Friday, April 25, 2014

Lions roared over the dry river: Venda Sun 12

The other trip - Mrisi and Giya with Jackson Hlungwani, Venda's
most renowned sculptor, at his home and studio near Elim.
A retrospective of his work was on show in Polokwane art gallery
earlier this year - he died in 2010. 
Venda Sun 12 

From Johannesburg to Mashau in Limpopo for Christmas, via the Kruger National Park
7-17 December 2004

None of us will ever visit a zoo again. We're going back to the Kruger National Park - driving up from the southern entrance to Punda Maria in the north. R remembers wild elephants passing his village, hippo and crocodiles in rivers and buffalo in the fields, when he was a child.

I went to London Zoo when I was a child. I don't remember much other than the sadness of animals in cages. I can't think of anything that better defines humanity's cruelty and foolishness or illustrates what the cold northern hemisphere has done to the southern hemisphere.

Mrisi and Giya have developed a keen sensibility, are aware of the importance of freedom of movement and thought, our relationship with the natural world. They have empathy and I hope it had something to do with their experiences in SA.

This wasn't an easy trip. The days in the Kruger were a lull before the storm. Always on my mind, in the background, were the deaths of my brother and step-father, my mother off to Florida to stay with my uncle Phil, her birthday coming up.

The Kruger intensifies everything. These emotions are channeled into lists of what we spot, the names of the animals and birds that make up this landscape. We drove to Nelspruit on Monday 6 December. We went into the Kruger at Crocodile Bridge and headed for Lower Sabie camp.

On this trip we saw one of the world's rarest birds, completely by chance, the ground hornbill. We'd picked up a sightings sheet in one of the rest camps and recognised the birds we'd put on one of our lists.

There is no substitute for the thrill of seeing two cheetah grooming each other in the sun, of watching an elephant's ears and tail for the warning signs to leave fast. As I look back on the lists of sightings, I can almost recreate that wilderness and its visceral pull. I can understand the desire to be in it and close to its true inhabitants, but I am also intensely conscious of the dangers of anthropomorphism and the bizarre modern tendency to mistake beauty for 'cute'.

The Kruger fed poems I later wrote. This journey was full of loss. I became aware of the fault-lines between R and me and the children witnessed dreadful rows. This was the most intense trip perhaps because it was the last we made as a family, even though we didn't know that at the time.

But we are still friends, 10 years on from this trip when the bush-baby in the night seemed to be expressing everything I was feeling, when Mrisi felt the fear in the goat's eyes before it was killed, when Giya built it a shrine. And later, over us all there was a blood red moon.

Nevertheless, R and I are friends and now I can laugh about the cramped shack he expected us to sleep in with its home-made rat trap - a block of wood with a nail and a hinge - on the shelf.

Tuesday 7 December

Swam in the pool under a tree full of weaver bird nests. Hot and humid. Still feel weird and out of place but there are more Africans here now - a group of Swazis in the restaurant. As we left there was an incredible storm and we were soaked in two minutes. It carried on most of the night. There was a power cut and lightning lit up the sky. We decided to wake up at 4 am.

Wednesday 8 December

3 giraffe, 3 elephants, 2 babies, 2 klipsringer and baby, fish eagle, giraffe, lone elephants.

Still raining this morning. Cold! Windy. Long drive from Lower Sabie to Tamboti tent camp 3 km from Orpen Gate....chasing guinea fowl down the road, they wouldn’t move and in front of us four elephants, several giraffes in threes and solo, three kudu crossing the road, magnificent and stately, a rather speedy tortoise, a croc’s nose by the bridge over Crocodile River.

Plenty of eagles, centipedes, warthogs on the way to Orpen, waterbuck and wildebeest near a dam, Zebra grazing with impala, a creche of baby impala in another herd. The foliage is so dense. A stork lands like a falling kite. Termite mounds built around tree trunks.

A monkey tries to attack me for my breakfast at a rest camp. Giya buys me a ring, sweetheart. We’re now in Tamboti. The tent has a veranda overlooking a dried up riverbed where apparently a hyena patrols at night. Giya saw a baboon walk along the path on our side of the fence, causing panic in me.

