Normally right now I’d be tripping over suitcases in the hallway and rooting out passports. There’d be the aroma of sun-cream and new clothes in the air and we’d be preparing to join the airport conga and the hordes of sweaty holiday-makers heading for the sun.
Corona has put paid to that this year: we can’t risk getting stuck out there; getting ill or having to quarantine afterwards. For the first time in a long time we’ll be staying on this island and heading out to the mountains instead.
Even though we’re not going nearly a far there’ll be a much greater distance between us and the bubble for a few days. At the airport, at the Spanish resort, there’s little space to breathe: the edge is there but it’s thin and the window of opportunity brief. But for the next seven days the edge is going to be broad and will stretch as far and wide as the eye can see. We’ll do our best to skirt the bubbles and breathe the fresh air and I will capture it as much as I can and keep on posting. It will not be days by the pool or nights at the bar but craggy moorland and long empty beaches; it will be walks in misty valleys and climbs to remote mountain peaks. If I can fill myself enough with it I will have plenty to keep me going as the autumn approaches and the world of work and responsibilities slowly encroaches back into the daily routine.
When I next write I will be looking out at the sea and for an Inlander like me, that’s a big deal.
It’s the days when you don’t have to that are the toughest; the days when there’s no rush, or even need, to get out of bed at the crack of dawn that take the most resolve. The radio comes on lulls you into the security of the regular rhythms of the morning; hypnotises with the soothing voices of presenters. The bed is warm and hill behind the house steep and open and it would be so much easier to…
Those are the days to not think too much. To simply do. To tiptoe downstairs quietly pull on the kit that you’ve left ready: It’s simple, remember: shorts, t-shirt, a decent pair of boots. Grab the hat and pole, close the door quietly and that’s it: before you know it, you’ve ducked out of the world where so much seems to matter and are breathing the fresher air of another one.
I didn’t need to get out of bed this morning; I didn’t have any urgent agenda and expected to see nothing more than a couple of dozen rabbits, maybe a deer. I’d hear the cries of birds that I couldn’t identify and feel the fain suggestion of autumn on the breeze. It was enough: it’s always enough. There is no such thing as ordinary if you look closely enough.
Next week I will be writing from the mountains of Wales. I will take you there if you care to follow. At this time of year it’s usually the sweaty morning streets of some Mediterranean island that I capture in my walks, but this year is different. You know what I mean. It will be spectacular, though, because I will be there to see it.
This time last year it was on a whole different continent that I was walking…
9. Victoria Falls
I love the way that they credit David Livingstone with discovering Victoria Falls. It’s like the locals, who had lived there for millennia hadn’t noticed they were there. It’s such a comical image that I have in my head that makes a mockery of such a depressing story of colonial power and the taming of the savage. The white man turns up and points out this natural wonder and all the locals are “Well shit. I never noticed that before. Guys, did you ever see that before?”
I get it. But it needs a sub-note because it’s just rude. They even named the town after him and the falls took the name of the head of the empire.
By all accounts there were men a lot worse than Dr Livingstone and the point of crediting him with the falls was that he brought them to the attention of the white man back in the emerging Western World. It was all about the bragging rights – just like the space-race and even the hunt for a Corona Vaccine has become today. Australia was originally New Holland, but then it wasn’t originally that at all – it had multiple names that the indigenous people, who had no cares for such land-grabbing or obsessions for planting flags and claiming territory. Victoria Falls, before it was owned by the empire, was Mosi-oa-Tunya: ‘The Smoke That Thunders’. There’s something a little more honest in that.
Even in the dry season it thunders and spray rises like smoke from the depths of the gorge that the ceaseless pounding of water has carved out over the years. Unlike the motorway near home but much like the elephants that ran through the campsite a few days before, it was a welcome trembling of the earth that we could feel through our feet long before we wound through the paths that led through the trees to the edge of the ravine.
