20: Kafue – The Book of Gideon (Matopos)

Chapter 20:       Matopos

The first bust had disgorged its passengers by the time ours reach the aircraft.

The crowd at the foot of the mobile stairs slowly fed itself up and into the plane, as a few yellow jacketed officials lazily flapped their arms at the periphery like some exotic herdsmen tending a flock of goats.

The tarmac apron was a bustle of activity. The area was shared between domestic flights, and the short international hauls. With the Joburg- Cape Town route being the busiest in the world, the buzz of activity was not surprising.

My anxiety dissipated when half way up the stairway I recognized a bald head sticking up out of the neckline of his khaki colored clothes. His thick stocky legs protruded from his short pants before disappearing back into long socks pulled up out of a loose slide into well-worn shoes. Trevor was about to enter the aircraft.

Having been allocated a seat towards the rear, I slowed my progress to allow other passengers to move ahead. The flight wasn’t crowded. If I was the last to board I could check if there was aa seat open adjacent, or I could scope another location allowing us to sit and chat together. The bonds of boyhood never age. With our togetherness since Junior School we were able to ‘bandy-about’any subject under the sun.  This also being true for a bond with places. Thus this being a flight to Bulawayo my excitement stemmed from just such ties. It was to that unique form of bush with its bouldered hilled beauty that I owed my affinity.

Moving down the aisle there was an open middle spot next to Trevor, and I settled down for the short flight northwards.

The climb out of Johannesburg was bumpy, but not nearly as rough as the dissent into Bulawayo. By then the sub-tropical air, spurred on by the blazing sunshine, buffetted our aircraft as it rose, sucking moisture up with it, so high that the jet-stream blew the cloudy crowns sideways like the hair on the head of a windswept girl.

Pausing the flow of our conversation, I looked out the window to peer at the top of one of these awesome anvils as it slid past under the wings.

“It looks like we can expect a thunderstorm later on this afternoon,” I said to him.

“We could use it”, he replied, “We never have enough rain these days”.

Both being well acquainted with the rougher aspects of African travel, unlike a few of the foreign passengers who were glancing around nervously, we hardly broke the flow of our conversation as the aircraft rocked its way across the sky.

“How did you get the gig up there?” Trevor was spooning mouthfuls of the chicken and sadza from the little tinfoil container he had lifted from his lunch tray, holding it up near his mouth for convenience and efficiency.

Sadza, being the staple maze meal dough-like food favored by most of the poor and rural population was now replacing the usual rice or mashed-potato starch of the menu on the inter African flights. It was a sign that a lot of people had been lifted into middle class by the end of apartheid. They had brought their eating habits with them.

Trevor nodded his head towards the three smart, but casually dressed men sitting in the seats across the aisle. “I wonder what these Chinese on this flight think of the sadza? I bet they would prefer rice.” Then after another moutful, ““That is another sign of the new Africa.”

 I nodded back to him, “I hear that in Angola there are now more Chinese than there were Portuguese colonialists at the time of independence.”

Trevor mopped the chicken gravy at the bottom of its tin-foil bowl with the last of his bread-roll. “I heard that it was a Chinese government policy to encourage five million of them to emigrate into Africa. They want a phalanx of CHinese ex-pats to indirectly form a sympathetic element in the fabric of the continent.

 “They are the latest neo-colonialists streaming this way to get their heads bashed around by an African education.” I replied pensively.

Trevor agreed.

“One wonders how their children will think of themselves, as Chinese? Will they have as little allegiance to China as you and I have to Europe. Will they learn that deep down, despite us being completely African, our presence is a spoiler to the popular notion here, that Africa belongs only to the Africans.”

I glanced out the window as the nose of the aircraft dip to begin its descent.

Trevor handed his tray to the airhostess,.

“Yep” I commented, “some Chinese have started mining close to the border of the National Park where I operate. Little half Chinese babies are starting to appear in the surrounding villages.”

Trevor looked at me and shrugged. “Boys will be boys, and girls will be girls.”

I passed my tray to the airhostess as the captain announced the preparations for landing.

“Well,” I said “For better or worse, you and I are stuck in our Africa. We have no other home.”

“By the way,” I said to him, “talking about boys and girls. Did I tell you that I am meeting someone else while I am here?”

“No.” he said. “Who is it?”

“Sophia.” I replied slowly.

“No kidding!” Trevor looked at me in surprise, “What hat did you pull her out of?”

“I didn’t, she contacted me. Out of the blue after three decades. Apparently she got divorced a few years ago, and her father died recently . He left her some money, so she can afford to return. I have no idea why. Maybe like some of us, trying to recapture, or rekindle the promises of the past.’

“Really.” Trevor exclaimed, “I’m surprised I haven’t bumped into her yet.

I know most of the Jewish community. After all from the five thousand here when we were at school it is down to about 50 these days.”

I said, “She’s probably still settling in, and she doesn’t use her maiden name. Which is probably why you haven’t recognized her”

“But who knows, I will soon know more.”

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“I stay because of the hills. The locals don’t think I belong here because I’m white. But I belong to these hills.”

