Out of Africa

Browsing through the blogs that I follow this morning I came across the latest instalment in Duncan Swallow’s ‘advice’ series, How not to be killed by a wild buffalo | nobodysreadingme. The memories came flooding back as I remembered the day that I was charged by one of these beasts. Canny readers will have worked out that I survived the experience, but it got me thinking about the various other encounters that I also survived whilst on a memorable trip to Southern Africa in the nineteen eighties.

I had spent the previous summer working on a kibbutz that was located on the Gaza Strip in Israel. Although this was a known trouble spot I was unfazed by the potential threat of bombings or shootings. I had, after all, spent my entire life up to this point living in Belfast during the worst years of The Troubles. The constant army presence was nothing new and I was more intrigued by the fact that young women were required to complete National Service alongside the men. As a feminist this was something that I fully approved of; I wished to be treated as an equal and it just didn’t happen where I came from.

Volunteers on the kibbutz lived in a separate area from the kibbutniks and we partied hard. I learned to drink beer and to smoke cigarettes that summer, habits that I all but gave up as soon as I returned to my homeland but which added to my enjoyment at the time. I encountered my first scorpions and poisonous spiders, and developed an allergic reaction to biting insects which caused liquid blisters the size of saucers to appear on my legs.

The kibbutnik nurses sent me to an off site medical centre for treatment. After a long wait I was seen by a doctor, but I have no idea what he thought because he spoke no English and I had no understanding of any other language. My blisters were opened and my legs bound in gauze. After that the kibbutniks treated me as if I had some sort of plague, which got me out of a lot of the work details I was there to perform.

One of the other volunteers at the kibbutz came from Zimbabwe, but had Irish ancestors and an unfulfilled wish to visit the emerald isle. Being an hospitable Irish person I offered him an open invitation to come stay with me any time he wished. A month or so after I flew home he surprised me somewhat by phoning to say that he was taking me up on my offer.

His timing was perfect. I still lived with my parents at this time, but they had a holiday abroad planned meaning that I had use of my father’s car and did not need to abide by their rules. I borrowed a tent and spent ten days driving around Ireland with this boy, a most scandalous thing to do at the time. We had a fabulous trip and even managed to locate the graves of his long dead relatives. We asked around and found a few people who remembered the family; Ireland proved itself to be the welcoming place it purports to be. My parents were not so impressed when they returned home and discovered what I had been up to in their absence.

Having partaken of my generous hospitality my new found friend reciprocated, telling me that I would be most welcome in Harare any time I chose. I decided this was too good an opportunity to miss, bought a plane ticket, and spent the three week Christmas holiday travelling around Zimbabwe and South Africa with him.

We camped on the borders of Zambia and Mozambique, hitch hiked from city to city, took a lift with a trucker friend into the wilderness; but the most memorable trips were those made to the Zambezi River, and with his family to Victoria Falls. I was seeing wildlife that I knew only from zoos and television documentaries, in their natural habitat.

I wanted to take photographs of everything. When a large spider started bouncing towards me I was delighted. ‘Look! a bouncy spider!’ I cried as I captured the image, whilst those who knew better ran to escape from one of the most poisonous beasts around. Waiting for a lift by the roadside I wandered up to a group of baboons to photograph the cute little babies before my host dragged me away as the enormous, angry looking mother moved in to protect her young; apparently they are killers too. I was not allowed to approach the elephants who came to drink from the motel swimming pool, and was advised against attempting to get close to the hippopotami and crocodiles in the rivers. I did get to hold a baby crocodile at a tourist attraction; it wee’d on me.

I met the buffalo on a trip down the Zambezi River in a small motor boat. The game keeper carefully pointed it out and then became highly agitated when I stood up in order to photograph it better. The beast raised it’s head, then lowered it menacingly, haunches rising, and charged. I was nearly thrown out of the boat, into the crocodile and hippo infested waters, as the gamekeeper enacted a hasty turn and full throttled escape. I was sworn at quite a lot but was more upset that I didn’t manage to capture on my camera that magnificent beast in full charge. At the time I had no concept of the danger to us all.

Needless to say the trip was awesome. I saw a herd of wild zebra running across a plain, flamingos taking flight in formation and slept out in wooded areas surrounded by the sounds of wildlife I could not even name.

Africa was a land of beauty, poverty and huge inequalities. I argued with one of my welcoming and hospitable host families over apartheid and their treatment of the coloured servants who lived in a hut at the end of their garden, required to live away from their families. I slept in a bed that had shotgun damage in the ceiling above and fleas in the sheets. I was fed the most delicious and enormous steak I have ever eaten.

Thirty years later I still remember the sights and sounds of Africa: the colour, the dust, the welcome. It is an awesome place. I am grateful that I was granted enough luck over judgement to survive to tell my tales.

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