A surprise takeaway from Bushman cave paintings
“Yes, sir. What is your room number?”
“2212. What the hell. Can’t you tell that from your switchboard?”
“Sorry. What was your order again?”
“My order. We ordered a club sandwich and chicken wrap fifty minutes ago. If it isn’t up here in the next ten minutes, I’m going to come down to the lobby and raise holy hell!”
“I’m sure it’s on its way.”
Frank slammed the phone down and stared past his wife placidly reading a novel and out onto the Indian ocean. “C’mon now,” she appealed without looking up, “We’re in Africa. Not your office. And you’re not going to be there, ever again. It’s called retirement.”
“They’re all so noisy and loud and inefficient. Swarming here and there around the buffet table. Indians. Africans. Muslims. Sikhs. I didn’t see a single white person.”
“That’s why we travel, dear. To see other people—their way of doing things.” Peeking over the top of her reading glasses, Amelia added, “And to feel what it’s like to be a minority.”
There was a knock on the door and a whiff of food.
6:15 the next morning, Frank and Amelia sat in the echoing white-marble lobby. A child screeched, a man shouted to a friend. Frank flinched. Amelia patted his knee. “So, tell me about this tour,” he demanded. “Where exactly are we going? How long a ride is it?”
Amelia closed her eyes, took a deep breath. “We’re going to the Drakenburg mountains to see San cave paintings.”
“Bushmen. They lived in that area 3000 years ago.”
“When do we get back?”
“Frank, this is…decompression time. Change of pace. You’re off the clock. Okay?”
Frank started to reply when a white woman in cargo pants and a starched white shirt emblazoned with a Thompson Tours logo, strode up to them and announced, “Mr. and Mrs. DeWitt, I presume.” He grinned broadly. That was more like it—a little chop-chop in a world of la-dee-dah.
There were only the two of them in the tour van and Frank was content to let his wife chat with Wendy, their guide. An hour out of town, Wendy pointed out a huge sprawling slum covering several hillsides. “That’s the settlement,” she announced. “No roads or running water. Those women sitting on overturned five-gallon buckets are waiting for a water truck to arrive.” Amelia, camera out and clicking, captured the scene from inside their speeding space capsule.
Frank willed himself to relinquish control, to be led along by the two women. But couldn’t resist looking up San Cave Paintings on his iPad as they tooled up and around lush green mountains dotted with cattle and tourist lodges. One of the paintings portrayed stick-figure hunters attacking a cow-sized antelope—an Eland. It reminded him of football—the Xs and Os of primitive man’s playbook for winning the big game. Now that could be interesting, he decided.
At the Giant Castle park, four hours later, he tagged along his wife and Wendy like a child on a field trip. Amelia stopped every ten yards to take shots of thatched roofs, flowers, a baboon. The path to the caves offered eye-catching views of river bottoms and craggy peaks that required more photo-ops until Wendy announced that they would miss the 11:00 tour at the caves still some ways off but they could continue to take their time and make the 12:00. Frank, adding an hour’s wait to a later cave tour, then lunch, followed by a four-hour return trip back realized they would not get back before dark. No way. “It’s 10:40. Can’t we hurry and still get there by 11:00?” he asked the guide.
“Not me,” Amelia announced from her squat, focusing on a mountain flower. “You two go, if you want. I’ll make my way back to the restaurant and have some tea.”
Frank took his first hard look at the guide. Wendy might have been in her late 50’s early 60’s. Fit. As the British would say—keen. Yeah, he thought. After twenty hours on planes and four hours of driving, he needed to let off some steam. “Double time?” he asked.
“Yiss,” she replied in that distinctive South African way. “Let’s scarper.”
For the next twenty minutes, Frank trailed Wendy scampering between rocks on the increasingly primitive path. They climbed up and over tangled tree roots and across bridges before hop-scotching over rock-filled rills. He pushed himself, breathing faster and harder, only to find Wendy’s shapely bottom farther away with each step. Well, that wouldn’t do. He picked up the pace as they climbed through a shaded, damp passage filled with slippery rocks and slender trees offering welcome hand holds. Still she climbed. Finally, he crested a rise and saw Wendy in front of a locked gate. He looked at his watch. 11:05. Surely the cave guide couldn’t be far along on a tour. Wendy called-out. He whistled. No response.
