Safari, Days 2 & 3

Rod towed us back to Orapa, passing landmarks: dead dog, baobab tree, the wrecked car. Fiona and I had a cup of tea, salty from the local water, which made us realise why the pub was so popular. By four thirty the car was fixed and anti-biotics procured, so off we set again, past the landmarks: wrecked car, baobab tree, dead dog. This time a donkey was standing sentinel over the dog.

We drove past a tiny village where the present met the past. Little mud houses with thatched roofs, sparsely-clad children playing among the chicken and the goats, and the incongruity of a Landrover parked in front of one house.

We saw the villages around Mopipi beside the dried-up pan. The water had dried up, but the villages stayed.  We drove through S-bends and dongas, and Rod’s exhaust broke again.


The sun hovered like a giant red planet, casting an eerie pink-grey glow over the sand and salt. I wondered if we were still on earth, or if we had stepped through an intergalactic time machine to find ourselves on some remote undiscovered world. In the distance two figures, one walking, one riding a donkey, moved towards the night, like a scene from a nativity play.


We made camp on the Makgadikgadi pans, in the dust. The sore on Edward’s face had started turning septic. Catherine stood on a large thorn that had to be removed from her foot with a pair of pliers. Michael got hiccups and Fiona started dusting.

The night was cold and the wind whipped up the sand, so we didn’t hang around in the morning. The road was nothing more than tyre tracks. Every so often they were criss-crossed by others, as if to challenge our sense of direction. Occasionally the road disappeared altogether, then we found it again appearing obliquely from behind an isolated bush. Little grew. As far as the eye could see was the whiteness of sand and salt crystals. In the sand were tiny shells, indicating the one time presence of aquatic life.

On the plains we saw our first animals: an eagle, then impala, gemsbok, zebra, and vultures. We drove off the road to see where the vultures were hovering, and were just in time to see four or five almost black Kalahari lions running from the scene of the kill. They had eaten their fill, and it was the turn of the jackals and vultures. The carcass was bubbling as the birds climbed greedily in. We watched for a while, fascinated and nauseated.


On the horizon were the date palms, a relic, according to rumour, of the days when the slave traders, crossing the pans, spat out the stones from their dates, which later grew into amazing tall palms. They bore no fruit, but the children collected vegetable ivory from them, intending to carve wonderful beads and rings when they got home.

We drove through vast areas of nothing but sand, until suddenly we came across a little village, with no visible means of support other than a handful of goats. No grass, no crops, no water. How did they survive? People smiled and waved and looked happy, but what might they have been thinking? Were there no stirrings of ambition or resentment as we passed by in our fancy vehicles? I wondered if maybe those people, stuck with their sparse living, from which they expected nothing, were spared the frustration of failure or the pressures of the materialistic western world lifestyle. Or was that some sort of justification to counteract the feelings of guilt I carried?

When we reached the Maun road, we were made sickeningly aware of the severity of the drought. Through the dusty haze we saw many dead zebra beside the road. Some were reduced to heaps of white bones or bare skeletons, some were dried hides stretched over the bony frames, with gaping holes in the abdomen where the insides had been eaten away.

We came across a Mercedes that had broken down. Hardly suitable transport for such conditions. Our guys got themselves under the bonnet, and with much ingenuity and improvisation managed to get it running.

We saw giraffe moving quickly in slow motion. They, like the lions, were almost black. The trees looked as if there had been a heavy frost, where every twig was dusted with a layer of white sand. And the ubiquitous hornbills portended the rain, which never came.

Yellow Hornbill

Safari – Day 1

Michael bought a Landrover which became the answer to our sanity. Much of Michael’s work took him to Botswana, a country he fell in love with. Every spare opportunity he would gather a group of guys together and take off on safari. Most of his annual leave was spent in two separate trips to the bush with other people.

One year we managed to save enough money to make a family trip. We went with another family plus Terry, a colleague of Michael’s based in Orapa, one of the Anglo mines.

landie copy

We set off on a cold July morning, leaving at two a.m. so that the children could sleep for a while. I climbed into my sleeping bag as if I were going to run in a sack race, because the old ‘landie’ didn’t have a heater. Except in summer, when so much heat came through the floor from the engine, I had to sit with my feet in the air.

We drove and we drove. Michael drove, I dozed and the children all slept. The sun rose to remind us we were hungry, so we stopped for coffee and toilets. To add to my fears of tse-tse flies and terrorists, Michael told me we were in land-mine zone. We noticed the ‘boerebakkies, a cross between a tank and a truck, used by the local farmers. The boss sat in the tank cab with his dog and the labourers sat in the open back.

