Bush Baby

Posted on 27 September 2012

I wrote this article a few years ago, when we were living in the bush and our human tornado of a daughter, Zoe, was still little. She’s still quite little now, for a five-year-old, but she is a force to be reckoned with, and I just liked reading back over this because it brought back some very happy memories of an incredible time in our lives.

Things that motherhood has taught me: It’s big. Huge. Prunes stain. Time flies. I can go without sleep for a long long time. So much love that I can’t imagine life without Zoe. She can roll across the bed and fall off the other side in less than a second. Everyone else drives too fast. Around every corner is a potential kidnapper. There are too many chemicals in our water, food, cosmetics and cleaning products. I drank and smoked way too much before I found out I was pregnant. She is the funniest person I’ve ever met. I can have a conversation with her that lasts an entire day. I don’t mind about the smashed peas on the floor and up the wall and on my jeans, in my hair, just as long as she eats something after being sick for a few days. Songs that I haven’t heard for years make me cry because they remind me of my childhood. And I can go from crying to laughing in less than a second, and the other way round.

Most moms plan their pregnancies to make sure the timing fits, the job allows it, there’s enough cash in the bank, and they allow lots of time to be healthy, give up smoking, drink less, take all those vitamins and supplements….. yep, that’s just how it didn’t happen for me. I resigned from my well-paid job as a safari camp manager to become a game ranger. The six weeks away from home didn’t bother me. Oh no, neither did the giving up of my not even remotely fat enough salary, and the thirteenth cheque due a few months’ hence, and the nice accommodation…. It was all too desk-bound and corporate. Don’t even ask about the pressure. So I packed my binoculars and headed off to the ranger training camp. I was really excited about the course, a bit like boot camp where we would sleep out in the bush; cook our own food, no showers, and some hellish route marching just to add spice to the sticky hot humid conditions at that time of year.

It was some time into the second week of the course that I started to feel a bit “off”. Putting it down to the tough physical nature of our training, I just carried on until one night I rolled a cigarette and nearly gagged. A test the next day was positive. Okay, so now what, I remember thinking, with slightly more colourful language.

The first six weeks were awful. I spent most of the time throwing up and couldn’t touch much apart from fresh fruit, plain yoghurt and salads. I couldn’t handle the smell of cigarettes (very easy to give up smoking!) or coffee. Fish was totally out of the question. I was still a vegetarian then, but even the smell of meat sent me running for the nearest loo. And tired – boy, all I wanted to do was sleep. At that stage it didn’t feel real. Too much had happened in this short time to take it all in and it was only when we saw Zoe’s heart beating during our first scan, that the enormity of it all finally hit me like a warthog in full charge crashing into the back of my legs.….

Obviously, the game ranger course was abandoned and we moved to our new place in the bush. My husband is a professional photographic safari guide, and together we have worked in some pretty amazing places in southern Africa. Now we found ourselves in the Eastern Cape and in the novel position of actually caring whether there were good doctors nearby. This might be where you expect things to settle in to some kind of normality. Not so.

One very early winter morning, before the sky had started to lighten and when the baboons in the cliffs were still quiet, Phill got up and walked through to the bathroom. I woke too. He stopped in his tracks. I heard a sound like compressed air escaping from a tyre. Then – “Stay there!” and the light came on. And there, coiled fatly in the middle of the floor, a huge puff adder hissed and half-heartedly struck at him. Quite a sight, so early in the morning – my naked husband standing there, looking at this enormous puff adder, (the one coiled up on the floor, of course…), then back at me to make sure I was still safely tucked up in bed. Did I mention that it was winter? Good job, because it was very chilly and reptiles aren’t at their best when cold. Luckily for us, the snake was too sluggish to strike, or even move much, which gave Phill plenty of time to wrap a towel round himself and fetch his snake-catcher, a very handy piece of equipment with a moveable claw on one end just for, er, catching snakes. He dumped the laundry on the floor and scooped the snake into the empty basket and put it outside with a lid over, weighed down with a massive stone, to deal with when the sun came up.

It must have sneaked in during the day, through our kitchen door, which is always open, and then tucked itself behind the kitchen cupboard. We had both been walking past it all day. Phill loaded the laundry basket and contents into his landrover and drove out into the bush, far enough for it not to come back, (do snakes have a homing instinct? Some are territorial, but I’m not sure about puff adders. Better to be safe!) and released it. Happily, we all survived the encounter, but I couldn’t help shuddering at what might have happened, especially if I had been bitten, two months away from giving birth to our human tornado.

The other day I sent a message to Zoe’s nursery school apologising that we were going to be late because there was a herd of elephants blocking the road. And last week, we were picking herbs down at the bottom of our garden just before sunset when a lion started to roar just the other side of the river. It sounded like he was hiding in the rocket patch! Zoe’s eyes flew open to the size of saucers and she leapt into my arms, trying to burrow under my shirt like a little monkey, then turned round and said “Wow mum! He’s really close, hey!”

She knows how to catch rain spiders using an upturned jar and piece of paper. She can spot a cheetah sleeping on a termite mound from far away. She knows the difference between rhino dung and elephant dung, and can tell us which antelope is which when we go out on our explorations.

A while back it was stiflingly hot even at sunset. We were at our favourite water hole, and she stripped off and splashed around in the shallows – “Look! I’m a warthog!” – and then set off round the edge of the water to look for different tracks. We are incredibly lucky to live like this. Not a day passes without something reminding us this way of life for granted.

Soon the day will come when we’ll probably have to move closer to school, but until then, every day is an adventure.

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