Whatever little remaining moisture the sweltering winter sun was extracting from the soil is weighing down the air. These floodplains identify themselves by the insular remnants of woody riparian vegetation that have stood in defiance of the annual flood pulse. “These make for good hiding places for elephants,” Oreneile had cautioned me. Tempted by the fibrous fodder, the pachyderms are easily absorbed by these arboreal islands and don’t take kindly to surprises – especially ones in human form. I meander in the safety of treelessness, my eyes scanning the wooded periphery, to try and tell the trunk from the tree. Despite my retinal pendulum being in full swing, I realise that vigilance in this landscape is predicated on sound. And that’s why I was here, right?
Sunscreen-imbued sweat starts trickling through my brows. I remove my sunglasses just in time to subdue an impending chemical assault on the eyes. Regaining focus, my gaze pursues the sound.
Lazily chewing the fanned green of a palm-tree it had just plucked off, it turns its head to meet my eyes. We exchange glances, before the ungulate’s head returns to face its dietary challenge. Slightly shaken, I continue moving forward. “Consider this an auditory warning shot,” I tell myself.
I am no stranger to soundscapes spared the nebulous harmonics of the anthropophony. But still, I found myself in doubt. The devices I’d deployed were recording – plucking notes from the auralsphere. They were programmed to hear, but I was programmed to listen. Or at least, that’s what someone had tweeted. I’m meant to be, though. More often than not, I was part of the urbanite’s symphony. Blurting out sweet nothings. Now, I was… hear!
It’s late August. Here, this particular month means wind. Relentless afternoon gusts speak truth into this weather-inspired calendar. My ear-sight is blurred. The flood-pulse usually inundating the barren soils of yesteryear was robbed of its impetus this year. The water mark was floundering on the edge of despair. Puddled morsels of this life-giving flood had turned to vapour quicker than usual. Herds of livestock had started gathering in much larger numbers, as accessibility to safe watering spots was growing scarce – and so was food. Without adequate flooding, the soil is unable to cash in on seed banks, and pastures merely fade into the ungulates’ imaginations. To the tune of moos and heehaws, cowbells started ringing in a drought at odds with spring’s fecundity.
I skirt a towering termite mount – bereft of hue and humidity, its halls abandoned. This Isopteran reimagination of Minas Tirith strangles a large acacia. Its sparsely leafed crown bejewelled with a flourish of songbirds. A drongo’s characteristic signal interference is punctuated by its equally characteristic mimicry. Vocal red herrings send the community into bouts of short-lived panic. My presence raises the amplitude enveloping these avifaunal agitations. Unmasking a drongo’s lilt amidst the parody is a sign of a trained ear. Or so they say. As intriguing as it was, I stopped paying heed to the fork-tongued agitator, as I was eager to lay my ears on those birds whose existence is woven into a wetland’s dynamism. They are storytellers, whose harmony unknowingly drifts into prophecy. Tales of plentiful bounty call ecologies into existence. Artlessly recited. With an honesty in defiance of time’s decay.
As I break through the last line of trees, the sun’s reflection on the calm panned waters beyond the perennial containment of papyrus edges catches my eyes off guard. Luckily, my sunglasses temper the rays’ sting. Before I even re-emerge from this photonic blitz, a familiar cry jumps out. A fish-eagle. Memories of a Namibian television programming interlude start flooding my mind. For the life of me, I can’t place it though. Why did I suddenly feel the urge to sing the national anthem? The fish-eagle’s patriotic wailings are immediately followed by another familiar call.
That’s it. That’s the only word my mind conjures up as a response.
The repetitive squawks of the Hadeda have been relegated to infamy in some of South Africa’s urban outskirts. Adaptable birds, who loudly proclaim their functional plasticity from rooftops – much to the dismay of irritable suburban dwellers. Here though, where land and sound blend into one scape, an ibis’ hymn quells technophonic anxiety. Here, the technophony is restricted to aircrafts, generators, and motorboats – mostly serving touristic needs. A hum that feels out of place. Engines roleplaying the Hadedan “scourge” of South African suburbia. The wetland’s soaring melodies are keeping the combustion choir at bay though.
