How do you actually say goodbye to your home? I think I’ve reached the conclusion that you don’t. I mean I’ve never really said goodbye to England despite having been away for almost a decade and I’ve talked often about the fact that whichever country I am in I talk about ‘going home’, referring to the opposite one. So perhaps Tanzania (or rather East Africa) needn’t just be cut off completely. In this brave new world, this smaller boundary-blurred world, there can be a blend.
I am heading back to friends in the UK who have lived here and shared in this experience, and leaving friends behind who come from England originally and thus will travel through and come and visit. I am bringing furniture and artetfacts and photos and memories. We will have Skype and Viber and mobiles (though not post, not really!) and I will have to come back and visit family in Dar and Nairobi anyway so it’s not as though this is my last moment here.
Methinks the lady doth protest too much!
And yet… I cannot help but feel there is an ending here. It’s not the end, just an end and one that must take place to facilitate the next adventure and are honestly excited to face. But the past few days, as I’ve made it my reality instead of just a far of concept, have been tough. There is no question that my every day life is about to change dramatically and all the people and experiences that were a natural part of that, no longer will be – I think I am allowed to mourn that.
The weather in Mwanza has just slipped into rainy season and several wild night-time electrical storms, followed by torrential warm rains and grey days. This meant that (apart from Saturday night’s firework party)
getting out on the lake and enjoying the city wasn’t quite going to plan. In some ways this worked well as it meant I simply didn’t have to face the goodbyes or the good stuff, but on Tuesday the skies cleared enough for sundowners at the Yacht Club and my head cleared enough to realise this was really happening.
Brightly kanga’ed ladies with bulging bags atop their heads sauntering down our weather beaten road; the smell of earth and rain in the air; children clamouring and clambering up mango trees to find the best fruit as it reaches ripeness; endless building work with no electricity or machinery; flame trees’ bursting red flowers; barking dogs; the bleats of the neighbour’s goat; the gentle irregular click of rainwater drying in intense sunshine on mabati; and the constant sweep-sweep-sweep of someone brushing at the dirt, are a background I now make foreground as I work to imprint it all carefully to my memory.
But it is friends and the everyday camaraderie of survival and overcoming difficulties that are the hardest part. It all began with the Yacht Club drinks;
progressed to a beautiful boat ride in post-storm sunshine the following day
(huge thanks to Vicky and Don for that) where fish eagles purveyed the lake, impala scattered across Saa Nane island and monitor lizards ventured out to bask; followed by a fantastic lunch with some of my best girl friends; goodbye to our fantastic house staff where my Swahili stumbled at the number of things I wanted to thank them for and wish them; and my final flight out of Mwanza on Thursday morning. Each stage ended in tears! At each point there was someone important and amazing, someone I admired and was grateful to, to say goodbye to. And at each point the tears filled my throat and I never really said all that should be said.
But they knew, I know they knew, how much I’ve loved our adventures, my classes at Isamilo School, the plays, the 6th Form, Tofani Porini, International Award, craft fairs, movie nights, Charity Balls, singing with The Budgie Smugglers and The Mosquitoes, open mic nights, the safaris, the drinks and barbeques and laughs and tears and cups of tea and coffee; how much I’ve appreciated the help and the listening and the advice; and how I’ve loved sharing the celebrations and congratulations between us all.
This is a world of extremes though, and there are certainly things I won’t miss – at least not for a while! Ants in my kettle; being directed into a parking spot by someone who can’t drive and is standing in my blind spot; mosquito repellent; the sounds of crows ripping the air outside our bedroom; our disgusting spitting neighbor on the one side or the annoying one who beeps ten times when he gets to his gate (no matter what time of day or night)… oh I could go on, but who am I kidding?!
Lots of my Mwanza girls got together to get me a present when I left – and they came up with the ultimate idea. A Mwanza withdrawal symptoms treatment kit! It features everything comedy that might remind someone of there, without actually making them want to return! Items like revolting Blue Band margerine (widely reported to be one step away from the chemical formula for plastic!), toxic local ketchup, Africafe instant coffee, the sachets of locally brewed Konyagi (approx. 20p for those who can’t afford a bottle). But they also added lovely cards and notes, little paper-rolled beads, reminders of places I’ve loved and local beers and many, many other bits. What a fantastic zawadi.
