Back in Charlie’s home town the gallery is jittery, an expectant hush ripples across the masses as the stewards hold up the all too familiar hand held sign calling for quiet. Tiger Winn takes to the first tee to address the ball, the Selebi Phikwe faithful have waited 19 years for the return of the prodigal son; baboons have been shoo’d away, the fairways manicured and there’s barely a dry eye in the house. Phikwe Golf Club has rarely hosted a bigger occasion, the attendance fee already worth every Pula. The backswing arcs to a collective drawn breath, like lightning the fluid swing passes the ball undisturbed on the tee. Breaths remain held. Another swing, another practice swing, surely it’s a practice swing? Upon a third strike the skippering drive of about 20m draws raucous applauds and we’re away ladies and gentlemen, the Phikwe Wednesday competition has begun. Tiger Winn the crowd favourite opting for a first drive that can only be called tactical, stay tuned folks.
After the grand build up we both settle into rounds of dubious shots interspersed with an occasional lucky strike to befit the grand scenery. Weaving in between kopjies of burning red rock the parched golden fairways take us far away from the frustration of chasing a little white ball that refuses to go where it’s supposed to. The setting sun blazes the sky to complete a setting that truly warrants a large gallery of support, even the ‘greens’ of oily sand seem glamorous in this setting. Lucky for us the score is irrelevant, the only way to play golf.
Golfing glory will have to wait for another lifetime sadly, our departure from Herman and Heidi passes in a whirlwind of warm hugs and well wishes to hold us tight till our stop over again on our way back to South Africa. We’ll hang up the clubs no doubt for another ten years or so, for now it’s the open plains of Africa to plunge further from comfort and closer to the open spaces that give this continent its fame. Just a few days ago it seemed that the idea of a real Africa was a goal so distant; Phikwe was the first true step, now it’s onward to wherever this road takes us.
Miles and miles fall to hours of driving, the relative plush comfort of Phikwe far behind now it’s these plains of grassland that go on forever. Not since the Salar de Atacama in Chile could we see so far to a horizon beyond where our eyes could reach; salt lakes and grass plains seem more familiar than I had ever considered. At some times the short trees and shrubs cluster the vista while other times it’s golden grass for as far as the eye can see, at all times it’s flatness that dominates here for it’s complete lack of feature. On and on forever it seems, the range of animals that make up wildest Africa are all out there, like the horizon, hidden from our eyes.
After hours of sweltering under a relentless sun the air conditioning that doesn’t seem to be working, this could be a long trip. We won’t make it to the top of Botswana today, the drive continues to the now regular road signs warning us to be wary of Elephants, this is a little exciting. Our destination tonight is a campground called Elephant Sands, a freshwater pool on a regular Elephant migration route so we’re hopeful to see one of the big beasts today. Who needs to wait till the campground, a big beast walks casually past us on the road; yep, that’s an Elephant. This is completely normal, I see one of these every time I go to the shops for some milk or bread. Can someone please wipe the childish smile from my face?
Arriving at Elephant Sands it appears that it’s well named, there’s an elephant at the watering hole as we arrive and a few more in the surrounding bush. Just there, right there; it’s an Elephant. I take another look and I’m not hallucinating, they’re completely real. In no time a herd of nearly ten Elephants pass through for a drink and a wash, we’re sitting less than ten metres from this social spectacle we dared not hope for. The sun again sets to a blazing sky, the vastness of the space here gives a grandeur and warmth to a vista that absolutely requires a beer.
I’ve been surrounded by this idea of a real Africa, everyone keeps telling me that I wasn’t in real Africa yet. To softening light the waterhole becomes a buzz of birdlife; the skies are on fire, the Elephants are spraying mud, the birds and lizards fill the world with a fluttering life and these plains that seemed so empty before seem now like anything but empty. It feels to this novice that no one element makes up real Africa, words will come in time but this moment has a wild beauty that cannot be contrived. Maybe real Africa is something I’ll never understand, after all this is an every day occurrence of unremarkable life; Africa seems pretty remarkable to me.