“The sunsets at Gwabi are as African as a red blanket.” Since his privileged hours of sitting next to Kirsty on the trip to the Malawi–Zambia border at Chipata a few days before, Rabbit had awoken to the additional benefits obtained from not being Geoffrey’s nasty sidekick. Everyone was friendly to him, and listened to what he said. And since Geoffrey’s obnoxiousness had faded along with the bluey-yellow colouring around his eye, he had no need of a nasty sidekick in any event.
So Rabbit was in the process of reinventing himself. The niche he had identified, and was filling with the gusto of a town crier, was that of the tour’s live infomercial. He had everyone’s travel guides gathered around him at all times, and would read out in a great voice to anyone in earshot what a guide said about a sight or stop on the way. As Phil Liggett was to the Tour de France, so Rabbit was to the Tour de Southern Africa. Or so he intended.
On this occasion, he read from Inga’s Lonely Planet. He had the Insight Guide (too pictorial for his liking; not enough historic fact) and the Rough Guide (too wordy, too practical) on a seat next to him, but Lonely Planet was deemed to be the authority on this particular destination. No one denied him access to their books as this was a useful service to them all. By now, the guidebooks floated freely between them, dirty and dog-eared, and were treated as communal possessions. Sunscreen and insect repellent were likewise pooled items. The expensive London brands were long exhausted and, since they all had the same local products, no one cared whose was whose.
Rabbit’s comments were greeted with reflective silence. They sat on the veranda in a long row, sipping Mosi beer from iced brown bottles, musing. The imminent sunset had all the makings of a classic. Beyond the row of feet propped on the veranda rail, chugged the Kafue River with its swirls and boils, and beyond that the sun inched towards a bank of deep green fig trees. A cloud of swallows weaved over the reflective waters, dipping their beaks to leave a ring on the oily surface.
Kirsty arrived fresh from the shower, her hair in damp tendrils, darker for being wet, walking carefully with a full tray of gin and tonics in her hands.
“Here we go, team. I thought that one of the best sunsets in Africa wouldn’t be the same without an iconic African sunset drink. These are on me. Let’s drink to a happy last stretch and our final country.”
“Cheers, Kirsty,” Charlie said as he took his drink from the tray as she moved down the line and held the tray for them as they picked off a glass each.
“Where’s Toby?” she asked.
“Also having a shower, and no doubt looking at his new slimmer self in the mirror once again.” Fred carefully lifted the tall glass from the tray and held it against the sunset to let a pink glow infuse the blue gin. “Lemon, lots of ice. This is fabulous, Kirsty.” He closed his eyes and sipped carefully, with a hand held in the air to signify a great moment. “Magnificent!”
Jocko sipped his, rocked back on his chair and said, “Christ, mate. I’m so relaxed I can barely lift this to my lips.”
Kirsty sat on the end of the row, and pulled another chair next to her, placing Toby’s drink on it. Moisture ran down the glass to form a pool on the seat. Lifting her legs, she placed her feet together on the veranda rail as the others had done, and watched with soft eyes the sun lose its aggression and melt towards the horizon, the high clouds puffy and pink and skeins of ibis drifting underneath them towards their evening roost. The swallows whirled their tireless patterns as insects hatched from the waters and were plucked from the air a foot above the molten chocolate surface.
Toby sat down wordlessly next to her, and they all sat in quiet peace until it was too dark to see the river any more.
As the heat began to be felt the following morning, lots of nervous laughter blended with the chatter of a flock of babblers foraging under the thorn trees on the banks of the Zambezi River. Strewn across the sandy car park at which they’d arrived after a short drive from the hotel in Gwabi were watertight barrels into which they stuffed their sleeping bags, toothbrushes and fresh smalls for two nights out on the river.
While the activity continued, Gabriel the guide explained in calm tones where things should be stored and what they’d need during the day. Once there was a semblance of order, he gathered them around for a full briefing on how to paddle an Indian canoe, who should be doing the steering, and what to do if they found themselves in the middle of a pod of hippos. If all went according to plan, they wouldn’t.
Before long, it was time to choose partners and set off. James was caught by surprise and found himself on the other side of the group from Kirsty. He tried to catch her eye, but she was too quick for him and, before he could get round to her, she had turned to Toby, who had planned the moment better and stood by her side, and asked if he would mind paddling with her.
“Come on, James,” said Gabby. “Saffers versus the rest. Let’s go.”
