Neighbours Tom and Jo came by with a bucketful of wild African mushrooms, which they had collected in old cattle bomas on the way to the farm. I asked: ‘How do you know they are not toadstools?’ Tom said you could peel the caps, the gills were dark brown, not white, there was a ring around the stem like a Jacobean ruff — and they did not smell poisonous. ‘Fine,’ I said and into a great pot they went with butter and parsley from the garden. Everything else for supper was from the garden too — even the road runner cockerel — except the flagons of wine brought by guests David and Kate, also from a farm only two hours’ drive away. The mushrooms were delicious. I expected my friends to turn red and horns to sprout from their heads, and that after hallucinating over pudding we would all then be found dead in our chairs at dawn.
Waking alive next morning, I arranged with Tom to go mushroom foraging that evening. ‘We must work fast,’ he advised. ‘All the warthogs and elephants have the same idea as us.’ That afternoon I drove over to Tom’s and as we reached a cluster of old bomas, or night enclosures for cattle, it was clear that the sounders of pigs and herds of pachyderms had already been rooting in the middens of rotted manure. The sheer quantity of cow shit, which must be just the right vintage, and weeks of heavier rains than we have had for two decades, meant there were mushrooms in vast quantities for all wild creatures and people. We piled in together with the ranch hands to pick great quantities of fungus exploding out of the ground. At a second supper that night, Tom said he had noticed orange toadstools in close proximity to the safe mushrooms. He reckoned he felt slightly odd. After that we both worried that we were starting to see things that did not exist.
I tried to make light of it, telling a funny story about a friend of mine at university who while tripping on LSD became convinced he was a can of Campbell’s mushroom soup. Our laughter was slightly hollow, and followed by a long silence. On the way home after dark, I stopped the car in the bush and the world had turned surreal. I saw the green bioluminescence of termite mounds pointing trumpet-like at the Milky Way. I saw showers of falling stars. I fancied I saw the scorpions glow electric blue in the moonlight and the puff adders breathing fire. I saw dark shapes with tusks and ears gliding across the track in front of me and decided they were real enough but I wondered if they would all stand up on their hind legs and sing ‘Pink Elephants on Parade’ for me.
We had not been properly poisoned but perhaps there were a few spores from those orange toadstools in the pot. That night, as I lay in bed, the oddness continued. First the warthogs, probably stoned on mushrooms, launched a full frontal assault on my electric fence to get into my crop of lucerne. You could hear them squealing before they hit the wire because they already knew they were going to get the full 7,500 volts. They charged through anyway and then the whole compound came alive with flashing lights and sirens. After that the bullfrogs got up a chorus around the swimming-pool and I had to go out with a golf club to lightly putt them into the water to shut them up. They climbed back out and simply carried on so loudly all night that even with a pillow over my head I could not sleep.
In the morning the pool was strung with frogspawn. After breakfast a swarm of bees emerged from a hive that had become so rotten that it disintegrated, and they flew around the farmyard stinging geese and chickens. Cattle stampeded and sheep bleated. The only way I could venture outside was in a bee suit, carrying my smoker in hand. I suddenly realised I felt like one of those ochre figures in the rock paintings you find from the Drakensberg to the Tibesti mountains, tens of thousands of years old. The figures often look as though they are in astronaut suits, with heads expanding into shapes like great big toadstools, and they walk across walls decorated with herds of eland and giraffe and elephants. Perhaps 40,000 years ago a group of friends had gone mushroom picking in a midden of buffalo poo and sat down for a wonderful weekend supper together. And that is when things started to get interesting.