Taking the hint…

A dear friend who knows more about me as a writing person than anyone else, has issued a gentle challenge. Where are your poems, she asks? I remember some of them after…how many years is it?

Liverpool Waterfront and New Ferry Terminal

She’s referring to the time, 22 years ago, when she and I spent three glorious years in Liverpool, indulging our joint passions for writing and reading. And talking and laughing and, in my case, being a social butterfly with all its associated questionable habits. We were both mature students, taking our degrees after several years in other, unconnected professions. It was a heady freedom and we quickly bonded; not least because we both listened to The Archers, a habit which earned us a peculiar notoriety among our generally much younger student group.

Cath had a quiet enthusiasm which complimented my brasher, more showy approach. She had and still has, a thoughtful, intelligent approach to her writing which I can only dream of, but which has always influenced and inspired me.

We shared a dodgy flat in the second year and a lovely house with another friend in the third. We wrote, we read, we walked Cath’s gorgeous dog, Zoe, round Liverpool’s parks and above all, we talked. Oh, how we talked! No subject-stone was left unturned. I like to think now that there are parts of Kensington and Aigburth that still ring with our enthusiastic voices.

Liverpool images of Albert Dock

It was a special period in my life and undoubtedly my most prolific in terms of creative output. Cath has continued to write regularly, incorporating her skills into a new career as a tutor. (She writes a regular blog on here. Check her out, she’s great. Cath Humphris should find her).  I, on the other hand, have been sporadic to say the least. Continuing the butterfly analogy, I have the Aries tendency for poor staying power. The thrill of that new bloom is always an irresistible pull.

Never say never. I may have to accept that the novel is looking increasingly unlikely but I enjoy blogging, albeit infrequently, so maybe that will be my writing destiny.

Now, back to that challenge… encouraged as always by Cath, I’ll share a poem from those matchless Merseyside days.

For International Women’s Day and for you, Cath, with thanks…

 

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not black or white,

not fat or thin,

just Woman.

not small or tall,

not dull or bright,

just Woman.

not sister, aunt,

not girl or wife,

just Woman.

not other half,

not light of life,

just Woman.

 

mothers#doctors#housewives#lawyers

travellers#nurses#staff-employers

barmaids#students#guides on tours

bank-clerks#farm-hands#deacons#whores

not his or yours, 

not people’s friend,

just Woman.

now and always

in the end,

just Woman.

 

written April 1996, Liverpool

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Another year

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There are fewer tears but you are back on my shoulder today. It would have been your 63rd birthday and you have been gone for almost five years. Exactly one week ago was our mother’s birthday; 87 if she’d made it. Your birthdays were close and your death-days harshly so. I hope that whatever heavenly spaces you were allocated are near to each other. I miss you both.

We were lucky. I was lucky. We mostly got on. Of course, we had childhood spats – which brother and sister doesn’t? – and there was a period in your late teens when you became remote from me, geographically and emotionally. By and large though, our relationship was good and you tolerated your kid sister with endless patience. You were my hero. You still are my hero.

As we got older, we became friends as well as siblings. We were a team, united in so many ways; our love for your children, our concerns for our struggling parents, our need to spend time near, or preferably on, water. On a yacht, your hero status was practically deified. You had an instinct for the ropes and sails which eluded me. You made me feel safe, just as you did when I was young and you carried me on the crossbar of your racing bike or talked to me when I couldn’t fall asleep.

There is a brother-shaped gash in my life which will never truly heal. Of course after five years it is less bleakly bare. I can look into it and there are memories, smiles, comforting images. I can enjoy wallowing there. The clang of  your absence still resounds but with a less discordant wail.

I long to talk to you though, especially now when I’m about to embark upon a new venture. I’d give anything to hear your thoughts, seek brotherly advice as I always did.

Your legacy lives on. I am still lucky, not least because I get to spend time with your children, your wife, our family. And when I do, you are always with us, strengthening our bonds and brightening our smiles.

You took an irretrievable piece of me when you left and that will remain a gap in my heart forever. But there’s a twinkle in my eye which will always be yours.

I love you, my brother.

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Here comes the sun…  David Boardman, 1954 -2012

 

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Silver Anniversary Safari 8

Tsodilo Hills, Shakawe, Botswana

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Mountain of the Gods

After a mesmerising day on our houseboat and with a tweak to the original schedule, we visit this UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is, at the risk of repeating myself, rather hot. The journey is long, briefly broken by the appearance of two large (bull?) elephants who emerge from the roadside foliage as we speed past. This is our second teasing pachyderm flash but it serves as a comforting portent of things to come.

