Normally right now I’d be tripping over suitcases in the hallway and rooting out passports. There’d be the aroma of sun-cream and new clothes in the air and we’d be preparing to join the airport conga and the hordes of sweaty holiday-makers heading for the sun.
Corona has put paid to that this year: we can’t risk getting stuck out there; getting ill or having to quarantine afterwards. For the first time in a long time we’ll be staying on this island and heading out to the mountains instead.
Even though we’re not going nearly a far there’ll be a much greater distance between us and the bubble for a few days. At the airport, at the Spanish resort, there’s little space to breathe: the edge is there but it’s thin and the window of opportunity brief. But for the next seven days the edge is going to be broad and will stretch as far and wide as the eye can see. We’ll do our best to skirt the bubbles and breathe the fresh air and I will capture it as much as I can and keep on posting. It will not be days by the pool or nights at the bar but craggy moorland and long empty beaches; it will be walks in misty valleys and climbs to remote mountain peaks. If I can fill myself enough with it I will have plenty to keep me going as the autumn approaches and the world of work and responsibilities slowly encroaches back into the daily routine.
When I next write I will be looking out at the sea and for an Inlander like me, that’s a big deal.
Maybe it’s as simple as a commitment issue. There’s a thin strip of land – thicker in places than others; sometimes wider than we can see and sometimes the width of a footstep. It’s neither here nor there. Here is the safe place: the life that we live in the shelter of the bubble, where good things can happen and we’re glad and bad things can make us sad. But all things that happen come under the shelter of the bubble and are justified in that way. Cogs turn and systems develop and everything can be explained away.
A while ago it was the old gods, then newer gods took their place and made things simple. Science is the new religion and if we don’t buy into it then there’s something wrong. With us. Everything explainable, everything tidy. The plastic wipe-clean neatness of our lives is how it needs to be. Do you see it? Do you see what I mean? Can you take a deep breathe and be brave?
If you see then like me you’ll be wondering where it will all end. If it will all end, or if people like you and me are a dying breed. Remember this is not anarchy: it’s not a desire to bring anything down – indeed we recognised last week that people like you and me need these structures to exist so that we can explore the alternatives.
Here is the suffocation of the bubble; the plastic of the world that we’re meant to embrace and can’t really escape. There is the abyss. It is the emptiness from which old songs sing and magic is real. It is a dark place where poets throw themselves in search of the answer and never return. There’s another place, the in-between place where the noises of here are muted slightly and the whispers of there drift to us on the breeze. If we tune in we might hear what they tell us.
Remember those parties where the music was loud and everyone jumped to the same beat? Remember the fog and the lights? Remember the fuzzed feeling after the first few beers? What did you prefer? The cool night air and the muted muffle of the music and screams as you looked at the stars? This isl’ésprit de l’éscaliér. It’s the spirit of the stairwell or the strange longing to be on the outside of the party and not dragged along by the expectations.
Might be that you’ve lived your life trying to get back into the party and anguished over why, the minute you get in, you want to be back outside looking at the stars. This is The Edge.
Come on, there’s plenty of edge if you look, and if you peer over it, into the wilds, who knows what you might see; what you might hear…
Taita Falcon & Batoka Gorge 2
Once again up before dawn we watched the stars wink out as the sun rose and heated water for tea over the open fire. It was cold here at night. Not quite cold enough for frost but not far and around our campsite in the dusty pre-dawn ghostly figures were to be seen standing in little pockets of sun as it crept up through the trees, warming our bones like reptiles, or butterflies.
It would take three hours simply to get to the bottom of the gorge and, much as we didn’t want to leave the haven of the lodge and the elevated views across the gorge, we had to take advantage of the daylight and reach the first camping spot by the afternoon. It would be slow-going, we were told; the low water had exposed black granite boulders – each the size of a small car and this was our road. We would be out for three nights and that meant heavy packs laden with all that we would need to survive down there: there would be no bar-service or comfortable chairs for us for a while.
We were at Rapid 15 – it was how the locals oriented themselves along the river and it wasn’t long before we were on a level with the water and could feel the power of it batter past us as it continued to shape the landscape like it had for millennia. In a few short hours we were in a different world – a world where the sun did not hold quite so much sway and was apt to disappear a good couple of hours earlier than up on the surface. Our mobile phones and loaded wallets were no good for us down here – at the bottom of the gorge we were over the edge and at the mercy of the elements and our guides.
They didn’t talk much to us, the leader was called Walker and this was what he did. He might just as well have been called ‘carrier’. Like the others he wore backpacks on both back and front and we soon stopped complaining about our own loads. At night around the campfire I invited them over to eat with us. I was interested in their stories. I wanted them to share some of their wisdom with us westerners. I had briefed the kids that this would be a treat: proper Africa. In the darkness of the African night they were impossible to see, so dark was their skin, unless caught reflected in the firelight. Their English was limited and our conversation went like this:
Me: So welcome to our fire (thank you for making it, by the way).
