As we began the climb up the mountain that houses the Livingstone cave (more of it later), I could not help asking Phillip—a Cambridge undergraduate and my guide for the day—whether there were any snakes. Sometimes, it is only in hindsight that we realise the stupidity of our questions.
And what a whopper this one? Snakes up a mountain side full of crevices in the midst of the African bush, nah!!
“Yes, Ra, but don’t worry. You just keep behind me and it will be ok,” young Phillip’s voice came back reassuringly.
Not very reassured, but not wishing to seem a coward, I mumbled something in agreement and followed him up the rather steep, rocky path carved by the thousands of feet that must have climbed up to this famous landmark before us. Surprisingly for an important historical site, we were the only visitors that Saturday afternoon.
Anyway, after about 15 minutes of vigorous climbing (I was only 35 then!), we reached the mouth of the cave, panting in the afternoon African heat. Unafraid, the brave Phillip began to walk inside and beckoned me to follow. But my cowardice could only take it thus far. Even so, so as not to disappoint the boy, I took a few gingerly steps into the pitch black cave. My mind was so preoccupied by snakes and wild animals that I was not paying much attention to his account of the story behind the cave.
“Ra, are you ok?” Phillip asked, as we came out of the cave. He must have noticed the blank, somewhat dazed look on my face.
“Yea, I’m fine,” I lied.
The full local name of the Livingstone cave is Lagaga la ga Kobokwe and it is situated about 50km north-west of Gaborone, the capital of Botswana, known as Bechuanaland until independence from the UK in 1966. A little to the North about 2km lies the exotic sounding village of Molepolole which, with a population of 63k, is the largest in that country.
The cave derives its fame from the fact that, sometimes in the 1880s, David Livingstone the intrepid Scottish explorer and missionary once spent a whole night inside it — in spite of warnings that death would surely follow. He did this to prove to the local Chief that his God was stronger than the latter’s. When he survived the night with no ill effects, Chief Sechele was convinced that Livingstone’s God was indeed as powerful as the missionary had told him. Consequently, he and his tribe converted to Christianity.
We had got to the cave after driving on the smooth, brand new highway connecting Gaborone to Molepolole. But, Phillip suggested we return by the bush road as it would be more interesting, if somewhat bumpy.
Our first stop was a bottle store in a small village; it was kept by a big, sturdy man. Having handed us a chopine each, he wanted to know where I was from. When I told I came from Mauritius, his eyes lit up and, with a broad smile, he announced that he had a friend in Curepipe.
“How come?” I asked “Did you meet here or in Mauritius?”
“As a matter of fact, I know a lot of Mauritians. We met when I was in the British army in the Middle East just after WWII,” he answered. With that, he went to the back and I heard him speak to a woman.
Soon after he had returned, a young girl came with a plateful of vegetable achard and a large chunk of bread.
“We can’t have our guests drinking beer without a bite to eat,” he said with a broad smile.
I was to meet such generous gestures throughout the whole of my stay in that country. After we had finished our drink, we said good-bye to our army friend and drove on to the site of Livingstone’s first church. Of course, the actual church had long fallen to rack and ruin, but the floor was still there intact in the 1980s.
As we fought through the chest high bleached grass to reach it, a terrible thought occurred to me. Apart from creepy crawlies, there could be lions and other cats lurking in the long grass. But my guide reassured me again that all the animals had migrated to the nearest waterhole miles away. As there was no potential prey around, the lions would have left also. For all he knew, they could be hunting in the Serengeti by now, where there is always plenty of prey in September, migrating northwards. Explained in these terms, it seemed so logical, so obvious!
Driving on bush roads is never easy. It was even more difficult in a Toyota 1100 saloon. In order to spare the shock absorbers, we had to take it very easy; thus it took us 2 hours to cover the 50km to Gaborone. So, on the way, we had plenty of time to chat. Among other things, I told Phillip how I careful was whenever I got home late at night.
“I stop the car at the start of the long tree-lined drive, and put the headlights on beam. After ensuring that there are no snakes hanging from the trees, I drive into the garage, before walking back to close the gate,” I said proudly.
“No Ra, you need not worry about the ones on the trees. Watch the ground below because. If you happen to tread on them, they will surely bite you!” was Phillip’s good advice.
I felt cold thinking about the number of times that I had walked over to the gate in the dark, or to the swimming pool to switch off the water filter in the evening. On the other hand, have you noticed how, in spite of the risks that we take, everything seems to go right when we are young?
Even so, that evening, I did an extra 15 minutes of rosary and chanting!
* Published in print edition on 21 December 2012