Notes from The Edge 18 – Africa 10

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.   

Notes from The Edge 14 – Riverside

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. 

Notes from The Edge 13 – Riverside

The river, they say, holds no memories.

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.