“This country is so messed up. Anybody who wants a normal life and has a skill has gone. But despite all the harassment, the police roadblocks, the potholes, the power outages, the lack of civic services, electricity and running water, and the decrepit state of the schools, I stay here because of these hills.” he had said.

I remembered Trevor’s words as I drove towards the thatched archway and ticket office of the entrance to the Matopos National Park.

The road wended its way south-westward, past the barely functional agricultural research station, and the tired looking buildings of the Rhodes Elementary Preparatory School. Gradually the boring and gently rolling countryside, covered with scrubby thorn trees, changed and fill with pimply looking rock outcrops.

I had borrowed Trevor’s vehicle to head out here.

As I filled in my particulars at the window of the small office, the smile of the portly Wharton who took our fees spread almost as wide on her face as the gaps between the buttons on the shirt of her khaki uniform, which was strained apart by the abundance of her bosom.

“The Rangers say that the rhino are close! You should be able to see them if you take the Maleme dam loop” she said.

The excitedly animated tone of her voice was not reflected in the slow lethargy of her movements as she waddled across and opened the gate letting me into the park.

“Thank you Mama, I will look for them,”I politely acknowledged her helpfulness.

As I drove, like the layers of a mirage shimmering in the heat, the far off images gradually coalesced into  a giant Lego-land. Instead of colorful plastic, the blocks were huge granite boulders, whose rough surfaces were subliminally painted with the gentle brush strokes of delicate lichens. These stone canvases were daubed with paler patches of flakey white, or blended with darker greys, and streaked through with the russet from the ferrous traces leached by millions of years of weathering.

Bitterly I considered how history has not thanked the colonial era Europeans for the gift of national parks to Africa. Most of the ungrateful who live here don’t even realize what a gift they were given. Not yet anyway!”.

I paused to duck and crane my head to look out the side window of the vehicle admiringly as I passed the first steep jumble of rocky hill kopjes.

I thought how, despite its condition, this country was still full of lovely people.

The road led deeper into the park, where the piles of rock, some of them is ordered as the loaves of bread on a Baker shelf, and others is jumbled as the blocks in a toddler’s playpen, gave way to the signature huge inselberg domes of the Matopos. The sparse and scruffy grass that previously spread between the thorn-trees changed to a softer, sweeter variety. With much of the surface area of the land covered by rock, any rain that fell was concentrated and caught in the sandy soil forming the flat bottoms of the glens and spreads between the granite formations.

Further into the hills the thorn trees along the way were replaced by their lusher and more luxuriant brethren, so that at times it was as if I was driving through the hanging Gardens of Babylon. Tall and elegant Mountain acacia reached up to the sky from clefts in the rocks, and below them the broad leaves of fig trees with their roots spreading over the rocks like poured treacle, mingled their greenery with vine creepers.

The road leading to the Togwane dam, and the signs that pointed the direction to the Inanke cave beyond it reflected the general state of the country. Not much had been touched in the last few decades. Fortunately I remembered the directions and the vehicle easily handle the rutted road to the dusty parking area with its forlorn little guard room.

It was here that I was to begin my long seven kilometer hike to the Inanke cave, but not before I signed another book presented by a wizened warden, who was pleased to see me. “We do not get many people here.” the scrawny little man commented.

The magic of the walk out to the cave and its Holy Graille of rock art began at the edge of the little parking area. I were swallowed into a lush green canopy of trees lining the bottom of the water courses like a dense morning fog.

When I was last here three decades ago, there had been a well-worn pathway. Now its course was unclear, having been overgrown by the underbrush. It followed the watercourses that rose and fell as the large rock domes on each side pressed in, funnelling the path’s progress.

Cresting a rise between two promontories I walked out from the swaddling herbaceous opulence, to stand at the top of a granite slope. It looked down on an exquisite Valley edged with massive inselbergs and decorated with boulders the size of buildings, whose edges were blurred with the greenery of leaves and filled with the music of birds. The bark of a baboon, and here and there the squeak of a Rock Hyrax, enhanced the magic.

Anyone not feeling the ambience of the place should check their pulse. It has affected all those passing this way over the eons.

It is a reverence to nature that intoxicates. If I tarried here long enough, as did the ancient bushmen nganga’s , I would probably be drawn to tithing with similar images faintly etched in daubed ochre and shielded under overhanging rock walls along the pilgrimage.

Further along, after a steep climb out of a narrow valley, with a jump across the stream forming its bottom, a gigantic rock-face reared up before folding away to the south. Its crown tucked under itself like the crest of a wave, sucking in its breath before crashing into the jumble of rocks at its feet.

I searched for the Black Eagles nest that once was piled up in a massive bulk of sticks on the sloping ledge below the wave’s lip. It was gone, but with elation I noted the birds weren’t, one of them sat higher on the cliff face further up the valley.

The sandy floor below the cliff face was devoid of thick vegetation. I didn’t need to concentrate on where to place my next foot fall. Here the old trek path was relatively obvious.

Beyond the cliff, a long granite slope spread upwards to one side. On it were painted faded arrows. Its bare surface was dotted with clusters of hardy resurrection bushes, so named because of their ability to go without water for long periods, before bursting into ebullient vitality with the first rains.