For reasons that we were later to discover, the area surrounding the falls was teeming with human activity. Police, army, security, suited men and glamorous women, flash cars and groups of men hanging off the back of pick-up trucks. A helicopter circled and there was evidently more wealth and influence centred here in this tiny corner of the country than we had seen during the entirety of the trip so far. Except for road-side checks on our travels we hadn’t seen a single police car – and even these were mostly just local men in hi-viz vests and Police scrawled crookedly on the back. In the mayhem of rush-hour Lusaka there had been no police presence. We knew why: they were all here.
A surreal scene greeted us as we pulled up. The group had travelled in two taxi-buses, ours behind, so that as we stopped the other group was milling about by the roadside. It all happened so quickly that afterwards I could not be sure that it was as I remembered it, but we all saw it the saw it the same. We saw one of our group standing and adjusting the lens of her camera, she was approached by a muscled, hulking neanderthal of a man; the teeth yellow fangs, the snout drawn back and knuckles dragging almost along the dust. Only, it wasn’t this at all but a baboon, upright and in search of food. It happened like this: it walked up behind her and put a hand on her shoulder, then made a grab for the camera. We saw all this slow and had no time to react, but for the girl it must have been a shock to think that your mugger was a mere human, then to look straight into the eyes of this most ugly and fearsome of primates. She screamed, the baboon screamed, we all held our breath. She pulled the camera back instinctively, the baboon pulled harder. Then from out of the crowds of people at the gates a soldier in full uniform brandishing an automatic machine gun ran towards the girl, the baboon, the confrontation.
“Oh my god.” I was thinking “He’s going to shoot the baboon right here in the street.”
We had been told that food of any description was banned at the falls; that the monkeys were aggressive and very dangerous. We had complied but hadn’t thought that they were dangerous enough to warrant armed guards. As it turned out, the guard was there for the same reason as all the rest of the cavalcade and just happened to see what was going on. It turned out that this baboon knew what a machine gun was and soon scarpered. Through it all a zebra munched the grass by the side of our bus and urinated as we disembarked to join the rest of the group.
The Zambian president was due to visit the falls with his counterpart from Kenya; that was what all the fuss and fanfare were about and no sooner had we joined the rest of the group and checked that the girls was ok that even more police turned up, even more pick-up trucks and this time with the men on the bed hooting and firing pistols. We presumed in support: Edgar Lungu is a popular figure here and in my experience locals tend to want to make a good impression.
Once the two men had walked down to the falls and signed the visitors’ book, then gone on the customary walkabout of the marketplace and craft stalls, the entourage reloaded the many, many vehicles and departed, it was our turn to pass through the gates. To pass by the famous statue of Dr Livingstone surveying his find and through the trees to the cliff-edge and to look across the abyss carved by the endless pounding of water and seemingly endless Victoria Falls.
It is rare that a sight actually takes the breath, but standing there in the presence of this I was speechless. My mouth was filled with the cool blast and my clothes immediately damp from the spray. My heart, I think, paused briefly to let it all sink in. This was the dry season and rain had been lacking for the past two winters. I wondered at the power that must tumble over those falls after a month of rain. I didn’t want to leave. I regret still that I didn’t plant myself there and refuse ever to move. I understood in an instant why Dr Livingstone had been so keen to claim this place as his own.
The monkeys and baboons do so well, I supposed, because the people simply stand and gape and make easy pickings. We had no food but almost lost an ipod and two bottles of water as we stood there, awestruck.
Funny how it works out like that. I woke this morning for the Early Walk Along The Edge and there at the bottom of the lane, congested like a blocked nose, alien craft had landed and stood poised on the tarmac, ready to scrape and scratch and relay. It is a very old road, the road that runs up through the foothills at the back of the house, it was about to become newer than my haircut. A smooth new blacktop will make it a calliope of a ride from the top once they’re out of the way, I just wonder how it will affect the winter traffic: there will be no potholes to slow them down as they approach the junction.
