We had walked all day in the arid heat and our mouths and throats had been dry and sticky because we had to ration our water, and we never saw a single animal or even a fresh sign, and we didn’t find water, and our camp was dry and grumpy and listless.
But then, the sun crept out below the clouds, and for one last time exploded the dullness into riots of colour and light. I dropped what I was doing and poured out the little wine left and went and sat with my back propped against a fallen tree, perhaps pushed over by an elephant in long forgotten moments of desperation. The sun had bleached its trunk as white as bone, but now it made it glow in generous orange. The heat was starting to leave the veldt and things that were hard and thorny were turning mysteriously gentle. I rolled each sip over my palette and sucked at the flavours and let the grand splendour envelop me.
After a while the murmur of night creatures and the flutter of the fire and the hushed shuffling and droning of my African companions started to fill the small circle of firelight, and a few times the darkness beyond was lit by the wail of a jackal, and then the mournful bellow of a hyena and once, so feint that I had to tilt my head and hold my breath to hear, the deep hoot of a spotted eagle owl. I just sat and felt my mind go quiet, not caring about the puzzlement of my African companions at my unusual remoteness. I nodded to myself and muttered, “This is magic.”
Later, I wrote in my diary, I can feel the stories wanting to bubble out and play in the firelight, but my companions are withdrawn tonight, and I understand: it is not the time of the stories. So, let me free my thoughts so that they can play around in my head. Allow them to even go far back to times on Pappa’s lap with my ear against the vibration of his breastbone, listening to his wonderful tales, of Greek heroes and San hunters.
The great Leonidas, betrayed, but standing proud with his few remaining warriors, facing the arrows and swords of hordes of the Immortals; Hector, alone in front of the walls, knowing the inevitable result, but bravely coming forth to fight the mighty Achilles; the lone San hunter’s long hunt through the scorching days, his careful stalk, his mirthless grin as he heard the “thuck” of the bone head striking true at the eland’s flank, then his barefoot run on the spoor through the hot hours of the morning, till he found it, past midday, standing with spread legs and head low, breathing in hoarse gasps past a tongue swollen with exhaustion and the poison.
I imagined the minds of these men at their task, how they had to transcend the normal, move into a mental space where they become the ultimate embodiment of their creed, above fatigue and fear and pain. Can one, without having been there, form an idea? I think, only if you have felt the coldness of staring right into the face of mortal danger, or have felt the hopelessness and desperation of being at the very end of your strengths, yes, then you could.