So, having left Mwanza on Thursday, I’ve spent the last two days in Dar getting the doctor’s clearance to fly and taking a ‘soft exit’, extracting slowly, from Mwanza first, then – tonight – from Tanzania kabisa. It’s 40 degrees in Dar es Salaam right now, the temperature drop tomorrow morning at Heathrow could be interesting (especially with my very limited plus size wardrobe!) but I know my family is meeting me and there are new baby twins to meet and friends I haven’t seen in quite a while.
The final hurdle: a tearful (guaranteed) goodbye to my amazing husband at the airport. I have to keep remembering I’m better off than so many expat wives – when he does finally join me, he’ll be staying. But a whole month suddenly seems a daunting prospect – hard to imagine that five years ago we hadn’t even met yet! Life does have a funny way of finding you the gems, if you’re brave enough to go along for the ride.
A big thank you and masses of love to all my Mwanza Peeps. I will see you all soon, somewhere along the way. Happy sunsets and safaris. Stay in touch x
So word is pretty much out now, but I haven’t officially shared it with you, readers. You see it’s one of those secrets that you are never quite ready to share because that makes it real. I mean we want it to be real, we’re excited about it, but there’s more to it than that… it’s also incredibly sad. You see, we’re leaving Tanzania.
It’s for all the very best reasons – a great new job, baby on the way, we’re ready for some time in the first world, we’re exciting to have our baby in the same country as all its cousins. We are so excited to see family and old friends, to enjoy seasons, have supermarkets, etc. Plus I’m thrilled not to have to tough it out like all the other ex-pat mamas waiting to give birth in a foreign country without my partner, him arriving just in time for the birth (you hope) and then leaving you to it and flying out to return to work because you aren’t ready to return to Africa with the baby yet. It’s an emotional rollercoaster that I am very lucky not to have to face, because we’ll be able to be together in the UK now. But there is also such a lot to say goodbye to. This has been our lives. For eight years.
I won’t dwell on all there is to say goodbye to just yet, no doubt I’ll be doing plenty of that over the coming two weeks, but I did want to share a little of the process of an expat extraction. It’s such a mission, and in a country with no discernable systems or consistent rules it’s a nightmare!
Let me take for example, our two dogs. The process of getting them back to the UK has gone like this:
Micro chip (which had to be sent over from Dar, along with a scanner to make sure we’d done it correctly)
Rabies jab (also sent from Dar, had to be kept cold, the first one was too cold and got frozen and spoiled so we had to get another!)
Exactly 30 days later bloodwork to be taken by a recognised vet (we had to fly the vet in from Dar and then everyone wanted to see the vet while he was here in Mwanza so I had to co-ordinate 11 additional appointments over two days including accommodation, meals and transport!)
Meanwhile we secured dog boxes from the local security company, thanks to a very kind friend, but when we contacted the airline we discovered the European standards are different to the inter-African ones so had to start again. Having ordered (and paid plenty) for these we now needed a plan for getting them to Dar – the Mwanza to Dar airline won’t fly animals.
Once the vet has been (this week) we have to wait 90 days and then new tests can be done and the dogs can be flown out.
Just one problem we will both be gone in 90 days! So… Damien will drive the dogs to Dar (16hrs) next month whilst he’s still here, they will wait at his dad’s house for two months and then, assuming the past the final tests, they can finally be flown to Heathrow…where no doubt there will be another set of hurdles before we actually get them home!
I only hope that the rules don’t change before we manage to tick all the boxes!