“I bet he’s sleeping,” Wendy said, “or not even here. Blast.”
“Wasted effort,” Frank rasped, despite having enjoyed the workout.
After a moment for both to catch their breaths, Wendy said, “Well, we could just wait forty-five minutes for the 12:00 tour.”
Frank scanned the shaded cove in front of the cave. Nothing to see. A mosquito whined around his ear. “What the hell would we do up here for an hour?”
Wendy, arched an eyebrow and hunched a shoulder. Before Frank could wipe the surprise from his face, she chuckled and started back down the trail. They moved more slowly and carefully on the way down, shaking legs making it difficult to negotiate precarious footholds in the gloom of the sheltered trail. When Wendy stopped for a slug of water, Frank took the lead and scooted past a huge boulder into the sudden glare of a sun-strobed meadow and the shock of a wild animal watching him.
He stopped dead. Thirty yards ahead a female Eland, belly-deep in grasses, stopped grazing to return his stare. This was what the cave painters would have hunted to sustain their lives. If he were a Bushman, this is when he would have nocked his poison arrow and let fly. And if he remembered the documentary he saw once, the Bushman would have tracked the beast until it died and then would have apologized for killing it and expressed his gratitude for the sustenance it gave his family. Beautiful animal. Such exquisite lines. So eminently paintable.
Of course, she didn’t realize that her essence was captured on the walls of the cave up above. But, then he didn’t exactly know that either, except for his faith in Wikipedia. She didn’t know she had ancestors. She didn’t know that a man felt compelled to paint her, to preserve her image. Because she was beautiful. Because her death kept him alive. Because he wanted to prolong his time, to let others know he had been here, noticing, admiring this animal. But this animal knows none of that. She doesn’t know yesterday. Doesn’t anticipate tomorrow. Doesn’t laugh or cry because she doesn’t know the difference between what is and what could be. She is simply here. Now. Being. Existing.
What retirement could be. No need to produce. To reproduce. To make more. To compete. You can just be.
Wendy stumbled into the clearing, calling out. “Ohh, there you are. Thought I’d lost you.”
The Eland loped away.
Back at the coffee shop, Wendy announced that she was going to see the management and get their money back. Frank joined Amelia at an open-deck picnic table and absently reached for her soda.
“Sure, help yourself,” she jabbed.
“Huh?” Frank broke his preoccupied stare down the river-cut valley.
“What’s come over you?”
“So, how was it?” Amelia asked.
“Never saw the paintings. The cave-guide either wasn’t there or decided to play it by the book—on time or no go.”
“What a waste…”
Frank took a slow thoughtful sip of the Coke. Looked at the can for a moment and gently set it down. “No. Just the opposite.”
Amelia, about to bite into her chicken wrap, paused and lowered it to her plate, chin tucked in anticipation.
“I saw an Eland up there,” he muttered.
“A real one.”
Frank nodded. “Ten yards away from me. Long green grasses hanging from her mouth. She wasn’t afraid. Just stared at me. So magnificent. And I knew what the Bushmen saw in her. Why they wanted to paint her. Why she was their god.” Responding to Amelia’s perplexed expression, he added, “Like American Indians and the Bison. This was their source of life, of sustaining life.” Silence from Amelia. “How to say this…I saw what the Bushmen saw 3000 years ago and I wanted to get down on my knees.”
Amelia cocked her head, “Maybe this is one of those, ‘you had to be there’ deals. But I’m not buying it.” She grabbed a quick snap of her sandwich and shook her head. “Frank DeWitt getting New Age on me!”
Frank closed his eyes, took a deep breath. “Okay, when I was a kid, sometimes I would try to imagine what forever would mean—being in heaven forever. No yesterday. No tomorrow. Just on and on and on. Scared the shit out of me. Kept me awake for hours. Did you ever wonder about that?”
“Well…I did. And that animal showed me how it could be.” Frank locked eyes with his wife. “I was in that animal.” Pleading for understanding he went on. “She was just there…in the now. And, don’t you see, that’s what eternity would be…now…always. The San saw it. They tried to grab it with paint and pictures. But I got the original.”
Wendy stomped onto the porch. “I got our money back,” she announced, holding several thousand Rand in her outstretched hand.
“Keep it for a tip,” Frank said.
“Wendy, get us back to our hotel,” Amelia demanded. “We got to get this guy out of the sun.”