A Tour Guide Considers His Lot
As he advanced towards me, three geese followed up the rear, in steady meter behind their master.
He was a man perhaps in his late sixties, with the teeth of a smoker, the eyes of a lover and, revealed below his work-flecked blue shorts, the legs of a puppet doll.
Spindly, with bulbous knees, those pins got by on the memory of youth, when he strode the plains in June.
The morning heat here in Drakensberg, in the northern reaches of Kwa-Zulu Natal, was on the ascent. We each knew our chat must, at some point, be sacrificed to the African sun. He sat on the low wall surrounding our braii, his favourite bird perched on his lap.
He held her beak pincer-shut for a prolonged period.
‘Geese need to know there are consequences to bad behaviour’, he said, motioning to a reddened peck-mark on his wrist.
He smiled. Pets were a source both of joy and responsibility.
Some time back, one of his ganders developed a foot fetish which, at first, seemed amusing. But the behaviour intensified, and the bird became a pest to visitors. The errant podophile, alas, had to be re-homed.
We had met him the previous evening, as he was caretaker of the Boer 1899 farmhouse we had rented – a fleeting mountain escape from Durban’s humidity. There was something in the man’s forthright style and knot-moled skin which appealed to me.
‘It’s not for everyone’, he had said, in reference to our sprawling house, with its tired cane-sofas and poured cement counter-tops. Rather than waste our time in describing its absent luxuries, he talked about the property’s monkeys (ongoing pests) and zebras (elusive, dawn wanderers). The latter left puckered holes in his grass on occasion, he had said. That’s how you know they’ve been.
He did not mention the scheduled electricity blackouts, nor the absence of backup power. Being plunged into nights of airless torpor was part of the South African contract, in 2023. The inconvenience seemed, perhaps, derisory.
Could zebras truly be wandering this manicured conservancy bordered by 2 metre-high curling, barbed-wire fencing? We discussed this when he had departed. Joked about it. This was leprechaun talk, surely; embroidery for the gullible visitor.
He was born in Mauritius, though I could distinguish no Creole lilt beneath his dowager South African accent. Moved here as a boy. His parents ran a sugar-cane farm, whilst planting the seeds of academia in their son. But his life-quest was more for Nature than Knowledge, and he resolved to become a Safari Guide.
His plans were just unfolding when a conscription notice arrived from the South African military. Defined through apartheid, the Military was a brutal place to serve, and its expertise was brutality. But the system had him cornered, so he took to his bike, and made the long slow journey towards Durban, to register.
Along the way, he stopped over in a one-horse town of white, blue-collar uncertainty and squinting windows. Being young and carefree, he deflected the comely eyes of the town’s Afrikaans female folk, and walked into a neighbouring township.
‘Ach’, he remarked, ‘when you’re 23, you’re almost permanently hard’.
There, he encountered a coloured young woman of great beauty and incongruous, blonde tresses. They struck up a conversation.
What happened next shaped his life.
In the early hours of the next morning, his lodging room was busted open by eight military police of this crappy little town, who had gotten word of his female visitor. Sexual relations between coloured and white people were made illegal by the Mixed Marriages Act of 1949, and were punishable.
The pair was hauled to the jailhouse by these captors, Military conscripts even younger than himself.
He was beaten. Beaten by the institution he would, in a few days, be compelled to join. Devastatingly, he was compelled to witness the gang rape of his female companion, at one cell’s remove. They had known each other less than six hours.
Fuck all of them, he thought. On his release the following day, the man with lover’s eyes biked to Durban Port and boarded a working-boat for Perth. On failing to sign-on by the appointed time, he was declared criminal in absentia, and became a wanted man.
He stayed in Oz until the early 90s, when apartheid imploded in South Africa, Mandela was released, and, with the ascension of the ANC to government, all charges of desertion were dropped.
Our escape to these mountains on the border with Lesotho was punctuated by wonderful food, local brew and wood fire on a meat-less braii, which, by way of its shimmering glow, prompted the conversations that renew old friendships.
Late, and with whisky in hand, we took our chat out onto his manicured lawn. Staring up at the stars, my chair’s leg found a puckered hole and wobbled precariously. The southern constellations seemed so fresh to us Europeans. Multitudinous, pinhead zebras, dotted on God’s black savannah.
A shooting star flamed across our view, burning wide and white in its final passage. Its disguise as a giant, earthly firework was belied by an uncanny, awe-inducing, silence. We craned our heads and watched, matching silence with silence.
His arrival the next morning, geese in tow, was a tardy affair. This country rises early to avoid the heat, but with his legs as they were he needed several cups of coffee to get them going.
‘I picked up bilharzia as a guide’, he explained, ‘drinking dirty water. They thought it was cancer of the spine, at first’.
I could not detect a shimmer of regret in his words.
‘I’ve spent my life worrying about giant enemies, but it’s a parasitic worm that’s downed me in the end’.
The complete breakdown of his nervous system placed him in a wheelchair for four years, reducing his legs to skin and bone. Robbed him of his profession. Forced him to medical marijauana to deal with the pain. Stripped him of his muscularity and physical powers.
He was a proud hippie now, his living quarters free-of-charge in his role as caretaker for our Boer farmhouse. It was, all told, a satisfactory state of affairs.
‘You have to accept it, and make do with it’, he said, stroking the reprimanded goose as he looked down at his legs.
‘I tell it to my tour groups on their first day. Listen chaps, I say. You’re in Africa now. Things are different here. Find what’s beautiful, and quit the complaining’.
Because things won’t change, and the bitching ruins the trip.