This place is terribly isolated. I can hear insects squeaking and birds calling. It’s still very windy. A praying mantis, mini frogs coming out of the sand. It’s 7.10 pm and already dark – we’re listening to frogs calling from the river, they’re like an old man on a PA system carried on the wind. Crickets too. Two women in the shower block confirm Giya’s sighting of the baboon – a lone male who can get into tents if the outside flaps are left unzipped when you’re out. No stars because it’s cloudy.

Thursday 9 December

Black backed jackal and cubs, two cheetah resting, giraffe and foals, wildebeest, zebra, warthog and piglets, 10 hippos in river Timbavati, five buffalo between Timbavati and road to Olifants, baboons and young crossing road by the river, lone elephants, loads of impala, including a herd crossing the fawns over the road in a group, lots of lilac breasted rollers, 2 lappet faced vultures in a tree near the Ratelpan hide, grey herons and a saddle billed stork, yellow billed hornbills and in a tree, two very, very rare  ground hornbills (male) only 1,500 of them in the world. Group of cape vultures with chicks by the side of the road, bushbuck in the camp, crocodiles from the Ratelpan hide.

Friday 10 December

Saddle billed stork, African Darter, 2 lions, grey herons, water buck, verbet monkey, warthog, wildebeest, zebra and foal, snake, hippos and calves

Kingdom of birds. Dawn. I’m sitting by the Letaba river listing to birds. It’s started to rain again. Feeling a bit grim with a cold. Lunch at Olifants camp. It’s so beautiful there and I didn’t realise there was apool. Mum left today for the States.

Wilderness. No pedestrians, few cars, vast rivers, mainly dried up, camouflage - hippos are rocks, lions are tree stumps, everything disappears into the bush and reapprears when it chooses. Prints in the mud of the road beside the river. Only the birds make themselves visible and the impala, grazing with wildebeest, safety in numbers, or zebra with giraffes.

Saturday 11 December

We drive to Shingwedzi stopping for breakfast at Mooiplass, a beautiful picnic spot with no fences and a river. Watched black and white kingfishers and were told lions had been roaring earlier on. Idyllic but I'm dosed with cough medicine and ibuprofen. When we get to Shingwedzi, it transpires I’ve got it wrong and should have been to Mopani which we passed an hour and a half earlier so we have to drive back. Mopani is the most exclusive place we’ve been, no picnic area for black people, expensive shop, vast bar overlooking the Pioneer dam but almost no-one here, a ghost town. Beautiful curved pool with rocks. The camp’s on a small hill rising out of the mopani plains, we see a vast herd of elephant eating the bushes but I’m too ill to enjoy it.

The first African sunset, though, a great red streak over the dam with hippos in the water below and as it becomes darker, a firefly by the balcony.  Chalets are like round houses but built in stone with semi circular outside kitchens and porches, thatch held up with telegraph pole round pillars, a small barbeque outside and brick paths, clean sheets and two bathrooms!

Sunday 12 December

A bird this morning is singing part of a scale, three notes descending perfectly. Pink clouds have disappeared almost immediately. The sky changes so fast.

Monday 13 December

People are animals, like the adolescent hyena asleep under a thorny acacia at midday, the herd of elephants feeding on short mopani trees. The day’s heat stretches out at eye level red as bark, red as earth and you wait by the dried up river bed for a lion’s roar, invisible, gathering the pride, and my son sees himself in the young impala bucks roaming together half admiring the old buck with his herd of females, half in awe. Pimp he calls him. And my daughter shy and brave should be in the creche  for the fawns, the black dots on their ears twitching like the bobbles in schoolgirls’ bunches. The city can distract you with its shops until you no longer see the branch which gave you a spoon or know the colour of sunrise. How a man might spot a scorpion on the road at night in the headlamps of his truck and swerve to avoid it. How when you leave the city there is a world in the air. How the birds gave us colour, the cape starling a yellow circle in the electric blue of its green plumage, how a kingfisher, without fish, will aim its beak like a jet at the head of a squirrel and we drink cans of cold beer while lions roar on the other bank of the dry river.

