It was May 1997, when my brother Anthony Stidolph and I set off on an epic journey from Durban, South Africa to Zimbabwe in search of artistic inspiration. It was a much anticipated trip and as we drove along the great North road, the balmy warmth of the sun reflected the grins on our faces. We had just passed through the J.G.Strijdom Tunnels when we drew up behind two heavily overloaded vehicles, one trying to overtake the other on a blind hill. Neither were doing more than 80 kph and both were packed to capacity with what looked like the contents of a house. I knew we were getting close to our destination, for sights like this are commonplace as one gets near to the border with Zimbabwe. As crazy and dangerous as these dilapidated old vehicles were, I felt a surge of affection and looked forward to crossing the border and smelling the air of home.
The border crossing is always stressful, but once we were through and on the road again, the vehicle felt like it was flying. We made a quick stop at the Rutenga Butchery for biltong, and childhood memories of dust, heat and the slow pace of life came flooding back. Children on bicycles and old men on chairs waved at us as we pulled out of the parking lot, with a pack of biltong in hand. Back on the road, the blue hills in the distance became magnificent granite domes. We turned off at Rutenga Halt, passing a variety of modes of transport; old bent axil buses, donkey carts and wheelbarrows, all going about their business as usual.
The mopane trees gave way to msasa trees and all along the way, amongst the rock-strewn hills, were masses of huts with silvery grey thatch shimmering in the sunshine. After Chiredzi the bush became thorny acacia scrub, the land was hot and dry and from the sky, bright, vast and open, came a penetrating light. The baobab trees became more frequent and Bateleur Eagles flew overhead. Everywhere there were Hornbills, perched on thorn trees, flying alongside the car or hopping in the sand beside the road, their quizzical expressions directed towards us as we motored past. We ploughed down the track towards the camp through thick, deep, red sand edged by bush that buzzed with life.
The camp, by contrast, was a little green oasis, with log cabins, set amongst trees and green lawns, each facing out into the wilderness. At the sound of the car, Nicky Rosselli, my youngest sister, appeared as an ethereal vision from the darkness of her hut and leant against the doorway watching us, with her paintings resting up against the outer wall. They were beautiful paintings, from which emanated light and soul.
In that instant, I understood why artists need retreats like this, a ‘time-out’ from the routine of everyday life, a period earmarked for uninterrupted focus and engagement with the subjects of our interest, a space that allows inspiration to flower and take the form of art. Nicky, who had arrived a few days before us, had clearly wasted no time in finding her inspiration.
The place is Malilangwe, a nature conservancy in the lowveldt of Zimbabwe. As far as I know, this artist retreat no longer exists, and the area has been developed as an upmarket reserve, but at that time these small chalets were reserved for artists, where in return for a piece of artwork, one could stay for minimal cost. The chalets, set in a clearing in the bush, were thatched and cool, serviced and all meals were provided, so artists who visited there had no chores and nothing to interrupt the flow of their creativity. It was an ideal and exhilarating experience, and we had a whole week in which to immerse and respond to the wilderness.
The environment was wild, alive with venomous snakes and dangerous animals. We had encounters with all of them and to this day, I have vivid memories of my visitation from a black mamba, that slithered quietly past me, its dark, beady eyes fixed upon me as I sat on a rock drawing a group of dassies (rock hyrax) not far from the camp.
I was focussed and calm, enjoying the sensation of the graphite marks on paper, when I became aware of a movement a metre from where I sat. I looked down and made eye contact with an impressive, sleek, fat olive green snake that undulated along the base of the rock below me. I quietly called my brother, who was also drawing among the rocks somewhere not far from where I sat. Detecting no urgency in my call, he took his time in coming and it was only when he saw the snake and in hushed tones told me to stay still, that the enormity of the occasion began to filter into my consciousness. We stood rigidly together for a few moments and then glanced about for the quickest escape route, which happened to be a drop of several metres off the granite dome. My camera and pencils were still between me and the snake, so they would have to stay behind and in a moment of decision, we both leapt off the rock, scrambled through the thick leaves and branches and hot footed it to the camp. We waited there for an hour or so and then Ant and Nicky returned to collect our things. When they returned, they told me that unbeknown to him, Anthony had been sitting on the well worn snake path not far from the snakes hole. Things could have turned out very differently had I not called him away to come and look!
