I had an intense need to touch the ancient, giant Leadwood tree in front of us. With a formidable silhouette against the deep blue African sky, the tree’s trunk is massive in diameter. It stands alone at the intersection of two dirt paths in the Sabi/Lion Sands Game Reserve near the Kruger National Park. Teeming with wildlife around us, I know getting out of our open Land Rover in the middle of the bush after just spotting a large troop of baboons and a leopard on the hunt might seem a bit foolish. However, the power to run my hands over the pale grey bark and trace the deeply cracked rectangular pieces of the trunk is far stronger than my fear of being prey. With our ranger’s blessing and his rifle loaded and ready if needed, I approached the almost 2,000 year old tree with reverence. Considered by native tribes to be the ancestor of man and animal, its fissured façade reminds me of the parched and cracked desert sand waiting for the rain to seep into the crevices to bring new growth.
Larger than life up-close, I slowly ran my fingers over the hard wood and allow its rough exterior, alike to reptilian scales, to softly scuff my skin. Because of its density, it is the only wood that sinks in water and whose ash when mixed with water, is used as bush toothpaste. Unshed tears were stinging my eyes and I used the massive trunk to shield me from my kids and fellow bush goers watching from our Land Rover. My kids already think I’m a bit different and I certainly will remove all doubt if they see a tree can make me cry. Overcome by the sheer wonder of a tree older than many civilizations, I wished it can whisper its secrets of longevity. I longed to linger under its whitish branches and let its wisdom of survival seep into my bones.
My South-Africa journey has taken some twists and turns this past week. Introducing my teenage kids to the harsher side of my country’s history has proven more taxing than I anticipated, demanding on me that is, and less so on them. I grew up under an Apartheid government where there was no freedom of the press and I left South-Africa in 1990, the year Mandela was freed. It left me uneducated and ill-informed about the cruel truths regarding Apartheid and what it was like living under its regime as a black person. Our tour guide took us to the poorest section of Soweto, the black township that grew mostly because of the large scale evictions of black people from whites-only neighborhoods in the Johannesburg area.
Although I have passed by many shack towns on various continents including India, Africa and South-America, I have never stopped to learn how to live in such complete destitution. We met Gladys, who graciously invited us into her humble home. The walls and roof were made from nailed together corrugated metal sheets and offered no insulation from the freezing cold nights in winter or the suffocating hot days of summer. The ceiling height was barely 6 feet and I could feel my claustrophobia squeezing me between the dirt floor and sagging roof.
Without any power and running water, her two room home included an area where three people were sleeping on the ground and a space for cooking, eating and sitting. But it was spotlessly clean and she was proud to show us around. She had a small vegetable garden where she was growing cabbage and onions. Water had to be carried from a communal faucet down the road and was shared with about 100 families. In the far corner of her small yard was the outhouse – a deep hole in the ground that never gets cleaned out. I was struck by her smiling eyes and how although her house was simple, it was cozy and filled with love and family. We met her 6-year old granddaughter who attends the local pre-school. Desperately low on funds, its survival depended on the goodwill and handouts of the community and tourists visiting. I could see my kids were struggling with the reality of how a large part of the world outside of our fortunate lives exists daily.
As we continued to our next stop, our guide challenged us with why “Vilakazi” was the most famous street in the world. Without access to Google, I had to confess I had never heard of it. Two Nobel Peace Prize winners, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, lived just down the street from each other during a very dark time in South-Africa. This section of Soweto was significantly nicer than the neighborhood we just came from. The brick houses were mostly built post World War II with metal roofs, two to three bedrooms, with plumbing and electricity. Mandela’s home was still very small and several bullet holes and smoke damage from petrol bombs told a violent story of the struggle waged on this street for freedom and equality. I’m sure a Nobel Peace Price was the furthest from both men’s mind in the early 1960s.
Our last stop in Soweto, the memorial for Hector Pieterson, left me with a lasting sorrow for my people, both white and black. I was a 10 year old kid in 1976 and lived in the privileged whites-only area of Pretoria during the Soweto Uprising when 10,000 black children were marching in protest against the Apartheid government forcing all schooling to be in Afrikaans, in spite of the fact that Afrikaans was not taught in any black school. Although unarmed; it did not stop the police from opening live fire against the children, killing several hundred in cold blood. Hector Pieterson, only thirteen years old, was the first casualty and the photo of his bloodied body being carried by an older boy, when leaked to the world, left people across the globe speechless. One could argue that it was the start of the international campaign against Apartheid. Living in complete ignorance as the media was controlled by the government, our white lives were un-interrupted and continued to flourish.
Our final stop was the Apartheid Museum, austere and simple, inside its somber walls the story of Apartheid is depicted in all its gruesome reality. On display was another example how a regime can dominate when it wielded weapons, with the power and threat of death and torture. I can plead ignorance as I didn’t know what was unfolding in the world outside my “Whites Only” existence during the 1970s and 80s. However, when walking outside in the sunlight, I could not shake a feeling of shame for my white Afrikaner heritage. Simultaneously, I was intensely proud and grateful that Mandela led our country to a democracy. Although his name, struggle and story of 27 years a prisoner were all unknown to me when he was freed, he will always be my hero. The world has known many remarkable people, but Nelson Mandela, or Madiba as he is lovingly called by his tribal name, is a giant amongst giants. I hope as generations pass, the terror of this time can be reconciled in a South-Africa where everybody enjoys the same opportunities and freedom.
Every trip back to my country includes a few days on safari in the bush. My spirit needs to be nourished by the smells, sounds and sights of the wild Africa I love. Seeing nature the way it was created, melts my troubles and allows me to refocus on what matters most: being with the people I love and living my life presently and to its full potential.
I reluctantly stepped away from the Leadwood. Having never before paid much attention to the native trees myself, I know my fellow safari goers are eager to search for the Big Five and have little interest with my obsession to embrace an ancient tree that is part of the bush landscape. After being witness to more than 6,000 season changes, I hope this magnificent specimen will see many more, and I certainly will always remember the precious moments I spent in the company of its silence.
As night was falling, our tracker was flashing a spotlight into the veld to pick up any nocturnal creatures. My own eyes were searching for bush babies. I’m fond of their giant eyes, old man’s fingers and the cries that give them their name. The crisp winter air prevents them from showing themselves to our search light and instead we feasted our eyes on the magnificent night sky. Without any light pollution from nearby cities, the Milky Way revealed its glory, Venus and Jupiter were shining brightly side by side and my beloved Southern Cross was glowing overhead.
Much to my surprise, the uneven dirt path in front of us was suddenly lit with many bush paraffin lanterns. As we turned the corner, we entered a magical fairytale. The entire bush was lit with lamps hanging from trees and stands. It was our dinner surprise! Enjoying a real bush dinner in the middle of the African bush without any fences or obstacles to keep the animals out! I was delighted when we stopped at our table under another massive and majestic Leadwood tree. Unlike the one earlier in the day, this one was still growing and its spreading canopy of pale green leaves created a natural shelter.
With a massive bonfire in the center of our camp to scare away our four legged friends, we feasted on authentic bush cooking. Tender wildebeest loin, authentic Boer sausage, lamb chops and an array of vegetables and salads rounded out the feast. The rangers kept close eyes on our surroundings in case a hyena or other predator felt like visiting. Soon a group of black African women were singing acapella and sharing their native songs with us. Encouraged to join their singing and dancing around the fire, my heart was bursting with happiness.
One day I would like one third of my ashes to be placed inside an ancient Leadwood giant in the Sabi/Lion Sands. I like the thought of spending a few thousand years sharing stories with my latest bush best friend and let its hardwood protect me from the elements.