Do not go where the past may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Simon brought the car to a halt. The river in front of them was a swirling, hostile mass of debris-flecked water. He and his father silently surveyed the devastation. A fetid smell permeated the air.
‘Now what?’ his Dad sighed. ‘’I thought they said the flooding had subsided?’
‘Well, it has, we can still cross. The water flooding the bridge isn’t very deep.’
‘That’s not a bridge, Simon. It’s more like a ford, got no sides. I’ve seen too many accidents on TV … and there’re crocs in this river.’
Simon kept quiet. This negative attitude was best ignored.
Before they’d left home to drive up to Zululand, his sister had warned him, ‘What you’re doing for Dad is admirable, bro, but I hope you realise it won’t be easy.’
‘I know, but he needs a change. What with Mum leaving and then the depression. I’ll make it fun. You wait … he’ll come back a different man.’
‘Well if anyone can do it, you can, but you’re going to need all the patience you can get.’
Standing on the bank of the river, Simon dialled on his mobile phone, ‘I’ll ring the camp and see what can be done. I’m not giving up yet.’
‘Imfolozi Rhino Trails, Zululand,’ a voice answered, ‘Ndumo here.
‘Howzit, Ndumo, it’s Simon de Klerk. We’re at the river – is it safe for us to cross?’
‘Ah, Sawubona, Mr Simon de Klerk. Very good to cross. You wait. I get jeep, come meet you.’
While they waited, another car pulled up. Two women joined them.
‘Morning. This looks like trouble,’ one said, frowning.
‘Looks like fun to me,’ said the one with lanky legs.
Simon smiled, ‘Ja, I just called the camp. They reckon it’s ok to cross but told us to wait. They’re coming to meet us.’
The first woman laid a hand on Simon’s arm. ‘Is it safe? I didn’t bargain for this.’
He nodded, ‘It’ll be fine,’ and changed the subject, ‘Are you doing the four day trail or the shorter one?’
‘Four day – we’re here from the UK … want to make the most of it.’
‘We’re doing the same … name’s Simon – this is my dad, Jack.’
They all shook hands, exchanging names and backgrounds.
Noisily interrupting their chit-chat, out of the bush on the opposite bank, a sliding, skidding jeep came roaring into view and lurched straight onto the almost invisible ford. Inside the jeep, a khaki uniformed man grinned across the torrent. A final revving up the bank, mud spraying in all directions, he brought the jeep to a stop and jumped out. Puffs of steam curled from the hot exhaust.
‘Sawubona, ladies and gents. My name, Ndumo. Very sorry river she flooding, but we cross. You come jeep with me.’
The ladies conferred then declined, ‘Thank you, Ndumo, but no. We have so much luggage, we’d rather not leave it here. Our car will be fine.’
Jack drew breath, ‘I don’t think that’s …,’ but Simon interrupted, ‘Dad, that’s their decision, it’s none of our business.’
‘Mr Simon de Klerk, please you go ladies car, old man in jeep.’ Jack harrumphed indignantly.
The women’s vehicle nosed slowly into the water, the jeep close behind.
‘Keep your revs up,’ Simon urged. As they reached the middle, where the water was deepest, the car stalled.
‘Oh boy.’ Simon grimaced and climbed out. Accompanied by Ndumo, he waded forward to open the bonnet. They’d only moved a few paces when a huge uprooted tree came sweeping towards them. They jumped out of its path but the natural battering ram T-boned the car, pushing the lighter rear end off the ford, half submerging it in the river. Two shocked faces peered out of the windows. ‘The water’s pouring in and we can’t open the doors,’ the women shouted.
‘Get on roof,’ Ndumo yelled, ‘I get rope.’ As he moved away, another surge of water pushed the entire car into the river and it began drifting downstream, at an alarming angle, the level of water rising up its sides.
‘Bloody hell, Ndumo, whadda we do now? Can you get help?’
‘Yes Mr Simon de Klerk. We go camp for help.’
‘Aikona, Ndumo. That’s not gonna happen. You go to the camp, … come Dad, let’s grab the towrope from our car.’ Not waiting for a reply, Simon and Jack splashed back up the bank and rummaged in the boot.
