I grabbed the wood of my staff, the thick walking stick I had now become accustomed to. It was warm in the hot baking
sun. Without it I would have been lost―my steady friend. I moved it in my fingers. It was rough, and the heat it had
absorbed in the hours of my journey pulsed through the teakwood fibers, through into my skin and bones. The wood was uneven
and I cautiously ran my fingers down to its base, expecting a splinter, but I felt no stab or prick. The knobbles and dark
markings that mottled its fibrous coat were part of my staff. Just like the African earth I stood in and was covered with,
my staff’s damaged parts were beautiful. I looked down at my hands, happy in the silence. The lines in my hands were
marked out from the red earth I’d climbed up in. There is a legend, you know. They say the earth in Africa is so red
that you can see the blood of fallen warriors flowing through it. I imagined the Zulu warriors of old fighting with spears
and skin shields in the midday hours in the same grasslands I had passed through only moments before.
Disturbed from my reverie by the team, I turned to see what was happening behind me. Our guide was poised on one of
the outlying boulders looking over the grasslands by the waterhole. One of the men whispered to him, “what is it būt?”
“Sssh.” Our team leader held his hand up to silence him and
pointed to the left of the horizon. We stood marking the silence, the heat cascading off the earth in mirage-like waves, until
towards the left-rising slope we saw a herd of antelope strolling through the grasslands. The majestic herd leader strode
tall, chewing the cud at the front of the herd and looking over to where we stood, watching.
He locked eyes with me, moment to moment, as keen to understand my presence as I was to understand his.
Two little ones skipped underfoot from the herd, tumbling, forward from the back, play-fighting, and as they spied
the waterhole they raced forward, eager to drink from the cold, fresh water. The bull, graceful and in control, tipped his
antlers forward to trip them both up, never moving his locked eyes from mine. The little ones plunged forward ahead of him
and locked together antlers in red clouds of dust and excitement. We’d seen crocodiles warming in the sun when we’d
passed by before. I wondered how he’d known. Perhaps he believed he should drink before the others.
It was strange how the herd marked us but did not run. Perhaps we had become like them, part of the bush. We had our
part to play.
“Come on everyone, the mountain won’t climb itself, and the hardest part is yet to come. Probably be cool
‘round mid afternoon, so use your water now if you need it. We should hit the next water spot in a couple of hours.” Our guide was an agile young man called Thulani, whose name meant happiness in the
native language of Zimbabwe, and I, along with many others, was climbing its highest mountain. It had taken us three days
to get to this point on the shadow plains, and as the grass underfoot turned to red earth and then red rock, I knew it would
We moved up the red rocks, and with the sweat pouring off my legs, the dirt that clung to my skin became like glue.
Hands reached down for hands, and muscles strained as we climbed farther and farther. My legs were burning with the effort
each step took, but the feeling of the hot rocks and sun on my skin was a comfort I knew I would never forget. I felt like
Thulani reached the largest rock ahead of us, and stopped to look down. I smiled. He was like a cat, stretched out
in his glory, and his glory was his comfort in this wildness. I lunged forward, using my staff to pull me up, and he grabbed
my shoulders, placing me on the mossy rock beside him.
“Tired?” Thulani patted me on the arm.
“I’m okay. How do we go any further?” I gulped, looking downward at the red drop. The red earth had
turned to clay, with rocks embedded inside like souls trapped in a coffin. It was a long way down, and I had no idea how I
would gather the strength to pass through here. There was a small, winding path snaking its way down through the clay―only
wide enough for one person and a staff.
Thulani pointed downward. The others sat around me, breathing heavily. “Single file. Down the pass. It’s
the only way to get up; we have to go down first. Go slowly; use the staff to get a hold in the ground and you won’t
fall. If you lose your grip, try not to get in anyone’s way or you’ll take us all down with you. Now go, one at
I swallowed hard, I didn’t expect this. The earth was so beautiful but yet, for us, so small and insignificant,
it was beyond threatening. It held the promise of death. Frozen in the spot I sat in, the boys went first and then the girls.
