Nature illuminates the path and speaks to the soul
He stood on the porch of the camp lounge overlooking the Moporota lagoon drink in hand, broad-brimmed Tilley hat slung low over the eyes and hand over the cap just to make sure. His spirit was still heavy, but not quite as heavy as it had been earlier that day. Remembering the events of the day, Modise was overcome with emotion at how the day had unfolded. The sun was low on the horizon- just above the tree line. The temperature had dropped from the sweltering brain-numbing heat of the afternoon to something slightly bearable. The mosquitoes were out in full force. They buzzed and whined around his ears. They landed on his ankles. He swore they had sucked at least a litre of his blood in the short time he had been standing there. He went over to the counter to get the repellent and sprayed it all over himself. Gradually the golden glow and the mystical warmth of the setting sun seemed to seep into his core. The orange orb of fire was bigger than he had ever seen before. A flock of cattle egrets flew over the setting sun and disappeared right through it. He remembered that as a kid he was told it was a good omen. And he could use one. In fact, he could use as many good omens as nature would be generous to spare. The setting sun, reflected in the water- the orange interspersed with the dark green of the reeds and lily pads, the cichlid fish dancing in the still lake surface conjured dreamy images of him as a young boy. Almost romantic. It reminded him of his grandfather who had the peculiar habit, of watching sunsets. Most people from his village didn’t watch sunsets. But his grandfather did. And he would always drag the young Modise on his sunset forays. Modise believed he got his love for the outdoors from the old man. ‘The sunset may be the end of a day’, he would say. ‘But it is also the ancestors’ promise for a brand new day. It is as much a beginning as it is an end. It is a chance to rethink your day, your work and your life. To self correct and create yourself anew. In every end is an opportunity for a new beginning.’ This statement had never been truer, or held more significance for Modise than it did that day.
In the sunset is a solemn promise
an end, but also a rebirth
a perfect dream deferred
the dusk a swelling dark
but the swirling dawn lights up the dark
And we all catch a glimpse
of the illusive moment
That heals all hurts
Rights all wrongs
In the last rays
Of a setting sun
An African fish eagle shrieked in the distance. Its mate answered in duet, and something within him tugged. How ironic was it, he thought, that a bird would have a mate to toss duets back and forth with in the fading light of the day. While he had no one to talk to?
He felt a sharp sting on his shoulder. He instinctively slapped. He missed. The mosquitoes in this place would be the death of him. He swore under his breath. The safari guides at Moporota lodge liked to joke that the mosquitoes licked the repellent away. Then they stung. Slowly he made his way to where the rest of the group was. With a reluctant cheer he asked, ‘how’s everyone doing? Whose glass may I refresh please?’
He felt lonely. As the dusk deepened, and the crickets and painted reed frogs filled the air with a symphonic cry for sex, he was reassured that coming to this place was the best thing he had done in years. He had trained as a professional safari guide soon after graduating with an environmental science degree. After six years of safari sundowners and occasionally walking into potentially dangerous game he decided he wanted change. He went back to Gaborone, got a master’s degree in environmental management and started a small consulting firm. He did not regret moving back to the city, but he wished he hadn’t completely neglected this side of who he was. He thought he might have been unfaithful to his authentic self. That gentle voice within all of us, that we often ignore. There is duplicity and lack of core values in a life driven by ambitious greed and gain. That was one of his grandfather’s favourite expressions. He wasn’t led by greed he thought. But he had certainly traded his core self for something less than what he thought he was capable of. And for that he was not proud.
Looking at the roseate coloured sky, and the moon taking centre stage, he determined it was probably a day before full moon. He chided himself for not looking that up earlier. The almost perfectly shaped moon was visible even before the sun had totally dipped beyond the western horizon. The surreal landscape was bathed in glorious colour and ethereal light. The palm fronds made soothing sounds as they swayed in the breeze. Mostly like rainfall, but on occasion like ocean waves crashing against the shore. Instinctively he knew he was going to sleep very well. A smile played tentatively around his lips. Wasn’t if funny he thought, that the Tswana word for moon, month and menses were just one word? It was weird, but understandable. He saw how periodicity of the moon, and the cyclic nature of a woman’s natural flow could be used to measure time. At that time, when the moon was full it was referred to as the lady with red teeth. And kids were told not to look at it as they would wet their beds. He shuddered at the picture of the lady with blood dripping from her teeth. He had grown with such terrifying stories. The best thing was he had loved them. All of them. He longed for those moments where him and his brother would sit by their grandmother’s side to listen to her stories. A celebrated safari guide had once told him that early music and dance may have evolved from studying any intervallic natural phenomenon. It is was as though a peephole into his past had been opened. He wondered what the earliest songs were like- ancient, molten and unadulterated. He imagined something heroic and primeval in the songs. A deep communion with nature. Entwined in the playful untrained grace there would be, he thought, a periodic pulse, akin to the bimanual drumming of the great apes. Or maybe a woodpecker signalling its mate, or protecting a territory.