We introduced ourselves and they did the same.
Me: We wondered if you had any stories that you’d like to share.
Walker: [pauses] No
Me: We have stories back home about the stars. Do you have something like this you’d like to share?
Walker [pauses, looks at the others. They shrug]: No
Me [getting twitchy]: Out here at night time, you must see lots of strange things…
Walker [looks at me, at the others]: No…
And so it went on and my vain attempts to induce some sort of rustic secrets from them fell flat. In the end it was the kids who stepped in and saved the situation with renditions of western pop songs that must have echoed through the gorge and found the ears of all manner of creatures that I knew were out there. High up on the ridge the lights of the Lodge flickered with a homeliness that seemed so alien to us here in the crackle of the fire and the roar of the river. I knew that up rich Americans and Europeans were sipping Chablis beneath a canvas awning and wondering at the strange tales that must be being recounted far below by the light of the flickering fire.
I sat with Walker the next morning and he spoke for hours about the folklore of the river; of the creatures that they had seen; about the water serpent that lurks in the river and from time to time leaps to the shore and pulls people under. That morning, while the camp still slept I had stripped and waded into the water; had the first proper wash in a week and allowed the water to replenish parts of me that had been overheated and cooped up for so long. As I finished and lay myself and my clothes out on the rocks to dry I heard a gentle sploosh from across the water. I looked just in time to see the eyes a croc disappear below the surface on the opposite side and make its way over.
“It’s not the croc you need to worry about” Walker told me “The snake, you can’t see it coming. We all wear this.”
He reached into his shirt and pulled out a pendant that hung around his neck. “It is the Nyami Nyami.” he said “The spirit of the river.”
I showed him mine, the one I had bought from the man in the carpark the day before when I thought I was being scammed. “It is why you are still alive.” Walker said. “Now we are brothers.”
I don’t know why they were reluctant to share their stories with us. I know that they had them: Walker had proved that to me just now, and I heard them sing and talk amongst themselves from their own little camp through the night. I wondered if I had fallen into the fatal trap of the Westerner and been too heavy with my enthusiasm. It had happened at the football match the week before and I wondered if I had trodden on something too sacred and special to be splashed about. Things were sometimes best done with more subtlety, it seemed, and their stories were their own.
I was learning that you didn’t dive off the edge and expect to come out dripping with gold. That there are all sorts of things down there that we can’t hope to understand. I was learning that the next time I went into the water I would dip my toe in first.
For the massive majority of us it happens every day and yet still the sunset is the most photographed thing in the world. We take the photo and when we get back to the normal we show our friends that we captured a bit of this place or that place at a moment of magic. We forget that it’s the exact same ball of fire that hangs over us back at home and lurks behind the clouds. How often do we take the time to watch it rise from our homes? How often do we stop to see it sink at the end of each ordinary day?
It is the most predictable, reliable and necessary phenomenon and yet it’s only when we’re away that we take any notice. It’s only when we see it over the sea across the beach or through mountain mist that it becomes magical. What’s incredible, too, is that it’s one of those things that can be seen from inside the bubble and might just serve as enough of a reminder that there’s a lot more out there than there is in here.
In Zambia, such was the regularity of the days and the weather this close to the equator, each morning was a festival of light as the sun rose in the West and equally breath-taking as it quickly slipped away in the evening. Predictable, steady, constant.
Perhaps it is the dust of this place that colours it like it does and makes such a display. I never tired of it. Every single night I called out the group for them to watch though I know they were humouring me. “We saw it yesterday” they said. But they didn’t. We never see the same sunset twice.
10. The Batoka Gorge
We weren’t here as tourists, though a few days of sightseeing did break up the expedition a little and help move us between the phases of the trip. Moving south meant that we had been able to take in the wilderness of the game reserves in the north, the noise and confusion of Lusaka in the middle and now the much more welcoming and softer city of Livingstone.
Livingstone relies heavily on the tourist trade; most visitors coming to see the Falls or the Rhino park and as such, the town has to give the people what they want. Unlike Lusaka, that meant paved roads with traffic controls and raised footpaths; cafés that serve lattés and scrambled eggs on toast; Pizza Hut; burger bars and gated malls.
Thankfully beyond this there’s the real Zambia – the one that I had fallen in love with and wanted to see more of. I wanted to be painted to the knee with dust and cajoled by children on the little backstreets; I wanted to be smiled at and waved to by the locals: I knew that soon enough I’d be back on my own paved roads and traffic jams and all of this would fade to memory.
Our next destination was Taita Falcon Lodge, an hour’s bumpy ride out of town and into a different kind of wilderness than we had been used to. The dust here was a deeper red and the ground stubbly with volcanic rock that bent our tent pegs out of shape and made for stiff nights of fidgety sleep. It was a place of scorpions and wild dogs: a place so far out of civilisation that the stars cast their own shadows and hung like a blanket above the treetops.
