They said the lions in the National Park had come up from the Honde Valley to the East, most likely due to human encroachment upon their habitat. When he had first seen the imprints of those enormous feline paws he could scarcely believe his eyes. He had never actually seen lion spore, but he knew enough from his years in Africa to know what he was looking at.
There were at least three pairs of prints in the now dry, clayey material that constituted the surface of the single-track road that he was following. The largest set was undoubtedly that of a male and this was his pride. A mental image of the large, shaggy-maned animal and his sleek, muscled, feline companions sent a thrall down his spine. He looked up suddenly, half expecting to see them a little further up the track. Whilst the sight of the spore left him with a slight feeling of discomfort, it was more than outweighed a feeling of elation. Lions in the uplands of Nyanga: who would have thought?
“They’ll never believe me” he muttered with a grin, as he regarded his beloved Liz. A handsome, sturdy creature with a strong dose of Staffordshire terrier, she had been with the family since a puppy some twelve years earlier. An affectionate animal, her only fault was that she was intensely jealous. Several years earlier she had savaged the family’s other dog, Paddy, an aptly-named Irish terrier, severely enough that his mother had had to take the advice of the family vet and had him put down. It mystified him that an otherwise affectionate and sensitive animal could be capable of such savagery. Nevertheless, she had been a good dog over the years, especially to his late mother, with whom she would walk religiously every evening through the strip of urban greenbelt that flanked their property.
The thought of his dear mother brought with it the pang of recollection. They had been close, and although the divorce from his father had shaken her faith and confidence, she had remained a good woman and mother to the end. She too had loved this bit of the countryside. His thoughts drifted back to a few years earlier, shortly after her diagnosis with terminal cancer when she, along with his youngest brother, her parents and he had passed a few, quiet memorable days in another part of the National Park. The outing had been tempered by the knowledge that this would likely be one of the last such holidays they would spend together.
He remembered thinking that maybe he would return one day and cast a wreath of flowers on the still waters of the dam, with the granite dome of the hill, silent sentinel and witness beyond the far bank. Granite: much of the country was defined by its presence, thousands of square kilometres of grey, lichen-encrusted rock that formed irregular, rocky outcrops (kopjies) or enormous, whale-backed monoliths. Having studied geology at university, he knew that they were ancient rocks, thousands of millions of years old. Indeed, it was an ancient landscape and, in large part, untamed.
Looking around him now, he realised that the only change that had really been rendered by man on this land was not directly but indirectly. From his vantage point he could see for miles from the imposing flank of the mountain range to the south to which he was headed, out to the gentler, open grassland areas of the National Park proper. Peppering the grasslands – Downs as they were colloquially known – were a sprinkling of exotic pine trees, descendants of those growing in the plantations. So too were the occasional copse of fragrant, yellow-flowering wattles.
These trees had been introduced by European settlers in the previous century. He reflected wryly on their resilience and quiet, continued propagation upon the highlands, in contrast to his own people’s faltering ambitions on this same soil in the face of the political and economic participation of the indigenous population. Yet, most viewed the pines and wattles as passive inhabitants alongside the natural flora; certainly they were here to stay. The fate of the Europeans in this country was less certain.
Mounting his bicycle he pressed on up the track, his faithful dog loping along behind him. From time to time he would stop and wait to sight her coming round the previous bend in the track, before pressing on. After a particularly arduous, stony ascent he found himself on a high and even plateau where the going was far easier and the road smooth beneath the tread of his tires. Better still he was all alone, happy to contemplate the untrammelled beauty of the landscape, the worries of the urban world many miles hence.
The thoughts of the lion spore had slipped his mind as the road descended to the east of the mountains. Though the road was badly rutted here and in poor repair it was also advantageous for it meant that he was unlikely to be troubled by other traffic or Park Officers in the National Park below. Suddenly there was a an explosive eruption from the thicket flanking the roadside to his right which sent his pulse racing and made his fingers grip the handlebars in anticipation. He threw his head back and laughed as he realised that it was nothing more than a wildebeest, a native African gnu, which he had obviously startled by his intrusion.
He had read somewhere that elephants were known to have taken an active dislike of bicycles in parts of Africa, but the ungainly attitude of the wildebeest, spindly legs supporting a sturdy torso, didn’t come across as overtly threatening. Besides, they were now within the Park and the nearest settlements were perhaps twenty miles away or further in the adjacent valleys. They were unlikely to have been poached or hunted and he hoped they would not see him as a threat. Yet there were lions: it was quite possible that these antelope would attract their attention.
