It is a place of broken ambition and broken toys but when the trip is a short one there’s no need for ambition and even broken toys keep the kids busy for a while. Mostly it is a place where time has broken and flaps along like a broken wing. It takes a gear shift coming here and this is what long journeys are for. They extract us from the plastic tightness of the city and with every mile pull from us the bits that still cling stubborn and elastic and try to drag us back.
Cracker Ridge wears the forest like a hairpiece when viewed from a distance. You can’t see it from the cottage but at night you hear it breathing and in the day the direction of travel in the air is that way. It is still a fair walk to reach the outer edges of the trees and we don’t always go that way; sometimes we’re pulled with gravity down to the village and the Red Lion then rue the walk back up. On days that we trudge to the top of the ridge there’s the reward of an easy walk home.
It is not an old forest so there’s some great sadness that hangs in the air with each foot of summer growth; a sense of inevitability and impending doom. But isn’t it better to see things like this rather than pretending we’re surprised? It is a generational forest. I have made that up because it fits the best to describe how the growth lasts around thirty years, just to the point where the forest has become permanent and the shadows cast across the neighbouring fields a constant thing; time enough for a folklore to grow and a hundred generations of smaller creatures to live and die and forget the great devastation.
When I was fifteen I watched it fall and I cried with every dragging truck and biting saw at the great injustice. I watched creatures leap and bound in panic and the little pools I had known shaped by giant tyre tracks and slick with oil. And then the great silence when the men had taken what they wanted and left. It felt like some terrible crime had been committed The men laughed as they leaned on their trucks and smoked cigarettes, flicking butts into the puddles they had made.
A heavy silence like the stunned silence after a great battle, for days and weeks nothing daring to move; nothing able to move. A forgotten oak, left like a joke; an island in the carnage and crammed with refugees; a kite floating on the breeze looking to profit, the crunch of dead branches and discarded chunks of timber uselessly sliced and left.
But the path, though we had never noticed it before, raised from the rest of the forest, suddenly afforded new views across the space that had been created. Views that I had never seen before and that stretched impossibly far to the dark peaks that dipped their toes in the sea. Where the forest had been the land undulated and dropped sharply to a valley that I didn’t know was there and undiscovered streams threaded like veins. Forlorn stumps of trees, their open wound still sticky with sap and smelling sweetly of Christmas, would soon be overtaken by new life that seized its chance to breathe the free air and soak up the rays of the sun. For this underlife it is the trees who are the oppressors because there’s always another angle. The villain in the tale has his own dreams, too and doesn’t consider himself in the wrong.
But that was then. A lot has happened in the gulf between and walks in the woods on Cracker Ridge belie all of that memory. It is how memory is meant to work; we fill the vacuum with the things we want to remember the way that the milk-sodden Weetabix fills the void left by the spoon. As a man I walked in the shadows of the trees that had returned and enjoyed nervous love in little glades; as a husband I walked and made improbable plans that I knew would work out. And later still, little faces poking from pouches or perched on shoulders, little voices singing in the echoes of the trees along with mine and then walking beside me and holding my hand.
And to now. I tell them that when I was their age or thereabouts I watched as they pulled all of this down and Cracker Ridge was shorn of its hairpiece. I told them of the silence that descended for a while and how I walked with a feeling of emptiness. But they didn’t believe me, of course. It is all too permanent. It is the beauty of youth: that great belief in the permanence of all things.
Every year she encroaches a little more, tests her nerve and reclaims another half foot or so. They can’t fight her off like they used to – it’s a full-time job and they’re only part-time there so we can’t see the house from the village anymore. Like in the older days after the long ride we’re reach that exact point by the church where the hills opened up for a brief moment and there it’d be, Cracker Ridge, high enough up to catch the rain as snow and in the middle, white against green, Cracker Cottage. At Christmas the house would be all lit up and fairy lights wrapped around the conifers, I would slow to pick it out and we’d be warmed before the big climb.
It’s too much now and nature has tipped the scales in her own favour. From the road there is nothing but green hillside and the untamed branches squeal along the side of the car as we nudge up the drive. It has been a long time. One whole lockdown and a little more since we were up at Cracker and after the rain and shine of the past few weeks there is a burgeoning that has run out of control.
Maybe we only notice it because we have snapshots at intervals; we notice the narrowing of the path to the front door and the loss of view from the front. We’re not used to a view like this so we seek it out the minute we’ve dropped out bags; we look back the way that we’ve come and capture between out finger and thumb that valleys that we passed through an hour ago.
It’s only the human things that are decaying: the wooden deck that pokes out into the space between here and home; the gate at the bottom of the steep drive that hangs now on its hinges; the old barns that are help up only by what’s inside. Nature – she’s doing ok. In fact, in this place she’s not done so well for a century or more. But old eyes don’t see these things; old eyes that see the same thing every day and see only by the tiniest degrees, the slow approach of the wild that taps now on the window when the autumn breeze picks up. I wonder if one day I will come and have to carve through this jungle to get to the side door. I expect that I would find them huddled in the centre of the room while vines poke down the chimney and the windows are darkened by the rhododendron bushes and branches thick as a child’s arm.
It’s how it will be, I’m fairly sure of it. They will not move unless sealed tight in a box and I think they have made their peace with that idea. The run they have had has been a good one and we have caught the best of it. I suppose we cannot complain if we suck out what juice we can find and resist the urge to ask for more. It is this and this is enough. The girls play with the dogs in the field and the startled sheep huddle together and take turns to be in the middle of the huddle like penguins. They have not seem movement like this for a long time up here and in their little brains it is alien and a threat The girls squeal to be free; to be out of the lockdown bubble, finally
We could not be further from the bubble here. We are so far that we cannot even see the circles that pulse and grow – even with a view like this one. The route home is a winding one that skirts these places along the back roads. This evening we will sneak back under the covers and Lullaby Ridge will be a dream again.
There is a lot of focus at the moment on the state of relations between black and white in the western world. I won’t get bogged in the debate because I’m too cowardly to risk articulating my ideas and having them skewed. It’s not what this blog is for and I’m glad to be able to step outside of that debate.
It is, of course, an argument that my status as a white man allows me to do that and I accept that argument. I am sad that it even has to be an argument. But I will say this to the people who tear down the statues: I think it is the wrong approach and I think it lessens the cause.
Stay with me.
Erasing the figures of oppression does not change history: an old Jamaican saying is “whatever don’t kill you make you stronger.” It is the defeat of prejudices and slavery and racism and segregation that makes the black community such a strong one. It is important to remember what was fought against to get where things are today. Progress has been made and continues to be made.
The statues of the patron saint always show George defeating the dragon. We don’t remove the dragon. To do so would be to ignore what a battle it was and what a victory was won. Erect statues of worthy characters, black and white; man and woman, that cast a shadow on the former slave-owners and show the journey towards the world that we want to see.
