The story of the bush is told in many ways; sometimes with overwhelming force so that we cower in awe and fear, sometimes with spectacular drama so that we gasp in wonder, but mostly quietly, subtly, so that only the most vigilant and sensitive will hear. Our senses have been overwhelmed by barrages of the noises and images and smells that belong to our “civilisation” and over time we have learnt to banish all but the most brazen of them from our awareness. But in the process, sadly, we have stopped noticing many things.
In the bush it is the subtle signs, the background sounds, the wafts of odours that bear the richest and most charming narratives. But for most of us they go unnoticed as we blunder forth, searching for the large and the spectacular; that which our 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 skeleton. It is the time when the pans evaporate to waterless bare patches and the little ravines wither to a few pools and finally to white sand meanders. And the game has to walk further and further between the edible remains and the few waterholes that are left and they grow thin and weary and the weak ones become weaker and give up and die.
And as more waterholes dry up, the dust-trodden surrounds and muddy edges of the remaining ones become places where ever richer stories can be woven, like Nelson and I are doing here – about the black bull that had ended up alone in this place in his old age. He had walked in a little and planted his two rear feet firmly in the mud and stretched to where the water was a little less muddy and sated himself. But then he had been unable to resist and he had waded deeper and lain down and rolled luxuriously, again and again, so that the water had splashed over the side and wiped out all 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 that his neck had become almost hairless and his horns had been worn into polished stumps, still with the arrogance he had learnt when he was a bull in the herd and his challengers watched him pass with warily-turning eyes and pulled 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…
I thought to drop a short extract from Paths of the Tracker (https://www.hoffmantheronvanzijl.com/books/paths-of-the-tracker/ here that speaks of the more subtle stories of the bush.
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 sate 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…