A Forgotten Photo Found ~ Tsavo West

This wasn’t supposed to happen. I was on a mission to declutter the house, which led me inevitably to the old seaman’s chest – that personal cess pit of file dumps; the place where all the research notes, photocopies, story drafts that won’t fit in the three office filing cabinets end up. In truth, this excess stuff weighs heavily on my psyche – my mental albatross.

Many times I have lifted out the boxes of Kenyan newspaper cuttings with a view to swift despatch. They date from 1992 to 2000, and are sorted into topics such as ‘forced marriage’, ‘female genital mutilation’, ‘street children’, ‘colonial residue’, ‘wildlife conservation’. There are articles on politics, land grabbing, the Kakamega gold rush, Maasai customs, Akamba myths, shape-shifting and witch finding. The period covered is one of great political change in Kenya – the World Bank impositions of structural adjustment and international pressure on the single party Moi regime to adopt multi-party politics Western-style. And there’s the catch. I can tell myself this cuttings file is of some historical importance. Is this not reason enough to keep it?

And the other reason? Well, it’s my source material, isn’t it? All the stories I have yet to write or finish off. How can I possibly throw out all this valuable stuff?

But still there’s the secret doubt. Quite a big niggle actually. Haven’t I hung on to it all because I doubt my own capacity to remember, and if I don’t remember, isn’t it too late to go back and mine this doggedly accumulated reference collection. Might I not function better without it? Liberate myself from the psychic albatross?

And so it was – in the midst of this endlessly circular argument, stacks of yellowing papers all over the floor that I opened a box and found this photograph. I don’t know how it missed being put in the album. It must have been taken in the mid-90s on a day’s safari to Tsavo West National Park. And now I see it, I remember taking the photograph. The waterholes are at the safari lodge, the red soil caught in the full flush of midday sunlight. You can just make out a herd of zebra. And in the background are the Chyulu Hills, still deemed volcanically active after a million and half years of eruptions.

However you look at it, this is a breathtaking vista – elemental Kenya. Priceless then?

The argument goes on. What is priceless, what is not. Doubtless the files will go back in the chest for another day of writerly self abuse. I’m glad I found the photo though.

copyright 2017 Tish Farrell

 

Daily Prompt: Priceless

The Tsavo Big Game Show: it’s a dangerous pursuit

lone elephant at twilight

Night comes swiftly in the African bush but never quietly. As the sun drops behind the Chyulu Hills, so the pipe and whirr of frog and bug ratchet up a few decibels. It is like a million high tension wires being pinged and twanged. If you listen with both ears it can drive you mad. Likewise, if you allow yourself to succumb to the night’s sticky heat and the hypnotic scents of thorn flowers, then do not be surprised when the sudden scream of a tree hyrax stops your heart.

But we are not going mad. And our hearts are just fine. We think we have cracked this Africa lark. Well sprayed with insect-repellent, all accessible parts covered as can be, anti-malarials ingested, it seems safe to sit out on our veranda at Kilaguni Lodge  and do some night-time big game watching. 

Below our room is a barren stretch of red volcanic earth, and a water-hole lit up by two search lights. The illuminated circle that the lights create is like a stage set. It seems we are seated in a mysterious wildlife theatre waiting for the cast to appear.

The contrast is disturbing. By day, this self-same set is furnace red, littered with volcanic spoil; it is the haunt of the cadaverous-looking marabou storks and the occasional zebra. By night, all is softer, surreal. You feel you might dissolve through the light into perpetual darkness; for out there the night goes on forever, doesn’t it?

And so we go on gazing at the scene. It takes some time to realize that small groups of impala are emerging from the gloom. Their stillness is mesmerizing. Perhaps they are not there at all.

And then…

And then…

The impala are wary. You can almost see the charge of anxiety ripple through the herd. We hold our breath and stare into the dark behind the lights.

And then we see them – black hulks gliding through the thorn trees. Elephants. They have come so silently, walking always on tiptoes, their heels cushions of fat to muffle their footfalls. Slowly they move in from the bush. Even in the dimness beyond the pool, their hides glow red, irradiated by the igneous dirt they have blown over themselves.

