The day began with a crossing of the Luangwa River: a canoe journey of a few seconds. Then a short walk to Chikoko bush camp; nice zebras. Great familiarity does not impossibilise surprise: it makes surprises rarer and therefore deeper.
Looking out at the flat area of dry lagoon beyond camp I was aware of movement. Antelopes. And a surprise. Rare and deep, yes, of course, for I am greatly familiar with this valley. I know its antelopes well: impala and puku, kudu and waterbuck, the occasional small bands of distant elands, always poised for flight.
But here was something else: an antelope met here on only once or twice before, and valued not just for its scarcity but for its beauty. A beauty, it seemed, that was a personal gift to me. These were roan antelopes, members of the Hippotragus genus of horse-like antelopes: so horsey that sometimes in profile, when only one horn is visible, they look like unicorns. Unicorns in Lone Ranger masks.
The females also wear horns, elegant and swept-back, thinner than those worn by the males. All their gaits tend to be horsey, and that’s a special joy for a horseman: the homely mixed with the exotic. These roans seemed for a second to be mythical creatures: and that surely meant that I was part of the same myth. The one about humans living with nature in state of peace.
It was the myth I tried to re-tell in my book about the Valley, The Sacred Combe. No roans in that book; a bit of an oversight, I now realise. I watched them stare back at me from a safe distance: and then all at once it wasn’t safe enough and they trotted – an elegant but purposeful working trot – into the bush.
And oh God, that bloody valley had slain me once again.
* I was co-leading Sacred Combe Safari for www.wildlifeworldwide.com