A primary place

2009-01-09 00:00

I had forgotten just how dark the African nights can get. It was black. Almost solid, like you could reach out and touch it. It added to my sense of dread, and fear suddenly hardened my stomach, its taste coppery in my mouth. A primal fear, the kind that pushes you to the edge of mindless panic.

I had awoken with a start, tingling with anticipation and flushed with adrenaline, at something vigorously shaking a nearby shrub, the suddenness of it jarring the silence. Impulsively, I groped for the cold hardness of my FN rifle. It was not where it should have been.

“Terrs,” I thought, still fumbling beside me, so dark I was not sure my eyes were even open.

“They are close by. I must alert the others.”

I sat upright, rigid, inside my sleeping bag, momentarily confused by its cocoon-like restraint, listening, desperately trying to figure out where I was.

I barely recognised the croaking, whispered voice as my own, “Whoa, you are not in the Rhodesian bush now.”

For once, since relocating to this beautiful part of Africa, it was gratifying to hear the continuous background roar of the N3 highway. Its ubiquitous presence did fade after a while, but at that moment it brought a reality check. Its unnatural resonance, funnelled through the low valleys of the bushveld, jerked me back to the moment.

Yet, it seemed ages before I felt the tension ease and my body deflate. I fell back on to my bedding, chuckled quietly and felt for my cellphone. Retrieving it from a branch above my head, I placed it under the sleeping bag to prevent its light giving away my position and squeezed the keypad. It was 12.43 am.

Exactly 23 minutes since I had last checked it.

Then the nearby loud, coughing bark of a nyala indicated the reason I was wrenched from sleep. Lying back on my mattress of grass and tree branches, enjoying their earthy scents, I took stock of my surroundings, rubbing my arms and legs. Pepper ticks had obviously been brought into my shelter with the bedding material.

I could see the moon, full and scarred by blotches, as it filtered through the tree’s leaves into the shelter. It turned the bush silvery green. Every now and then, I heard the gentle “hu hoo” of an Eagle owl coming from the direction of the river, then the harsh baby-like howling of a bushbaby. Earlier, it had been a late-afternoon duet from a pair of jackals, their yapping seeing in the setting of the sun, while a herd of zebra, their hooves clattering on loose gravel of a worn trail, provided a hurried beat.

I felt good, pleased that these creatures still existed on the outskirts of the stretching suburbs of the nearby city. Its capacity to absorb what little was left of the natural environment into itself was amoeba-like. It simply swallowed it up.

Was it the colonial heritage which caused its residents to want to dominate and impose their will even on the environment? To rearrange its trees into straight rows, to remove from it what they do not understand and then to create fears around them, where snakes and other small creatures become the things of phobias.

To those without such prejudices, the unharmed bushveld of this valley had the same allure as any of the better-known great African escapes. It possessed that same air of mystery, filled with anticipation, of something imminent at every step, of the feeling of being watched and of being slowly accepted by it as you pose no threat. Also, like any bushveld, this too changed with the seasons. As it was January, the bush was still lush and green, but soon it would slowly fade to a dry brown, its drabness saved by the vivid flowering of aloes and the autumn colours of Tamboti, Combretum and Heteropyxis trees. Winters always exposed its stark beauty. Gnarled, twisted trees became visible as the shrubs shed their leaves and the ground, bare of vegetation, would glitter with quartz.

When the stresses of modern life became too unbearable, when the lights got too bright and the routine too oppressive, this is the place I would be drawn to. The need to go “bossies”, to go walkabout like the Aborigines of Australia, became a yearning that had to be satisfied.

Taking only a small backpack, minimal food, some water and a piece of shade cloth with which to make a shelter, I would be dropped off along the D389 district road by my wife and would head for the hills. Knowing landowners in the area cleared the legality of my wanderings.

Not wanting to be disturbed or to be a disturbance, I would construct my shelter in the deepest thicket that I could crawl into. This would be hidden from view and made as comfortable as possible with grass and vegetation.

