Stumbling Upon a Country

I created our route south through Belgium based on the ‘prettiness’ ratings villages had received online. I expected (as its neighbour Germany) flowerboxes, profuse gardens around handkerchief lawns, paned windows with functional shutters and verdant verges.

The villages were almost the anti-thesis of that. There’s nothing like stretches of asphalt and stones around houses to impart a little starkness.

Belgium street

Belgium town

There were other surprises in store.

The roads were lined with youthful walkers toting maps, backpacks, sodden clothes and cheerful smiles. It seemed the local high schools had ordered a mass orienteering exercise. In mixed-gender groups of four to twenty they trod and cycled the roads, seemingly having the time of their lives (apart from that one girl pushing her bike up the hill with everyone else sailing off into the distance).

Others had more stationary pursuits. Fisher(wo)men huddled around a pond, stoic in the rain. Belgium, fishing competition

I surmised this was a competition: Who can sit the longest in unpleasant conditions? Who has the largest number of blue, fishing-related articles? Whose lure will a fish happen to swim past and find enticing enough to bite?

Belgium, fishing competition

In another town a policeman barred our way, directing us down a side road. A marching band, complete with several heraldic banners but virtually no audience, finally lead us to realise that this was a national holiday. This revelation also gave context to the closure of some town high streets for markets and festivities plus the previous night’s stunning fireworks. The former necessitated some quite lengthy and scenic detours.

Belgian marching band

In this vein, we meandered south and the country transformed our straightforward drive into an exploration of its traditions and past-times.

What If? Exploring a Town While Not

We are in Belgium in the Ardenne, a hilly region in the French-speaking area. I chose La Roche-en-Ardenne as our overnight stop because it was proclaimed by several people on travel advice sites as one of the loveliest villages in the area.

The river Ourthe bends through a narrow flat-bottomed valley and the village nestles along its banks. Above, a medieval castle rises from a crag as though hewn from it.

La Roche-en-Ardenne castle

At first glance, the river appears brown but I see from the 100-200m elevation of our hotel that it is crystal clear; it is the rocks beneath the water that are brown with the silt of ages.

The banks are lushly wooded with dark deciduous trees, pines, a pale willow and smudges of burgundy, greys and browns. They are studded with the sun-bright whites of houses.

In the park ponds beside the river, six fountains spurt in changing heights like synchronized swimmers.

A youth with bare torso stands knee-deep in the middle of the river. In his hand is a long, thin stick. He is poking around beneath stones, as though concerned about lifting them. I wait for him to find something, to expertly stab a fish or pick something thrashing from the water but he does not. Quietly he walks back to the shore, past the bikinied girl lying with her dog on a blanket, up to the houses. Downstream, a younger boy wades with his fishing rod. The water skims past his thighs. Eventually, he too leaves empty-handed.

I am sitting next to a large, wooden-framed window swung open horizontally along its centre. The summer town rises through it to me. Voices carry over the water. Away to my left, Edith Piaf has replaced someone reminiscent of Dolly. Aeroplanes fly overhead. (The window as sound system.)

I think I must rush off and explore. That is the temptation. I am travelling so I must travel! I must walk. I must view. I must photograph and record. But what if?

What if this listening and watching through a window on the outskirts of town, this ‘allowing’, is the exploration – of myself, my values, the town and the moment?La Roche-en-Ardenne

The waiter replies to my order by saying, “A glass of rosé for Madam,” in a most delightful and film-worthy accent. I feel as if I am here to write a novel. I feel as if I might saunter down to the promenade alongside the river. I might wander into town. And, if I did, I might encounter English guests with parasols ‘taking the air’.

I am offered first a small dish of peanuts and savoury rice tidbits. This is followed by an angel on horseback that is somehow the most delicious of the stuffed-prune genre I have ever tasted. (The word ‘Michelin’ on the front door is starting to make sense.) Next, a portion of quiche with feather-light pastry arrives. It is as though the chef is playing before dinner and sharing with whoever happens to be around. I have a lovely sense of inclusion and intimacy.

I save this post in my blogging folder under “Europe 2014” and feel profound gratitude that a) I am here and b) I have to differentiate between the years. The blessing of so much travelling brings with it the possibility of familiarity, not breeding contempt but bringing with it a dulling – of senses, of gratitude, of anticipation, of delight, of recollection of times when this was all a seemingly-impossible aspiration.

The velvety voice of a waiter in a foreign country is enough, however, to bring all these welling up. It is a rich and profound moment when even my physical body fills.

These moments are perfect; utter perfection.

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Our hotel was Les Genets.

Life in the Slow Lane

The BB is a punctual fellow, to say the least. This can be irritating for people like me who like to squeeze out the last few minutes before a departure*. It’s rare, however, for this trait to put us in danger.

We were outside our African lodge at 5.42am and saw the game-viewing vehicle drive away. It was our last morning; our last chance to spot animals close-up in the wild. There was no response from the driver when we called and cooeed so we ran after the vehicle, desperately and hopefully.

