Tales & images from life as me…

Archive for July, 2013

TIA Tales – A walk on the wild side


So yesterday two TIA things happened that made me think again about where we live… a cheetah was shot round the corner from our house (bear in mind we live in a city and it’s a 2 hr drive to the Serengeti that’s pretty unusual)… and my gardener found a huge pile of snake eggs in our garden. Add to this the fact that there have been recent reports of hyena attacks on small children (I have a friend who works at one of the local hospitals who told me of the of the horrific injuries it caused) and it reminds us that we are in their territory, not the other way around.

During my time here I have loved hearing tales of how it was ‘before’ – when towns and cities were merely settlements so that the human/wildlife conflicts were frequent and shocking, and – let’s face it – thrilling. I interviewed a 90 year old author from Arusha once who’d grown up as a white boy with the Loliondo Maasai and he told tales of lions tearing at the canvas on the back of his truck, of a hyena stealing the just-amputated leg of a man who was accidentally shot whilst in the bush, and of climbing the rim of Ngorongoro Crater before it was an allocated conservation area. Even my (much younger!) father-in-law has tales like these, of camping and exploring the areas unrestricted as a boy. A local Mwanza man once told me that the hill I live on was cut off by water less than a hundred years ago and wild animals lived all over it. It seems that poor cheetah wasn’t so confused after all.

Anyway, it got me thinking about people’s stories and how unbelievable they sometimes seem when they are so removed from your reality, and yet they are quite true – I have lived to tell some tales myself! One story that always sticks with me was told to me by my good friend Bill. I recently took time to fictionalise his experience for a competition and he very kindly said that I could use it. So, with the recent events in Mwanza, I thought it was appropriate to give you guys a sneak preview (of course if it doesn’t win the competition it’ll be more of an ‘exclusive view’ but whatever!).

The Walk

I got out. It’s hard to imagine how I could have done that now, but back then we thought we were invincible. I was in my twenties and it was a time of rolled up safari-shirt sleeves, hard physical work, and endless cigarettes.

I’d been contracted out to Tanzania to build a safari lodge in a small game reserve. After the War work was limited and I was happy to travel. I’d helped to build hotels before – mostly in Europe – but I was not prepared for Africa.

So, there we were, returning from gathering supplies. Just me and the lodge manager. She’d been out visiting her boyfriend – a Rhodesian wild animal vet based in Arusha city. I couldn’t compete, so I pretended I wasn’t interested. We’d been making good time, sliding through the red dust at the top of the ridge on one side and then dropping into the darker, black cotton soil in the base of the valley, but it had rained the night before.

Slow motion sliding and then locking suction saw all four tyres trapped deep into a pond-sized patch of black mud.

The day had been a hot one and the air was lying slumped against us; fat with dust. By then we had tried everything of course: Attempted to dig ourselves out; fiddled with the radios – though we knew we were miles out of range; stood on the roof and shouted. But the day was starting to fade, I had smoked my last cigarette and the mosquito clouds were beginning to froth up from the muddy puddles surrounding the car. Their high-pitched malarial malice became too much for me. I got out.

“Ali, I’m going to get help before it’s dark.” I said coolly. “The lodge is only over that ridge and no one’s going to drive past us on this road today – we both know that.”

She’d nodded weakly. Too hot and frustrated to argue with me by this stage. She was in the passenger seat, her bare brown legs stretched up onto the dash board as she scratched at her ankles. She was muddy and her skin was damp with perspiration and I noticed with a stupidly smug sense of satisfaction that she was beginning to show signs of fear. It spurred me to see through my ridiculous hero role.

“Take this,” she smiled gently, handing me a bottle of water.

“Thanks. I won’t be long,” I said confidently. Naively. Sinking in the mud and attempting to maintain some dignity and stay upright as I hopped from patch to patch until I reached the other side, now filthy from the knees down. I could hear Ali laughing as I turned to wave.

