Water. The true elixir of life. Here on earth we wade through one or more of its ever-changing forms every second of every day. Yet, in the hot arid parts of the wilderness you live with the constant danger that you will have too little of it. And then, no matter what fancy equipment you have with you, no matter what the size of your bank account, what important people you know, what deity you appeal to, in just a few hours you will die. Simple as that.
If one wanders away from a reliable source, water comes alive in one’s mind. How far dare you go without being sure of finding more in time?
It was late afternoon on the second day. We had been drinking sparingly and were constantly thirsty and probably a bit dehydrated, but we were still fine. We had enough water to cook some food tonight, and to survive some way into tomorrow, but concern was beginning to froth like a low heartburn. If we did not find another source before sunset we could not risk using any for cooking. We would have to turn back in the morning and we would be desperately close to not making it.
Then Vashtudu, the tracker, slowed down and stopped. He had spotted subtle hints – a slow dip into an almost-not hollow, somewhat taller trees, lusher with foliage, certain grasses and shrubs that I didn’t all recognise.
Maybe here, he muttered to me, glancing around him. He set Victor to work with his machete. We squatted around hopefully as he hacked at the ground. Twenty minutes, then the wondrous liquid began to seep from the bottom of the hole. If we waited long enough the mud would settle and we would have clear water to refill our containers with careful half-cup scoops. Tonight we could feast, even perhaps wash off some of the caked sweat and dust!
I thought to drop in an extract from The Wanderers (https://www.hoffmantheronvanzijl.com/books/the-wanderers/) about a similar experience I had once, tracking a wounded elephant in the Tete area of Mozambique.
We walked hurriedly, grimly leaning into the rising heat, not noticing much of our surroundings, as if we had to escape from our experience in this barren stretch of bush. I now insisted on a strict discipline. We rested every hour in as cool a spot as we could find. And I controlled the water. There was not much left, and if we didn’t find any on the way, which was likely to be the case, we would barely make it back to the waterhole with what we had.
By our midday rest I had only allowed a mouthful to each at the stops, and there was only one more small drink left for each. I thought that we had to be about another 4 to 6 hours away from the waterhole – too far to make it before dark. I asked Elias through John what he thought. He said “maybe tomorrow”, and I knew this was going to be grim.
“Now, if we had finished all the water yesterday, what would we do now?”, I asked, looking at them quizzically. They both looked down and didn’t answer, but I sensed a certain admiration. “Ask Elias if he knows of any other place that is not too far where we can find water”.
“It is only the waterhole”.
“I think we must wait here until the sun is not so hot (I pointed at the lower third of the western horizon), then we must walk, and tomorrow we must start early and walk far before the sun is hot, because I am scared if the sun is very hot like now we will get very thirsty and maybe we will not reach the waterhole”, I tried to explain as simply as possible. They realised that the situation was dangerous, and they felt comfortable with me deciding.
It was around four o’clock when we broke form the shade and started walking into the angular sun. We carried on until dusk, and I estimated that we were almost on top of the plateau. We had been gradually climbing all afternoon, but the slope seemed gentler now, and for the last half hour the terrain had become softer, I thought. I still felt strong, but I knew that I was already half dehydrated. My mouth and throat was dry and sticky, I felt a little dizzy at times, and I had developed a slight headache.
We made camp hurriedly in the half light. Elias disappeared into the dark, and after a while he walked into the fire glow, holding a few pieces of thick root. I discovered the next morning that he chopped them from a white syringa tree that he had spotted some distance from camp. He hung them over a pot, and we watched eagerly as water slowly dripped from them. I forbade them to have any of the smoked meat because it would take more moisture to digest. We ate some of the tinned food, from which I had them carefully pour off the liquid and add it to the water from the syringa roots. Before we retired for the night we shared the moisture – only a few small mouthfuls each, but wonderful.
We decided we had to keep watch. We were not very far from the waterhole, and we could very well receive visitors. I took the first watch. The night was pleasantly cool, and I felt a calmness settle over me after the intense walk of the day. I was feeling a lot better from the food and the small drink, and less worried that we wouldn’t make it. We would probably reach the waterhole by early morning before the sun was too hot, and then we would be fine. I had my little Coleman lamp going and I wrote up my diary and read a little and thought.
The next morning we got going with the remains of the night still lurking in the denser groves. Walking through the dew-damp grass in the dawn coolness made the thirst almost bearable, but soon the sun lifted relentlessly above the treetops, towering over us, white-hot and merciless, sucking the moisture from our bodies and pulling the knot tighter around our throats until the thirst filled our minds like an evil demon that shouted incessantly in a hollow room
We walked fast; as fast as we could. We took turns with John’s pack, barely noticing our surroundings, just aching for the sight of the water. It reminded me of some desperate days I had known during my time with the special forces, force-marching over long distances through hostile territory, heavily loaded with equipment and ammunition. We finally broke over the rim of the waterhole after ten with great relief, and half stumbled down to its edge. I didn’t even bother to take off my clothes or sandals or try to drink. I simply waded in and lay down in the thick green liquid, letting it run into the cavities of my body, soaking it up, feeling the mud ooze up against my sides and waiting for my mind to slowly regain its perspective.