I have come to die. Not exactly to die, but rather to lay my soul to rest.
They gave me six months. A death sentence. It’s in my stomach. Without their chemical sophistry it could be three months. I’ve just finished the first, exhausting bout of treatment and have a reprieve before the next. Which is why I’ve come here, to the Timbavati, the prettiest corner of the lowveld. I’m sitting in an armchair under a shady jackalberry watching the waterhole. It’s an idyllic spot.
My parents once had a game farm in these parts and I grew up not far from Hoedspruit where tilled land gives way to wildness. I moved to Joburg after school and made my ‘fortune’ there in business; my folks sold the farm. But this place has always held me, like a basket, an emotional manger. Not the farm, but the bush. All that endless wilderness that sweeps away to the east and into the Kruger Park. It’s the sweet musk of the earth after the first rains, the roar of a lion that wakes you in the dead hours, the grace of a bounding impala. It’s the brittle grass of winter, the ancient leadwood trees, the fathomless skies and Drakensberg sunsets stacked with thunderheads like monumental thought bubbles.
So, I’ve returned. I drove down from Joburg three days ago and left the car at the main gate where the lodge manager came to fetch me. Jock is an old timer who runs a small operation in the middle of the reserve. Just eight beds, very intimate. Affordable Big Five without the bells and whistles. Good grub, the prerequisite two game drives a day and comfortable tents on stilts. No nonsense. Just my kind of thing. I don’t like all the fuss of fancy lodges, the twelve different shampoo flavours, prawns fresh from the Sabie River and a sommelier to wipe your arse for you. Give me old-fashioned bush any day.
Jock is a white-bearded sage of the Timbavati. Ex-Rhodesian, old school. Deep into his seventies but still passionate about gifting his knowledge to visitors. I even read about him in some or other magazine. He wrestled with a leopard, built the lodge with his bare hands; he’s an uncompromising conservationist of the no-bunny-hugging variety, but also of the anti-hunting school. Salt of the earth. Exactly the kind of man you want on a safari.
We arrived at camp and there stood Isaac the tracker and Mary the manager and a row of black staff beaming their welcome. I’ve visited here off and on over the years, so it was a warm welcome, almost like old friends. During those moments of greeting, it felt as though everything was fine again. The lodge is a simple affair with a thatched roof and canvas walls. A lumpy sofa and armchairs, a scattering of bird and mammal books. It’s November and camp was empty when I arrived. Company might have been nice, but it was probably better this way.
Mary took me to my room, up the stairs onto a deck high in the branches of a marula tree. It reminded me of the times I used to come here as a kid. Ma would stay at the farmhouse and my pa would take me hunting in our clapped-out Land Rover. Pa had built a platform three stories above the ground in the branches of a false marula. There was no ladder, just a rope with a pulley and he would haul me up to the platform so I’d be out of harm’s way when he went hunting on foot.
He’d leave me there for hours with a few colouring-in books and toys. I could watch the comings and goings at the waterhole below. Best were the elephant herds running to drink, splashing about, slurping, rolling in the mud, trumpeting. I could never get enough of their antics. I once saw a leopard slink in, drink swiftly, its wide pink tongue lapping at the water. Also lovely were the giraffes, spreading their long legs and lowering their skyscraper necks, so vulnerable in that awkward position and so damn skittish.
Mary showed me the Peaceful Sleep and alarm horn, the solar lights and filtered water. Then she left me and the emptiness sloshed in like a black tide. I’m not the depressive type, even when Sally left and all that, I didn’t slump. Just got on with the job, had custody of Claire on weekends, rotated a few low-key girlfriends. I’m not a moper, I’m a doer, a getter of things done. But this feeling is like concrete blocks attached to my feet, a bleeding of colour from everything. I’m fifty-seven years old, a nondescript age, an in-between age. It doesn’t have the drama necessary for an ending. Too old for youthful tragedy, too young for Father Time.
And because I’m between girlfriends, and Claire is at university in England, there really isn’t anyone to hold my hand. Not that I need it.
I met Jock in the lodge at 3.30 for iced tea and biscuits, then we set out on the first game drive in his open Land Cruiser. There was low cloud, a sombre, tortoise-shell sky. The sightings came at regular intervals. Two white rhinos trotting along in a cloud of dust, a herd of elephants polishing off a stand of acacias with the rifle-crack of snapping trunks, hippos wallowing in the river and a handsome saddle-billed stork. We passed a tree decorated with white-backed vultures looking like grotesque fruit. Bushveld undertakers, I thought. Ugly buggers. We couldn’t find the kill they were guarding. It was probably deep in the thicket to our left, hidden from prying nostrils by one of the smaller predators.