We were a few miles down-river from The Fall and high above the Zambezi that twisted through the gorge below and swirled through a succession of rapids. The Lodge is perched on the edge of this precipice and, dressed in colonial splendour took us back a hundred years to the days of Rhodesia and British rule. Carved figures adorn the bar and tables with stark white cloth bedecked with cutlery and glasses; a dozen staff are at hand to serve us but all we want to do is sit at the edge and breathe in this remarkable sight. On the far side is Zimbabwe and mile after mile of scrubland. From time to time a fish eagle – the national bird of Zambi – swoops below us and disappears in the spray. White canvas flaps in the warm breeze and again I am loath to leave this place. In my mind a story is forming; a love story that I will link to the Welsh mountains to capture the contrast. Amongst all the harshness of the climate and the rocks and the jagged plants, not to mention the things that crawl beneath our tents or make funnel webs in the tree roots, we sit in an oasis of opulent calm.
But it is not our destiny to stay here long: our near future lies down there in the gorge; along the thin strip of sand and rock that we can make out alongside the river in the distance.
It’s the days when you don’t have to that are the toughest; the days when there’s no rush, or even need, to get out of bed at the crack of dawn that take the most resolve. The radio comes on lulls you into the security of the regular rhythms of the morning; hypnotises with the soothing voices of presenters. The bed is warm and hill behind the house steep and open and it would be so much easier to…
Those are the days to not think too much. To simply do. To tiptoe downstairs quietly pull on the kit that you’ve left ready: It’s simple, remember: shorts, t-shirt, a decent pair of boots. Grab the hat and pole, close the door quietly and that’s it: before you know it, you’ve ducked out of the world where so much seems to matter and are breathing the fresher air of another one.
I didn’t need to get out of bed this morning; I didn’t have any urgent agenda and expected to see nothing more than a couple of dozen rabbits, maybe a deer. I’d hear the cries of birds that I couldn’t identify and feel the fain suggestion of autumn on the breeze. It was enough: it’s always enough. There is no such thing as ordinary if you look closely enough.
Next week I will be writing from the mountains of Wales. I will take you there if you care to follow. At this time of year it’s usually the sweaty morning streets of some Mediterranean island that I capture in my walks, but this year is different. You know what I mean. It will be spectacular, though, because I will be there to see it.
This time last year it was on a whole different continent that I was walking…
9. Victoria Falls
I love the way that they credit David Livingstone with discovering Victoria Falls. It’s like the locals, who had lived there for millennia hadn’t noticed they were there. It’s such a comical image that I have in my head that makes a mockery of such a depressing story of colonial power and the taming of the savage. The white man turns up and points out this natural wonder and all the locals are “Well shit. I never noticed that before. Guys, did you ever see that before?”
I get it. But it needs a sub-note because it’s just rude. They even named the town after him and the falls took the name of the head of the empire.
By all accounts there were men a lot worse than Dr Livingstone and the point of crediting him with the falls was that he brought them to the attention of the white man back in the emerging Western World. It was all about the bragging rights – just like the space-race and even the hunt for a Corona Vaccine has become today. Australia was originally New Holland, but then it wasn’t originally that at all – it had multiple names that the indigenous people, who had no cares for such land-grabbing or obsessions for planting flags and claiming territory. Victoria Falls, before it was owned by the empire, was Mosi-oa-Tunya: ‘The Smoke That Thunders’. There’s something a little more honest in that.
Even in the dry season it thunders and spray rises like smoke from the depths of the gorge that the ceaseless pounding of water has carved out over the years. Unlike the motorway near home but much like the elephants that ran through the campsite a few days before, it was a welcome trembling of the earth that we could feel through our feet long before we wound through the paths that led through the trees to the edge of the ravine.
For reasons that we were later to discover, the area surrounding the falls was teeming with human activity. Police, army, security, suited men and glamorous women, flash cars and groups of men hanging off the back of pick-up trucks. A helicopter circled and there was evidently more wealth and influence centred here in this tiny corner of the country than we had seen during the entirety of the trip so far. Except for road-side checks on our travels we hadn’t seen a single police car – and even these were mostly just local men in hi-viz vests and Police scrawled crookedly on the back. In the mayhem of rush-hour Lusaka there had been no police presence. We knew why: they were all here.
A surreal scene greeted us as we pulled up. The group had travelled in two taxi-buses, ours behind, so that as we stopped the other group was milling about by the roadside. It all happened so quickly that afterwards I could not be sure that it was as I remembered it, but we all saw it the saw it the same. We saw one of our group standing and adjusting the lens of her camera, she was approached by a muscled, hulking neanderthal of a man; the teeth yellow fangs, the snout drawn back and knuckles dragging almost along the dust. Only, it wasn’t this at all but a baboon, upright and in search of food. It happened like this: it walked up behind her and put a hand on her shoulder, then made a grab for the camera. We saw all this slow and had no time to react, but for the girl it must have been a shock to think that your mugger was a mere human, then to look straight into the eyes of this most ugly and fearsome of primates. She screamed, the baboon screamed, we all held our breath. She pulled the camera back instinctively, the baboon pulled harder. Then from out of the crowds of people at the gates a soldier in full uniform brandishing an automatic machine gun ran towards the girl, the baboon, the confrontation.
