Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Running Away, Feeling Small

September 16, 2019


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The Ruaha is spilling and swallow-you-whole enormous. When we fly in, we float up the river’s throat like an eagle riding a thermal and I-spy elephants drinking. And then it’s to camp and to work as the heat sinks into my bones and makes me move too slowly. That and lunch.

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This is the funny thing about the work I do. Like living on a virtual magic carpet; I write for a paper in Hong Kong from my African mountainside office with a Labrador curled at my feet using one foot as a pillow. Or I write from a canvassed verandah above a sandy korongo where the occasional wheeze of a breeze tempts you briefly to believe it really is cooling down. It’s not. The rumble I hear is not thunder, it’s the soft pachydermic purr of a bull elephant as he ambles through camp. How silent a foot fall for so big an animal.
We are a flurry of activity – this little media crew – we bundle into and out of landcruisers with camera equipment and hats and water bottles and breakfast and I am astonished – at 6am – at the bracing chill of pre dawn. When the sun clambers languorously into a sky the colour of duck-down, it’s hard to believe you’ll be willing it back down by eleven.
I interview Masai herdsmen, scientists, a conservationist (whose encyclopaedic knowledge of wildlife delivers drama to even the tiniest ecosystem, the smallest creature) and a poacher turned safari scout. I think that’s the best bit about what I do: when I call myself ‘writer’ I am afforded license to ask questions I mightn’t otherwise.


We spend hours on game drives, catching wildlife, distilling a huge sprawling wild space into the scope of a lens; the leopard we see is fleet of foot; a blur through the grass. The nine lionesses are so fullfat of antelope that they barely stir but lie flat on their backs playing dead.


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But the chalk striped kudu mill amongst the combretum calm as can be and delicately pluck off the plant’s fire engine red tooth brush bristled flowers whcih they nibble daintily and I marvel at their contentment.




That ought to be my takeaway: find inner peace and steady a while. That and remember how small you really are.


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Just a Dog

September 3, 2019


I keep telling myself, sternly, ‘she was just a dog.’

But even dogs leave gaps. And in my often lonely life, where company is rare and precious, gaps gouged let an icy draught in.

I got Pili 9 years ago when life was at its loneliest in the Outpost; Hat had just gone to Real School.

I took a plane to the north, hitched a lift across the border, scooped up an Andrex puppy and got a lift all the way home again; 1 000 kilometers with a yellow bundle that gravitated between back seat and my lap.  She made me laugh the moment she arrived.  She whined at the foot of my high bed until I scooped her quietly up so she could lie softly, triumphantly, at on top of the duvet. Six months said my husband, ‘she can sleep there for six months’. We made it to nine before he noticed.

She tormented the cats. Adored water. Watched television.

From the Outpost we did thousands and thousands and thousands of miles together. In the four years when our lives slid sideways and I found myself lurching from house to house, home to home, one place to another, she was my constant; she was more constant, more present than my husband who often found himself in another part of the world to me for the show must go on and bills must be paid.

We walked on beaches (so that she bore a perennial habit to hunt for something, anything, even in a puddle, lest a fish or an urchin or an eel lie within muddy shallows; her two front paws paddling and her tail wagging). We walked through bush thick with the rattle of leaves so that I only knew where she was for the clatter of undergrowth or the cackle of indignant guinea fowl that she sent skywards. And then later, I’d sip a beer and pick fat ticks from her yellow coat.

She was the best traveller, in cars, in planes. She lay curled obediently beside me, a cat, another dog, a case, a crate of chickens and waited until we got there. Wherever there was. Sleeping, her snoring was occasionally interrupted by a flock of francolin only she could see but which I knew she was chasing for the twitch of her feet.

And then, quite suddenly, and before her time, she got sick and she died.

I got back from the vets and wept as I picked her golden hairs from the seat of my car where she had moulted in that short last journey.

Then I whistled up Jip and walked for miles beneath the mountain. Sometime Jip looked back, her black brow furrowed in puzzlement, ‘Where’s Pil?’ and sometimes, because I forgot about the recent gap, I whistled and called. ‘Come dogs!’ remembering too late, there is only one.  I watch the horizon for a bit, the dust, the sky, if I watch and wait long enough, can I will her into view?

Just a dog?

Just a mum?



A Night of Wings

May 9, 2019




We think the rain isn’t coming. We say, ‘already May – and no rain; it’s not coming’.

