There was an almost imperceptible simplicity in the way the cross pattern of the traction pads of the prints pressed their faint uniqueness slightly deeper into the sandy outline of my own..
I stood for a moment, transfixed, while I looked down at the twin sets of imprints, as my mind scurried over the implications.
Then, with my thoughts still scrambling through the shards of my shattered plan, I quickly came to terms with the realization that the big loop had been a set up. It had been a way to somehow get the better of me.
As I crouched down to inspect the tracks I noticed that in one of the little inverted funnel like scrapes at the bottom of the road ruts, an ant had fallen into an ant-lions trap. I could see how the ant-lion, which was still hiding under the sandy grains at the bottom of its inverted cone, had begun to flick sand over the ant. It would not take long before the ant found itself buried under the suffocating flicks. Then it would become prey to the ant-lions voraciousness.. I could not help my feeling of empathy when I broke off a stem of grass and helped the ant clamber up and over the walls of its imprisonment.
I guess my empathy stemmed from a faint sense that I was also at the bottom of a much larger blight. That it would not be long before I would feel some virtual flicks over my head. But, for me there would not be some higher power to drop me a rope from the wide cloudless skies, which could allow me to clamber over the sides of my exposure in the middle of the broad grossi dambo, which pushed the bushline back on all sides like the unfurling of some gigantic carpet.
If I was to get out, it would be with my own resourcefulness. Surprise the surpriser. In adversity or conflict, I had learned the hard way, the most aggressive of the participants almost always won.
But something did not add up. Was this aggression I was facing? Had the mystery man been leading me into an ambush, or was he just trying to mess with my mind.
After all if it had been an ambush that had been intended, why had it not been sprung at the quarry, when there were two of them. Or maybe even three. I was still not sure if the third set of tracks had been from a girl who was there with them willingly or not.
And why had the mystery man done a complete loop? A loop which had allowed me to come up on our tracks, to let me know that I was being followed.
Was this deliberate? And if so, why?
It did not make sense.
And if it was a mind game, it also begged a ‘why?’
I realize that my instinct was to enter the mental-set of an enders-game situation when following human footprints. This instinct was a mental frame formed of necessity, decades ago, when the assumption was that the conclusion had to be a deadly catch or be caught drama. Back then we had been marionettes, dancing at the end of long invisible strings being tugged and manipulated by the imperatives of huge political ideologies, which were blowing across the landscape of Africa, Nationalism, Socialism, and Democracy, in their varied nuances.
Like puppets, we had each danced to the variances of the tunes and scripts in our individual deadly dramas. These were played out countless times, on each of the small platforms sprinkled across Africa. Seldom were there audiences, because they had been hidden from public view. Our stages were set in grassy glades, or thicket groves, and between the rocky kopje hills of the bushveld.
Sometimes, like in this current tense moment, I still have to remind myself that even though the winds of these ideologies still blow across Africa, they are now usually more regular and dependable. They mostly no longer cause the buffeting crosswinds as intensely and troublesome as in the past. This is because over most of Africa, the minds of the people now face into the winds of their particular ideology. The politicians no longer need to foster violence and revolution to woo or war the opinion of their Povo. It is no longer the privilege of the colonialists to pillage the underlying abundance of the continent. Now, in many places it is a new set of indigenous masters who can sit back and do this at their leisure.
I reminded myself that the Africa of today is mostly no longer host to such extremes of position, especially Zambia, which obtained its independence early enough in the pan African struggle, to avoid the bitterness of racism which adds its veneer to the color of its nationalism, as has happened in some of its neighbors. Also it did not have to pander for material support so deeply to any political master. Thus it does not find itself so deeply entrenched in bankrupt ideologies that almost any business initiative, even from an indigenous African, has its entrepreneurial blood sucked out of it like an undipped cow infested with socialist ticks.
With my thoughts back on the present I noted that after all, there had been ample opportunity for the mystery man to inflict physical harm. Only last night he had circled my tent in the darkness. All he had done was to send a signal with the scrape of a chair.
But maybe his tactics were more insidious. Maybe he was instilling a sense of increasing mysteriousness to events. To give an appearance of the magical, which would play to the superstitions that lay just under the surface of many of the beliefs in the bush.
So what should I do? Keep following the tracks and see if I could catch up from behind.
Or should I double back and see if I could catch him unaware if I could run frontally into him.
Or should I back track and wait in ambush assuming he would keep following.
I looked more closely at the tracks. I slowly let my eyes follow them as they progressed along the dirt strips of the road. A thin stem of grass, almost imperceptibly rose up from where it had been impressed into one of the footprints. As the sand dried in the warm breeze, it was losing its damp adhesiveness. The slight torsion in the stem had pulled it up and free from where it been held in the moist stickiness of the soil.
This footprint was less than half an hour old. Somehow I had gained an hour and a half on the mystery man. It meant that I would be more likely to surprise him if I kept following, rather than doubling back on our tracks.
I quickened my steps so that I was almost pacing along the dusty ruts like a speed walker.
I did not have to think as I let my eyes automatically pick up the sign of the footprints. I let my mind drift over the possibilities.
