LIFE WITH HAROLD STRA­CHAN

Weekend Witness - - Opinion -

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.

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