An overnight plane journey can lull me into a state of permanent somnambulism with my thoughts hovering somewhere between the real and the imaginary (helped by a few glasses of crisp sauvignon blanc!) Last night on the final leg of a three week journey that involved nine flights and a long overland haul on a dust road, my mind was probably even more susceptible to hallucinatory thoughts.
At the airport bookshop I’d hurriedly picked up Alex Smith’s Drinking from the Dragon’s Well on a whim. The title appealed and it had Chinese images on the cover (I’m a complete Sinofile, enjoy Ma Jian and Dai Sijie and have sat through Hero too many times to count!). As I dipped into Drinking from the Dragon’s Well, I found in Alex Smith a kindred spirit drawn to China by the elusive ‘pearl’ that hides under the dragon’s chin. Her grandmother had urged, ‘Find the pearl: find the drama, the perfect story, the reason to be...'
No writer would turn his or her nose up at a ‘pearl’ but pearls aren’t easy to come by and we all know how fiery that dragon’s breath is and how easy it is to be singed. But it got me thinking of the journey I’d just experienced. Africa is a bit short on pearls and gold and diamonds seem too brash and lack a pearl’s delicate lustre. So where was my perfect story in all that I’d seen?
As the small plane had banked over Mfuwe in Zambia I’d been struck by the muted earth shades and mauve mouse-greys of the far distant trees disappearing into the heat haze. It was Africa in its driest season. And by the time I’d stepped onto the runway, the safari clothes and jacket, the camera and lenses and binoculars all seemed too much. In the space of an overnight flight from London with a few hops via Livingstone and Lusaka to Luangwa, I’d travelled from 14 degrees to 40.
With the noise of the single prop still humming in my ear, it dawned on me, the further I’d been travelling away, the smaller the plane had been getting, and the lighter I was becoming until I seemed to be floating over a landscape worn with animal paths winding through desiccated trees like scattered strands of spaghetti. In an open safari vehicle with heat and dust settling in a thick film, there was the equally illusive experience of driving past tiny trading stores with names like Uncle Mule’s and The Big Rich Boutique and Aunty E’s Bar while women on bicycles wearing chitenga cloths printed with palms and papayas and monkeys and mangoes would have been an inspiration for any of the characters in Niki Daly’s Welcome to Zanzibar Road.
On the first morning in Luangwa, from the depths of my mosquito net, I heard a gentle rumbling and the sound of something in the apple-ring acacias next to my open-sided tent. Two elephant stepped out so close I could see the sunlight on their eyelashes. Later in the honeyed light of late afternoon, smeared with mosquito repellent and listening to the piercing call of a Fish Eagle sitting sentinel on a dead branch, another group emerged from an afternoon swim. Marked by the river’s water line, mouse-grey above, burnt charcoal below, with the babies totally dark from their complete dunking they disappeared as silently as they had come with Carmine Bee-eaters taking to the air in flashes of turquoise and red around them.
That night with the howl of a hyena and the deep pant of a lion breaking the silence, Laurence Van der Post’s words came to mind…the lion’s roar is to silence what the shooting star is to the dark of the night. Then some days later out in a bay in the Indian Ocean just off the coast of South Africa, in what seemed a very light and vulnerable boat, I felt the blow of a Southern Right’s breath against my face, so close that my lens was blurred and I looked deep into the eye of a whale.
No wonder then that last night on the overnight flight back to London, with all these images blurring and merging I became hallucinatory. Did I find the elusive pearl under the dragon’s chin? I’m not sure. But here at my desk today the image of the eyelash of an elephant and the glint in the eye of a whale fill me with an incredible lightness of being. I wrote my first picture book, Do the Whales Still Sing? without ever having seen a whale. Would it be a different story if I wrote it this morning?