Kafue 22 – Silence

If one seeks silence, it is not to be found in the tropical bushveld of the Kafue National Park, not during the daylight hours, and definitely not in the darkness of the night, even when the moon is at the apex of its new phase darkness.

In fact it is noisiest along the thickets of the riverine riperia, just as the sun begins to spread its dawn gold across the Kafue Valley like the unfurling of a giant Persian carpet. This is especially true on a spring morning, like now, when the migrant birds have returned from Europe and Asia and are noisily vying for territory and courting mates.

Just as the instruments of an orchestra blend their sounds into harmonies and cadences, so do these sounds of the bushveld blend in with the sounds of the rivers waters as they ripple past on their way to the Indian Ocean.

Instead of the orchestral lilts, it is whistles, coughs, grunts, roars, peeps, trumpets, screeches and hums which mix in with the ebullient harmonies and rhythms of other creatures, to all blend and form the bush melodies.

Elephants, bush-buck, fruit bats, cicadas, hippo, warthogs, hornbills, crickets and snake-eagles… they all take their turns at standing on the bush dais as they serenade. All of them part of the choir tucked into this particular corner of the enormous Kafue concert hall.

Their music is often mixed with the whispers of the wind passing through the leaves of summer or rustles of the tall dry grass of winter, or maybe the splashes of animals wading across the shallows before the rains arrive.

The score is mostly characterized by its mezzo softness, because the human ear usually finds itself at the distant back of the concerts. One needs to pay attention and listen carefully to catch its nuanced moods and messages. Few of the creatures trust humans. Seldom do they approach or tarry close at hand for long.

But sometimes it can be loud, strident or staccato, maybe even haunting, such as the sad lonely call of a Black Cuckoo at night. All of this audio is used by nature’s Maestro to convey and signal the continual grandness of life as it is performed by the bush denizens.

The creation of this veld music’ has stretch back so long in time that it has enabled the plethora of bush fauna to flourish in all its magnificent audible diversity.  This symphony of sound has been performed here for millions of years.

The unbroken pantheon has survived and thrived over the aeons in the face of all manner of adversity, floods, droughts, fires, disease. The ways in which the sounds, sights and scents of the bush interact to make the whole eco-system work is so wondrous that even to a hardened atheist, it is almost as if one can see the hand of a cognizant God in its creation.

Out here, in the vastness of the ancient bush, its sounds are so much a feature of its presence that it is on those rare occasions when there is complete silence that the hackles of danger are raised.

As I lay on my camp bed in the tent in the moonless pre-dawn dark, I could feel the slight tightening of the skin of my arms and nape. Outside the tent there was complete silence. Inside there was only the sound of my elevated breathing.

It had rained the game during the night. For a while afterwards, each time I woke from my fitful sleep I was aware of the grainy rattle of the droplets on the tents tight canvas top. They were being shaken loose from the leaves of the tree overhead by the occasional soft pants of a breeze, which was all that was left of the wind that spreads out from the base of a big sunset thunderhead.

This time it had not been a big storm, and the rain had not been particularly heavy. But even so the creatures of the night invariably seem to seek out some shelter while the rain is falling.

As the soft rain falls, all that can be heard is maybe the sound of thunder, and maybe the peeps of a tree frog blending in with the rustle of the rain on the leaves and the ground below. But it does not take long after the active storm cells have been pushed off to the southwest that the first sounds start to pick up where they left off, and filter into my consciousness. Usually it will be some of the frogs or the crickets.

Now, Seeing as it was the end of the season and that the rains had begun, I deemed it unlikely that we would have any more visitors at the campsite. As a result I had moved my tent, placing it close to the front of the camp areas thatched communal Chitenge. This made it easier to cross from the tent to the table and chairs were I usually ate my meals, and relaxed when not working.

It was from this position in my tent that I lay listening to a silence with a vague sense of unease. In my mind I mulled over possible reasons for this mood. Was it Idaa’s avoidance of the subject of the crocodile man when I had casually mentioned it to him the previous evening over sundowners… or..

