Fires, felines and vleis (not vleis)

Tyka has just arrived upon my bed, the kitten-cat who lives here sometimes; playful, wanting feline sensual attention and getting it even in the midst of my morning musings on the page. He gets me present again, while the geese honk overhead en route to the vlei. The green shimmer of a goose feather is a new adornment to my shrine, following a walk to the video store yesterday with my girls — partly a run, as the younger one gave three quick sprints and the elder took a well-paced long-distance jog through the vleiside grass to the swings beyond. The vlei must form such a rich part of their childhood memories (held, most particularly in childhood perhaps, in the body) just as Norwich parks are such a part of mine. One swing was where the older one tumbled badly aged two; climbing frames, like dome-shaped igloos; monkey bars for us all to test our growing upper body strength. A see-saw, empty now but earlier holding an embracing pensioner couple, delightfully full of innocence.

For the last few years trips to the vlei have usually been accompanied by Biscuit, our crazy beautiful digging dog, trying to find moles and molerats, though if they appeared she’d howl off pretty quickly. Her own social journey is patchwork — largely nervous of other dogs, whatever their size, she quickly makes human friends (though barks at any with an ounce of fear, including unfortunately the reviewer from a famous travel guidebook visiting our B&B). This was set off by a rather gruff bite from a grumpy old dog when she was still a pup, and it’s clear that dogs like humans have their own destinies to play out.

I’ve had many feline friends in my time, and their temporary demands were rather more familiar to me than the hard hairy slobber of a lovable canine, though now I can hardly imagine life before dog. Yesterday we had to trick her into diving into the vlei to wash off — fortunately she loves swimming — after one of those doggy backrub rolls into the smelliest thing she could find.

Back home the kitten-cats munch cockroaches (yay!) and geckos and butterflies (boo!). The trail of destruction that these apex predators leave in the cities vexed me a while back. Yet the birds, for the most part, fly out of their reach. In the Cederberg a few nights ago a feline yowl on the mountain in the night was a reminder of the essence of wildness around us: followed by a more searing croon of some other being which the leopard or caracal had stealthily stumbled upon. The hungry baboons, perhaps, who’d been approaching our campsite seeking food more than usual, as the long dry season took its toll; or perhaps the tame grysbok the lady in the camp shop talked of with concern, last seen two weeks back. The cycle of life and death, so clear in the mountains then: a river barely flowing and bringing with its slowness a green slimy algae in the rocks, and fish forced into the few places still deep enough for their colonies to thrive, easy pickings for any lazy fan of canned hunting. The soft and soapy tap water was, for once, a preferable drinking option to the mountain stream. At least some thunderclaps and sprinkles of rain came down the morning we packed up.

This was the first time I’d really set up camp independently with my girls: our own little braai grid (you only need a small one if you’re virtually vegan), some vegetable-oil-based firelighters (fantastic!), one of those great coffee steamer Italian steel thingummies, and a new grilling pan-top for toasting over the camping gas. We had our mishaps — a duiweltjie thorn in the girls’ tent put paid to one airbed, a rock on the road flattened a tyre — but both were solved with elegant speed thanks to the grace of life. On the Good Friday gravel road this came in the form of some Afrikaner angels in a 4x4, who had more experience of punctures on excessively tightened hubs, and a pressure gauge and pump to boot to make sure my spare was up to scratch. The airbed issue I solved in the time-honoured fashion of parents everywhere, by donating my own and sleeping on a blanket for the night myself, while the full moon cast its light and the willow above my tent danced lunatic patterns.

My girls find it extraordinary that my own camping childhood contained no fires. I do a little too, particularly as my dad had been a boy scout and we camped regularly throughout my teenage years. It was always small camping gas stoves, perhaps because the real motivation for camping was during daylight hours climbing the mountain peaks; the joys of potjiekos and baked spuds in foil was not part of my youth; toasted marshmallows were a thing I read about curiously in American books. I loved being close to the fireplace of my home in winter, and the annual outdoor Guy Fawkes’ spectacular in the back garden with sparklers and fireworks, but the majesty of a campsite fire under the stars was as new to me when I first arrived in Africa. So too was the sight of the real-life-non-metaphorical Milky Way (a Korean student of mine saw this too for the first time on a recent camp into Africa. The deep joy felt at this realisation will live with us both, I know, forever).

Today, after many camps and many Afrikaburns, fires in the night are a part of my being, as they were for all our ancestors. [Originally published at my blog here ]