Great White Place

We drive through the Mopani scrub. Kudu and Rhinoceros browse on the Koedoebos. The scene framed by the multiple trunks of the African Moringa which emerge from its swollen base. The truck skirts out onto the Etosha pan, a Bantu word meaning great white place. A fitting description for a 1000 million year old salt mineral pan stretching the Kalahari Basin.

Originally this was a lake fed by the Kunene river but the river changed course and thousands of years ago the lake dried up. The San people believe in a legend that a village was invaded and everyone except for one woman was murdered. She was so upset that she cried and her tears formed a huge lake. When her tears dried the great white pan remained.

In the far distance on a clear day you can make out the outline of the savannah bushland bordering the pan, but today the white earth collides with the grey sky and the dust and heat is belied by the oncoming rain.

The warm rains of the storm lightly lashing the sides of the truck as Rod reaches over and grabs my Discman, fumbling with it for a moment. A couple of false starts. Then he smiles and turns it up as high as our speakers would go. We wind down the windows the rain cooling the mugginess of the day and breathing a freshness through the cabin. We pull up in the middle of the basin. Toto’s Africa now streaming out into the air.

“We getting out?” I ask.

As was customary with Rod he surprised me continually by making profound statements that contradict his looks and sit juxtaposed with his usual conversation and overall demeanor.

“Robbo, in life you can’t wait for the rain to stop, sometimes you must learn to dance in it” and with that, he was out of the cabin, arms stretched to either side, like Andy Dufrane from Shawshank Redemption allowing the rains of Africa to wash over him, touching him both outside and within.

I leap from the cabin also, calling to the passengers to join us, hitting repeat on Toto and bounding past Rod into the rain along the salt encrusted earth. The music blares from the truck’s cabin “It’s gonna take a lot to drag me away from you, that’s nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do, I bless the rains down in Africa, gonna take some time to do the things we never have”

We all stand out on the white pan singing Africa at the top of our lungs, passengers moving past their initial confusion embrace the moment. The cooling breeze against the rain falling on our faces, soaking through our clothes as we spin around and laugh and dance in the storm.

As if by some evolutionary leap, we are able to feel our surroundings, the soul of the African wild embracing us. Here we connect, in this instant, opening the page of our travel adventure to a moment of truth. To a moment of understanding of the true meaning of journey and exploration. We embrace each other, miles away from the chattering of keyboards and the demands of business meetings. Each of us living, really living. Experiencing Africa in the way you would in the movies, like you would in your dreams.

We return to the truck, our spirits wide awake, each of us knowing we were all a part of something that enriched each of our souls and left us with a feeling that will stay with us long after this moment has passed.

Angkor What?

“Buy my book… hey mister, buy my book!”

Chasing me up the stony dirt road was Ahn. Barefoot, torn trousers showing scarred knees, his older brother’s ripped and dirty hand-me-down shirt and a posse of sales assistants hot on his heels. We were by now desensitised to the obvious poverty and the cuteness of their grubby cheeky little faces. This scenario had played out a countless number of times this week and we had managed in most cases to avoid engagement. We continued towards Ta Prohm with eyes forward and unaltered pace.

Catching up, Ahn swung around the front of us blocking our forward path. Stepping off to our left we attempted to motion around him. Too late, a sales assistant had made her position, blocking our escape with outstretched arms, clutching at her variety of Angkor Wat fridge magnets. I pivoted and lurched towards our left catching the look of fear in a fellow traveller’s eyes, but as quick as it was open the escape route was closed down by two of Ahn’s 6 year old disciples, grappling at lukewarm cans of cola and sweaty plastic bottles of water. It was then we felt the wave of reinforcements cut off our retreat, their hands pawing at the back of our shorts and tugging on our backpacks. The jig was up, we were trapped.

Ahn our head captor was 10 years old and obviously small for his age. Without hesitation he repeated his mantra “Buy my book, buy my book, buy my book.” With precision he displayed his wares, from Pol Pot to the history of the Khmer empire. I wasn’t about to be bullied into buying souvenirs I didn’t want  by a 10 year old and began politely negotiating our escape. But like a true professional, Ahn had already sized me up.

