Archive for the ‘walking’ Category

The Little Things

March 16, 2008

I am learning, here in the Outpost, with its sparse distractions and long days, to eke as much enjoyment out of the little things. I’m not always very good at it. Sometimes the lengthy, empty days defeat me. But I’m getting better. I think?

I have learned that breakfast taken in the bush, which we sometimes do on a Sunday morning just because it’s there – the bush – tastes much better than it does at the dining room table or eaten on the wing as I dash between the washing machine in the kitchen and Hat in the schoolroom and back again. I have learned that the piquancy of orange juice and the rich aroma of coffee are sharper, deeper when accompanied by the calls of a hundred unseen birds – Turaco, ring-necked and emerald spotted wood doves, sunbirds – songs that settle upon the scrub as soft, friendly murmuring.


I have learned that I have more patience with Hat. A walk on the dam and she wants to ride through a puddle – at speed so that her back is flecked with mud and her face too – ten times over. Once, when busier, when homework and a social life beckoned impatiently, I mightn’t have let her. I might have hurried her. I might have said, ‘Oh c’mon Hat, please, that’s enough now, we’ve got to go’. For where shall we go here? Home? Where the murmur of birds has been silenced by an urban finger-to-lips. Where bacon just tastes like bacon.


I have learned, because they form an integral part of my tiny social circle, to watch my dogs more intently so that I no longer miss the antics that make me laugh now. I take a thorn out of Kanga’s pad and she races around me delightedly, in circles, as if to say thank you.


Never very good at talking to people I didn’t know well, happy instead to slink behind my gregarious husband’s bigger shadow, I find that now I grasp every rare chance of conversation – I surprise myself – and milk it for all its worth so that company is left wondering if I will ever shut up.

I have learned that storms are better here. Are they, though? Will friends visit and remark upon their intensity as I do? Or is it just because they help to fill a gap? They are something to wait for, to watch, to listen to. Maybe I never really heard a storm before – not properly, not so that I could hear every instrument in its percussion – because there were too many other background noises.

I am sure I take longer to find the right words here. And I am sure that when I do (today’s was sepia-seared to describe that low hot jaundiced place on the page of an atlas) it feels like a much greater triumph than it did before.

Of course I have to – take more time over the little things: the watching, the waiting, the words – for there are many more hollow hours to fill. Perhaps it’s time to stop thinking about what I once accomplished in my day and concentrate on each tiny facet that might leap brilliantly for my attention.

Perhaps that’s the only way to survive an Outpost?

But little things aside, Hat and I are off to the Big City tomorrow, the start of a Big Safari with her Big brother and sister: a week away, over Easter. We need to begin now for we have a long way to go: we will cover almost 2,000 miles there and back, to a place close to the border with Mozambique.

I hope I don’t talk too much?

Bottling Memories

January 31, 2008

We went for a walk yesterday evening, Hat and I; we drove to the plot of land adjacent to husband’s office, a few acres forested with enormous mango trees and overlooking distant kopjes sheathed in green where the dogs can race about, chasing vervet monkeys up trees from where they laugh and tease. Often we see mongoose here, peeping from their burrows in termite mounds. But they’re gone in a trice: the scent of the Labradors has sent them back down to the bowels of the earth from where we hear their indignant scolding: ‘why don’t you bugger off and leave us alone, and take those sodding great beasts with you’.

We have to drive across town before we can walk.

I think I’ll wear my new glasses’, said Hat as she donned a fragile contraption fashioned of chocolate wrappers and tin foil.

She spent our short journey waving and smiling at all the Africans she saw on the shabby little streets of the Outpost. Most waved and smiled back, some looked mildly startled to witness a child sporting psychedelic spectacles gesticulating madly out of the window. Occasionally she experimented with a royal wave:

‘Look mama, this is how the Queen waves’ (how does she know?).

‘Do you think the queen has a mobile phone?’ (where do children’s questions come from?)

She wears her glasses for the entire duration of our walk. Peering down into anthills willing the mongoose to come out. I imagined them staring back up, unseen from their hiding place in dim mud interiors, ‘Good God! What on earth is that?!’ they’d have exclaimed to one another in horror.

‘The grass is much greener when you’re looking on the bright side’, she told me.

That’s got to be a good thing: especially in Africa.

Driving home, the dogs sated, Hat began to recite nursery rhymes. And I joined in, teaching her the mutated versions we learned at school, 

 Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall

All the King’s horses and all the King’s men said,

‘Oh no! Not scrambled egg AGAIN’!

Hat squealed with laughter, ‘that’s so funny Mummy’.

There are moments, little fleeting moments in life, like bubbles: you want to catch them and hang onto them forever, but you know they’ll only pop. I wonder couldn’t we bottle those brief, perfect memories, preserve them forever, like scent. Then, when disillusioned, or sad, or tired, we could uncap their precious contents and allow them perfume our disenchantment away? 

I wanted to bottle yesterday evening.


 Hat and I are going away for a few days: Hat to school, proper school, so that she can engage with children her own age, me to have my highlights done.

