Into the Great Unknown

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Road to Eksteenfontein, South Africa, Copyright Silverleaf 2016

Though it’s always pitch black when the alarm goes off, though I know we will be in the truck again for most of the day, a special feeling accompanies each waking. It’s hard to put into words…

Curious, excited, expectant;

Warm, maybe, from both the gentle morning heat of the desert and the fond attachment to place that one can cultivate surprisingly quickly;

Sweet, from the scent of the plants and the earth;

Content.

Or perhaps it is best left undefined.

Knowing this is the only way to cover the miles, to see everything there is to see in the time we have available, I jump up without lingering, my body screaming defiance, my mind too sluggish to do anything about it. Propelled by what is becoming habit, and an underlying eagerness, I launch myself into the routine: toilet, shower, brush teeth, dress, gather the remaining items and pack them into the truck. It doesn’t matter that the accommodations change almost nightly. The routine is what anchors us.

I wake my sleepy son, the boy who can never be woken mid-sleep, and he joins us with groans and screeches, somehow equally ready for the next adventure. Even at this hour.

My husband makes coffee before we go and I pour it into myself gratefully, feeling a touch more human. At somewhere between 4 and 5 am, I don’t want food but I pack my trusty bag of granola, a soy milk drinking box, and a banana in the front door of the truck, at the ready.

We leave the key on the table, pull the door shut. Another destination awaits.

The fun lies in climbing into the truck, pulling out, heading off, wondering what we’ll see this time, waiting for the sun to rise over the vast, dramatic land, to see what it will reveal on today’s stretch of road.

Most of our drives are 6 to 10 hours, some are longer. All of them afford us majestic views, breathtaking terrain, and sometimes animals. We record the birds we see in a book, compete to see who can spot a new animal first, remark on mountain ranges, stop to capture some small part of the moment in the camera’s aperture, though that doesn’t do it justice – only standing in it, being there, taking it in with the naked eye, breathing in the molecules and holding them briefly as part of ourselves, only that can really do any of it justice. Sometimes I imagine spreading my arms wide to embrace it all.

This was how we explored 4500 km of Southern Africa over 11 days in early 2016. A family on the move. Exploring, learning. The world both stretched in empty vastness around us but also shrank down to just the three of us, to the confines of our truck.

Despite taking 1000 pictures, the moments I didn’t capture on film are the ones that keep coming back to me, weeks later. That early morning stop in an Upington petrol station, for example. It was still dark outside, the stars splashed across the night, but the petrol station was buzzing; a hub for those of us up early, whatever the reason. I paused as I was gathering enamel bowls and plastic cups and looked around, taking in the vibe. A truck driver and the somewhat grizzled woman at the till were engaged in a conversation in Afrikaans. Two younger men were chatting at the automatic coffee machine. It was nothing special, and yet it was all special.

There were also the times we almost ran into serious problems – a pothole we hit too hard just after crossing into Namibia, a washed out stretch of abandoned road we navigated early one morning in the silent mountains near Eksteenfontein, the time we actually did get stuck in the sand – but it was specifically because we embarked on this adventure alone, without a group, without a guide, without any safety nets, that it was so momentous.

The place became part of us. And for a time, we became part of it.

 

 

 

Trailblazing

Long-shadowed by power
(names and faces)
I’ve run, transiting thresholds
to come full circle.
Setting out from darkened manor,
I passed o’er lamplit plains
where St. George wages infinite war
upon ignorance.
Retreating for a time,
I tucked myself away
down ragged, age-worn peninsulas,
became wild again,
embraced by wind and rain and waves,
until one day I sought the high road,
a bridge back to civilization.
But spears and barbs flanked cobbled lanes
and so again I fled, this time
o’er bee-gilded, golden meadows
until in a small fishing boat
I began my final journey home,
seeking refuge along the way
among kindred earthen peoples.
I can no longer tell whether I’ve been
running from or running to
but I have landed here,
which is just about where I began.

.
Inspired by Jennifer Knoblock at Graceful Press Poetry, who in turn was inspired by Margo Roby’s Poem Tryouts (“The Streets Where You Lived”), this poem was built around the names of some of the streets I’ve lived on over the years.

