Making Tracks: Storytelling on Safari
“Let’s get started by taking off your boots,” my dapper safari guide and owner of Newland Tarlton Safari Don Young said after liberally serving several rounds of gin and tonics.
My feet were hot and sticky. Amidst herds of impala and zebra and families of warthogs and mongoose, accompanied by a Massai warrior and a Kikuyu game warden, we’d walked across a vast plain of freshly sprouted grass dotted with purple wildflowers. An abundance of colts, fawns and piglets gave me the feeling I’d returned to the Cradle of Life, and the hike surrounded by horizons untouched by civilization gave me a new sense of freedom and unity with Nature.
But, Don insisted. “Burrow your toes deep into the dirt. Close your eyes and connect to the energy of all human-kind. Because it is here in East Africa that mankind first rose up onto two feet and set off on the first safari that ultimately reached all corners of the populated world.”
Earlier at camp, Don had challenged us to interpret a cast made of some footprints. Now, as the sun set in the West and the full moon rose simultaneously in the East on this Spring Equinox evening, Don settled in to talk story. An unusual combination of trained forensic osteo-palentologist and academic historian on African explorers as well as naturalist and author of novels and non-fiction, Don is also renowned for his story-telling, and the story he told went something like this:
“Thank goodness for the playfulness of those who can turn even a pile of dung into a diversion because sometimes magic happens when the shit hits the fan. It certainly did in 1976, when two paleoanthropologist working with Mary Leakey were tossing elephant dung at each other in Laetoli, a hominid archeological site in East Africa. As one dove out of the way, he fell on his face and found himself looking at a trail prehistoric tracks.”
Over the next two years, Mary Leakey excavated the site, discovering the set of footprints that Don showed us in his tabletop cast. Now, he painted a picture of what had happened. The volcano Sadiman erupted, spreading a cloud of fine ash, like beach sand, over the landscape. A light rain turned the ash into something like wet cement -- perfect for trapping footprints. Escaping the calamity along with African mammals were, spectacularly, a trio of hominids - many think a father, a mother following in his footsteps and a child. They dashed across the ash as the rain picked up in intensity. The volcano erupted again, dropping more ash, that sealed the footprints like a laminated driver's license. Finally, erosion over millions of years unveiled the prints for Mary Leakey to discover.
Her discovery of footprints nearly identical to ours was revolutionary. Prior to this discovery, evolutionary thought maintained that bipedal walking was motivated by the need to free hands for tools and hunting. But the 3.6 million year old Laetoli footprints debunk this theory as they prove that hominid were walking upright over a million years before the adoption of tools.
These footprints are the first recorded prints of our human journey. Like me, these three had fled their home from a natural catastrophe and they had set off on a safari to find a new life. Their tracks left a story. What story would my tracks one day tell?
Isn’t that the creative crisis that HipSilvers face? At this phase of life, we may find ourselves at a juncture where, willingly or now, we are released from work, households, child-rearing and relationships. How will loss steer our story? What is the third act we will write for ourselves?
I’d initially fell under the spell of safari in my 40’s as a way of crafting the story of a newly-divorced single-mother. Joint child custody afforded me the free time to travel, write and photography my book SAFARI CHIC on the interior decorating of African safari camps. I became fascinated with the life-style of Karen Blixen, and I was impressed by her philosophy that “Any problem can be dealt with if it can be written into a story.”
Now, once again, I have the gift of time and the motivation to write as, like Karen Blixen, my home and farm went up in flames. But, with all the upheaval where could I find the ‘space’ or place to write.
Fortunately, my favorite safari guide Don Young had come to the rescue. Among all the guides I had met, Don had gift of a master tracker - the ability to transform a bed of ashes into a wellspring of life.
“What do you want? What do you need?,” Don asked me. In a blink of an eye, I answered as had Karen Blixen when asked the same question, “What I want is to go on safari once again.” And, with a nod to Virginia Woolf, I added that what I need is ‘a tent of my own’, a space where I could reconnect with the healing power of Nature, where I could explore and expand my creative calling and where I could begin to craft the final act of my story.