Wild for the wild

2014-06-19 00:00

AS a child growing up in the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe, I used to spend an awful lot of time jumping into all sorts of streams, waterfalls, rivers and lakes.

Having been boxed up at boarding school for 13 weeks at a stretch, there was something peculiarly liberating about this odd habit of mine. It was like my own little unilateral declaration of independence, my response to all those schoolboy pressures to conform.

As soon as I got back to our farm, which was situated at the very end of the Old Dutch Settlement Road in Nyanga North, the first thing I would do was rip off my tie, toss away my blazer, basher and anything else that reminded me of the grim monster, conventionality, and sprint down to the swift-running stream that flowed past the front of our house, with the dogs barking with excitement behind me. Once I felt the water sluicing around me, I knew I was home.

The great thing about wild swimming is, of course, that you aren’t usually surrounded by lots of other wild bathers all thrashing about and making a nuisance of themselves (although, in my quest to find the perfect pool, I have been forced to share my space with the odd water snake and river leguaan). Sitting in the shallow end of a heavily chlorinated swimming pool, fighting off hordes of screaming toddlers and being watched over by twitchy lifeguards does not, somehow, generate quite the same feelings of freedom or joy at being alive.

Evolutionists would, no doubt, put this fascination with water down to some buried primeval memory, the fact that this is where all life originated, but for me there was also a spiritual element to it.

Most of the rivers that ran through our farm had their source in Mount Muozi, a striated, sphinx-like peak that jutted out from the main Nyanga plateau. Flat-topped, steep-sided and seemingly impregnable, the mountain had once served as the centre of a powerful rain-making cult.

This association added an element of both the holy and the supernatural to the whole cleansing ritual. Every time I sat under a waterfall, I felt like the water I was immersing myself in had both come from and been blessed by the Rain God himself. Exulting in the freedom and solitude, I would lie there, allowing the river to grow around me until nothing existed but me, it and that towering, mysterious mountain.

The day came, however, when, like many a country boy before and after me, I succumbed to the lure of the big city and set off to seek my fame and fortune (I’m still looking).

My days of running — and swimming — free were over and, out in the big world, I found myself being swept along by a different current, one which, by some strange quirk of fate, eventually landed me in Pietermaritzburg.

Perhaps it has something to do with the current mood of ecological apocalypse or maybe it’s the growing feeling that the present, heavily digitalised, world we live in has just got a little too disconnected from nature for my liking, or maybe it’s just my age, but in recent years I have found that the old call of the wild has begun to grow stronger again. In fact, you could say the condition has become almost psycho-pathological — at least once a year, preferably more, I have to get away.

In responding to this summons from the Deep, I have covered thousands of kilometres, in all four seasons, and in many weathers, searching for uninterrupted sight-lines and views that will feed my unbridled enthusiasm for torrents, cliffs and precipices.

While I am easily swayed by scenes of bucolic calmness, I generally prefer a more chaotic and edgy version of nature — the more wild, rugged and unpopulated, the better.

For me, such journeys into the unknown are both broadening and restorative. They provide a means of escape from the crowded streets and the routine of everyday life. On the road, difficulties are resolved, possibilities open up and, as the horizons widen around me, I can feel my mind expanding to meet them.

Indeed, I can think of nothing more bracing for the soul than turning one’s back on duties, following one’s nose and seeing where it leads. Therein lies stimulus, enrichment and a sense of achievement.

In opting, once again, to tread this solitary path, I have found there have been other, more practical, benefits as well; all the physical exercise I have got from this endless pursuit of the sublime having given me the strength and endurance to continue sniping away at our, sometimes disheartening and unredeemable, bunch of politicians.

And for that I am truly thankful.

• Anthony Stidolph is The Witness cartoonist.

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