028_Bass_AnimalRealmI am sitting by the sweet-scented smoldering remains of last night’s campfire, the burned-out husk of a mopane stump still exhaling tendrils of dense blue smoke, and listening to the doves, when I hear a new sound—new to me, at least—that sounds remarkably like the squeak or croak of spring peepers. I didn’t think Namibia’s desert had toads or frogs but nothing about this landscape would seem beyond the realm of possibility; everything is new. What a luxury it is to inhabit such a condition again, as when one was a child.

Perhaps, I think, the creatures bide their time beneath the stones, and beneath the soil, waiting for decades, perhaps, for just the right moment, just the right confluence of events—thunder-storms—to emerge and make a gamble, an expenditure of all their various resources and instincts and, if I dare say it, hope. And listening to their calls, so near and clear, I determine that I want to see one, and so I rise from my camp chair and walk quietly out into the desert toward a spot that I perceive to be one of the sources of the calling.

I stalk the sound, hunkered low and crouched over. I’m tiptoeing across the desert, approaching the sound so cautiously, and am frustrated when, as I draw near to the rock from beneath which I think the sound is emanating, the calling stops.

Now the song comes from another location in the desert—from beneath another rock—a nation of toads beneath hundreds of rocks, communicating with one another, luring me off the trail whenever I draw too near to one of their number—and I pivot and begin sneaking toward that unseen caller, only to have that one, also, fall silent as I draw nearer to the source.

For 30 minutes, in that rising sun, I crouch and sneak across the stony hardpan, as if following some maddened choreography of evasion. And although the calling locations are multiple, there is never more than one caller at a time, so that it seems to me that all the frogs are taunting me with their calculated silences, before calling again, after I have passed by.

Exasperated, I straighten up and stretch my back and scan the desert, which is now golden rather than red. The day is getting away already, the temperature is beginning to click upward—the dampness of the day’s first perspiration trickles down my lower back—and I see that from the tent, Felix, dressed in his khaki shorts, roomy khaki shirt, and broad-brimmed hat, is sipping coffee and watching me with equal parts of concern and puzzlement.

I wander over to where he’s standing and explain to him about the toads. His brow crinkles, and he actually takes a step back from me. I suppose he sees all kinds of people out here, and I can see him trying to evaluate me for the coming day’s journey, assessing the problematic nature of me riding in the midst of his clients, his responsibilities.

“Did you see any toads?” he asks cautiously, politely.

“No,” I tell him, “every time I got close, they got quiet.” And though the toads have fallen largely silent, as I had feared they would, as the day warms (why did they not call in the night, I wonder?), the call does begin once more. Felix shakes his head. “I’ve never seen any frogs or toads in the desert,” he says. “I don’t think they’re out there.”

That sound,” I say, gesticulating toward the horizon. “Is it coming from beneath the ground? Isn’t that a frog, or a toad?”

Felix gives me the Is-this-American-tripping? stare once more, then breaks into a broad grin. “Those are cory bustards,” he says gently, and points toward a lone mopane tree that stands a good two hundred or more yards away—easily three or four times beyond where I had been turning over stones, searching for toads.

In the lozenge of shade beneath the tree, there is a small flock of bustards, looking at this distance like guineas, scuttling back and forth and pecking at insects beneath the dry curls of last year’s leaves. At first I think he is teasing me—how could any sound carry that far with such crystalline frog-croaking clarity, for me to believe it was coming from only a few feet away?—but then I remember quickly, Africa, and I say something lame like, “Gee, they sure sound like toads.”

As delighted by my being fooled as he is relieved that his day’s duty will not include the ferrying of a troublemaker, Felix hands me the heavy-duty industrial desert-strength guide’s binoculars hanging on his chest, and through oculars with roughly the magnifying power of twin telescopes, the feather of each bustard leaps into variegated clarity. Their eyes gleam and burn with the rising sun, looking back at me across that distance, probably with equal clarity.

I mumble some excuse to Felix about needing to prepare for the day—he nods, and gives me the grace of glancing at his wristwatch as if to agree that yes, that would be a good idea—and as I hurry down the boardwalk, still feeling the heat of my blush in the cool of morning, I know without a doubt that I have become part of future camp lore, the kind of story the folks in camp will tell to other newcomers such as myself, after I am gone. Toadhunter. Frog-Searcher. He was out there before daylight, they’ll tell their dinner guests. It was the sound of rocks being overturned that awakened me. It was a hell of a racket. I looked out my tent and saw him out there in the middle of the desert on his hands and knees, digging, looking for toads…

My mild humiliation was well worth it. For a morning again, anything was possible. Of the world I inhabited, anything was possible. I could believe anything. I knew nothing. I felt the sweet solace of being returned to my natural state.

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