I loved the uncomplicated, simplicity of a few days spent as a primitive man, the serenity of the lifestyle calming and therapeutic. One’s needs being reduced to providing for the most basic — food, water, fire and shelter — eliminated all the wants which preoccupy modern man.

Once settled in, it would be time to kick back and soak up what Africa had to offer, because then my intrusion would become tolerated and its inhabitants would quickly re-emerge from their watchful hiding. There were scattered groups of impala, now in the middle of the rutting season, that resumed their loud, bellowed snorts and which punctuated the stillness with the clatter of horns as males fought for dominance.

Family groups of nyala would shyly emerge from the tree lines, the large bulls gracefully dancing around each other, stiffly tiptoeing with arched backs. In the distance were the dark silhouettes of wildebeest, grazing quietly on new grasses in a clearing, and I heard the annoyed braying of zebra.

I saw them all freeze momentarily, with lifted heads, as a lion’s panted roar rose in crescendo, reverberating across the landscape, triggering some ancient response along my spine. Sadly, it went unanswered, as I knew it would. There had been no lion freely prowling these valleys in decades.

Under the sun’s influence, all quickly became calm, going back to the gentler pace.

When the sun eventually set, the shadows would metamorphose the landscape into something ethereal. The angular branches of Euphorbia trees transforming into plants from an alien world, the aloes becoming warriors of some lost tribe, decked in plumed headdresses, while boulders came alive as shadows shrunk from them and then melted into total darkness.

It also allowed old terrors to creep in with the fading light. They were the terrors of an 18-year-old boy. A boy forced into a brutal manhood, in another bush, far away from here, in another world, another life even.

In this forgiving place, it was easier to confront the horrors of a war, of death caused, to understand that that was part of a mere moment in time, that what the boy had done was not as important as what the man could still accomplish.

When the sun again lightened the sky, these affairs remained in the darkness of this piece of bush, this place of healing. The bushveld, its darkness and then its light, scoured away the layers of selfishness, aggression and helplessness with which daily life coats us, allowing in humility, refocused priorities and the clarity of life’s true values.

The dawn chorus of francolin, doves and loeries that suddenly washed the landscape with sound emphasised the fact that it was the little things which have the greatest impact in life and that we have to stop to see and hear them.

As the sun climbed from the horizon, burning back the last clinging shadows and warmed the life beneath it, I dismantled my shelter and packed away the few things it had held. Hitching the pack on to my back, I headed up the nearest ridge, startling a troop of monkey’s that chattered angrily at me, now an intruder again. I saluted them, thinking, “May you always have this space to do what you do.”

On cresting the ridge, the noise of the N3 was in full swing and it hit me like a shock wave. The system was grinding inexorably on and was awaiting my return. But now I was revitalised, strengthened and ready for it. From here the city of Pietermaritzburg was also clearly visible, not 10 kilometres away, looking ominous in its morning shroud of dirty mist.

Yes, this piece of African bush, the Mpushini Valley near Ashburton, was still thriving and filled with wildlife, providing refuge for those seeking peace and quiet.

On approaching the district road, I saw that my wife was already waiting for me in our van.

I turned, looked back into the valley, now with Table Mountain as a backdrop, framed by the Lion Park and Rainbow Chickens sheds, and hoped it would remain untouched until I needed it again, which I knew would be soon.

KEN FARNSWORTH

As a director with Real Landscapes, I have been involved in many major landscaping projects in the Durban area: uShaka Marine World, and Suncoast and Sibiya casinos. I am about to start on the new Durban 2010 Soccer World Cup Stadium.

Having climbed up the corporate ladder, I prefer both feet on the ground as a God-fearing bushman appreciating sleeping under the stars, being scratched by acacias, having socks filled with grass seeds and brushing spider webs off my face in the mornings.

Fortunately, as a resident of the bushveld hills of Ashburton I can do this every day of the year. I wish more residents would overcome their disdain for this perceived “scrub” on their doorsteps, acknowledge its presence and ensure its protection.

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