THE CALL OF HOME

John exhaled slowly, lowered his camera and thoughtfully watched the large herd of elephants. His patience had been rewarded at last: the herd had gradually moved towards the road and parted, giving him an opportunity to photograph the enormous bull sporting a magnificent pair of tusks. He watched the darkening clouds blot out the late afternoon sun and accelerated slightly as he headed towards the rest camp: a beer would taste good while he got a small braai fire going and downloaded his photographs to his laptop.

Frith glanced anxiously up at the darkening sky too and quickened her step along with the rest of the party on a guided walk through the forested area of the game park. Their guide, with a rifle slung across his back, jovially assured them they would be back at the camp long before any rain fell. Unconvinced, given the rising wind that susurrated through the trees, the group walked on in silence, stopping only when their guide pointed out interesting trees, birds, fungi or insects along the way. Frith listened to their footsteps crunch on the gravelly path and reflected on the play of the late afternoon light on their surroundings whenever the clouds parted for a moment. A mug of tea would taste good after this exercise, she thought wistfully as she popped a peppermint into her dry mouth.

Having showered and changed into fresh clothes, Frith approached her pale blue domed tent with a sense of satisfaction even though she hadn’t met anyone particularly interesting on the walk. She appeared to have been the only obviously unattached person in the group, yet the experience of walking in the forest and seeing so many interesting things had left her feeling fulfilled. Despite of the threat of rain, she was already looking forward to her early morning drive through the grasslands. Frith ran her eye over the map of the game reserve while sipping her scalding tea.

That evening, John flicked through the collection of photographs on his laptop: birds were a lot more demanding to capture effectively than the elephants had been, he reflected. He paused to admire the photograph of the lithe, powerful yet elegant leopard he had taken early the previous morning. On a whim, he e-mailed it to his friend Michael who had been based in Switzerland for the past two years. “Worth coming home for?” John smiled as he pressed the send button: that picture was worth sharing and he knew Michael would appreciate the combination of luck and good photography.

He joined the scheduled guided walk along the river bank the following morning, more for the company than the experience, he realised, allowing the general chatter of his companions to wash over him. The large Melissa dressed in strong hiking boots, black jeans and the requisite beige hooded jacket was proving difficult to shake off. He wasn’t looking for her kind of company! John picked up his pace and moved towards the front of the group strung out along the sinuous path next to the sluggish river.

Frith looked at the photographs on her camera while eating the salad of chopped apple, cheese and nuts she had made for her picnic lunch. Earlier that morning she had marvelled at the way the golden grasslands seemed to wrinkle into the hills and changed colour according to the sunshine and the clouds. She had come across several attractive wild flowers along the way, but found them difficult to photograph well from the confines of her car. She pressed the delete button several times: she had to be ruthless if she was to build a worthwhile collection of photographs. The close-up shot of a zebra made her smile for it had seemed at the time as if the zebra had deliberately posed for her before joining the rest of the herd grazing a little distance from the road.

She looked up as a private game-viewing vehicle drew up near her at the communal picnic site. Several tourists tumbled out and immediately made for the ablution block behind her, while their guide hauled a large wicker basket to the wooden table close by. The tourists tucked into their lunch with gusto; all seemed to be foreign and most spoke English with some difficulty on the few occasions when they addressed their guide directly.

“I wonder if he ever feels lonely in a situation like this,” Frith thought idly as she listened to the on-going chatter through the thorny hedge that separated the picnic sites.

As night fell, a chorus of frogs started up along the river bank. John listened to them as he walked towards the fence edging the camping area to where he had earlier seen a wooden bench overlooking a sandbank fringed with tall reeds. When he looked up a while later, he wondered if it was only in his imagination that the stars seemed to shine more brightly in the rain-washed sky after the brief shower shortly before sunset.

Frith was also listening to the frogs while sitting in the dark outside her tent and watching the thin clouds drift lazily across the moon, still low in the sky. She could hear the faint calls of black-backed jackals in the distance and wondered what kills would take place while she was sleeping. She shivered in the rising breeze and acknowledged the loneliness that enveloped her with an increasingly heavy mantle with each passing day: she had not had a meaningful conversation with anyone for days.