In the wings the elephants pause. It is hard to say how many are there. After a few moments two peel away and the rest of the group retreats again into darkness. Two large matriarchs now head for the pool. At the water’s edge they part, and in matched strides stake out the water-hole from opposite directions. There’s an angry trumpeting when an impala fails to withdraw fast enough, and only when the entire bank is clear do the elephants go down and drink. But they have hardly taken a couple of gulps when they move back and take up guard duty, one at each end of the mud bank.

We are transfixed. We cannot fathom the plot, but note that, despite the elephants’ aggressive stance, there has been a concerted gracefulness to their routine. It crosses my mind that the great choreographer, Balanchine, once made a ballet for elephants. Now we see they have dances of their own.

And so we wait.

Slowly the rest of the group reappears, moving as one in the tightest huddle. As they enter the spotlight we understand. Tucked safely between the legs of four large cows are three infants. Like precious celebrities surrounded by an escort of heavies, the youngsters are guided to the water. There, with tiny trunks they cannot quite control, they drink their fill. The whole thing takes only a few minutes. Then, with this life-and-death task accomplished, the sentinels re-join the group, and the small herd leaves as silently as it came, melting into the backdrop.

So: this drama is over; the stage empty. After the thrill there is anti-climax, a strange sense of banishment; depression even. We go to bed, suddenly overcome by the heat and with too many insects on the brain.

Inside, though, the room is hotter still; windows shut fast against malarial mosquitoes. Even so, and despite the rock-like pillows, we sleep for a time. At midnight it is the menacing whine of a mosquito that rouses us to a bleary-eyed seek and destroy mission. At 2 a.m. we are awake again as two waterbuck lock in high-snorting combat below our veranda.

G. huddles back in bed. I press my nose to the window. It’s at times like this that Africa looms largest, that you know you are out of your element. Night stretches ahead like a herculean trial. I stare once more at pale stage in the bush. The impala have drifted back to the pool again, but they barely move. It is like watching a Samuel Becket play where nothing much happens.

And yet…

Suddenly the antelope are on full alert – rigid stance, ears pricked, noses twitching. I stare and stare. At last I spot movement, a sinuous shape pressing through the low scrub. The impala rise on hoof-tips, torn between staying and fleeing, and then the lioness steps out from the grass and pads down to the water.

The impala draw back, still unsure of the big cat’s agenda. The lioness parades around the waterhole, but does not drink. Instead she finds a clump of grass and lies down, head up, still as stone, commanding the pool  – a heraldic lion couchant. Now it is clear. None of the animals can drink. The tension is visible. This is a new kind of drama: feline power play.

But I cannot wait for the denouement. Worn out, I return to my hard pillow and tangled sheet.

The next time I wake it is light enough to know that I can abandon all efforts to sleep. It’s a huge relief. While G. slumbers on, I step out into cool of the veranda. In the dawn light I see that last night’s set has mystically expanded into a vast new backdrop. Now the Chyulu Hills rise above the dry plains, a vision of impossible greenness that belies the violence of their birth. For these hills are new, erupting around the time Sir Francis Drake was bowling off Plymouth Hoe and ignoring news of the advancing Armada. It’s hard to believe.

But this is not all. To the west, the snow-capped crown of Kilimanjaro breaks free of the earth and floats high on a wreath of pink clouds. It makes me want to hoot with laughter. Who does this Africa think she is? Does she really expect me to be taken in by  all her absurd illusions? Poof! The mountain snuffs out and leaves only sky. (Is this possible?) And I, like the victim of some worming parasite, know I am becoming infected. All our defences are useless. This land is creeping under my skin and invading all my senses. More likely than not I will never be the same again.

© 2014 Tish Farrell

Kenya; Chyulu Hills; Campi ya Kanzi - Giraffe in the Chyulu Hills

Chyulu Hills. Photo: Abercrombie & Kent

Daily Post Prompt: write here, write now