Thursday, January 10, 2013

The bush

When I tell non-Africans that I am going to the bush, I suspect they either have no clue what I mean or they think I am going on a glamorous safari, watching herds of zebra and wildebeest galloping across vast plains, cheetah and lions in pursuit.  Where dinner is served on white table linens with umbrella-tree acacias in silhouette against a fiery, setting African sun.

The truth is different – at least for me.

Yes, going to the bush usually includes early-morning drives in an open game vehicle or late afternoon trips with various stops for sundowners –gins and tonic or chilled sauvignon blanc, or cold beer, accompanied by trout or liver pâté on water crackers.  Sometimes there is a night drive to try and spot nocturnal animals - honey badgers, civet, genet, and porcupine, and, if lucky, leopard or hunting lions.

Even vultures like an evening snack - in this case the remains of an impala
The surviving impala take a much needed drink.  Note: this is only part of one male impala's harem!
If you are like me, drives also call for time spent identifying some of the amazing birdlife South Africa has to offer.  I am over 100 species on this trip in four days.  There are potentially another 200 or 300 still to find.

Lilac-breasted roller

African Fish Eagle

These trips are wonderful, often punctuated by things one has never seen before, even after 50 years of visits.  Like this morning.  We were up early – 5 a.m. – and set off after a quick cup of coffee.  At about 6 a.m., we saw two hyenas walking into a small pond – aptly named Hyena Pan.  One – the female - took a quick swim, then retreat to the edge of the water.  The other spent the next fifteen minutes, not only swimming, but submerging itself completely for up to ten seconds at a time.  Was it just having fun?  Or had it evolved a way to catch sleepy barbell (catfish) on the bottom.  Whatever the motivation, it was a magical episode.

Spotted hyena coming up for air after diving
To add icing to the cake, the female (which is normally larger than the male) walked up to our open Land Rover, stopped two metres away, and stared at us.  It was a little disconcerting, but as it wasn’t licking its lips or drooling, I wasn’t worried.  I actually think that hyenas (one of my favorite animals) like companionship, and often hang around humans for that reason.  However, I’m not tempted to stick out my hand and tickle them.  They have the most powerful jaws of any animal.

It was so close, I could have touched it

We also were closely watched by a very big bull elephant with 2 metre tusks.  We watched it bathing in (surprisingly) Zebra Pan, spraying muddy water over itself to cool off and to rid itself of goggas (insects).  It then wandered over toward our Landie, stopped three or four metres in front of us, and just stared.  Normally I leave an escape route in such situations – in case - but it was so close I couldn’t maneuver.  So we sat quietly watching it watching us.  It showed no signs of angst or irritation, so I wasn’t worried, but I have to admit, having five or six tons of elephant that close, standing 3.5 metres at the shoulder, always increases my pulse.

Very close!  Not sure if the elephant is leaning or the photographer.  That's me under the hat.

Keeping a beady eye on us.  Like the eyelashes?

And we've seen and been watched by big herds of buffalo.

Is that a homo sapiens I see over there?

I guess that it is perfectly reasonable for animals to want to watch humans just as much as we want to watch them.

But what I have described is not what “going to the bush” really means for me.  Certainly, animal and bird sightings are wonderful, but it is what the bush does for my psyche that is the real attraction.  

Perhaps addiction is a better word.

It is in the bush where I let my mind just float, rationally and irrationally, reflecting and projecting.  It is where I seek balance and stability.  Professionally and personally.  It is in this most natural of surroundings that I find inspiration and strength.  Being there is what is important – not what one sees.

The bush is where I find peace with myself.

For example, 2012 was a remarkable year for Michael and me.  DEATH OF THE MANTIS won the Barry for Best Paperback Original, and was shortlisted for three other awards, including an Edgar.  And we finished the fourth Kubu mystery, DEADLY HARVEST, which will be released at the end of April. What a lot to celebrate!

On the other hand, the year ended with a big disappointment.  Headline, our UK publisher, decided not to continue publishing Kubu.  So we don't know how Kubu is going to visit all the Commonwealth countries that Headline serviced.

And US sales have hardly been stellar.  Thankfully HarperCollins continues to like Kubu or we might be homeless. 

How does one reconcile great reviews and recognition with meager sales?  It is difficult to do, but the bush is the place to do it.  The bush helps perspective.  It tempers temper.  It grows enthusiasm, and squeezes disappointment into its rightful place, out of sight and mind.

It even helps writers block, from which I have been suffering.  

“What are you complaining about?” the bush asks.  “Why are you worried?”

“But nothing is coming . . .” I respond despondently.  "I can't write anymore."

Que sera sera,” the bush says, surprising me, as I didn’t know it spoke a foreign language.

Que sera sera,” it repeats.  “Don’t push it.  It will come if it needs to come.”

Easier said than done, I think.

“Relax,” says bush.  “Relax.  Look what you have already written.  Enjoy that.  Don’t worry about what you haven’t written.”

Easier said than done, I think again.


So I relax.  Bit by bit.

And my mind opens.  Bit by bit.  And ideas start to flow.

I used to tell my bosses, in the days when I worked, that I should have a month’s continuous vacation a year.  The request was never met with enthusiasm. 

“But,” I would explain, “I never have had a good idea at work, what with meetings and memos and email.  My mind needs space, no pressure, vast horizons to function creatively.” 

“Pshaw,” they would reply. 

“Humph,” I retorted.

Of course I wanted to be in the bush or on the vast plains of Namibia or in the Okavango Delta.  Any place where my mind could go into neutral and expand and seep into places it hadn’t gone before.

No matter what junk is rattling around my head and heart before I arrive in the bush, it is usually back in perspective when I leave.  Inevitably, the same thought is in my head everytime I head back to civilization, namely that I am the luckiest man alive, with enough resources not to struggle, the best of friends, and, most important, good health.  What better thought can one have than that?

So, if anyone asks you to go to the bush, don’t go just for the animals and birds.  It doesn’t actually matter what you see or don’t see.  Go and just be there.  To find perspective.  And the realization that most of what worries us is just our heads trying to make us feel important.

The bush is a great leveler and an agent of calm.  Go there when you can.  And open that can sooner than later.

I'm always available to go with you.

Peace at last

Stan – Thursday, from the bush at Ingwelala (where the leopard sleeps)


  1. In Minnesota, we call it going "Up North". Fabulous post, and a reminder of how much I neglect that need to go Up North for all the reasons you mention.

  2. Lovely post. you took me with you in your writing. Somewhere in nature does it for me. The next Kubu will be on my shelf when it comes out...

  3. That was a truly transcending post, Stan, one that made me think at more levels than I thought capable of at the moment. But one point stood out above all others (even the elephant), you do have "the best of friends." Nothing could truer, and I'm blessed to be counted among them (I hope:)).

  4. The BWCA comes a close second to the bush for me, Michael. I just love it. Thanks Lil and Jeff. Maybe I can lure you to the bush one day!!