The next day, John sat alone on a rock at a viewing site at the top of a kopje in the morning sunshine. “Look there!” he heard someone say excitedly. Following the direction of the various pointing arms around him, he managed to pick out a rhinoceros in the veld way below them. Scanning the wide open vista, he could see no sign of any roads nearby and so shifted into a more comfortable position from which to watch the animal from a distance. These days is was a privilege seeing these increasingly endangered animals.

Several visitors came and went during the course of the morning; few stayed for more than ten minutes at a time as most seemed restless and eager to get on with seeing what other game could be spotted before lunch. The exception had been a young woman whose dark hair blew around her face while she sat patiently in the dappled shade of a nearby shrub. She appeared to be held spellbound by the undulating landscape stretching away from them and was clearly focused on the rhino too.

Having covertly watched her closely for over an hour, John was about to approach her when an elderly man in a pale golf shirt stretched across his pot belly sidled up to him with “Anything worth seeing here?” It was a question John had answered several times over the past two hours. He pointed to the rhino, now half obscured by the shade of an acacia tree well below them. While doing so, he noticed the young woman smiling at him sympathetically as she picked up her binoculars and notebook before making her way to her vehicle parked next to the rustic wooden fence posts.

Afterwards, John found that even close views of eland standing in the tall yellow grass failed to elicit much interest. Instead he concentrated on scanning other tourist vehicles, hoping to catch sight the compact silver car he had seen the woman drive away in. The only distinctive thing about it, that he could remember, was a sticker of an aloe on the passenger side of the windscreen.

Frith photographed silhouettes of interesting shaped trees against the setting sun, then she glanced at her watch, terrified as always that she would arrive after the rest camp gate had closed. A feeling of relief surged through her as she joined a gathering convoy of vehicles following the bend of the river. Soon the bird hide built on stilts came into view, reassuring her that there was more than enough time to return.

Now that she felt more relaxed, Frith allowed herself to ponder about ‘the Rhino Man’. He had appeared to be so self-contained, so patient, and spoke in such a pleasant manner to those who had approached him that she had found herself covertly watching him more often than she had intended. What was his background? Why was he so obviously on his own?

“She obviously appreciates nature,” John mused as he drew up next to his tent. He had listened to other tourists talking about leopard sightings while he was purchasing bacon and beer at the camp shop. He knew it was almost impossible to predict their movements; he was fortunate to have bagged such a clear photograph of one on this trip. With his attention focused on producing a supper good enough to make up for his missed lunch, he failed to notice the dark-haired young woman scanning a poster of frogs outside the shop as he hurried back to his tent.

Frith was packing the last of her camping kit into the back of her car two days later when she heard a voice exclaim behind her. “You can’t be leaving now; I’ve just found you!”

The Rhino Man, wearing a hat and holding a pair of binoculars in his hand, approached her with a broad grin on his face. “I’ve been searching for you for days and you’ve been under my nose all this time!”

“How have I been under your nose?” Frith couldn’t help smiling in response.

“You have been camping only a few hundred metres away from me!” He rubbed the aloe sticker on her windscreen. “This is the give-away.” He stretched out his hand. “John Andrews,” he said warmly.

“Frith Ferguson.” They eyed at each other awkwardly for a moment before John pointed to his 4×4 truck parked nearby.

“I see we are from the same province at least,” he said, smiling. “Have you far to travel? I was planning to do a stint of bird watching in the hide before leaving. Would you have time to join me for a while?”

Frith watched the river water flow below them and noted little eddies appearing on the surface now and then; nothing dramatic, but enough movement to catch the eye. Her bird list had expanded considerably while in John’s company. She smiled contentedly, feeling the choking mantle dissolving as she listened to John’s voice next to her. They planned to meet up at the Golden Gate Highlands National Park in April to do some trail running. In between now and then, however, there would be several weekends of bird watching in some local haunts.

“A few hundred metres away,” John laughed softly, photographing her with his cell phone. “I travel half way across the country to meet someone who lives only three streets away from me!”

Frith smiled while packing away her camera. “The call of home remains strong and I must return.” She pulled a face. “It’s back to work for me on Monday. At least meeting you will make the memory of this holiday last longer.”

“There is still so much to discover.” John looked at her earnestly. “Have you ever considered putting together a portfolio of those insect photographs of yours?”

“What, like rhino beetles and stick insects?” Frith laughed out loud. “With you, anything is possible!”

“Kayaking?”

“Perhaps.”

“We could make a good team then.” He shouldered his camera bag. “Let’s drive home together.”

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