And then there’s us. I have to go first. I have no warm clothes, in fact I barely have any clothes that fit me any more. I need to carry Christmas presents with me as our shipping will be too late for all that. I have to find a house – on my own, 7 months pregnant. I have to pick up my new car. I haven’t driven in the UK for nearly ten years – I’m used to dirt roads, goats, veering motorbikes, oblivious pedestrians and maximum speeds of around 50kmph. Now there will be slippery tarmac, high speeds, real rules and police you can’t persuade to go easy! I have to sign up to a new dr and tell some poor midwife that I have appeared as if from nowhere almost ready to give birth! I need to do antenatal classes and shop… a lot!
Meanwhile my lovely husband will be here for a whole extra month living in a great big house that is almost completely empty, working hard to ensure everything gets handed over smoothly and trying to help me choose our new home via email and skype!
It’s all just a little insane!
And then there’s our stuff!…
When I first moved to Kenya I brought 10 boxes. When I moved to Tanzania I brought 25 boxes. Now we are leaving Tanzania with 100 boxes including bits of furniture, wedding presents, keepsakes and just everyday stuff that we’ll need in our new lives. It’s taken almost 6 weeks to pack it all – carefully bubble wrapping each item and then placing them into sawdust filled boxes; getting bubble wrap from Kenya; begging boxes from everywhere we can think of; buying endless tape. All the bending and lifting has nearly killed me – it hasn’t thanks to great friends and staff who have helped out (in particular Gerry and Musa this could not have been accomplished without you), but it has not been fun. Oh and every box must be listed with its contents in a typed document. BUT, and here’s the big ‘but’, it’s not really ok to pack it yourself. If you do, you don’t get the same level of insurance. Of course if you don’t you risk it being packed badly by the moving company and breaking on the way anyway! You can’t really win. All I can say is our boat had better stay afloat when we finally get it all into a container and onto a ship!
Plus we have the added complications of rainy season. Some of the stuff I’d already packed was temporarily outside at the end of last week when the first rains hit. Turns out cardboard packing is super absorbent! I’ve had to remove all the packing (which stank!) and I’m now in the process of repacking it all again – oh joy! More bubble wrap!
Of course you don’t pack everything. There’s a lot that needs to be sold or donated or bequested to friends. Now this is a whole other side show. Postings on Facebook; open house sale days (I survived two of these); coordinating people who promise to pay you later; and planning for those who can’t collect their stuff until after you’ve gone because you need it – like the bed or the fridge; oven or last frying pan. It’s a juggling act of note!
Right now we’re living with barely any curtains, a borrowed fridge, minimal kitchenware, and no car – I sold mine last week!
I could go on. I haven’t even got to the events I’ve started to plan but now, sadly, won’t be here for and so need to hand over; the freelance work I have to wrap up; bank accounts that need closing; changing telephone numbers; and – of course – most of all the wonderful people we have to say goodbye to – friends, people we’ve worked with, our house staff.
It’s no mean feat leaving your life behind. When I did it initially, leaving the UK, I was leaving a life I knew I would return to, even if it was just for visits. I didn’t have to shut everything down so completely. Don’t get me wrong, we know we’ll be back in Kenya and Tanzania, we have family here and we belong here, but this will no longer be our lives. At least not for the foreseeable future. And that’s suddenly become overwhelmingly clear as I sat here and actually typed out all that has been weaving through our daily lives over the past 6 weeks.
There are some wonderful poems about how you never really Africa if you have loved it, and there’s no doubt this story isn’t over, but this chapter almost is. The next two weeks are going to be tough.
* * *
My favourite little snippet about leaving Africa:
Africa smiled a little when you left. “We know you,” Africa said, “We have seen and watched you, We can learn to live without you, But we know we needn’t yet.” And Africa smiled a little when you left. “You cannot leave Africa,” Africa said. … … … … “It is always with you,there inside your head. Our rivers run …in currents,in the swirl of your thumbprints; Our drumbeats, counting out your pulse, Our coastline, The silhouette of your soul.” So Africa smiled a little when you left. “We are in you,” Africa said. “You have not left us, yet.” …. Author: Unknown
* * *
When you have acquired a taste for the dust,
And the scent of our first rain,
You’re hooked for life on Africa,
And you’ll not be right again
Until you can watch the setting moon
And hear the jackals bark,
And know they are around you
Waiting in the dark.