“Oh my god.” I was thinking “He’s going to shoot the baboon right here in the street.”
We had been told that food of any description was banned at the falls; that the monkeys were aggressive and very dangerous. We had complied but hadn’t thought that they were dangerous enough to warrant armed guards. As it turned out, the guard was there for the same reason as all the rest of the cavalcade and just happened to see what was going on. It turned out that this baboon knew what a machine gun was and soon scarpered. Through it all a zebra munched the grass by the side of our bus and urinated as we disembarked to join the rest of the group.
The Zambian president was due to visit the falls with his counterpart from Kenya; that was what all the fuss and fanfare were about and no sooner had we joined the rest of the group and checked that the girls was ok that even more police turned up, even more pick-up trucks and this time with the men on the bed hooting and firing pistols. We presumed in support: Edgar Lungu is a popular figure here and in my experience locals tend to want to make a good impression.
Once the two men had walked down to the falls and signed the visitors’ book, then gone on the customary walkabout of the marketplace and craft stalls, the entourage reloaded the many, many vehicles and departed, it was our turn to pass through the gates. To pass by the famous statue of Dr Livingstone surveying his find and through the trees to the cliff-edge and to look across the abyss carved by the endless pounding of water and seemingly endless Victoria Falls.
It is rare that a sight actually takes the breath, but standing there in the presence of this I was speechless. My mouth was filled with the cool blast and my clothes immediately damp from the spray. My heart, I think, paused briefly to let it all sink in. This was the dry season and rain had been lacking for the past two winters. I wondered at the power that must tumble over those falls after a month of rain. I didn’t want to leave. I regret still that I didn’t plant myself there and refuse ever to move. I understood in an instant why Dr Livingstone had been so keen to claim this place as his own.
The monkeys and baboons do so well, I supposed, because the people simply stand and gape and make easy pickings. We had no food but almost lost an ipod and two bottles of water as we stood there, awestruck.
Life inside the bubble is the life that we’re all groomed to and it’s a stealthy grooming that creeps up on us until we can do nothing about it. I’m not talking about the silly conspiracy theories that are banded about and which tempt us into that old anarchic polarisation again; I’m not in the camp that believes in a grand masterplan and an elite class pulling the strings. I’m not going there. I actually think that there’s a general earnestness in the minds of those in power and that a logical argument can be laid out across the wide range of beliefs and biases that heave and ho around us. Whether we agree or not with this or that idea, quite frankly, is neither here nor there.
There’s a sense of inevitability hanging over things at the moment that maybe is different to what it used to be. Popular opinion has replaced common good and popular opinion these days is measured by social media presence. This means that the squeaky wheel will get the grease. The squeaky wheel is the one that has the time, has the loudest voice and the USB port. It’s not to be confused with the voice of the people.
All this inside the bubble.
The pedestrian lights in my town have all been upgraded and they look very nice. There’s the knobbly pavement for the visually impaired and the turning wheel underneath for the hearing impaired. The stretch of road on the approach is red tarmac (a little gruesome) and the new posts that hold up the lights are cool grey. The paradox is, though, that these crossings are there to serve the motorist and not the pedestrian. You rock up to the crossing, press the button and, while there’s traffic are left waiting. When there’s a break in traffic (ie: when you could have crossed anyway) the lights change and the little tune plays and there’s no one there to cross because they’ve either withered away with time or diced with death and crossed anyway. I remember a time when the pedestrian crossings were there to serve the pedestrian, but maybe I’m being old-fashioned.
I was entertained by the return of the first commercial space trip this week as the return pod splashed into the sea. It was, for me, another example of the silly things that we accept and put up with. It reminded me of a time when I was younger. Mum never rode a bike when she was a kid so we bought her one, dad and me. We dressed it up all beautiful with sparkly rainbow decals and a little basket, we taught her the theory of gears and bought her special gloves to wear. On the day of the launch we made a picnic and set out to the park where she was to take her maiden flight. She rode it beautifully across the grass, ribbons flowed and spokes flashed in the sun and she smiled. Mum actually smiled as she sailed across the grass. It seemed like the whole park had stopped to watch our triumph. The she remembered that in all the excitement getting her to go, we had never showed her how to stop. As the edge of the park neared and the traffic on the road grew bigger, she abandoned the bike, smashed into the bushes and brought herself to a wholly undignified stop. We should have thought the mission through a little more. Billions of dollars are spent on these space missions – the price of a couple of hospitals each time – and they end with a metal capsule smashing into the sea and being rescued by a fishing boat. I mean, come on. Is this the best that we can do?