‘We’ve gotta hurry, Simon, that car could vanish any minute. They could bloody drown.’
They squelched along the slippery mud bank, clutching at bushes and grasses to avoid falling into the water. Jack caught sight of the red car ahead of them. ‘They’re still floating, thank God.’
Simon broke into a run. ‘Ja, if it stays that way, they’ll be ok.’
Suddenly they couldn’t see the vehicle anymore. They silently scanned the river.
‘Stop, Simon. Don’t move.’ Jack’s hoarse whisper edged panic. ‘Few feet in front of you …bloody croc.’
Simon froze and shifted his eyes downwards. Its metre long tail pointed towards him, its head probably two metres on from that. His body flushed at the thought, ‘Shit, I would have walked right into it.’ He signalled for Jack to move up the bank. They lobbed a stick in the crocodile’s direction and heard the splash as it retreated into the river.
Pressing on downstream, they tried not to think about the submerged monsters that were probably following their every move. Rounding a bend, they saw the car wedged against the opposite bank, both girls on top, clutching the roof rack. Their shouts for help rung up the river course.
‘Help, we can’t swim. Hurry.’
‘Hang on, we’re coming. Just hang on.’
At that moment, everyone turned in the direction of a straining engine coming closer then fading, then getting louder again. They all began shouting and waving at once.
Minutes later, several men carrying various ropes, spades and crow bars, crowded round the vehicle, keyed up voices all shouting at once. The women were piggy-backed to the bank where they hugged with relief, then sank to the ground, giggling uncontrollably.
The frantic hubbub of the rescuers continued as lines were secured to the vehicle. The winch on the back of the truck whined, slowly hauling the filthy, dented car to safety. A loud cheer rose and the men transformed into triumphant warriors as they stamped rhythmically, chanting their Zulu victory song.
Settled in at base camp that evening, they savoured the earthy taste of blackened meat and corncobs they’d helped cook on the open fire. The incident was recounted for the umpteenth time, the girls horrified when Simon told them about the crocodile. ‘Just as well we didn’t think about it. That would really have freaked us out.’
‘Are you still going to do the trail?’ Jack asked.
Lanky legs didn’t pause, ‘Of course, we came all this way. Nothing stopping us … except clean clothes p’rhaps.’ She glanced down then looked at her friend, ‘Just as well they have a good supply of these ranger’s overalls.’
Jack slapped his thigh, ‘That’s the spirit; never know when you’ll be back here again, eh?’
They rose at sunrise having spent the first night in the relative comfort of a thatched, square hut. A rifle-bearing game ranger greeted them. ‘’Morning everyone, my name’s Andy. I’ll be your guide for the next few days. I trust you all had a good rest last night after your, er, adventures yesterday?’
Jack chuckled, ‘Well, at least everyone is safe. We should be fine now.’ Simon hadn’t heard his father so positive for months. Little bit of distressed damsel done the trick?
Andy continued, ‘You’ve already met Ndumo who will be our tracker. As you know, we will hike 25kms today, reaching camp just before dark. The pack donkeys will leave later this morning, taking all our gear and our tents will be pitched, ready for our arrival.’
‘What’s the gun for, Andy?’ one of the women asked.
‘You have to remember we’re exposing ourselves to wildlife. There’s no saying what they might decide to do. However, we haven’t had any problems since we opened fifteen years back and don’t anticipate any either. He lifted a backpack from several stacked at his feet. ‘These have lunch and water in them and you can add whatever you want, like sunscreen, cameras, etc. So! Are you ready? Let’s go.’
Ndumo in front, Andy behind, they set off at a brisk pace through dew spangled grass, leaving civilisation behind.
Simon was impatient to see rhino. He’d been to several game parks in South Africa, but never seen the elusive white square-lipped rhino. And never in close proximity like this would be. He didn’t have to wait long.
