I am sure that I am not unique.
Somewhere deep inside the hoar of our souls there must be a child lurking and peeping out with a sense of wonder, because sometimes, unexpectedly, that fallow enthusiastic eagerness at confronting the newness of life still manages to manifest itself.
When this happens to me, it is as profound as when, long ago, I pressed those small pedals into their full rotations, and propel the bicycle across the lawn of the rose garden. There was that initial sense of apprehension as I felt my father release his steadying grip behind the saddle. Then there was the thrill of the first wobbly independent passage across the lawn. The exhilarating glee of discovering speed. It was unspoiled by the culminating scratchy crash of my bicycle into the fruit laden hang of the naartjie trees beyond the roses..
Because that child does not age and has not yet learnt to count, we lose track of the progress of all the tomorrow’s that have spanned the gape between what seems to be only yesterday and our todays.
But because only fools and children speak the truth, it takes the youth of someone else to make one aware of the magnitude of that count.
After all, our minds are notorious at playing tricks with our reality. If all we get to see of our aged selves is not much more than a few minutes in front of a morning mirror as we shave or put on our makeup, how can we be blamed for ignoring the progress of our decay.
I realized that for me someone who is old is always ten years older than I.. Thus as I enter the fifth decade of life, someone in their 60s seems to be old,
Hence by extension, for Melody, just beyond her second decade, I must have seemed ancient.
It was her youth, and not her foolishness which etched the truth on the mirror in my mind.
And as the dew of dawn flicked off from its fleeting hold on the brush of grass around my ankles, her words still lingered.
– You are too old for me, and you know it.
I was confronted by the discovery of something unexpected, the surprising and disturbing differences in the newness of her being.
I knew that she was also correct with the rest of her statement.
I had grown up amongst the people here in Central Africa. The woof of its culture had woven itself into the warp of mine. Thankfully the most tragic aspect of my culture, that of colonial racism had been brutally expunged on the battlefield. Constad Viljoen had been right, ‘If they can fight for us they can vote for us’.
But in Angola it was more than voting that we did. Only in the great equalizer of military conflict does one come to understand brotherhood, equality and mutual dependence. We learned that dependence had no relationship with color orcreed. It was those who had buddies they could depend on around them who survived the battles best. Even more importantly it was those with buddies, black, brown or white, who shared and shook together who walked away afterwards with some sanity.
It was the loners that had trouble with it all. In the good units they were weeded out long before they could become bosbefok’ed from the stress.
And ‘Os Tterriveis’ was one of the best units the world has ever seen.
However, out there we did not have women to bond and come to terms with… Melody recognized this in me. Despite the influence of my M’zungu culture, I found it hard to readjust my perception of a womans position on the totem pole of life. I still bridled at taking orders or imperatives from them, especially if they were young.
As I walked across the dambo towards the chalets, the long tongues of grass, still sodden from the previous evening’s downpour, had licked sufficient moisture onto the shins of my legs so that it’s droplets trickled over my ankles and into the tops of my leather veldskoens. With no socks, I could feel the moist squishiness in the toes of each shoe.
With the advent of the rain, I knew that even as I walked, life all around me was beginning to surge. The mixture of water and warmth would soon transform the predominant somber hues of the dry winter Bush into the bursting, almost iridescent vitality of the hot wet rainy season.
As I approached the first upstream chalet, My mind drifted away from its preoccupation with the enigma of this young woman. Instead I was reminded of the first time I felt my bare legs being caressed by the dampness of this long grass.
Back then It had been with that same vague childlike sense of apprehension, which precedes the wide-eyed exhilaration of discovery, that I had first stepped up onto the platform of the Lubungu Pontoon.
It was February 1997.
Rather than the wobbles across a lawn, it had been the lurching progress of a Toyota hi Lux which revealed the magic of this particular seclusion, which is embroidered into the refracted dapples of this bit of bushveld.
For the first time I saw the edges of the Shalamakanga dambo painted in ebulliently verdurous swaths of light green or dark olive, with interstitial dabs of grey, brown and fawn.
And beneath this visual plethora the rain was still running down the barely visible road ruts which we were following.
And the elephant grass, my God the elephant grass. It grows here like nowhere else I’ve ever seen. It was so tall that the tassels of the strands slapped back as far as the cab of the car when hit by the forward motion of the vehicle. These tassels accumulated on the hood and piled up on the glass of the windscreen, beyond the reach of the wipers, into a slush is thick as the mud which splashed onto the doors, and coated the roofs of the wheel housings.
The mid-summer of ’96-’97 was very wet. It was the extent of the wetness which prompted my slight trepidation. What would be the state of the unmaintained road far out ahead? Especially once we crossed on the pontoon to the north bank.
And even more so when the vehicle turned its snout away from the main road and headed back to the river. If we had vehicle problems, or got very stuck in the mud, we would be in trouble. Our vehicle did not have a hydraulic winch.