When I started walking it was hot and bright, the viscous air was thick around me. But the minutes melted into evening. A blood red sun seeped into the horizon to my left and suddenly a soot-soft black began to gather. I had not noticed, until then, how quickly the equatorial sun set. I had anticipated being at the site by now. A ring neck dove crooned and baboons screamed in the distance.

I stayed on the road, with the bronzed grasses high on either side of me; hiding me from predators, and predators from me. But I could see nothing bar the path ahead by this stage anyway, so I focused on making my way onto the ridge, where I knew I would look down onto the lights of our building site.

I was conscious that Ali was over an hour’s walk behind me by now, somewhere in the dark, hoping for the best and fearing the worst. I turned to squint into the blackness, wondering if she might have used the vehicle lights, but I could see only a few meters in front of me. In those moments of realisation, the mood of the bush changed. She shifted on her haunches and bared her teeth. I was alone and defenseless in big cat territory.

I paused to drink my water, laughing at myself for bringing that and leaving the knife I had in the glove compartment. Not that I’d have known what to do with it. Not really.

There was only one thing to do – push on; keep moving until I saw the lights of the camp. It had to be close now.

But in turning around to strain my eyes for our car, I had lost my bearings and all around me now was black. Thick and hot as tar.

I stumbled blindly on, aware that I may not even be moving in the right direction, though the ground under my feet felt dryer so it seemed I must be moving upwards at least. Not one star broke the perfect dark. The curving whoop of a hyena floated over the plain and a zebra barked its hysterical answer.

The back of my shirt was wet with sweat, and as I walked into the night it grew cold and clung to me, as though it too feared the worst. I thought of home, and of my parents: How they would hear about my death in this alien place. I recalled stories of men taken by leopards, of Tsavo’s man-eating lions and I picked up my pace, in a hurried shuffle.

I landed sharply on the hard packed earth.

I had not even had time to put my hands out.

It was my head that struck the ground hardest. I felt my eyebrow split and the thick blood roll down into my right eye.

I pushed myself up, touching the cut and adding gritty earth to the sticky mess. Now they can smell me I thought with sudden clarity, pushing myself to my feet more quickly than I might otherwise have done. I thought of a fact I had once heard about how a shark can smell one drop of blood in thousands of litres of water. I wondered if a lion or leopard could do the same in the air. I loped ahead, sure I had now lost my bearings entirely.

Was I imagining that? I felt rather than heard the presence. Something behind me. Not close, but within the radius of my senses. My ears strained. I had been thinking of wild cats, perhaps I had summoned one in my imagination. Perhaps it was my heart thumping out the rhythm of my footfalls in my chest. Or perhaps there was a slight echo on the night air. I slowed my step.

There was a slight swish in the grasses some way behind me, to my right. I moved again.

For some time I heard nothing, though that was almost worse. Every molecule of mine stretched to prove a presence I was hoping was not there. I placed my feet as carefully, as silently as possible, whilst covering the ground as quickly as I could. Blood caked on the upper part of my cheek.

Then there it was again, in perfect unison with my own foot steps. A soundless matching of my pace.

Paranoia?

No, there was something with me.

I thought then that I heard breath. Just one huff of hot breath slinking between the grasses. Hairs responded on my neck. I knew I must not run. Some random gem of a survival technique I had read or heard somewhere. I moved off quickly though, taking short quick steps. And sure enough, the padded echo followed.

This time the slight cracking of a leaf or twig confirmed that there was weight behind this animal and now my blood was booming in my ears as I fought desperately to quiet my breath and keep my feet from stopping still in terror, or – worse – breaking into a terrified sprint. A race I knew, without exception, I would lose.

On, on I walked. My every step echoed by the almost silent pads of feline feet. I had no idea what species, but I knew it was a cat.

The rest happened all at the same time.

In front of me a sea of lights, for a moment my addled mind thought of cats eyes shining in the darkness, but it had to be the camp.

No time for the relief to flood my adrenaline drenched veins, though.

From behind, a mighty roar shattered the night.

