LIFE WITH HAROLD STRACHAN
WE are four eco-tourists plus an ancient Zulu ikhehla called iTshebe because of his beard, and we’re standing on a special sort of birdwatchers’ flat place at a nice bend in the river with plenty of trees for the birds to perch in.
I’m not sure which river this is that runs through the Ndumu wildlife reserve, I think it’s the Maputo, but anyway, here we are. Willie should have been here too, this was to have been his holiday, but he’s a self-perceived v. important political personage, is William, you see, and he’s been suddenly impelled personally to impart certain brilliant ideas to his political publisher in Pom, and here am I to take his place with certain ladies, and drive the car.
Willie is the only man I know who would invite on holiday his last mistress and his present wife, who hate each other, plus his top disciple, a crinkled old crone from Jo’burg who hates them both, and then decide he has something urgent to do overseas and leave me to take these three townies into the savage wilderness in a freeway vehicle, two-wheel drive. Why me? Well he knows I come from a generation of lads who know how to twowheel drive over loose beach sand, you see, and Ndumu is almost nothing but that.
Willie’s wife is one Eulabia “Sweetlips” Stampova, Muscovite, saturnine, excitable, and the car belongs to her. When I let some of the air out of her tyres she shrieks and clutches at a handy tree for support lest she fall faint upon the ground. Whenever we come to a stretch of sand and I put the car into low gear and rev up to sort of skate fast over the stuff she screams hideously and gesticulates towards the gear lever.
But now we stand motionless, soundless at the birding-place with binocs and cameras at the ready. Birding manuals too, with a list of species at the back where you can tick them off with a ballpoint as you spot them. A bit like plane-spotting at an airport, only intellectual.
Old iTshebe knows the Latin/ Greek names of all the species, plus many a quaint old fable, like Aesop, that’s why he’s been appointed to conduct our party on this tour. We remain motionless and silent for a while. Then he quietly touches Sweetlips on the shoulder and points, and there on a long branch over the river sits a motionless fish eagle.
Haliaeetus vocifer, he whispers. What!? says she. Loudly. Eaglus fishii, says he. Why doesn’t it move? says Sweetlips. iTshebe is stricken speechless and cocks his head. In all his days as a birding guide he has never been asked this one. He shrugs. That, say I to Sweetlips, is a styrofoam eagle. Every morning a game ranger with a great long ladder and a piece of wire climbs up there and sticks the eagle on that branch. It’s for the tourists, you know. If you look closely you will see the wire round its feet. She puts her binoculars to her eyes and the eagle flaps off and dives at a fish. She slowly and silently turns on me, but the dilated nostrils and heavy breathing say it all. In Russian.
My last wife departed the family nest because all I ever talk about is politics and aeroplanes, also I’m a clumsy sonofabitch who doesn’t know when to hold his tongue, and I’m starting to see her point. But anger dissipates in the warm air of the African morn.
With our softened tyres we slither and shriek over more loose sand to a grassy place where different birds have their being. We quietly park and the birding manuals come out. A ground hornbill comes trudging along the ground from right to left. That is a Ground Hornbill, says iTshebe, Bucoris leadbeateri. Hornbillus groundii, he says to Sweetlips. Why is it called a ground hornbill? says she. This one really floors old iTshebe, he shrugs his shoulders and unblinks his eyes.
You must realise, say I to Sweetlips, that the ground hornbill is not what it used to be. They can’t get the marble any more, you know, they use plastic instead these days but it’s not the same. If you study that bird you will see it is much enlarged, side view, and if you look at it end-on you will see it is as thick as your hand, but in the days when marble grinding-slabs were available they were less than a centimetre thick. I mean these days they just squash the hornbill instead of carefully grinding it as in classical times.
She reflexively puts her binocs to her eyes and Former Mistress and Wrinkled Disciple giggle. She turns on me with bitter lips and the unspeakable hatred the Russian People thus far have cherished only for A. Hitler.
We return unspeaking to her freeway car where she unspeakingly pumps up the tyres by hand. And elbow and shoulder deltoid and rectus abdominis and lungs and heart and the tenacity that saved the nation at Stalingrad and Kursk, accepting aid only from the enfeebled iTshebe.
Fortunately we are beyond the sandy parts of Ndumu; with tyres full of air and the inside of the car full of hatred we make our speechless way back to Durbs, Sweetlips at the helm. We descend the Lebombo pass, steep, long, all the way zigzag down the edge of the escarpment in overdrive and her foot hard on the brake pedal for 15 kays. The brake discs glow red. Down below is the Pongola Dam, 60 metres deep, waiting … waiting … most horrible death by drowning … The brake fluid lines are absolutely all between us and the hereafter. If one should pop …?
But we say fond farewells in Durban, and kiss each other, and say What a Lovely Holiday, for it is hypocrisy that underpins etiquette.