Volume 7, Issue 5: Pictura
My sister and I rolled our eyes at each other once again as we exited the plane.
We had first rolled our eyes when we noticed, during the plane's descent to Jan
Smuts Airport, Johannesburg, that we flew over some very lush neighborhoods where
every house had either an olympic-sized pool or a tennis court and then flew
over neighborhoods that looked like war zonesendless, broken, mud-colored buildings.
Now we rolled our eyes and our stomachs twitched as we gaped at the division
between the all-black airport workers on the right and the all-white supervisors
and flight crews on the left. Mom and Dad were already to the airline terminal
doing important parent things. But we had to be the sociologists, though I was
barely twelve and my sister some higher teen age.
That arrival in South Africa seemed like a long time ago now. I brought my
thoughts back to the present and looked around at the six other Boy Scouts sitting
in the back of the moving pickup truck. So South African, I thought. Their
faces were hard and taut, Dutch- and English-Africans. They reminded me of some
military Special Forces team going for a kill. I resented the fact that the Boy
Scouts down here had so little fun. Our weekly troop meetings always involved
an hour of instruction in proper military marching. The older Scouts enjoyed
yelling at us like the drill sergeants I had seen in movies.
But you had to have some street smarts in the wild, and I, quite honestly, had
known life in the city and had had plenty of experience camping in the mountains
of California. We had always been a Scouting family; we had plenty of Jamboree
patches to prove it. I was wearing my red patch jacket right in the midst of
these guys. I sat up.
We were being driven along the long road from the suburbs of Johannesburg toward
Pretoria. The grassy veldt on either side of the road rolled on forever. I
could see our destination looming in front of usthose rather low, soft-edged
From the cab of the truck, the driver shouted something to us out his window.
I couldn't hear it. He was the closest thing to an adult we had on the trip. He
was almost eighteen and in a different world than I was.
"What did he say?" I shouted to the others.
They shouted back, but I couldn't understand them. I chalked it up to their accents
"Snake Park!!" They shouted louder.
"What's that?" They frowned at me. Some of them shook their heads. "Yanks!" said
one of the boys, offering that alone as an explanation to the others. To them
everyone in the U.S. was a Yankee, and that one title captured a rich, well-honed,
national disgust for Americans. The truck slowed and turned off the main road.
I quickly learned that this famous "Snake Park" was an amusement site, in South
African terms, where people would come and watch doctor types "milk" the venom
from strangely colored, deadly snakes. The other guys had seen this a hundred
times, but it was a ritual that always pulled Scout trucks off the road. I had
never seen so many varieties of colored death.
We all leaned on the railing watching, and the Scouts didn't categorize the snakes
by subtle species name, though they knew them. They categorized them by how quickly
the snake's venom would kill a man. They knew all the differentiating details
about venoms, how some made you puff up beyond recognition, others turned your
skin colors. A Mamba bite would kill a person in under thirty seconds, they assured
It was all quite intriguing and quirky, until I realized that my governing assumption
that these snakes were imported from other parts of Africa started to crumble.
No, they are all local snakes, they informed me.
" That wasn't on the permission slip," I blurted out a little too loudly, trying
desperately to pull the words back in my big, open mouth. "Yanks," I heard, under
some of their breaths. They looked away from me.
Once back in the truck, the remainder of the ride into the heart of the Magaliesburg
was quiet. As we drove into more wooded areas, the others took no notice of the
grey movements in the trees. I tried not to look, but there were hundreds of
grey monkeys jumping among branches as we passed. Excuse me, I wanted to shout,
there are a skillion monkeys in the trees! Such things had never shown up in
any Californian campout, I knew. I said nothing and adopted the stoic pose of
the other scouts.
As we neared our camp site, Leyton Kislig turned to me to give me some warnings.
Except for a very high pitched voice, Leyton was the perfect school yard bully,
black haired arms, pimply, and hulking. At school he was regularly beaten by
the headmaster for assorted trespasses against us. He leaned in close to me,
"Now, Yank, the only thing you really have to watch out for in the Magaliesburg
are leopards and baboons." He was serious. "If you come across a leopard, you have
to shake leafy branches at it and shout in Zulu. Not English or Afrikaans. Zulu.
And don't run from it." We had sat next to each other in Zulu class. "And don't go
near the baboons, or BA-boons, as you Yanks say. They are more vicious than the
leopards." He left my lesson at that.
For some reason, I had expected a regular sort of pre-selected camping site
with at least some cleared areas for putting up tents and fires. But no. Instead,
the driver just slowed down and asked us where we wanted to get off. One of the
boys pointed knowingly toward the edge of a slow-moving, muddy river. Soon we
had all of our gear off the truck. The driving Scout sat in the pickup cab and
watched while we worked. When all our tents were up and the campfire was in place,
he sat up, looked around at our site, nodded, and said good-bye. My heart sank.
All my fellow twelve-year-olds nodded back at him. "See you Monday," they shouted.
I said nothing.
That evening came quickly, and I was adjusting somewhat to several gross violations
of my permission slip. At least we had food. I didn't want to have to help sacrifice
a monkey for breakfast.
Around the fire that night, the topic turned naturally to medieval English history.
