My old Land Cruiser has, over the years of bush travelling, accumulated all the bumps and dents and scratches the bush needed to inflict on it. It wears the bush comfortably now, like an everyday warmer. But, it knows to inflict lots of discomfort on its driver. The suspension is about as soft as an empty freight train’s; over uneven surfaces it raises a cacophony of rattles and squeaks that drown out any conversation and numbs the mind; it drives like an oxcart and the cab is a custom-built furnace during the day, and a fridge at night.
So, occasional breaks (for breakfast at around eight-thirty and again for tea around eleven and three) are essential for the preservation of sanity over the days of driving those terrible roads that (it is merely hoped, often) would eventually get me to within reach of my favourite wilderness haunts.
The breaks are really quite special. It is not only the relief from the jolting and juddering. It is a kind of quiet pre-immersion in the bush. I try to find a stretch of road with no evidence of human habitation for several kilometres. This is often quite difficult because Africa’s roads have become crowded as people moved to their fringes from the hinterlands in pursuit of miracles.
Anyway, I then drive into the bush some for 500m or a kilometre and look for a shady spot, and voilà, after the stiff climb-down and the stretch, there is the delicious coolness of the shade and the silence of bird song.
Besides fiddling with tea or breakfast, these stops are blissfully free of any demand. Just standing around and examining the trees or lounging in the chair with coffee or tea in hand, trying to identify birds from their sounds. That’s about as hectic as it gets.
It reminds me of an experience I once had, driving along the southern parts of the Chimanimani range (here called the Bvumba Mountains) in Mozambique. I was heading south, towards a crossing over the Save river that I knew from hunting along its northern bank some years earlier. A little snip from The Wanderers:
One evening, about halfway between the Corridor and the Save I was driving along a track through some dense mountain forest which grew on the lower slopes of the Bvumba Mountains to the west. The sun was setting, and I was urgently looking for a place to make a camp for the night. Trying to find a camp while en-route was always a bit stressful. It inevitably ended up in a forced trade-off between the darkness and the quality of the spot – one wanted to delay it as late as possible so that one wouldn’t unnecessarily lose travelling time, but one also wanted a pleasant spot with nice trees away from the road and from people – I have always much preferred sleeping among wild animals to sleeping among people, and I always look for a spot where I am sure they are at least five kilometres (preferably much further) away.
There weren’t much people there, but the forest was so dense that I couldn’t find an opening to drive away from the road. Eventually I came across a feint hint of a track leading off into the forest. It was a bit risky to take untravelled tracks in Mozambique because of the landmine danger, but I was desperate and frustrated enough at that point to ignore the stern voice of my judgement.
Unfortunately, after about thirty metres my way was blocked by a large tree that had fallen across the track. I got out to investigate whether I might be able to drag it out of the way with the Land Cruiser, but it was too big and wedged against other trees. I would have to search on.
As I got back into the cab the skin over all of my body suddenly started burning – under my clothes, in my hair, even my feet. At first it was only slightly, but within less than a minute it became so intense that I could hardly bear it. Now, just for some perspective, I don’t think I could be called squeamish, and more than one doctor that had had the misfortune of having to stitch up some wound I had contracted in the course of my rather reckless lifestyle had remarked that I had an unusually high tolerance for pain, but this burning was so severe that I felt I was being overwhelmed by it. I had often been burned by noxious nettles in the veldt, but it was always local, with some swelling where the nettles had come into contact with the skin, and while it was certainly unpleasant it was nowhere near this intense burning. And there was no evidence of skin irritation either. I was soon in a state of near panic. I could not understand what was happening to me, and I was beginning to fear that I had contracted some exotic African disease in the bush that was now manifesting, and that I might be about to suffer a lonely and painful death.