It’s too cool for rain now, we say. As it can be too cold for snow in the north, so it can be too cool for rain; in Africa rain follows crushing heat. Always.

But then, just as we thought we’d had the briefest longest rains ever  –  a mere inch (in Africa we have Long Rains – April – and Short Rains – November- and sometimes Grass rains, a little bit of rain before one or the other), the rain came.




It began to fall softly on Sunday night and as it fell, the insect world erupted and arose, clouds of flying ants – winged termites – took to the air. Clouds. So that they slipped through every window left a crack ajar, so that they seemed to appear from every hole in the wall as they emerged and took to the skies in brief fluttering ecstasy; a mating dance, a nuptial flight. Driven by the madness of the briefest phase of a life cycle and drawn to the light so that every lamp hummed with wings as gossamer thin before they burned to death. They drove me to bed where I lay in the dark; even the glow cast by my kindle was enough to attract them. I batted them away until I couldn’t bear it anymore.



In the morning, dead and dying heaps of them lay beneath every bulb, like ballerinas who’d collapsed to the stage, still wings as netted tutus curled beneath them. Birds swarmed in and out and picked off the mounds that had fallen by windows and the dogs grazed on the rest – sausage flies we called them as children. Some of our friends boasted that they ate them fried, like cashews.


Asina in the kitchen observes my fat Labradors snuffling against walls to lick up the last of the night’s fall, ‘they’ll get fat’, I say and laugh, she raises her eyebrows, ‘they’ll go deaf’, she says, that’s what eating those things does to you, ‘your ears don’t work’.

Seems she was right, my dogs ignore every whistle and call on a walk later as I plod through mud and they chase partridge through puddles left by the night’s full two inches fall.






Alone? Or Lonely?

April 23, 2019


So I did embark on my MA. I have struggled through the first year.

I have not found the words hard: the writing, the reading. Nor  – even – the discipline that must attend study at home. What I have found hard is writing into a void. Here – here in this cosy space I have carved in the blogosphere (albeit a space talcy with dust and festooned with cobwebs for I don’t air it nearly enough), I have created a kindly space for my words; I know this for occasionally a reader drops me a line so I know that even as I whisper into the ether, I am heard.   Writing into the void cast by dislocated, distance learning is  isolating.   Nobody’s listening. Nobody will talk back, say hello.

It is appropriate, then, that for my EMA essay I have chosen to write about loneliness. What does it mean to be Lonely? And what does it mean to be Alone? On that I am clear. Loneliness bubbles up inside a person, like a shiver and then it sits coldly in your soul. In London. At a party.  It is intrinsic. It is not a choice. It is discombobulating at best, terrifying at worst.

Alone-ness feels like a option. Leave me Alone.

You cannot – by definition – be Alone in a marriage. (There are two of you).

But you can be Lonely in one.

The first time I felt the metallic taste of something like loneliness on my tongue was when Hat joined her siblings at school. Her fledgling chick feathers ruffled and small wings spread and off she flew.   But that was a not real loneliness. That was redundancy; there is a difference. I learned to Make Jam – fast – and that was a good thing given what came after.

The Outpost was often lonely but I was not alone. I had Ant and – for three of those five  years – I had my glorious Hat who brought sunshine and smiles and feathers and stones and laughter and crazy madcap stories.  Loneliness was new to me and I was often not gracious in its company; you heard me hiss and stamp my feet and you were patient with my ranting. My loneliness was of the brightly coloured exotic variety. I did loneliness as few do: under huge skies, miles from anywhere with snakes in the garden.


With time I got better at the Lonely so that even when I was Alone – because Ant was thousands of miles away for work and Hat was at school not far from her siblings on the Norfolk coast – I found I managed the time better. It no longer spilt from my hands, threatened to drown me. With time I found I could slice it into bite-size chunks that were manageable. I didn’t choke on it.  I learned to notice the tiny so that the enormity of my predicament did not overwhelm. Loneliness adds beauty to life. It puts a special burn on sunsets and makes night air smell better, said Henry Rollins. He’s right.

The real loneliness came after that. After the Outpost. When life went wrong and plans unravelled like balls of string the end of which was attached to a kitten who was recklessly tossing it hither and thither without a care as to where it ended up.  By then all my children were the other side of the world, at school, at uni, at work. And by then the situation was such that I was often alone as Ant had to find work far from wherever we pitched whatever semblance of transient home we hobbled together. In a two year period we spent almost half of it apart. My yellow dog was a younger companion in those far away days.

