I lay on an exotic verdant carpet of rolling kikuyu on the banks of an acid polluted lake and stared into the distance at plumes of putrid effluent forming poisonous cumulo-nimbus effigies above the distant horizon. Indian Mynahs, prancing arrogantly in that self-important way of theirs, were the only other vertebrates (besides humans) visible that morning. I was at Witbank dam with family from Johannesburg for a day of water skiing, barbecue and fun in the sun. I took in the scene around me and I felt the cold fingers of premonition close a fist around my soul. I turned to my wife and asked her if this is what the planet would look like when the last resources have been wrested from the earth’s womb? Would we all seek entertainment in this purgatory, boating on vile and insipid lakes of mine drainage while breathing the fumes of industry and revelling in the “beauty” of gardens sterile of all but the hardiest of invasive life? Is this the legacy we will give to the next generation? An empty shell, scraped clean of every last vestige of mineral wealth and rendered hollow and false…a faux natural environment impressively window dressed by industry.
Have you ever stopped at a particular place in time and evaluated your life and realized that you are exactly where you should be? It happens to me often. I was walking the other day while on safari with European guests and the thought struck me…I am where I am meant to be. The bush was stifling that day. The air was thick and cloying and heavy with a sauna-like quality that made breathing a task. A cloud of Mopane bees surrounded our heads as they sought the liquid pouring from our faces. My right shoulder started the familiar ache I have grown accustomed to over the years as the rifle strap dug in. That sentimental mixture of smells, sweat soaked leather and gun oil, has always been a comfort to me and have often conjured the most fantastic tapestry of memories from a life on safari doing that which I was born to do.
Born In a Storm
It was a Wednesday night and a sub-tropical deluge had been unleashed on the bustling bushveld town of Polokwane. I found myself in unfamiliar surroundings. My pregnant wife lay on a bed in front of me with an array of monitors strapped to her swollen belly while African nurses bustled and fussed with an arsenal of intimidating medical equipment and the incessant rain drummed noisily overhead. My wife, Moira, had been feeling pain all through the previous day and night and although it did not seem as if labour had begun, our gynaecologist had insisted we make the two hour run in to civilization…just in case. This, as it happens, was most fortuitous. Moira began her first real contractions about half way through the journey. We had just driven past an immense flock of white storks feeding in a field and I had had some inane thought along the lines of… “I wonder which stork is bringing our baby?”, when my beloved leaned over, squeezed my leg until the blood stopped flowing and urged me to “STEP ON IT, I AM NOW REALLY SORE DAMMIT”. And so, we hurtled into Polokwane at something approaching the speed of sound and arrived at the Private Mediclinic where we were ushered unceremoniously into a labour ward.
(With apologies to Tom Clancy)
I glided to the surface amidst waves of dreamless slumber and readied myself for the journey. Wearing regular casual clothing, I jumped into our Quantum bus and drove to the workshop and the lodge to collect seven of our African staff. There was an air of expectation, a tension clearly palpable although few words were spoken between us. An occasional nervous smile was shared as we loaded our provisions before aiming the vehicle for the gate and heading beyond our wild, dusty valley and on to a tarred road, onward, southward with a growing sense of purpose. We travelled in silence to begin with, unsure of what to expect but with a certainty that we were heading toward something grand, something new…you see we were driving south toward Polokwane, our provincial capital to take in, to revel in, to immerse ourselves in…the first World Cup football match ever to be played in Limpopo.
Major Fambrough:” You wish to see the frontier?”
John Dunbar: “Yes sir, before it's gone.”
Dances with Wolves
I remember standing near our station wagon in the crisp predawn half-light of a lowveld morning. We were at Numbi Gate, Kruger National Park. My dad was in the reservations office arranging our permit while my ma fussed with my baby sister in the car. I recall that I was all of five or six years old and that I stood rooted to the spot staring at the fence and the impenetrable thicket beyond. My ears were filled with the strangest and most mysterious of cacophonies…sub-tropical squeaks and clicks…the dawn chorus of an African wilderness. I was transfixed…and consumed with an urgency to see over yonder…beyond that wire barrier…to understand what made those marvellous noises…I had to go, was drawn inexorably. It began for me that morning. It was an awakening of something visceral within me…the acknowledgement of a hunger for Africa’s frontier spaces and a lust for her siren song.
A Dog Day Afternoon
Lycaon pictus , painted wolf, Cape Hunting Dog, African Wild Dog. There are almost as many names for Southern Africa 's most endangered large carnivore as there are controversies surrounding the conservation of this misunderstood animal. I find it ironic that “man's best friend” in a domestic setting is considered his worst enemy when the animal happens to be wild. Why is the wild dog despised so much? Have we really become that presumptuous as a species that we feel we can dictate the order of life based on our misplaced human sensibilities? I have heard more than one so called “nature lover” revel in the sinuous beauty of a leopard and, in the same breath, openly criticize in the most indignant fashion the “ruthless and blood thirsty” wild dog. Who gave us the permission to sit in judgment, to preside over nature as if our opinion counted for something? Is a wild dog really that hateful? Let us not forget that natural selection has fine-tuned its hunting modus operandi and made it the successful predator it has become. Eviscerating one's prey on the run is a sure way of eventually running it down. “I can't stand the fact that they eat their victims alive!” gurgled one particular safari client. This from a species who invented the concept of torture, the manipulation of bacterial spores for terrorism, landmines, hollow point bullets and the nuclear bomb! - Don't get me started!
