We came upon it unexpectedly, as the sun was touching the treetops, this pool of sweet water, left behind by the little river when the drought and the heat stopped its flow and pushed it further and further back towards the Ruvuma.
Over many millennia the pool had been hollowed deeper by bits of mud carried away on hooves and hides. Now it was a generous knee-deep deliverance from thirst and heat. Perhaps it hid below its surface secret little fissures and pebble beds that kept slowly bleeding into it, preventing it from also turning into a sun-baked crust of cracked mud or loose white sand.
We checked carefully all round the hoof-muddied edge, but no sign of crocodiles dragging themselves out onto the banks to bask. The surface was as smooth as a sheet of glass, with just the occasional bubble that popped and sent out the faintest ripples, like whispers formed but not spoken.
This was rare perfection for the end of a hard, hot day. I had us move some three hundred paces away so we wouldn’t disturb game coming to drink, and make camp. Kgalamathe chopped off a sapling with his machete and tied his fish line to it and we were rewarded with a few small fish to go with the something or another from tins. And, there was a special treat to come – washing off the caked sweat and dust of the bush.
Simple things like this bring good cheer and contentment into the midst of the men reclining around the fire. It loosens stories from their memory nooks, some old, heard many times, but sounding, tonight, like new ones. Some drift lazily through the blue woodsmoke, others dance like the flames, rich with animation. Some leave chuckles in there wake, others, sad look-aways, or shaking of heads. One leads to another, keeping the men from their lairs till the Southern Cross hangs skew and low on the horizon.
I had the first watch and I lay on my back, staring up through the black lacework of the canopy at the riot of stars living there in the blue-black vastness. The contrast to our minute little circle of flicker, our small world of shared memories and stories, laboriously accumulated over less than a single tick in the rhythm of the universe, was stark.
Sleep was not going to come. I finally swung my legs out of the hammock and started my little Coleman and sat down with my back against a tree trunk and my rifle next to me and wrote in my diary:
What might be the meaning of us? Right now, stars many times the size of ours are exploding our there in stupendous super novae. They unleash even more vast forces that swallow whole suns and doom others to spiral around them forever and capture the very light that lie at the core of our limping understanding of it all. Down here, great epochs build and end. Very likely, our own will too, in some calamitous (but mere) shrug of the Earth, like vast civilisations have grown, believing themselves to be great, only to fade out with scarcely a whimper.
But, they left behind mind-blowing works – engineering, art, the subtlest poetry, sublime music. Gazing on them brings tears to the eyes (of some).
What indeed, is the meaning of me as I sit here with my back against a tree trunk, aware of being, of being conscious, of my self, my capacity to have learnt, to observe, to connect, to figure out and to think and wonder about things past, present and future?
Is this capacity unique among the species of earth, or in the Universe? Is it a first? Could it have any special meaning? Do the many spaceships now streaking out into the endless unknown and the many brilliant men and women working on still more, mean that some bridging of the vast cadence is under way, that this (evolved or created) phenomenon from Earth, itself less than miniscule, would slowly build a force that would transcend epochs; that this time, it would be different?
Writing here, next to a flickering tongue of flame in the African wilderness, in the presence of simple men who are snoring away contentedly after a pleasant evening, it seems as vastly impossible as the vastness itself.