None of us is simply here; we’ve all had our battles and they are battles and adversaries that we should remember overcoming.
Africa 7 – Croc Valley
I slept but my dreams were filled with floating hippos and grunting crocs. At one point I dreamt that a herd of elephants stomped through our campsite and brushed the sides of our tents as we slept. It must have been a deep sleep for me not to decamp and huddle on a bench beneath a pagoda. But then I would have the baboons and spiders to deal with.
The sun had risen already and there was movement in camp, the tent was already feeling stuffy and I dressed quickly, rammed a hat on my head to hide the mess of my hair and scrambled for the zip. It smelled different here on the other side of the country. It was not the acrid smell of humanity but the softer, sweeter smell of the wilderness, I thought. Then I lifted the tent flap and was faced with a pile of elephant leavings as big as my rucksack. It still steamed in the morning air; two of my guy lines had been popped.
The elephants had passed in the night on their way to the river. Towards the end of our trip we were on the bus back to the campsite in Livingstone after the Zambezi sunset cruise when huge dark shadows loomed out of the dark, forcing the driver to slam on the breaks. Black silhouettes, a dozen or so, lumbered across the road without breaking stride.
“The elephants,” the driver said “they do what they want. They go where they want.” I loved that. We were utterly insignificant and the elephant was king.
It was what the other guests were here for, of course. To see the game in the reserve across the river. A swiss couple nearby had driven from Bern, all the way through two continents and still had a thousand miles to go. The odometer on the Defender had reached 380,000 and the Land Rover was still running as smoothly as when they bought it. A pair of French brothers bickered in another corner of the campsite and a family of large Americans sat on the stoop of a chalet and watched the monkeys.
It wasn’t why I had wanted to come to Africa, but it had to be done. It seemed a shame to come all this way and not load into the open back of a jeep and bump across the plains and through the forests to spot in the wild what most people would only ever see in zoos or on the television. And in fairness it was spectacular, if a little contrived. We saw the family of lions flicking their tails in the shade of the sacred baobab tree. Vultures perched on the white skeleton branches of a dead fig tree and watched us lazily.
We stopped for a stretch of the legs after a while and I braved a few steps away from the group to relieve myself behind a bush, all the while wondering what might be out there watching my skinny white behind and sizing me up as I willed myself to pee, despite the pressure. It reminded me of a time on the way to the cup final in Cardiff. I was desperate and pulled over at a service station that was milling with supporters from both sides but so twitchy and filled with anticipation that I could not go. It was the same here, though maybe the African wildlife was a little more civilised…
“How far are we from the campsite?” I said, meaning the relative safety of the other side of the river.
“Twenty miles.” The ranger said. He was a man of few words, like many that we were to meet in this country not yet fully woken to the lucrative tourist industry.
“And if I wanted to walk back…”
He laughed – and that Zambian smile finally cracked into life. He wasn’t laughing with me, of course – he caught the eye of his partner and they both laughed.
“Mazungu want to walk!?”
“No,” I said, “I just wondered what would happen if I tried.”
The pair of them laughed again and the kids in the back of the truck were enjoying the show.
“You would die.” He said.
It was what I was after. I was probing for juicy quotes and details that I could take back home and finally he got on board.
“So what would get me first? Lion? Cheetah?”
He shook his head. Serious now. “Most dangerous animal here” he paused for effect and the kids leaned forward in their seats. “Buffalo. Mean animal. If you get away from the buffalo, the elephants will have you. The cats, they run away.” I was impressed. We all were. He wasn’t finished though. “And if you do make it to the river and get past the hippos, which you wouldn’t, crocs. Crocs eat anything.”
I got back into my seat and fastened my seatbelt. The sun was falling and we parked up by the side of the river to watch it set over the water and to see the countless colours fade to shades of mist and grey. A long line of elephants, their shapes unmistakeable in the fading light, trooped past and the tremble of the ground sent me back to the road at the back of my house when the trucks roar past.
The next morning I sat on the decking which overhung the water and watched giraffes stoop and drink on the far side of the river. It had become unusually quiet; the monkeys had returned to the higher branches and I saw their eyes peering out while babies clung to the backs of mothers. A monitor lizard the length of a man skittered over dry leaves and through campsite.
I loved all of that but I was here to see the people. I wanted to learn from them and breathe in that spirit that I had seen in them all. In Kakumbi village I watched a boy pour water onto the ground and stab at with a stick, creating a muddy puddle. After a while he knelt down and scooped up fist fulls of the wet mud and smoothed it onto moulds. These he would leave for a while to harden before upturning the moulds and letting the blocks of mud fall onto the ground. He was making bricks. He was seventeen and spending his evenings and weekends making bricks so that he could pay his way through school.
We weren’t long in the village before a crowd of young children had gathered around us like a cliché. Each of us had half a dozen children clinging off our clothes and our fingers and all of them wanted to talk to us, to show us their houses and shoes. It was a beautiful village, if a little contrived like the safari, but these people did live in these houses and cook over these open fires – they just knew that they were also exactly what people like us wanted to see and were happy to put on the show that we expected. Maybe that is cynical. Maybe it downplays their sincerity. I don’t mean to do that. I don’t think I have ever met a more earnest people. Maybe, like the landscapes we had seen and the beasts we had got so close to, it was all too dream-like to be believed. My packet of Haribos was devoured within seconds, the way a bag of chips will be decimated by a flock of seagulls.
One thing that I had wanted to do above all things was to kick a football on African soil and as we drove through the village it just happened to be three o’clock on Saturday and on the outskirts a huge crowd had gathered to watch the local team play against a nearby rival. Supporters hung from the trees and all around the edge of the pitch. A penalty shoot-out was in progress but our arrival took the attention from the game and we were soon surrounded – an occurrence that we had become used to. It was the audience that I had craved and now I had no clue what to do: I had walking boots and every time I tried to kick the ball it flew away at all the wrong angles. I was quite useful with the old kick-ups but knew that this wasn’t going to happen. I had to think of something else so in the heat of the moment, with the ball in my hands and a crowd of hundreds around me, pledged to take the ball from one shoulder, over my head to the other shoulder and then drop it neatly on my head. I had never tried such a move and didn’t know if it was even possible, but it worked like a charm. I expect the Zambian national team to adopt the move and the legend of a white man in some remote village bringing it to the nation the way that John Miller had taken the beautiful game to Brazil.
Back at the camp we watched the sun sink over the river from the deck. The French brothers were still bickering like teenagers until the girl that was with them shouted for them to shut up and grow up. They both looked at her like scorned children and stormed off back to their tent while the girls strolled by the river and smoked a cigarette. In the meantime a family turned up; I recognised the man from the resort and it was clear that he had brought his family to see where he worked. The children were dressed up and the wife wore a necklace that twinkled against her black skin. It was clear the way that they sat stiffly and looked up at the lights and the rest of us lounging around and talking loudly, that they were not used to outings like this. I had not been here long but I also realised that there was a strangeness to it: these places were serviced and stocked and watered by the locals but it was rare to see a black family sitting at a table and enjoying the evening like the rest of us. They sat in the seats that the French had vacated and I chatted to the children and told them how beautiful their country was; how lucky they were to see this every day and what it was like in England in the winter. I showed them pictures of my girls in the snow and in front of the gates at Buckingham Palace and they told me about their school day and the things that they were learning.