He could feel himself connecting with nature and losing some of the heaviness in his heart. By all measures it had been a long day.
‘Shall we move to the fire?’One of the waiters suggested, snapping him out of his reverie.
Modise called out to his guests, a young couple from Los Angeles. It was going to be a great safari he knew. Already they had spent the most amazing time on their maiden game drive. They had shown him a great time. Much greater than he remembered in a long while. And nature had given an unforgettable show too. Even in his heyday nothing made his heart swell with pride more than ‘safari virgins’ who had just caught the African bug. He loved seeing the wonder in their eyes, because it was with that same wonder he approached every trip.
‘What’s that star?’ Mark asked. ‘It is not a star, but the planet Venus. Often it is the brightest natural object in the sky after the moon. And in places like the Makgadikgadi pans, where you are going next it can be so bright as to cast a shadow.’ Modise was amazed at how easily the answers came. And even in the semi-darkness he could see the twinkle in Mark’s eye. Mark wrapped his arm around Pam and squeezed her lightly. They moved closer to the fire.
‘And the noise?,’ Pam asked.
‘Frogs,’ said Modise. ‘The ones that sound like wind chimes are painted reed frogs, not much larger than your thumb nail. Males make the sound to attract mating partners. The males establish territories that they defend aggressively against competing males. Sound is made by inflating the vocal sac which amplifies the sound. Males may call together in choruses because calling is energetically taxing. Studies suggest that the females mate more with males that vocalise loudly, sound slightly different or are isolated from neighbouring frogs. I guess even for frogs, a sense of mystery and novelty is considered a chick magnet! So right now, you could say the Okavango air is thick with frenzied frog flirting and sexual activity. The deeper sounding ones are bull frogs. There’s a few tremolo sound frogs there too’.
Modise stared into the red ambers of the fire and considered his day. Being here in the middle of the pristine and award winning Okavango Delta filled him with a serene peace unlike any he had ever experienced. He was in place where memory and reality seamlessly merged to a meditative tranquillity. Already he felt confident that it was all coming together, that the stray bits and pieces of his life were being tightened. He saw nature as something within him, and him within it. Not removed- it’s patterns engraved on his psyche, his soul and his mortal self. It was an enlightening realisation, one that helped him deal with his state. It was still an uncomfortable emotional journey to make, into the events that led him back there. As he thought about how his day started and how it looked like it was going to end, the two were as far removed as night and day. He was reminded of the Setswana expression that stated the greater the hurt, the louder the laughter. It made sense. He was enveloped in a bubble of vulnerable joy. He wanted to hold on to it, savour it, treasure it, for he knew how easy it was to lose. He wondered how long he had been headed in this direction without knowing. Was it one decision in one unguarded moment that determined the outcome- or had it been a series of events, unbeknown to him that culminated in the dreadful result. He knew that sooner or later he would have to confront these questions. Maybe sooner, rather than later.
There was a companionable silence between them as they stared mesmerised into the dancing flames and red ambers. The magic of the fire. People here liked to refer to it as bush television. He understood why. He could look at it forever. Then Pam cleared her throat, and let out a gentle sigh.
‘What is it darling’, Mark asked gently.
‘These coals. When I was a kid, my dad would take me and my brother to our lakeside cabin in the mountains. We would build a fire like this. And roast marshmallows. Looking into the coals now, I can almost smell the caramelised candy and the wood smoke in my clothes.’
‘Wow, that’s so cool, Modise said.’ Even with his richly imaginative mind, he couldn’t quite grasp the idea of roasting sweets. As though Mark was reading his mind, he asked him ‘have you ever roasted marshmallows Modise?’
‘No, never. I’ve roasted quite a bit of stuff- melon seeds, peanuts, fresh cobs of maize, meat- but not marshmallows’ he said.