I threw myself forward, hoping to avoid the invisible predator. Imagining muscle sinew, claws sinking into flesh and teeth tearing. I assumed the scream that went up was my own voice, and I hit the ground ashamed, still waiting for the impact, but the sounds were all around me. Spitting. Squealing. Ripping.

It took some moments to understand that I felt no pain myself.

I was up and running, skidding and bouncing down towards the camp with an instinct I had no idea that I possessed. I am not sure it would have caught me then, even if it had been in pursuit.

I burst into the camp and slid to a stop beside the camp fire. Wide eyes and the bottoms of beer filled glasses looked down at me for a moment.
“What the -?”
“Are you ok?”
“Where’s, Ali?”
“What happened? – you’re bleeding!”

Everyone talked at once and I could process nothing.

“Lion!” I managed.
“Is Ali..? Oh God!”
“No, she’s fine… I think,” I answered, pulling myself guiltily to a sitting position now. “I left her at the vehicle. Stuck.” I panted. “We got stuck in mud.”

“So you walked?” Everyone stared again now, incredulous.
“Yes,” I said, drawing myself up now, proud of my bravery, despite my embarrassing entrance.

“What were you thinking?” I read their faces clearly now, they were not impressed, they were amazed… by my stupidity.

“I…I…” I could not finish.

“We’d better get Ali. Mark, grab the truck keys from the bar!” They hussled into to two large vehicles, throwing tow ropes and a spare tyre into the back and I stepped meekly into the back seat of the first.

As we climbed the ridge I went through it all again. No one spoke. But as we reached the top I broke the silence. “Here, can you just pause a second, shine your headlights there.”

The vehicle reversed and turned a little to the right. Our yellow spot lights were met instantly by yellow eyes. A golden cold that assessed us coolly and then returned to tearing at its prey. A large, fat zebra. The red of its insides in stark contrast to its sharp black and white stripes. It’s eyes were open, dull and glassy. The lion shook blood drops from its mane and continued, dismissing us entirely.

“You were lucky,” breathed Matt from the driving seat. And we drove on.

Just minutes later we approached the truck. An abandoned carcass, marooned. It was so quiet it did not seem that Ali could be there. What had I done? Would she have tried to walk as well? Or could something have taken her while she waited?

But as our lights lit the inside from the edge of the swampy mess, I saw her blonde head lift from the back seat.

“You took your time!” she yelled.

“Next time I’m sending you!” I grinned.

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In My Garden


I was feeling somewhat uninspired this week and not sure what I’d end up writing on this blog. But my office looks out over our garden and out towards the lake and I decided I would set myself a challenge. Every time I look up from my computer I witness some little scene from nature – I have seen hatchling kites being fed, a giant monitor lizard (around 5ft) trying to fight off the dogs, birds building nests, snakes whipping along branches and all sorts of wonderous little glimpses into a world where I do not belong. Today I gave myself just 15 minutes to snap as many things in my garden as I could. Not only was it an eye-opener, but it’s also a great illustration of the differences between different countries. I took almost 100 pictures (none of them especially masterful, but that wasn’t the point!) in an effort to record the mass of action that was happening right under my nose! Here’s what happened in my garden this afternoon.

For a start we grow a lot. Red peppers, rocket, lemons and (when the season’s right) mangoes and avocados weigh down the trees.

And of course the bird life is abundant. Here’s what I found in just those fifteen minutes:

But there are also other animals:

Plus there are usually a few domestics friends to be found:

This is Tom and Tamu our very fearsome guard dogs (hmmm!) searching out the shade.

There are some bright tropical flowers:

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Plus, Africa is well known for its Beaugonvilla. It covers endless walls with its vibrant shades – we have several different colours around our garden.

In fifteen minutes I was surprised at how much there was to see and reminded again that it always worth looking twice, noticing the details, and enjoying where you are in this moment. I am no longer uninspired and shall return to my book writing with renewed enthusiasm!

So… what’s in your garden?


The write time – why words?


Why words?