When you long to see the elephants
Or hear the coucal’s song,
When the moonrise sets your blood on fire,
The you’ve been away too long.
It’s time to cut the traces loose,
And let your heart go free,
Beyond that far horizon
Where your spirit yearns to be.
Africa is waiting – come!
Since you have touched the open sky
And learned to love the rustling grass
And the wild fish eagle’s cry.
You’ll always hunger for the bush,
For the lion’s rasping roar,
To camp at least beneath the stars
And be at peace once more.
It’s hard to believe it’s been a whole year since our fairytale wedding in Naivasha last October, and yet so much has happened (not least the fact that I’m in my 6th month of pregnancy and would definitely no longer fit in my dress!).
Nina and I got back from Zanzibar on the Friday night, just in time to repack and leave the following morning for our Serengeti celebrations (poor me, what a tough time I’ve been having!). We packed the top tier of our wedding cake, our bottle of messages marked ‘1’ (which people had been asked to write at our wedding party) and plenty of champagne and headed off into the Western corridor to stay at Kirawira, along the Grumeti river; the first place Damien and I stayed on our first ever safari together.
Most of the pictures do the talking so I’m not going to write a lot this time around.
Pete spotted a crocodile nursery as we hopped out along the edge of the Grumeti River – that’s something I’d never seen before.
The rains have not yet really kicked in so, whilst the landscape is getting greener, the rivers are still pretty low and animals are drawn to the drinking spots wherever they can find them.
We stopped at a hippo viewing point for some champagne and smoked salmon sandwiches – as you do!
That afternoon we checked in to our camp for the night – a luxury tented camp with a real old colonial feel, four poster beds and views from your private wooden porch out across the plains. It was boiling so we headed for the pool before dinner.
We were thoroughly spoiled for the evening – with fantastic company, presents, all our 1 year anniversary messages from the bottle, a specially made cake (accompanied by singing of ‘Jambo, jambo bwana’ – a slightly cringy tourist song usually but we had to love the massive enthusiasm it was done with – and several other rousing African numbers!), more champagne and finally a room full of roses! It really was a treat.
The following day everyone (except me) was a little worse for wear but we all made it to breakfast, past the zebras that had gathered to crop the good grass around our tents. The day was insanely hot; so much so that it melted the breakfast butter in minutes and actually cracked Damien’s windscreen! Luckily for me that meant it was too hot for our somewhat nauseous group to stay in the tents, no matter how luxury they were, so we had to climb into the aircon in Damien’s car and do an extended game drive on the way home – ah shame!
Plenty of animals showed up to distract the others from their pain so I was free to take plenty of pics! It seemed everyone had turned up to wish me goodbye: In just two weeks I’ll be in England registering with doctors and doing antenatal classes. Gonna miss the ‘geti!
Thanks lovely husband and fabulous friends for an amazing weekend.
Last week was quite an adventure so I’m going to share it in two parts. The first installment being an antiques hunt in Zanzibar!
Damien and I had decided it was crazy that we live here, in this beautiful country but owned none of the incredible furniture that the Spice Island is so famous for – teak wood carving, brass work, glass lamps and mysterious old items brought in on the endless cargo ships from Persia, Arabia and all sorts of exotic sounding places. It was time to explore the other side of shopping in Zanzibar.
One long-suffering friend (Nina) volunteered to come with me – It may not sound too tough being asked to go shopping in Zanzibar for two days, but this wasn’t just any shopping trip! Plus it was definitely not going to be a boys’ trip! We hopped on planes and crossed the country to reach the magical, weaving streets of Stonetown.
This bustling town is a well known tourist spot and there are several main streets full of curio shops selling carvings, art, kangas, masks and much more, but we glossed over those this time and made our way into the less well known areas with our friend who owns one of the shops, and – as it turns out – several warehouses! As we began to dig around in the endless rooms of dusty furniture, dangling lamps and giant old doors the rich and elegant past of the island came alive in the gloomy light. It was a mad treasure hunt of peering through piles of items trying to imagine what each piece might be restored to once it was polished here and fixed up there and all the while being told tales of each item – where it came from, why it’s decorated like that, what the materials are and how it came to be in Zanzibar.
