Berg Loafers

2010-11-27 00:00

THAT’S a rock, says Merv, who sees himself as a bit of a geologist because he touched on the subject as a student architect. Garn! say I, who have been around on this planet long enough to tell the difference between stone and beast, that is a living animal, for sure. See, it is that pale dun colour with a black mane and tail, it is what an American horseman would call a Buckskin. Long time we stand and gaze at this object, for fully five minutes it remains motionless on a long spur thrusting out from the escarpment towards the Injasuti Gorge, and finally I concede: No, you’re right, man, it can’t be alive and stand so still for so long, it must be a rock. And Merv says to me No, you are right, no rock could be that colour.

So we forge ahead along the contour path that runs the length of the Berg below the topmost krantzes. We are on another spur south of the rock/beast, see, and it’s a long haul to zigzag right in towards the mountain face and out again roughly to where this object stands. With all our gear for five days on our backs it’s nigh an hour’s heavy hike, but suddenly there about a hundred paces ahead and fifty below the path he stands: an old old eland, his muzzle white with age, his ancient flanks sunken from lack of nutrition, too decrepit to look for good grass, just standing next to a small trickle of water dribbling downhill. Just enough for his last trickle of life. We creep silently onwards, if we move gently we shouldn’t disturb him. But he sees us, does a panic stumble downhill and turns en garde, but we’ve passed. Three days later we come thumping down from the top, back on the path to Injasuti, but taking care not to get too close to the old fellow as we approach his spot. And there he lies, dead where he made his last stand, just unable to scramble up again to his last lick of Life. So then … well he just died of everything, poor old bugger, died of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Entropy. Every closed physical system in the universe falls into increasing disorder. The trouble with Life is it kills you.

It starts to rain like all hell, we huddle under a great basalt boulder the size of a house, with a big hollow smashed out in its hurtling down from the escarpment, making a neat shelter. We drink tea and relish our cosiness. No need to talk, we’re close, but after a bit Merv says Hey look at this, and there on the rock wall just behind us are three dainty little oribi, fresh as if painted yesterday. And how do you know they weren’t? say I. Well almost yesterday, says he, and recalls a story favoured by Drakensberg climbers, who loaf about in cave or tent when the day’s strain is over, and come to think of it there might well be a Berg loafer out there amongst you dear readers who is a proper historian nogal, who might just be able to verify this story.

It is about a sheep farmer in 1923 who was up here checking on grazing for his flocks when he too was obliged to seek shelter from a Berg thunderstorm in a handy cave, and idly looking about in there came upon a deep shelf or hole at the back of the cave, into which he thrust his arm to the shoulder regardless of snakes, and found right at the back a number of most interesting things. There was a short kilt of hide, still soft and pliable, various small agate artefacts, scrapers and arrowheads, a bow still springy and a quiver with arrows. But what interested him most as a sheep man was a quantity of grass stuffed last into the hole, dry grass of course, but still soft, most certainly no older than the last season of growth. Did these things belong to the last Bushman? The solitary survivor, how long alone? Too old to hunt, mortally terrified of the white man’s dogs and guns, his ancient flanks sunken from lack of nutrition, too old to hide, scared to death by any Zulu, they had killed his greatgrandfather, the Dutchmen his grandfather, the Englishmen his father, between them they had driven his broken people into the stark wilderness, the Zulu’s Barrier of Spears, the Dutchman’s Dragon Mountain. Call it what you will, it’s a brutal place. No more following the migrating eland to the coast with your family. Steal the Nguni cattle, steal the longhorn Afrikanders, steal the European breeds, eat and hide, secrete yourself in your stark wilderness when the invader cattlemen come hunting you down.

Pack your possessions tidily away when your time comes, push your sleeping-grass neatly into the shelf. Now creep off with your jackal-skin blanket to find a trickle of water coming down some secret hillside. Lie down furtively, curl up, hide your head, slowly die. Not for you the Comanche farewell to Great Mother Earth. It was not morbid when a Comanche said This is a good day to die, he meant one should die with the sun shining kindly upon one, the eyes full of beauty, the spirit at peace.

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