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Issue 39

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Icelandic surfing, enabled by the new Land Rover Defender | Artisanal globe-making in London with Bellerby & Co | Gallery of stunning drone photography | Author Helen Russell explores the meaning of happiness | Exclusive short story by Jean Macneil

iding in the lowveld,”

iding in the lowveld,” I said. “There’s no lions.” “Would they attack a horse?” “Oh yes. A horse looks quite a lot like a roan or sable antelope, or a kudu, for that matter.” I told the woman how, when I would ride out in the lowveld, I always avoided the jackalberry tree. These are a perfect perch for leopard with their broad, flat limbs just far enough off the ground to drag kills. The leopard is the most calculating of the big cats, I told her. The most volatile. Their power is phenomenal – a female weighs only 42 kilograms but she can lever a giraffe calf into a tree on her own. I lost sight of Leo as we talked. Out of nowhere a chill travelled through me, even though it must have been 30 degrees. I thought, strange – the feeling was less a premonition than like glimpsing the tail of an animal as it disappeared around a corner. I sensed, rather than heard, the commotion. A scuffle, then a bright quick exhale from a horse. Before I knew it, Siegfried was trotting passed us. I whipped Eeshani around, into the red light of the mountains. Leo lay on the ground. I didn’t like the position of his body – foetal. I swung down from the saddle. “All right, everyone. Stay mounted.” The family chorused, “What’s happened? Will he be all right?” I reached down and hauled him up by his armpits. “Leo, Leo.” Behind me, Eeshani bolted, which she did rarely; she was an unusually unnervous thoroughbred. I watched her trot away, the reins slack around her neck. “Stay still,” I shouted, but it was hardly necessary. The family were frozen in their saddles, staring rigidly at something behind me. With Leo still limp in my hands, I turned. Even in the full light of day the shadow blended into the landscape – the mottled back, the yellow-and-ochre spots that look like stones in a rippling river. I relinquished Leo’s body. I stood and looked into the leopard’s eyes. They were the metallic green of the buffalo thorn. Its tail swayed back and forth, hypnotic as a cobra. At the tip of it was a small tuft of black fur. I had an urge to speak to it, to say, “You’re not supposed to be here.” There is a superstition among wilderness guides, the bush equivalent of the taboo against saying ‘Macbeth’ in a theatre – you never say the name of the animal your charges desire to see if you want it to materialise. The cat’s face retracted itself into a masque of such effortless malintent I was impressed. Two yellowed sabre-toothed incisors glistened at me. I thought about a detail I would have held from the friendly woman who now sat stock-still in the saddle only 50 metres away, had she asked me: when leopards attack humans they scalp “ The family were frozen in their saddles, staring rigidly at something behind me ” them, peeling the face and crown of the head away with their teeth. An ocean of minutes passed as we looked at each other. Then something shifted behind the leopard’s eyes, and it turned and loped away. I thought of the moon. I don’t know why, but the names of its seas came in a sudden rush. I had a fleeting vision of Mr du Plessis teaching them to us in Standard Five, Leo and I sitting side by side at our desks: Oceanus Procellarum, ocean of storms; Mare Crisium, sea of crises; Mare Imbrium, sea of rains. That night Leo and I sat on our stoep. “Are you sure you’re not concussed?” He cradled his head in his hands. “No.” “OK, tomorrow we’re going to the doctor.” The stars were tacking themselves across the sky. “Look.” I pointed to the red penumbra of Antares, snug in the crook of Scorpio. The boxy Southern Cross tilted over the horizon, its diagonal pointing due south, all the way to Antarctica. ‘Did we ever see stars like this in Cape Town?’ “No, we were too busy.” He swallowed. “I just didn’t see it. How many times has Siegfried thrown me? Once, maybe twice, in ten years.” Any fall is a blow to the pride of a rider. I said, “If you’re going to come off, it may as well be for a leopard.” His eyes found mine. I saw the same eyes I have been looking into for nearly 30 years: school desk-mate, riding companion, best friend. A note of rebuke now lurked within his guilt. Only later did I understand he was trying to apologise – for nearly dying and/or getting me killed, for frightening the family, for the failure of our business and for something else, a mysterious demise in which I was somehow implicated. He said, “You’ve always been so capable.” A shiver passed though me, another intuition, perhaps. Soon I will wake one morning in the baboonhaunted cottage to find Leo’s boots, his jacket and his truck gone. He will leave the horses. He knows I will not survive without being able to ride every day. I had a sudden vision: leading rides across the Mars plains of the Cederberg, riding alone. My guests will ask me the names of the flowers, the trees, the animals of the Namaqua biome. I will oblige: Kapokbossies, wilde vye, dassies, Bastard Quiver Tree. We will thread between the Precambrian rocks, along stone rivers run dry for centuries, following the faintest cinnamon fume of the mountain fynbos. Leo’s face is turned toward the night, its perimeter kept at bay by the hurricane lantern. The night stares back, implacable as it is up here in the mountains, thicker than air. 74

 

Land Rover

Land Rover Magazine 39

 

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