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The diary of lost words

Back in the days before notebooks needed a charger and people could write legibly with a pen, I had my head chewed off by my commanding officer for walking into his office empty-handed. ‘Don’t ever come into my office without a notebook,’ he yelled. Of course, I should have known better, especially as I’ve never been good at remembering verbal instructions — they go in one ear and without much netting to catch them they go pretty much straight out the other. It’s the altitude, you know.

Memories, however, are a different matter. They’re already in my head. In fact, they are the netting. While some memories die from lack of air, others grow fat from regular re-telling, embellished with a bit of extra colour here and there, or confused with others, all tangled up in the thicket of my mind. Which is why, whenever I need to recall an event from decades past, I turn to my shelf of diaries and journals.

Through some vague inkling of a future need, I was a diligent record-keeper. I maintained detailed diaries of early Alpine climbs, Himalayan expeditions, a summer in Antarctica, and a six-month military posting to Zimbabwe. I still have all those diaries — except for the one I kept in Zimbabwe. The nearly full notebook was stacked with stories and insights that are gone forever. Even now, thirty-five years later, I mourn its loss like a lost love.

How I lost the diary is a story in itself:

I met a girl called Leora whom I would later marry. She was a manager at the nearby Troutbeck Inn, a favourite watering hole for the dozen or so British soldiers who worked in the area, and she poured generous gin and tonics. Perhaps it was the alcohol, perhaps it was the sultry warmth of the evenings, or perhaps it was the uniform, but I got lucky.

One day we drove to nearby Mount Nyangani. I was curious to see Zimbabwe's highest peak, even though it was only 2500m high and hadn't felt snow for more than fifty years. From the dirt road we set off walking up the trail, but after a short while Leora wanted to turn back. 'There are spirits up there', she said. 'People have disappeared.'

I asked her to wait while I went to the top, telling her not to worry about superstitions, and that I wouldn't be long. Chased by her call to watch out for snakes, I took off running up the hillside, gulping on the thinning air, intoxicated by my invincibility. Come on Nyangani, bring it on.

And it did, in a way. It crept out of the unknown places where fear lives, and it whispered in my ear while I ran:

'You scoff at superstition but the thought of it cannot be unthought. You laugh at it, yet you can't suppress a wariness that wouldn't have been there before. You invite it to show itself but know it daren't for in doing so it ceases to exist, for it's the mystery of it that feeds it. So you run up the hill, surging with strength, your senses sharpened, tuned in to your security — to firm foot placements, to fangs in the foliage, to dark spaces behind rocks and trees, to movement on vision's edge. You're wary. But why? There’s nothing to fear here. You've been in more dangerous places. It's your wariness that makes the spirits real.'

The summit was sublime. The thin air was still, the sun's warmth soothing, and the view across the bush was softened by a blue haze. Far below, a house sat in a clearing of swirled crops, and the tin rooves of other buildings dotted the rolling terrain that faded into the distance. I pulled a camera from my daypack and took some photos — not for the view, but to unravel Nyangani's mystique, to show Leora there was nothing to fear. So much for superstition. The horizon was washed out by the glare of the sun, hiding the line where the land met the sky, and for a moment I dithered over how to level the camera. The images safely captured, I shouldered my daypack and jogged back down the hill to where Leora said she would wait, but unnerved by her solitude, she'd already set off down.

A few days later, Nyangani had the last word. In my rush to get Leora between the sheets of a five-star hotel, I'd broken my long-held rule about leaving valuables in a car overnight, especially in Harare, a city renowned for its crime. I lost much more than the undeveloped film. I'd tried to steal something, but it was stolen from me, and imposed a premium — my diary — that I still mourn.


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