Saturday, July 24, 2004

Abnormal Load

The sun was rising over the lowveld savannah. We walked in single file, silently, and the jackals called to one another on either side, announcing our presence. The zebras were barking and we heard the roar of a lion on the horizon. Our guide, Jumbo, told us that if a lion charged us - and we were lead to believe that this was a relatively common occurence - the only thing to do was to stare it down. And hopefully the cocking of Jumbo's rifle would be enough to scare it off. If you lost your nerve and started running, he said, the lion would take you for prey and you wouldn't stand a chance. This didn't help my nervousness about being hopelessly outmatched as a species in the African wilderness, but the sunrise alone was enough to make me happy to be there.

As it turned out no lions charged us, nor did any rhinos or elephants. Jumbo, a hulking, scarred Afrikaner with a mustache and leather knee-boots and a Winchester - exactly what you'd expect of a safari guide - was quite nonchalant about the possible or even likely interventions of those animals, but what really got him excited was when we saw an otter in a small stream. It was splashing around behind the reeds and Jumbo motioned with a tracker's gesture for us to stay still and be quiet as he crept up on it, possibly thinking it was a lone crazed hippo or a croc or buffalo or worse. When he saw that it was an otter he exclaimed its name so joyfully that I didn't understand what he had said, until I saw it for myself. He said they were extremely shy and rare, but I don't know whether that's true or whether he was just trying to console us for not being charged by any fierce beasts. In any case, had we been charged by a lion, I would have followed Alison's father's advice. I wouldn't have argued with him, I would have paid what he asked.

That was in Kruger National Park, where Alison, my travelling friend, and I spent three nights. We did see some lions in the end, two, as well as elephants, giraffes, lots of hippos, zebras, warthogs, wildebeest, jackals, hyenas, colourful birds, and enough impalas to last a good long while, both the lively variety in the wild and the slow-grilled variety in the restaurant at Skukuza. Since then we have returned to Jo'burg, flown to Port Elizabeth on the south coast, walked on one of the most magnificent beaches I've ever seen, been pushed around by elephants as we tried to feed them apples and carrots, and driven through rainstorms in the desert to get to Cape Town, definitely a candidate for the most naturally beautiful city in my experience. We're staying with Alison's family in a lovely tree-lined and well-fortified neighbourhood (locks and alarms on everything) called Constantia, but right now we're in a cool area called Observatory that reminds me a bit of an African Mile-End or Fort Greene. So far, despite all the warnings and pervasive paranoia, absolutely nothing bad has happened to me in this country except dead batteries and a small incident involving a traffic violation and a little bribery which I'm sure will make for a good story.

On the (left side of the) road in our rented wheels, we keep passing signs saying "High Accident Zone" (seems to be the whole country) and trucks hauling equipment labelled "Abnormal Load". Feeling a little abnormal ourselves in some respects, we have adopted the phrase as a motto, in the hope that the "High Accident Zone" slogan will not become the more appropriate one.

This is a short entry, because it's so hard to catch up on email and because I have to go - we're seeing Alison's Dad in a production of Antigone tonight - but I'll be back and I'll keep you updated at this site on my activities during this period of worldwide flux.


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