The Big Read: My imagination's gone wild

06 July 2015 - 02:08 By Darrel Bristow-Bovey

Huzzah! Sylvester is safe and sound! After 24 days and 300km on the lam, stealing sheep and hounded by dogs, showing up on dirt roads then melting into the tawny undergrowth like a ghost in the darkness. Sylvester the lion was finally tracked down on a ridge in the Nuweveld Mountains, northwest of the Karoo National Park, and taken back home.He had better luck than Huberta. In 1928 the hippopotamus left the St Lucia Estuary on the Maputaland coast and started walking south. No one knows exactly why. She was probably traumatised after losing her parents to hunters, but I prefer some of the more romantic theories from the time: that she was searching for a lost love, or on pilgrimage to the place of her ancestors, where for a hundred years no hippo had set foot.There were no helicopters in 1928 so Huberta had time to roam and she used it well: she walked for three years and more than 1500km. She went down the Zululand coast and across the Umfolozi and the Umgeni and she was seen disporting in the surf on the Durban beachfront. Then she carried on south. This thrills me beyond words. Did she walk through the harbour? Did she go around the edge of the Bluff? Wasn't she lonely? She must have been very lonely.Huberta walked and walked. She was walking when the Great Depression began, and just like Bonnie and Clyde in the US, she became a hero to crushed and broken citizens everywhere. Malcolm Lowry mentions her in his novel Ultramarine, and newspapers around the world thrilled to each new sighting. Readers cheered her on, this odd, plucky symbol of independence and personal freedom.In 1931 Huberta arrived in East London. Who knows how far she was going? Maybe Cape Town. Maybe all the way up to Luanda and Lagos and Casablanca. Maybe she would have walked all the way round Africa and settled back in St Lucia, telling tales to her friends, but some jackasses shot her. She was shipped off to a London taxidermist and today you can see her, looking slightly cross, in the Amathole Museum in King William's Town.Sylvester lives in a meaner time and his odyssey was much shorter, but at least his story has a happy ending. I know that by the end he must have been scared and hungry and so tired the dart must have been a relief, but there's a selfish, silly part of me that wishes he was still out there, haunting the dusty landscape, bringing it subtly alive.In Henrietta Rose-Innes' novel Green Lion, set in the not too distant future, a lion named Sekhmet escapes from an enclosure on the slopes of Table Mountain and vanishes into its kloofs and heights. I was reading the novel with a view of the mountainside and I looked up from the page with a quiet thrill of pleasure. Just the thought of Sekhmet on the loose reanimates the mountain, retrieves it from something domesticated and familiar and restores to the landscape its wildness and strangeness. Her uneasy, unseen nearness haunts the prose, making you follow the lines of writing as though tiptoeing up a narrow track following the faint indent of paw prints, glancing over your shoulder and wiping sweat from your eyes.A lion-haunted landscape reminds me of the best part of a game drive. I like moving through an unfamiliar landscape made more intense by being invisibly occupied, scanning the undergrowth, wondering what I might see and what might right now be seeing me; I am always most bored when the animals are right there, browsing or lazing or flapping at a fly, being animals. It's not that I don't like animals - I do like animals, well enough - but what I like better is the effect their implied presence has on my mind and imagination. When you can see them, there's nothing left for the imagination.Whenever I'm in the Karoo, I like to sit outside at night with biltong in the hope of luring a bat-eared fox. An ex-girlfriend once told me that bat-eared foxes can't resist biltong, and it's one of those facts I believe simply because it's a fact I remember, so I always make sure I sit a little in the dark with a trail of biltong leading from the night to my chair, waiting and hoping. I've never seen one, but that doesn't matter; it's knowing they might be there that matters. Perhaps one night I will sit there with my trail of BBQ Beef Bites, and from the darkness, silent as a fox on heavy paws, with golden eyes and heavy breath and moisture on its whiskers, there will come loping a lion named Sylvester, or one just like him.

This article is reserved for Sunday Times subscribers.

A subscription gives you full digital access to all Sunday Times content.

Already subscribed? Simply sign in below.

Registered on the BusinessLIVE, Business Day or Financial Mail websites? Sign in with the same details.

Questions or problems? Email or call 0860 52 52 00.