I searched with dry dust-rimmed eyes for beauty in this Africa, the Africa of my husband and children. Far behind were the suburbs, the comfort zone for me with my parochial mind. Always on the periphery. Excited by the magic of a city, the busy ferment, yet never part of it. Aroused by its sensuality, yet a voyeuse. Then, looking across the sandy veldt grass, part of me wanted to run through it, to feel it scratching my legs; to roll over and over and claw at the earth until I understood it and was at one with it. But I remained within the safe haven of the car, keeping my foolish thoughts to myself.

We reached the border safely contending with three police roadblocks, but they were only checking indicators and horn, so we were quickly on our way. There was no sign of the Botswana Defence Force, who, rumour had it, would make one unpack every last item, down to the contents of the toilet bags.

The sand road from Serowe to Orapa seemed endless. A new road was in the process of development, but was not yet in use. The constant bumping over ruts damaged the exhaust of our fellow traveller Rod’s Landcruiser, and by the time we finally reached Orapa we were all covered in dust, starving hungry, and tired, tired, tired. Rod’s wife, Fiona, had a splitting headache. But after a cup of salty-flavoured tea and a shower we were ready to hit the restaurant for our last civilised meal.

The next morning, Rod was up bright and early fixing his exhaust. It was mid-morning before we were finally off, with Terry leading the convoy. About twenty kilometres along the sand road, acrid fumes started pouring out of our dashboard. I leapt out, grabbing my knitting and the passports, whilst Michael dived under the bonnet. Everything appeared to be fixed, so we set off again. Five minutes later, naked flames licked through the cracks in the dashboard. I jumped out again, grabbing knitting and passports, nearly dislocating Abigail’s arm as I hauled her out. Flames from a wiring fault were a bit of a worry with eighty litres of petrol on the roof rack. The children and I ran from the vehicle, but the flames soon subsided.

The weather had turned hot, so Fiona and I took off our jumpers to sun ourselves. That was when I noticed the red streaks up my arm from a three-day-old burn. Blood poisoning was starting. Meanwhile the children had kicked over a rock to see if there was a scorpion underneath, and there was…


Two Examples of my Ignorance

We moved house, I accepted a part-time teaching job, the girls turned into adolescents and Edward had his first epileptic fit. He was ten years old. We had been warned of this long ago, but when Edward’s second brain scan showed no abnormalities and his speech caught up with that of his peers, I assumed everything was fine, and completely forgot the latent epilepsy.

My shock at the sight of his face twitching violently and his eyes rolling back was equalled by the panic and shame I felt at not knowing what to do. I should have been prepared. Later Edward told me he’d had several of these fits previously, especially after chewing gum, so chewing-gum was immediately banned from the house.

After visits to the doctor and neurologist Edward was put on Epilim for the next few years. However, he only had one more seizure before he outgrew the condition completely and had no further need of medication.

My teaching job was not the success I had hoped for. I thought I had formed a strong bond with a class of Year Nine lower grade pupils. I felt they missed out on all the special opportunities and subconsciously believed themselves to be ‘non-achievers’, so I promised I would arrange an outing for them.

This done, I printed off worksheets, and talked the school principal into allowing me to use the school bus, plus commandeer the assistance of our lab technician for a day at the zoo.


The children were very excited, and came equipped with their lunches and plenty of cool drinks, it being a warm day. Little did I realise, their cold drink bottles had been partially emptied and topped up with vodka.   Some of the children must have been drunk before we even arrived at the zoo, but I thought it was just high spirits.

The day became a complete nightmare when security called me because some of the boys had climbed over the fence into the bear pit. Eventually we did manage to get all the children rounded up and back into the bus without anyone being injured or eaten alive, but it was the last school outing they ever had, and the last for me, too.


An Unpleasant Experience

The second jolt to the senses happened shortly after my failure to support the injured man. The year would have been somewhere around 1987, and I had been to visit a friend up the road for a chat. As I skipped happily up the front steps and into our house the pleasant bitter taste of coffee still lingered in my mouth. I opened the front door to see the contents of my handbag strewn across the dining room table. Puzzled, I looked around for our cat, wondering if the bag had contained something that might appear flavoursome to the feline palate.

I scanned the lounge and caught my breath. My heart started jumping around in my chest. Gripping the back of the corner armchair were my yellow washing up gloves. The coffee turned to vinegar as bile rose through my constricting throat. My tongue stuck to the roof of my dry mouth as if glued with peanut butter. I stared in horror as the top of a black curly head appeared from behind the chair. Then I noticed our suitcase open in the middle of the floor. It was full to overflowing, and right on top was Michael’s sharp fishing knife.

I stood petrified. The suitcase was midway between the intruder and me, which was about the same distance as my feet from the front door. But I could not move. My brain was unable to tell my feet how to get to the door. A rasping gurgle filled the air, which seemed to come from somewhere inside my throat.

