Notes From the Edge: Africa 2

The season seems to have remembered itself and pushed aside the Octobery clouds that clung to last week. It has been beautiful today: a warm, innocent kind of summer’s day; the kind of day made for pruning hedges and cutting lawns and flexing in the garden.  

A walked along the left side of the open-book field this morning. The wheat is higher with all the rain and sunshine and on the opposite side of the field the top half of my stag, distinct but brief against the luminescent green. It didn’t hang around – there for one second and gone the next – more important business than to stand and stare. It is a burgeoning and building up to the fat season. A gift before the autumn sends us scuttling to our centrally heated homes. He must love this time of year; this abundance of cover.

On Sundays I take it a little slower and pause from time to time to time to take it in. Maybe my stag is always there but I rarely take the time to see it. Like the clouds – today, Cirrus: streaks of ice crystals falling from the upper atmosphere; clawed hands scraping the blue. And the contrails – the return of the contrails and the airborne traffic that has for so long being absent.

There was no concept of what was coming this time a year ago; no idea that such a catastrophic pandemic would sweep in and change the way that we saw our lives. This time last year I was in the air and on the way very south… 

Africa Notes2 – Equator

It was, by some distance, the smoothest thing that I had ever heard a pilot say. I mean, they’re cool folk as standard anyway, and when you’re seven miles above the earth you cling to anyone who sounds calm and in control. He spoke with that tidy South African accent that pinches at the end and rumbles in the middle. As we passed over France and the eastern tip of Spain I could see in the fading light the outline of the Balearics and beyond this, the dark looming coast of a brand new continent. The weather in Jo’burg was fine and cresp (it was the middle of the southern winter) and the flight time was looking good “though,” and this was the bit, “there might be some turbulence over the equatorial region as we pass Cintral Africa.” 

I mused on this for a long time as they served plastic-packed dinner and Tony, our companion on the trip, told me the tale of his flight to New York in 2001, as it happened, on September 11th. His plane was rerouted to some Canadian hinterland for five days. I could tell that he enjoyed telling the story; that he was delighted to have a new audience and me, I was happy to be amazed by anything. I’d entered a new world and accepted that I’d need to leave behind some of the aloofness. I wasn’t scared of flying. I’ve flown a bit over the years and each time, as the cabin crew have bolted shut that door, I have made my peace with the world and accepted death. I find this helps because when death doesn’t come, everything is a bonus. The smiles that emanate from the departure lounges all over the world are not simply smiles of delight at the new destination; there’s a sense of rebirth that lasts along the moving walkways of the birthing canal and beyond passport control. 

When the plane lurched I felt sweat on the palms of my heads and wondered how far we were from the equator. When we dropped like a stone for what must have been thirty feet, I guessed that we were pretty close. I carried on smiling and nodding to Tony’s anecdotes as hostesses fussed over spilled drinks and peeled cordon-bleu from the ceiling. 

Tony was in his seventies and was there to provide the independent expertise that Helen and me didn’t have. He had travelled well and knew the ropes, though he had never been to Zambia before and I wondered vaguely how he, with his left-wing northern tendencies that I had picked up already, would fare with our group of kids. He had talked a lot and I had built up a fairly detailed profile of a man who was used to being alone; who as a little set in his ways and who liked to give the impression that he wouldn’t stand for any nonsense. I knew very well how long it took to get these kids on board. It had taken me years. 

*** 

Tiny things as we are, and coming from a little island as we do, it is utterly impossible to grasp the size of Africa. Even from the middle of England it’s only a matter of minutes before the land gives way to sea. It is immense, utterly massive and the only way that I can conceive of the scale is, as the scientists do, to measure it in time and speed rather than distance. After the pilot’s smooth announcement as we reached the northern tip of Africa, and travelling at 500mph, it still took nine hours to reach the other end. From time to time, in between restless snoozes, I would wonder what was below us far down in the dark. And it was dark. Unlike the western world where there’s always some illuminated conglomeration to give a sense of perspective, for hour upon hour there was nothing. Nothing but blackness for mile after mile. 

It is always worth a look out of the window when descending into a new city. It affords a unique perspective of the beast that’s about to gobble you up. Johannesburg is an immense sprawl of shanty suburbs and walled mansions. In England these would be housing estates and tower blocks and the scars of industry poked at by myriad roads. Here it seemed that the population lived either in a green lawned luxury, or tin roofed poverty crammed into dust road districts for as far as the eye can see. Chunks of the city from the aeroplane window that were the entire world for the people that lived there. 

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