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Something darted across the road, disappearing into the bush and gold-infused dust of an early morning in the Zambezi valley. When we reached the spot where it had crossed, I stopped the Land Rover.
“What are you doing?” my wife asked, as I opened the door and got out.
“Checking for spoor. I think it was a hyena.” For some bizarre reason the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority allows anyone who visits Mana Pools National Park to walk anywhere, anytime. It’s no wonder people get killed there.
“Get back in the truck,” she said.
I’m Australian, but I’ve been visiting Africa’s wild places for 18 years now and for the past 10 I’ve lived half my life, literally, in the bush. We’ve even bought a house in a game reserve on the edge of the Kruger National Park.
I’m no safari guide, and I wouldn’t have walked far without an armed ranger for protection, but I wanted to confirm what had crossed the road. Bent at the waist I saw the crisp outlines of pads and claws in the powdery surface of the road.
I nodded, pleased with myself and my tracking ability. “Hyena.”
“Get in the truck,” my wife repeated, unimpressed.
I ignored her, as one does when reconnecting with one’s inner bushman. Bending lower I noticed a different track. “Hang on, there’s something else here.”
That’s the thing – there’s always something else here in the bush, to see, to learn, to experience. Just when you think you’re starting to get a handle on the real jungle, (as opposed to the concrete one most of us are at home in), some new discovery makes you realise not how far we’ve come, but how much we’ve lost. Especially when it comes to surviving on our wits and senses – instead of our credit cards.
As I studied the new tracks, my heartbeat ratcheting up a notch, I asked myself yet again what I was doing here, so far from home, so far from my “normal” city life. The fact was, I had no choice but to be there, on that dusty road in Zimbabwe.
I’m not in love with the African bush. I’m addicted to it.
I crave the rush of rounding a bend and being confronted by a bull elephant, ears out, trumpeting. I live for the mellow golden hour after dawn and before dusk when the molten colours turn the bush’s uniform dry khakis briefly to psychedelic shades of pink and orange.
I still don’t fully understand how the African bush hooked me. It’s hot, it’s dusty, and it’s generally landlocked (and here’s me from a country with the best beaches and diving in the world). There’s a leopard whose patrol path takes her past my back door, and in the last week I’ve had two deadly snakes around the house – a mamba in my shower and a puff adder out front. Even the trees are inhospitable, with thorns that scratch and claw at your clothes, getting under your skin, infecting you, capturing you.
I grew up in suburban Sydney and any interest I might have had in the Australian bush was cured by days and weeks slogging through it as a soldier in the army reserve. I had no desire to live among the trees. Ever.
I had no romantic attachments to the wild or wildlife; I was a city kid, through and through, and when I’d punched my ticket in the office, eaten my fill at a good restaurant and partied too late, I’d recuperate on a sandy beach the next morning.
I have my wife to thank for my addiction, as it was her, not me, who decided we would visit South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana on holiday back in 1995. The planned once-in-a-lifetime trip turned out to be anything but.
It was sensory overload, like stepping into David Attenborough’s living room, instead of vice versa. Fascinating, and at times bloody terrifying, it was always wild.
And I mean really wild. In Australia we have too many politicians and too few problems, so our legislators spend all their time coming up with new rules designed to protect our law abiding citizens from harming themselves and having fun.
In Africa, however, it seemed to me that I faced danger and the risk of death at every turn, but there was no one there to tell me what to do or, rather satisfyingly, what not to do. I had lionesses creeping around my tent at night, hyenas stealing chops off my braai, a black rhino chase my truck for five kilometres (it turned out she’d been hand-reared, and probably thought our vehicle was a National Parks truck full of food) and elephants delicately stepping over my guy ropes to get to the seed pods in the tree above. Everything, it seemed, was out to get me, but, perversely, I was having fun.
What few laws and rules there were in the countries I visited seemed to be generally ignored or, at best, treated as flexible guidelines.
As much as I revelled in this newfound freedom, drinking beer while riding in the open back of a bakkie and spotlighting for lions around the town of Kariba, I soon realised that there was a different set of rules, if not laws, that I had to learn and abide by if I was to survive in the bush.
I had to lock up my food at night to keep it safe from the hyenas and honey badgers, and I had to keep my tent zipped to deter lions and snakes. I had to respect the personal space of elephants and to come to terms with the fact that in the war between humans and baboons over chips and bananas, the primates will probably win, nine times out of 10.
Every safari guide told me that if I came face to face with a predator, whatever I did, I was not to run – if I did, I would be eaten. It was good advice, for the workplace as well as the bush I thought, but I’d yet to bump into a lion on foot, so I wondered if I would have the courage to stand my ground if I did.
Back in Australia I’d been struggling to write a novel – the one thing I wanted to do in life – and had realised that the aspiring author’s twin obstacles of time and place were almost insurmountable.
I had quit a lucrative PR job to give myself the time I needed to write a book, but in Australia I lacked a “place” that would inspire me. I read several books on how to write fiction and they all said I should start with a plot – the blueprint for my story, from start to finish. But I couldn’t think of a story to save my life. It was demoralising. Faced with the prospect of my lifelong dream remaining just that, I wanted to run away.
Around the same time my wife suggested that we try and sate our newfound hunger for Africa with a four-month road trip. We bought a beat-up old Land Rover and began a long, slow loop of southern Africa.
In a camp in the Kruger National Park I took out the laptop I’d brought with me and, looking at the herd of elephants browsing contentedly on trees outside the fence, I started to write a book. It began with an elephant, and had no plot whatsoever.
I hadn’t been able to see the leadwood for the fever trees – Africa, with all her beauty, magic and tragedy, was waiting to be written about. Specifically, I drew my inspiration for my first novel from the bush and the wild animals and even wilder humans who called it home.
I was breaking a cardinal rule of writing, but as with my other risky adventures in the bush, I was having fun.
In Australia my friends were still working – competing with each other, buying newer and better cars and televisions, bigger homes, swimming pools, and having children. They were following the rules of life, and my wife and I were breaking them; some thought we were mad, others were jealous.
My life, after I beat the odds and landed a publishing deal, became not about acquiring possessions or conforming to society’s rules, but about making enough money in Australia in six months to be able to afford to live in a tent in the African bush for the remainder of the year and write another book.
I’m in my house in the bush now, finishing my tenth novel. I hear the lions calling and sometimes see the leopard down by the Sabie River, catching the day’s dying rays, but I’m not scared of them. I’m learning to live with them. If I had followed the rules of life and stayed in a safe city in a safe country I wouldn’t be here now, living my dream and getting high on my natural drug of choice.
On the road out of Mana Pools as my wife told me, for a third time, to get in the truck I stood my ground and positively identified that new track on the dirt road. “It’s a…”
“Lion!” she screamed.
I straightened my back, put my hands on my hips and looked at her, bemused. “Yes, dear, I know it’s a lion, that’s what I was just going to say.”
I looked over my shoulder and there, not 20m away, was a fully grown lioness, standing in the middle of the road, watching me as I’d been congratulating myself on my tracking prowess.
My entire life, along with that number one rule of the bush – don’t run – flashed before my eyes. I didn’t run – I jumped.
As I covered the two metres back to the driver’s seat with a single bound and a single expletive, I remembered another rule that applies equally to the bush and the city: whatever you do, listen to your wife.
– Tony Park