My eyes, initially drawn to sonic prominence, start scanning the water that lies ahead. My ears follow. Young shoots and bursts of colourful flowers puncture its surface. With its tension still intact, the floodplain becomes indistinguishable from the azure above.
Eruptions of lapwings pierce the soundscape sporadically, while a pair of spoonbills silently probe the lentic waterscape. Calmly putting more distance between us. A flutter of jacanas also chimes in. Geese, a small variety of them, audibly startled by my movement, start flaunting their different dialects. As I approached the waterline, the ground softened. Jelly-like. I hadn’t worn sandals since primary school but the squelching they elicited from the waterlogged earth would’ve gotten a good few laughs back then. I hadn’t moved much but my surroundings were twitching, so I decide to grab a log nearby and take a seat.
Cackling laughter. Sudden. Not human though. My attention springs back to the trees behind me. Woodhoopoes! Three of them, congregated in a triangle among a thorn-speckled crown. Bobbing to each other’s raucous rhythms. Flaming red beaks as prominent as their cackles. Voices that have etched them into folklore across this region. Characteristically restless, they continue to scour forests further afield. Their calls fade but linger on in aural memory.
My attention returns to the water. New notes arise. A coucal’s rhythmic baritone floats out of the papyrus. An answer is not far behind.
A flash of black and white catches my eye. Cheeping excitedly. It stops. Hovering – no – onwards. It stops again. Suspended in mid-air, flapping vigorously. A swift tuck-in of the wings plunges the aerial fisher waterward.
Barely a second passes before the kingfisher remerges. Bountyless but bristling with audible excitement – or frustration. It’s hard to tell. I don’t question its regality. It is here for a reason. My eyes follow its exploits southward. Craning my neck in an attempt to salvage one last glimpse, my attention is hooked on an impressive yet somewhat inconspicuous tree, going through its deciduous motions.
The upper echelons are decorated with doves and starlings but drowned in the vocal permutations of a different ilk. Unmistakeable. Parrots. Visually eclipsed by the doves’ size and the starlings’ splendour but unmatched in the sonic realm. These enthusiastic interlocutors are driven by the ebb and flow of the opportune reconfiguration of angiospermatic life cycles. Their direct flight and frantic wing beats, lend them an air of perpetual urgency. Compounded by the liberal expulsion of high-volume screeches and whistles. It’s not only endearing but comforting. A familiar voice. Across the Afrotropical realm we’ve reacquainted ourselves. A jovial familiarity that transcends time and space.
While my mind loses itself in the modest pandemonium above, an almost forgotten cue breaks through my imagination’s nebula. Not nearly as pronounced as the parrots’ chatter but arguably more informative to the human ear.
I turn around and the troposphere is speckled with carmine and chirrups. Bee-eaters. And dozens of them. Their carmine pageantry has earned them the overtly descriptive anglophonic nomenclature: Southern Carmine Bee-eaters. A no-nonsense ode to geography, appearance, and feeding behaviour. Their arrival here signals a farewell to winter. And it’s no coincidence. While their diet is bee-heavy, the ground I stand on offers them something different: Odonata. Dragonflies to be precise. The receding flood waters were an ideal breeding ground and now as winter wades into spring, their life cycle has reached its conclusion. Adult forms have started emerging from metamorphosis and with them a colour palette, challenging the human imagination. The briefly redubbed dragonfly-eaters perch themselves on the heaps of cow dung that lend this flat ground a semblance of topography. Once adequately positioned, periodic displays of aerial agility and prowess ensue. Looping – turning – diving – striking. A flamboyant assault on the newly matured invertebrates.