Granted 500 miles is a long way to travel for a play date and an appointment with your hairdresser, but needs must.

Not least because Hat responded, when I queried what the population of the Outpost might think of a child wearing enormous homemade spectacles leaning out of a car window waving frantically, ‘they will say, oh look, there goes that nutty child. With her even nuttier mother’.

Yup. Time to get back to the real world. For a bit.

Mad Dogs and Englishmen. And Women.

January 28, 2008

On Friday evening husband asked me what I’d like to do at the weekend.

I thought for a moment and then suggested a meander across Hyde Park early on Saturday morning, followed by a deli breakfast of croissants and capuccino, a spot of window shopping, somewhere ridiculously bling-bling like Burlington Arcade since something of a dearth of bling bling (or croissants or capuccino for that matter) in Outpost. Then, I suggested, how about somewhere nice for lunch? A fabulous bottle of wine, oh! and then I know what: a movie? In Leicester Square: Michael Clayton? Elizabeth: The Golden Age?

Husband looked cresfallen.

Why don’t we just go for a walk then, I said, and  have a picnic.

Oh OK, he said, that’s a good idea.

It’s not. It’s what we do most weekends.

So we packed a picnic, Hat and the dogs into the car and drove twenty miles out of town towards a forest reserve where nobody but the charcoal burners go to cut down trees.

We parked the car and walked through the forest, coming across sad little clearings where flakes of coal bore evidence of magnificent towering indigenous trees burned to fuel. We came across the charcoal burners too who stared disbelieving. Many of them are unlikely to encounter a white man often. Not here. And certainly not one tailed by his wife and small daughter (who, fearing she might get bored has come armed with a brightly coloured shoulder bag filled with 3 books and her knitting). This extraordinary little procession, marching faster than two of its foot soldiers would like, and moving through the forest accompanied by small bleats of ”how much further, Dad?” is led by two golden labradors.

Livingstone marched through the same country 150 years ago. I don’t expect he caused any less of a stir than we did.

He was a veritable Englishman Out in the Midday Sun.

We supplemented with Mad Dogs and a marginally deranged woman.

Close Call

December 30, 2007


Yesterday evening walking on the dam, the edges of which are now thick with bush and long grass on account of recent rain so it is increasingly difficult to find a clear path, I trod on a puff adder. I was wearing flip flops. I didn’t even notice. Except for a deep hiss emanating somewhere below me and my husband’s alarmed voice behind me:

Ohmigod! You’ve just trodden on a puff adder.

I stepped right on its middle with my flat and almost bare foot.

It moved off slowly whilst my children gaped. And I tried to gather my nerves.

I was pleased to get home and pour myself a very large glass of wine.  The puff adder is responsible for more deaths in Africa than any other snake. Though fatly lethargic, it’s also the quickest to strike under pressure.

Tomorrow I am going to the market to buy myself a pair of wellies to walk the bush in.

Husband says that given the laws of probability I shan’t need them: it’ll be forty years before you tread on another venomous snake, he says.

Except that this is the third I’ve trodden on in five years. The other two were cobras.

Think I’d be wiser to heed my brother’s words, ”how many lives you got left then, Sis?” than dear husband’s.

That and watch my step.

And get those wellies, of course.

Retail Therapy Outpost Style

October 1, 2007

We went camping at the weekend. That’s what you do when you live in a suburban Outpost (an anomaly, I know); you escape to the great outdoors to remind yourself that you do actually live in the middle of nowhere in Africa.

We camped at the big dam – our water supply.


 We share it – naturally – not just with other offical water rate paying residents of Outpost, but with the fishermen and the herdsmen. I wonder, often, what UK’s Health and Safety would make of that: hundreds of skinny cattle traipsing through the heat and the bush to the dam to drink, leaving evidence of their visits at the water’s edge.


We pitched the tent, built a fire, made tea, walked the dogs.  Hat found a tree to climb whilst we admired the sunset.

             hat-in-a-hat-in-a-tree.jpg                sundown.jpg         

And in the morning, before we drove home, we bought a couple of old fishtraps from one of the fishermen.  To add to the retired dugout we’d purhcased on a previous trip. Hat shook her head in disbelief as I battled to squeeze two traps into the car alongside her, dogs and camping paraphenalia. I told her she would thank me for my lessons in shopping one day; I told her retail therapy plays a valuable part in feminine sanity and that geography must never be allowed to thwart it.

Not quite new shoes, I know, but adds a certain something to verandah decor?


Food always tastes better outside

September 16, 2007

So we went camping. His Nibs, little Hat, assorted of Hat’s soft toys, two dogs and I.

We drove from home in Outpost even further out (I didn’t think there was a further out; there is – I spent the weekend there). We drove to the Middle of Nowhere and pitched our tent.


Middle of Nowhere was actually the shores of Lake Chaya, dry now, save a few pools sporting a carpet of purple, pink and yellow lilies and a plethora of birdlife: herons and egret and rare saddle bill stork. We found a shady acacia and pitched camp beneath that and a huge sky.