And then the French returned. At first I thought that they had simply come back to collect the cigarettes that they had left on the table until they remained looming over the family and demanding, without words, the table back. It was the worst incident of white arrogant racism that I had seen and I was furious. The father began to apologise and beckon his family to another table but I would not let it happen. It was absurd that these petulant and childish fools would destroy the evening of this beautiful little family.
“Que faites-vous?” I said. The men both whirled round, as shocked at the challenge in their own language as they were in the challenge itself. “Ils ne vont pas bouger. Ilssont avec moi.” It was like that moment when the monitor lizard came through the camp. The chatter had stopped and once again, all eyes were on what I would next. “Il y a uneautre table la-bas” I said, pointing. Staring. Not flinching, but at the same time, not wanting to get into a scuffle with the kids looking over my shoulder. The brothers huffed a little and puffed then grabbed their cigarettes and stormed back to their tent.
It is a disgusting thing, to see this sort of treatment of people and I did not want to become hardened to it. I did not want to see it as ‘just the way it is here’. This was a beautiful family and the father was proud to be here with his wife and children and had they as much right as anyone to. Their smiles at a trip down the road from their own village showed an appreciation of life and each other so much more than the two privileged young men who had the means to travel half-way across the world to see this culture but could not muster the humility to shrug off the old diseases and prejudices of back home.
I am at the point in the Africa Notes where we take the long drive across the country to the nature reserve. Twelve hours on an old bus might have been test of will but for me the front windscreen was a cinema and through the side windows were manipulated the other senses. The smells of the roasted mice that they shoved through the windows each time we slowed down the chattering monkeys in the trees and the shrill cry of playing children. On the old bus, just like in our tents at night, we felt the hard, unrelenting African earth through our very bones.
When we travel, when we really travel, we’re at the mercy of someone else every step of the way and it can be frustrating at times waiting for trains or border control or bus drivers. It’s part of the adventure, if we’ve got our mindset right, and these waiting times are often when we get to see the little bits of a place that in our rush we might miss. At the station we might catch the conversation between the conductor and the guard, or we might see the fat man stumble or the cat catch a bird. These are not moments to be idle; just to let the world think that we are. I use this time to make pages. At every opportunity where there’s a flatish surface that doesn’t move too much and a little bit of light, I’ll be making pages. It is a lovely irony that most of the action happens to the traveller when he’s not moving. We get less time when we’re back home than when we’re out and about. I’ll walk the fields and pop to the coast and catch a mountain or two, but the itinerary is always tight and there’s always demands. Give me a delayed flight in Livingstone or a traffic jam in Lusaka or a twelve-hour drive across the African bushland any day.
I jumped in my car just now and drove to pick the kids up from school. I’d been making pages at my desk and had immersed myself deeply in the dusty roads of South Luangwa so that as I drove the safe smooth roads of my Worcestershire town I thought of how the displacement of a few thousand miles could land one in an entirely different world. As I rolled along here in England there was a cart laden with firewood, pulled by a pair of donkeys along some desolate road in the heart of Africa and flanked by a man about my age with a job to do. Whose life is the more valid? Whose dreams the more important?
Africa6 – The Long Road to Kakumbi
Three days ago we were on a luxury air-conditioned coach gliding over flawless tarmac. The 200km drive from school to the airport took a little over two hours. Today we were to take the Great East Road out of Lusaka and towards the border with Malawi before heading north to Kakumbi, deep in the South Luangwa national park. The journey is 340km and was to take every single drop of the twelve hours of daylight. In fact, we left Casa Munji in the pre-dawn chill and were on the outskirts of the city before the sun made its swift ascent into the day and caught us up.
It was a day that started on the same old bus that had brought us from the airport – a thirty-seater with our backpacks piled at the rear and ourselves slung across the remaining seats to catch missed sleep.
I did not want to sleep. Not for a minute. The best way to know a place, just like a new acquaintance, is in the pre-dawn, as it wakes. With the sleep still in its eyes and preoccupied with the thoughts of the day a city is vulnerable and offers a true picture of its character. People were everywhere and I wondered where on earth they might have been going. There was no real sense of purpose and certainly no urgency like you might see in a London rush hour, but people were milling about, staring at the white folk on the bus, smiling amiably and chatting. Another day.
Always people; the whole route of the long drive: people. This single carriageway was the main artery cutting through the country from the capital to the east and linking villages along the way. It was the M1 of Zambia but it was also a major pedestrian route, cycle path and marketplace. Again I was struck by a fundamental difference between how I saw roads and how there were seen here. At home we keep away from the roads where we can – indeed, it’s against to law to walk along the motorway – but here the road was the lifeblood of many, many communities. There were few, if any, safety features on the road other than a single and endless line down the centre: no illuminated cats-eyes or reflective signs; no rumble strips or speed cameras. In fact the only measure in place to control the speed of traffic on this road were the speed-humps that we encountered every few miles. Quite literally a strip of concrete, sometimes six inches high, had been set across the road with no warning of its arrival, nor any real consistency in its placement. Drivers had to be alert and it was on more than one occasion that we were either ground to a virtual stop to surmount a more obvious one, or peeling ourselves from the ceiling after one had not been spotted.
I am tempted to think, though, that rather than being a safety measure, these speed humps were actually a crude business tactic. Each time we slowed for one of these things, figures would appear from the trees at the side of the road and thrust bananas through the windows of the bus or flustered chickens or, quite often, what I took to be decorative twig arrangements but were actually roasted field mice skewered on sticks. Small villages clustered round these points and in the shade languished the men while the women and children did the work.
The houses all along the route were rudimentary single-room huts, circular and made of slender branches, roofed with elephant grass. It is the cliched image of Africa that I had not expected to see, but this is how people live. They emerge from beneath the thatch in their Barcelonaor Liverpool shirts and hawk goods to the passing traffic as they have done for centuries. In the centre of each village might be some source of electricity to charge their mobile phones. In one village we visited the local witch doctor had set up solar panels and could watch the football on a black and white Panasonic at the same time as charging his Nokia. The clay figure of a local god watched over his yard and he knew that his gadgetry was safe.
Always people, people walking this way and walking that way along the side of the road. Even when it seemed that we had driven for hours without seeing any signs of a village or a town, people would be walking along the road. Children in school uniforms, women in bright colours and men on bikes. How far were they going? I wondered. How far had they already been? It was bumpy on the bus but we were getting somewhere at what must have seemed like an incredible pace to these people that we passed. What was it like to be them, to be there? I wondered if they wondered what it was like to be me; to be on this bus heading away and away from them.