This was all encompassing, captivating and completely exhausting! It was actually hard work! On day one it was 4pm before we realised we needed to eat! We headed to the House of Spices, a place Damien’s family used to own and he had spent much of his teenage years. It seemed only right that the history of my new family and the furniture we were buying should intertwine.
At sunset we headed back to our hotel only to be greeted by the world’s worst band! Not only were they singing the ‘Jambo, jambo bwana…’ song which anyone who has visited will know, but it was out of tune out of rhythm and had us chortling into our gin and tonics as we tried to keep straight faces! Luckily the sunset more than made up for it.
That evening we were exhausted and, after dinner at the hotel, we fell into bed, psyching ourselves for another big search and some decision making the following day.
Day 2 saw us up early (we’d forgotten to close the shutters in the room, but – more importantly – my brother’s twins had been born in the night!) and back in the warehouses (‘I just need to see that one again’ and ‘can we measure this?’ and ‘how much did you say that was?’). After a lunch of crab spaghetti and discussions with Nina as we reviewed iphone photos of hundreds of items, my decisions had been made and we trotted back for total price negotiations.
Now you’d think we’d be all shopped out by then wouldn’t you? But no, there were still back streets to explore where the real artists work and I wanted some photographs of the amazing doors and little nooks and crannies of the town this time – I have avoided taking them in the past for fear of seeming too much like a tourist! How ridiculous!
It was here we discovered a little shop filled with master carvers, making miniature Zanzibar chests as jewelry boxes and striking dark wood frames in swirling patterns; found a man painting tinga tinga art in a quiet little corner; and listened in on guides as they explained the history of Zanzibar’s great doors. Everyone wanted to talk, to help, to share, especially when they discovered we spoke Swahili, and we found kind and generous characters at every turn.
The kindness even extended to force feeding me cake! My pregnant bump is now quite obvious and the mama in the café couldn’t believe that I wouldn’t want to eat whilst having my smoothie!
All shopped out, Nina and I hit Livingstones for a sundowner, a wander around the famous fresh seafood market at Farodhani Gardens, …and my favourite restaurant for dinner – Beyt al Chai, or ‘house of tea’. Anyone would have thought we’d been drinking heavily, but it must have been the shopping high because we laughed ourselves silly all the way through a delicious sea food dinner!
The following day there was time for a swim and a final wander before we returned to Mwanza feeling thoroughly rested and all shopped out. I bought a crazy amount of things, all within the budget, and can’t wait until they’re shipped to Mwanza! I can’t believe we didn’t do this sooner, it’s such a great place to spend time and we have come away with unique pieces of furniture that each tell a story and which we will own for the rest of our lives.
There’s something inherently cute about the word ‘hatchling’, and what’s not to like about a miniature sea turtle? For months I’ve been trying to time my trips to Dar for baby scans to coincide with a turtle nest hatching, but I just couldn’t seem to pull it off… until now!
Authentic Tanzania runs a brilliantly organized trip in partnership with Sea Sense (the turtle champions) and almost half the profits go to Sea Sense for the continued protection of the turtles, their habitats and their nests. (to join the mailing list for notification of hatchings email email@example.com).
So I was up at 5am, on a plane from Mwanza by 8, in Dar by 11 and squeezing through the city traffic to meet the Authentic bus by 12.30. I made it by the skin of my teeth and hopped on board with a friendly looking group just as they were heading out towards the ferry that takes us to South Beach.
It was a long and bumpy ride for a pregnant chick who likes the option to pee every hour or so, but I was kept well entertained by plenty of banter from the girls sitting near me in the bus and we were rewarded with arrival at Skippers Haven – a stunning little eco-lodge with fantastic raised sea views… and toilets! We ate our picnic (I hadn’t been that organized and was generously adopted by the rest of the group and fed like a queen) as wales flicked their tales in the distance.