I try not to watch the news so much any more. At every opportunity a creep out to the little alleyway a few houses down and make my way across the road. There’s a little tear in the fabric of the bubble and if I prise it up with my fingernails I can squeeze out. You should try it.
I was out looking again today. I was out on The Edge looking round.
It’s still only just August but my breath floated on the air in front of me today, caught in the early sun at the top of the wheat field. The boots were sodden with the dewy damp before I’d been out more than five minutes and I know that it won’t be long before I’ll need layers again. I expect that the shorts will stay for most of the winter. A leaf fell in front of me as I walked along the lane. The trees form a tunnel and the sunlight that filters through catches leaves like coins. One fell, still green and too keen for autumn. Not ready for it yet but I’m preparing.
I’m going to have to think what I’ll do when the mornings hold onto the dark until the day’s well in swing; when the night falls before I’m done with the day. It’s easy to get to The Edge on summer days like this and the lockdown has allowed better access than ever. It’s just there: I see it shimmering from the back windows and the tall poplars at the top of the field are waving all of the time. Waving to me and calling me out. But what about when it’s dark, wet, icy? Will I still lift up the plastic wrapping and venture out onto the ledge, the ledge at the edge of things?
It’s time we talked about this place a little more. People have been asking and I’ve been thinking about it. I can let you in some more I think. I mean, we’ve come this far and it’s possible that you’ve started to understand that The Edge isn’t so much a place as an acceptance. Call it a bubble, a saran wrap or clingfilm or whatever you will, it’s the invisible barrier that lets us see the clouds but not breathe the fresh air. It’s the cocoon that shields us from our part in the great web of things and encourages us to deny our memento mori. In here we’re braver and tougher and invincible and even when it rains we can scamper home or jump in our cars.
Reading this, the chances are that you’re a bit like me. You know that we need all this; you know that there’s a lot to be said for the world we’ve made and we could spend as much time praising it as trying to bring it down. But let’s leave that to the politicians and the mainstream media. Let them justify themselves and their constructs with the material accumulations that have become the measure of all things. Reading this, you’re probably sensible enough to know that all this circus is an inevitable by-product of the whole progress thing, but you probably don’t buy into the importance of it like they want you to.
Some want to bring it down – they see the bubble that we all swelter under and they want to pull it down. It’s the means to an end and there’s no real consensus about what comes after they’ve toppled the towers and burst the banks. It’s the ones with little to lose that follow this train of thought; who simply want change at any cost. And then there’s those who think that it’s all about the money. That it’s about the next promotion or the next new car. I’d guess that reading this, you’re quite a distance from both of those and that’s good. I have no business with either, either.
There’s never going to be consensus on either side for very simple reasons on either side of the fence: 7 billion sentient minds will never form a common idea for the eutopia that one side thinks is possible and by its very definition, the capitalist argument will always be a competition.
But we need the bubble, people like you and me. We need it there where it is and we need the vast majority of people to be lulled by it; hypnotised by the promises and dazzled by the lights. The last thing we want is for it to all come tumbling down. Love it or hate it, the bubble of the towns and the cities and the motorways and all the rest of it, they do well the job that they have evolved to do, and most importantly: they keep people in a place where we can see them and know where they are. Imagine a great dismantling of the bubble – where would they all go? The whole world would be edge. And The Edge, well that’s for me and you. That’s where we go when we’re no longer willing to play along. That’s where the magic is.
It’s best to think of The Edge as a state of mind as much as any geography. There’s no need to drive to the mountains or move to the sea; it’s not even necessary to live next to open countryside or a thick forest. You just need to be able to take a step away from the telly, put the phone on mute and strap on a pair of decent shoes. There’s an Edge in every town and city and I’m pretty sure that you’ve found yours already. The Edge is on the outside and it can be rocky underfoot. It’s a ledge that skirts the bubble; sometimes wide and sometimes the width of a footstep.
And beyond The Edge? Well that’s something else. We’ll have to deal with what happens when the land drops away some other time. And it does drop away to place where there’s no foothold and no rules; where there’s no boundary and no limit.
It will be banging hot today – that’s what they say. I can feel it already in the air; warm air came it little gusts like from a hair-dryer. It is likely that we will pay for a hot day like this with a week of rain. It is the way that things tend to go here. The lockdown three-month spell brought the best spring weather we have ever seen, then July started.
Nothing’s as simple as we never realised it was, any more. The little things that we took for granted are now consigned to a past that we have already started to call pre-Corona. We will talk about those hazy happy days with the same silly nostalgia that we use when we talk about the way the world was before the war. The conditions are like this:
I have a cotton bandana wrapped around my wrist like a decoration, though it’s really there because I won’t be allowed into any shops unless I wrap it round my face before I enter. I’m noticing eyes more. I’ve never seen so many. Queues for shops stretch out through carparks and twist along the street with gaps between the waiting suggesting some national falling out. On the footpaths people have begun to fling themselves into the bushes as we pass and one could get paranoid. Shops are in one way and out another. The cashiers swim behind plastic screens and mime conversation, but with contactless payment there’s no need for any interaction whatsoever.