The game ranger’s sibilant command flared like a newly lit match. The air tingled with expectation and Simon felt the hairs on his neck rise. Slowly Andy signalled right. There they were – a hundred metres away. Two, three, no five grazing rhinos. He tested the wind direction and beckoned his group to follow him.
One of the females lifted her massive head, sniffed the air and flicked her small ears in their direction. Noisily she let out her breath. Her companions followed suit. Her cumbersome bulk began moving towards them.
The ranger removed the gun from his shoulder. Unconsciously, the group started to back away, six steps to the rhino’s one. Simon glanced round at the trees – small with scrawny branches. Then he saw lanky legs, motionless and white faced with fear. To his surprise, Simon watched his dad move slowly towards her, hold her firmly and pull her rigid figure backwards.
‘Jaaaaa, voetsek,’ yelled Andy, slapping the butt of his rifle with his hand. In the vast silence, the noise was deafening and startled, the rhino stopped. Then, in sudden decision, she trotted back to join her family.
Andy grinned, ‘We call it bluff. They pretend to start a charge just to scare you. She won’t come back.’ The tension released, everyone babbled at once. Cameras trembling with both excitement and fright aimed at the hulking beasts.
Behind them, Ndumo peered at a slight movement in the long grass. The solitary rhino cow had smelt danger. Then she snorted and emitted a hoarse guttural rumble. They were trapped between her and the herd. Ndumo whistled and crouched down, holding up his hand.
Andy recognised the pre-arranged danger signal and halted the group, not taking his eyes away from Ndumo, he pointed to the side and hissed, ‘Turn and walk that way. Go quietly, but briskly. No sudden movements.’ They did so. She followed. They quickened their pace, she quickened hers. This was out of character, but no one had seen the baby behind her. Neither had anyone seen the adult male directly in the line of their retreat until he released a high pitched squeal that turned blood to ice.
One minute all was quiet, the next, they heard the crashing of undergrowth.
Simon swung towards the noise and saw his dad in a direct line with the charging rhino. Yelling, he sprinted forward. At the same time, he saw Andy reach for his rifle. A shot exploded in the air but the animal didn’t falter.
In the split second before three tons of momentum turned 180 degrees and careened away, Simon hurtled into Jack, sending them both sprawling in the dust.
That night they sat outside their tents round a huge pile of logs generating leaping, sizzling flames. Fascinated, they watched a rather smaller disturbed creature, until now resident in a burning branch, come out fighting mad, its scorpion’s deadly tail curled up over its back.
‘What a day,’ Simon commented, didn’t think we’d find so much excitement so quickly.’
‘Amazing, just amazing, but Jack, I’m sorry you had to take responsibility when I froze. I felt such a wimp.’
‘No problem. You might be taller than me, but you’re a light-weight.’ They laughed together.
Jack stood up and sighed, sounding content as he studied the night sky. ‘Just look at that ocean of stars – fantastic how many more you can see when away from the city.’ He looked across at Simon and nodded his head towards their tent.
‘Time to crash, Simon?, he suggested.
‘Bit early, Dad? You go on … I won’t be long.’
When he pulled the tent flap back a little later, Simon found Jack deep in thought.
‘Whatcha doing, Dad. Thought you’d be lights out?’
Jack rubbed his head vigorously, as if trying to clear his head. ‘Well, I wanted to talk to you really.’
‘Sure, Dad, what’s up?’
‘This trip … with its dramas, with its peace … it’s started my mind turning, weighing things up.’
Simon grinned, ‘They say people have life changing experiences in the bush.’
Jack thumped his thigh, ‘That’s it, you’ve hit the proverbial nail.’
‘So, spill the beans then, Dad. Have you had a life changing thing?’
‘Hi, sis, I’m back.’
‘Hey! Did you have a great time? How’s Dad?’
‘Well, you’re not gonna believe this. I‘ve left him there.’
‘What do you mean? Why? Did you have a bust up?’
Simon chortled, ‘Nothing like that. It was his choice actually. He’s hired a car … he’s scouring the countryside for a small place to buy.’
‘Ja … he said he wants to make new life trails.’ He laughed, ‘See, I told you he’d come back a different man.’
The Australian Literature Review