The others paired off. Gabriel had asked that for the first day there be one strong paddler in each boat to cover the greater distance. Within minutes, they had all pushed off and the flotilla was bobbing down the Zambezi. Cuthbert and Goodness waved goodbye. As the paddlers rounded the first corner in a disorganised raft they could just hear The Blue Meanie coughing to life, growing fainter as they drifted down the river. The Meanie would now cross the border post on the river to the Zimbabwean town of Chirundu for a night and from there to their pick-up on the Zimbabwe side at Mana Pools National Park.
They had gone some hundred yards down the river and Charlie and Stacy were still facing upstream.
“This thing handles like a bloody cow!” Charlie blurted from the aft seat, and with some furious thrashing of his paddle managed to head them in the right direction, ushering Jocko and Inga into the reeds.
“Thanks, Charlie. Thanks, mate,” muttered Jocko through clenched teeth as he backpaddled their canoe’s nose out of the reeds and Inga squealed as spider webs wrapped her arms and grasshoppers fell off the stalks into her lap.
Gabriel laughed and tried to relax them, and then pointed out that the first pod of hippos lived around the next corner, so it would help if they were all facing in the right direction and were behind him in single file. This focussed their minds and within minutes there was regimental organisation and competence.
As they neared the corner, Gabriel quietly asked Fred in the front of his canoe to stop paddling. They drifted while he watched the waters. With deliberate knocks, he banged his paddle against the gunwale of the canoe. Three great heads popped above the waterline fifty yards away and snorted plumes of breath into the hot day. They watched each other. The hippos’ chubby pink ears flapped and faced in their direction, and their eyes, only inches above the surface, stared with unwavering interest as the flotilla drifted slowly towards them.
“Stay this side,” whispered Gabriel, and steered their canoe to hug the right-hand bank. The others all slowly followed, trying to watch what they were doing, and what the hippos were doing. They rounded a small spit where a side channel came into the main stream, and a logjam occurred as they tried to get across the channel to stay close to the right bank. Geoffrey and Rabbit were quite skilled at getting their craft to obey their intentions and slid across the channel with quiet efficiency. Toby and Kirsty followed side by side with James and Gabby.
Charlie and Stacy were bringing up the rear, and while waiting for Jocko and Inga to paddle to the bank, the current from the channel caught them and began pushing them out into the middle of the main stream. They were still some way from the hippos, but their eyes widened every time they looked back over their shoulders to see where they were drifting. The front of their boat was still stuck against the back of Jocko’s and they couldn’t go forward.
Eventually Charlie spoke up in as calm a voice as he could muster, “Erm, paddle a bit there, Jocko. Only, any minute now there’s going to be a hundred hippos snorting up my arse”.
With tight lips, clipped voices and a thin veneer of calm, they all reached the right bank and looked back. Happy that his pod was not to be disturbed, the large head of the bull disappeared, the two craters of his nostrils remaining above the surface for a split second to take a deep breath before nipping closed and sinking from view. A mother hippo with the smaller head of her calf beside her gave a string of throaty grunts and a piggy squeal and also sank below the surface to resume her slumbers. The inquisitive calf watched until they all paddled away down the wide brown river, disturbed only by the coucals and egrets flapping in the reeds.
Their confidence in themselves and in Gabriel grew quickly and as the morning heated up, they realised that he knew every pod of hippos in the river and where they would be. They wound their way from one side of the huge expanse of water to the other, threading their way through the pods, but without any of the fear they had felt at first. Every so often they’d come to a channel and Gabriel’s knock knock knock would bring a crowd of lumpy heads to the surface, completely spanning the channel, or a large bull in a frisky mood that would raise his head out of the water to the third double chin, stretch his gape and make a spectacle of himself. In these instances, Gabriel would instruct them all to backpaddle and they would follow another channel.
By late morning, it was too hot to bear, even on the water, and they paddled to a large island crowned with massive trees. They pulled the canoes up onto a sandy bank and all stood high up on the shore while Gabriel watched carefully for any crocodiles. Satisfied that it was all clear, they unpacked the lunchboxes and dragged out the barrels full of mattresses to sit on and doze out the heat of the day.
After lunch, Toby lay on his back, his hands folded serenely over his stomach. The patched shade played on him and the canopy of the majestic trees held over him like a cathedral roof. He saw Kirsty near the canoes, pulling her mattress up the bank and looking around for a suitable place to put it. She looked at him and he smiled. She smiled and held his gaze. At last she started walking towards him and, without a word, flopped her mattress next to his in the shade and lay down beside him, looking up at the dappled dome of leaves. The canopy was alive with a busy selection of little birds hopping and hanging from the branches, gleaning insects from the foliage.