The pubs are empty and the pub gardens are full; pergolas and gazebos defy the weather and British pub staff learn how to wait on tables. It’s in one way, try not to breathe on the way through, and then out the other way when you’re done.
The canal tow-path will need a rethink after a couple of centuries of loyal service: it simply is not conducive to a socially-distanced walk and will probably need to adopt a one-way system or be emptied so that we can all keep our distance – just in the same way that the theatres remain closed and beauticians wait for a return to work – all the time watching hordes of holiday-makers cram into aeroplanes or pack onto beaches. But of course the decision-makers need their holidays too…
I didn’t want to return to these socially-commentary posts. I had my fill in the spring and made the decision to step out to the edge and let them get on with it; let the fools reel giddy in their own little dance. I’m staying here, right on the edge, so that I can duck under it and gulp in the air. Remind myself what it’s all about.
Will you come with me? When the seasons start to turn; will you come? Not too many, of course – we don’t want to spaces crammed, but there’s enough space for all of you who get it; who understand the importance of the space. A little wave is enough – no need to get too close. No need to form an association or found a club. A nod, that’ll do.
I found the canal the other night. The Cut, we call it around here, and it once typified the growing links between the growing throbbing cities when the Industrial Revolution kicked off just up the road. These busy highways linked the towns and cities and, far from the tranquil, tucked-away havens we see today, were busy, dirty, noisy highways populated by grubby foul-mouthed townies and muddy with the detritus of the unenlightened.
Now these canals are largely forgotten and cut little lines across the countryside and provide surprising exit routes from city-centres and out of towns. The land here drops 67 metres between the edge of the city and the start of the Worcestershire plains and, such was the desire to link up the conurbations that a massive Victorian engineering project lifted the water through thirty locks and blasted hundreds of metres of tunnel through the hillsides. It was an early indication of the inevitable pushing and probing of the tendrils of the beast.
The craft on the water are scarce in comparison these days and move at walking pace. They’re an impractical attempt to cling on to a time that is lost and a way to surrender to time for a while: it takes a day to travel the two miles from one end of the flight of locks to the other – and that’s without traffic. Now these canals are largely forgotten and cut little lines across the countryside and provide surprising exit routes from city-centres and out of towns. The craft on the water are rare these days and move at walking pace.
From time to time a footpath will spring off to the side and a whole new adventure will beckon with a gnarled and twisted finger.
Funny how it works out like that. I woke this morning for the Early Walk Along The Edge and there at the bottom of the lane, congested like a blocked nose, alien craft had landed and stood poised on the tarmac, ready to scrape and scratch and relay. It is a very old road, the road that runs up through the foothills at the back of the house, it was about to become newer than my haircut. A smooth new blacktop will make it a calliope of a ride from the top once they’re out of the way, I just wonder how it will affect the winter traffic: there will be no potholes to slow them down as they approach the junction.
Back to the river at the other end of the county and an illustration of the paucity of bridges along our greatest stretch of water. A walk along the banks of the Severn in summer is unrivalled and a spot of rain from time to time is a blessing as it sends the fair-weather ramblers scuttling in their clean boots for the plastic bubbles of their cars. (It’s not like they actually intended to use those £200 waterproofs.) Even when it rains in the Worcestershire summer it’s never chilly and the shower soon dries off. This is the story that I tell to the girls before we set off – the two little ones and the older one; their mother. I tell them to put on their shorts because legs dry quicker than trousers. We visit the outdoor shop and my desire to hike with them costs me a fortune, but is worth it all when I see us all kitted, kaboodled and ready to roll along the riverbank.
When walking with the wife and kids, in my experience, it’s always a good idea to keep information to a minimum. Like a long journey in the car it’s always worth offering little encouragements of, let’s say, twenty minutes. Kids can compute that amount of time and it gives them a time-scale to take ownership of. For the wife it’s an episode of Neighbours, she can cope with that. Keep it simple:
How long’s left, daddy?
Twenty minutes, princess.
Of course this wears thin after a while so there’s some improv needed and I suggest supplementary titbits, such as:
But daddy, how long now?
Twenty minutes, princess. Ooh look – did you see that heron/fish/boat/squirrel/plane…?
It requires some strategy. You don’t want to be pulling out the Haribo’s or Dairy Milk too soon, and before you know it you’re passing the Victoria Bridge and someone’s waving from the other side. That’s the picnic spot and the footbridge over the water is just ahead. From that point it’s all walk home. Well, that’s what you tell them: the relief of a sit-down has its limits. It’s soon time to be back on the route.
Just as they were flagging, the river had disappeared behind fields for a while and we still had a mile or so to go; just as I thought we might not actually make it back before a mutiny, (the girls had grouped together and were plotting my destruction, I felt it). Long after the sweets had run out and no one wanted to hold my hand any more, a rustle and burst from the woods to the side as a family of fallow deer trotted onto the track, paused to regard us a while, then sprinted off into the trees. Suddenly all pain, all hunger, all desire to be on a sofa in front of the telly were gone. Right on cue she had turned up again.