 

We think we are getting used to the roads, but as we turn off at a rare signpost, a number of strangled oaths are heard, most heartfelt from the rear seats, as the terrain becomes uneven. There is a building which looks like a public convenience and indeed it turns out to be just that. Luxury we think, as we all pile in and avail ourselves. Sadly there is only a trickle of water so our deposits remain unflushed, unlike our faces. We suffer in thoughtful silence though. It’s unlikely that a paucity of Tripadvisor stars would have much impact here.

An elderly but dapper man approaches.img_3912 He is diffident at first but Bibi soon draws him in, introducing him as a member of the San tribe for whom the hills and their ancient rock art have deep spiritual significance. Equally notable and clearly admired by Bibi is the fact that our San guide has taught himself to speak English despite having no formal education.

 

Our guide sets off at a pace which is brisk but reverent. I find I am soon glowing profusely; it would feel wrong to sweat on this hallowed ground. When asked by our geologist member what the hills are made of, our guide replies ‘God made them’ with absolute certainty. The San people believe the hills are resting places for the spirits and that they will cause great misfortune to anyone who hunts or causes death nearby.

The three main hills are known as the Child Hill, Female Hill and Male Hill, all liberally decorated with intriguing rock art. The paintings are reputed to be 3000 years old and a mixture of blood, ground bones, sand and water were used to paint them. It is evidently an enduring formula, though I can’t help but wonder where the blood came from, what with the spirits being so averse to slaughter.

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It is a peaceful and unusually silent tour with none of the excited gasps of our natural history encounters. The heat becomes so intense that many of us start to struggle. A brief respite is had in the relative cool of the Rhino cave. Our guide smiles indulgently when I suggest I would like to move in to it for a while.

Laurens van der Post has a commemorative panel because he described the paintings in his 1958 book, ‘The Lost World of the Kalahari.’

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We finish with a ‘road lunch,’ aka a picnic, and a look round the small museum. Bush squirrels take our mind of the heat as they perform athletic feats to retrieve our apple cores. It has been an interesting trip but I am glad to return to the houseboat and the cool, colourful Okavango.

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Posted in Silver Anniversary Safari 0916 | 4 Comments

Silver Anniversary safari 7

Basic Camping, bladders and other corporeal treacheries

I wake from a fitful sleep. The full moon is lighting the area around the tents to a silvery dusk. We’ve left two of the four flaps raised to keep some air flowing. Also because we dozed off to the sound of hippos and there’s a chance they, or a lion or even an elephant may wander past. One of the previous groups had their washing water ‘stolen’ by elephants, we were told. Imagine glimpsing that through your mesh window.

I check the time on my phone and an electronic glow lights the tent further. It’s 3am and pretty chilly now. I’m only covered by a sarong, the idea of placing anything thicker over myself being unthinkable when I went to bed several hours earlier. I reach for my blanket. Part of the allocated sleeping kit and undeniably pre-loved, I close my nose to its rustic aroma and cover myself. It’s at this point that I become aware of my bladder, gently suggesting that an empty wouldn’t go amiss.

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Ingenious camp shower. Latrine was similar but with a lower bucket.

I am not, I now realise, a brave person. At least not when it comes to facing indigenous African animals in the middle of the night with my pants down. The advice we have been given, amidst reassurances of how safe we are, is to step out of the tent, shine our torch around and if it picks up any shining eyes, to dive back inside. In my anxious and overthinking mind, this presents a number of snags. Firstly, what if the eyes see you before you see them? I’m a robust woman but I wouldn’t give much for my chances against a hunting lion or a startled hippopotamus. Secondly, assuming you do see them first and have time to dash back into your tent, you still have a full bladder (hopefully) and now zero chance of relieving it.

Fortunately, Annie and I did predict these issues during one of our numerous pre-safari planning meetings. As a result, we had packed a couple of essentials for the nocturnal polyuric (or frequent nighttime tiddler.) Here’s one of them:-

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Behold, the incomparable shewee

It’s fair to say there are one or two operational challenges attached to this feminine accessory but given the right incentive, for example, coming face to face with something which regards you as dinner, you get to grips with it surprisingly quickly. Thus, I manouevred myself, the shewee and the designated bottle into place and commenced the procedure which I swear I will never take for granted again.

It was at this point that I became aware of movement in the adjacent camp bed. I had tried to be quiet but liquid hitting plastic in the dead of night is inevitably going to result in some noise. The pile of bedding which had Annie underneath it began to shake and I realised that this was no animated dream. She was in hysterics, emitting the odd muffled snort as she tried to laugh silently. It was infectious and soon we were both helplessly urging each other to be quiet. And failing.

The learning outcomes? Balance and co-ordination disappear during bouts of laughter. Do not go camping without wet-wipes and a loo roll.

