FREEDOM IN THE BUSH

No ‘luxury’ experience comes free – not this kind anyway. I had to save for a long time before I could afford the five-day hike through the bush led by our guides, James and Cameron. Apart from them, there were six of us in the group: four women and two men. Isn’t it funny how even total strangers slot into a pattern based on some unconscious decision? Amy, in her designer jeans covered with sequinned daisies, pushed herself to the front as soon as we set off along the narrow path on our first day. Geoffrey, the keen photographer among us, slotted in behind her. Apart from his height, his bright orange T-shirt stood out like a beacon – in sharp contrast to his battered khaki hat. Geoffrey photographed anything from beetles to baboons – and especially Amy, who happily posed for him in between doing her best to attract the attention of our guides whenever we stopped for a rest or to look at something interesting.

Having been friends since primary school, Karen and Angela had come on this trip to celebrate their respective engagements. I enjoyed listening to their banter, their shared memories that elicited much laughter, and quietly empathised with their joint regret at having to leave this beautiful country after their respective weddings. “It’s where the work is,” they both explained almost apologetically. They were making the most of this experience – almost as if they could absorb and store the sights and smells to comfort them later in their new abodes. Keith walked behind me. He wore shabby jeans and carried a scruffy notebook and a pair of binoculars slung around his neck. He spoke little, although he occasionally shared his passion about birds in a rather terse manner with James.

I watched Geoffrey set up his tripod when we reached our stop at the end of the first day. “I am in awe of beautiful landscapes,” he told Amy, who gave the majestic peak highlighted by the late afternoon sun a cursory look before asking James when we would be having sundowners. Geoffrey ignored her, appearing to be completely absorbed in what he was doing, photographing the peak several times before turning his attention to the light playing on the nearby trees. I felt in tune with nature too and admired the reflections of the peak in the waterhole while experiencing a heightened consciousness of an array of bird calls as the edge of darkness crept closer.

“Look at that Saddle-billed Stork.” Cameron spoke softly behind me. He handed me a mug of tea then chatted easily about the call of the African Fish Eagles we could hear in the distance. “They sometimes perch in the top branches of that dead tree over there.” He pointed away from the setting sun before moving off to help James prepare the evening meal.

“I saw a Martial Eagle from the top of the ridge.” Keith sat next to me on a rustic wooden bench while looking down at his well-thumbed notebook. “James agrees that they sometimes prey on Monitor Lizards. “I thought I may have seen one doing so the last time I visited the Kruger National Park. The light wasn’t good enough though, so I can’t be sure.” We looked towards the darkening water until he closed his book with apparent reluctance and said, “I’d love to see something like that on this walk.”

We were breakfasting early the following morning when Karen and Angela drew our attention to a pair of bushbuck grazing nearby. “Oh cute!” Amy called loudly over her mug of coffee.

“Be quiet!” Geoffrey growled from behind his camera.

“Excuse me!” Amy plonked her metal mug on the table with a loud bang that startled the antelope and set off a pair of Hadeda Ibises that had been walking along the edge of the waterhole. “It’s a free world you know!” Sensing the tension in the air, I moved across to the sink and helped Cameron wash the dishes. We were soon joined by Keith, who dried them.

“That woman needs her head read,” he said to no-one in particular. Cameron winked at me and made his way towards the now sulking Amy. I looked up a few minutes later to see her and the other two women laughing at something he had said. Keith was watching a bird through his binoculars.

We stopped at our next destination a little earlier in the afternoon. Keith disappeared almost immediately, binoculars at the ready. Karen and Angela settled in the shade to read, while everyone else helped themselves to drinks.

I found myself walking in the rear the following morning. Cameron was in front, as usual, Amy was close behind James with Geoffrey behind her, but Keith had moved in behind him. We cautiously approached a waterhole and watched in awe as two buffalo lumbered off, a family of warthogs moved in … and then an elephant appeared as if from nowhere!

We watched spellbound as the elephant blew bubbles, drank thirstily, and then sprayed a thick coating of dark mud all over its body. Amy was holding James by the arm; Geoffrey and Keith were photographing the scene; Karen and Angela had their cell phones at the ready. I wished then that I owned a camera – my cell phone was in my car. My attention was drawn to the whitened skull of an antelope protruding from the mud near the far edge of the waterhole.

“A kudu got stuck in the mud here about six months ago.” When had Cameron moved next to me? “It had been chased by lions,” he answered my question before I had even formulated the words. “This is all that’s left of the magnificent creature.” His tone was matter-of-fact, yet I felt moved by his acceptance of how nature works.

Cameron motioned for us to leave, stopping later to show us the spoor of a hyena. “It always has nail marks in the front,” he explained once we had gathered around it. We halted again to admire a giant Jackal-berry tree. That evening Geoffrey showed me the artistic photograph he had taken of the distinctive seeds of the Kierieklapper or Russet Bush-willow tree we had passed during the afternoon. He had obviously noted my interest in trees.

A small herd of buffalo were cooling down in the waterhole near our third night stop when I found myself looking over Cameron’s shoulder, noting his curly brown hair and the curve of his cheek. The moment passed in a flash for Amy demanded the first use of the bucket shower and was determined that James would stand guard outside “With your rifle at the ready in case one of those beasts wants to come barging in!”

Our group chatted amiably around the bright fire after supper. In spite of his relaxed demeanour, it was Cameron’s turn to be the watchful one, which is why he sat a little apart from the others with his rifle nearby. I found myself enjoying watching him from the other side of the flames: to be seen and yet unseen, I thought.

We crossed a shallow river, walked through tall grass, and kicked up puffs of dust while wending our way across the dry veld. By then the group had settled into a steady rhythm, stopping at the first sign from our guides, and whispering to one another about the interesting animals, insects or plants we saw along the way. It began to feel as if we had all – even Amy – sloughed off our city skins. Given the number of birds Keith and Geoffrey caused us to halt for, it is not surprising that we all developed an eye for the avian beauties that enriched our bush hiking experience!

“Built to conquer,” Karen murmured when we halted to watch a group of five white rhino grazing in the near distance.

“A miracle,” Angela responded, echoing what we all felt.

The river had widened from where we had crossed it on the first day, yet we were easily able to negotiate our way around the shallow pools. It was with a degree of sadness that I watched the sun already silhouetting the tall reeds as it neared the horizon. This was our last night camping out under the enormous trees seemingly in the middle of nowhere. I felt a lump within: I had enjoyed the freedom of hiking in the bush in more ways than I could count – tomorrow would mark the end of that.

It was some time after supper that I moved away from the group to marvel at the star-studded sky and the way the two tall trees were lit up by the camp fire: these would be memories to treasure.

“The stars seem so much closer to earth out here, don’t they?” Cameron’s soft voice reached me from behind.

“They’re so bright,” I answered quietly, acutely aware that he was standing close to me, “that they actually seem to light up the night.”

“So do you,” he added, taking my hand in his.

No-one seemed surprised the next morning when we set off for the last leg of the hike, each in their allotted place – except that Cameron brought up the rear behind me.

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