Back at camp I noticed there was a new guest in the tree house next to mine. Hans arrived with the flight from Joburg and one of the lodge team had picked him up at Eastgate Airport. Hans is from Stuttgart and travelling alone, probably gay, judging by the fastidious grooming. He’s more or less my age and is dressed to the nines for safari. He keeps to himself and his English isn’t fluent, but he’s nice enough.
Dinner was in the boma at a round table lit with those new-fangled solar lanterns. The fire crackled and the stars filled the gap above the stockade. I was feeling awful. Every evening my spirits do a bit of a kamikaze.
‘Haf you seen any, how you say … “Gepard”?’ asked Hans, between mouthfuls of kudu Carpaccio.
‘Cheetah. Not for a week or two, I’m afraid,’ said Jock. ‘The vegetation is a bit thick for them. They prefer open plains.’
‘My English not so good.’
‘No, no, you’re doing great,’ said Jock. ‘My German’s shocking.’
‘SVO, SVO, that is what we learn.’
‘What’s SVO?’ I asked.
‘Subject-Verb-Object. That is how you make an English sentence. Not like in German where it is all over the show.’
In bed later I thought about SVO. I knew my sentence well enough: ‘You are sentenced to death.’ I knew the object too: death was my object. And the verb was ‘sentenced’. But what was the subject? What stood behind the ‘you’? Who was uttering my sentence? Certainly not the white-coated witchdoctors: they were just mediums, interpreters. Can a crab talk? Is the Pope Catholic? Does the dog of your past bite?
Sleep refused me. The long sleep wouldn’t. Mosquitoes droned outside the net that was draped from the ceiling like a ghostly shroud. I heard a hippo munching the lawn, then ripping something that turned out to be the roots. A fiery-necked nightjar called its incessant ‘good-lord-deliver-us.’ Over and over, driving me nuts, until I wanted to get up, find a rifle and deliver him to his lord, or at least scare him into the great jar of the night.
Is it the crappy food I’ve been eating in the years since my divorce? The microwave meals, the speedy grub, my meat-heavy, vegetable-light diet? Who knows? Everything we eat in this consumer world can kill us. Atkins Diet, Two-Grapes-A-Day Diet, Dr Tim Hoax Diet. It’s all bullshit when the ingredients are pumped with hormones or covered in pesticide or grown in a test tube or a battery farm. We humans have got it all wrong. The speeding train of late capitalism. What the hell. I’ll be getting off long before we reach the last station. It’s Claire’s generation I worry about, and the grandkids I’ll never see.
The next morning, Jock woke us at five and suggested a walk. A ‘spoor-and-dung safari’, he called it. We set off under low grey clouds. Soon we were on our haunches looking at tracks: the clover leaf of hippos, square marks for warthogs, dog-like hyena prints and the big hoof spoor of giraffe. Jock pointed out trees and plants, describing their many uses. The magic gwarrie was a good fire beater and toothbrush. Just snap off a branch, peal away some bark and add paste to the bristles. The best bush toothpaste was the ash of a leadwood mixed with water, explained Jock, running the gwarrie over his large yellow teeth. Next, he pointed to a red fruit shaped like a pincushion.
‘That’s a royal paintbrush or blood lily. It’s a diuretic and is used to treat coughs, gastro-intestinal problems, asthma and as an antidote to poisons.’
But what about cancer? The lily was a stain of blood in the bush. I walked on before Jock had finished his spiel.
The veld was strewn with faeces. Jock picked up a brown cannon ball and broke it in two. He handed one half to Hans who took it gingerly.
‘Look closely and you’ll see that elephant poo is packed with every form of vegetation, from roots and leaves to grass and bark. It has countless medicinal uses in African culture and is said to cure everything from headaches to pregnancy pain. Leave it burning in your room at night and you’ll have an effective insect repellent. It’s even an eco soccer ball.’ He kicked one, sending it whirling into the long grass. Further on Jock pointed out the sprayed faeces of hippo, the dropping middens of a male wildebeest, the impala pellets used in drol spitting competitions and the white, calcium-rich faeces of hyenas.
We crouched around a cone-like indentation in the path.
‘This is a trap set by one of the Little Five of the bush,’ said Jock. ‘The ant lion backs into his hole and waits for a hapless ant to fall in and be devoured. Ant lions walk and dig backwards, so when you see them moving around, they follow an erratic path, wandering all over the place.’