Despite its shortcomings, I’m grateful that we packed our portable toileting paraphernalia. Unlike some of my more courageous camp fellows, I would have been extremely anxious at the thought of visiting the camp latrine in the small hours.

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It all seemed much less scary in the daytime

I have to admit, seven nights of basic camping was hard going for me. In addition to the aforementioned nocturnal anxieties, my chronically dubious digestive system did not cope well, an undesirable situation when your toilet facilities are far from en-suite and you’re spending several hours at a time on a bumpy safari truck. I’m thankful for Imodium and the on board fridge. It would have been a lot harder without a nightly G&T.

This is not a criticism of the tour company or the brilliant camp staff who worked tirelessly throughout our trip. They provided a plentiful supply of warm water for our sinks and showers and cooked amazing meals over an open fire, including fish every other night for our non meat eater. They struck camp and reassembled it each time we moved, including the unenviable task of latrine management. They were truly wonderful young men.

And the massive bonus was our proximity to the animals and the world they inhabit. That was well worth a week of gastric disturbance. If I visit again, and I hope I do, I would probably choose to be slightly less basic. Am I sorry I chose this trip? Not for one second.

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Silver Anniversary Safari 6

Leopards, it turned out…

…came in at number two on my highlight list.

Leopards are equally at home up trees and on land. They are efficient hunters and unlike lions, appear to have an understanding of portion control. On two occasions, we observed a partially eaten impala in the larder, usually an adjacent branch in whatever tree the leopard was beautifully accessorizing.

My word, leopards are beautiful!

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They are also shy and can be elusive so how lucky were we to have nine separate sightings during our trip. Admittedly, number one was more of a wary eye and a flicking tail within a bush, located by an instinct we can never hope to acquire by the ever vigilant Bibi. But the others were all close encounters of the breathtaking kind.

Numbers six and eight, which can be seen below this paragraph, engaged in a moment of big-cat conflict which ended when number six rolled over in exhausted submission. It was short but terrifying in its power and intensity and I suspect it wasn’t the the first altercation they’d had that morning. I hoped this would be the last. It probably wasn’t.

Two of the group members had an even closer encounter which raised their total to ten. It was the last day and they’d decided not to come on the late afternoon game drive because of sore backs/necks. As they sat chatting, one of the two camp staff pointed out a leopard up a tree at the far end. The boys were standing watching, obviously excited by the sight.

A and J told us they overcame their first impulses to dive into the tent and went and stood behind (!) the boys. As A said afterwards, ‘I feel rather embarrassed that I was prepared to sacrifice a young man if the animal charged.’  She felt even worse when Obi turned to her and said, ‘Don’t be afraid.’

In fact, the leopard regarded them warily for a few moments before jumping down and running off  into the undergrowth.

Even though I (sadly) didn’t witness this, the episode clarified a thought which had been in my mind for several days. Growing up in Britain, we were taught that there were wild and scary animals in Africa and if we encountered them, they would eat us without a moment’s hesitation. Clearly, if you’ve grown up in Botswana, spotting a leopard is similar to spotting, for example, a stag in Scotland. You give it respect, but it’s not ordinarily a threat to your continued existence.

This was taken from the truck. You can see how wary s/he is.

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And then…gone.

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As I may have mentioned…beautiful

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Silver Anniversary Safari 5

 

ELEPHANTIDAE: African Bush Elephant – Loxodonta africana

I praise you for your centredness,

Your wise and knowing gentleness…

 

 

My first sighting of my lifelong iconic animal was, if not exactly an anti-climax, fairly low-impact. It was more of a suggestion, a glimpse of a familiar outline through the dense papyrus plants. This turned out to be a Bachelor Herd; a group of young males who ‘hang out’ together after they’ve become too big to stay with the Breeding Herd.

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While it was still thrilling, I realised that what I longed to see was the classic group so long admired by me; led by the matriarch, supported by numerous female relatives and including at least one eye-mistingly cute baby.

On Friday, we left Livingstone, lingerie-nicking monkeys, marauding baboons and head-spinning helicopter rides behind and headed back into Botswana en route to the Chobe National Park. Our post-supper talk the previous evening had been all about how everything would change. Bibi was anxious to make it clear. There will be no more hotels or houseboats. The animals can go where they want and we will be camping in the middle of their territory.

I’ll describe the campsite later. I want this post to be about elephants. And that afternoon, on our very first game drive, there they were.

I’ve written a few words which I hope will convey how I felt at finally encountering my beloved pachyderms in the flesh. Other than that, I’ll let the photos speak for them selves.

 

Beautiful and wild  and above all, alive.

Your ivory proudly sported in the only place it should be.