To choose a career in words is not an easy option. I mean it’s not as though it’s a skill no one else has. We all have a vocabulary and can construct a sentence. In fact we each speak an average of 17,520 words every day to an average of 7.4 other individuals! Using words is not a skill that people value particularly, and they certainly don’t want to have to pay you for them!

But as my days have developed and this has become a full-time job – leaping from editing my book, writing a short story, coming up with PR angles for a client or working on my latest piece of journalism (ooh that reminds me, don’t forget to buy The Independent on Sunday the 21st!) – I have become increasingly sure that this is what I really love. I love words.

When I really write the words come almost through me, like I’m not really doing it. It’s a sort of letting go, or an immersing – a tea bag relaxing in warm water, releasing its flavour with no effort at all. And that is a magical feeling.

Of course it isn’t always like that. Often it’s a slog. Forcing yourself to face the page. Taming ideas to land softly, but sharply in the shape I wish to paint, gathering the shards of the world. But it turns out that writing is rather like using a pencil that, instead of getting worn down, is actually sharpened by use. The more I work with it, the more I feel the shapely shavings sliced neatly away to reveal the lean and pointed lead. You literally get to the point! In the end it becomes easier to write succinctly interesting sentences than flabby, stubby paragraphs.

But really it’s the words themselves I truly love, not necessarily the process of the writing.

I love the way they carry meanings in their history. Just yesterday I read that ‘Remorse, etymologically, is the action of being bitten again.’ The word carries the same root as the word ‘morsel’ with both French and Latin origins. How very igenius our language is.

I also love the way they can play with each other. I was listening to two teenagers not so long ago. The American child exclaimed ‘Sweet!’ in response to the chance of a swim, using the slang to express his pleasure at the prospect. The Tanzanian child responded ‘sawa’ (meaning ‘OK’). I had to smile – one says ‘sweet’ the other ‘sawa’ (pronounced sour) and the joke was just for me.

As a totally different example, I wrote the other day in my note book, in response to rejection of another article pitch (a significant part of the life of a writer is rejection and I am trying to toughen up!): ‘I must remember that they are called ‘slights’, because they are slight. I must not let them make me feel the same way.’ The layers of multiple meanings in words interact with each other, they are not there by mistake. Words have magic. Words have history. Words have power.

Words in a drawer are not contained. They seep out, float up, unbidden in your mind, attack the senses. They cannot just be put away or hidden. Once they are strung together into sentences they have combined to form the DNA of a living thing and that is part of the magic.

There is a theory that each word we learn carried with it the association of where you first heard it and every time you heard or used it from that moment. We build a personal history with that word and thus it carries meanings not only defined by a dictionary but defined also by our relationship with that word. If that is true of each and every word, what multitude of meanings might be hidden when you combine two words, or three ,or any of the average person’s 11,000 word vocabulary? It is mind blowing. And as a writer, trying to pin this down so everybody hears just what you wanted is a task that is both terrifying and thrilling, impossible and yet somehow worth attempting.

isn’t it wonderful that the combination of just a few words, even in the face of all that variation in possible meanings and interpretations, can still leave us with a feeling or image – like ‘The soft wing-beat of sadness’ or ‘the way that morning shadows stretch awake’.

Even as a child, at night when the world was dark and silent I would read in secret torchlight. Sounds were louder, shadows were shapes, and the air was full of dreams. How could I want to sleep? No, no. I wanted to imagine. I wanted to dissolve myself in other people’s words.

So here I am now, at my computer again on another sunny Monday morning, preparing to face my book again (the teenage readers have finished going through it and I am working on putting their suggested edits in place before facing the group of adult readers who have very kindly volunteered to help me get this right), preparing to write an article on Pemba, to pitch an editor about a local charity and write my grandmother a letter. But before I deal with each heap of words for each of those, first I’ll get this blog post live. An odd sort of post, I suppose, not quite in keeping with the usual tales, but it just happened to be what I felt like saying today! I hope you found a sentence or two you that sparked a thought or made you nod or smile or pause.

Have a great week.