We made tea once the tent was up and ate biscuits. Then we briefly walked and listened to the evening cacophany of a quarellsome quartet of turaco. Hat collected seeds to use as catty ammo.  Her father had made her the catapult the week before. What will you use it for, I wanted to know. To murder mozzis, she told me. Then laughed, no, I want to hit tin cans in the garden. She was only practising in the Middle of Nowhere, she said. 

hats-catty.jpg                                  contemplating-her-catty.jpg

The sun sank, the turuaco shut up, a delicate sliver of moon slid skywards and the darkness fell with the silence. It is hard to remember when I heard such quiet (do we hear quiet? or do we hear the absence of sound that renders it quiet?) and it was heavenly. 


We cooked dinner over the coals – corn cobs and sausages – and crept to bed under canvas


And in the morning when we woke to a chilly grey sky which a scarlet sun was rushing to warm as it scrabbled out of the shadows and above the clouds, we cooked again – bacon and eggs – and drank smokey coffee and thought how good food tastes outside.


And then we drove the 100 miles out of the Middle of Nowhere and back to the (relatively) bustling metropolis that is the Outpost.

And Hat slept all the way home.


The Art of Packing

April 3, 2007

We are going to the beach for Easter; we leave at dawn.

A kind friend, who felt sorry for us following run in with the law (such as it is here), has found us a house to stay in and insisted we take a few days break.

I asked the children to pile what they needed for five days at the sea-side on my bed in order that I could pack. Hattie produced two dresses and a skirt. No undies, no swimming costume, no hat. ‘Oops’, she giggled and scuttled off to gather the necessary.

Amelia, who the last time I asked her to pack for a holiday to the beach packed 18 pairs of knickers (for 4 days) and 3 bikini tops, has managed marginally better this time: 3 pairs of knickers and bikini tops with matching bottoms. When I enquired why so few undies, she told me she wasn’t planning to wear underwear much.

I can’t be bothered to investigate this further.

Ben, being a bloke – and thus as anal as his father – has packed precisely what is required for five days away, down to matching t-shirts and shorts; he will omit nothing and bring nothing superfluous.

I wish I was that good.


A walk.

I spy half a dozen Marabou Storks atop a big Fig tree; Marabou hang around dead things, dressed in moth-eaten old men’s coats.

I suspect they are drawn by the scent of the farm’s demise. They’re waiting to feast on what’s left after the receivers have been in.

A Walk on the Increasingly Wild Side

April 2, 2007

Just had walk with dogs.

After a weekend of rain the sky looks washed out, a pale rinsed blue, and the summer heat is dissipating to give way to winter cool. I shall miss my walks when we move, I shall miss the majesty of the two mountains, Meru and Kilimanjaro, which always remind me of the smallness of humankind, the unlikelihood that we’ll ever tame Africa.

That’s especially evident as I walk: the farm, once a neat patchwork of varying crops tidily scored by irrigation channels, grows wilder daily. The dam, for lack of maintenance, has shrunk to a puddle. Two dozen Yellow Bill Stork were striding purposefully about in the water plucking tilapia from the murky shallows. Hardly fair game – so little water now the fish don’t stand a chance. The vegetables have been overtaken by the weeds so that you can barely see the chilli bushes now and the stakes that supported peas are beginning to collapse. Pipes and taps are being ripped up and stolen by looters and to the far end of the farm I can see trespassers grazing their cattle and goats. Oh yes, given half a chance Africa reverts to wilderness the moment you turn your back.

There is something oddly pleasing about that though.


Amelia returned home from school trip to France last night.

She has told me all about visits to the Louvre, the Sacre Coeur, Versailles and the Eiffel Tower.

Because she is safe and sound and apparently perfectly well, I shall choose not to dwell on what she has not told me.

I am very pleased to see her home; I missed her greatly.

But not as much – judging from the laundry basket into which she tipped the contents of her suitcase when I suggest she unpack – as she missed me.

Mind where you walk

March 31, 2007

Glorious walk tramping across farm which was once scored with productive ranks of baby carrots, baby corn and baby leeks, all growing under halos of water cast by overhead sprinklers and destined for the shelves of Tesco (has anybody questioned British preference for juvenile vegetables, btw?). Not like that anymore: it’s 1,500 acres of debt-ridden, abandoned, tangle of weeds now.

Omo Bright dogs no longer just Bright; thanks to the thick undergrowth we – they, Anthony and I – were forced to battle our way through – they are now cheerfully bedecked with burrs, like a pair of fat blondes who have over-accessorized. Anthony walks barefoot. I – shod – high step like a dressage pony fearful that I may step on a snake. I probably look quite silly.

Snakes are not uncommon here and walking through weeds as high as an elephant’s eye is – frankly – to foolishly tempt fate. I walk behind Anthony (five paces – in manner of good African wife, but not out of respect, rather as a result of theory that he will either chase reptiles from our path or stand on them before I do). I have met cobra often on my walks and I always afford them courteous space. Some Africans suggest that to witness a snake cross your path is an omen of good luck. Some suggest it’s exactly the opposite. I think it’s largely a question of where your feet fall.