but it was help I badly needed.
Bang on 6.30 am, as the sky was streaked with dawn pastels, the tractor arrived at the gate and once we had negotiated its entrance through the electric gates, we were set to go. In short order, my possessions disappeared out of the door, and soon we were ready to transport the first load. As I reached the turn-off to my new abode, I met my soon-to-be neighbour on his way to work. He looked somewhat startled at seeing me first thing in the morning, and more so when I indicated the tractor making its careful way down the not-too-smooth farm road.
By the time we returned with the second load, good friends had unpacked boxes, made beds, and, before midday, pictures were hung and the house, quite incredibly, looked like a home. As the tractor left for the final time, I looked around me, and what should have been utter chaos, was simply organised mess.
The final blessing of the day, was good friend Maureen arriving with a tray of the most welcome bangers and mash!
Three weeks down the road, my house truly is a home and I happily welcome friends for a cuppa and a chat – and each time I do, I say a silent thanks to Pete, Jim, Carlie, Maureen, Small, Mandla, Alison and the rest of the crew who spared no effort on my behalf.
You are the essence of what I call ‘community’, that selfless coming together to help a member, and I thank God for each one of you!
I have just been to Cape Town for a wonderful week of bonding with my grandchildren. Their parents, too!
One of the boons of travelling from a place like Swaziland is the time you spend waiting for flights, or busses, and then the journey itself – great downtime to catch up on all those books that I never quite get to grips with at home.
This week was no exception, and I devoured two!
The first, The Secret of Eleanor Cobham, a fascinating historical tale by Tony Riches, set in England and Wales in the mid 1400’s. Told in the first person, in the form of diary entries, it tells of intrigue in the royal courts of long ago, and swift retribution if you crossed one more powerful than you. There is interesting insight into the power of superstition, accusations of witchery often bringing better judgements for the accusers at times, than hard evidence of wrongdoing. The book is well-researched, bringing alive how people lived in that era, how they thought, and how they fought.
Strange that all these centuries later, similar happenings are taking place in this little Kingdom somewhere in the southern part of Africa. Political jostling, hunger for power and riches, scant regard for reason or law, and suddenly you are watching a drama that is playing out in real time. Two high court judges, the registrar of the same court, the Minister, now erstwhile, of Justice, all in jail on charges of corruption, accused of criminal malfeasance. The Chief Justice, who should be with the quartet, has barricaded himself in his house. In retaliation he has had his water and electricity cut off. I cannot help wonder how clean the hands are of those who bring the charges.
I digress. The second book I found at the airport, The Edge of the Water by one of my favourite authors, Elizabeth George, she of Inspector Lynley fame. I love her writing – she takes you into the world of the tale from the first word, and doesn’t let go of you until the final sigh of satisfaction as you reach The End. This is her first young adult novel, which I, as an old adult, thoroughly enjoyed.
Tony Riches is an “indie” author – he publishes himself on Amazon, and has learnt how to market himself and his books. Elizabeth George is published by Hodder, once Hodder and Stoughton. Without in any way disparaging Tony’s book, which I enjoyed immensely, there is a polish to Elizabeth George’s book. Is it because she is a great writer, is it that she is more experienced, or is it because she has the benefits of a team provided by her publisher: A full time editor, graphic artists to design her covers, a distribution team, marketers, funds for research?
As an independent author and publisher, you have to do everything yourself: find and pay for a professional editor, establish an author platform through which you market yourself and your wares, keep tabs on what is selling, where is the best place to market your book, figure out distribution deals, the list seems endless at times. But if you believe in your craft, you have no choice, but to jump through the maze of hoops in order to get your book into the hands of the people you have written it for.
I admire every single Indie author out there – it takes courage, commitment and determination, and I think that publishing houses are poorer for their inability to accommodate all the talent that is manifesting throughout the world.
At the end of the street, near the pasture land, is a small structure, almost hidden by vegetation. So hidden, that it was some three months after I moved into the street that I saw it.
“Who lives there?” I asked of my landlady.
“Oh, that’s old Joyce – she’s as mad as a hatter!”
“Who takes care of her?”
“I think she takes care of herself. Come to think of it, I haven’t seen her for ages.”
The next day, as I set off on my daily walk, my feet unbidden set off towards the hidden house. As I came close, I heard singing – a joyous, uplifting sound, the notes lilting on the early morning rays.
The house whispered into view. The windows sparkled in the burgeoning sunlight. I could see a cat indolently sunning itself in the open doorway. I was drawn to the wooden gate, festooned on either side with creepers of old fashioned dog roses.
The light emanating from the house beckoned, the singing mesmerised.
I stood, uncertain, my hand hovering near the latch on the gate. I wanted to make contact. I wanted to see the owner of the voice, and I oh so desperately wanted to peek inside the little house that nestled gemlike in its Edenic garden.
As if sensing my presence, the singing stopped. A shadow shuffled across the doorway, and the tiniest figure materialised out of the glistening dust motes. Bright eyes pierced towards me.
The eyes twinkled, a finger beckoned.
I opened the gate.