It was when Steve mentioned that he would be searching for carnivorous plants that I decided I must accompany him and Graham, a South African ecologist this Sunday. As I am on call 24/7, I needed to bring my own vehicle so I could return to deal with any emergency which might arise. Steve had a spare GPS device, so if I was called, I could find my way back to the car. It didn’t occur to me that we would be going so far into the bundu that there probably wouldn’t be any cell phone coverage anyway.
I set the alarm for 5:20am, slurped down a bowl of porridge, helped by a lukewarm cup of tea and was at the rendezvous point by 6am. Half an hour later, we drove off the tarmac road and parked under a tree at a tiny hamlet. The head of the household came out to greet us and told us about his ten children. He looked rather bemused when we told him we were going for a bushwalk and not to expect us back before 3pm. “Where are you going?” he asked, wondering why we couldn’t drive there. Steve said, “North to see some pools and flowers.”
A teenage boy was deputed to show us the way to the path, on the other side of the river. We followed him through papyrus reeds and cotton fields to a stream running in a gulley. We walked on the sandy banks to a place where we could cross without getting soaked. In front of us was a wall of papyrus reed. “Here is the path,” said our guide. There was no path. It was just a general direction we had to take through the reeds. Unfortunately, we did not bring any machetes, but it certainly had that feel of “Sanders of the River”, blazing a trail through the jungle.
The papyrus gave way to tall dry grass and then to low scrub, infested with buffalo bean. This is a legume with hairy bean pods. Just brushing against the plant allows the tiny hairs to stick in your skin and cause intense itching. Steve said that the locals use talcum powder to ease the itch, but I can’t think how that would work.
We found an overgrown path and followed it, gingerly picking our way around the buffalo bean. The path led us to a charcoal pit, which we skirted, walking in the direction of the GPS co-ordinates of “an interesting piece of ground” which Steve had found on Google Earth. He said that with Google Earth, he could detect poachers’ tracks, areas of illegal logging and charcoal production.
The dried grass was not thorny, but contained lots of tiny, spiky seeds, which stuck to my socks and worked their way into my shoes. There were also some spiny creepers and lots of thorny bushes. The ground was uneven dried-out black cotton soil, which made walking difficult. We spooked a large animal which crashed off into the bush. Too big for a bushbuck, too small for a buffalo. Perhaps it was a bushpig or a kudu.
We crossed over several dried up streams and entered the mopani forest. The trees looked magical in the dawn light and lifted our spirits. Despite the uneven, stony ground, the going became much easier. A baobab tree along our route had been attacked by humans who had cut out a window of bark, to make a special fabric. They had written 1997 on their handiwork. It didn’t seem to have bothered the mighty baobab.
Graham noticed an orchid growing from the side of a tree, but it wasn’t in flower. A couple of hours later we reached the first way point. The “interesting piece of ground” turned out to be a bamboo forest. This particular strain of bamboo lives for fifty years or so, flowers and then dies back. One plant spreads via its roots to set up many new stands of bamboo, but they all die at the same time. We stopped for a while to enjoy it. It was quiet. No birdsong. No animals rustling among the fallen bamboo leaves. Were we just not seeing them, or were they absent? A marula tree had shed all its fruit which were lying on the ground untouched. If there had been any, monkeys and elephants would have gobbled them up.
Finally we reached our destination. Steve had been here in March, at the end of the rainy season. He had seen a series of crystal clear pools, fed by spring water and connected by streams. The first pool was just a few metres across, surrounded by some marshy ground. Warthogs had dug soaking pits in the gravel, but there were other no signs of recent animal activity. Any faecal pellets which we saw were old.
Around the rim of the pool were some tiny red plants, covered with fine hairs, attached to each was a dollop of sticky liquid. To call them carnivorous was stretching the imagination. When Steve told me about these, I was thinking of pitcher plants and Venus fly traps, or larger plants which could trap frogs or small birds. A more accurate term for the plants around the pool would be “insectivorous”. Drosera flexicaulis, to be exact.
We took some photographs and then went to look for the other pools. Unfortunately, they had all dried up. We went from GPS location to GPS location and found no more water. The grass had grown longer and might have obscured a puddle, but this year’s poor rainfall and high temperatures had done for the crystal pools.
We ate lunch, an apple and four finger bananas for me. I took some photographs of what I thought was autumnal tints in the leaves of the trees, but it was probably the result of partial burning from bushfires. My cellphone gave a ding and I saw that I had a few bars of MTN coverage. The message was just an advertising promotion, “Spend just X more kwacha and get Y kwacha free until midnight.” At least it wasn’t someone desperately ill needing my assistance. After lunch, Graham pointed the GPS south and we walked towards the village.
We saw a few more birds, notably a raquet-tailed roller, and made good progress through the burned out undergrowth. Graham is a fast walker and I found myself being left behind. When there was an obvious trail to follow, there was no problem, but when we went off piste, I couldn’t see him or Steve if they were 30 metres ahead of me.
The going was really tough. My legs were ripped to shreds by thorns and spines. I kept stumbling over creepers which tangled my boots. When I needed to catch up with Graham and Steve, I had to make my way through thorn bushes. My cap kept being hooked as I stooped to pass under a spiky branch. Stones and logs on the forest floor kept tripping me up. The only way to get through matted tall grass was to lift up your feet and stamp them down. My hamstrings objected to this and I got cramp. I had to walk slower to make sure I didn’t sprain my ankle or fall. The last thing you want to do is to treat yourself here in the bush.
We finally reached the river in the gorge, close to the village. Despite having drunk over two litres of water and kept up my blood sugar levels by eating Steve’s shortbread biscuits called Eat-Sum-More, I was absolutely exhausted. Our “path” had taken us 500 metres west of the place where we crossed in the early morning, so we took off our shoes and walked up the riverbed. We had to loop around a makeshift dam, fitted with fish traps. I said good afternoon to a lady doing her washing on a sandbank. She looked astonished to see three muzungus tramping in the river.
Somehow, our original guide had got wind of our return, so he came down to the river and guided us up a small stream, into the towering papyrus forest. As I put on my boots, I noticed that my feet were filthy. My special Aldi insect repelling socks were covered in burrs and spiky seeds. I stuffed them in my pocket and walked sockless to the car.
I had another bottle of water in the car. It was hot, but I didn’t care. I gulped down 500ml and felt a bit more human. It was an effort to lift my foot up to get into the driver’s seat. Flies were buzzing all over the scratches on my legs.
“How far did we walk, Steve?” I asked. “Just a shade under 27km,” he replied. Good grief. I have never walked 27km in one day in my life before, never mind struggling through matted grass, thorny bush and buffalo bean, mostly without even following a path created by animals.
As soon as I arrived home just after 4pm, I stripped off my clothes and had a long cool shower. My phone showed an SMS – “I know that Sundays are for emergencies only, but can you tell me when you will be consulting at the clinic tomorrow? My nanny has a cough.”
I wonder what I will feel like tomorrow morning if I can struggle out of bed?