Perhaps my life path had been ant leonine. I’d never really looked to see where I was going. Fell into my career, stepped blindly into an unsuccessful marriage, let Claire slip away as I blundered about, laying traps for financial ants, but having no course, no real direction. Now here I sit, at the end of it all, looking back at circuitous tracks that look like a Gordian knot.
Jock had stopped to show us a blue-waxbill nest in the heart of a flaky thorn tree. Some of the thorns were huge, having been injected with growth hormones by ants that used them as homes. He pointed out the mud balls of wasp nests attached to some of the branches.
‘This is a proudly South African tree,’ said Jock. ‘It’s got potent barbed-wire fencing in the shape of thorns and it even has armed response. You see, if a predator such as a snake tries to work its way through the branches, the wasps nail it. So this tree provides great protection for nesting birds.’
As we walked on, Jock pointed out a flock of blue waxbills flitting in and out of the trees ahead. We paused to take them in. They were the cutest little birds with turquoise underbellies and grey-brown wings.
‘A bright blue tummy is not so great for the camouflage,’ said Hans.
‘Actually, the colouration is very effective,’ replied Jock. ‘If you’re looking at one of these little chaps from below, they blend into the blue sky. From above, the drab upper parts merge with the grey bushes. They’re perfectly adapted to this habitat.’
Back in camp, Hans headed for his room. I lingered behind to tell Jock that I wouldn’t be joining them on the afternoon game drive. I wasn’t feeling up to it.
‘Are you sure, boet? It’s going to be a magnificent sunset with all those high clouds. G&Ts on the koppie overlooking the river.’
‘No, I’m not in the mood, sorry,’ I said.
‘I can see you’re not in a good place. Carrying heavy stuff. The bush can help lift it.’ His pale blue eyes searched mine.
‘It might be too heavy for the bush. It’s certainly too heavy for me.’
‘I won’t ask what it is. None of my bloody business. Please think about coming. We’ll get you a lion kill if you like. And Hans needs a bit of company.’
‘You’re pretty good company, Jock.’
‘Nah, bollocks, I’m just an old codger on his way out.’ He punched me playfully on the shoulder. ‘The bush is the best medicine for the heart.’
My heart was fine. It was my stomach that wasn’t.
I was standing beside the Land Cruiser at 4.30. Jock gave me a wink as he hauled himself into the driver’s seat. Hans sat in the first row, me in the second. That way the German could spread his Nikon equipment across the seat: D3, 300mm lens, Leica point-and-shoot and a fancy pair of Vortex binoculars. I had an iPhone for pics and Pa’s old Zeiss binos, so not really in Hans’s league.
We set off west into a low sun that stung our eyes. The drive was uneventful and none of the Big Five made their presence felt. Late afternoon, we came over a rise and looked down on a waterhole. It was a paradisiacal spot overhung with big trees, just like the place Pa used to leave me when he went hunting. A place of utter peace. Jock switched off the engine. The sun was on the horizon, drenching the scene in honeyed light. Laughing doves trilled the air with angelic song. Man, it was beautiful.
Just then, a male warthog appeared from behind a termite mound on the opposite bank and tentatively made its way to the water, stopping every now and then to assess us. He was a fine fellow with a fearsome pair of tusks and a business-like manner about him. Bustling gait, no nonsense. He was a bloke who got things done in the bush, a chap you could put in charge of something. He’d look after the piglets, see off predators, stay true to Mrs Hog.
The warthog was drinking now, long sloppy gulps. Every now and then he glanced up at us to make sure we weren’t getting up to any nonsense. Just then, there was a puff of dust to our right and another to the left on the far side of the dam. A blur of khaki shapes. The two lionesses had broken cover like projectiles. The warthog swung away from the water, but ran straight into the path of the second cat. He swerved, lost his footing, and both predators were upon him in an explosion of dust. A scream cut the stillness. One lioness clamped the hog’s throat in her jaws and the other sliced open his abdomen with a set of surgical claws. The prey thrashed about. Blood splashed onto the dirt. The hog was still kicking, but more weakly with each moment. I was transfixed, unable to breathe.
Jock started the engine and worked his way round the edge of the waterhole. He stopped twenty metres from the lions and switched off the ignition. When the warthog had finally breathed its last, one cat got up and walked a few paces away to let the other feed.
‘I think Lisa is giving Jane a chance to eat first ’cause she’s sucking two cubs at the moment,’ whispered Jock. ‘To produce milk, she needs the sustenance more than Lisa.’