“What you name? You Australian?

“Yes, you know Australia?

“Melbourne or Sydney?

“Melbourne” I answered. Ahn grinned

“Australia, population 22 million, land area 7.6 million kilometres square, capital city Canberra, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd… Kevin 07.”

I had seen this building rapport routine before. The Marketing 101 lessons I had been subjected to in countries like Egypt usually consisted of a standard rehearsal of rudimentary cultural icons that for Australians ranged from the current Prime Minister to Red Kangaroos, Ned Kelly or Captain Cook. This 10 year old boy was next levelling it.

I looked at Ahn narrowing my eyes. He looked back at me, narrowing his. “What if I said I was from …. um, England?”

Ahn propped his eyes towards the sky as if in thought. “England, capital London, Prime Minister Gordon Brown, area 130,000 kilometres squared…. “ I cut him off.

“Spain?”

“Capital Madrid” Ahn replied almost immediately.

Estoy apprendiendo Espanol por seis or siete somanas” I responded by testing out some of my Spanish on him.

Muy Bien” he replied “Hablas bien espanol” This kid was incredible.

Parlez-vous parles francais?

Oui, tu parles mal” he said informing me I obviously do not.

“Capital of Finland?”

“Helsinki” he shot back rising to my challenges.

A little girl who looked younger than the rest tugged at my shirt, clutching at a single fridge magnet. “If you don’t know the capital of Madagascar will you buy from me?”

I crouched down to her “Ha ha do you know the capital of Madagascar?”

“Yes it is Antananarivo, now you must buy from me” She stumbled across the sentence in the cutest way.

“Ok little girl, I’ll do you a deal, if you can tell me the capital of South Africa I will buy your magnet.” She growled at me, a long low guttural growl, stomped her foot and started to walk away muttering that I was a bad man.

“What is wrong with her?” I asked Ahn.

“You are trying to trick her and she didn’t like it.”

“Why do you say that?” I asked.

“She knows South Africa has three capitals. Pretoria is the Executive capital, Bloemfontein is judicial and Cape Town legislative.”

I looked at Ahn in astonishment and called the little girl back. Ahn eventually released us from our captive state and allowed us to continue on our way. The sun beat down heavy on us as we continued walking the dusty trail. My backpack heavier with two bottles of water, a magnet from each of the children and of course Ahn’s book.

I passed Ahn an hour or two later, he was engaged in some banter with a couple of German tourists… in German of course. He looked over at me and gave me a wry smile. The young girl by his side tugging at the German’s shirt sleeve, asking “Do you know the capital of Madagascar?”

Ganesha’s Gift

Part One:

It was “locals day” at Ranthambore Fort and as the temperature bounced high above 40 degrees a flood of saris of different colours mantled the temple to Ganesha. Accompanied by Grey Langur and a peppering of flies we meandered the fifth century steps and took shelter beneath the twist of tarp and thatch that rooved the wooden stalls outside the temple. The devotees slowly migrated through the thickness of the heat to the long line leading through the faded pink temple arches.

We purchased our offerings of laddoos, modaks and incense. As sweat droplets swelled on our brows, I looked to the locals waiting in the heat for their turn to gain favour from the god who removes obstacles. Obviously Ganesha has granted us his favour prematurely as Sawai grabs at my wrist and leads McGee and I straight past the line up to a hidden entrance behind the stalls.

“It’s working already” I whispered to McGee. She gave me a look to behave.

We took our shoes off and washed our hands and feet before entering the temple antechamber. We approached the shrine, decorated with garlands of orange and yellow flowers across drapings of red folded cloth. We reverently made our way to the shrine where a holy man accepted our offerings in turn, placing them systemically beside some picture frames of Lord Ganesha and some ornate silver jars.

The holy man then returned some of our offerings to us so that we may worship elsewhere in the fort. I looked at the remnants left in my bowl and asked him what they were. He motioned back that it was a food offering by raising his hand to his mouth. I nodded politely and turned to McGee. She however, seeing the holy man’s gesture thought he wanted us to eat Ganesha’s offering and was already munching down on a laddoo ball.

