The warmth of the coffee cup in her hand after the evening meal and the coals of the low camp fire sent their gentle heat through the thick cotton of her khaki trousers and the light fabric of the long-sleeved khaki shirt which skimmed her slim figure … The basic bush clothing she loved to wear rather than the society fashions which her family expected of her in her life in the city. The fiery glow of the dusk sky lit her pale complexion with russet tones and shot her silver-blonde hair with copper lights as she smoothed back a long strand that strayed over her shoulder.
Their usual viewing session was over, during which she and Rian sat with avid attention each night around a small portable video machine and monitor to view the day’s rushes. The raw footage had to be assessed then edited into the wildlife documentary she, Rian and their crew were here in the Kalahari to shoot on the region’s famous black-maned lions.
Amy looked up at the moon as it rose from behind a high desert sand dune some distance beyond their campsite. It formed a huge red-gold globe which brooded massively over the mysterious African landscape. Lying stretched out below it, shadowed, scented bushveld prickled with anticipation as hot day gave way to breathless, watchful night heavy with muted sounds.
It was warm, intense, beautiful. But, as always in Africa, there was a sense of tension, of hidden danger never far away. And Amy felt the familiar sense of awe that always seemed to steal over her when she looked at truly beautiful things.
‘Good night, mees.’
A quiet voice behind her drew her gaze from the magnificent view.
‘Good night. Thank you,’ Amy replied to the young black woman who was taking her leave after washing the dishes of their meal.
Rian thrust his head around the door of the hut and addressed the woman with a sharp tone.
‘You were late today. Make sure you come early tomorrow morning to sweep. The hut is dusty,’ he scolded.
Dark haired, attractive and ambitious with a strong, stern face and heavy brows, Rian, in his early thirties, was the documentary’s director. Amy, at twenty-four, would usually be considered young by her peers to hold the position of producer and scriptwriter. But her inborn talent for filmmaking, combined with her determination to become one of the country’s foremost wildlife documentary filmmakers, made up for her youth. And, with a PhD in ecology, her scientific background and the extensive research she put into all the documentaries she created demanded their respect.
‘Ja, baas, yes, boss,’ the young woman murmured and lowered her glance. Rian had addressed her in his usual excellent English but the woman recognized his Afrikaans accent and replied to him in his own language.
She drifted into the shadows of the evening in the direction of the native compound. This consisted of a collection of simple huts fenced with high wildlife fencing in which the non-white employees of the national park resided. It was separated by some distance from the fenced compound of larger houses which accommodated the white rangers and other park administrators and their predominantly Afrikaans families.
‘You didn’t have to be so rude, Rian,’ Amy said once the woman was out of earshot, flying, as she usually did, to the defence of the under-dog in any unequal interaction, her heart touched by the young woman’s meek docility. She softened her remark to Rian by gliding over to him and giving his cheek an affectionate kiss, pressing her body up close to his for a moment, ‘There’s no need.’
Rian shrugged, dismissive.
‘She’s only a servant. You have to speak to them like that.’
Amy looked thoughtfully after the retreating figure of the woman as she disappeared into the surrounding bush. Only a servant? Amy saw more than that. She saw that the woman looked very young, perhaps just eighteen. She wore a simple blouse and skirt and her feet were bare. She was unusually small in stature, around five foot. And Amy thought she recognised in the girl’s features something of the distinctive look of the San Bushman mixed with the black Bantu of her lineage.
The San intrigued Amy. They were a dainty, pretty people with dark, honey-gold skin. They were possessed of a gentle, mysterious spirit and an ageless quality as unfathomable as it was ancient. As ancient as the aeon of time their ancestors had wandered this arid region, living in clans as hunter-gatherers. For the San were the oldest continuous culture on earth, the people with whom the human story may have begun. If there was an Eve, genetic studies suggested her lineage may have begun here. Yet their numbers were now critically low.
The necklace the young woman wore looked San too. Their jewellery had a simple yet natural beauty with which Amy had become familiar during her research in the months leading up to their trip to this remote region tucked into the far north western corner of South Africa. Earlier that day, as the girl went about her work of cleaning the hut, Amy had admired its striking design of porcupine quills threaded together with strands of hand-crafted beads. Each tiny bead was chipped with painstaking detail from white ostrich eggshell, created by hands from a culture with a simpler worldview and a different sense of time to Amy’s own western one.