Every soul that I saw I thought of the thoughts that might have been passing through that mind. I liked to think that it was a calm place; a mind that wondered about today’s problems and not trying to reshape the world to fit a tomorrow that might never come. I wondered if they walked this road at night and if they did, what dangers lurked out of view of the road. When we rose and a view opened up it was harsh brush for as far as the eye could see with barren orange hills rising from time to time in the distance. On one bend a troop of baboons sauntered menacingly along the shoulder of the road like bored teenagers looking for trouble. How would a single man fare if he faced this lot one dusky night on the road? Or a small child? Were baboons wont to attack? I shivered in the heat of the bus at the thought and wondered what I would do in that situation. Even with a phone signal, who would come? How long would they take?
And bikes. Push bikes that laboured along these stretches of road outnumbered by far the motorised vehicles that we had seen. They were classic old sit-up-and-beg models with a single speed and a wire rack at front and back. The rider was often obscured by the things that he carried and reduced to mere engine. I could never work out whether he was loaded on his way to market or on his way home but I saw whole pigs slung across the back, piles of bricks and bags of charcoal, ten gallon water butts and, on one occasion, a telegraph pole. It was testament to the strength of spirit of these people that they simply got on and did what they had to do. I admired it as I stretched out on my sea and eyed the baboons warily.
Near the border with Mozambique we crossed the Luangwa river and thus out of Lusaka province and into Eastern province. In an instant the condition of the roads improved and the hold ups were less frequent. Still the people walked and rode and from time to time we passed small clusters of circular huts surrounded by great patches of black earth: the remnants of charcoal making. Next to these the ntembe; a market stall surrounded by sacks of charcoal, intentionally long and thin for carrying on bikes or heads. In the shade a single child flicking at flies.
At Chipata, a few miles from the Malawian border, we stopped for meat. We were about to leave the main road, the driver told us, and this was the last place we would be able to buy food. A Spar supermarket stood at the edge of a strip-mall looking for all the world like it had been plucked from some remote Welsh village, except that here the shelves were mostly empty and within minutes our bus was surrounded by Chipatans. A boy of about fifteen sauntered over. He had a tray balanced on his head in which were small parcels of peanuts and he wore the sombre look that I was getting used to of someone who was about to ask for something. He told me that he was hungry, then swept his arm in a semi-circle: “we all are” he said and I noticed a dozen other boys in his wake. We gave them the bread that we had left and they gobbled it swiftly. I marvelled that he could walk all day with hunger grumbling in his gut and a tray of food on his head. We had been briefed not to give to beggars. We were told that it encourages them and reinforces the white-man supremacy idea. I thought that kids who were desperately hungry would not care less if it was a white man, a dairy cow or a man from mars who offered them food. They begged yesterday and would beg for every day to come while they were still hungry. I found the decree insulting and patronising – as though my refusing them food might cleanse the mentality of these boys.
An albino man that I took to be in his sixties but might just have easily been in his mid-twenties, his skin fairer than any of ours on the bus, muscled the boys out of the way and stood at the open doorway of the bus with his hands out. I had heard of the beggars in India and how mutilations and deformities were rewarded with higher begging stakes. I wondered if it was the same here – the man had a definite swagger in his approach and the boys parted willingly. He wasn’t deformed but he was odd. The one tooth that remained jutted horizontally between cracked lips and whatever was wrong with his skin had begun to eat away and his eyelids and ears. I could see why the others boys had parted and could not push from my mind the memory of trying to aim my wads of bread at the smaller ducks and not the bullying swan. In this case it was the small packets of Haribos that we had left, and this man was no swan. He wanted cash, he said, not bread. I gave him an apple and as we drove away wondered how he would eat it.
We were on a dust road heading deep into the nature reserve. A sign read Kakumbi 60km and we knew that we were in for another couple of hours of sliding and rocking and slowing and stopping. The rudimentary Great Eastern Road that we had just left now seemed like a superhighway in comparison. But this was Africa and so far it had been so much more African than I had really expected it to be. Thick lines of trees now bordered the road and there were fewer and fewer people along its flanks. Were were heading into the North Luangwa National Park, an area that, since Zambia had realised that there was more to be gained in preserving the animals than shooting them, had become famous for its big game safaris and a tad more dangerous for the locals, most of whom had moved up to Chipata.
With each rise of the road we caught glimpses of the land that was rolled out beneath us. It was so beautiful as to be unearthly; like a scene from a dream. Full of colours and textures that I had never seen before. The sun was on its descent and threw a softer light which picked out the wrinkles of the land and made long shadows of the trees and bushes. Vultures circled in the air while marauding monkeys chattered in the trees and played chicken with the bus. Croc Valley, our camp on the edge of the Luangwa river, would not be reached before nightfall and that would mean negotiating tents in the dark, but I don’t think that I was alone in enjoying the day bleed out of the sky.
The road had become sand and I wondered how much further we would be able to go as the engine laboured after a hard day and the light dwindled. From the bushes to one side a commotion and the god-like bulk of a bull elephant. It did not care that we were there and its flank brushed the side of the bush as it pushed past. A zebra flicked its ears a little further on and impala drank from the stream.
It was a day that had begun in the morning dark of a crammed city and was ending a million or so miles away. A million or so miles from anywhere. In my tent that night I wondered if the spaces we had left would be enough for when the elephants passed through to get to the water. I wondered if the bank that dropped down to the river was high and steep enough to keep the crocodiles down there. I wondered if the dozen or so hippos that lay farting and belching on the sandbanks would remain there for the night.
I was too scared to dream that night, but I did sleep.
There’s no definition to the cloud. Nothing to get a fix on or to find hope in. No gap in which to poke a nail and peel back the grey. It has been like this for a while and a fine invisible drizzle that is cold on the skin seems out of place in July. This is Welsh rain. It’s like walking through mountain fog. Even the hills here are picked at with fingers of mist that blur the tops of the trees.
Sixty miles across the county, Wales is dry. Our father tells me so. (He used to art in Devon but moved to the mountains, which is better because the M5 grates). I will take the girls to see him and nain in a few days – the first time that we will have crossed the border and seen the mountains since the start of the lockdown. In fact it will be the furthest that we have travelled since the new year.
It is only a hundred miles but it doesn’t take much more than twenty to leave behind the plastic circles and enter a world where there is more nature than humanity and the circles are easily avoided. It is easier to breathe and the sky is bigger. The ground doesn’t tremble with traffic or the air taste like motorway.
The front of the old house looks east towards England and there is a line of hills, the Long Mynd, that I can see from my early morning walks. There’s some sort of symmetry in that which I would explain to our father but I don’t think he’d get it.