Back to the river at the other end of the county and an illustration of the paucity of bridges along our greatest stretch of water. A walk along the banks of the Severn in summer is unrivalled and a spot of rain from time to time is a blessing as it sends the fair-weather ramblers scuttling in their clean boots for the plastic bubbles of their cars. (It’s not like they actually intended to use those £200 waterproofs.) Even when it rains in the Worcestershire summer it’s never chilly and the shower soon dries off. This is the story that I tell to the girls before we set off – the two little ones and the older one; their mother. I tell them to put on their shorts because legs dry quicker than trousers. We visit the outdoor shop and my desire to hike with them costs me a fortune, but is worth it all when I see us all kitted, kaboodled and ready to roll along the riverbank.
When walking with the wife and kids, in my experience, it’s always a good idea to keep information to a minimum. Like a long journey in the car it’s always worth offering little encouragements of, let’s say, twenty minutes. Kids can compute that amount of time and it gives them a time-scale to take ownership of. For the wife it’s an episode of Neighbours, she can cope with that. Keep it simple:
How long’s left, daddy?
Twenty minutes, princess.
Of course this wears thin after a while so there’s some improv needed and I suggest supplementary titbits, such as:
But daddy, how long now?
Twenty minutes, princess. Ooh look – did you see that heron/fish/boat/squirrel/plane…?
It requires some strategy. You don’t want to be pulling out the Haribo’s or Dairy Milk too soon, and before you know it you’re passing the Victoria Bridge and someone’s waving from the other side. That’s the picnic spot and the footbridge over the water is just ahead. From that point it’s all walk home. Well, that’s what you tell them: the relief of a sit-down has its limits. It’s soon time to be back on the route.
Just as they were flagging, the river had disappeared behind fields for a while and we still had a mile or so to go; just as I thought we might not actually make it back before a mutiny, (the girls had grouped together and were plotting my destruction, I felt it). Long after the sweets had run out and no one wanted to hold my hand any more, a rustle and burst from the woods to the side as a family of fallow deer trotted onto the track, paused to regard us a while, then sprinted off into the trees. Suddenly all pain, all hunger, all desire to be on a sofa in front of the telly were gone. Right on cue she had turned up again.
We always talk of rivers as old. We personify them as immortal princesses or indomitable kings; we make songs about them which become legends of a misty past; we let them meander through stories and folktales. The rivers are always simply there. And very old.
I have watched the sun rise above the Zambezi as the river plummets over Victoria Falls and been soaked on the Maid of the Mist at Niagara; I’ve cruised on the Seine and paddled in the Thames; I’ve straddled the Severn up by its source and canoed in the Wye at Symmond’s Yat. These are truly majestic beasts of the natural world. For Inlanders like us it’s the same as being at the seaside.
I’m sitting next to the Severn now. It’s breath-taking in the summer twilight and swelled a little by yesterday’s rain in foreign mountains. Six months ago I was here to witness for myself the swell that had burst the banks again and broken new records and I heard the locals talk about the river as neither a princess or a king, but a grumpy old man. For some, as they piled ruined furniture on the wheelie bins out front and stowed sodden picture frames on the landing, it was worse than grumpy: it was plain evil. Another example of the indifferent mercilessness of nature. Today it’s so shallow that I can see the gravel bed through the running water and it seems impossibly far below our trailing feet; improbable that so much space could be filled by so much water could come rushing through the valley and cause such mayhem. To illustrate my point a heron has waded out almost to the middle of the river in search of a meal – he’s only up to his knees.
People live on the edge here. Increasingly so, though you wouldn’t know it to be standing here right now. The kids toss in twigs to race and if the sun’s up tomorrow I’ll let them dip their toes a little. We’re not far from home – same county, actually, but there’s an edge here that that maybe only Inlanders can feel about a river. It’s what the rest of them think about the sea: a frontier; the closing off of one world and the opening of another.
We’re on the far side of the river and if something happens to the little bridge in the town we’re twenty miles either way from the nearest village. Over our shoulder the forest breathes like a single entity and I know that the darkness of its depths stretches as far as the Welsh border. After that no one can really be sure.