Asia mat karo! The holy men beckon McGee to stop eating Ganesha’s gift.

Part Two:

We were anxious to leave our tented farm stay accommodation on the border of Ranthambore National Park. Not because our glamping experience was negative. It was anything but. Our hosts at Maa Ashapura had treated us to viewings of Tiger, Leopard, Nilgai and Hyena up close in the wild; we rode horseback under the stars; and we were guests of the manager and his friends for dinner at the incredible Aman-I-Khas. But our train back to Jaipur was leaving soon, we still had over an hour to get there and inexplicably the EFTPOS machine wouldn’t accept any of our cards to settle our bill.

“You had to go and upset Ganesha didn’t you.” I winked at McGee

We still have time. We had drawn cash from the ATM in the village before, we will quickly detour and be back en route in no time. We dash to the village but the ATM machine was blanking out and needed to be rebooted. This was not a promising sign.

“Ganesha, the remover of obstacles! Why couldn’t you have picked a fight with one of the other gods? Maybe eaten some of Shiva’s bananas or Krishna’s gourds?”

We were back on the road but desperately behind schedule. Our driver suggested it was unlikely we would make our train, a point assisted by the fact that he was the most conservative driver in the whole of India. Unlike anyone else in the entire country he was sure to keep to his lane and resisted honking his horn, even when a number of camels set up shop in the middle of the road or when the seemingly endless parade of cows and pigs blocked our path.

“We are really feeling Ganesha’s wrath here babe, can you please make up with him or something?”

“Careful” she replied “Ganesha may turn on you if you get too cheeky.”

We crawled into the station car park, McGee and I on tenterhooks in the back. Gave our hurried thanks and tips to our driver, grabbed our backpacks and raced up the ramp, across the footbridge, skidding into the first carriage of our train as the doors closed.

It seemed there was some obstacle delaying our train out of the station. As the train pulled away we thanked Ganesha for this gift.

Part Three:

A day later we entered the Marriott at Goa. It was to be a treat to mark the end of our journey through India. We were at the swim up bar for less than an hour when we had made friends with the best man of a wedding being held at the resort. The families of the bride and groom were well to do and had hired out the whole resort… except it seems for our room.

Typical of Indian hospitality we were of course invited to join the festivities, an invitation we gratefully accepted. That night we made our way across the footbridge, down the red carpet and through the luminous canopy of linen to a beach full of tables laid in white tablecloths aglow with fairy lights and oil candles.

Photographers and Indian high society mingled and posed and my best travel runners were now feeling rather conspicuous as we were introduced from table to table by the bridal party, drinking Kingfishers and partaking in incidental rounds of prawn canapé roulette. It was about three in the morning when we cut away from the dance floor glow sticks and Bollywood lessons and made our way back to our room.

McGee rose late the next morning, rolling towards me to ask if I was ready for breakfast. “I can’t.” I whimpered. “I have had Delhi-Belly all night, I can’t be away from the bathroom for more than a few minutes.” I lay back on the bed, exhausted, the sheets sticking damp against my clammy skin. The fan providing no relief as I simultaneously burn up and shiver. “I’m going to need to stay here babe, I can’t go anywhere” I squeak. “There is absolutely nothing stopping this diarrhoea.” My eyes widen and we look at each other.

“Ganesha?”

The Hummingbird

Light pooled and dispersed between the shadows, containers of cool air vaulted beneath the broad leaves. Through the canopy vines we bathe in the greenery and soak up the wildness of nature surrounding us. I look across at Choco, sitting on a wooden bench sipping his Belikin, with the beginnings of a smile and finally a look that bordered on contentment.

I started out this morning with Choco. Round head, dewlap like flap at the base of his skull, large belly, Mayan descent. I knew little more about him despite the fact he had picked me up every day since I had been in Belize. He was very pleasant but also very quiet and he had a look as though the monotony of daily life had worn him down a little.