I’m sure that my subconscious, which is always awake and alert, had noticed the silence for some time before it signaled to my cognizant mind that something was amiss. That it had been too quiet out there for too long.

Suddenly my thoughts were disturbed by a sharp surreptitious sound from outside the tent. Something had bumped into one of the heavy Mukwa wood dining chairs in the Chitenge. It was the scrape of its legs scratching on the concrete floor which had snatched at my attention.

A flash of adrenaline surged through my body. It triggered that state of super alertness with mind and muscles poised to explode into fight or flight. But still wrapped in my sleeping bag and enclosed within the confines of the tent it would be hard to do either. Flight or fight, is a mindless reaction, honed by the countless times my ancestors had reacted in the right way.

I had not inherited the genes of those who had fought when they should have fled, or fled when they should have fought.. But then most of my ancestors had not been encumbered with the luxuries of sleeping bags and tents.

It did not take more than a few seconds to feel the effect of the adrenaline beginning to abate, and with it the resurgence of rational thought. Something was moving around on the floor of the Chitenge. What kind of animal could it be. For its bump to have made the chair move and scrape it was obviously something large . Certainly larger than a jackal.

But what animal would walk around on the floor of the Chitenge? Even if there were food supplies left, very few animals would walk around under the roof of a human made structure.

It certainly was not an antelope, or a baboon. In the darkness the baboons would still be sleeping and sheltering at the tops of the biggest trees, out of reach of any prowling leopard.

It could only be a hyena or a big cat. But these had never intruded into the Chitenge before, even though when my tent was further away, on a few occasions, I had found line tracks circling it in the morning.

As for hyenas, none of them frequented the camp while I had been there, as far as I knew.

But then one never knew. I suddenly thought of a borehole digging contractor I had met in Kasempa, who told me how his father had been dragged out of his tent by a lion at a camp in the North Luangwa Park. His cries for help to his staff had been ignored due to their fear. His partially eaten corpse was recovered the next day when the lion was shot by a tracking ranger.

It is strange what thoughts go through one’s mind at such moments. I also thought of another occurrence in the Mana Pools area on the Zambezi. An acquaintance had felt an animal pushing its snout into the side of his tent. He told me how he kept his cooking utensils in the tent, and reaching for a frying pan he had hit it on the nose through the fabric wall. Then half an hour later a scream had come from a tent further down-river. A hyena had pushed the fabric of that tent inwards and bitten somebody in the face.

Very slowly and very quietly I turned on my side so that I could reach to the floor to pick up the long sheathed butchering knife that I use to cut up the meat for my biltong jerky. Then slowly I slid my legs out from the sleeping bag and sat up on my stretcher bed.

I sat in absolute stillness in a state of heightened alertness as I tried to detect any further sounds.

I knew that the dawn would soon be breaking, and if there was a lion outside it would be best to remain hidden in the tent, with the ability to defend myself with the knife if necessary.

I just sat and waited until about a half hour later I heard the first tentative ‘ha.. ha.. ha’s’ of a pair of Hadeda’s, which was joined by the yelping call of a Fish Eagle as it heralded the dawn. Only then did I lay back on the bed, to catch another half hour of rest before I would get up and go outside to investigate.

Sure enough, a short time later, in the early morning light it did not take long to find what sort of animal had moved the chair on the Chitenge floor.

I could see that there were footprints which it circled my tent, twice. From there they headed the few yards towards the Chitenge. From the continuity of the prints I could see they had not stepped up onto the concrete. From the emphaticness of the toe and heel marks I could tell they had stood for a while looking back at my tent.

From there the Prince led around the side of the structure and headed off in the direction of the Shalamakanga dambo.  My blood ran cold. The footprints were ZIPRA boot prints. I realized that the chair on the Chitenge floor had not been bumped. It had been moved purposefully to make a noise. A taunting sound made with deliberate intention.

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