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Then I felt the chill of real Loneliness. Sleeping alone, eating alone, rarely going out because my natural reticence meant staying in felt easier.  Even now, even now five years later, when I reflect back on that dark episode of not knowing what next, of living from one unsatisfactory phone call (broken either by a shaky signal or a shaky me) to the next,  I feel a deep sense of something visceral. Is it sadness? dread? I never want to do that again.

The neuro I saw for the migraines that descended (“stress, dear”, he said, kindly) gave me medication which made me sleep so deeply that that I woke feeling as if I’d been hit over the head so that I shambled disorientated through my day.   And shuffle ineffectively through a day is what you do when there is nothing, nobody, to punctuate your hours. I’d get to noon and realise I had not eaten. I’d get to four and find the day too long, so I’d draw the curtains, open a beer and put the telly on. I would pretend the day was done. One down. How many more to go before I am not this Lonely?


So here. Now. Where I live on my mountain where buffalo venture into the garden, where elephant careen around Avocado trees at night, where the porcupines and bush pigs ransack Ant’s veggie garden, where my naughty dogs chase bush buck and jackals on an evening walk, here even though my children are still too far away, here when on my own, which is for only a few hours a day, there is time to write, to read, with a cat kneading m lap, to walk, to collect my thoughts and gather myself; here, I am happy and content and in control.  Time does not gallop over me so that I am so winded I cannot stand. Here, I can climb into my car and meet a friend for lunch. Go and have a haircut. Buy butter in the store an hour away.

Here the solitariness is my choice. I am Alone. I am not Lonely. Not anymore.

And that is the difference.


The Bush

April 22, 2019

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The rains are late. Late, late.

They say, here they say, that Mozambique sucked all our rain up and poured it down further south in devastating torrents. That’s Africa for you: feast or famine. Drought or flood.   We don’t do Middle Ground in this part of the world.

The heat bears down so that the earth is singed and sharp grass whispers hoarsely and then the baked ground sends it right back up again, as if you’re in a rotisserie being toasted from all sides.


We are in the game park where weary animals – many with young for Mother Nature is out of sync – the rain isn’t here but the babies are – must walk and walk and walk, their feet and hooves kick up plumes of whitepepper dust, their heads are bent as they follow wellworn paths so that the earth is threaded with the ribbons of their endless, ancient tread.

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The river has shrunk to skinny ribbons and sporadic pools and elephants dig in the sand for a wetness they can smell but can’t see.  The occasional waterhole has soupy depths just enough for the zebra to get in up to their shoulders, I imagine cool relief flood their faces as they sink in.


Far to the south of the park, though, the Silele Swamp is an astonishing green,  a wide brushstroke of lime between blonde grasslands and a pale high cloudless sky. No rain today, then, we say. The marsh grass is still rudely luridly green, I imagine roots that snake deep into the soil in search of a drink. Game swarms to this place.  Families of elephant rush in and languish, wildebeeste, buffalo, giraffe. As if Noah’s Arc has docked somewhere close by and let everybody out to stretch their legs.

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From our camp, in the high hot afternoon when the cicadas sing a breathy, exhausted tune, I sit in the shade and scan the space below with my lens. Here Africa spills away and the game can trek unmarked by us, uninhibited. Giraffe straddle shallow pools of water to drink, their long legs stretched wide apart so that their necks can drop low enough, then they seem as elegant A frames against a dwindling river bed. The zebra hack and bark, the baboon fight and I can hear their squeals and screams stream up the valley towards me, the impala huff and puff and occasionally I hear the thrilling trumpet of an irritated elephant.

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At night, as I lie in my bed with a full fat moon so bright it’s as if a careless Celestial resident left the lights on,  I hear the bellow of lions.

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We can’t find them come dawn though. Somewhere over distant savannah, a halo of vultures circles lazily on the soft pearly morning air. Dad always used to say – where there are vultures, there are lion. He also used to say, where there are tsetse flies there are lion. Those we bear in abundance, they bite ankles hard so that hot red itchy weals swell. They are armour plated; every time I swat one, it shakes its heads, regains its balances and carries on apparently unfazed.

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Whenever I am lucky enough to escape to the Bush (why the bush, asks B’s girlfriend so that we must explain what we have always known – a bush is a shrub, the Bush is the endless millionmile scramble of gloriously untamed, un-reined Africa), whenever I am forced to abandon screen, an umbilical connection to the ether, I feel liberated. Immensely, enormously, madly, recklessly liberated, as if all my senses have been let out to play and dance and sing.