Trevor insisted that it was the Treaty of Alton in 1107 AD where Robert of Normandy
was bought off after invading England. Detlev took the lead in politely opposing
Trevor, assuring him through numerous proofs that it couldn't have been 1107,
since that was the year Edgar of Scotland died, being succeeded by his brother
Alexander. The Treaty of Alton was in 1101 AD. The next night's discussion focused
more nonchalantly on the British annexation of the Orange Free State in 1900.
In both discussions and others, I reclined casually, trying to disappear into
my log seat, hoping that the topic would turn to how the Cincinnati Reds had
just beaten the Boston Red Sox in the '75 World Series.
All seven of us slept in a large military tent, with the entrance closed very
tightly. We had set up another tent just to house our food and supplies. All
the other guys were quickly asleep as I lay wide-eyed, wondering if the tent
entrance was tight enough to keep out Mamba snakes. I kept listening intently
to every sound, filtering out false alarms. But one sound wouldn't go away. I
couldn't discount it. It sounded like light footsteps. Too light for a man. Too
quick for a cat. Suddenly the night erupted into a deafening clatter of banging
metalpans. The other guys were instantly alert.
"Acchhh, man, baboons," whispered Greg. "They're in our food tent!" Wanting to preserve
our supply of normal food, I suggested that we chase them off or shout.
"Whisper man. Don't be stupid. They'll take our heads off," explained Leyton.
We had to let the baboons do whatever they wanted and try to fix things in the
morning. The other guys slept it off and rose early. The baboons hadn't taken
everything. We could survive on oatmeal until Monday.
Things calmed down for a while. The sun was getting hotter, and just before
breakfast I noticed Detlev sitting on a rock overlooking the river. He was reading
his Bible? They had all brought their Bibles except for Leyton. I walked over
to Leyton, my hands confidently in my pockets, and nudged him with my elbow,
gesturing toward Detlev with my eyebrows.
"Look who's reading his Bible," I said in a cool, sing-song voice. Leyton shoved
me to the ground. My hands were still in my pockets.
"Detlev's a good bloke. Leave him alone," he said standing over me. He walked off.
Our major goal that weekend was to build two big rafts from wood, rope, and
sealed metal barrels we had brought along. We would push these up and down the
river and ram each other. This seemed like good fun, until I learned the ugly
side, which I should have expected by now. Of course, the river was thoroughly
diseased. The guys were amazed that I didn't know that the Bilharzia bacteria
had long infected almost every river in South Africa. "Yanks." We would ride the
rafts, but we couldn't let any open sores or bodily orifices get wet.
By mid afternoon, our two groups had lashed together two quite formidable rafts.
From then on, we spent most of our time on the river. None of us ever fell in.
During one excursion, I spotted a giant iguana-like lizard sunning itself on
the rock over the river where I had earlier seen Detlev reading. I watched the
other guys' eyes. They glanced at it and passed over it like it was a mere sparrow.
I said nothing, though I measured it visually to see if it might have eaten Detlev.
I hadn't seen him in a while.
The next day, the dreadful happened. The guys pulled out their cricket gear.
We didn't have a big enough clearing for rugby, but tragically you can play cricket
just about anywhere. I gave in. And after a while, I was feeling pretty good.
I had caught several fly balls, and now it was my turn to bat. As I walked up
to the wickets, I reflected on how I had not only escaped death in the river
or by baboon or Mamba, but I now had a "bat" in my hands so wide that one could
not possibly miss connecting with the ball. And hit I did. Years of little league
had paid off. I helped score so many runs that the teams had to reorganize, and
the guys were all trying to get on my team.
As the sun started to sink, we were all tired. That hard little red ball came
bouncing toward me one last time, and I hit it with everything I had. It went
forever. Everybody called it quits and patted me on the back, and I offered to
go find the ball up on the hill.
This camping is so groovy, I thought. I was on cloud nine as I ran to the
top of the grassy hill. I was trying to think up what new things to do tomorrow
on the rafts. Then I froze and stared; my heart exploded in panic, pounding in
my eyes. The red cricket ball lay a yard in front of me, but ten yards beyond
that crouched a very still, very spotted, leopard. It didn't move. I couldn't
move. Sweat appeared everywhere. Time stood still. What had Leyton said? Don't
run. Who could run? Back down at the camp site, I would later remember hearing
their talking turn to silence as they realized what was happening. They all slowly
crawled up the hill, carrying cricket bats and pans.
The guys all lay yards from my feet, just out of eyesight of the leopard. Through
the corner of my eye, the guys let me know that they were waiting for my cue.
They had to. I was in the leopard's sights. What had Leyton said? Zulu. Branches.
I had no branches. I unclinched my fists at my sides and opened my palms, spreading
my fingers as far apart as they would go. My African army was at my feet waiting
for my lead, and I felt myself swell with their strength.
I lifted my arms and sprawling fingers above my head and waved them violently,
shouting, "Sala kahle! Yebo Kunjani! Ngisekona! Ufudu!!" In that instant my guys
charged up beside me, shouting and waving their bats and pans. The leopard looked
confused and then bolted.
We all cheered and fell down laughing and panting. Detlev rolled over to me
and spoke so all could hear.
"Do you know what you said in Zulu!?"
"Yes," I said, in between laughing breaths. "I said'Greetings! Yes, I am fine! How
are you! Turtle!!'"
After that time, we went on countless campouts. And without a note, they had
stopped calling me "Yank," though I could never really be one of them. But for
that one moment on the hill, I had everything that they had. I was like them.
I was one of them. I was an African !