At first glance, I realized that many are names of powerful men and leaders (Roxborough, Nepean, Burnside, Putman). Roxborough also means “manor of the dark-haired person” and Putman means “dweller by the pit or hollow.” Other streets referenced: St. George (my university residence address), Iveragh (named after Ireland’s Iveragh Peninsula), Upper Bridge, Barry’s (“spear,” “sharp”) Lane, Cahernane Meadows, and Curragh (small Irish fishing boat). Currently, I live on a street that has the same name as my father.

A Close Encounter

This is a continuation of an earlier short story post about Charlie, who goes to a boys’ overnight camp, where he meets Max. There should be another instalment (or two) somewhere between the first story and this one, but I haven’t gotten around to writing that part yet.

The forest was dark and deep, with layer upon layer of trees and ferns, overlaid with the brightly coloured pinpricks of wildflowers. Bees buzzed nearby, gathering nectar. The mosquitos, deer flies and horseflies swarmed whenever the boys stopped walking, so they kept going at a steady pace, even up the steep hills.

They ranged in age from eight to ten years old and, because they were enthusiastic and adventurous, they had managed to get permission from the trip leaders to go back to base camp via Trail B, instead of Trail A with the rest of the group.

They trudged on along the wide path, chatting now and then. They were weighed down with big portage packs, their shirts stained with dirt and sweat. They had 5km to go before they would reach base camp and it was still about an hour and a half until dinner.

There were trails snaking away into the forest on each side of the path, leading deeper into the leaves, tempting them off their own track. It was getting dark and they knew they should keep going. But each time they passed one of these smaller tributaries, their eyes would briefly meet as they considered their options.

Again, a less-worn trail veered to the left and their collective gaze roamed longingly over the rocks and roots jutting out of it, until it rounded a corner and disappeared. They looked back and forth at each other and smiled.

“Let’s go down this one, just a little way,” their faces said. They each gave a little nod. And before anyone had spoken, they had all agreed and were moving down the narrower path. Max, the last one in line, paused for a moment to tie his red bandana around a tree where the path forked. Just in case. He ran to catch up with the others, Charlie, Jeremy, Julian and Tom.

The air was cooler down this path, under the overhanging branches, and they enjoyed the break from the sun and the heat, shifting their packs slightly to adjust the weight and let their skin breathe.

The boys continued on for thirty minutes or so, going further than they should have, encouraged by each other and by their curiosity, their sense of adventure.

A rustling off to the right caught their attention and they all stopped. Max inhaled sharply, his skin prickling, the forest seeming to press in upon them. He was suddenly aware of their smallness, their distance from camp and the others.

“Uh, what was that?” he asked, trying to sound calm and unconcerned.

“Maybe a squirrel, or a bird,” suggested Charlie, pressing forward again. He was at the front of the group and they all began to follow, moving past the rustling, whatever it might have been.

Max was happy to be moving on but kept hoping that his friend would turn around and lead them all back to the main path. He tried to edge forward to suggest this to Charlie, subtly, so that none of the other boys would hear.

But Charlie was chattering upfront to the others and Max couldn’t get him alone.

The boys pushed along, enjoying the freedom of being where they weren’t supposed to be, where no one could find them.

Ten minutes later, they passed another animal rustling in the leaves just beyond their range of vision. Max shied away a bit, moving to the other side of the path.

Just as Tom was about to suggest that they should turn back, the path opened out into a grassy clearing, about 20 meters wide, surrounded by trees. Daisies grew in among the grass, reaching their sunny faces up to the sky.

The boys looked up and noticed it was clouding over. Big, grey clouds were moving slowly across the sky.

“We should probably turn back,” suggested Tom. “It looks like it might rain.”

An expression crossed Charlie’s face suggesting going back had not occurred to him. He looked around the clearing, searching stubbornly for a continuation of the path on the other side. Reluctantly, he turned to start back down the path from which they had come.

It was then that he noticed a dark shadow moving in the forest, just by the opening of the path. The smile faded from his face.

The other boys hadn’t noticed yet – they weren’t looking at Charlie or at the path. They were discussing the idea of swapping packs. When Max looked at Charlie to see what he thought about this, he noticed the expression on his face and, instinctively, his smile disappeared as well. Charlie looked terrified, and Charlie, Max had discovered, was never scared of anything.

