I started out walking a good six feet behind her, to avoid the sand she was kicking up and the occasional thorn-lined branch that might swing back in the wake of anyone walking through the African Bush. We were traversing open country in the Kalahari, in an area sealed off from people owing to the presence of unfriendly lions and other dangers. We were doing this in part because we both felt like we had been locked up for days and needed some freedom; We needed freedom from confinement, freedom from the people we were with, freedom from patronizing park employees, freedom of movement, freedom from the sound and smell of a diesel engine in a “safari vehicle,” and a taste of the freedom, which I can’t describe, you get when you walk through the wild bush in Africa knowing that you are being slightly annoying to the unfriendly lions and have the chance of almost anything happening and no way to stop it. Over every dune was a question, in every cluster of brush and camel-thorn tree was a mystery, in every patch of long grass a cobra or a rodent or a game bird or, at least, some kind of interesting spider or something.
We crossed the parallel linear dunes at a right angle …. up a grass covered dune, across it’s narrow top of red sand, down the next side, then across the bushy flat to the next dune. The rest station we were staying in, along with a dozen American travelers distributed among eight or nine grass-roofed chalets, was surrounded by a series of fences, the largest and outermost one being a 15 foot high affair designed to keep lions out and tourists in. Earlier in the day, I followed some of the camp workers to see where they got through the first fence, to the village they lived in. Then, using this intelligence, Lynne and I passed through that unlocked gate, and Lynne talked our way past a couple of security guards at other gates, then we found what was probably an informal smuggler’s opening in the 15 footer, and we were free.
Free in the Kalahari.
By now I was a full 20 or 30 feet behind Lynne, way more than necessary to avoid snapping branches. I decided to catch up a little just as we were about to mount the next dune, a bit larger than the last few. But Lynne took that moment to sprint rather than walk to the top, so while I also sprinted, I did not close the gap. In fact, she was down the other side of the dune before I attained the crest, and it took me a bit of work to get within 50 feet of her.
I hadn’t known Lynne very long, but we had been traveling together now for several days, and for reasons not within the scope of the present essay, we had become fast friends. Let’s just say adversity is to a relationship what a microwave is to popcorn; When there are only two of you in the lifeboat, you either crash and burn or learn to trust each other. And the metaphors. The metaphors become thick and goopy.
I was probably thinking about that, or about the strange holes we kept passing on the lower dune slopes that we later discovered to be silk spider traps, or the bright blue sky and the pleasant afternoon winter warmth when I noticed that Lynne had been out of my sight for a long time.
Finally, a few dunes later, I saw her at the bottom sitting in the shade of a Shepard’s tree. Eventually, I arrived at her rest spot, and we relaxed a bit and talked.
This is when I learned, while trying to catch my breath and not look too exhausted, that Lynne was considering herself to be rather out of shape. She told me that this trip was killing her. She needed to spend some time at the gym, she said, and this walk was telling her that she needed to do it soon. You see, Lynne was supposed to be in training for her first Ultra Marathon, a 250 kilometer race across the Green Kalahari. She had already run a couple of 50 km races that year as part of her prep, and she had also won a regional Ultimate Frisbee tournament and that was good, but with the race coming up soon she needed to be running every day and working with weights at least a few times a week. Neither was possible while we were guiding these tourists, staying mostly in game parks where we were not allowed to wander freely in the bush, and where there were no gyms.
So now I understood why Lynne was so keen on breaking out of the Kalahari rest camp, and I was glad we had done it. But I also realized, as I sat in the shade admiring my new friend’s stamina and resolve, that I had gone from a person who was always in pretty good shape to a person who was in the process of serious deterioration.
When I was a kid, I walked all the time. My parents were forever leaving me in various forests or on the side of lonely mountain roads, and I would always make my way home eventually, on foot. When I was a teenager, I had a girlfriend who lived far away, and a couple of five or six mile walks a day was a virtually daily event for me (I did not grow up in a car culture). At that time, I would also spend a couple of weeks a year in the Adirondack mountains. I would cover between 90 and 150 miles, much of it over peaks reaching beyond 5,000 feet, often trail-less, in a few days. Later, as an archaeologist, I walked and walked and walked, but often carrying piles of equipment and digging dozens and dozens of holes per day, on survey. Eventually, I went off to the Congo for fieldwork. I was famous among the pygmies for my walking there. I would routinely walk 10 miles through the forest one way with an empty pack, then 10 miles the other way with 110 pounds of food, or along the “road” either 10 or 20 miles, depending, to and from market.
I was always the one who was not tired, no matter how far we went or how much I carried.
Then it came time to write my thesis and do some other stuff, so I spent a few years mostly at a desk job and slowly slowly, month after month, my legendary walking muscles turned into something other than muscle, and though I had no more visible body fat than I had ever had I’m sure my muscle had all gone south. And by south, I don’t mean south.
And I knew this because as I sat under the Shepard’s tree, I realized that for the first time in my life, ever, I had been out-walked by another human being. Never mind that she was a semi-professional athlete marathon runner training for an ultra (which, by the way, she would indeed run, and in fact win now and then even beating the men, several times over the coming years).
So I resolved.
I resolved that on my return to the states, I would get my self in shape. And I did. I got myself very much in shape, and the next time I returned to South Africa, Lynne did not out walk me. And the next time after that, people at the gyms across South Africa found themselves in awe of my physical prowess as I traveled from place to place being … really really fit.
How did I do it? Well, I found Lenora, Inflicter of Pain. And I let her have her way with me. I’ll tell you about Lenora in the next installment.