With a whirring of wings, a bustling flock of ruby-flecked emeralds sped into the branches above them.
“Oh look,” Kirsty gasped, “little parrots. No, lovebirds.”
“Rosy-cheeked lovebirds,” said James from ten yards away. “Always wanted to see those.”
Another bright green flock landed in the giant fig over their heads.
“Aren’t they beautiful too.” said Kirsty. “They look like doves, or pigeons.”
“I think that’s what they are. Green pigeons,” Toby answered. “Who would have thought pigeons could be this colourful. Makes such a change from our London flying rats.” He turned to look at her. “Have you ever been to London?”
“No.” She turned on her side to face Toby.
“Will you come and visit us when this trip is over?” He faced up to the canopy again. “I’m sure we’ll all swap numbers and promise to stay in touch, and probably will for a few weeks and then it’ll stop when we start getting on with our lives.”
“That would be sad. In fact, even chatting about it is sad. I can’t imagine not having you around.” She blushed. “You guys, I mean. It seems like we’ve been travelling together for years. I can’t imagine not seeing you again.” She rolled onto her back and they lay in silence. The green pigeons whirred off together and the lovebirds gave a few startled chirps and followed them out across the river.
An afternoon’s paddle away, the canoes now lay drawn up on a sand bar like a hand of cards, at their resting place for the night. The sun softened and produced its palette of warm colours, washing the river and sky with pink and orange streaks. The wind had died and the river chop had settled into silky brown glass, gurgling and swirling past them standing on the bank. A pair of African skimmers flapped languidly around the channels in which their island lay, slicing the pink water with their lower mandibles and throwing their heads up with little sprats in their bills when they touched them.
Kirsty concentrated on the rod that Toby had baited for her. Her lips pursed, frowning a fish into biting as he watched. The rosy light touched her hair, highlighting a subtle chestnut he hadn’t noticed before. Muttering a bit to herself and to the fish, she focussed on the spot at which the line broke the smoothly flowing surface, creating a vee in the current.
She was just about to look up and complain, when the rod jerked in her hand, the line whipped taut and a tiger fish flashing orange and teeth burst from the water and tried to shake the hook free. Kirsty shrieked with laughter and tried to reel frantically against the pull, causing the reel to buzz and grind.
James, standing next to her said, “Slowly, don’t wrench it away from him. Let the rod and the reel do the work. Let him get tired before you try to yank him in.” She stopped her cranking and the fish moved downstream in the flow, peeling line off the spool with a buzz, before coming in towards the bank where Kirsty wasn’t fighting the current and could walk down towards the fish, gaining line on the reel as she did so. After a few more fierce leaps the fish took off into the current and went on another long screaming run.
The line went slack.
“It’s gone,” Kirsty looked around sadly.
“Reel! Reel!” shouted James. “It’s swimming towards the bank!”
She did, and suddenly the line became taut again. The fish burst the surface once more, but its whole body didn’t leap clear.
“It’s tiring,” said Toby. “Keep the pressure on.”
Half a minute later, the fish was dragged onto the sand and beyond the reach of any unseen crocs. James gingerly took the hook out from between the vicious teeth and, after a quick glance for any scaly reptilian eyes on the surface of the river, trotted down and released the fish, and trotted gingerly back again.
After the excitement of catching a fish, there was only one thing to do, and that was sit around their simple camp and share a bottle of whisky. Beers had been too bulky and heavy to bring, and gin would have required tonic. Wine was a long-distant memory. What few bottles they had encountered on their journey had been low-end South African cat urine at high prices. They rinsed their tin coffee mugs from lunchtime in the river, and poured generous measures of the Zambian whisky they had bought, topped up with a dash of water.
“OK, Fred, you’re the whisky snob,” James raised his glass and took a sip, trying not to grimace. “Tell us what you think of the local dram.”
Fred took a large discerning gulp and swirled it around his cheeks, breathing out through his nose, then swallowing hard. He breathed back in through his nose to draw in the aroma.
“Not a single malt,” he said, and paused. “Not a single malt grain has gone into this.”
He drained his glass. “But given the circumstances and the company, it’s delicious. And the second one will be better now that my mouth has lost all sensation.”