Each morning he would arrive at 6am to take me to the dive shop. Mostly our 10 minutes together was consumed by my excited ramblings of today’s scuba diving excursion, my sub-aquatic adventures from the day before and if we had time, what happened last night at the pub. I didn’t get much by way of a response from Choco, he nodded and responded with brief sentences like “very good” or “what will you do tomorrow?”

Today though I was going on a road trip to explore a large cave system about 3 hours from Placencia and I faced the proposition of over six hours alone in minivan with Choco. As usual he was on time. I was keeping company at the top of the road with Miguel, a security guard from the guest house at which I was staying. “Good luck with the Hummingbird” he commented as I jumped into Choco’s van and waved him goodbye from the window.

“What is the Hummingbird?” I asked Choco.

“It is the road we will be driving”

“Is it dangerous?” I asked

“No” he replied and with that we slipped back into our usual early morning one directional discussion. However, not feeling like driving in silence for six hours and tiring of my own voice, I started pressing him for conversation.

I pried from him an update on the border dispute with Guatamala and his view on whether I should hitch there the next day. Teased from him details regarding his family life and growing up in Belize. Investigated the Mayan peoples and the remnants of their rich culture; and when we had exhausted all standing topics I pressed back in my seat and felt the warm morning air flood through the window as I commented on the postcard perfect scenery along the Hummingbird Highway.

By the time we got to our destination Choco had relaxed and was now starting to initiate some discussion. I almost wished we could drive a little longer, thinking I had nearly cracked him.

About four hours after he dropped me off I found Choco diligently waiting for me for our return journey. He was leaning back against his van with his shirt off. The Belizian sun reflecting off his protruding round smooth belly. He saw me emerging from the jungle and quickly whipped his shirt back on and gave me a wave.

I had spent the morning hiking through the jungle, zip lining through its canopy, exploring an extensive cave system and floating down a stream. Wet and filthy dirty I grabbed a change of clothes and beckoned Choco to join me for lunch. I handed him a beer and we sat along a wooden bench quietly admiring the tumble of rapids in the nearby stream.

We jumped into the van and a discernibly more jovial Choco declares “Guinness is my favourite. I like Belikin but Guinness is the best.” It seems as though beer has acted as a social lubricant for the now much chattier Choco. I suggested I might want to get some beer for the trip back. “Guinness is the beer I drive best on.” Choco adds. “ I know where we should go!”

A local toothless man with a weak chin stepped from the verandah of the general store as I exited with my bag of Guinness. “You’re gunna need something to get you back through the Hummingbird.”  He quipped, following this statement with a booming laugh as he scratched his head and looked out towards the jungle.

“I wonder what he meant by that?” I asked Choco as I handed him his first can of Guinness. Choco shrugs. His beam widening as he cracks the top of his can. We swerve off down the road with Choco chuckling aloud. “I like Guinness”

At first Choco’s chuckles made me smile at him enjoying himself so much. Then I couldn’t help joining in. Both of us chuckling like school children, Choco’s whole body shaking, as we cruised the Hummingbird. Then I saw a sign by the road that said “Prepare to meet thy maker.” I still hadn’t determined the nature of the threat of this road. Needless to say it was a little disconcerting seeing that sign as Choco cracked another beer with another high pitched chuckle.

I searched the road up ahead for signs of danger but it gave me no hints. It seemed like a perfectly safe road. Perhaps there were tight turns that fall away to plummeting ravines or cliffs with loose shoulders that I hadn’t noticed on the way here. Maybe bandits that lay in wait; or could the warnings I had received be the universe cautioning me about my increasingly intoxicated driver. My vigilant watch for impending disaster was broken by Choco opening up and giving me the run down on his girlfriends. In fact now that Choco had started talking I couldn’t shut him up.

Choco it turns out was 44, had a wife and 4 kids and despite appearances was an unscrupulous seducer of tourist women. Didn’t see that coming. He started with his relationship with a Canadian tourist that he became, in his words, “overly friendly” with. He was going to run off with her, except there was a problem with his papers that required his wife’s signature. That was the end of that one he lamented.