Pemba Island


Thanks to two of our good friends, Nina and Pete, here in Mwanza, we spent last weekend enjoying Pemba Island, off the coast of Tanzania (part of the Zanzibar archipelago, as I discovered). They gave the trip to us as an engagement present and it’s taken this long for us to actually get plans together to go! So this week, I thought it only fair to share a few of the details in a typically smug-Facebook-status kind of way!

We were only there for around 48 hours, but it’s amazing the adventures you can have when everything is made available to you.

Our tiny little plane made the hop from Dar es Salaam pretty efficiently, in spite of the pilot claiming he’d never been to Pemba before (it took us a moment to realise he was joking!) and the views were spectacular as we passed tiny spice islands and dive sites.

A short drive revealed the Island to be completely unspoiled and the deepest shades of green you can imagine. Cloves grow all over the place and the whole islands zings with the scent of them. It feels similar to Zanzibar’s main island (which, incidentally, it turns out is not actually called Zanzibar but Unguja, Zanzibar is the name for the whole group of islands – who knew?!) but it’s far less crowded. In fact there are only two main hotels in the entire place!

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It’s a little boat ride to get to our final destination and we hop on happily, enjoying the breeze. The hotel itself, is nestled back into the landscape and can barely be seen, except for the enormously long jetty that marks the spot. Pemba-6Pemba-1-2We are greeted by shoals of flying fish and all seems perfect… until Damien’s iPhone thinks it can fly too and plummets to the bottom of the sea.

Oops. Our skipper barely hesitates before diving between the boat and jetty to rescue the wayward phone, but sadly there is no resuscitating it. There’s only one thing for it – cocktails!

We settle in quickly to our stunning sea view tented room and head out to explore the pool area and plan our activities for the next couple of days.

Dinner is beside the pool and we are accompanied by monkeys and the sounds of bush babies in the rafters.

The following morning we’re up for a boat ride to Mesali Island where there is an incredible snorkeling reef with a strong current. They drop us at one end and we simply float down to a sunbathing spot some way down the beach! The coral and fish are abundant and dramatic ledges and drops make it pretty spectacular. Only one problem… Damien’s been wearing a GoPro camera on his head to record the view, but didn’t manage to attach the right housing for it – the waterproof housing would have been ideal. Day two and electrical item number two is sacrificed!

The afternoon is spent back at the hotel pool and discussing the history of the place with the manager. It seems the hotel is owned by British fashion designer Ellis Flyte who initially wanted to simply build herself a house. She was taken in a boat from Zanzibar to see Pemba, which she had heard talked about as being far less developed, and on the way there was a storm, they were forced to beach the boat for the night… they woke up on the spot where Fundu Lagoon is now built! She had to get approval from the local village first, and when they invited her to visit she quickly realised that she needed to do more than simply build a house. By building a hotel she was able to provide income and training for a large number of the villagers and the award-winning hotel now exists in close harmony with the people of the island.

Watching the sunset at the little bar along the jetty provided us with lively chat with the honeymooners (three sets!) who were all staying at the hotel, all of whom were there for a week and very happy with their travel agents!

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The following morning we woke to a little voice saying “Mr Damien, conditions are perfect!” and we slipped out of bed under a slightly dull sky to get straight onto the hotel boat. We were going in search of the 200-strong pod of dolphins said to frequent the area.

It was about an hour into our trip before we saw them, but suddenly there they were, leaping along in front of the boat. Three or four at first and then fifty or sixty. Babies spun and leapt in the air (they aren’t called Spinners for nothing!) and I snapped ineptly away, far too excited to focus on taking pictures.

Back at the hotel there was time for a big breakfast, some sunbathing and a facial (tough life) before packing our bags and getting back on the boat. It was around this stage that Damien realised his camera had decided Pemba would be it’s final resting place and had joined the iPhone and the GoPro!

But we headed back to a bustling Dar (excitedly preparing for Barrack Obama to visit) with broad smiles and extremely happy memories.

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For those of you who are East African residents I’d highly recommend this place – the residents rates are fantastic and it’s so easily accessible with several companies flying or ferrying guests in. Message me if you’d like the details.