The first bottle was finished in no time, and they settled into a comfortable fire-cooked dinner laughing and reminiscing about the previous seven weeks as the whisky flowed. By the time they had eaten, it was pitch dark and totally still. Lazy tendrils of smoke curled into the inky sky and the occasional flash of underwing as a nightjar plucked a moth from the firelight was the only living thing besides themselves. They settled into silence, warm from the whisky and truly content with each other’s company, mesmerised by the dancing flames. The distant shrill of jackals on the mainland increased the isolation. Half an hour passed before anyone spoke.
Kirsty stood up and dusted her hands on her trousers. Most of them had now reached stage two of backpacker uniform. Out were the wicking trousers with multiple zips and pockets, in were the locally manufactured loose cotton trousers with depictions of Lake Malawi patterned over them. Supposedly, the trousers served as protection against mosquitoes. But the thin loose cotton hugged Kirsty’s firm beautiful bottom so exquisitely that mosquitoes weren’t the only would-be biters. They hung loose around her thighs and down her long legs. The soft cloth draped itself to her as she sashayed across the sand. Toby’s heart pounded as he watched her. He wanted to stroke her legs so much that it tightened a ball in his chest. He stroked his own thigh instead. He had similar trousers and, with his new almost svelte appearance, cut a fairly handsome bushveld dash too.
“I need a wee,” she said. “And someone to watch over me. Toby, my brave paddler, won’t you come and scout the bushes for savage beasts?”
“He’ll scout as much bush as he can,” said Geoffrey quietly, nervous to make a ribald joke. But they all laughed. He was part of the team now.
“I also gotta go pee,” said Stacy. “Scout enough bush for the both of us, won’t ya?”
“Oh, it looks safe from here, you should be fine. I’ll listen for any cries of distress and come running, I assure you,” said Toby, grinning and rising to his feet, picking up his torch to accompany them.
“I’ll come to scout as well,” said James. “I need a swazz also.”
“Don’t go that way,” said Gabriel, pointing casually towards the northern tip of the little island. “There is a big herd of buffalo sleeping here for the night.”
Without conferring, they all set off into the darkness in a direction precisely 180 degrees from where Gabriel had pointed, with James and Toby leading the way. The moment they were out of the campfire’s light, it seemed like another world. Beautifully quiet and washed with pale moonlight. The cloudless sky was stretched over them like a living dome, twinkling and vast. The river plopped and swished past the banks, passing apologetically through the quiet night, stirring the pliant reeds from their rest.
They all found a low bush to sneak behind, looking at the sky as they did so and listening to the distant yelping of a jackal and the churring of nightjars as they flipped past on noiseless wings in their quest for insects.
Toby and Kirsty walked back together, not speaking, as slowly as they could so as not to break the magical spell of the African night. Toby stopped and looked upward, breathing deeply, his face lit up with wonderment. She stopped in front of him, face up to the stars, and rubbed her neck with both hands. To alleviate the strain, she leant back against his chest, allowing her head to fall back, supported by his shoulder. Without thinking about it, he slipped his arms around her waist and held her gently against him. His stomach, fairly flat and firm by now, was pressed against her back and he pulled her towards him so that they could both feel the contact.
“It’s awesome,” she whispered, “in the true sense of the word. I’m in awe. This continent is so special.”
She rolled her head to look up into Toby’s face. By bending his, Toby could have kissed her, but he was too moved by wonder. To have her hair pressed against his cheek and her lively eyes staring dreamily at his face was something he wanted to keep. It seemed there was no need to change anything for now. This was the way it was going to be from here on. They could take their time.
Toby wasn’t too bothered when James emerged from the darkness, “Hey, look. More lovebirds. Bungled!
“I can’t quite see in this light, but I bet it’s ‘rosy-faced lovebirds’ now,” and he laughed. “All this wildness stirring up the emotions a bit? Don’t get too carried away; we don’t want you to get caught lion down. We don’t want you running around in the buff.” Chuckling to himself, he wandered off.
Toby and Kirsty rolled their eyes and followed him back to the firelight.
They had hardly paddled for two hours, only a dabble here and there to steer the canoes. The last part of the river trip brought them into Mana Pools, in all its undeveloped splendour. The river had widened and mellowed and was spread into a multitude of papyrus-fringed channels with mini-islands on which small herds of buffalo lay and chewed the cud. Egrets paced like sergeants major, wielding their beaks like disciplinary swagger sticks when the frogs and grasshoppers broke ranks.