I took out and drank long and quenchingly from one of my water bottles. With that, I turned to begin the climb, with a slow one foot in front of the other pacing.

The dimples and roils of the granite slope lifted inexorably until, way off and high up ahead, they met the sky. The surface of the huge dome, like the blemished skin on the head of an old man was dotted and spotted with sporadic little clusters of stunted trees. These clung to life in the shallow scrapes of soil that accumulated anywhere an unevenness formed a detritus filled hollow, which summer’s flash floods couldn’t wash away. A long way up ahead, before the dome curved over the horizon, I saw a particularly wide and prolific concentration of vegetation. It rose un-cropped out of a fold in the rock, like a strip of hair missed by a careless man as he shaved, where it was tucked into a crease at the top of his cheek.

Toiling up the slope I once again thought back to what Trevor had said the previous evening about the Mlilo. “The cult of the Mlimo hinges around powerful ngangas, he had said between sips of his beer. ““They serve as mouth pieces for an Oracle in a cave. The Ntsheleni is the one most associated with that. But I have heard that the oracle can move. It is an unseen nganga, who is the voice, often in the throes of a trance. The Matopos have been synonymous with magic for thousands of years.”

With these words in my mind, and feeling the stinging tiredness in my legs I panted up the last few yards of the climb. After three decades, I was about to again come face to face with the Sistine Chapel in the Jerusalem of African rock art.

The faded indication of the arrows painted on the rock led up the southeast side of the big fold of bushes, behind which the cave spread back into the granite. From there I crossed higher up, so that the approach was from the west along a level shelf. It was more overgrown than I remembered, and required pushing aside branches and clambering over roots to make headway.

Finally, the cave opened up in high hallowed simplicity.

On its walls and ceiling were the Erie stylized stick figures of men running, or maybe dancing, and animals parading. There were the strange| dot decorated oval shapes, which were presumed to be honeycombs, or maybe an ants nest. If I had an expert beside me they would explain, how some of the figures are therianthropic, and the significance of the legs of the men painted the same color as those of the big totem animals. They would point to the streams of potency spraying out from some of the figures. Or maybe they would tell me how the dying shapes of a kudu signified the consummation of a marriage.

The painters were gone. Who knew what their ultimate motive, to produce such starkly simplistic and emotionally moving images. Who cared about the nuances. Alone in this place, I could feel its spiritual effect, even though I was an athiest. The ideas in these ochre and orange images are no longer in the minds of the ancestors. The modern bushman remnants have been push far into the Kalahari Desert, leaving the occult and its traditions behind in the minds of the tribes of this area.

I stood in silence looking up at the ceiling. I simply absorbed its beauty. Logic had disapeared. I let myself be pulled along by the mesmerizing effect of the religious loneliness, with its primitive precedence painted on its high wide ceiling, and the view down across this surreal landscape. A landscape made magnificent by being untouched, unspoiled, undefiled.

The only sound was the faint whispers of the wind through the shielding branches. Could it be that the supplicants heard the oracles’ answers as the whisper of the wind sounded to me? Closing my eyes, I heard the whispers in my mind, and the tickle of a pebble rolling over the lip of the cave. Then another set of clicks as a pebble rolled again, with soft rustling ticks as its fall was cushioned by the leaves below. Two pebbles? one after the other!

My senses were jerked back to alertness as I stood in tense silence. No longer looking at the images on the walls, I peered through the shrubbery at the caves approach. There was a faint swish as branches were moved by someone.

A tall lean figure emerged from the undergrowth. He straightened, standing fully erect to look at me with the same stillness with which I returned his gaze. He was an African man, clad in olive fatigues. With a deeply lined face he had the grey hair of an elder. In his right hand he held an AK-47.

I recognized him .

“Kunjani” he said, “Hello”.

Unlike the previous times I had seen him, now he smiled, and his face was transformed with friendliness. “What are you doing here?” I asked suspiciously. He shrugged, and with the same distinctive African accent as when he had ordered me to leave Eddie he said,

“I work here! “

“But then what were you doing up on the Kafue?”

His smile broadened. “It has been many years since I was north of the Zambezi River.” He stepped closer and looked out over the vista. “I have worked as a warden in this park since independence.

“I saw you at the Kafue River up in Zambia two weeks ago!” I insisted.

“No”. The grey haired figure slowly shook his head. “Maybe you saw my brother. He stayed after the struggle, the Chimurenga. It is as well he did. He is headstrong . Here he would’ve made a fuss and fought, and they would’ve killed him. The regime now is more brutal than the colonialists.”

I stared incredulously.

“I came back, and my brother stayed there”. A pause, “The Mlimo told us to do so. I have not seen him for many years.”

He looked at me quizzically. “I am surprised that you say you saw him recently in Zambia. I thought he was in the Congo. He has been working with some Russians there for a long time.”

The grey haired figure narrowed his eyes, “My brother and I are identical twins.”

Dumbfounded, I stared at him.

He slowly moved across to stand beside me. He gestured across the hills.With

(8th edite – 02/22/2021)