We were so relaxed by this point that we had almost forgotten the purpose of our quest, but luckily our guides were on the clock and knew precisely when the time was right to take a short ride down to the beach where they had been keeping a special eye on the nest that was due to pop today.
A ten minute walk along a curving bay backed by baobab trees and a small fishing village ended in an abrupt halt – one of the girls almost stepped right on the nest, there was no way to know it was there! But by the magic of Sea Sense one of the conservation officers began to dig.
It all happened so quickly after that, as though tiny sleeping dragons had been wakened. First one, then two, then five, then fifty, one hundred… little sand dusted shells erupted out of the ground and, in an awe-inspiring Darwinian rush of instinct, made for the sea as fast as their tiny new flippers could carry them – which is incredibly fast!
little turtles emerging from the packed sand
Climbing over the sands undulations is no mean feat when you’re that tiny!
I snapped as fast as I could, but with a short focal range for beautiful close-ups they just kept moving out of range and the challenge was on. It was like some insane video game trying to catch a sharp shot as the little ninjas made their escapes!
As I backed up and backed up again, I found myself suddenly at the water’s edge, and so did they. It was such a magical moment to see the salty, frothing waves touch them for the first time and watch them take their first strokes in the environment where they would now spend almost the entirety of the rest of their lives (except for the females who will return to this very beach in adulthood in order to lay their own eggs).
There was something very touching about seeing each little turtle make it to their destined starting point and disappear into the waves. But the very last little one to emerge that day, had us all feeling emotional. Several minutes after all his siblings had run their gauntlet, one final hatchling popped his head above the sand. But it was quickly clear that something wasn’t quite right… only one flipper was working properly. He was a real life Nemo and he had all the charm and personality of the fabulous little clown fish, too. He was determined to make it to the sea, in spite of his disability, and dragged himself over the peaks and troughs of the sand with inspiring tenacity. We were unable to help him for fear of causing further damage and could only cheer him on as he made his slow and painful marathon. But he make it he did, and the ocean rushed suddenly to meet him. Somehow his weak right flipper didn’t seem so damaged under water and we trudged back to the bus with a sense of hope, honoured that we had witnessed such a special moment.
I’m not sure why I glanced up before jumping on the bus, but I did. In doing so I witnessed a large bird of prey, wings spread in silhouette against the bright evening sky… with a hatchling gripped tightly in its beak, little flippers flapping in distress. It was a poignant reminder of the tough odds these little sea turtles face. It is estimated that only 1 in 1,000 will survive to adulthood and with marine debris, climate change and fishing they are in serious danger of extinction. That’s why they need the help of NGOs like Sea Sense and of individuals like you to support the actions being taken to save these beautiful creatures. Visit Sea Sense online or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more details of how you can help.
Some amazing sea turtle facts:
• The tiny hatchlings will never meet their parents and spend the first 10-30 years of their life alone at sea.
• Only 1 in 1,000 hatchlings are thought to survive to adulthood, against all the odds, and find their way back to the same beach on which they hatched so many years earlier to start the cycle all over again.
• In Tanzania in 2012 the Sea Sense nest monitoring and protection programme ensured that 305 sea turtle nests hatched successfully and that 29, 757 sea turtle hatchlings emerged from their nests and safely reached the sea, which represents a hatching success rate of 77%! Considering the 1 in 1,000 survival rate, it is possible that only 30 of the thousands of sea turtles born in Tanzania last year will reach adulthood.
• Sea turtles spend almost their entire lives at sea, only the females ever come ashore, and that’s just a few times every 2 to 5 years to lay their eggs. This presents a huge challenge to sea turtle researchers – without knowledge of movement patterns and the location of important feeding grounds, it’s difficult to protect sea turtles.
• More than half of all green turtle nests laid in Tanzania are laid on Juani Island, Mafia District – and it’s only 9km long!
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!).
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.
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?”
“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.