Tuesday 14 December

We arrived in Mashau yesterday just before 12. Said goodbye to the Kruger with 4 elephants, some kudu and buffalo, plus of course, impala. 

It’s a long drive. We drop off the bags and go straight to Louis Trichardt for shopping but it’s too hot and we’re tired. The shops close at 5 and it takes three quarters of an hour to change money. 

The bugs in the zozo are awful, thank god for mosquito nets. Cockroaches and vast numbers of flying ants, beetles, grasshoppers, crickets swarming around the light. It’s one room, neat but dark and not very clean because the floor is earth. We sleep eventually but Giya is nearly hysterical with the bugs. T, the lad from Zimbabwe who looks after the place is very young but surprisingly organized. Much neater than I’d expected and he has a sweet little puppy.

To Grace’s today. Caroline, her second girl, is getting married on Saturday. While we’re there a woman arrives who's meant to be talking to her about being a wife. R has to go and pick up his other cousin Gladys from the bus stop but is ages so I stay with Grace, totally unable to communicate other than with Mercy. Everything takes so long, life is slow. It’s nice for Giya to have a girl to play with – Grace’s youngest Randu.

Wednesday 15 December

Grace and Gladys come to Mashau in the morning. Lunch takes hours to prepare and cook. Every day I seem to be cooking for 10 or more. Then there’s endless washing up and washing clothes. I understand why so many kids go around in rags – there’s no point wearing anything remotely neat or clean because it’s dirty or wrecked in minutes.

I’m the only white person in any of the villages we visit. The landscape is lush with jacaranda trees, flat topped acacias, then big old figs, some that R doesn’t know the English name for.

It’s green and rocky, the rocks and soil are red. It’s dusty and dry. On the way to Grace’s yesterday we thought there was going to be a storm but it passed us by, just wind and forked lightning. I’m exhausted from waking up at 5.30 but last night the storm did come. The room was lit up all the time for at least an hour, with lightning. The rain on the tin room was like shingle. Pip the puppy was whimpering outside and I was lying there praying we weren’t struck, or the tree outside. R couldn’t hear me unless I shouted it was so loud.

More people around the fire in the morning - there’s a constant stream. People sit around a lot gossiping but I can’t join in. People live outside, that’s stating the obvious.

Thursday 16 December

Mum’s birthday. There’s a monkey climbing on rocks on the other side of the land. Goats are eating the mango tree. R’s started leveling a space for a house and has created a wall already. I was pissed off yesterday because he wasn’t translating anything and I had enough of sitting and grinning. There are two graves on the land he forgot to mention. Slap bang in the middle of a patch outside the house. You can’t avoid them.

Up the hill are two levels where there used to be houses, with stone walls and steps. But snakes hide in piles of stones and bricks, which is why walls have to be cemented. The undergrowth is thick, monkeys emerge in a troupe of six to 10. They’ve finished most of the mangoes so there are none for us.

It’s not as hot as the Kruger, I’ve had to wear a jumper and last night we needed blankets. It’s overcast now, very cloudy and the ground’s still damp. This morning we took a wheelbarrow to collect clay for the kids. About ten of them were hanging around making cars and everything out of clay. Kids here are skinny. They walk everywhere.

Everyone farms. There are women and little children digging early in the morning. Mr Green’s cows are in the lane every morning, udders full, with lots of calves. Goats and kids, chickens and chicks. A dog’s barking on the other side of the hill and the neighbour’s radio is going all day.

No other visitors, thank god, apart from the guys working here and kids. I haven’t seen a sunset yet but maybe because of the mountains. I rang Mum and she was surprised I think, just off for a swim.

Friday December 17

M and G went to Grace for hairdos today but little rest for me, still masses of cooking, washing up and washing. So arguments with R which went on all late afternoon and evening that make me want to leave.