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Reading the Sand

 

Magqubu shifted his rifle to a more comfortable position, squatted and studied the sands. The mass of foot prints, lines, depressions, wet patches and dung meant nothing to those on the trail, but to Magqubu they told many stories. He pointed to a small pile of brown white feathers and picked up one that had a tiny speck of blood on it. “The hawk ate well this morning. These feathers are what is left of a dove drinking from this small puddle,” he said, pointing to an ooze. “Look carefully and here you see the claw marks of the hawk.” “What else do the sands say, Baba?” I asked. Magqubu gave me a pitying look as if to say — if I told you everything we would be on this sand for a month. But in polite Zulu fashion and in the sure knowledge that we were mainly interested in the spectacular, he patiently showed us one thing after another.
“Yesterday a crocodile caught a barbel in that pool,” he said, pointing to one a few feet from the edge.

“The crocodile shakes the fish from side to side with such strength that the head flies off. See, here it is dry from yesterday’s sun and the cold last night, but just inside is the red flesh. This spoor is from the water tortoise that has fed on the scraps of meat, and that little lint on the sand is the trail left by the ants. “The lions have also killed here,” he said, pointing at some deep inverted V-shaped spoor. “The bush-buck — nkonka — came down the beach from underneath those umNgamanzi trees (Acacia Robusta) and was busy drinking.” He showed us the spoor wide apart as the antelope bent down. “Then it got the wind of the lions and ran. “look at how it jumped,” Magqubu said. We followed the unfortunate bushbuck’s tracks across the sands. “Here the lioness struck it down,” the old man said showing us the pug marks and the slight indentation in the sand where the bushbuck fell.

“She dragged the nkonka up the bank and the pride ate it under those trees.” Sure enough under the trees lay the remains of a big bushbuck ram, the dry skin now folded over the rib bones. Green stomach contents rotted on the earth and blue brommer flies hummed above the remains. Magqubu scouted around then called us. “See, the hyena came to feed but the lions chased it off. Look at how fast it ran,” and the old man mimicked the whooping call and the peculiar loping run with the head turned to the side of the hyena. We strolled back to the sandbank and Magqubu pointed out the spoor of a white rhino cow and calf, who disturbed a sleeping lion which the cow rhino chased off. Someone asked “What is that?” and pointed to a neat pile of dung. “Ipiva — waterbuck”, Magqubu answered without hesitation.

He then went on to explain that the waterbuck contrary to legend, was attacked and eaten by crocodiles. But if a waterbuck was chased by dogs, the crocodile would not touch the waterbuck but would go for the dogs when they entered the water. He imitated to perfection the barking of a dog in hot pursuit, suddenly being pulled under in a gurgling yelp. Magqubu talked on for another two hours, describing in infinite detail today’s, yesterday’s, last week’s and even last month’s story in the sands. He cannot read our newspapers but then there are very few of us who can read the sands.

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