The intruder leapt towards me, and somehow in my panic, I found myself outside on the patio, still attempting a scream that would not come. He grabbed my shoulders and shook me, perhaps to stop the weird noise, or perhaps intending more violence. Seeing I was paralysed from shock, he took the opportunity to run, still wearing the yellow gloves. As I watched him go I could taste the salty tears of relief.

Later, when I was reporting the case to the police, I asked what I should have done under those circumstances. The white policeman looked me in the eye and said ‘Madam, you shoot him.’

eddy grant - gimme hope joanna (artwork) 1988

Cause for Reflection

Before I re-joined the workforce, I experienced two situations that threw me into a state of political confusion. The first occurred one morning while I was still wearing the tracksuit I jumped into first thing every day to see me through the morning chores. Children safely delivered to school, washing blowing on the line, I wandered into the kitchen to make another cup of coffee. Without thinking, I took out a butter biscuit and dunked it as I studied the gym timetable for a class that might help me to tone up a bit. Not that I could actually afford to join a gym, but thinking about it seemed like a step in the right direction.

As I looked up, I saw Nikki’s ice-cream money still on the table, where the other girls had viewed it contemptuously, saying, ‘We never had that much when we went on school outings.’ I felt a twinge of uneasiness at the thought of my baby at the zoo all day in the heat with no spending money. And to make matters worse, she was wearing the knickers with the unreliable elastic that had been put out for mending.

To dispel the feelings of guilt and anxiety, I decided to go for a little run, as a way of starting off my new exercise regime. When I walked the children across the park earlier that morning, I had noticed joggers coming out like spring leaves.


After fifty metres or less of severe discomfort, boobs bouncing, ankles cracking, shoes slopping, chest hurting and nose dripping, I resolved to stick to walking. I failed to understand how some ladies managed to retain their dignity whilst jogging. As I walked, I noticed signs of spring all around. The branches of the willows beside the stream were weeping delicate gauze tears. Leaves were unrolling from the clenched fists of winter on the banana palms. Weeds were already appearing between my freshly planted tomato seedlings.


They reminded me of the parable of the farmer who sowed his seed, and some fell on the footpath, where the birds ate them. Other seeds fell on shallow soil with underlying rock. They sprouted quickly, but couldn’t get any nourishment through their roots, and soon died.  Other seeds fell among thorns and weeds that choked the good seedlings before they reached maturity, and some, fortunately fell on good fertile soil and produced wonderful crops. I hoped I was preparing the right soil in the lives of my children, and also sowing good seeds.

I passed a little round man with shiny black cheeks.

‘ Good morning,’ I greeted him. ‘Beautiful day.’

‘I’m fine, thanks,’ the man replied.

As I reached our gate, a smartly-dressed African man appeared and asked for the Boss. Resisting the temptation to say ‘That’s me’, I asked what he wanted. My immediate assumption was that he was either looking for work or money, neither of which I could offer. I suggested he might like a sandwich, but he declined, and embarked on a heart-rending saga. Some thugs had come to his house and beat him up. He pulled up his shirt and showed me the stitches from the stab wounds. Then the four offenders raped his pregnant wife and took all their money. Now the landlord needed the rent and they had no money till Wednesday. If he couldn’t raise two hundred Rand they would be thrown out on to the streets, hungry. In those days two hundred Rand represented a lot of money. He couldn’t find anybody who would trust him enough to lend him the money.  I sadly told him I didn’t even have twenty Rand to lend him. I so wanted to help, even if only by sharing our food, as that was really all I could offer. But he said again he wasn’t hungry.

As he walked away, I wondered guiltily whatever the poor man would do. Nobody trusted a stranger anymore, particularly one who had been in a fight.  My mind was still attuned to the parables I had been thinking of earlier, and I recalled with shame the story of the Good Samaritan. I was as bad as the men who had passed by on the other side of the road. Once again, pity and sympathy without any practical action are pretty empty emotions. But what if I had access to that amount of money? What would Michael have said?  I assumed he would have been furious. And what if the man had never come back with the money, which was what I suppose I believed at that stage?


The Darker Side of the Park

The park wasn’t always a source of happiness. An increasing number of squatters were sleeping under the willows. One morning we saw a man lying in an unusual position and it crossed my mind that the might be dead. On my way back from dropping the children at school I took a closer look and tried to attract his attention, but after several loud ‘Excuse me’s’ he still didn’t flicker. I was too scared to actually touch him, so I went home to phone the police. They came and confirmed the man had been dead for several hours, so I couldn’t have helped him, even if my CPR had been up to date.

