An African Safari

Cross-posted from

I have just returned from eleven days in South Africa, in Johannesburg. I've been here before but my knowledge of this continent is very small – impressions from a raft of Hemingway novels and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness still linger.

I greatly admired Hemingway, who wrote of safaris and wars and bullfights, until I actually attended a bullfight in Mexico – the courage and death of nine bulls scalded my heart and Hemingway and I parted company. Behind me, two burrito wielding Mexican women snatched savage mouthfuls of lunch and bayed for more – Olé, Olé, Olé! Whose blood did they crave, bull or matador – or mine for my unmasculine dispassion and failure to excite.

ElephantDay one and my host-friends Abhijatri and Balarka take me out to a game reserve three hours south of the sprawling city – the high veldt stretches away on all sides, savannah plains, the innumerable, jumbled outcrops of kopjes, and far off the lovely purple silhouettes of mountains. Scanning the orange rocks for leopards through a scarred set of 12x binoculars. We play a game called 'spot the...', competing for points for unusual animals seen, with the winner (the one accruing most points) earning a free lunch at some roadside haven out of the heat. Here not just buffalo but wildebeest, antelope, warthog, gnu roam – a 'spot the...' spotter's paradise! This continent has offered up the first traces of man's predecessors, the earliest known cradle of our evolution.

Inside the reserve a huge old elephant, one tusk broken off, dozes under an acacia tree. We pull over and click away, but photos are absurd in this 360-degree panorama and I toss my cheap toy into the back seat. The elephant wanders towards us – a waterhole lies on the other side of our car and Abhijatri, our driver, is taking stunt photos through the binocular lens. Now the elephant is almost directly in front of our car, a large behemoth clearly unhappy with our presence, waving his ears, snorting loudly and showing all the signs of a likely charge. Alarm bells are ringing loudly – my eyes are round as teacups. Oblivious, his own eyes riveted to his camera, Abhijatri is blithely unaware of the sudden and dangerous turn of events. We call out, almost in unison – Abhijatri, Abhijatri, Abhijatri! and our last shout alerts him. He pales, fumbles to start the car while we watch anxiously. Reversing respectfully away, and just in time. Has any disciple gone to meet the Grim Reaper after being gored by a 3-ton elephant, impaled like a rag doll on those fearsome ivories? A glorious and very original exit from this world but after this experience I'd prefer a nice quick heart failure out on the frisbee field or a leisurely and dignified (and painless please) exit in a disciples old folk's home or maybe a nice high speed train wreck.

We safari survivors have an intense week of workshops – how lovely the people we meet with their open hearts and goodwill. Here most people believe in God, laugh in surprise at my own surprise at this. I try to run each day in the nearby parklands – but such tiredness, wheezing along like an infirm and pallid geriatric, then I remember the city is 1800 metres up from sea level. Not dying from some insidious illness after all.

Johannesburg at duskDowntown Johannesburg at night – not a good place to be, even in a car. Empty streets, a sense of menace and sudden danger, a bad movie scene. The brothers are wonderful – up at 5am every morning, disciplined and hard working trailblazers out in this frontier. An intense eleven days, then home via Asia. Abhijatri had slipped $80 into my carry-on at J'Burg airport, a gracious little au revoir – donning the unfamiliar mantle of shopper, in Singapore I wandered the spiritless, good-times gauntlet of Changi airport, the boutiques of relentless handbags, jewelry, gadgets, cigarettes and liquor, in search of a cheap item of clothing to replace my travel weary, fake Ralph Lauren shirt. A large indelible curry stain from my 'Asian Veg' plane meal glowed a disreputable yellow against the white cotton.

Upstairs, a transit hotel offers 3-hour rooms for twenty local dollars and I succumb, only falling asleep on my token bunk after a frustrating 2 ½ hours of twitching, jetlagged wakefulness. Wandering, a prayer room and adjoining meditation room loom – unadorned in careful deference to neutrality, instead they fail to inspire or touch the heart. Even here, the bland, unfailingly insipid music of airports and hotels gnaws away. If I could be God for one day, my first task after running a 1:59:00 marathon and restoring my hair would be to erase all muzac from the planet – a mere wave of my sparkly wand – and substitute it with my favourite Sri Chinmoy piano and pipe organ improvisations. (okay, then I'd stop all world wars). I buy unwanted chocolates, a token gift, but fail to replace the shirt, a tramp doomed to curry stains for the final 11-hour haul over the Pacific and home.

Circadian rhythms still trapped in an African time zone, frazzled from 35 hours of travel, I drive out to Auckland's west coast to roam the empty beaches, a little balm for body and spirit. A calm dawn, white caps curling and breaking far out, the sky swallowing it's last stars.

Chaos of stars, godwits' flight
against the sea at the end of night
the murmur of tide in the half dawn light...
yes, I like it like this.

Fears, fantasies, wistful thoughts
a burst of sky...
words unsaid, tears unshed
but I like it like this.

    – Jogyata.

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