After cataloguing a number of star crossed affairs he talked me through his relationship with a Spanish tourist who agreed to be “on the side” until she got his wife’s number from his phone and started texting her that Choco was going to leave her.  Choco denied everything and then “gifted” his wife a new smart phone, with a new number of course and broke it off with the Spanish lady.

He told me he was a bit hurt by the Spanish girl because he trusted her and she broke his trust. I tried to explain there may be some irony in a married man feeling betrayed by his lover but he didn’t grasp the concept and besides he was now having such a good time on this trip back home I didn’t want to spoil it for him. Choco and I were finally connecting. It may have taken half a day and a good deal of Guinness though.

I imagined what it would be like if I could always take the time to connect with the people around me. People I usually pass in my day that I don’t have words to say to or perhaps just no time to say them. Choco and I had little in common but for the next couple of hours we laughed, we drank beer and we ate some of the Namibian Oryx biltong I had in my bag.

By the time we pulled back into Placencia, Choco leaned over and patted me on the knee and told me he was very happy with the drive home, he had never had such a good time working and he felt like the day was for him.

We pulled up in front of my accommodation, the lady at the front desk called out “I see you survived the Hummingbird.” I looked at Choco, he shrugged again. I never found out what if any risks there are driving the Hummingbird. I did find out a lot about my driver Choco though.

Choco. Guinness lover, chuckler…. lothario.

The Cave

The movement of the water around me echoes the catacomb walls as my panicky hands grapple for the errant regulator caught on top of my tank. I duck below the water trying to loosen the hose but it remains caught. I resurface and call out to the others to wait but they have all started their descent and are already below the water. The cave darkens as I reach for my secondary regulator and deflate my BCD. The last of the torch light disappears under a ledge below me. I am now descending in complete darkness.

My fins hit the rocks on the cave floor as my eyes try to adjust to the irrational darkness. I can’t see the opening, I can’t see anything. I dare not attempt to follow. Even if I could feel my way to the entrance of the cave chamber, without a torch I’d most certainly get lost in the tunnels leading to the outside ocean. I sit there for a minute or two before resurfacing. Alone, floating in the darkness of the cave.

Minutes ago I bobbed in this spot. Rising and falling with the swell, watching the torch lights attach themselves to stalactites as divers scan the inside of the dome. In this pocket of air we were free to talk, to explore, to marvel at the water mirroring blue tinsel across the rocky cupola and casting its ripple of shadows.

I had no hesitation when one of the divers asked to lend my torch. Brad, my kiwi dive buddy left his torch on the boat by mistake and was keen to inspect a coconut crab scaling the rocky wall more closely. Obviously caught in the excitement he failed to bring it back. A point I could have lived with if my regulator hose had not become tangled.

They would be almost out of the tunnel by now; emerging from the mouth of the rocky cavern that swallowed them half an hour before. They would be passing schools of squirrel fish and sweeper fish, maybe even occasioning a banded sea snake. Between equalisations they would be hearing the sweet song of the Humpback whales, their eyes coin-like in wonder.

The tide fills and drops the level in the cave as I sit there in the water alone in the darkness. Entombed. I pull the regulator from my mouth. I need to save my air for when I finally get out of here. The sound of my heightened breathing is disconcerting as it amplifies off the blackened walls.

I wonder how often a group dives this cave? How long could I be trapped here?Hopefully the excitement of the dive does not overpower the Dive Master’s sensibilities that the boat is returning one short. Perhaps Brad will remember his buddy when he finds he has two torches on the boat.

Until someone returns I will wait here in the darkness. Waiting on a light to appear from somewhere below. Waiting and spinning sinister speculations on my fate.

Prey

I crawled up the sand away from the other divers desperately clutching at my chest. My breaths shallow, useless, unable to satisfy my burning lungs. I rolled to my back, sand and saliva mixing grainy on my face. Trying desperately to fill my tightened lungs with air I gasp and swallow as I wrestle my wetsuit to my waist.  I whispered to myself, ‘Moses is right; this may be all in your head.’