The stench of blood hung in the clearing. The hog’s flesh looked unnaturally scarlet. Soon the cat’s face and paws were painted in blood. There was the rasping of a tongue on hide, the sawing of heavy breathing, the crunch of cartilage, snap of sinew, the tearing of flesh. I was used to my meat from Woolworths, cling wrapped and bloodless. This vision was unnerving, grotesque.
With a terrible yank of claws and teeth, the abdominal sack flopped out of the hog like a deflated soccer ball. The stomach and intestines were pale blue and slimy. I’d never encountered a stomach before, never knew anything about such things. It was just the overnight stop for my food, like an organic version of Beaufort West. Now I know lots about them. From the cardia into the fundus and corpus, then through the pylorus into the small intestine’s duodenum, its jejunum, its long ileum that absorbs bile acids. Next comes the large intestine with its cecum, colon, rectum and onward Christian soldiers down the anal canal. It could almost be poetry: a young jejunum on his way to utopian Ileum via the palm-lined Cecum Canal and the port of Pylorus. Fancy names for repulsive innards: the ugly sack and poisoned snake coiled in my abdomen.
The lioness tore open the stomach and its contents poured out. The stench hit us like a punch and made me retch. Why didn’t Jock pull back? This was too much. I tasted bile and pulled my T-shirt over my nose to inhale my own body odour, breathing shallowly. Hans looked as green as I felt.
‘This is amazing,’ whispered Jock. ‘Just beautiful. Nature red in tooth and claw doing exactly what she does best. The cycle of life. Magnificent, hey?’
He looked at me. I turned away, feeling only disgust.
Back in camp I stood on the deck watching the moon rise. Jock came and put a hand on my shoulder. ‘What’s eating you, boet?’
‘Sorry, Jock, I don’t want to talk about it.’
‘Sure. Let’s just say it’s as though I’ve been sentenced.’
‘A sentencing, hey?’
‘Ja, something like that.’
Jock was silent for a while, watching the moon.
‘A sentencing is what you make of it. Just remember that somewhere in the word sentencing is the word sing.’
There was also the word ‘tense’, and mine was past.
This morning, I skipped the drive and mooched about camp through the heat of the day. There’s an armchair under a leafy jackalberry set close to the waterhole. It has a great view of the impala and kudu traffic. I’ve been sitting here all morning, feeling utterly despondent. If only I’d brought Claire here more often. There was that one school holiday when she was thirteen. She didn’t seem interested and I didn’t push it. My fault. With time, she would have grown to love the Timbavati. You can’t help but allow it into your soul. Or rather, it lets itself in unbidden. I should have been more of a father.
I’ve been thinking about the warthog’s demise. The problem with the killing is that it was still, perversely, an assertion of life. A grand metaphor for something or other that was still in the kraal of the living. I’m already outside the stockade, banished to the long shadows. The very idea of Nature and metaphors about life are of no consequence. I am, bar the shouting, already gone. And I have no way to deal with this. It’s too big. The heaviness has returned and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to stand up again. Perhaps Jock was right. Perhaps it is, after all, my heart. I know now it’s close to breaking.
I must have dozed off. I’m woken by the tweeting of waxbills in the tree next to me. Only a few moments have passed. They are such charming little birds. Bustling about, thrilling the air with their wings, darting in and out of the branches. Some are pecking at seeds on the ground, their bills stabbing in haste, heads bobbing a merry jig. I almost feel part of this lively throng.
Now one of them comes to sit on a branch right beside me, emitting its characteristic call of ‘see-see’. I know from their busyness that this little chap will only perch for a few seconds. Time slows and then draws to a halt. My eye plays across his blue chest, waxy mauve beak: a petite, flying gemstone of the rarest kind. Priceless and perfect. Iridescent, lustrous. My little chum.
I could go on and on singing the song of this blessed little bird, keep singing its loveliness and the light and the golden afternoon of this Timbavati afternoon in which everything is singing the song of the bushveld and the sentence that is this place and my heart and the fullness that sings itself into being beyond beingness is the only way to live out the life that wants to leak but is stilled into perfection by a dancing winged turquoise creature of light, and yes I see, see how perfect you are, and oh my darling Claire, daughter of my blood, daughter of my heart, I love you so much and this bushveld place, and hold the two of you inside me as though I am forever and always pregnant, my tummy swollen with you both and if I just keep singing the sentence that is not a sentence then the life that is in me and the death that is in me will never become prey to one another and I can just keep