I kept driving, more out of desperation than considered action, and when I came to a little stream I stopped in the middle of it and literally fell into the water. It seemed to have little effect. I tore off my clothes and stood naked in the cool evening breeze, and this provided some relief, but only while the cooling effect of the water evaporating from my skin lasted. I repeated the dip-and-cool routine a number of times, and during the short respites I got from the burning, I could feel that the rest of my body seemed to be functioning normally. This gave me some comfort that total organ failure was not imminent, and the state of near panic subsided a little so that I could at least think clearly. I still had no idea of what the cause of the burning was and how long it would last, but I was beginning to allow myself the probability that it was some external irritation, and that there was a reasonable chance of life after the burning. So, back to the original problem – where to spend the night. I took a double dose of antihistamine from my medical kit and continued along the track.
Still burning fiercely, but at least able to put it into a reasonable perspective and able to concentrate on the search I eventually spotted a clump of trees that seemed (from their sky-etched silhouettes) to have a nice dense canopy that would give protection against the dew and provide some cosiness. I drove off the road but to my disappointment they were mango trees – huge, and probably once the property of some hapless Portuguese family now living in poverty in Madeira or Portugal, or possibly even killed during those terrible war times.
Whatever the fate of the original owners, the trees would now most likely have been taken over by new African owners. And sure enough, investigation revealed a footpath leading further into the bush. I followed it on foot, and it led to a small cluster of huts, their pointed silhouettes black against the star-strewn sky. I could make out people moving around a small fire, but when I approached they all ran away, screaming in terror.
I stood waiting on the edge of the fire’s glow, uncertain of what to do. Mercifully the burning had at least subsided quite a bit, but I was fearful that it might return. After about ten minutes a woman emerged timidly out of the darkness, stopping about ten paces away. She said nothing – simply looked at the ground in a way that I interpreted as asking about my business, but it was soon clear she did not understand a word of my best explanations in English, Zulu or Fanagalo.
Suddenly she let out a long wailing scream, and within a few minutes people came running, clearly from other clusters of huts further away in the dark. Soon I was surrounded by a circle of wildly shouting and gesturing people. They were highly excited but didn’t seem particularly aggressive, so I wasn’t worried – just puzzled. There was no way I could try and speak to them. Even if there was one that could understand me I would simply not be heard above the din.
I was completely at a loss of how to handle the situation and wondering how the strange stalemate could play out and what on earth I was going to do about a place to sleep, when an old man that I had noticed standing quietly on the outside of the circle pushed through the people and approached me. It immediately went quiet. He greeted me in Fanagalo, and inquired about my business. When I explained to him that I was travelling through and wanted to sleep under the mango trees, and that I had come to get the consent of the owner, he immediately agreed and said that I would be safe there. He turned out to be a local headman of sorts, and seemed a really pleasant old chap, so I invited him to dinner.
He came after I had had a shower and had started with the best meal I could put together with the few bits of food I had left. I wasn’t able to make a fire, because the locals had long since carried off any available scrap of wood to keep their fires burning, and, as happens in areas where larger groups of people congregate, had even started eating away at the forest around them for wood, so I had to rely on my gas stove. My affliction had by then completely gone away, and I was feeling normal.
After we had finished eating and I had cleaned the utensils I turned off the little Coleman and it was suddenly quiet, and a slow mist was creeping up from the slopes and the African night was soft and cool around us. There was something poignant about me and the old headman sitting there, him on my chair, me on the food box with my back against the Mango trunk, talking late into the night about him working in South Africa an how he as a bush person experienced Johannesburg and the mines, about the “time of the Portuguese”, about the game situation in the area (it was non-existent – too many people), and how people there survived. It turned out to be quite a fruit producing area, and they would make some charcoal from the surrounding forest and trade these too, mainly to intrepid merchants sojourning south from the Beira Corridor in search of merchandise.
As the old man was finally leaving I asked him about the burning. He listened carefully to my explanation, and then said that he thought it was caused by a kind of plant in the area of which “lo moya ka hena hena chisa” – literally, “the breath of him it burns”. To my relief he confirmed that once past it would not return – as long as one did not get within range of the devilish breath again! I have often thought that if some repressive regime ever found out about this plant they would have little trouble dispersing protesting crowds of their citizens!