Tribute to paths


Elephant-crossroadsAndrew Sharp muses on the significance of the footprints and tracks of the African landscape

What is your favourite sighting in the bush? What really quickens your pulse? Maybe it’s the jewel-like malachite kingfisher in all its ruby and sapphire brilliance or a leopard peering in and out of view in the long green grass. Or is it the polka-dot flurry of a flock of guinea fowl? For me, it’s none of these, wondrous as they are.

Look out of the aeroplane window as you fly over sub-Saharan Africa and you’ll see faint threads veining the landscape below. Rust-tinted paths criss-cross the ground everywhere, from field to village, from waterhole to bush, from riverbank to saltpan. Then later, when you’ve landed and are out in the wilds, you discover that you are never far from those trails. Some are fringed with sprays of golden grass, some are a leaf carpet through forest, and others are just a faint ribbon of flattened soil. Yes, my favourite sight is a dirt path.

I am in good company. The poet Edward Thomas wrote: “The prettiest things on the ground are the paths.” But it’s not because they are pretty that I love African tracks. Let me reveal to you their true significance, but first, here are some memorable paths I know of in Africa:

In Mutinondo conservancy in Zambia, there is a glorious trail through a cathedral forest of scarlet and lemon-leaved msasa trees that twines between towering shoulders of granite. You are inclined to walk silently, aware only of the ancient and resolute power of the surrounding woods, earth and rocks.

In Eastern Zimbabwe there’s a four-mile path trodden by blue-uniformed children in the clean, clear, morning air on their way to school. Their shadows fall as tall as their hopes over the turf and stubble of the fields beside the track. Beyond are mountains, blue on the horizon.

In Ishasha, in Uganda, I know a track that lies between two opposite worlds. On one side of it, savannah grassland extends to the horizon, flat as a theatrical stage. Acacias stand in pirouette. On the other, there’s a steep incline down to a riverine forest, shrouded in misty vapours and dark green with mystery.

On the banks of Zambia’s Luangwa River, I remember a sharp-edged hippo path in the dry mud slab leading up from the water’s edge to the pastures of the flood plain. The B52, someone had christened it.

Camping in Mikumi in Tanzania, we could not sleep for elephants stepping over our guy ropes all night. Bleary-eyed in the morning we found the indistinct impressions of an elephant path stretching across the savannah. Our tent was neatly pitched across it. The heaviest animals had made the faintest of tracks.

So some paths are unforgettable, yes, but let’s go a little further in eulogy to the dirt trail. “Much has been written of travel, far less the road,” said Edward Thomas over 100 years ago but, in this age of tarmac, we have rediscovered the significance of the earthen path and the unmetalled road. Britain’s ancient ways – holloways, byways and more – are celebrated by nature writers such as Robert Macfarlane. In the UK, many of these ‘old ways’ have been buried under tar or are broken up by development. In much of Africa, however, the path still triumphs over paving. Some tracks in Africa may be the oldest in the world – trails laid down by our far ancestors, trodden for thousands of years. We are just as much trail-makers as are antelopes and elephants.

If you look closely, you find that paths have tales to tell: who made them, who shares them, who last trod them and when? The Australian author Tim Winton writes that in Europe, he was “instinctively searching for distances that were unavailable”. Instead, he found “a vista of almost unrelieved enclosure and domestication”. African wilderness landscapes, like Australian landscapes, deliver on the promise of distance. There’s no clutter of pylons, masts and signposts. Tracks in Africa allow us to encounter that distance, to reach places where our vision is unbounded, where there’s no litter of human usage for the eye to trip up on. We experience instead an ecological Eden.

But the main reason I love the African path is: looking out across a wild landscape is close to watching trails of shooting stars across the sky on a clear night. It reminds us of the infinite. It stirs us deeply. We feel small, and yet we have a feeling that our lives are unbounded, too. It can lead us to that uncharted territory in our hearts. And that is why the dirt track is my favourite sight in the bush.

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