‘What we did by the fireside, when I was a kid, was tell stories. These were stories passed to us by our elders, or just simple stories to catch up, to update each other on how our respective days had passed. Sometimes we made them up. And the fireside storytelling tradition is a huge part of African culture, and the safari experience too’, he added.
‘Tell us a story then- about the best thing you’ve ever seen or experienced as a guide,’ Mark challenged.
Modise poked the fire and sent a trail of sparks into the sky. He moved the wood and arranged it into a pyramid at the same time blowing into the fire. He puffed his cheeks, filled them with air like a smelter’s bellows. The fire cackled into life, burned brighter and smokeless and air was thick with its warmth. Modise stood up and passed the basket of savoury mushroom samoosas and filled their glasses with the refreshingly cold chardonnay. He went back to his seat and stared into the filling dusk.
‘I’m not sure if this was the best, but it is certainly the one that made the most permanent impression one my mind. It’s a story of life, and death. Of strength, frailty and faith. Of adventure and it starts not very far from here, to the west. I was on a nature walk with San-Bushman trackers.
‘At 40 ºC in the flimsy shade it was one of the hottest afternoons in this part of the world. Heat waves emanated in a convectional kaleidoscope from the sun-baked sand of the Kalahari and painted watery mirages in the distance. The earth took on an unreal feeling and the expression ‘the middle of nowhere’ assumed a personality and a deeper meaning. However, my Ju/hwasi friends and companions seemed oblivious of this and walked on unperturbed. Single file we walked three figures in an unforgiving landscape of sun, sand, thirst and more sand.
We stopped under a lone and gnarled camel thorn acacia tree just before sunset. This tree had the timeless aspect of all lone and gnarled trees of the Kalahari. The smooth trunk, cropped foliage and the mixture of animal droppings in the shade, all attested to the tree’s rich history. If it could talk, that tree would tell many tales of what animals had rested, fought or mated in its shade. It would tells tales of the number of ticks it had dislodged from the coats of many weary animals. But it stood proud and stoic as a gentle breeze whispered through its sparse leaves. Nxhu, one of the trackers, fished out fire-making sticks from his hunting bag, Xashe collected animal dung for tinder while I harvested colourful jewel beetles from the acacia for our dinner. Nxhu slotted the softwood end of the male stick into one of the holes of the female stick and vigorously twirled the male stick. We took turns to sustain friction. Within a short while thin wisps of smoke reluctantly curled and danced in the fading sunlight. Nxhu took a potpourri of herbs from his bag and stuffed them into a smoking pipe made from steenbok shin bone. When the orange ball of the new full moon peeped over the horizon to bathe the red sand in soft suffused light, it found us through a cloud of Nxhu’s smoke.’
Modise paused to check whether his guests needed anything else. But they were hungry to hear more of this fascinating story. He continued.
‘We sat in the thick tangible silence of weary limbs and easy companionship. On the dying embers a few jewel beetles hissed and popped quietly, and their aroma perfumed the desert air. In the distance a black-backed jackal howled, and the liquid call of a fiery necked nightjar seemed to vaporize and diffuse through an otherwise still night. Suddenly in the inchoate twilight there was a delightful hint of music. It was like the faint susurration of the breeze, a memory or even a private thought. But I felt it in the charged particles of the air that made my hair to stand on end. Goose flesh formed on my arms. It was the purest, eeriest and the most haunting sound ever made by a human. It was Nxhu, who with bright-eyed intensity of a mischievous child was blowing on the sinewy part of the hunting bow and simultaneously taping it with a porcupine quill. Slowly the dulcet notes of this contraption enveloped and completely overwhelmed us, only to wane into something mirthful and poignant: like a celebration of life and a subtle reminder of death. Which in fact it was’.
‘What was it?’ Pam asked captivated by this story.
‘The San are some of the most knowledgeable naturalists I’ve ever met. They are intimately in tune with the environment and use it for inspiration to find meaning in their lives. In this instance Nxhu was playing a song inspired by migrating termites which emerge after heavy rains. The song enacted the nuptial or wedding flight of termite alates as they emerged from the wet ground during the rainy season. Thin membranous wings catching the late afternoon light, these insects brave the elements to colonise a perilous new world. With the queen giving off small measures of pheromones, the drone follows her to an unknown destiny, spurred on by visions of connubial bliss and an ecstatic ever after. While Nxhu was giving this impromptu and virtuosic performance, I was flirting with the romantic notion of this incredible adventure, engineered into the insects’ destiny by nature. In this journey fraught with mortal danger and uncertainty there was a hope for something more, something new, something better. All my life this has been one of the most inspirational stories of hope and survival. It reminds me over and over again that it is possible to start all over again. That even though the future is never assured, it is worth searching for, finding and preserving.’