We always talk of rivers as old. We personify them as immortal princesses or indomitable kings; we make songs about them which become legends of a misty past; we let them meander through stories and folktales. The rivers are always simply there. And very old.
I have watched the sun rise above the Zambezi as the river plummets over Victoria Falls and been soaked on the Maid of the Mist at Niagara; I’ve cruised on the Seine and paddled in the Thames; I’ve straddled the Severn up by its source and canoed in the Wye at Symmond’s Yat. These are truly majestic beasts of the natural world. For Inlanders like us it’s the same as being at the seaside.
I’m sitting next to the Severn now. It’s breath-taking in the summer twilight and swelled a little by yesterday’s rain in foreign mountains. Six months ago I was here to witness for myself the swell that had burst the banks again and broken new records and I heard the locals talk about the river as neither a princess or a king, but a grumpy old man. For some, as they piled ruined furniture on the wheelie bins out front and stowed sodden picture frames on the landing, it was worse than grumpy: it was plain evil. Another example of the indifferent mercilessness of nature. Today it’s so shallow that I can see the gravel bed through the running water and it seems impossibly far below our trailing feet; improbable that so much space could be filled by so much water could come rushing through the valley and cause such mayhem. To illustrate my point a heron has waded out almost to the middle of the river in search of a meal – he’s only up to his knees.
People live on the edge here. Increasingly so, though you wouldn’t know it to be standing here right now. The kids toss in twigs to race and if the sun’s up tomorrow I’ll let them dip their toes a little. We’re not far from home – same county, actually, but there’s an edge here that that maybe only Inlanders can feel about a river. It’s what the rest of them think about the sea: a frontier; the closing off of one world and the opening of another.
We’re on the far side of the river and if something happens to the little bridge in the town we’re twenty miles either way from the nearest village. Over our shoulder the forest breathes like a single entity and I know that the darkness of its depths stretches as far as the Welsh border. After that no one can really be sure.
I’m thinking about how old the river is. How old any river really is.
What is the river? Think about it. If it’s the water then the vast majority of this water was rained out only a few hours ago. It’s fresher that the milk I’ll put in my latte in a few minutes. It’s not old: this river is the newest thing this town has ever seen, and it sees it all day long. So what’s old, then? The gravel and rocks at the bottom? Maybe, but they’re always on the move, too – and most of the time we don’t see them. So the trees that line the banks of the river from the Hafren forest to the Bristol Channel? Maybe. But then we’re not talking about the river any more…
We wouldn’t insist on legions of Roman soldiers before a road can be called Roman and we don’t wait for horse-drawn carriages before a route is known as old. All of these roads get their resurface: layer over layer of time and history and the river goes one further with a complete rehaul every few minutes. The river, they say, holds no memories. So how are they old?
It’s the something that’s always been there that we call old. For good or evil it just has been there. A route, a barrier, a threat, a ride. But it’s not old, this old river. Like an old hurt. The hurt’s aren’t old if we hold onto them today: only the reasons for holding on to them are old.
It will be the first time in a while that we haven’t been abroad for a summer holiday in the sun. This would usually be the time for shopping, checking suitcases, thinking about suncream and what to do with the dog. A busy time, not unlike the stresses of Christmas. I won’t miss it for a year. I won’t miss the airport and the midnight transfer at the other end.
We’ll take a drive up to Wales, stop by at Cracker Ridge on the way to the sea and land ourselves softly in a cottage that’s a world removed from the all inclusive by the pool, but will in itself provide the adventures that a break from the routine of work needs to provide.
I, for one, am immensely looking forward to being back in that part of the world. There’s some weird sort of calling that I get which pulls me back there regularly and it shows no sign of diminishing. Wherever I am in the world, it is always to here that I am drawn first in my mind. The fields of home; the familiar streets of the town are secondary to the big sky and craggy walls of mountain. Even the clouds that loom like a frown over the peaks are inspiring in their ominousness and I breathe in the bigger power when I’m there.
My Autumn notes will cover the details of the early years down at the bay and in the mountains. It is worth looking out for as the nights draw in because it tells a story from a different side of the life that a youth of the city is meant to lead. The coin tipped up and I slip off. Found myself groping for a foothold and somehow ended up here. It’s about the journey, of course: it’s always about the journey.
Today, as I prepare for a trip to the edges, I return to Africa and this day a twelvemonth back: I was in Livingstone, Zambia.
From time to time there were thick, full branches laid on the side of the road at intervals of a hundred or so yards. They served as the warning triangles that we had back home and there was, invariably, further up the road a broken-down antique of a truck or a spillage of some sort. These roads didn’t have the polished fancy signs and flashing lights of back home, but they had their signs and codes. They weren’t written in any book or sanctioned by government departments but were as important to know as the functions of the pedals and the gear stick.