What I want to do with these Notes From the Edge pieces is to track the adventure of summer and show that fifty yards, twenty miles, a hundred miles, or 5,650 miles are all far enough from home to get out of the bubble and find the magic. It’s all about who you take with you in your head.
I have a final few words on Lusaka…
In front of each of the little houses the ntembe. On the table piles of potatoes or three or four bananas. In the shade, behind the table, a person. A dusty city full of people. A world full of sentience; of thinking and hoping. Do they dream, these people? I wondered what a reasonable dream would be in a place like this. What was even possible to achieve? I had worked my way out of my own poverty and developed an idea about how well I had done to sit in my book-lined study in my detached house with two cars on the drive. But I was humbled by this and with each turn of a corner wondered how much more I could take in and process. I wanted to see it all; I wanted to gobble it up and know these people. These beautiful people at the very origins of all of us.
At George Compound we paused to watch a football game on a bare patch of land on the edge of the slum. There were at least fifty players and not one of them was wearing shoes. The ball, when we could see it, was crafted of plastic bags tightly woven and regularly in need of quick repair. There was no referee but also no arguing.
Plastic was everywhere. It was a blight on the countryside and clogged the streams, caught in the fences and gathered in corners. It is another sign of how far apart nations can be in the hierarchy of need. It would be a national talking point back home – prominent figures would head campaigns to control the litter: dropping litter back home can incur a fine that is equivalent to three months’ wages here. There are more pressing things to worry about. We bought a brisket that had just been hammered out of shiny tin from the front of one of the huts. It was 15Kw – about 20p. I gave the man 100Kw because I felt guilty about the football. I felt guilty about it all.
And yet I am in love with the place. There is something about the spirit of the people that I love; about the women that draws me towards them with something deeper than I have felt at the passing glimpse of a girl on the street in England. It would be a while until I would work out what it was but the tug in my chest would linger with me for all of the time that we were here.
It was more than the smile, but these people knew how to smile, and more than this: they knew how to use their smiles. Each checkpoint we were stopped at, each shop that we entered, each interaction we had with the locals, I felt that we were instantly put in our place by the surly dark stare of someone immensely more savvy and confident than ourselves. It was a look of setting things in place and we all of us wilted at it and knew our place instantly. And then, with the speed of an African sunrise, the melting of the ebony and a smile like none I had ever known would light up the day. He greeting: “how’a’you” was one that resonated throughout our trip. It was a happy greeting – a polite greeting and one that expected a response. “I’m fine” was the usual return along with the same question back. It was a beautiful thing.
A Lusaka market clung to the edges of the buildings and unfurled tarpaulin made a tunnel of the stalls and kept out the sun. A woman selling fish and nuts and plastic combs demanded money when we took her photograph. She also sold chitenge – rectangular sheets of colourful cloth that were used everywhere – wrapped around the slender figures of the women, wadded in between their heads and the loads that they carried, as shade above this market. I had decided that they would be easy to pack into my rucksack and carry home as gifts. I bought six at about $2 each. A crowd gathered as the transaction gathered steam and I pulled down her original $20 asking price. It’s tricky at the start to argue with these people, such is their need for as much as they can make. But they also know that in our belts we carry more than a year’s takings, so it is easily forgivable. As I took out my wallet and counted through my notes a $10 bill dropped onto the floor and was blown along in the dust. In a flash a hundred children’s writhing black bodies had pounced on it and I gave it up for gone and paid the lady. A tug on my shirt made me turn and look down into the smiling face of a small boy. He held out my $10 dollar bill for me to take. I let him have it and smiled myself as he took off down the alley pursued by the mob. I wasn’t sure if I had done him a good turn at all.
I heard it said recently that nature abhors a vacuum. It’s a phrase that sounds clever. Like one of those things smart people say because they sound smart and because few people can be bothered to argue with them. They’ll have clever come-backs and tricks to put you off your thread of thought if you try because they think about this sort of thing all the time. You know the people I mean. They run the Western World and they’re proof that you don’t have to be clever to be in charge – you simply need to impress.
On this little island; in this dollar-driven society that sweeps us away, there’s resonance in the idea. The green spaces in between the towns don’t stay green for long before they’re concreted over and the towns swell and the circles bump against each other and then merge and new cities are born and the spaces in between get slowly filled. When this island was deep in forest, it was said that a squirrel could travel from the tip of Scotland to the south coast of England without ever touching the ground. Last week I travelled on the train and tube from my home in Worcestershire to Elephant and Castle in the middle of London without ever once putting my head outside. I don’t think that’s a good thing.
I spend my life seeking out the dark spaces in between the plastic bubbles and even as I watch I see it change; I see it squeezed. Who would have thought that my visit to Zambia last year would give me a sense of how we should live our lives? It is astonishing how upside down it all is. The circles are few and far between in the places that we passed through. Even the cities of Johannesburg and Lusaka didn’t hold onto the bubble for long; the suburban townships belonged to nature because the people that lived in them hadn’t forsaken it. They strutted the dust roads with mobile phones clasped to their heads and wore football shirts from a different continent, but their bare feet were on the earth and their meals were cooked on open flames. They would know the turning of the seasons and the patterns of the mood.
You’ll tell me that they don’t wear shoes or enjoy fancy kitchens because they can’t afford to; that the level of poverty and corruption in places like this are so high that there’s no choice for the people and no way out. This is true to an extent, but to simply accept this is to miss a quite astonishing fact about this part of the world that took me entirely by surprise. I saw a lot of investment in the infrastructure of the country with the phone masts and the bridges and the roads. In some places we passed newly-laid tarmac that stretched for miles. Then there were the older roads that bumped and jostled us about and forced the driver to slow to a crawl to negotiate the craters. The thing was that these bits of the road had also been newly laid once, too. The culverts were in good condition and the barriers on the sides of the bridges were of a standard I’d expect back home. The roads had been left to deteriorate and were being returned to the state that they had once been. The fancy buildings that had been erected by some foreign power or another were being used to house cattle or store grain. What I’m getting at is that these people had a way of living that no outside culture could think to try and tame and civilise. We saw the impact of that through the years of colonialism and who are we, as the new kids on the block, to try and change these old ways? It’s like when you buy the wife a new dress that she doesn’t really like. She’ll wear it once, maybe twice and she’ll thank you for it time and again. But then it’ll end up at the back of the wardrobe and never be seen again. Did you buy it to stake a claim? To improve her..? Let them buy their own dresses.
Africa Notes 4 – Lusaka
At Casa Munji, on the outskirts of Lusaka we set up camp and dropped our bags. Kelvin was keen to tell us how he had turned these 15 acres of yellow scrubland and elephant grass into an oasis of green lawns and neatly-trimmed hedges. The drive through the city had taken us through some of the worst slums and most choked roads that Zambia has to offer. We were taken via the city dump – a huge wasteland of dunes made from the tons of rubbish that were deposited here each day. It stank and steamed in the African sun and silhouetted in the shimmer of the heat haze, women and children in bare feet and rags picked through the leavings of a people that had nothing in the first place. Across the track was the cemetery. It was just as large as the dump and there was no sense of order. Graves were homemade markers of wood and plastic. Weeds covered most. Plastic drifted over from the dump on the breeze with the smell and caught in the spindle branches of trees and on the little crosses.