 

Moses and I rolled off the bow at Silk Cayes, three pronged sling spears in our hand. We signalled our descent and ducked below the white caps to the calmness of a slow ocean current. Normally an advocate of taking only memories and leaving only bubbles, today we were diving with a purpose. There was a predator on the loose. One that needed to be eradicated.

Lionfish are introduced in the Caribbean. According to local legend a resort’s fish tank broke so they threw the Lionfish into the ocean. From there, having no predators, the Lionfish have multiplied in numbers and are eating all the reef fish on the Belizean coral reef. They can consume thirty juvenile fish in a minute and can reduce certain species of fish by up to 80% in an area within a five day period. Against all other instincts, today I am a hunter.

The coral in the clear warm waters off Belize inspires an inner tranquillity. Angelfish and Parrotfish brighten the scene, Jackfish school in a twisting cloud that bends and reforms as we pass and a lazy Grouper watches on as we scour the gradient of the reef.

Lurking in the coral recesses, the Lionfish hang in suspended animation, rocking gently on the ebb and flow. Their beautifully striped red, cream and black colouration and elaborate fins a warning to their protruding venomous spines.

The Lionfish venom won’t kill a human, but it will make you wish you were dead. I keep a respectful distance as I line my shot.

At first I wasn’t very accurate and managed to “scare” more than I speared. But as we traversed the lower realms of the reef I got the hang of it and soon was dragging a couple of dozen in the bucket behind me.

I looked across to a Black Tipped Reef Shark trailing to my right. Black Tipped Reef Sharks are generally not aggressive. They are beautiful, timid and social. Since making my way to Belize to dive the Blue Hole I had many wonderful up close encounters with these curious sharks.

At six foot and over a hundred kilograms I was genuinely excited to see this shark moving in and out of my periphery. Black Tipped Reef Sharks are quite harmless…. except when you are dragging a bucket of dead fish behind you and then they are considered extremely dangerous.

As this dawns on me, I look behind me. Another shark emerged and another and above another. Four sharks, excited by the smell of the blood of the fish in the water. Casing us.

One by one, they came into sight and then disappeared into the blue. No longer objects to be marvelled at. They were now vicious and energetic hunters, their eyes beady and foreboding, focussing on Moses and I. The hunters had become the prey.

I tap the fins of Moses ahead, signal that something is wrong and raise my hand flat, sideways and vertical against my forehead. He points at his eyes and signals we move ahead. The sinister outline of their pointed snout and blackened dorsal prowling across our perimeter, skirting the margins then darting away.

We flee across the base of the reef, escaping the predation of a pack of menacing sharks. Through the watery depths, my heart racing, fins kicking double time. Sharks following frighteningly close.

I look again to my air supply. As this was my first spear fishing experience, I had failed to fully appreciate how quickly you can use the air in your tank as you exert yourself at depth.

I signalled to Moses again that something was wrong. This time signalling that I only had 25 bar left in my tank. I cursed myself for my stupidity. An advanced diver I knew better than to get myself in this situation. I looked up towards the surface as a figure casts an alarming shadow. 25 bar wasn’t enough to get me to the surface with an appropriate safety stop.

We signal to each other to head towards the surface and to stop at 5 metres. If we don’t wait there for 5 minutes we put ourself at great risk of decompression sickness.

Suspended in the blue we float, bubbles trailing to the surface. The sharks return, circling below us. I count five now. My tank is nearly exhausted, the sound of our strained breathing and my heartbeat in my ears the only sound.

As my tank empties I grab Moses’ emergency buddy regulator and we both pull the remaining air from the one tank for the rest of our safety stop, silently keeping a watching eye for the sharks. It was getting quite tough to pull the air through the regulator from Moses’ tank into my lungs when Moses signalled it was time to surface. Moses looks at his watch, gives me the OK and I start to ascend.

As we fin to the surface I look around, I cant see the sharks. There is only one thing worse than seeing a pack of frenzied sharks in your midst and that is not seeing them. Then Moses’ watch starts sounding. This was his dive watch telling him it was not safe to surface yet. We waited another minute but his dive watch was still going crazy. Moses signals for me to surface. I pause. We can’t ascend too quickly after diving so deep but there was no choice, we had no more air. I look down, still can’t see the sharks.