The mid-morning sun was benevolent and the cicadas and their incessant buzz hadn’t yet signalled the start of the heat. The hippos had long since returned from their night-time grazing and were fast asleep in the main channels some way off. There was little need for vigilance and the group was tranquil, absorbing the peace. Only the slow plops of their paddles disturbed their thoughts.
They kept their observations to themselves, and when a kingfisher like a tiny blue jewel whizzed onto a reed right beside him, even Rabbit had left the Me Generation far enough behind him not to have to point it out to everybody, but rather savour the experience and watch in wonder as the little bird bobbed its orange head and flicked its oversized red beak from side to side.
Stacy was sitting in the front of Gabriel’s canoe and they led the line of boats through the interwoven channels. They rounded a corner, drifting at the same speed as a raft of lush green hyacinth. An elephant was standing right in front of them, drinking and bathing. Droplets of water from her trunk sprayed as she flung it out and upward, spattering Stacy, who gasped. The elephant shook her head at them, her leathery ears flapping against her neck with heavy slaps and Stacy cringed in the front. Gabriel chuckled, “She’s just saying hello,” and motioned to the following boats to steer away from the bank a little.
Toby was as happy as he’d ever been. The sheer beauty of the river alone was hard to beat, but Kirsty’s brown back in front of him, with her long neck and the subtle muscles moving in her shoulders as she paddled, was enough to make him euphoric. For all he cared, they could have been paddling down the Thames past the Isle of Dogs.
“If I didn’t have ears, I’d smile my head off,” he muttered, and Kirsty turned to beam at him. Her hair was tied up and tucked into her cap, leaving a few tendrils draped down past her ears. She swivelled back to paddle.
He longed to reach forward and tug the bow of her bikini on her neck and, letting the top down, reach around her and draw her to him with a hand on each of her shapely breasts. If the river had been theirs alone, he would have done so, confident in the fact that their relationship had begun.
With bitter disappointment, he spotted a few small tents among the trees and, shortly after that, like a faithful hound, The Meanie sitting in the shade, waiting for its family to return. Cuthbert and Goodness sat on the bonnet and waved languidly when they rounded the corner. Goodness was busy boiling the huge kettle on a fire nearby.
As they sat in the shade, sipping tea from the battered tin mugs, a planning meeting began. Did they want to go over the top of Lake Kariba, on the Zambian side, and through Livingstone, the way most overlanders went? Or, Gabby semi-whispered in a clandestine way, they could try the road less travelled. She herself had never been this way, but some South African friends of hers had done so on a trip of theirs and said that the road between Karoi, in Zimbabwe to the south of where they were, and Hwange, near Vic Falls, was great. Wild and untrafficked and, what’s more, they had time to stop at Matusadona National Park for one last game watching experience and a shot at seeing the rare black rhino.
Fred thought he caught a whiff of contrived excitement. While he liked the idea of going off the beaten track, he was pretty sure that Gabby had done this route before and told all her clients that it wasn’t in company policy to detour, but because they were such a good group, and she knew they’d appreciate it, she thought it was worth risking her job, etcetera, etcetera. He kept any snorts of disbelief to himself and drifted away as she outlined the route and potential pitfalls.
His mind was in London with a team of professionals in an offsite scenario. What he really enjoyed about those situations is how the discussions took place on one level and everyone’s agendas were kept on a sublevel. The trick was to work out what people said they wanted, and what they really wanted. Although London was a million miles away and the thought of going back to his suits and double-cuffed shirts made him shudder in the palpable heat, human group behaviour had an elemental level wherever you were.
He listened to Gabby trying to dissuade them from going the risky route by outlining how risky it was, knowing that this would be the best way to convince them. Why did she want to go south of Kariba? To get a bigger tip of course – for showing them something unique and making them feel they were a class apart from the norm. In the financial world, once you’d bedded down the fact that everything anyone ever did was linked to their bonus expectations in some way or another, you were a long way to solving the negotiation puzzle. All you had to do was discern the link between behaviour and bonus, and you were in the driving seat. Fred watched and listened with amusement as everyone in the group insisted that they go the risky route, all putting forward reasons to do so, when really, there was no way the alternative was even being explored. He was tempted to play devil’s advocate and argue for the safe route through Zambia, but any form of lawyering was half a world away from him and he sat back and listened to everyone giving their ten ngwee’s worth.
The opposite of talking is not listening, it’s waiting, he chuckled to himself. Finally, once everyone had said their piece, they began to pack up with excited chatter about how intrepid they were going to be and, within half an hour, The Meanie gave his customary hack and grumbled out of the campsite.