Pam and Mark were quiet for a while. This was a powerful story. They could imagine the fragile strength of the insects as they took on a journey into the unknown wilderness. In many ways the story resonated with them and what they hoped to achieve in their lives. The termite queen who flies off with a drone to start a new colony represents romantic love. Leaving the safety of an established colony and doing something you believe in even when the odds seemed stacked sky high against you is a measure of faith. They saw how this story could have made an indelible mark on anyone’s mind, for it was an unforgettable story. But it was also Modise’s own personal story. About trusting to an unknown future and believing that all will turn out just fine.
After a while Pam said ‘that’s an incredible story. Will we meet your San friends before the end of our trip?’ Modise answered in the affirmative.
‘We will do an interpretative nature walk with the Bushman before you go. Perhaps you too will go home with an unforgettable story. That’s the thing about Africa, she never lets anyone go untouched. That is probably true for any relaxing wilderness area. Nature teaches contemplation.’
By now the moon was high and bright, and most of the stars, except the really bright, had faded away. Across the Moporota lagoon a few dark forms slowly made their way through the marsh. They were hippos coming out of the water like ghosts, for their nightly forage. Their sounds as they sloshed though the water, grunting and wheezing added to the mystique of the night. Thousands upon thousands of little flakes of golden dust danced in the air, lighting it up in wonder.
‘What are those?’ asked Mark. ‘Fireflies,’ Pam answered her husband.
‘You know me darling, I am a town boy through and through. I’ve never seen this before. This is so amazing. How do they produce the light?’
‘The light,’ said Modise, ‘is a result of a complex enzymatic reaction. Adult flies use it to attract mates by producing species specific light pulses. You can think of this bioluminescence as a fancy way of flirting’.
‘Interestingly, some insects mimic the light pulses to seduce, lure and trap unsuspecting fireflies to prey on them. The larvae on the other hand, called glow worms, use it to scare away would be predators. Even crazier, some insects use luminescence to lure their prey. What this says about life is that it is important to be aware of one’s environment, carryout some due diligence before jumping into what looks like an amazing opportunity only to be trapped and eaten.’
They laughed. Then an uneasy silence filled the air again as they all pondered the gravity of this statement.
‘Of course it is not so simplistic. But still, a cost benefit analysis is important to inform any major decision. This is relevant in life and business. And often when the possible rewards outweigh the perceived risks, the project is a go. It is unsurprising, therefore that when one of life’s greatest motivators, sex, is involved animals behaving primal will be swayed by the potential reward and not the possible risk. Often with dire consequences.
‘So this means we should also not be too risk averse, right?’ Asked Mark. ‘Because if we are it may prevent us from realising our true and greatest potential. There must be a healthy mix of heart and head when charting one’s life course.’
‘Of course,’ Pam answered.
Deep in his senses Modise felt peace and a sense of belonging exceptional and quite possibly out of this world. He experienced an inexplicable meditative quietude that washed over him and engulfed him. Much had happened to disrupt his thoughts and sense of being in the last few hours. His newfound sense of repose was therefore unusual. He felt that he too was part of a greater creation and that he had some part, no matter how insignificant, to play in it. He felt a tangible inner peace, increased awareness of himself and his environment and above all, better control of his emotions. He felt that his previous reflective self consciousness and anxiety had miraculously seeped away to a profound peace and objectivity. He realised that things weren’t quite as bad as they had appeared. A heavy cloud in his mind lifted to reveal something more hopeful and responsive. There was hope yet, he thought.
A waiter started beating the large drum in the lounge. Drum beating had always been one of the sounds Pam and Mark associated with Africa. There was an easy rhythm in the beat that they started clapping and dancing to. There was a something profound and mysterious in the sound that reverberate in the gut. It was as though the drum was speaking to them in some mystical language that only they could understand. Faster and faster the drum rolled, its sound carrying into the late evening air. Slowly it began to fade to a quiet whisper. Then the waiter announced ‘Ladies and gentleman, dinner is served.’ They reluctantly stood and made their way to the dinner table, with Modise in the rear.