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Peak Views

February 4, 2019



Ant says to me, ‘we take our views for granted’.

But he is wrong. I don’t. For years, in the Outpost, I lived in a place so flat, so unimpressed by topography that there was barely a ripple in the earth so that it seemed to go on and on and frighteningly on, always trying to catch its horizons. There was never an end to it and that heightened the sense of isolation.

Here, though, the earth tips and sways and trips and dances.

Our home is perched between two mountains, Meru and iconic Kilimanjaro, the valley carves a huge swathed saddle between them.   Sometimes the valley twists with dust devils, sometimes it runs rivers of aluminium as sun glances off ribbons of water after the rains.

In the mornings, at the moment, at this time of year, the height of our summer, Kili’s head rises above densely forested shoulders silver-bright so that it can be hard to see in the blinding bone white of early hours and Meru is smudged to near invisibility by dust and heat and a haze that veils it.

By noon, teasing clouds crown Kili and a few gather atop Meru’s sharp peak .

But by sundown a whisper of wind has got up and chased all the cloud away and the sun, settling far away in the west makes Kili’s snows blush pink in the face of a naked sky and Meru is bruised purple with the fading of the light.  Sometimes I watch as it disappears into the black from my kitchen window as I’m preparing supper. In the morning I watch it rise all over again, slowly, slowly pencilled against pink.

My phone bears dozens of images I’ve whatsapp’d to contacts. Not because I’m bragging: ‘see my lovely views!’. But because I still can’t believe my luck. And every day I’m astonished at how the different light, the different seasons render these views quite different.

So no. I never take my mountains for granted.





What it Feels like to Try to Save the World

January 30, 2019



Latterly I have been trying to save a piece of the world.

A little corner.

A tiny slice that is important just because it’s a last haven for many things – for turtles that need the safe sanctuary of a quiet beach to nest; for fledgling tiny fragile cupcake coloured corals; for fish that flit like brilliant shards of cut glass in shallow waters; for bygone days of frayed old fashioned charm.

My reasons to try to save it are complicated and many – Ant loves this place. Our kids love it. They’ve all done a fair bit of growing up here. It’s provided safe harbour in times of storm. But mainly I have wanted to save it – from potential big development – because I want to indignantly stamp my feet and say, NO. No, you can’t have it all (If we, women, can’t, you certainly can’t). You can’t have all of it to appropriate, to build upon, to sink cement roots into ancient rock that you first sweep clean of almost as ancient forest, chasing away the birds, the bush babies, naughty, naughty vervet monkeys. You can’t have a piece of paradise to plunder.

Jeez, we’re a destructive species: how many Beach Resorts do we need, for god’s sake?

So. Armed with passion and informed by reason (which, for the record, is more important than passion when you’re trying to save the world) I articulated a (granted, amateur) proposal and I pitched a dozen, two dozen, three dozen, fifty, one hundred conservation bodies, eco warriors, celebrities.

There is a lot of money in conservation; one of the world’s most generous philanthropists gifted a billion dollars to save Africa’s wild spaces last year. But there is still – apparently – not enough.

There is new, sharper, focus on Saving our Oceans.

But not, apparently, this bit of ocean.

I crack on. A harpy on a mission. I harangue people at parties, email Conservation Directors and Wildlife Societies. I bang on until people begin to look at their shoes whenever I come close. And I think: I’ve been here before, haven’t i?

Last year, in Chile, in Pichilemu where the beaches are the colour of soot, not meringue, where the sea, then, was ice-cream headache cold, not bathwater warm, Amelia taught me about personality types. I was, she established an INFJ, the Advocate.

Does that explain my crusade?

No. No it doesn’t. I  bang on because sometimes you just have to.

Sometimes it’s just the right thing to do.





January 27, 2019

Hat messages me and, because the Mapuche and literature form the basis for her dissertation, she writes:

The Mapuche people of Chile value language so much that people who possess the ability to use language well are hugely valued in society and one critic says that “words are the world’s gestures” because the Mapuche language literally means “language of the earth”. How lovely is that?!

It is lovely.

And it’s timely.