Stories spread and change direction as fast as a bushfire, and later that day we heard that my neighbour’s lightweight nine-year-old son had pulled this large man from the stream on his way to school, and there was a bullet hole in the man’s head and stab wounds all over his chest! Fortunately not even remotely true.


Another day I was walking through the park and came across an African woman sitting in the filthy stream. As I approached she slipped further into the murky water. I tried to help her on to the bank, but couldn’t budge her. She asked for water, so I nipped home to get her some food, drink and a towel. Edward came back with me and together we managed to help her out of the water and under a tree. She was wearing only a black polo neck jersey and a piece of sacking for a skirt.

She could hardly walk and was speaking in one of the eleven official languages that I could not understand, but we managed to ascertain that she was sick and needed help. We went home to phone for an ambulance, but by the time we had walked back, the woman had disappeared. I looked around puzzled, because the ambulance couldn’t have arrived that quickly, and the woman had struggled to walk three paces with us.

A man told us she had moved to the shelter of the trees because someone had stolen her clothes. He said she wouldn’t go in an ambulance because she’d been drinking meths.

We came home again to find her something to wear, returning with an old dress that I was sure had shrunk while hanging in my cupboard. We managed to ease the woman into a semi-respectable state before the ambulance took her to hospital. The following day she was back in the park with her ankle in plaster, wearing a different dress.

Our contributions of food and drink to the vagrants were random. We did not take food every day, partly because we were battling financially ourselves, but mainly because once started, we would be committed to running a regular ‘soup kitchen’. If we went away or moved house, who would continue to feed these people?


Our finances were at an all-time low, thanks to my costly escape to England. I used to search down the backs of the chairs in the hope that some loose change might have fallen out of a pocket, so I could buy milk. We sold the car and Michael bought a motorbike. Sometimes I caught a lift on the back and felt the wind whistling up my trouser legs and whipping the split ends of my hair from under my crash helmet, lashing my neck and mascara-streaked face. And I wanted to go faster.

The Park

Gradually life grew fuller and I became too busy to wallow in self-pity. I was very involved with primary school functions and cricket catering. We made new friends and started to have a social life in which I felt a part.

I have a memory of one Halloween party. Michael made a distinguished-looking Count Dracula, apart from some disgusting fangs I made him wear. Edward went as a ghost, shrouded in an old curtain lining. Catherine, Abi and myself were witches three, and Nikki was our cat. I put black eye pencil on my lips, red round my eyes and dark brown shadow on my cheeks to give that gaunt look. Thinking I looked really witchy I presented myself before the children, who said I looked like Michael Jackson.

I kept a diary for a time. It was a friend in which to confide my private thoughts, to speculate why life never attained the perfection of dreams; to expand my little philosophies and to seek out the positives in each day. As I read through it, I saw clearly it was time to allocate a little more responsibility to the children and find myself a job.

Our house was situated in a quiet cul-de-sac ending in a park. We had a little dog, an SPCA ‘pavement special’ that followed me like a shadow. The primary school was a short walk across the park, so the dog and I accompanied the children every morning. I loved to note the first signs of seasonal change, particularly in spring; the willows with layer after delicate layer of new green,  the cherry blossom confetti blowing into our hair.

The first rains always brought violent storms, with dark clouds rumbling in, ominous and charcoal, lightning forking and zigzagging, splitting the black sky in two, shocking the earth in a moment of illumination. I would count…a thousand and one, a thousand and two and my voice would be drowned by the roar and crash of thunder as it reverberated across the valley. Rain hammered on our tin roof as if a hundred horses were galloping across it. Sometimes we just went and stood outside the front door and inhaled the dust-sweet smell of the rain.

But after a storm, everything was fresh and we had to walk all around the perimeter of the park because the two tiny streams had turned into raging torrents overnight. The grass either side of the water was flattened as if elephants had charged that way, indicating the volume of water gushing through the park. If I’d owned wellies or gumboots I would have jumped into the squelchiest puddliest places. So I could understand why Edward did just that, in his school shoes. And one had a hole in it. I had to harden myself not to think about his little wet feet all morning.

On another morning Edward was in a bad mood because Nikki had won his best marble. He didn’t want to walk with us girls so he ran on ahead and two more marbles fell out of his pocket into the stream. I refused to let him delve his relatively clean white-shirted arm into the thick brown silt to retrieve the marbles so he grumbled all the way to school, barely pacified by the promise that we would go back after school with a fishing net. But the afternoon was one of those perfect motherhood moments. We found the marbles, we discovered beautiful stones that changed colour as they dried in the sunshine, and we sat on the grassy banks telling stories and picnicking on apples and raisins.

On Sunday afternoons as we relaxed around our barbeques, we could hear the beautiful singing of various African groups who held their church services in the park. The people looked resplendent in their white and green robes, and those African harmonies have remained in my heart.