Slowly, Max turned his head to follow Charlie’s gaze. It was then that he, too, saw the shadow, which was now moving, stepping into the light, toward the boys.

It was a big, brown bear, standing on her hind feet. Standing tall like that, she seemed to be about ten feet tall. It was probably more like seven but to a group of boys aged eight to ten, a bear, any size, was scary enough.

Everyone stopped talking as they noticed the bear, and they all backed into the clearing, drawing together.

It was Tom who remembered what to do when faced with a bear in the woods.

“We should keep facing it. We should try to seem big and threatening. There is more of us than of it, so we should seem stronger and bigger, but we should also back slowly away. Whatever you do, don’t turn your back to it.” Tom spoke slowly, deeply, calmly, belying his fear.

“But, Tom, the path we need to take is behind the bear!” Charlie whispered, a bit nervously.

“Well, we’ll have to worry about that later,” answered Tom.

Max, Julien and Jeremy huddled near Tom and Charlie, silent in their fear.

The bear tossed her head, sniffing the air and yawning. Then, she landed on all four paws, moving into the clearing toward the boys. She sniffed the ground where they had walked, and looked up at them. She made a low rumbling sound, sniffing the ground again and stepping forward, closer to the boys.

“Tom, what should we do?” asked Charlie, sounding less and less like himself, and more and more scared.

Tom looked around, considering what they had with them in their packs and who had which pack. Slowly, he stretched out his hand and opened Charlie’s pack, pulling out two frying pans and two cans of beans. He kept a pan and a can for himself and handed the other two to Charlie. Charlie, he thought, was the only other one among them who would be able to do this, even though he was the youngest.

“Take one in each hand, move in front of the others, and when I say go, start banging the hell out of the pan with the can. Make as much noise as you can. And scream, too,” he directed.

“Max, Julien, Jeremy, when we start banging, you start screaming as well,” he continued. “Nobody move, just stand your ground and make as much noise as you can.”

“Ready Charlie?”

Charlie nodded grimly.

“Go.”

The boys banged, yelled, stamped their feet. Those without the help of pans and tins clapped their hands.

The bear looked up in surprise, making a sound that was almost a cough, but deeper and throaty, and she bared her teeth.

Then, she turned and ran crashing through the trees on all fours, not down the path, the boys noted with relief, but off to the side of the clearing.

Without waiting to put their instruments of defense away, the boys ran to the path they had been on, and didn’t stop running until they reached the main path, out of breath. Max retrieved his bandana. It would have been useful, he thought morbidly, if the bear had eaten them and the camp, or their parents, had come looking for them.

Once on the main path, they slowed down but didn’t stop moving. It was getting dark now, both because it was late and because the rain clouds were now thick and threatening. They felt stray raindrops landing on their arms and faces.

It was with great relief that they finally reached base camp. A cheer went up from the rest of the group when they arrived, but it quickly died out when they saw the looks on their faces.

“What happened to you?” asked Greg, their trip leader. “We knew you were slow but I figured you’d make it back eventually!” he joked.

“Bear” was all Tom said then. Later, when they had been for a swim and were sitting around the fire with everyone else, eating their dinner and feeling somewhat safer, the full story came out.

Greg was clearly impressed with Tom’s leadership and his ability to remember and follow the rules about running into a bear in the woods. He also congratulated the others for their cooperation, team work and for listening to Tom. He paused, ruffling Charlie’s hair, and said, “I hear you and Tom made a good team.”

Charlie beamed with pride, now that the ordeal was over.

“You know, boys,” Greg explained, “the bear’s behaviour may have looked and sounded threatening, but it was harmless. It’s what bears do when they’re nervous. But you did exactly the right thing – and you obviously scared it enough to make it leave you alone. You’ve really learned something important today.”

The boys thought that maybe they could have done without so much learning. They also realized that the real lesson they had learned was to stick to the path.

That night, as they lay in their tents trying to get to sleep, the five boys wondered exactly how much of a close call they had had. They also wondered where the bear was now. Would it find their camp? But they felt safe knowing they were with everyone else now and eventually they fell asleep to the sound of the crickets and the lake waters lapping at the nearby shore.