Thulani nodded to me. His face was set in grave lines; maybe he could sense my fear, our fear. The air was filled with it.
I wanted to say I couldn’t, but my body got up before my mouth could form the words.
I began to make my way down. The clay swallowed our feet, and dyed our hands red. The rocks inside it were sharp and
my fingers began to bleed. The blood marked the wood in my staff. I felt tears sting my eyes and blend into the russet-coloured
sweat on my face. Thulani was behind me. I turned to see where he was so I could keep enough space between us, and as I did,
I stepped too hard on the rock ahead of me and slipped. The air rushed in my nose, and the hot air turned to cold as I fell.
I didn’t know where I was, or what would happen. I only felt the fear. I could not control these next moments.
“There. Got you.” It was Thulani. Somehow he’d stopped me from falling.
“H-how?” I stammered, shaking. I felt like a dead weight. I could see the others, as he pulled me up, one-handed.
I could smell the strain as he pulled me closer, back onto the path.
“I jumped.” He smiled again, his face was red-black and his white teeth shone uncomfortably in the sun.
There was no “thank you” or time to experience the moment. We moved on, down and down until we slipped
out at the bottom through a curtain of sweet-smelling green firs, into a cold jet stream of water. Gasping with shock, I heard
Thulani shout something in Ndebele, and jump. We were behind a waterfall. The water was like the thinnest glass, a cold diamond,
and in its reflection I could see our faces, reddened by the dust we had climbed through. We all jumped into the water, one
after the other.
I couldn’t see the bottom, but the fear had been taken from me. We reached the shore and clamoured out. I sat
there in my own thoughts until night fell.
Thulani had built a fire in the warm space between two huge boulders, and the others sat rubbing their hands together.
It was dark so suddenly, as it always was in Africa, but night fell so much darker here. Our guide sat on the boulder staring
up into the sky.
We were right under the Milky Way. There were millions of stars, more than my eyes could take in or count. They looked
so close to the touch, I climbed up to sit with Thulani and reached up to grab one for me to keep.
“Have you eaten?” He looked up at me in the darkness.
“No. Not hungry yet.” My hand was empty. There were no stars to keep, only to see.
“Sit.” He patted the granite beside him.
“I fell today.” I was ashamed, and whispered. “You caught me.”
“Yes. Shall I tell you a story?” He held out his hand, and placed a rock, still warm from the heat, in
one of my hands, and a lump of clay in the other. As he spoke he was sitting on the edge of the granite, pointing out to the
horizon. I could see the soft lines in his face by the starlight as he spoke softly. “You see, we have walked today
in grass as high as the antelope, and drunk from the steam of the storm. We have bathed in the earth, and washed ourselves
of past and future. We have become covered in the soil, and we shall always carry these things with us, like these here in
your hands. We have hair, like the grass, and skin, like the clay. We have hearts like the proud granite, and our souls will
always give glory to the stars, here.” Thulani pointed out to the African horizon and the bright stars twinkling in
I looked down at the rock and clay, and up at the stars, frowning. “I don’t understand.”
“You have fallen in Africa and Africa caught you. You are part of it now, child. You’re an African princess
now.” He closed my fingers over the stone and clay I held in my hands. He stood up and placed his hand on my shoulder.
The silence was heavy and I swallowed, unable to speak. As he jumped down the rock to the camp below, I could hear his words
echoing, as if they had been heard by the dark African night, and I was changed.
Williams was born in 1981 of African-Irish descent, in the newly formed country of Zimbabwe on the purple carpeted Jacaranda
Lane. Life was filled in her early years with Irish fairy tales written by her grandfather, and the inspirational imaginings
of the world of Narnia and Grimm’s Fairy Tales. In the inspiring world of Africa, she began her journey as a writer,
winning an Honours award for her poem 'The Thicket and the Musgrove' at the age of nine, and the author of poetry collections
Daydreams in Mermaid Grass and Theodore in November. Her website is: www.natalie-williams.com