At the turning to Casa Munji is an abandoned single-storey building with no roof, no windows. A tree grows through the middle and tall grass reaches over the sides. There are lots of these buildings along the roadsides in Zambia and they give the place a forlorn and abandoned look, like a country in decline after decades of conflict. Kelvin looked at me in surprise when I raised this with him. He smiled and leaned back in his lounger while beaded dreadlocks fell from his shoulders and rattled together behind his back.
“These buildings you see,” he said “they mean hope: it is the opposite to what you think.”
Far from being abandoned, these shells were buildings in the process of construction and a sign, Kelvin told me, of a nation on its feet and striving to build. His was going to be a general store on the main road into the city – maybe one day a gas station. Money, of course, was the issue. Bricks were pulled out of the earth, the walls were easy to put up. The tin for the roof, the wood for the window frames and the shutters, the doors and all that – they cost money. With the funds from our visit Kelvin hoped to get the concrete mix for the floor. Then, maybe six months or so later, he’d put the roof on… It was another adjustment that I had to make, but I was delighted to.
In the heat of the day, despite this being the middle of the African winter, temperatures reached 30°. This is manageable – it was 38° in Mallorca last year – but what we all seemed to struggle with at the start was just how bright is was. It might have been that we’d been in artificial light or struggling to sleep for the past thirty hours, but we came out of that Lusaka airport like miners from deep underground. There was not a cloud for respite and we sought the thin band of shade from the airport terminal as we waited for the in-country guide and the bus that was to take us to Casa-Munji campsite.
A dozen smiling locals swarmed us, forcefully took control of our luggage trolleys and moved through the airport at such speed that it was difficult not to think that we were being robbed. It wasn’t benevolence, though, it was unashamed service and payment was expected. Bags were delivered to our bus, passed through the window and stacked on the back seats before a dozen hands were held out in supplication. Though it wasn’t begging, of course: they had rendered us service and, as we were come to learn over the next few weeks, payment was expected.
It was often this way, we found, and for me it was admirable. Back in my suburb as a boy there was poverty of a more dangerous type because it was shameful to ask for help, to admit need, to barter or bargain or to push a point. I wonder often at this; at the pride of the poor and the needless suffering that I saw people going through all of their lives, simply for refusing to accept help or submit to humility. I have always found it an immensely frustrating trait of my own people, so here I was in awe of the openness of the locals. Their poverty was on a different level to what I had known in England, but it was on the surface and it was a strength of character that I saw, rather than a weakness. There was dignity in it that surprised me and immediately endeared me to these people.
Lusaka is a busy city that seems to lack any sense of organisation and our bus ride to the campsite took us along wide roads that were dust even when they were tarmac. It had the usual out-of-town commercial zones with flood-lit carparks out front and glass-fronted take-away burger joints and mobile phone shops, but these were never populated by locals: they were there for us and groups of young men were paid to patrol the carparks and keep their brothers and cousins away: a micro-step up the ladder.
I have always been convinced that the piles of paperwork and forms and meetings and checks and tracker-beacons and emergency phones on trips like these are more to fight potential litigation than to keep the group safe. It’s as though the repetitive strain of going through the process was in itself enough to ward of misadventure, or remove any excuses… We learnt this on day one as we were loaded into two pick-up trucks: three in the front and three in the flatbed. It was how they did it here; it we how we did it. With the best will in the world we had sat and sipped coffee in the assured confidence that the old school back home provided and we nodded as we agreed with the safety briefings. We would, of course, uphold the standards of the school wherever we happened to be in the world and most definitely would not travel through a city centre on the back of a pick-up truck… but it is the only way to travel through the heart of an African city.
I like to get a sense of the shape of a new town or city or resort when I first arrive. I like to know where north is and how far it is to south. I build a rudimentary map in my mind and take pains to track my place in it while I’m there. I found this impossible in Lusaka. There seemed, at least to me, to be no logic to the layout of the city. Private compounds, like the one we were staying in, sprung out of the ground along the more rural roads and the city centre, such as it was, seemed surrounded by slums. The suburbs and villages composed of open-fronted homes, each with a small table of wares out front, ntembe – often no more than five or six bananas or a single sack of charcoal – these were the lucky ones – the affluent Zambians. Their homes were single-storey and built with the hands of the occupants, literally out of the earth on which they stood. Few had running water but stand-pipes were dotted at regular intervals and all of the homes had roofs and the obligatory old lady sweeping at the dust with a broom of twigs. I wondered at the effectiveness of this operation when the house was made of dust. Dust was everywhere. We had only been in Zambia for a day but dust had found its way into every crevice. It is symbolic to sweep a house and I was minded of the old man over the road from me who will sweep the snow from his drive in the middle of a blizzard. People feel a sense of ownership when they clean, even if they’re only moving the dust around. Our guide told us that this was a good place to live.
On our way out of the city he drove us through George compound, the largest of Zambia’s slums and home to over 70,000 people. Drooping webs of electric cables that fanned out across the low tin roofs suggested mains power, but this, we were told, was a bit misleading: the power comes on for two hours a day and even then dips in and out. It is a national disgrace, we were told. And the contrast between here and some of the places we had passed in the city centre was stark. The courthouse, an English redbrick structure that would not have been out of place in our school grounds, stood back from a high metal fence and in the middle of thick green lawns. It was a symbol of empire in its day and I cringed as we passed it.
Every First-World nation, it seems, has a stake in this place: the British had erected the courthouse when the country was part of the empire and known as Northern Rhodesia; in more modern times the Americans had pumped in money and huge billboards announced the contribution of “THE AMERICAN PEOPLE” to this traffic island or that lamppost. The Chinese have built a lot of the roads and subtle industrial estates dot the outskirts of the city. The Chinese, they say, don’t mix with the locals. They’ve put in the mobile network, too and great white towers of steel punctuate the landscape – it is a largely flat country and the network coverage spreads far and wide. The remotest villages, seven hours’ drive into the brush, had a better signal than a lot of the hills that I walk back home. Few Zambians have running water in their homes or stable electric; there’s no mains gas and the idea of a landline is laudable in such remote country – but most of them have mobile phones. For this reason, among the dusty homes of the compounds and the straw-roofed huts of the villages, have appeared plastic booths advertising and selling phone credit.
As we neared the centre of Lusaka the roads were as busy with people on foot as much as they were with cars. Back home it would seem like some sort of demonstration or civil unrest. Suddenly, our prime spot on the flatbed of the pickup seemed a lot more exposed and vulnerable as the locals leaned in and sold their wares: fruit, beads and… phone credit.