 

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I am so close I can almost feel

The breath of your curiosity

As you raise your trunk and explore us

On an inhalation.

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I see you; close enough to touch,

Your scent caressing my nostrils.

I ache with a joy

Of dreams fulfilled,

Of a moment falling into place.

 

Your nearness delights me

But I also love to see you far away.

You march in lines,

Roam in the distance,

Paddle in close groups,

Take constant, fierce care of your young.

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I will always remember you in this place.

My heart sings with the thrill of it.

Stay safe and protected

So your beauty may be cherished,

By me and by many others,

Forever…

 

 

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Silver Anniversary safari 4

 

VICTORIA FALLS WITH ADDED BABOONS, ZAMBIA

It was mid-afternoon, upwards of 40 degrees centigrade and I was clambering down into what is known as the Boiling Pot with an increasing sense of unease.

We had arrived an hour or so before. As we entered the Mosi-oa-Tunya gates, Bibi had urged us to pick up sticks. He dismissed our glib responses. ‘I’m serious,’ he insisted. ‘These baboons are very bold.’ This corroborated a warning we’d had earlier that the baboons at the falls are not so well-behaved as the ones in the park. Another Explore guide named Ollie who had been tagging along for the day agreed. ‘Yesterday a baboon grabbed a daysack,’ he said. ‘He opened it and ripped up the passport.’

Cue ten formerly relaxed group members anxiously hunting for sticks.

The Victoria Falls were impressive, even though they were not in full spate and as such did not really live up to the ‘Smoke that Thunders’ description. The experience was somewhat sullied for me by an ill-timed colonic episode. I’ll withhold the gorier details, suffice it to say, there is now a portion of Zambia which is forever middle-aged Briton.

So as I made my way downwards towards the Boiling Pot my sensible side knew it was foolhardy, that I  should turn back immediately. Stubborn Aries, on the other hand, refused to entertain the idea. And lo and behold, half way down, draped over what were supposed to be seats for weary visitors, were the fabled baboons. I gripped my stick and staggered past with what I hoped was a menacing air.

By the time I reached the bottom, in truth more of a simmering pot than a boiling one, my legs were shaking and my face could have out-rouged any beetroot. It had taken about 25 mins to get down there. I wondered if I would ever see Bibi and the truck again.

I doused my head in tepid Zambesi water, arranged my over-boiled features into what I hoped was a smile and began to climb back up. Frustration and a policy of ten steps at a time got me up the first section. In front, I could see Annie looking as if she wasn’t doing much better than me. This was beyond insanity, certifiable in its madness.

And then I reached the seating area.

The baboons had rallied and there were now at least double the original number, all viewing us with undisguised contempt. What I assumed to be the Alpha male had a three-seater bench to himself. He reclined luxuriously, his testosterone and its apparatus displayed for all to see. I half-heartedly thwacked my stick against the fencing and in response he moved his head so he could see me more clearly. ‘Got any passports?’ I swear I heard him say.

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My lungs were bursting, my legs trembling and my head had reached previously unrecorded pyrexial heights. He knows, I thought, my exhaustion mounting. He’s targeting the weak link. I was on the point of throwing myself to the ground at his feet, crying ‘Do your worst, pal!’ when salvation arrived. From Glasgow. J, or my hero, as he will hereafter be called, propelled me up the rest of the climb with a mixture of motivational speech and Glasgow grit.

‘You’ll laugh about this later, Hen.’

He took my daysack and held off the marauding King of the Swingers using rocks and expletives. Or perhaps they were meant for me, for attempting the climb in the first place.

It was an ignominious end to the visit but at least it took my mind of my earlier embarrassing occurrence. I found, for the first time for many years, I was craving Coke. (As in cola rather than anything more heavy duty.) I downed a bottle, checked my passport and prepared for the next white-knuckle experience of the day.

 

THE BENEFITS OF BRAVERY

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Part of my misguided motivation to visit the Boiling Pot was borne from what was for some of us becoming a trip mantra; ‘We’ll probably never come here again. We need to go for it.’ As a result, I was signed up for a 22 minute helicopter flight over the falls and gorge and the prospect was unsettling, to say the least.

I have never been a confident flyer, learning over the years to participate with a degree of bravery in flights which are a means to an end. Reassuringly- I think- S and J and indeed, Annie were of the same mindset. We squared our collective shoulders and listened to the safety briefing. I’ve faced White Rhinos and malevolent baboons today, I thought. How much harder can this be?

In the event, it was an awesome experience. S and I definitely moved on a notch in our relationship as we clutched each other’s hands during take-off and repeatedly throughout the flight. But I’m glad I did it. So much of this adventure is about realising long-held dreams. Stepping out of my comfort zone seems a small price to pay.

 

 

 

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