The stories of the bush are told in many ways; sometimes with overwhelming force so that we cower in awe, sometimes with spectacular drama so that we gasp in wonder, but often it is in the subtle signs, the background whispers, the wafts of odours where even richer and more charming narratives can be found. These stories are told quietly, so that only the most vigilant and sensitive will hear. For most of us they go unnoticed as we blunder forth, searching for the large and the spectacular; that which our civilisation-saturated senses are still able to assimilate.
On the African savanna the dry season is a wretched and often brutal time. Relentlessly and with absolute dispassion it slowly makes undone the abundance of summer and then proceeds to strip the veldt to its bare bones. It is the time when the pans evaporate to patches of cracked mud and the little rivulets wither to a few pools and finally to white sand meanders. And the game has to walk further and further to reach the few remaining waterholes and they grow thin and weary and the weak ones become weaker and give up and die.
And the surrounds of the few remaining waterholes become dust-trodden and muddy edged and rich with stories; stories like Nelson and I are weaving here, about the black bull that had ended up alone in this place in his old age.
He had come far, from where he could still find patches of grass, and when he reached the waterhole it was near midday and it was hot as in the mouth of a furnace. He stepped into the water and braced himself on his rear feet planted firmly in the mud, and stretched to where the water was a little less muddy, and sated himself. Then he waded deeper and splashed down and lay in the coolness and rolled, again and again, so that the water surged over the edges and washed away the other tracks.
And perhaps the pair of dainty little steenbuck that had come after him had waited patiently for the brute to finish his indulgence and watched him lumber off, even now, with his massive neck almost hairless and his horns worn into polished stumps, still with the arrogance he had learnt when he was one of the mighty in the herd and his challengers watched him pass with warily-rolling eyes and drawn-in chins.
And perhaps the steenbuck were grateful to him because this was their territory where they had lived together for a few years now and it was their only water hole when it got really dry and although there was now less water in it, he had carried off a thick coating of mud on his hide and now the waterhole would be just that little bit deeper and in the next rainy season it would hold just that little bit more water and last just that little bit longer.
And they had moved closer furtively and daintily bent to drink, one at a time while the other watched for that subtle flash of yellow that would tell of the leopard whose marks we found a little further back among the tufts of grass and shrubs where she had crouched flat like a snake, hoping for a chance to pounce…
This reminded me of something I had written in Paths of the Tracker:
He loved the stories Henry told him about the signs – where an elephant cow had pushed her still unstable calf up the bank of a steep ravine, or where a sable bull had honed the tips of his great scimitars on the gravelly earth, or a big male lion had knelt down low in the black mud on the edge a pool to fill himself with coolness, leaving the huge prints of his splayed front paws, and fine, lace-like marks where his mane had brushed the soft mud.
The beautiful stories of the bush…