Wild at heart

Posted by Helen Walne on 21 January 2019

The thing about love and romance is that it’s best when it’s least expected.

Gallo/Getty Images

I’d really wanted to be romantic in Paris. I’d even brushed my hair. On the Métro, my husband excitedly showed me places on the map. ‘We’ll go to the Louvre and ponder the Mona Lisa and stroke our chins,’ he said.

Once out on the street, bobbing along on a tide of fragrant foreigners, the city’s gold domes jostling with the sky, I felt a familiar wave of panic rising in my chest. ‘It’s happening,’ I said to my husband, gripping his arm. We sat down on a bench. I breathed deeply, shielding my eyes from the glare of couples in white linen, and then sent my husband off – go and see the paintings, I said. Eat croissants. Queue with Texans for the Eiffel Tower. It’s too much to take in. It expects too much from me. It’s just too perfect.

It was the same in Venice. On the vaporettos and in the Sisyphean streets that repeatedly took us back to the shop with ugly masks, I couldn’t settle. The city felt like a backdrop to a Hollywood movie in which everyone looked exceptionally clean. I kept expecting to see Pierce Brosnan coiling a rope on the quay, his chest hairs creeping out of a half-buttoned shirt. We stopped at a cafe and shared a salad that cost more than a biplane. We tried to hold hands in Piazza San Marco, but hordes of Spanish students kept stamping their feet among the pigeons, making them fly into our faces. At night in our hotel, an American outside the window boomed: ‘Oh my gawd! Look at the tiny bridge! Look at the tiny bridge!’

Where I grew up – on a stubbled farm sort of near Maritzburg and kind of near Durban – there weren’t many people. There were chickens and sheep and horses, and a homicidal ram called Humphrey who, in the right light, had beautiful eyes. At night, I would lie on my horse’s back under the stars, feeling her shifting her weight. I imagined city people falling in love and breaking into song like they do in musicals.

A few years ago, my husband and I drove to Namibia. At first I wasn’t convinced. ‘It’ll be hot and dry and empty,’ I said. ‘I refuse to eat buck.’ We drove and drove and opened the windows. The air was clean and grassy. I sang along to our only CD and we pulled over to admire sociable weavers. The first night was spent in a tent next to a river and we lay with all the zips undone, watching stars harden in the sky.

For 10 days, we drove and camped and sang and walked. We peed in the sand and sneaked a swim in a private pool. I befriended a Jack Russell and fed rusks to a wild horse. One morning, my husband and I set up easels and chairs next to the dunes and had a painting competition. He got the perspective right, but my work scored points for creative interpretation.

On our last night, we checked into a tented camp overlooking a plain the colour of cayenne pepper. After a legitimate swim in the pool, we dragged two chairs into the veld in front of our cabin and sat in silence, watching the horizon soften. All around us was noise – not of squealing Spanish teenagers or Americans reading from guidebooks, nor the hot hustle of couples trying to recreate scenes from a Graham Greene novel. The geckos bleeped so loudly I began tapping my toes. Then, out of the shadows on the left, a jackal emerged and settled itself on the ground in front of us. It tilted its head up to the darkening sky and began to make that strange, otherworldly cry. 

We watched in silence, mesmerised, as it called and paused, called and paused. And then, in the distance, came a reply. My breathing slowed, my heart bloomed and I reached for my husband’s hand.

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