Wednesday, February 26, 2014

My little "heart of darkness" - part three of three

Images and words ©Bruno D’Amicis/

One day we decided to go further. A shepherd, in fact, had talked with us about a cave which, according to him, the lions used as a den and had offered himself to accompany us: it would take almost five hours of walk from Adjo, he said.
Barefoot and with a spear in his hand (a two-meter-long metal rod crushed and sharpened at the tip), he preceded us with a light pace. We followed him and got again into another gorge, down a steep path that ran along one of the walls. From there you could see well our goal: a sort of gigantic grassy "terrace", partly covered with large trees, which interrupted the long rock wall. On the cliffs above dozens of white slick denounced the presence of a large colony of vultures. Such a place would have suited well even a Tyrannosaurus rex, I thought.
Although my skepticism was chronic, I pondered on the lightness with which my fellows managed such a visit to the very home of the lions. I was wondering if that was something appropriate. Anyway, after what had been one of the most strenuous walks of my first 35 years of life, we reached the edge of the terrace. There we stopped to eat and rest. The shepherd said that we had to climb on the trees and, at sunset, the lions would have come out. So we did, waiting in vain until sunset and beyond: nothing. It was late and I suggested to return. I didn't feel at all comfortable: we were all alone, in the alleged lion area, with just a lamp among four, at more than two hours walk from the nearest settlement and without any equipment to deal with the night. Crazy stuff. We walked our first steps and into the light beam I saw it: a beautiful big turd, exactly like the one of a cat, just fifty times bigger and full of cow hair and bone fragments. A shiver along my back. It was then that we heard the first ROAR: a male lion was calling from two to three hundred meters from our position. I was afraid.
We had to move quickly to reach a safer place where to spend the night and so we took up a hard and almost onirical march into the most complete darkness, embraced by the velvet warmth of the African night, which was seasoned by a big chirping of insects, the distant laughters of hyenas and the roars of that damn’ lion.
I put all my trust in the shepherd, who seemed so confident: I followed him for what seemed like an endless journey through the night, while “we penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness". So I felt, in fact: like Marlow, the protagonist of Conrad’s novel.

We crossed again the deep rocky gorge climbing this time along a different trail and on the other side, finally there was our “salvation”: a small farm. There, greeted by the friendly owners, we lit a fire and, eating enset bread and drinking fresh milk (welcome, diarrhea!) we discussed until late sharing the too many emotions of that evening. When we laid down, wasted, to sleep the one next to the other, it seemed to hear him: the ROAR was not far away. I felt like a Pang in my stomach and I groped in the darkness for the gaze of my friends. We heard it all again two, three more times. Believe me, that has been a long night ...
The next day arrived way too slowly for my taste and I had enough of it. I wanted to go back home and end it there, but we still had to spend one more night at Adjo and wait for the driver to come from Bonga and pick us up on the next day. As we returned to the village in the afternoon, I have found dozens of vultures feasting on a dead horse. Not even ten metres from them, a group of children were attentively watching the banquet: luckily, I was no more the main attraction. Then, as the day was fading a rumor spread quickly: ambassa had just been spotted not far from the last houses. We ran there, me, the interpreter and half of the village. And there, on the edge of the forest, half hidden in the lush tropical vegetation, nodded a lioness, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
A vision so beautiful and unusual, which made me wonder if the painter Henri Rousseau had not already experienced something similar in his life. The lioness was huge. After moments of hesitation, I realized that I was not of her interest and, a little reassured by the presence of my companions, I started photographing, first taking a couple of portraits with a long telephoto lens, but, eventually changing to a shorter lens and moving closer. I widened the frame to place the lioness in the wonderful context. I continued shooting until it became dark, then mixing the light from the flash to a portable spotlight. The lioness has moved only once to lay down on a different spot. Finally, we walked away in silence: that was it.
The photographs taken that day probably represent the first visual document attesting the presence of these animals in the afromontane rainforest, at over 2,500 metres above sea level. But the grotesque aspect of this story is also that so much effort would eventually dissolve in just some fractions of a second.
Is there a moral to this story?
Let’s respect and start to believe paintings, fairy tales, rumors and songs, because we will never know where does hide "all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men." (J. Conrad)

And, in the meanwhile... in the jungle... the mighty jungle... the lion really sleeps tonight!


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