Admiring the spectacle in its full expanse, my attention is absorbed by an old-growth forest marking the edge of the floodplain. Its trees cast long shadows. Some of them shoot straight up into the sky. Others have evidently woven their way to sunlight. That is where Kgosi Moruti says they sleep. The man Oreneile calls grandfather told us that you can find them resting in a titanic jackalberry tree. And that was enough for me to douse that wooded neighbourhood in an unspoken mysticism. They are wary of human visitors, even when asleep. I haven’t dared to enter yet. But I’ll be lying if I say that my curiosity isn’t succumbing to their organic magnetism. It is a welcomed seduction, tempered only by the power of the unseen. Some say they’re demons. Others claim witches. “We are scared of them,” someone in Etsha 6 told me. Harbingers of death and misfortune. Messengers, not from this realm. I find it difficult to debunk these claims of ethereality. And have no intention of doing so. Only at night do they emerge. Their eyes saturated with galactic wonder as they penetrate the lagoon’s shimmering surface. Much like their phenotype, their voice breathes credence into ethereality. It hugs the border of our acoustic reality. Constantly threatening to transcend. Cushioned only by the dark.
The spell starts wearing off as my attention returns to the bee-eaters. Sorry, dragonfly-eaters. Still joyfully abuzz.
Livestock reserves these hours of the afternoon to drink – this being a particularly popular watering spot. Dust clouds in the distance serve as a reminder. Droves of them approaching. I consider this my cue to start heading back to camp. I uncross my legs and laboriously rise to my feet. Half-heartedly, I swat at the log debris clinging to my shorts and snort with amusement. Must be these sandals.
Turning my back on this floodplain drenched in volatility, I realise that whatever sonic emissions this landscape produced, were forever reconfiguring. Acoustic expressions in an endless planetary play. What I have observed today will never be observed again.
I decide to take a slightly different path back to camp. My mind starts listing landmarks it’s clung itself to. Trees, mounts, sounds. One already caught my eye. The only baobab for miles. Elephants had robbed it of the opportunity to grow into those cellulose cathedrals that adorn so many postcards. Lifeless, it stood now. A lone Marabou stork attempts to amble beyond my peripheral vision. My mother always says there is something clerical about these birds. The posture, the gait. She’s right. There’s something contemplative about their morphology and movements. Must be it. I don’t allow myself to ruminate on this anthropomorphism for too long though. The bird of the cloth strides away. I’m looking for my preferred entrance into the thin strip of riverine forest that embraces these backwaters. It’s a corridor back to camp.
There it is!
A large sausage tree that marks my entry point. It’s in full bloom and easy to spot. Next to it, two palm trees, dwarfed by this blossoming giant, spill into each other to form a prickly gateway. I duck ever so slightly and slip through it, launching myself into a transfigured soundscape.
My ears are awed by the buffering qualities of this woodland. Almost deafened. Quickly though, different notes start gathering again. Blossoms from the sausage tree crash to the forest floor. Graceless. Prematurely. This wasn’t the rhythm of a bloom in terminus. My hunch doesn’t take long to announce itself. Energetic croaks of disapproval are launched my way. Vervet monkeys have been helping themselves to the wealth of nectar that the sausage tree was offering up. Their chorus of acknowledgements followed me as far as the trees could reach. Usually complemented by an ensemble of cephalic bobs and tilts. Obscuring whatever separates intimidation from mockery. While my mind dawdles in amusement, other nectar-seekers starts amplifying their presence. Sunbirds. Beetles. Butterflies. All drawn to this emporium trading in energies. Children from nearby cattle posts and villages also help themselves to these sweet treats. In a good year, the nectar simply flows out.
Drunk on sugar-fuelled symphonies, I find myself resisting the temptations of sonic distillation. Sobriety is eventually delivered by barbets and boubous, endlessly rehearsing their duets. Only ever interrupted by the setting sun. Were they speaking of my return? How could I tell?
Not much lies between camp and floodplain, but it is burgeoned by every babble, hiss, hoot, grunt, and trill. With every sound, the baton passes on to another. Conductor and orchestra – inseparable – unknowing – competing. “Play,” I think to myself. “Play us a song of entropy!”
About the Author:
Frowin Becker is a researcher and writer from Namibia, interested in the ecology of sound. His creative nonfiction has appeared in Doek! and was shortlisted for the the inaugural Doek Literary Awards. Frowin is based in Swakopmund, Namibia, where he is finding his literary feet.
Feature image by Aussiepics / Pixabay