Incidentally, while out there, the manager of the only functioning lodge on that section of the river at that time, Leopard Lodge, hearing via the bush telegraph that someone had arrived at the old camp, came out to investigate, and got resoundedly stuck in the mud.
Actualy even today these problems exist to some extent.
But back in that wet of ’97 we had come to look for the almost non-existent remains of what used to be a well maintained colonial era camping ground.
‘We’, were myself and an old high school friend who had made it big overseas. He wanted to be somehow involved back in the Africa of our boyhood.
Our goal was the old derelict camp located in a one kilometer square section of land along the north bank of the Kafue River.
This was more or less in the rivers mid point along its 2000 kilometer meandering length. Because it was across the river from the National Park, and in the Lunga-Luswishi GMA, it was ‘private’ land and it was for sale.
Here the Kafue River still heads South West along its very ancient path, little changed from 10 million yers ago, when it was still part of the mighty Limpopo river, when that river rivaled todays Nile or Amazon. The Kafue had not yet been stolen by the young and vigorous Zambezi which was quickly cutting its way up from the Indian Ocean.
In those heady days of that wet summer it seemed that the winds of change mentioned by the British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in his 1961 speach had finally begun to blow with a steady warm breath over all of Sub Saharan Africa.
Mandela had left Robben Island, South African voters of all colors and creeds had excercised their right to choose. Even in Zimbabwe inflation was manageable and Mugabe had allowed locals to haveUS dollar denominated bank accounts. His paranoia had not yet shown itself.
Up across the Zambezi in Zambia, a new political party was in power. President Chiluba was encouraging foreign investment and allowing those with business plans and dollars or rands to take up residence.
The pull of all this northward vortex had sucked me up over the Limpopo, and then hearing the first whispers of the Zimbabwe War Vets, it had sucked me even further, up over the Zambezi, into Zambia. After all, why piss into the stench of the Zim war vets wind.
I had started high school at Falcon College in the old Rhodesia, and finished it at Kearsney College in South Africa. The motto of the first was ‘Sic Itur Ad Astra’, and the later ‘Carpe Diem’. So why not seize an opportunity and head unto the stars…
But being broke, I had contacted my old moneyed school mate. Two weeks later, we found ourselves fighting our way through the mud of Central Africa to kick the tires of this opportunity.
I was a long as escort, while he checked if this was an opportunity worth seizing. I told him it would not last long, even the timid would eventually begin to head back into the ‘bad’ Africa north of the Limpopo. $40k for one square km of land on the edge of the Kafue National Park was a risk worth taking.
And as we approached our destination I remember being struck by the magnificencce of the trees.
In the rainy dullness of that first day the trunks of the huge Leadwoods had been stained gunmetal gray by the wetness of the rain, and they were obscured by the tallness of the grass and the copious plethora of the copsed foliage,
Then in a sudden and short lived break in the rain burdened clouds, the sunlight was splashed in viridescent emerald of on the leafy foliage of the trees which lined our passage. The weight of the rain seemed to cause the branches to droop in our honor like the solemn skirted curtsy’s of maidens welcoming our attendance at a medieval festival.
Ahhhh, What a welcome it had been.
The only building standing was a small thatched shack with crumbling half height walls. I remember the sense of pleasure at discovering that despite its decrepit state the thatch was still holding up. The floor was dry and would be home for the next two days of almost incessant rain.
The outline of that old building is still recognizable. Now it is with repaired walls reaching up to the new thatching. It serves as the lockup room for the more valuable and easily stolen supplies such as diesel, cement and tools.
With all those memories in my mind I passed the old shack and walked a tad further to the open tin roofed structures of the vehicle sheds.
It took a while, but I finally found what I was looking for.
It was a clear boot-print.
I had been expecting that.
In the days I had been away with Father Xavier the spoor sign would surely have started to be degraded. Whatever remained would have been washed away in the previous eves deluge.
But here in the soft sand under the tin roof of the sheds, the rain had been kept away.
As I looked down on its impression in the sand, a dead man crept quietly over my soul. I recognized the print.
It was a ZIPRA boot-print, with all its unmistakable characteristics.
A big part of warfare in Africa involves tracking, and we had had to learn who were the players, both past and present. This one had been on our learn list.
Four decades ago, the boots supplied by the Russians to the men of Joshua N’komo’s Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army. (ZIPRA) had very characteristic X shaped studs at the center of the soles of their boots.
I rolled the realization around in my mind, Crocodile man’ wore ZIPRA boots
As I looked down at the print where he had stood when I attended to Eddie, I thought how ZIPRA had basically been a movement of the Matabele tribe. The Matabele had the Matopos hills.
Those hills, with the oracle of the Mlimo, was at the heart of so much of the mystical tribal beliefs.
More than ever I needed Moses to help me piece together the riddle pressed into the sand at my feet.
Bosbefok – Bush Fucked (Army slang for mental madness)
GMA – Game Management Area
M’zungu – Caucasian of European descent
Naartjie tree – Mandarin citrus tree
Spoor – tracks
Veldskoen – low ankled leather bush shoes.
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