Being an uninvited guest in someone’s home is always awkward.
My day started beautifully.
First light over the confluence of the Shashe and Limpopo rivers
is beautiful, at any time of year.
It’s also the best time to walk.
I was camping alone in the Shashe Wilderness, Tuli Circle area, where Zimbabwe and Botswana meet.
Every year, just after, and sometimes over New Year, I would set aside a week to quietly go walkabout here. It’s wild, open country. Sitting on any one of the rocky hillocks here
will get your eyes drifting over miles of quiet mopane veld stretching to every horizon.
In the distance, you may be lucky enough to see a herd of browsing elephants, or hear the roar of a lion.
Several hundred metres wide in places, the Shashe river winds through this wilderness,
sweeping past the confluence with its smaller sibling, the Limpopo, whereupon, inexplicably, it is then called the Limpopo.
Most months, the Shashe is dry, or has scattered pools and lakes of water. At this time of the year, midsummer in the southern hemisphere, a flash flood can come rolling and foaming down the river at any time, and I have seen two in my sojourns there.
You don’t want to be halfway across the Shashe when this happens, so I always walk through the clinging river sand as fast as I can to get to the Tuli enclave, or Tuli Circle, a
small semi-circle of land that Zimbabwe has, cut into the Botswana side of the river.
Now given that the Shashe is perhaps five hundred metres wide where I camp, being halfway across is no assurance that you’ll make it to the other side if a wall of water suddenly comes sluicing around the bend.
Anyway, I’ve always made it, as you can see, but would probably stick to my side of the river if I saw signs of heavy rain to the northwest, that might fill the river overnight.
The morning was still cool, and all the birds were letting the sunlight know that they were happy to see it.
The raucous, territorial calls of the francolin echoed along the river banks, and the joyful chit chirrr of the woodland kingfishers, visiting for the summer, woke the day. I was a happy man, wondering what new revelations would come my way.
When I first pitch tent here, I walk an hour or two in the morning, and an hour or two in the late afternoon, and that’s enough, But after a few days, I walk the whole day,and I am somehow not tired.
This morning I was going to go across to old Fort Tuli, look at the gun emplacement
on the flat hill, and then pick up some fresh tracks of any animal, and start to improve my tracking skills. From 1890 to 1893 this location, with its water and mainly flat terrain, was a convenient point of entry into what was to become Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) for wagon trains. It was from here that Cecil John Rhodes set about his questionable colonial expansion into the country, and this trading route remained for many years.
The Tuli Circle itself is part of that heritage. To create a ‘no-go’ zone for local cattle, thus attempting to prevent the passing of foot and mouth disease to the transport wagon oxen, a canon was fired from Fort Tuli, and a circle of roughly ten miles in diameter was measured out from the end of the shot trajectory.
This circle disregarded the Shashe as the natural boundary between the two countries, and was marked out half in Zimbabwe, and half in Botswana. Hence, the incongruous half circle of Zimbabwe land, neatly shown on any map, that is on the Botswana side of the Shashe.It is now called the Tuli National Park. The word Tuli in Tswana means dust, in particular fine dust, and in the arid months, this dust typifies the area – I find it beautiful, particularly the way it filters the light in the sunrises and sunset hours, other just find it dusty.
I had already crossed the empty, sandy Shashe, and it was about 5.30 am (the sun comes up at 4.30 am at this time of year.) so it was still pretty cool.
Then I hit the uphill slopes to Fort Tuli, and at last reached the plateau-like flattop of the fort, and the gun emplacements, which were still clearly marked out with stones and not much the worse off for wear.
Below me stretched mopaneveld, and I decided to go down the south western face of the fort, and check out tracks.
I was in luck. There were fresh leopard tracks leading through the black cotton soil, and they were easy to follow, from earlier that morning. As I followed along, picked up spoor of one or two lone elephants, older, and some eland.
I just wanted to see if I could maintain on the leopard’s spoor, even though other spoor had crossed it on the sand, and see if I could follow on stony areas, and managed ok.
By now it was getting hot, and I decided to turn back and get into the beautiful and cool
riverine forest edging the Shashe with green-ness and shade.
So back over the fort hill and down towards the river.
A slim and splendidly striped skaapsteker , or grass snake flicked through the rocks nearby, flashing its stripes at me, as I made my way down. Perhaps it was a warning, but at the time I didn’t regard it as such.
By the time I reached the riverine forest, I was hot and sweaty, and the cool of the tall trees enveloped me. Pheew! I looked around for a place to sit down and cool off for a while. Ahead of me, an old ebony, or Jackal berry, had fallen, and was now slowly decaying, still leaning at a slight angle, where it rested on the stump of another tree.
I thought about sitting there, but knew that dead old tree boughs were a good home for scorpions, and didn’t want my ass jabbed just then.
There was a termite mound as tall as I was , rising to a point, just next to me, so I put out my right hand and leaned on it, while I thought about where to sit.
A flicker of movement on the edge of my peripheral vision, alerted me.
Emerging from a hole in the termite mound, the length of bent my arm away, was the head of a very large black mamba.
I froze. I don’t think this was a voluntary action. I just believe I couldn’t move.
I could see every detail. The tongue flicking. The black lining of the mouth. The grey coffin shaped head, and then the brownish body with a yellow to cream underbelly.
(The black mamba is called black because of its deathly black mouth. The snake itself is a brownish grey).
The mamba poured out of the hole, and started pooling its coils on the ground at my feet – and there was still more mamba inside the termite mound.I remember thinking, or more, feeling, against all my instincts, that this was a truly beautiful creature.
Finally, all of the snake slid from the mound, and started stretching out, at a forty five degree angle away from me.
Somewhere in my brain, I was able to coolly calculate the length of the snake as it unwound and moved away. I reckoned that if I lay down alongside it, it would still be three feet longer than me. So, a nine foot black mamba.
I still hadn’t moved. The mamba had every opportunity to strike at me, and I probably still wouldn’t have moved. But it didn’t. It stretched away from me.
The big snake then slid up onto the fallen ebony, and slithered along the trunk, which leaned away at an angle. I was able to watch the whole process with an amazing detachment. The snake stopped, and raised its head.
It now formed a kind of sideways Z. The head was up, the main length of the body ran along the tree trunk, and the tail, which tapered to a point, hung down off the trunk.
From there, it looked at me. I knew exactly what it was saying.
You leave me alone, and I wont kill you. You have disturbed my home, and I have let you live. Now move along.
Slowly, I lifted my hand from the mound, turned partly away from the snake, and walked away as if in a dream.
After about twenty or thirty yards, I came across a small washed away donga, and sat on the edge of it.
That’s when I started shaking.My whole body shook, and wouldn’t stop for a minute or two.
The adrenaline had kicked in. I gave it some time, and when I could trust myself to walk again, moved on.
Giving the mamba’s home a wide berth, I moved further north up the river, and crossed it,
eventually getting back to my campsite.
On the way, I had time to think about the possible consequences if I had been bitten.
There was a remote police outpost within an hour’s walk of the mamba’s home.
I would have died on the way there, after about twenty minutes to half an hour.
But the mamba let me live.
Not once did I sense real menace from it. Deadly warning, yes.
But the snake had chosen to move away from me. It could just as easily have flicked its fangs into me. As I write this, I can still clearly remember the image of that elegant and
beautiful snake, looking at me across the forest floor, waiting patiently and gently for me to leave.
Somewhere, we both knew, that we valued and loved the same life we shared, better than anything else.