Sunday, 17 June 2012

How I came to write 'Ride the Wings of Morning'

Author Sophie Neville riding with zebra and wildebeeste in the Okavango Delta Botswana

If I ride the wings of the morning,
if I dwell by the farthest oceans,
even there your hand will guide me,
and your strength will support me.
Psalm 139 v 9&10 NL

Damaraland landscape by Sophie Neville

The idea for the format of 'Ride the Wings of Morning' came to me after things went wrong. I'd been invited to take part in a wildlife census in Damaraland by Blythe Loutit, Director of Save the Rhino Trust. My car was so elderly that it took me about five days to drive the 1,200kms from Maun to Palmwag in the red stony desert where she had a base camp. I arrived, full of excitment expecting to find a large party of scientists and conservationists. One lone game scout was sitting by a small fire. He gave me a message that the census had been cancelled. Blythe had not been able to reach me before I left Maun. She apologised, suggesting I stayed on at Palmwag until she and her husband were able to join me.

Damaraland landscape, Namibia by Sophie Neville

Apart from an open thatched shelter and a stone fireplace the camp consisted of two palm trees and the reed hut painted above. It was about twelve food square and newly constructed with three bamboo-framed beds arranged around the sides. Bamboo coffee tables had been placed in the two corners. Although not exactly secure it was surprisingly comfortable and proved idyllic. I spent my days sketching and painting the desert around me. It was a time of enforced meditation. In the heat of midday I had time to think, pray and make plans for the future, sorting out what I really wanted to do.

Damaraland landscape, Namibia by Sophie Neville

Whilst I'd been living in southern Africa I'd been too busy to keep a conventional diary. Instead I kept copies of my letters home. We had no computers, no photocopiers but I'd been able to buy duplicate books made up of thin paper suitable for sending airmail. The top sheet would be sent home whilst a blue carbon-copy was kept in the book, which I stored in a cardboard box under my bed.

One of the highlights of life spent in the Africa bush was receiving letters back from England - from my family and friends. My sisters Perry and Tamzin wrote such amusing accounts, from the safe haven of their everyday domestic lives, that I'd read them aloud, cherishing stories about their children and other responsibilities. Since their daily routines with pets and babies contrasted with the roaming life in the wilderness that I'd chosen, I thought it might be possible to put our correspondence together one day, constructing a travelogue of sorts. Initially I used the title 'Can you Imagine?' as we kept asking this question in our letters. I had no idea at the time that my sisters would face more worries and dangers than I.

Black Rhino Bull in Namibia by Sophie Neville

Somehow the cardboard boxes full of duplicate books, letters and postcards survived. The editing process proved far more complex and complicated than ever envisaged but I managed to adapt our letters into something of a story - a story of longing for love. I only added the illustrations to fill in the gaps left after starting each letter at the top of a page. I needed more than I'd ever imagined. And then I changed the title.

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