My course is fine. Fine. But – and I ought to have known this – it is academic.  Of course it is; it’s an MA for god’s sake. I must understand the mechanics of language, and of poetry. I must comprehend the technicality of threading words – must know how to reference texts properly or I will lose marks. I cannot bead them along in haphazard, happy, hippy shapes and lengths and colours and strings.

I must grow up.

But in worrying about getting all technical I worry I may stop tasting words. I may stop rolling them around in my mouth contemplatively, like barley sugar, to test them for weight and size and fit and flavour. I worry that, in observing the rules,  my mad words will morph from fullfat to a diet variety.  And I will lose my voice.

So I am – I think – resigned to – perhaps – Losing Marks. Because writing this way is the only way I know how.  And I think language should gesture and I don’t think it can if its arms are pinned to its side.


For this activity, first choose a photograph, or a film or video still (i.e., a screen grab) to write about. Don’t use an image of yourself or anyone you know personally. Online sources for images include the Images search pages of search engines such as Google, as well as image libraries. Newspapers and magazines are also good sources.

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Posts puncture a  veil of dust,

moth-eaten  gauze and wires

of rust

that bleed into

the barbs and stain.

The earth rises in waves

to meet the sky

heat shimmies a twist.

There is no rain

to settle the soil

The world a blur, sand a mist.

And ranks of posts

as lines of men,

marching on, they lean


into the wind.

Taut strands slacken,

aged and old,

and on and on

and on they must,

as parched earth sighs

with every gust.


Empty Pages

January 22, 2019

When you pick up a blog, after being away for so long, it’s like leafing through the pages of a diary you have failed to write. Blankness gazes back with dead stare.  And accusing.

Where did this time go?

The home I unpacked more than a year ago has settled comfortably on its haunches, dust has gathered reassuringly beneath furniture.   At night a pure blackness descends.  Here, here on this mountain where there is no nicotine light to steal the dark and bleach it hotwhite, I can hear bush babies shriek indignantly.  Ant and I lie in bed and laughingly imagine what one might be saying to another.  If I shine a torch, its beam may catch big, startled eyes. At night the elephants wander in from the forests and leave their tread for me to see in the morning, soup plate indents in soft earth, a scatter of ripped branches.  Sometimes we go looking for them.  The elephants. We hop into the pickup and drive carefully. We see nothing, only the night skinnyribbed by skeleton trees. An elephant’s footfall can be kitten soft when it wants. I can walk miles, circumnavigate the farm and see nobody. I  can smell the scent of game in the soil, the woodsmoke from fires that burn at night to keep wildlife off cultivated fields.   I can see the shoulder of Kilimanjaro behind me, sometimes its ancient rocky head is iced quite white. Turn my head west and I can see the sweep of the valley and then watch it rise to the foothills of Meru which is cutglassclear on my sunset horizons, black pencilled into a bruised sky. Sometimes I hear an aeroplane above and tip my head to see it tow a ribbon across a blue, blue sky.

This is a good place to quietly lick wounds and gather thoughts.

We have carved another space,  we have rekindled another home. It is my tenth – or is it 11th – since I began writing this blog twelve years ago.  Sometimes people remark, ‘I haven’t seen you since you lived in X’ and I am horrified; I have no recollection. But I think our memory bank has only so much space and mine was being filled too fast, too furiously as life upped and offed all over again and I was obliged to pack and follow in its weary wake.

I am trying to sit still; in a year when I have travelled to London, to Eastern Europe and to South America, I am learning to sit still.  I hope that means my words will follow.


Dust, Snow, Views.

February 25, 2018

Kilimanjaro rears her snow-white head right behind where I live. She’s so close that on clear dawns or storm swept evenings that leave the sky clear of cloud and dust,  I imagine that I could reach out and touch her. But mostly she is elusive. Mostly she wraps up coy soon after sunup and stays that way until the moon rises.

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Before me, and opposite Kili, on the other side of this incredible sweep of valley, rises Meru. After rain she is cut-glass-clear, her profile engraved sharply against a blue sky. But now, in the dry weather, she is often obliterated by heat and haze and the dust that rises on the wind, in the footfall of the thousands of Masai cattle that thread the land in search of pasture and water and in the wake of wheels: cars and motorbikes – the ubiquitous bodabodas – trail ribbons that lace the breeze and then fray to near nothingness.

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When the rain comes my valley view will be silvered with sheets of water that will foil the savannah – it’ll hurt the naked eye to stare at them for they will be burnished too bright by the sun – but then it will peel back to reveal brand new green.