He sat on the rocky outcrop and raised his glass to the scene before him. Taking a deep swallow of the strong local beer, Jim let the majesty of the view sink deep into his consciousness.
Looking back to where the Land Rover was parked, he could see Miriam in animated conversation with Ed, their ranger and Lazarus the tracker. He smiled, Miriam made friends wherever she went; she just loved the interaction with new people, soaked up the stories and the facts that came to light, laughed with them at the anecdotes that flowed, scoffed the biltong and the spicy nuts and looked for a top up for her dwindling G & T.
This was their last night before the long trek home and he just wanted to let the sensations they had had sink in, to hard wire the memories, to help him make sense of all he had seen and heard on their long trip.
It had been Miriam who, bored with beaches and (his particular love) of traipsing around Europe, had raised the subject of a trip to Africa. She had then set about relentlessly cajoling him, until he had planned and committed to the trip. And what a trip it had been.
Leaning back against a large boulder Jim scanned the view before him. Perched on the hilltop, it was almost too much to take in. The land beneath him fell away to the veld below, the well-grassed high plains, dotted by dense clusters of trees and tall shrubs. Slashing through this landscape was the river that over millennia had cut a deep route that meandered across, with flood, wind and rain leaving high cliffs of rich, red clay, carved into organ pipe-like columns. At the northern edge of this high plain ran a dramatic, high escarpment that towered, glowing deep red in the fading light; an ancient monument left by the earth’s upheaving over 150 million years ago. The scars of the earth’s savage upheaval, now beauty to the eye.
A movement in the middle distance caught his eye and he smiled. Moving out from a clump of tall trees and now towering majestically over the lower shrubs, were a small group of Giraffe. They were a seeming impossibility to him, an extreme of natural development but, oh so graceful. Picking up his binoculars, he scanned the area, seeing a small herd of Buffalo and countless Antelope, Kudu and Eland.
In the far distance, he could just make out a small group of Elephant. A highlight of their trip had been one lodge where they could sit looking out over a waterhole. Each day, herds of elephant would come to drink, to bathe and coat themselves in mud. But by far the most interesting aspect had been observing the social hierarchies and interactions between the various age groups. The tiny youngsters would captivate them, playing amongst themselves, creating mischief and mayhem before being brought to some sense of order by their mothers. Young bulls would challenge each other with much trumpeting and jostling. Then, after an hour or so, the patriarch, a huge bull, would gently herd them on their way to graze elsewhere and the group numbering up to 40 animals would amble away.
Each morning they would be awakened at 5.30am and, bleary eyed, would assemble in the lodge to drink coffee and eat pastries, before clambering into their respective open-topped vehicles. They would set off on a different route to see what animals and birds they could find. A return to the lodge at around 10~10.30am would see a full breakfast and leisure time (often used to catch up on sleep or game-watching from the lodge). There would be lunch but following a fulsome breakfast, Miriam and he would often skip this meal. At 3.00pm the sequence would be repeated and off they would go into the bush once more.
They had seen Lion, Leopard and Cheetah, playing, sleeping and hunting and met generations of the same, extended families. They had watched youngsters being taught how to hunt and seen the bloodied groups gorging on their kill.
Each day, each drive, would bring new animals to view, new thrills to experience when, perhaps a great bull elephant, Rhino or Lion would come within touching distance of their vehicle.
As their trip unfolded, they would move lodges, meet new people, hear their stories and make new friends. He took care not to raise contentious issues but would listen attentively when, after a few days, with confidence won, a driver, ranger, or member of the lodge team would share details of their lives, their hopes and their concerns.
Driving between the various lodges where they stayed (often long distances) Jim would revel in the scenery. But of equal interest were the signs of daily life, the sad, abject poverty and the changes mankind had caused. Driving out of Johannesburg on their first day, Jim was struck by the preponderance of gated communities and razor wire seeming to surround every home however small or lowly. It was only when he delved into the crime statistics (on a rare day when the rain teemed down) that he could see that the country had one of the highest murder rates in the world (not to mention rape, car-jacking and kidnapping).
The recent threat of expropriation of large, white owned farms, together with farm attacks, was causing acute concern to a number of the people he talked to. Apart from the ubiquitous rifle carried on the reserves for animal safety reasons, Ed carried a handgun, tucked in his belt at all times, wherever he went. He had been trained in personal security and belonged to a group of local farmers, all connected by radio and all committed & ready to respond instantly to calls for help by fellow farmers. He avowed he was prepared to die to protect his family.
Jim saw the ecological work that was being carried out by the reserves, replacing the worn-out veld of the cattle farmers, bringing the land back to a natural balance between flora and fauna. This was easily visible when looking from a high point in a reserve into neighbouring farmland which was clearly over grazed with a far sparser covering of grass, trees and shrubs. Apart from the potential loss of land without recompense, the reserve owners and staff, saw a future of rapidly dwindling natural livestock and destruction of the habitat. If South Africa followed the pattern of Zimbabwe, they foresaw new landowners with few or no farming skills, rapidly worn out land and greater unemployment (already running nationally at 27%).
Yes, colonialism had brought vast change, not all good, to this ancient country since the 17th century, to the lives of its peoples, it’s flora and fauna and the very landscape itself. Apartheid was a scar that ran deep through the beauty of South Africa, that would take many more decades to fade into history, even given equitable and constructive social and economic policies.
But, Jim was convinced, that using fresh wrongs in an attempt to change the course of history, would not right the injustices of the past. It would merely create fresh casualties, running deep and wide through this magnificent country.
As he looked across at Miriam and gazed once more at the breath-taking view, Jim felt so bloody lucky. But remembering their experiences and all they had learnt, Jim felt he could cry for the challenges and pitfalls that lay ahead for the people of South Africa. But he could only summon scorn for the arrogant, grasping politicians plotting fresh scars that could run deep and wide across this stunning, ancient, new nation.