I saw the elephant, less than one hundred metres away, but The BB didn’t hear me warn him. He kept jogging towards it … it and its tusks. The vehicle was backing up. I called The BB again, trying to modulate my volume to reach him but not alert the animal. My brain amused itself with recollections of stories of elephant maulings. This killing machine wouldn’t take long to reach us.

Dawn

Not a particularly well-composed photo but look at those colours.

The driver called to us that our vehicle was the one still parked. (He was late for his 5.30 departure and our driver was late arriving for our 5.45.) He instructed us to go back. The elephant kept chewing. It was still in their spotlight, unmoved, when we drove up in our vehicle ten minutes later.

There are places and people in the world that operate on their own time. One steps into those microcosms and, as much as one flails with expectations and glances at watches and frets about what is being missed, these people good-temperedly, and, it must be said, proudly, continue on their own schedule. South Africa is one of those places. Resist at your mental (and indeed, physical) peril.

eagle at dawn

eagle

Feathers to the talons mark this as a ‘proper’ eagle.

We came upon a road block of the nicest kind – an ageing and relaxed elephant. He was unperturbed by the vehicles on either side.

male elephant

He munched nonchalantly on thorns that can puncture tyres, childlike with his open mouth.

elephant

He is wearing a tracking collar.

Eventually, he ambled off down the track. The other vehicle beat a hasty retreat. We left too – that roadblock was like temporary road closures in our part of England: there for an indefinite period.

elephant on road

Away up a fence line, looking even taller than usual since we were in a dip, stood a giraffe. giraffe head

IMG_3981

As we neared, we spied his companion – a zebra foal, standing sideways to his front on: a jigsaw of splodges next to tiny, precise stripes.

zebra foal

The zebra’s little mane was an upturned brush. S/he wasn’t old enough to be dirty and looked like a toddler in clean clothes, crisply white.

zebra foals

A great photo was lost as the driver ploughed on, not hearing my requests to stop and clearly not one with an eye to the photo opportunity. All our guides were very cooperative about halting when anyone asked for photos.

zebra foal from behind

On the first morning, full of wonder at being in the African wild, I had taken my computer to a thatch-roofed, wooden gazebo to write emails. It was that time of delicate clarity when the air and land hold a curious mix of a night which is cooling and a day which is warming, as if they were two separate entities meeting for a few precious hours. Marula branches swayed wildly and I presumed a monkey was near. Sure enough, a little grey vervet was peering at me. It scampered along a branch, leapt onto another thatched roof and was joined by a larger monkey. For a while they regarded me from their vantage point then they trotted off. On the final morning the troupe were out in force at the breakfast area.

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One is tempted to ascribe human emotions, to feel the kinship, to wonder whether they have any sense of us as similar beings. The real joy, however, is not to make humans the pivot of one’s view, but rather to see these primates as representatives of the rest of the animal kingdom and indicative of the possibility that intelligence and emotion are not the realm of only the few species in which we have yet discovered them.

* Usually whilst muttering, “There’s plenty of time,”and occasionally finding that there wasn’t.

 

Lessons From a Cheetah

Kruger had been a cornucopia, offering everything from insects to elephants, lizards to dung.

After a splendid morning bush walk we were visiting the private game park, Tshukudu, for an afternoon/evening drive. I was on tenterhooks. That is where the semi-tame cheetahs hang out. They were by the pool the previous day – but they come and go.

They were gone.

The buzz of my days of anticipatory pleasure was instantly replaced by my hole of loss…but at least I still had something cheetah-related in my psyche, brief though it was until that dissipated.

And there was plenty more to engage me.

The work of a hungry lion/

The work of a hungry lion.

Hungry lion?

The giraffes managed to be at once ungainly and graceful as they cantered away.

Buffalo. There’s one in every family – you know who you are.

buffalo herd

Comical they may seem, but these animals are warriors reputed to kill over 200 people every year. They can stand as high as 1.7 m (5’6”) at the shoulder and have a head-body length of 3.4 m (11’2”). You don’t want 900 kg (2000 lb) bearing down on you with intent at 59.5 kph (37mph).

We're a momentary curiosity but safe in the vehicle twenty metres away.

We’re a momentary curiosity but safe in the vehicle twenty metres away.

Sadly, they are prized by game hunters. The bullet-proof ‘boss’, the horn cap, of an adult male demands accuracy at close quarters when shooting them. Add to that the fact that they are determined and aggressive when wounded and, for those who find sport or personal aggrandisement in killing wild animals, the Cape buffalo becomes a trophy. Poaching and habitat loss contribute to a downward trend in their numbers though they are still ‘of least concern’.

buffalo calf

And then, around a blind corner, as if planted for a movie shoot that we had chanced upon, were a mother rhinoceros and her calf. On our third day in the African bush we had finally found them.

rhinoceros calf

rhinoceros calf

After that they were everywhere. Another mother had two youngsters – one hers, one that had joined them after its mother had birthed another calf.

The next group was overshadowed by something even more important: a cheetah on the far side of the waterhole; one of THE cheetahs!