I sat on the back of the boat as we made our way to the nearest island. My chest tight, unable to take a full breath, lungs felt like they were burning. Moses sits next to me explaining he thinks his watch is broken, “we are ok, no problem, we are safe up.” I wasn’t so sure. “Its no problem Robbo, this…” he points at my labouring chest, ” this in your head.”

 

I lay on the beach, half in the water. The sun warming my tanned skin. The fire down the beach wafting grilling Lionfish and the flow of the wave gently rising to my navel. The clouds above stretch across the blue, interrupted by a palm fidgeting and rearranging its shadow. I roll my eyes closed, concentrating only on my breathing. Deep, slow, I breathed.

Eventually I return to the group, a plate of Lionfish awaiting me. The crew and some local islanders enjoying the merits of our excursion in a postcard perfect scene. I pull up a patch of driftwood near Moses. “You ok Robbo?” he enquires.

“I think so Moses, I just had to give myself a good talking to. I’m alright now”

“We will go down again then after lunch?” He queries, picking at the remains of his fish

“Absolutely mate, I wouldn’t miss it.”

The Pofadder

We start on our afternoon walking safari through the Okavango Delta, the sun still hanging high in the sky. A light breeze occasions our sweaty skin providing a momentary reprieve to the oppressive heat. The dry open fields of bush and savannah grassland framed by fingers of delta water carving through the dryness.

Ahead of us an unsuspecting Pofadder basks in the sun, camouflaging itself in the dryness of the grass. Bitis arietans, is a particularly aggressive biter and is answerable for more fatalities than any other snake in Africa. Preferring to bite rather than avoid confrontation it releases a cytotoxin venom, which in the remoteness of the Delta is likely to result in a best case scenario of the victim losing the limb this viper strikes.

We head out along a thin trail carved by animals through the savannah grass. Master, a member of the local Bayei Tribe and expert tracker in the Delta helping me lead the group. He has been training me to track animals through the bush, to decipher the subtle notes of broken twigs and tracks. I recall my many failed attempts when I started this training. At each track in the dirt he would point.

“Wildebeest?” I would look at him like a student eager to please his teacher

“No Robbo”

Hartebeast?”

“No”

A sounder of warthogs run by, tails in the air as a guide to the scurrying suckers following an impatient mum. The babble of the Delta waterways close by, keeping inconsistent time, occasioned by a stirring bush. The whisper of the breeze through the Mopani trees only interrupted by the coos of tourists spotting something big in the distance.

Our group stops momentarily to observe a cohort of zebra grazing across the expanse. No fences, no vehicles, in a line we pause to appreciate the wildness of it all before starting out again. We try to keep our footfall light on the dusty track, eyes keenly scanning the scene for hints of wild in the dry savannah.

The Pofadder ahead recoils, ready to strike.

Overhead the shrill and ominous cries of an African Fish Eagle, the sound of the African wild, signals the danger unfolding. The grass reaches up, slowing our steps, pulling us at our legs in an attempt to prevent our path to the wickedness ahead. But a sinister trap had already been laid and we were about to be under attack.

The Pofadder strikes. Silently, swiftly. I saw nothing, heard nothing, only the barking and high pitched braying of the zebra as two long fangs inject a venomous cocktail deep into the fleshy skin. The victim jumps back in a terrifying and futile panic. Kicking out as the Pofadder recoils, resets, pausing as the heavy feet of our group push up the trail.

Again the Pofadder strikes. A new victim now. Master and I turn to see the terror in her eyes as the serpents powerful thrust sends frantic and repeated blows to the ankle of one of my female passengers.

This second attack however was thwarted. The Pofadder’s mouth was still full of frog. Its first victim kicking, sheathing the viper’s fangs. The girl jumps away with a shriek and the Pofadder retreats back into obscurity in the grass.

Our hearts race frantic. We stand there all scanning the ground for further terror before composing ourselves to continue cautiously forward. A close escape. Fortunately for us, not so fortunate was the poor frog.