Nature trail

2013-05-07 00:00

WHEN I was a kid I came suddenly one night upon a reedbuck sweetly sleeping in the long grass by the Thukela River. My crafty footfall alarmed him and he leapt off in utter panic, crashing about half awake with furious thumping and falling and that shrill whistle that reedbuck give; I went to see where he’d been lying in a cosy nest of flattened stalks, and for the first time knew the smell of a wild animal. I felt like a lion. I moved in and sniffed about the comfy place, and lay down on it myself for a bit, it was still warm against the chill winter air. I lay on my back looking straight along eighty thousand light-years of the Milky Way, all two hundred billion stars of it. This was Old Africa and I was early hominid, newly intelligent, newly rational, wondering why in the name of Whomever I was stuck on the outside of this ball of rock and grass in the great grim menace of the cosmos.

And by the next day the event had left my mind entirely. Life was just so full of the amazing experience of youth I just didn’t have time for such small delicate memories. But last week I did remember it, and vividly, when I came upon another reedbuck nest.

A few years ago, you see, the eThekwini city council decided on an uncommonly imaginative thing, and eco-friendly, to establish across the Berea a sort of migration trail for small beasts and birds, from the Umgeni north to the Umbilo River south, starting obviously in Manning Road, which is wide and double-laned, with a good wide green corridor down the middle. Only indigenous coastal flora would be planted along this corridor, though a couple of flowering Brazilian trees were allowed to stay because they fitted in rather well and the posh citizens of Manning Road would bemoan their removal for sure.

But HORROR! Never mind the Brazilians, the posh citizens said homeless people too would move into this jungle strip and sleep there and defecate all about and litter the place with unburied stolen toilet paper and steal from their motor cars and washlines and rape folks. And they didn’t look nice anyway, they never took a bath. And what about the mambas, hey? So the corridor got no longer than a couple of hundred metres, and just so lucky to keep that, there was such a bloody fuss. The undergrowth grew thick, thick and impenetrable, and the municipal mower-man cut a neat winding footpath through it all so people could take dogs for healthy walks and placate their owners’ ire, but we’ve only once seen anyone there: an old woman taking her Rottie for a crap. She didn’t leave unburied toilet paper all about so I suppose it was okay.

In fact my lad Joe and I seem to be the only human beings who ever really use this trail, it’s the safari middle bit of our daily hike. Apart from the unburied dog drolle we’ve seen an extended family of mongooses, I suppose a dozen or so, darting and woops-ing all about, also sundry Vervets and a pretty Aurora House Snake, shiny green above and an orange stripe down his back, and birds, as they used to say, for Africa. We’ve found loerie feathers, and stuck them in our caps, a panache. There was a dense growth of isikhotha at one spot, rank dry grass about shoulder-high, and it was there we saw the reedbuck nest. Hey look, said Joe, something’s been sleeping here! This something had made a sort of channel in the grass, using the crop-circle technique, so from passing cars the nest was invisible, and nobody in her or indeed his right mind would go walking there at night because of rape and mambas and stuff, so it was v. private and safe. And comfy too, the pushed-over stalks making a nice springy mattress.

After supper we made a couple of doorstep sandwiches with fried eggs and cheese-and-tomato, also a screw-top jar of tea with three spoons of sugar, and took a late extra hike to the safari trail. Mice and small things rustled about and we heard an owl, it was really dark and spooky, just a few cars about, and there in the lights of one of them we espy the curled-up form on a piece of plastic. Joe reaches in and gently grabs an ankle. A muttered Zulu curse from within and a face appears. Howzit umfo? says Joe. Would you like a sandwich? Oh man! says the face, and starts chomping right away. Don’t you get cold sometimes? says Joe. When it rains, says he, then I put this plastic on top. There seems to be little to say. Sorry to disturb you, says Joe, and we shove off.

Two days later we’re back, hiking again, and the grass is gone. Mowed flat. Maybe the rottie sniffed the wild animal in there and felt like a lion and his missus complained. Bulwer Park nearby is mowed flat too, where the outies used to sleep. Workmen are putting up great floodlights on gumpoles with much blade wire so no one can steal the bulbs. I speak to a Metro policeman watching the workmen work. Where do all these people sleep, then? I ask. On the beach, he replies. Maybe a nice big tsunami will come one night, hey? says he, wink wink, nudge nudge.

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