The sodium arc sparks up at around 9.40 these nights. It glows baby pink for a while before the pumpkin orange kicks in. We’re only a couple of weeks from midsummer and I don’t want to wish the season away, but it’s on the turn. It won’t be long before the plastic flaps of the circle are drawn in and tightened up. It gets more difficult to push out of the bubble when it’s colder, when the weather pushes back.
But it’s never a clear line that divides the seasons here. There’s a lot of grey between the slim cracks of blue. In Metz someone at the bar would pass comment that tomorrow was spring and hey presto! Next day the sun was out and the daffodils pushing. Or someone else would mention that the next day was the start of winter and on cue, first thing next morning, there’d be snow in the air. I loved France for that. The French shrugged it away because they didn’t know any difference. In Africa it was even more extreme, except that no-one seemed even to notice. We noticed as we shivered at night beneath the canvas. The dark fell swiftly and once that big ball began to turn orange it was a scamper to get to where you were going: it was a heavy cloak that descended and with the light went the heat. The kids at the village school turned up before the 7.30 sunrise dressed in second-hand parkas and scarves; layers that were shed as the day wore on and the temperature nudged thirty.
But we’re not quite in Mwandi yet, in fact I don’t think we’ve left the airport…
Africa Notes 3 – Johannesburg – Lusaka
It would be quite easy to think of Africans as lazy.
I did.It’s one of those stereotypes that people on my island tend to hold and when you’re born into that sort of attitude it sticks and becomes fact. There are so many examples of it. I could talk about my grandparents’ and parents’ attitudes to homosexuality; to gender fluidity; to immigration and even the role of women. Ideas are set and fixed and handed down from generation to generation and rarely questioned. This is a problem generally because when stereotypes are not held up for scrutiny – when they are regarded as fact, they become rooted and as substantial as the concrete we stand on.
I suppose that stereotypes are born of nervous insecurity and the unwillingness to step outside of what’s accepted and see things from a different angle. It is easy to see why people see Africans as lazy – but that is when they are being judged by standards of a different world. It is like comparing apples with pears or the present day to Victorian times.
It is very different here. There are lots of people and it’s the first time that I have been in a country where the white man is in the minority. I was the outsider and in our circles that’s quite a rare thing. I must expand on what I mean when I say that there are lots of people. It is not as simple as I have made it sound; I mean, it’s an airport; it’s going to be busy and it was in that sense: very busy. But it was busy with staff, too. Often there were more staff than customers and for the most part there was not nearly enough work for them all to do. On the apron were hundreds of men in hi-vis jackets, just hanging around and seemingly waiting to be told what to do or quite happy to be doing nothing. It made a lot of the people that I would pass on the streets of Africa look lazy, and bored.
But what I would later find out is that I was making the mistake of judging this place by the standards that I was used to. I was in O.Tambo airport in Johannesburg and had been in the country for less that hour: already I had made up my mind about its people. What I was to later find out was that Africa cannot be compared to the western world, just in the same way that French and Mandarin are not simply other ways to speak English. Labour here is so cheap that ten men can be employed for what it would cost a single employee in the UK. There is no welfare state that can be compared to back home and employment is rudimentary and very basic. Two weeks into the trip, in Livingstone centre, I would walk into a phone shop to buy credit and a door would be held open for me as I entered. Another staff member would be at the door greeting me and five smiling faces peered from behind the counter. There were no customers apart from me. As I picked out the nearest cashier and made towards it I was politely ushered towards a queuing system where yet another smiling face pushed a button and handed me a ticket. I took the ticket and stood in line (there were no other customers) and waited awkwardly for my number to come up while all eight members of staff watched the crazy white man and smiled. My Vodaphone shop in the UK has one member of staff on duty, maybe two on a Saturday and I can sail through Asda, do my weekly shop and never speak to or interact with another soul. We might think we’re clever in doing it our way but I think that by pointing everything towards saving money and saving time, we’re missing out. I realised that we were the fools.
The flight crew on the two hour hop from Johannesburg to Zambia’s capital Lusaka was manned by an all-female crew. It was another stereotype broken in what I thought was a patriarchal system. I would come to know that that it was the women in these countries the ruled the roost and the men who were put in their place. I would come to fall in love with every one of the women that I met here.
If Johannesburg’s O.Tambo had been an eye-opener, Lusaka was on a different level. The international airport has the air of a 1970s school gymnasium that has been repurposed for the role. Stud-wall partitions separate booths into separate shops and all of them are hawking either cloth or phone credit. The arrivals gate is a desk with a laptop and a set of French doors that are meant to be automatic but are constantly juddered open and shut by a guard in military uniform, rifle slung over his shoulder. As he puts his weight to open the door the rifle invariably slips and I wonder vaguely whether the safety is on like it would have to be at home – and then I realise that I’m doing it again….
I could make it through those barriers, I think to myself. I could make it through security and into the country without anyone being able to stop me. The security is lax, the walls are paper-thin and there’s no passport check. If I wanted to … and then I realised that there had probably never been the issue of people trying to force their way into this country. It made me a little sad, this thought, and I wondered what we were in for in a country that didn’t lock its doors.
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.
It seems impossible to me now, as I walk through the mizzle and along a little lane slick with damp and chilly in the morning air, that exactly a year ago today I was on my way to the deepest heart of Africa… it was the biggest effort to date that I had made in breaking out of the bubble; getting away from the revolving plastic circles of this island and find some real wilderness. I wanted to be the foreigner and I wanted to be a little bit lost and a long way from home. I wanted to think of these damp fields that were wetting my boots this morning and miss the ordinary and the every day. Maybe, if I was lucky, the rabbits and squirrels and deer would for a short time be monkeys and elephants and lions.
I’m sharing my Africa Notes over the next few weeks as I polish them up and remember the adventure…
People like me aren’t meant to do this sort of thing. I wonder how it came to pass that the boy from Northfield wound up here on this executive liner heading down the M40 for Heathrow and a flight to deepest, darkest Africa. Zambia, to be precise.
I am travelling with a group of highly intelligent teenagers from very wealthy families that spring from all around the UK and as far away as Hong Kong and mainland China. Also on the bus are three highly qualified and very confident teachers who are taking it all in their stride while I sit and stare wide-eyed out of the window as England passes by as though I’d never left my little land-locked suburb in my life. I have to remind myself that I’m one of them – one of these highly-qualified teachers; that somewhere between now and when I last looked I managed to put myself through university, twice, and land myself in a fine private school that is so far away from the world I grew up in that I keep my head down in case they find me out and realise that they’ve maybe made a mistake.
