Once I get into the wilderness I like to dawdle; to take whatever direction the voices whisper. It is like a slow-motion ride on an extreme roller coaster – a slow climb, a breathless pause, a plunge through vast vistas; a slow linger on minute detail, sometimes pondering deep mysteries, at other times applying simple common sense, sometimes facing gigantic forces, then tiny vulnerabilities, sometimes mortal danger, then soothing tranquillity…
But the voices speak in the subtle words of the veldt. Nowadays people go on tracking courses or such for a few weeks or longer and become “Field Guides,” believing themselves to understand the language. But I know that to even be aware of the whispers of the veldt takes lifetimes of learning, handed down over generations; I am still busy with but my first lifetime, of which far too little has been spent learning about the bush.
It is mostly best to find a local medium – someone with whom I can communicate and who has that quietly confident instinct for the language of the bush; and the inclination to teach. Also, someone that can withhold me from offending the neighbourhood spirits, or overstepping the unwritten local do’s and don’ts, or not pay the right respects, and knows when it wouldn’t really matter – someone that knows the bush and the local ways, customs, personalities and language.
This profile is usually only encountered in the rare forty-something that has lived in the wilderness all his life. Finding him is a challenge. The right characters live either inside the wilderness, where one would meet them by sheer chance only, or else close to its edge, in little villages, or in isolated clusters of a few huts. It could take time – days, even, of asking around, chatting, persuading to find the right one.
This picture was taken some years back on an expedition into Mozambique, and it was hard, then, to find the right character, but it has been getting harder over the years. On my last expedition into the centre of the Kalahari, I even tried, ahead of time, to contact some people who live in Botswana close the edge of civilisation and have spent a lot of time in the bush themselves, if they knew of anyone. “I used to know a guy, but he’s old now and living with his children in town,” and “The guy I knew was a Kgalagadi and very good in the bush, but I heard he died a year or so ago,” were the best of the responses.
I had no choice but to do the village ask-around routine. It involved a lot of stopping, general chatting, then careful inquiry, as I worked toward the outer edge of human habitation. I met with headshakes that were mostly disinterested, a few puzzled, or sad. At a little cattle outpost so far into the wilderness that they regularly lost stock to lions and leopards, I came across a post-middle aged who rode up on a dejected-looking horse. He drove before him two donkeys. Each had its front feet fettered and they were tethered together by their necks with a piece of frayed webbing – a donkey can be hard to find and catch in the bush, it seemed.
The two looked cheerful enough – or as cheerful as God allows donkeys to be, but it was disconcerting to see them doomed to this kind of existence. However, I have learnt that one must be careful to judge another man or woman for acts that you may not fully understand.
Watching him ride up, I was hopeful. His gnarled hands and thorn-ripped clothes spoke of the kind of character I was looking for, even if he seemed a bit on the young side. His teen-age son sauntered up out of curiosity from the stockaded enclosure with its two huts and assorted rubbish that was their home. The teenager wanted to be smart, which was irritating, but he could speak English, which was a boon. As Dad helped me fill my water containers, I breached the subject. Dad shook his head without looking up. “It is only some of the old people that know those things. But they are all dead now, or they are too old to go into the bush. The young ones, they know nothing of those things,” the reply came through Mr Smart, clearly eager to distance himself from such primitives.
I lingered pensively as I watched Dad harness the two donkeys to a ramshackle little two-wheeler. I had just used up my last chance, I realised. The chances that I would encounter someone going forward from here were really small. Thing is, I am of the same generation as those old people; possibly the last of them still venturing into the bush. From now on, I may have to be without a companion on my expeditions; try to learn and understand as much as I can in what little time I have left.