Musings on a boisterous teenager

The sun had slipped behind the treetops. There was about an hour or so of light left to prepare for the night. Four bull elephants lumbered past, heading back along the game path from the water hole just over the rise. They were a hundred or so paces away and they seemed quite clear on where they were going and paying no attention to me and my camp fiddling; me, intent on my preparations, gave their nodding silhouettes no more than the occasional interested glance – that is, until a youngster of about fifteen or so broke away and...

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Overnighting in the Middle World

Reaching the wild hinterlands from the South African heartland is an undertaking of anything between two to five days. The first day or so is usually like the average citizen of the civilised world would expect a road trip to be. But then, as one penetrates deeper into the Middle World the journey takes on a special character. The driving itself is the same, although navigating the roads and tracks requires submission to torture by vehicle (and of course to the vehicle), resilience and often quite some skill. The facilities and services however, such as finding petrol, or overnight...

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It has begun

And so, it has begun. Every expedition I go on starts with a long and rather tedious part, out of the known world. The layers of civilisation must be peeled away one by one – urban suburbia, dotting out into farmlands, now with their late-autumn load of ripe crops, punctuated by swaths of rural towns, each next one less certain of whether it wanted to be a town or a village or just a lose gathering of settled people. The nature of the terrain changes too, from the rounded hills of the highveld, now in their beautiful autumn plumage...

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Why?

In the casual chat-stream of social gatherings, stories of wandering the wilderness, simply for the sake of wandering, has little “catch” – too slow, no punchline, whatever… So, they are best held back for another time and another place. But on rare occasions, when a story would stray into the conversation, someone might pay enough attention to ask, “but why do you do this?” It has always left me self-conscious and at a loss of how to answer in a way that I thought would make them really understand. But when I look at this simple snap, I know...

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Getting Through

Journeys back. Leaving the wilderness somehow re-introduces an impatience; an urgency to arrive, to check, to ensure. And, perhaps paradoxically, a longing, for the heimat; to re-assure that it is still there, intact – a haven, a place of familiarity. Getting through the Middle World becomes a drag, lit up only by occasional moments of amusement or wonder at its idiosyncratic adaptations of progressive society. It is indisposed, even hostile to lone roadside sleepovers, wanting to herd people into cubicles inside hotels or motels or perhaps the odd fashionable lodge. Self-reliance is essential, but sits awkwardly in it –...

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The Other Ferry

  Journeys back. And alongside the official ferry, the other ferry. Crudely, yet artfully made and operated. It takes five or six, maybe seven, depending on the sizes and the baggage. It plies its backwards and forwards passage in a steady burble of water and twitter of its occupants. It leaves nothing but its drifting sound and its slow wake and a whiff of mockery at its big brother which, on many days lies moored to the south bank with raggedly-uniformed staff importantly leaning over its bulwarks and oil slicking from its hulk and a chaos of backed-up trans-traffic...

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And So, The Ferry

Journeys back. “At the ferry staging post, Sunday morning, just after sunrise,” the note under the pic read. Even at this hour it was pulsing with carefree idleness. In a thin haze of river fog and blue-grey exhaust fumes, big diesels with commercial loads throbbed at idle, and many smaller trucks and pickups and cars groaned under loads well beyond capacity. People drifted around, some from the waiting vehicles, others just there. There was what could pass as a queue, but some, parked around, also seemed to lay claim to a slot. In Mozambique at the time there were...

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A Poignant Mix

Journeys back. And now, little villages, with shopping malls, strung out on either side of an open area that serves as main thoroughfare – and the “road.” They are what one could call “downtown.” They throb with life for twenty-four hours, every day. People shop, eat, socialise or just lounge here, and they have a lot of time to do that.  Through traffic, which is mostly pedestrian and bicycle, with the occasional motor cycle and rarer motor vehicle, has to weave through the throng. On the left, here, are two restaurants. The one is a more formal one, more...

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The Stone Crusher

Journeys back. A tarred road. The winding tracks and rutted lanes of the Middle World are back there now. This is civilisation. And yet, on the shoulder of a hill, still this splendid enigma. Concrete stone and rock fill, carefully graded to specific sizes, is what he offers, sold by the shovel-full – credit cards not accepted (sorry). He carries the rocks from the slopes. Ten litre-sized. One at a time. He cracks the basalt into half-litre chunks. Then further. From the chips, calloused fingers select the sizes, tosses each onto its pile. His hammer is crudely handled. Just...

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Life in the Middle World

Journeys back A huge stack of grass wobbling along the uneven road surface on impossibly frail wheels? Oh, a thatch grass merchant, happily peddling his wares to his point of sale. Each of the four bundles must weigh at least twenty kilograms, thirty, maybe. The rider would be another seventy or so. Nudging the limits of what the vehicle can bear, yes, but it is the ungainliness of it that leaves one incredulous. Every year, when the sap of the elephant grass had drawn back to the roots for winter and the tall stalks have turned dry and yellow-white,...

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