Rush hour in Lusaka a couple of days before was little more than a battle of wills and a war of attrition: a masterclass in avoiding eye-contact and leaning on the horn. It was nothing personal and no-one was angry, but for twenty or thirty minutes we were in the centre of an improbable tangle of cars and pickups and lorries and minibus taxis at a junction that had no lines or lights or right of way. Millimetre by millimetre we nudged forward in the stinking heat of the city, each of us scraping through the melee somehow without touching, most of the vehicles crammed with people, most of the people leaning out of the windows and offering advice. At one point two men appeared and commenced directing the traffic, as though had grown bored watching the mess, but they were largely ignored and merely oversaw the inevitable unknotting of the tangle.
It was what we were heading back to. Four days on safari; four sunsets from the deck over the river at Croc Valley; four days without the noise and smoke of the city. Another eleven hours on the bus lay ahead of us; another night on the edge of the city and then eight hours west to Livingstone.
I looked less at the road on the journey from Kakumbi to Lusaka. I let my eyes wander further, across the little villages and the herds of goats that might have been wild but were probably just very free-range, and to the wild plains and brush that lay beyond. There are no decent maps of Zambia and life gathers around the roads. Areas the size of England were left wild and only the imagination could tell what might have lurked there, what went on, how I would fare if I was dropped there. From time to time black hills rose out of the brush and were crowned with white cloud, and sometimes the hills looked perfectly formed, like pyramids from a forgotten civilisation.
At Lusaka the kids sated their craving for tiled floors and neon lights. We ate Pizza and drank lemonade and at the campsite played pool in a thatched club house and camped in a field of elk.
And then a different road. This was the road to Livingstone and the Zimbabwe border. It was a well-used road but no better serviced for that. Trucks loaded with Zambian copper headed to the border, heavy with the precious metal that never stayed long in the country but was bound, apparently, for China. Zambia was rich in natural resources, I was told. I wondered if the people on George Compound knew this.
We were heading for Livingstone, the country’s second city named after the British explorer made famous for his discovery of Victoria Falls and his rejection of the attitudes of his time towards the African people. He lived with and loved these people and many times depended upon them for his very survival. I wonder how many of the white supremacists did actually come out to places like this and meet the people; speak to them and hear their stories. It is so much easier to dismiss and dehumanise a people that is nothing more than a commodity or obstacle.
I was much more of a fan of Livingtone that I was of Lusaka. This town (its population was a little less than Hereford) was geared to the outside world and, unlike Lusaka offered a whole different welcome to the visitor – like pavements and hanging baskets and little piazzas with coffee shops and bookstalls. A white woman walked alone along the main road into the city and and no one crowded the bus when we paused in traffic. An armed policeman patrolled the toilets and hawkers were banned from the shopping centre carpark.
As the group piled into Shoprite for supplies I was drawn to the edge of the carpark by a man about my age who, like they all do, wanted to be my best friend, wanted to know my name and where I was from.
“I have some magic” he said, looking round furtively for the guard. “I have magic for you, but we have to step out of the mall.” It was the sort of scenario we had been warned about and lectured the kids on endlessly. I would be lured down the road, stabbed in the chest in the middle of the day and robbed of by dollars and Stirling. And yet I followed. We all like to be beckoned, don’t we? Just like we like magic… Drugs? I thought. Some special mushroom? Phone credit?
At the edge of the carpark, just outside the gates and opposite the Fawlty Towers bunk house he opened his jacket and took out a fistful of pendants: shaped and polished stones on leather cord. The same sort of trinket that we had seen on every street corner of every town that we had passed through. I had walked this far so asked him what it was. If I was going to give him some of my money I wanted him to work for it.
“NyamiNyami,” he said. “Spirit of the river.” The story was of a giant snake-like creature that lived in the Zambezi river and from time to time dragged people into the depths and devoured them. The NyamiNyami was a river spirit that protected the wearer from this creature and (though I doubted this) everybody wears one. “Ten dollars. Good price.” I took two for $5 and slipped one over my neck, just in case. The river was only a mile away…
The ground didn’t feel so hard beneath our sleeping bags here in Livingstone and the dust a little more under control. On the outside the town gave off a sense of its own identity and a feeling of control. The shops had windows and the café had wi-fi and lattes. But on the edge of the town the roads returned to dust and the markets huddled together in between the single-storey houses. Here, unlike in the town centre, where the locals didn’t drink in the café or shop in the jeweller’s, the people stared, no doubt wondering why we had chosen to visit this part of town.
We were on our way to the town’s orphanage, to see where kids were taken off the streets and given a chance of an education and a future. It was simple opportunity and a little bit of love – that’s all they needed and my heart broke as we peered into their bedrooms and saw the Disney bedsheets and the little Pixar backpacks: the same dreams… We played football and I donned the Zambia shirt that I had bought at the market. The home team won and the children laughed. I smiled and I don’t think I have really stopped smiling since.