I’m thinking about how old the river is. How old any river really is.
What is the river? Think about it. If it’s the water then the vast majority of this water was rained out only a few hours ago. It’s fresher that the milk I’ll put in my latte in a few minutes. It’s not old: this river is the newest thing this town has ever seen, and it sees it all day long. So what’s old, then? The gravel and rocks at the bottom? Maybe, but they’re always on the move, too – and most of the time we don’t see them. So the trees that line the banks of the river from the Hafren forest to the Bristol Channel? Maybe. But then we’re not talking about the river any more…
We wouldn’t insist on legions of Roman soldiers before a road can be called Roman and we don’t wait for horse-drawn carriages before a route is known as old. All of these roads get their resurface: layer over layer of time and history and the river goes one further with a complete rehaul every few minutes. The river, they say, holds no memories. So how are they old?
It’s the something that’s always been there that we call old. For good or evil it just has been there. A route, a barrier, a threat, a ride. But it’s not old, this old river. Like an old hurt. The hurt’s aren’t old if we hold onto them today: only the reasons for holding on to them are old.
It will be the first time in a while that we haven’t been abroad for a summer holiday in the sun. This would usually be the time for shopping, checking suitcases, thinking about suncream and what to do with the dog. A busy time, not unlike the stresses of Christmas. I won’t miss it for a year. I won’t miss the airport and the midnight transfer at the other end.
We’ll take a drive up to Wales, stop by at Cracker Ridge on the way to the sea and land ourselves softly in a cottage that’s a world removed from the all inclusive by the pool, but will in itself provide the adventures that a break from the routine of work needs to provide.
I, for one, am immensely looking forward to being back in that part of the world. There’s some weird sort of calling that I get which pulls me back there regularly and it shows no sign of diminishing. Wherever I am in the world, it is always to here that I am drawn first in my mind. The fields of home; the familiar streets of the town are secondary to the big sky and craggy walls of mountain. Even the clouds that loom like a frown over the peaks are inspiring in their ominousness and I breathe in the bigger power when I’m there.
My Autumn notes will cover the details of the early years down at the bay and in the mountains. It is worth looking out for as the nights draw in because it tells a story from a different side of the life that a youth of the city is meant to lead. The coin tipped up and I slip off. Found myself groping for a foothold and somehow ended up here. It’s about the journey, of course: it’s always about the journey.
Today, as I prepare for a trip to the edges, I return to Africa and this day a twelvemonth back: I was in Livingstone, Zambia.
From time to time there were thick, full branches laid on the side of the road at intervals of a hundred or so yards. They served as the warning triangles that we had back home and there was, invariably, further up the road a broken-down antique of a truck or a spillage of some sort. These roads didn’t have the polished fancy signs and flashing lights of back home, but they had their signs and codes. They weren’t written in any book or sanctioned by government departments but were as important to know as the functions of the pedals and the gear stick.
Rush hour in Lusaka a couple of days before was little more than a battle of wills and a war of attrition: a masterclass in avoiding eye-contact and leaning on the horn. It was nothing personal and no-one was angry, but for twenty or thirty minutes we were in the centre of an improbable tangle of cars and pickups and lorries and minibus taxis at a junction that had no lines or lights or right of way. Millimetre by millimetre we nudged forward in the stinking heat of the city, each of us scraping through the melee somehow without touching, most of the vehicles crammed with people, most of the people leaning out of the windows and offering advice. At one point two men appeared and commenced directing the traffic, as though had grown bored watching the mess, but they were largely ignored and merely oversaw the inevitable unknotting of the tangle.
It was what we were heading back to. Four days on safari; four sunsets from the deck over the river at Croc Valley; four days without the noise and smoke of the city. Another eleven hours on the bus lay ahead of us; another night on the edge of the city and then eight hours west to Livingstone.
