At its outer edges, civilisation thins out to an eclectic mix of almost coincidental encounters. A winding trail, half overgrown by weeds, with a single bicycle track along one rut. It breaks out into an unexpected opening where a lone man nurses a pump that coughs water into a shallow trough.
A few cattle approach through the trees to come and drink. They are small and hardy and half feral, and they stop when they see me and stand warily on the edge of the clearing.
I am able to communicate with the attendant; a mixture of Zulu and English. Keeping one hand on his pump as if to soothe its desperate stuttering, he confirms that the little track stops here. In that direction there are only the small paths of the cattle. But not very far.
I wonder about the cattle. “Are these cattle yours?” He shakes his head. A hired hand, it seems. It doesn’t seem worth the effort to cobble together some collection of words from our shared vocabulary that will make me understand who the owner is (or owners), and how he gets compensated for his efforts.
“The lions, do they not come here?”
He glances over his shoulder as if suddenly nervous and nods, turning his gaze to a horned skull. I wonder how often, but again, time and time intervals are hard to master between us.
“The wild dogs, yasendle?” I add in Zulu and loll my tongue and make a panting sound. He seems uncertain, but he nods.
“And the leopard?” I dab myself with my bunched fingers and hunch my shoulders into a stalking pose. “Ingwe,” I add from Zulu, hoping for the best. He smiles and nods, vigorously this time, and I chuckle. At least there is some humour between us.
The bicycle tracks say he lives further back, where civilisation provides a little more comfort and safety, perhaps. How often does he make the journey to the little pump? In this heat it should be at least once a day. I glance over at his bicycle. It is barely in running order. The tyres are smooth as paper and the pedals have long been worn out and lost. Only their smoothly-polished shafts remain. I suspect the little pump lives through many lonely days in its ramshackle stockade, while the cattle have to rely on what moisture they can get from vegetation. This is cattle farming at the point where it is barely still possible.
I wonder for a moment if he knows the bush well enough to make it worthwhile taking him along as a guide, but he seems a bit young, and just not scuffed enough. I hastily let go of the idea. Not having a companion is far better than having one that is a passenger and a nuisance. Let him remain in his known world, and let me continue into my uncertain one with the few scraps of local information I got.
I fill my empty water containers, one spurt at a time, and give him a sachet of Boxer tobacco. I choose the biggest of the cattle paths that seems to head roughly in that direction – north. It is narrow, but while it lasts, it will ease the way through the thickets somewhat.