On the way in we passed here, down this ancient elephant path through the ravine. Old Kgalilaga had looked away and shook his head wordlessly at my foolishness when I said we’d go down without spending time working on it first – he did so again when we stood looking at it from the other side. But the fires were flaming high on adrenaline then, and I ignored him.
It had been a close thing that could have gone badly wrong – a heart-stopping drop over the lip, then a gasping slide down over the rough surface. Of course, it was stupid. If the vehicle had slid just a little sideways and a wheel had caught one of the old elephant prints in the dry mud it would have overturned like a double decker bus.
I am often amazed at how different the same things seem when looked at from the opposite side, like on a return journey along the same route – or in fact at any point in life when a different perspective is taken. Looking at the drop again with the calmed eye of the return journey, I was myself aghast at my earlier impetuosity.
But now, we had to ascend it. Climbing the steep slope looked daunting; mounting the drop at the top, impossible. Out came the bush pick and the shovel and the tea. This was going to be a few hours of spit-in-the-hands work.
I chopped out a short piece from Paths of the Tracker, which I dropped in here:
Craig felt slighted and even more irked. He felt like saying, “Fuck you Uncle Henry, I know how to do four by four. I’ve been on a course and I’ve done several trails worse than this in my Land Rover. I’d like to see you do better,” but he was a little uncertain of what lay ahead, and his mistake at the gully didn’t help, so he kept quiet and got in on the passenger side.
He sat spitefully waiting for Henry to make a mistake, but he soon realised it was unlikely; not a big mistake like he had made anyway. The older man drove with calm assurance. He seemed to anticipate the oncoming terrain and road surface and adjust his speed accordingly. It was as if he had an instinctive feel for the capabilities of the vehicle. He seldom changed gears; only when he could not use the torque of the engine, and he seldom accelerated or braked sharply. At gullies and ravines, he seemed to be able to read the best approach and exit route, and he only occasionally used four-wheel drive.
He found it hard to get his head around it, but to Henry, it seemed, driving over such terrain was not a challenge or an adventure; just an unavoidable inconvenience that had to be despatched of with the lowest possible level of discomfort. He started paying attention to Henry’s technique to see if he could correctly anticipate how he would handle an approaching condition.
The track had now all but ceased to exist. A few times Henry stopped at deep gullies and had them work on the approach or exit with the bush pick and shovel, or pile some logs or rocks into the bottom to improvise a crossing. On more than one occasion, he turned off the track and broke through the bush to get around trees that lay across it – pushed over by elephant, he said.
A few times they had to make quite long detours to get across ravines where the bottom had been washed away so deep that it would have taken a major effort to fix it. Then they had to use the axe and pangas to chop a path through the forest.
Craig was unhandy with the tools. It took him several blows to sever a branch that Henry would in a single effortless slash. He threw himself into the work with the pick and shovel, convinced that his running- and gym-honed body would be far superior to his uncle, but his hands blistered quickly and his muscles tired; he was just much less efficient than Henry, who seemed to be able to maintain a steady hard pace. He was relieved every time the older man offered to take over, but it made him feel more inept and vaguely rebellious.
Despite their efforts the vehicle generally still had to take a lot of strain, flattening shrubs and young trees and lurching its heavy load through deep ruts and up and down impossibly steep and rough slopes. Craig was quietly relieved that he had handed over the wheel.