I looked less at the road on the journey from Kakumbi to Lusaka. I let my eyes wander further, across the little villages and the herds of goats that might have been wild but were probably just very free-range, and to the wild plains and brush that lay beyond. There are no decent maps of Zambia and life gathers around the roads. Areas the size of England were left wild and only the imagination could tell what might have lurked there, what went on, how I would fare if I was dropped there. From time to time black hills rose out of the brush and were crowned with white cloud, and sometimes the hills looked perfectly formed, like pyramids from a forgotten civilisation.
At Lusaka the kids sated their craving for tiled floors and neon lights. We ate Pizza and drank lemonade and at the campsite played pool in a thatched club house and camped in a field of elk.
And then a different road. This was the road to Livingstone and the Zimbabwe border. It was a well-used road but no better serviced for that. Trucks loaded with Zambian copper headed to the border, heavy with the precious metal that never stayed long in the country but was bound, apparently, for China. Zambia was rich in natural resources, I was told. I wondered if the people on George Compound knew this.
We were heading for Livingstone, the country’s second city named after the British explorer made famous for his discovery of Victoria Falls and his rejection of the attitudes of his time towards the African people. He lived with and loved these people and many times depended upon them for his very survival. I wonder how many of the white supremacists did actually come out to places like this and meet the people; speak to them and hear their stories. It is so much easier to dismiss and dehumanise a people that is nothing more than a commodity or obstacle.
I was much more of a fan of Livingtone that I was of Lusaka. This town (its population was a little less than Hereford) was geared to the outside world and, unlike Lusaka offered a whole different welcome to the visitor – like pavements and hanging baskets and little piazzas with coffee shops and bookstalls. A white woman walked alone along the main road into the city and and no one crowded the bus when we paused in traffic. An armed policeman patrolled the toilets and hawkers were banned from the shopping centre carpark.
As the group piled into Shoprite for supplies I was drawn to the edge of the carpark by a man about my age who, like they all do, wanted to be my best friend, wanted to know my name and where I was from.
“I have some magic” he said, looking round furtively for the guard. “I have magic for you, but we have to step out of the mall.” It was the sort of scenario we had been warned about and lectured the kids on endlessly. I would be lured down the road, stabbed in the chest in the middle of the day and robbed of by dollars and Stirling. And yet I followed. We all like to be beckoned, don’t we? Just like we like magic… Drugs? I thought. Some special mushroom? Phone credit?
At the edge of the carpark, just outside the gates and opposite the Fawlty Towers bunk house he opened his jacket and took out a fistful of pendants: shaped and polished stones on leather cord. The same sort of trinket that we had seen on every street corner of every town that we had passed through. I had walked this far so asked him what it was. If I was going to give him some of my money I wanted him to work for it.
“NyamiNyami,” he said. “Spirit of the river.” The story was of a giant snake-like creature that lived in the Zambezi river and from time to time dragged people into the depths and devoured them. The NyamiNyami was a river spirit that protected the wearer from this creature and (though I doubted this) everybody wears one. “Ten dollars. Good price.” I took two for $5 and slipped one over my neck, just in case. The river was only a mile away…
The ground didn’t feel so hard beneath our sleeping bags here in Livingstone and the dust a little more under control. On the outside the town gave off a sense of its own identity and a feeling of control. The shops had windows and the café had wi-fi and lattes. But on the edge of the town the roads returned to dust and the markets huddled together in between the single-storey houses. Here, unlike in the town centre, where the locals didn’t drink in the café or shop in the jeweller’s, the people stared, no doubt wondering why we had chosen to visit this part of town.
We were on our way to the town’s orphanage, to see where kids were taken off the streets and given a chance of an education and a future. It was simple opportunity and a little bit of love – that’s all they needed and my heart broke as we peered into their bedrooms and saw the Disney bedsheets and the little Pixar backpacks: the same dreams… We played football and I donned the Zambia shirt that I had bought at the market. The home team won and the children laughed. I smiled and I don’t think I have really stopped smiling since.
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.