I spent Christmas away from home – very far away. On Christmas Eve, I lay awake most of the night listening to the hyenas scrabbling at the canvas of our tent. On Christmas Day, I lay just as awake, listening to the two lions that roared in chorus (or maybe they were roaring AT each other) not all that far from our camp. Need I say it was a fabulous Christmas?
Doing a safari has never been high on my list of things I want to do before I die, but it has always been right at the top on my husband’s list, and as married couples should support each other in the achieving of dreams, off we all went to Africa to see lions, giraffes, elephants and hippos. Hippos are EXTREMELY boring. Ostriches are quite fun, wildebeests are … well, sorry to say so, but they’re quite ugly, zebras all look quite fat, this due to the stripes being the wrong way round, and hyenas are my absolute favourites. Strong matriarchal societies have that effect on me, and female hyenas not only call the shots, but they’re actually bigger than the males – a first as far as I’ know when it comes to mammals.
As adventures go, the safari was perhaps a bit tame – and it gave just as much opportunity to study people as animals, seeing as the Serengeti plain was full of four wheel drive vehicles with tourists on board. Cameras protruded from windows, from retractable roofs. A movement in the grass and twenty lenses swiveled towards it, the clicking noise loud in the relative silence of the savanna. The landscape was mind blowing, single trees silhouetted against multicoloured evening skies, blue hazy mountains in the far distance and the grass covered, flat savanna extending endlessly in all directions. Now and then it rained, tropical storms that resulted in waterfalls from above. As a consequence the dirt roads became waterlogged and muddy – too muddy at times. Which is why our jeep got stuck in the middle of nowhere …
We were actually looking for lions and had spent the best part of two hours circling one potential outcrop of rock after the other. No lions – in retrospect probably a good thing. For the last ninety minutes we’d seen nothing – well, apart from grass, bushes and water, the odd bird or two. There were no recent tracks in the road before us, the sun was beating down and the jeep growled and bucked its way through one mud-hole after the other. Until we hit the hole. The motor roared, the wheels spun. It roared some more, the wheels spun even faster and after a couple of minutes of this our guide Emanuel switched off the engine, slammed the driving wheel and said “we’re stuck”. (I actually think he said something very colourful and rude first, but seeing as that was in Swahili I can’t be 100% sure).
What was the first thing everyone did when Emanuel said that? Out of seven pockets out came seven mobile phones, arms were extended, windows were opened but to no avail. No coverage. I studied the landscape around us. As far as I could see it was empty of animals – and of cars.
“No choice,” I told my family. “We’ll just have to push.”
No major enthusiasm met this comment, but as I believe in setting a good example I opened the door, told my kids to shape up and jumped out. My shoes sank a decimetre into the soft mud …
To cut a long story short, it took us almost two hours to dislodge the damned jeep. We picked armfuls of grasses to wad in front of the wheels, we pushed and shoved, got it out of one rut only to see the vehicle slide sideways into an even deeper rut, and at one point my hunk of a son (the eldest) looked at me, lowered his voice and said “We’ll never do this, Mum. The wheel’s sunk all the way to the axle.”
“We have to,” I told him. And we did, all of us cheering like mad when the jeep finally was on firmer ground. All of us were plastered in mud, our shoes were insalvageable, and my husband dislocated his shoulder, so it was a somewhat bedraggled group of travellers that finally made it to the hotel later that day. Oh, did I mention that there were fresh – and huge – cat prints in the mud beside the jeep?
As we struggled with our jeep, I kept on thinking about all those intrepid explorers and colonisers that dot human history (I know, I know; somewhat strange. But I tend to go into daydreaming mode when confronted with a major task). The first Homo Erectus that stood looking out across the Mediterranean, the Cro-Magnon man that decided it was time to up and leave and find a new cave somewhere, the ancient hunters and gatherers that set foot on the the ice bridge that spanned the Bering Strait. They were always alone, dependent on themselves and their family for survival. They had no jeep in which they could hide if the sabre tooth tiger decided it wanted a snack, and the lions back then were (I imagine) much, much bigger than they are today.
In more modern times, there were the thousands upon thousands of emigrants who crossed the unknown wilds of North America, the brave settlers who made their way through South American jungle – and all in the hope of achieving a better life than the one they’d left behind. Progress is about taking risks. It’s about taking a deep breath and setting foot on the shimmering band of ice that temporarily joins one continent to the other and start walking, even when the ice cracks and sighs under your weight. It’s about having the vision that surely there must be new land on the other side of the waters, load up your canoes with people and water and paddle all the way to New Zealand.
In difference to our ancestors, I live in a time and age where I could take a long hot shower and wash away the grime. I didn’t need to catch my dinner, all I had to do was carry my plate around and fill it from the buffet. The long gone settlers who got stuck somewhere between St. Louis and California had no such luxuries. The German wife who carried one child on her back, steadied a second one by the hand and carried a third in her womb, had no choice but to trudge on behind her husband as he chopped his way through the impenetrable jungle in southern Brazil. To stop was to die, a injury however minor could prove fatal, and to return home was an impossible dream.
We had an adventure during our safari, an episode we can milk as a conversational gambit for years to come. But for a little short moment it made me realise just how small we are in the overall context of things,minute little dots in the canvas of life, and who – but us – care if we live or die?
I don’t know if our ancestors were given to ponder the existential aspects of life – I think they were, as to me this is the distinctive trait in all humans. I have no idea if they did a risk analysis before setting off on their explorations, or if it was simply a matter of having no other options. Whatever the case, I am humbled by their fortitude and perseverance, by their ability to adapt. I will never forget our jeep episode, and as I write this I see my beautiful men – husband, sons – as they bow their backs and set their shoulders to the jeep, roaring in unison as they struggle like fiends to dislodge it. We did it – together. Seven people moved 1,5 tons of jeep. Just imagine what we’re capable of, as a species, should we all decide to pull in the same direction!