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 is l’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.