THE ROCK - Robert Strickland          - 28/ 8/ 2012      <--Prev : Next-->

In Africa there is a rock as large as a church. It stands guard like a brooding Sphinx in a landscape as rugged as any place on earth. It is a random tapestry of brown earth and towering boulders rounded by ten million years of wind. Everything is protected by angry and defiant vegetation that defends every yard against any mad soul who dares to venture there.

I discovered it during a summer holiday in the little copper mining town where we lived for a few years. I was home from boarding school. Bicycles, swimming pools and Coca Cola were defenseless against the lure of the African bush. I was lost in it, from sunrise to sunset, escaping into the unreachable revelries that only childhood can achieve. One day I found this giant rock and it became my world.

Every day I arose early and went to my rock, long before the warm African sunrise painted the earth with long shadows. It was an exciting walk, through dry riverbeds and small rocky valleys. There are no paths in that wilderness; you must chart your way through the thick bush one step at a time; there is always some unseen creature watching you, always something scurrying through the bush beside you. Africa becomes your shadow - it cloaks you in its presence and breaths life into every footstep. And, when you are only twelve years old, it knits itself like an indestructible thread into the fabric of your memory.

You don't know you have reached the rock until you can go no further, and there it is. You climb carefully to its towering summit where a few trees have miraculously managed to dig their roots into the rock, providing a cool, shady place at the top. It is like kneeling on the shoulders of a monster. You sit quietly. Africa lies before you like a wild, living carpet. Baobab trees thrust their strange shapes mockingly at the sky; in the branches birds hop around awkwardly and monkeys mark their territory by taunting anything that moves. You sit very still - a silent observer. Soon life appears from nowhere - antelope and squirrel, lizards and rock rabbits. Baboons move through the area, barking and scavenging.

You see movement from the corner of your eye, but when you look there is nothing. So there I sat on that ageless rock. An intruder and an emperor, both a ruler and a prisoner in the limitless adventure of childhood, armed with only a rusty pocket knife and water bottle. I cannot even begin to count the hours I watched the world from this spot, imagining where the road of life would lead, conjuring up my future like a mad sorcerer drunk on his own wishful thinking. I played so many games in my mind, won so many wars, defeated evil empires and rescued people from tyranny. One day, I looked up and saw a leopard yawning at me from 30 yards away. It could have ended my life in an instant, with one twist of its jaws it could have silenced the boy emperor in battered shoes and a ragged hat. The leopard had better things to do with its time - despite our hopes and dreams, we are not as important as we sometimes imagine. I sat still, almost as still as the rock itself; soon the leopard wandered off and I lived to dream another day.

These were some of the most memorable days of my childhood in Africa. I loved that rock and the visions it gave me. Of course, I never did become an emperor or a conqueror. I think, like the leopard, I found better things to do with my life. I have also come to realize that no twelve- year-old visionary is ever prepared for the unpredictability of life. I held on to my epic boyhood fantasies for as long as I could and some dreams came true, but only a handful. Ironically, the imagination that was kindled on the rock became the force that tore me away from it. I followed my share of paper moons. More than once I mistook the silhouette of true love for a meaningless shadow and more than once I mistook a meaningless shadow for the silhouette of love.

I am slightly wiser now. I have learnt that dreams are our bridges in the mist. Without dreams we simply migrate through life, advancing through our social and cultural DNA with as much control over our destiny as the plastic trinkets that get marched around a board game. Do not be afraid to flee into the mist where damp crows watch over deserted campfires and every path is a dismantled avenue of wonder drawn from the verse of sad, reckless poets - the human soul is reborn from mystery. But when you can go no further in the mist, turn around and come home. A hooded wanderer with a handful of keys and a silver tongue is no match for the half smile of a pretty girl by a water fountain. Dark symphonies of the imagination cannot compare with a jukebox and the simple melodies that bind two coffee shop lovers together in an unforgettable memory. Nothing you will ever do is as important as the moment that you throw caution to the wind and reach out to the quiet stranger whose eyes shine with more secrets than a thousand fairytales. You can't do that from the top of a rock.

It is comforting to think that marks I carved on a tree, high on an African rock, are probably still there. But marks on a tree do not make a lifetime, nor does endlessly reaching for the stars with empty arms. I am thankful to that giant rock for giving me a safe place to dream, a view of what is possible and the inspiration to climb down from its shoulders and battle through the thorns below. -

Robert Strickland was a seriously good writer and I am only aware of a few 'gems' he wrote. This is probably his best, for me, and sums up times and incidents in my life, in Africa, when I was in the bush, alone.......this is the sort of writing which will 'haunt you' and be with you, in your mind, for a long time ! j.w.