‘Did you make this?’ Amy pointed to the necklace.
The young woman stopped sweeping and nodded with a shy smile.
‘It’s beautiful. Where did you find these?’ Amy prodded the sharp point of one of the black and white quills with a fingertip.
The girl gestured to the surrounding bush. Amy guessed she knew where to find a hidden porcupine burrow.
‘Can you take me there tomorrow?’
‘No, mees, I must clean many huts tomorrow.’
‘Is the place near here?’
The young woman led her to the doorway of the hut. She pointed about two or three hundred meters into the bush towards the trunk of a dead tree that stood between the dunes.
‘Okay. I’ll try to find it. Thank you.’
Now, Amy watched as the young woman melted into the shadows of the bush on her way back to the compound for the night. Rian’s glance followed hers.
‘She has San blood in her,’ Amy said. ‘The San are so unique. I admire their wonderful knowledge of the balance of nature and their ability to survive in a place like this. A place few others could. They’re so much a part of the essence of the Kalahari. They know its secrets. I’d like to include nuances of their story in Shadow Lions. I think it’ll add depth and texture to our story.’
‘Well, I don’t. I’m not here to make a documentary about –’
Rian stopped short, biting back the derogatory word which sprang to his lips. ‘We’re here to film the lions, Amy, that’s all.’
He cut the air with his palm as if to say the subject was closed and withdrew back into the hut.
It wasn’t long before the young woman’s small figure was swallowed up by the night. Amy pushed down a sense of frustration. Not only at the way Rian had been so closed to her creative vision for the documentary. But also at the wider frustration she felt at the racial boundaries which seemed to control everything about life in apartheid South Africa. They always had, ever since she could remember.
As an ecologist, she was fascinated by the interplay between wildlife, natural environments and people. And she was passionate about conserving the most vulnerable of them. Her documentaries were her ‘voice’, her way of portraying her vital message to a wider audience, of trying to persuade them to care as much as she did. But not even the noble cause of conservation, it seemed, could find a way to cross the barriers of apartheid.
She sighed and turned her gaze back to the gold moon. Camelthorn trees were silhouetted in vivid outline against its fiery disc. From across the wide distances of the sandy savannah, the rhythm of drums from the direction of the native compound kept beat with the trilling of cicadas.
Then she heard him.
Wild. Indescribably thrilling. A black-maned Kalahari lion was announcing his dominion over his territory and his intention to hunt later that night. Loud. So close. Resonant and heavy. His deep-throated roaring vibrated through the air, drowning out the drumbeats and the cicadas, filling the distances for miles around.
For minute after chilling minute, the awesome sound continued, until it dominated her senses, becoming her only reality, the only thing in her existence. It was the kind of dangerous, primordial, heart-stopping noise which chilled the spine and made the hair rise on the back of her neck.
Amy fought down the instinctual rush of adrenaline that raced through her blood and scanned the horizon to see if she could spot him. Crouched on top of a dune in silhouette against the red sky, in vantage over the shadowy valley below … Huge, magnificent, his black mane blending with the falling shadows of dusk … He was waiting, she knew. There was no need to move yet. When darkness had fallen fully it would be time for the hunt to begin. And, just as she was, she knew that every other creature within his wide territory was holding its breath and listening too.
Like the little steenbok Amy had spotted earlier that day as they had driven their vehicles along the dry bed of the Nossob River. They had been searching for the lions which they knew must be near, but which were proving surprisingly elusive among the high dunes and vegetation, painfully hampering their progress with filming.
She could picture the little antelope crouched nervous and alone under a low bush. At the sound of each new roar it would hug itself closer to the earth, hiding among the tall grasses. It would be trying to settle for the night but would be too nervous to sleep. Its ears would twitch with unease. The smallest sound, the slightest swish of the grass in the breeze would bring it to its feet in sudden alarm. It would stand taut for a moment, watching. Then it would crouch back down again, its glossy-dark pelt rippling with nerves.
Amy tipped the last of the contents of her coffee cup onto the coals, took up a half-burned log to sweep ashes over the glowing embers that remained and turned to enter the rondavel. The lion’s roar had lifted her spirits. It seemed to indicate the pride’s return to this southern area of the park. Perhaps tomorrow would see a turn in their luck.