That experience was one of those moments where death appears so unexpectedly, looks one squarely in the face, but the danger doesn’t register until after the moment had passed. I still shudder when I think how close I came to meeting my end, but I recognize that it was my stillness, my being completely absorbed in the moment, that gave me a sense of oneness with everything around me. I did not recognize the danger, nor feel any fear and the snake sensing no threat, was able to pass right by me. A profound life lesson was learned.
Well, as if that bit of excitement wasn’t enough, that afternoon Nicky suggested we visit a hide to view the game as it came down to the waterhole. We packed our sundowners into the truck and headed off along sandy roads through thick bush to the hide. Leaving the car some way off, out of site of the hide, we clambered up the wooden steps and settled ourselves down with drinks and dried wors and waited for the animals. I was sitting on the top step, sketching the veld, when Nicky’s husband, John spotted a herd of buffalo moving towards us through the bush. I carefully laid down my crayons and sketchpad and eased myself into the hide. The buffalo had seen us and paused for a bit before deciding to come down for a drink. Slowly they made their way down to the waters edge, but a small group hung back, looking uncertain, milling around in the bush. Once the main herd had finished drinking and ambled back into the trees nearby, several others stood around, sniffing the air and looking up at the hide. Despite us sitting stock still, they definitely knew we were there and when a couple of them lay down to sleep directly beneath us as if settling in for the night, I began to feel a bit uncomfortable. What if they didn’t leave? By now it was getting quite dark and with our car some distance away, as per the camp instructions, we weren’t sure what to do. Nicky suggested we should sleep the night in the hide, but John wanted to try and get to the car. The risk was definitely quite great, with the herd so close and restless, so we waited a little while longer. Eventually, John decided to move, so eased himself quietly down the steps and stealthily walked through the bush towards the car. Several buffalo, alerted by his movement, moved in his direction, so to distract the creatures, Ant perched at the top of the stairs and I bashed my crayon tin against the railing. The most menacing buffalo stopped and looked at us, giving John the gap he needed and soon we saw the headlights moving slowly through the trees, pulling up alongside the hide. We made our escape and Ant and I travelled to camp in the back of the bakkie, the air washing past us in warm and cool patches, the smell of warm, dry grass in our nostrils. Up above us the dark sky was clear and filled with stars, not a cloud to be seen anywhere.
The next adventure we had was with a lone buffalo. Nicky, who had arrived a few days before us, wanted to take us to see some bushman paintings that she and John had found on their explorations. We parked some distance away and walked through bush to a hill that had a cave. As we followed Nicky through the thick grass, I anxiously scanned for any sign of wild life. There was plenty of evidence of elephant dung and broken trees, and the smell of wild animal permeated the air. We found the cave, admired the paintings, below which were rocks stained with fresh blood, presumably from a recent leopard kill. We wandered up on top of the hill to admire the view and then decided to take a shortcut back to the car through the gap in the hills. We followed my brother-in-law through the waist high grass, crunching msasa pods underfoot, silent and lost in thought, when suddenly John jumped backwards with a shout for us to “Get back!” He had surprised a buffalo as he came around a bush. Alarmed, it leapt up and swung around. I was aware of John turning on his heels, the stamping thud of buffalo hoofs, a flash of its dark body and I turned tail and headed for the rocks nearby, as did Nicky and Ant. I scrambled upward as fast as I could, heart pounding in my ears, and glanced anxiously back expecting to see the buffalo in hot pursuit and wondered if buffalo could climb rocks. Fortunately for all of us, the beast hot-footed it in the opposite direction and I caught a fleeting glimpse of it disappearing into the grass between us and the vehicle. After that it was nowhere to be seen and we tentatively edged forward wondering if it was safe to proceed to the car. We made it and relieved, launched off onto the dusty road in search of more game. It had all happened so fast and felt slightly surreal, so I felt a strong sense of elation to still be alive!
Between all the excitement of mambas and buffalos, our days were largely spent in a state of creative bliss. Each morning we would wake to the sound of birds, raise ourselves and head to the dining area for breakfast under the trees, overlooking a magnificent dam, where the shimmering, silver surface embraced the surrounded hills. From here we collected our art equipment and peeled off in our different directions in search of things to draw and paint.
Our visit to the Malilangwe Conservancy marked the first stage of our journey and by the end of that week we felt we had truly shaken off the shackles of the mundane. Our senses had been awoken, we had reconnected with our environment, and were finally listening and responding to the artists within. The road that lay ahead was exciting, for it was to take us forward to Inyanga, and back to the ranch on which we grew up.
This will be the subject of another post, so in the meanwhile, if you would like to see some of the work that has arisen from my travels, visit my website www.sallyscott.co.za