As we watched, she got up and walked away from the humans towards the bush. No! Stay! Stay! She sat down. The guide said the cheetah’s move indicated that she had had enough and we must respect that. This time the loss held no sweetness for me; no, ‘Ah well, so be it, I have a pleasure anyway’. This was the loss of something manifested then made unattainable. It was harsh and naked and I beat at the decision.

We watched the young male rhinos instead. These two fellows will separate when aged about eight otherwise they’ll fight.

rhinoceroses

The rhinos ambled off rhinocerosand we reversed away but instead of driving off, our guide took us around the waterhole to the cheetah! Dancing and singing and general jubilation inside my head.

She was draped with the grace and elegance of a model … but with more self-assurance.

cheetah

I think it was that deep self-assurance, the at-one-ness, which most spoke to me. Perhaps that is part of the lure of places like Kruger – the chance to be in that presence, to be close to the essence and power of living. It’s the clarity, the who-I-am-ness that I like to be with.

cheetah head

I have slipped away from that knowing. Human interactions are more frenetic, nuanced, frequent. Decisions are fraught. Bodies are out of kilter. We self-sabotage for complex reasons. We can easily tilt out of touch with our inner currency. Wild animals represent a part of our psyche that sometimes we long for as we dutifully fulfil the needs or perceived needs of others, subjugating or ignoring our own. It’s not only the simplicity of these animals’ lives that calls us, it’s their innate and unconscious self-honouring and Life-serving ways.

cheetah

I squatted behind her and stroked her head. Cheetah hair is coarse and short. I became aware of a sound: rhythmic like a sine wave and almost inaudible, not in a whispery way but below some threshold not only involving decibels. It was a pure, round sound floating in the air below me. Silvery.

The cheetah was purring.

cheetah

Because of those moments with her, something in me has altered, subtly yet powerfully. The experience colours my dreams.

cheetah head

Distressingly, it is the cheetah’s tameability (they are only the big cats with this characteristic) that is destroying the species. They are much sought after as pets by the wealthy in the Middle East. As many as two out of three of the mass of cubs poached each year die on their journey to confinement. In addition, trophy hunting is allowed in some African countries. Having lost about 90% of their population over the last century, cheetahs now only number around 10 000 in the wild. I understand the desire to have objects of beauty, indeed perfection, at hand, but much of what cheetahs have to give humans evaporates when they are removed from the wild. Prestige is no replacement for that.

The Drakensberg Mountains had been pale pink, flat and pearlescent in the late afternoon sun.

The Drakensberg Mountains, which had been pale pink, flat and pearlescent in the late afternoon sun, changed colour as evening progressed.

“Darkness falls on the African bush.” That, and its variations, is a phrase I utter to The BB, or simply myself, with some regularity. Its very predictability lends a kind of reverence to the situation and binds experiences from across time and place. Day’s end stealing over our garden in England is as sacred and generous as nightfall in a place that harbours some of the most splendid animals on Earth.

Africa sunset

Africa sunset

Two guides, kilometres apart, revved their engines. The area’s lion roared in territorial response. We charged down tracks, spotlight swinging, trying to locate him. The other vehicle was there first. We awaited our turn.

lion

Our guide let him rest. He said it takes 10 to 20 minutes to recover from a roar (a similar time frame to mating). It was extraordinary a) to be so close (twenty metres or so) to a free lion and b) to have him completely unaffected by us.

Unaffected, that was, until our vehicle revved. He lifted his head and we were in for the treat of a lifetime. His chest was like an opera house. His sounds tumbled and tossed and jagedg in there and out into the air. The air was his roar. His sides heaved. Nothing was stinted.

lion

Then he lay down again and gently closed his eyes.

lion

He had finished and our night had ended in the most fulfilling way.

Africa sunset

cheetah head

I Had A Walk In Africa

We’d zoomed and cruised and crept in safari vehicles, now we were casting that armour aside. (The animals view passengers, not as food being conveyed to them in a tray, but as part of a structure, or an animal perhaps, too large to take on.) We were to traipse through the African bush in our bodies – just our own juicy bodies.

dawn

Daybreak over the Drakenserg Mountains.

Sure, we were flanked by two armed guides, but a lot can happen as a gun is prepared. (Shoot to kill, not tranquilize: a lion won’t fall asleep mid-pounce.) I hoped no animal would lose its life because of my gustatory allure. Continue reading

Will We, Will We Not? The Search for African Animals

Part of me wondered if we’d see animals up close. We had four days in the Greater Kruger National Park but these were wild animals and the park is more than 20 000 square kilometres. It seemed theoretically possible for all animals to be distant from our vehicles. (Mathematicians, what say you?) When wandering around our lodge, Tremisana, in Balule (one of the private game parks adjoining Kruger without fences), the BB found photos taken by visitors. One showed lions next to the road 50 metres inside the front gate. ‘If only,’ I thought.

bird Continue reading

BRING ON THE PLASTIC ANIMALS

I had a toy hippo. Its body was a very hard plastic shell and it stood about 6cm high. It marched stiffly down slopes on wide flat feet, heel toe heel toe, mouth agape, stumpy teeth gleaming. It was one of the marvels of my tiny life.

IMG_3524crop2 Continue reading