I had been lucky. Gaining an hour and a half on attract target is not easy if the target is also moving. It was obvious that my luck had stemmed from my diversion caused by the elephant herd, and my shortcut across to the other side of the dambo, where I had stumbled back onto the mystery tracks.
He must have proceeded down to the river and then headed back to the road line through the thick Bush. He had not counted on me unintentionally cutting across his big loop and thus tucking even closer behind his progress.
What was also quite possible was that although the mysterious man had taunted me into falling him, and as such had obviously left a blatant set of tracks all the way along the dirt road, and up to the main road as far as the quarry. But, he probably did not know that I could track reasonably competently. He probably had counted on me being a Muzungu, and as such I would have limited bush-craft ability. It seemed his assumption was that he could easily make me lose his track. That was why he had headed out of the quarry towards the east through the difficult lodged dambo grass.
Speed was of the essence.
I looked up as a Bateleur eagle rocked its way across the skies, with its wings set in its characteristically deep dihedral.
Almost vulture like in its habits, in some ways it was an even more magnificent flyer than a vulture.
It hardly ever flapped its long pointed wings, and when it did, they were short bursts of fast stiff winged flicks.
Gazing up at this magnificent bird I wished I could cover the ground as rapidly as this wild creation, and be able to see as much as it could.
I certainly knew it was not sweating as much as I was.
Nor was it feeling the heavy weight of my remaining water bottle rubbing its weight uncomfortably into the small of my back, as its heaviness in the back pack swayed in time to my rapid pace is.
I was just following the spoor, without much conscious thought.
I glanced up and saw that the eagle had already crossed the wide spread of the dambo, as it sped its pointed winged progress through the skies like an acrobat swaying his pole on a tight-rope.
Bateleur! I mentally mouthed the name. It was another disappearing relic of the old, more romantic Africa. These days the new Ornithologists would call it a ‘Short tailed Eaglle’,… What a piss-pot unimaginative name! I thought to myself how Le Valliant, the flamboyant young French naturalist who named the eagle when he came out to Africa in the 1770s, must be turning in his grave as he watched political correctness favor the names given in East Africa, now that southern Africa had rejoined the political correctness of the continent.
Despite the rapid panting hurry of my pacing, my eyes were automatically and unthinkingly following the signs left in the dust of the twin tracts which led out towards the main road. At the same time my thoughts remained caught in a reverie about political correctness and Le Valliant. In some ways, for me he epitomized a disrespect for social correctness, because back in the 1770’s his mistress was a beautiful Hottentot mulatto, and back then it was a time in history where open interracial affairs was strongly looked down upon.
Maybe it was because my mind was wandering across the quicksand of political correctness that it took a few seconds for it to pick up what my eyes had already registered.
There was a third track in the dust.
It had a boot print like no other I had seen for a long time.
With my mind now fully engaged on the signs in the sand, I backtracked a few yards. I could see where the third set of tracks entered the roadway from the Southwest.
This change the picture completely. I felt I had a fighting chance if it was just myself and the mystery man who I would potentially confront, but two of them. No, this was not just someone willing to simply mess with my mind. It would be foolish to find out what would happen if I caught up and confronted a pair of them.
I assumed that maybe there had been another individual in the car at the quarry, and maybe he had got out and joined the mystery man for some reason. Whatever it was it was not worth my while finding out, on my own.
I quickly turned on my heels and cut into the Bush to the south. At a half jog I began to move as fast as I could back towards the lodge, where at least there was much less likelihood of the duo of the mystery man and his companion luring me out alone again.
The heat and my thirst caught up with me. Despite my urgency, not wanting to risk any muscle cramps from dehydration, I stopped, and took the water bottle out of my backpack. Raising it high in the air I began to gulp the soothing relief of the water. As I gulped I searched my memory for the new third boot print. I had seen it before. But where? It escape me.
But anyway now, by draining the bottle, I could move more comfortably at speed, because at least it would not be digging into my back as I ducked and dived under low branches and around the outstretched clasping fingers of some of the thorn trees.
Then, as I hoisted my backpack, from not too far away, I heard the snap of a branch.
The only things that break branches in the daytime in the bush are elephants, and the herd of elephants I had run into earlier were heading in the other direction.
The only other animal that breaks branches in the daytime is the human animal, and that only happens if they are careless or moving fast.
Someone was following me, and I had to assume they were moving fast. Out here in the Bush only the citydwellers are careless.
I turned and began to half jog, half run where it was appropriate, where the bush was not quite as thick.
As I ran I began to think of how I could make a stand if I saw anyone catching up. After all I was now past my prime, and maybe the third set of prints belonged to somebody in their late teens or 20s, someone as old as I had been when I had chased men through the Bush. At my age, I could not out run a young fit pursuer.
My mind was racing over the possibilities of what to do if I did not make it back to the Lodge before any of my followers caught up.
Then, suddenly, I remembered where I’d seen that print.
I stopped running. I turned around.
I slowly walked back along my tracks.
There was only one person I had ever seen with boot prints like that.
Moses wore boots with that strange unique pattern!