The bigger irony is that they’ll look up to me because I’ve got this thing that makes it look like I know what I’m doing even when my heart is hammering and I’m sure that it’s all a mistake. These kids had travelled to every continent before they’d reached their tenth birthday and are unfazed as we tumble into the departure lounge and go through the rigmarole of checking in and staying together. We’ve got caps in the school colours (my idea) and it’s easy to spot our team – I remember thinking how humiliating it would be to lose someone here and not even board the plane.
But this was the opportunity to shake off all of the usual weights and stringencies and leave them behind with the English rainclouds. I would not think about the girls. It was too early for that and the walk into school that morning had taken it out of me, knowing that I wouldn’t see them for 21 days. We were heading south – the southest I had ever been by a long stretch and a very long way from home in many senses of the term. It’s possible to go further, the west coast of America, maybe, or Australia, and feel closer to home than Africa.
I was heading into the heart of darkness, into the unknown, into a land of savages and disease and animals that were waiting for my blood. As we boarded the plane for Johannesburg I already wanted to go home.
So, you made it out – well done. This is the edge. It’s the only place to be.
The air takes a little getting used to but it’s ok to breathe, in fact breathing is heartily recommended. Move away from the road a little and take a deep breath. Don’t look back – you’ll be sucked in soon enough – look forward. What’s there – have you ever really looked before? Which way to go? Forget the normal rules: they don’t apply here. Your feet are allowed to leave the tarmac and distant views aren’t just for looking at now through the blur of a car window but for discovering…
I always try to find a new path, or at least a new bit of a field or a wood that I’ve never walked before, and I try to do that every day. It gets tricky as the weeks and months rattle on but that’s a good thing because it means you have to look further and push out into the unknown. It is incredible how many of the secret ways that criss-cross our daily lives remain largely undiscovered. It is the will that takes us t these places as much as the legs. Try to remember that the nettles are there to do a job but they can be pushed aside if the way you want to take lies beyond them. Don’t think of it as a sting, think of it as a tingle – I tell my girls that it’s stingle. It’s the feeling that your brain’s telling you should hurt but at the same time realises that the man who never felt pain never felt anything.
This morning, and this is typical, I did this: Up at 5.55 and out by 6. Remember: a pair of shorts, a t-shirt and some decent shoes. That’s it. The stick is optional but I always take one for pushing back nettles and testing boggy ground. Maybe for warding off unfriendly dogs, too, though I’ve never had to use it for this. The sodium-arc light outside my house glows orange but shut down an hour or so ago. I know it won’t be long before I catch it again, in the long mornings where maybe I won’t be able to take the same route over the fields.
It’s too early for the dog-walkers so I’m not lured into the loop and I cut through the little alley and scuttle across the road. It’s busy again now: the lockdown has faded and things are back as they were and we’ll probably never see it again like it was for those strange few months when we could sit in the middle of that road (if we wanted to) or saunter along the central white line and push down the cats-eyes. It’s a long way from that now: the national speed limit means that they can go pretty fast and the lorries push the air about so that it takes your breath when they pass.
We’ve had rain for a few days and the ground is sodden so I’ll stick to the track that runs through the field. The proper footpath is to the left but with the wheat up at knee-height I’ll have wet socks before I’m five minutes in. The farmer won’t be up yet and I’ll be through the gap in the hedgerow soon and onto the golf course without any harm, though with the rain I will have to check the ground – it gets marshy here and there’s talk that he’s going to flood the little valley to create fish ponds. I poke at the ground with the stick. The grass is as happy and green under the water as out of it. The water’s so clear that there seems to be little difference.
There is a natural dip in the centre of the field where the water runs after rain. A culvert lies underneath from the village at the top where the spring rises but the run-off from the field takes the overland route. It’s like a huge book, this field, and the central dip is the spine. The heavy pages lol in graceful arcs on either side and to paint the picture for you a little better, I came in at the bottom-left hand side. I’ll cross the spine and disappear bottom-right. But I won’t be far. I’ll skirt the edge of the open book field on the golf course track and keep my feet dryer. the rows of wheat are like lines on the page and they tell they story of every day.
There’s some artificial grace to a golf course that I both abhor and admire. It’s a playground of the wealthy and they look with contempt at anyone not wearing polka-dot socks tucked into expensive cotton trouser cuffs. Always a tank-top that doesn’t match and fine leather gloves – or if they really fancy themselves: a single glove. They strut up and down the fairways as if they own the place – which, on some level they do, and they look at people like me as if I’m about to nick the flag. I have been tempted to nick a ball or two after it has been driven down the ground, or kick it in to the rough but I find that I don’t care enough to do that.
It’s too early for golfers and the action up here now as I rise with the swell of the land is the groundsman and the gentle whirr of the tractor he glides about in, preening the greens and checking that the flags haven’t been nicked. He’s friendly enough, though I shouldn’t really be on here, and he’ll give me a wave. It is enough. I don’t want conversation. I don’t think that I could muster it at this hour and am content with my own company.
I have heard the distinct call of a peacock somewhere across the course, though I’ve never seen it. It could be deer shouting but I don’t think so. There are deer, though. Last week I poked out in to the field and walked across the ridge for the better view and there out of the middle of the wheat poked the glorious shoulders and head of a roe stag. It is usually the startled behind that I see bounding off into the safety of the trees but this one stood his ground and eyed me as I passed, his three-pronged antlers skyward and his eyes never wavering as his ears twisted and turned for best advantage. It is the rutting season and I suspect that I was standing between him and his girl. It was one of those rare occasions where I had the mind to take out the phone and grab a couple of shots. From the angle, right up along the right-hand edge of the open book I could see the way that I had come and got the picture I wanted with my own tiny home, where my girls were still sleeping, captured between those antlers.
I had not walked far, yet I had walked out of the bubble and though I could see it shimmering grey and fast below me, I knew that it didn’t see me, nor care about me. I had found the gap between the circles, and it really wasn’t hard. I was satisfied and pocketed the phone with a deep sigh of simple contentment. One of those moments that you wish someone else had been there to see also, maybe.
The rabbits that darted in surprise as I made my way along the rest of the path were small beer now, though I counted thirty before I gave up and gave my attention to dividing the nettles with my stick so that I could pass. I startled a tiny rabbit last week. It knew that there was a need to panic because all of the others were running this way and that but clearly had no sense what the danger was because it ran right at me, thudded into the side of my boot and then hopped away a little dazed to join the others. A fox was down on its haunches ready to launch an attack on another unsuspecting bunny when I arrived and did for his element of surprise.
By this time I had reached the village and it was time to step back onto the black-top and follow the lane back down to where I had started. It had been shut for the whole of the lockdown for gas-works which meant that, while the cars couldn’t get through, walkers like me could. What had been another little artery serving the town was quickly absorbed back into the wilderness for a while and pheasants roosted on the ground, deer skittered without alarm and I sauntered along the middle as though it was my own paved footpath.
I tapped my stick to the morning rhythm as I walked and I smiled because I knew that most people hadn’t even woken up yet and would never know what I had already known today.