Conversations With A Baobab
I want to tell you about an encounter I had on a nameless tract of veld opposite the entrance to Mapungubwe National Park. There is a Baobab tree standing there at the end of bush track, a huge tree presiding in benevolent grandeur over all the smaller denizens of the veld who wander around, oblivious to this ancient plant. The encounter may seem inconsequential to you, dear reader, but it was to have a profound effect on my thoughts for weeks until, in a flurry of keyboard keys, I purged myself of this particular tome.
The encounter took place at the foot of the great Baobab one warm, late morning in March. Some lodge guests and I had just finished a morning drive in the splendour of Mapungubwe National Park and were on our way back to Mopane Bush Lodge for a sumptuous brunch when it was agreed that we should pop in to see the tree (one of the largest in the region). The usual oohs and ahs were uttered upon arrival at this truly magnificent specimen and we then set about taking photos. It was at this juncture that it happened. One of the gentlemen in the group turned to me and said “Imagine what we could learn if this tree could talk.”
For My Children
Sitting on the back of an open landy, swaying slowly across an open African plain, it was one of those moments, a truly perfect blend of the right people, setting and atmosphere. A large herd of Wildebeest had taken flight beside us in that odd rocking horse motion of theirs. The sunset was another impossible haemorrhage of colour on the western horizon and the first drinks were already vanquishing the dust from parched throats. My Swedish friend and safari client of many years, Caj Lindblom turned around and beamed. Michael, my son, his features backlit by the soft African light of dusk, a pensive smile playing at the corners of his mouth sat beside me. I was in heaven, exploring the veld with two of my favourite people. My universe had reached perfect synchronicity, my planets were aligned and everything was right with the world. These moments are rare and precious and are indelibly woven into the tapestry of my mind. This is the heritage I will leave my children.
It was a winter bushveld afternoon like so many others. The immense sky was a stark azure indictment overhead and the surrounding landscape, desiccated and forlorn and yet still intoxicating in its quiet enormity. I was behind the wheel of our Landy and in the process of introducing first time African American visitors to my patch, my magnificent backyard, my Eden. I have always found it difficult, and many of my colleagues will agree, to truly ascertain the kind of deep spiritual impact that an African experience has on a newcomer. Society in the western world really expects us to at all times wear our “game faces” and nobody displays their heart on their sleeve anymore…it is not the done thing today it seems. On that particular afternoon I found myself battling the same quandary…the same internal struggle…are my clients getting this? Was Africa saying something to them?
I sat on a beach on the morning that they announced the death of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. I sat in quiet and morbid melancholy. I felt a hurt in my soul. I couldn’t shake it and I was at a loss to explain it. In front of me the Indian Ocean roared in tumultuous splendour while my children frolicked unburdened by the things of the world, their voices as pleasant as wind chimes on the sub-tropical, salt tinged ocean breeze. I thought about my country, my heartland and I pondered the meaning of this loss. I looked around me seeking someone to share my sadness, to talk to a while and to ease my troubled mind. A lone Zulu man with his fishing rod appeared in my peripheral vision as he picked his way gingerly over the rocks. We saw each other at a distance and I raised my hand to acknowledge him and he did the same as he passed by and disappeared forever from view around the next headland. I found the moment poignant and wondered if he knew Madiba was gone, if it meant anything to him, if he was grateful for the freedom we now shared as two men of different race on the same beach somewhere in coastal Kwazulu Natal. I had sought a form of acknowledgment and connection as I dealt with my pain and I will never forget him raising his hand, like a quiet benediction, on that day…that Mandela Day.
Dear Mr. President
I feel deeply compelled to write this to you although it is something you will probably never read. I realize that the work day of someone in your position is filled with a host of public appearances, meetings and the attendance of summits on issues affecting Africa and the global economy and the environment and a million other crises. It boggles the mind that you can still find time to run our country here at the bottom end of Africa! You are without a doubt an extremely busy man. I bet there are polarized windows on the cars that drive you around and on the aircrafts that whisk you hither and yon. I wonder how much of our country and its sadness reaches you. Do you see it sir? Do you feel it? Is Africa speaking to you?
I love this land sir. I am an African and a descendant of a proud and noble tribe, just as you are. My tribe is not from here originally. They wore kilts and carried swords and in a time long ago on battlefields far away, stood up to overwhelming tyranny and they prevailed. You would understand, sir, for you are a Zulu man. I know that you are of a royal line, warriors and men of men, the people of the sky and I salute your proud history and your noble culture. I feel that you and I would understand one another if we could meet and that we would see things the same way.
I live in a magnificent country, in a place where sweeping vistas and primordial landscapes delight the senses, where cerulean skies stretch overhead from horizon to breath-taking horizon. I live in a land where tropical storms ignite the darkness with a fusillade of light and imprint over-exposed landscape snapshots on to the unbelieving human retina. I live in a complex society where ethnic and cultural variety blends magically, harmoniously, with all that the modern world offers. A country where one can drive away from one’s doorstep in the suburbs in the morning and be sipping a sundowner while watching a herd of wild elephant by that same evening. I have been filled with a desperate love for this land and with an equally desperate yearning to tell of her struggle, her diverse and ancient beauty and to defend her sovereignty.