Later he would hear reports of a pride of lions preying on cattle that had been brought to graze up on the highland grassland from the more densely populated valley below, and how the sudden spate of attacks had made the fearful herdsmen pull their animals back to lower ground. The climate here was cool and temperate relative to the sweltering lowland areas synonymous with big game. The Europeans had sought out the Eastern highlands, built pleasant holiday homes, golf courses and planted acres of wattle and pine but his sighting of the lion spore revealed that she was Africa nonetheless.
Eventually he reached the gate to the private nature reserve flanking the National Park. He imagined it to be abandoned and indeed that seemed to be the case, looking at the dry fish ponds and empty, derelict sheds. However, a young chap appeared from one of the stone farm buildings and approached him with a welcoming smile.
Like most of the local inhabitants his complexion was very dark, due in part to the outdoor lifestyle but likely too because of the effect of UV radiation in the more rarefied atmosphere in these parts. He greeted him in the local dialect and preferred him two pieces of photocopied paper on which there was a hand-drawn map and some accompanying information.
“You are alone?” the young man asked somewhat sceptically.
“No” he replied, indicating his dog Liz which had just appeared at the gate. Being mid-afternoon he was keen to press on despite the protest of the young African man. However his mind was made up. Tethering his bicycle to some old, rusty metalwork concealed beneath some wooden boards, he set out.
When he looked back retrospectively, he could see the wisdom in the young man’s advice and his own folly. His backpack weighed far too much, more than half his own body-mass. Considerately, he was carrying a sealed plastic packet of processed pet food for his dog, wrapped in several more plastic bags, besides his own provisions. These included a small tent, as yet untested, borrowed from his father back in town. It must have belonged to one of his step-brothers.
The walk started well enough, the path meandering through alternating pockets of moss-laden montane forest and grassland. However, as the afternoon drew on the wind picked up and the sky that was earlier cloud-free became darker until mist swept down from the peaks above and engulfed him. It was certainly cooler and the light was beginning to fade when the first drops of rain began to fall. He quickened his pace and looked around for a prospective area of flat, sheltered ground on which to pitch his tent.
Suddenly the density of the forest vegetation and the uneven, clumpy nature of the grassland made him realise how difficult this task was likely to be. Realising that a compromise was called for he recalled a flat-topped boulder a few hundred metres behind him and turned on his heels. It was no longer visible from the path but by fortunate reckoning he found it enveloped in the mist. Wasting no time, he pitched his little tent against the gathering storm and hunkered down, glad at least to have his dog for company.
The inadequacy of the tent was soon apparent: the label specified that it was shower-proof but failed to account for its performance in inclement conditions. As the wind and rain lashed the feeble dome, droplets of water penetrated the seams and edges and dripped relentlessly into the interior. Constrained as he was by the size of the tent and unable to fully extend his legs, the damp and accompanying cold made sleep impossible.
It was mid-June here and it was not supposed to rain he thought to himself grimly. He had asked the young man back at the entrance to the nature reserve when it had last rained. “Not since one May” he had replied. Had it been sent to test him he wondered? Ever one for considering both sides of an argument, he also reflected that the whole expedition had been somewhat spontaneous and without due consideration for such things as the vagaries of the weather. Thus it was just as likely that he would be in this situation even had he known there was a strong possibility of rainfall that night.
He cramped badly in the early hours of the morning as Liz lay, looking pitiful as she shivered silently in her corner of the tent. When the wind finally abated near dawn he finally slept for perhaps an hour or so. Yet, when it was fully light he was keen to press on, a new awareness of his precarious place in the midst of this windswept landscape, but also a sense of appreciation for the sunlit conditions. He took some of his best prints with his trusty 35mm Pentax that day.
In the dappled sunlight beneath the riverside vegetation he captured his canine companion as she stood for a moment beside the quietly murmuring stream. In later years, he would recall her fondly from that picture. She bore the hardship without complaint then, yet in later years she would be afflicted badly by arthritis and he wondered if she bore him any grudge. Certainly, her earlier exuberance seemed to fade and she spent most of her days asleep in her basket.
The hand-drawn map given to him by the young man at the farm-gate proved to be invaluable. The landscape was breathtakingly beautiful as he followed the circular route outlined: quiet forest streams flanked by ferns and evergreen trees strewn with lichen bisected the pockets of montane forest clinging to the slopes of the range; tufty grassland strewn with large grey boulders; and the cherry on the cake so far as he was concerned, a lovely cascading waterfall marked on the map as The Golden Falls.
It took the better part of the morning to find his way back to the farmhouse and outbuildings where he had locked his bike.
He tore a muscle in his back as he struggled back along the final miles to the farmhouses, his burden exacerbated by wet clothing and bedding. On later endeavours such as a canoe safari down the Zambezi River the injury would bother him but he had no regrets, just a nostalgic urge to return, except with company this time. The best he can hope to do with these memories is to try put them in words. His photographs will speak for themselves.