Who's who in the zoo
Toby’s brain slowly flickered to life before his eyes opened. With his head pounding the way it was, he knew better than to open his eyes before the rest of his brain was ready. He lay awake, gradually trying to remember where he was. Eventually, he lifted a reluctant lid to see a struggling ceiling fan that made his head spin in concert. He levered himself, blinking, onto an elbow.
Fred was standing in his room, looking out the window.
“You still with us?”
“No,” said Toby.
“Come on. Seriously, you need to shake a leg.”
“Go without me. I could cry. I’m going back to London. What’s the time? Do they have a couch here with cable TV and a duvet and a delivery service, and gallons of fresh orange juice?”
“No. They have muggy heat, dust and non-potable water. Beautiful coffee though. Come on then, get going.”
Fred carried on while Toby peered around him blearily. “I had no idea you had been pounding the beers the way you had until we got back here. You were mumbling a whole load of incomprehensible shite like a crazed loon, and then you flopped into bed as if pole-axed, and passed out without taking your shoes off.” Toby looked down at his feet. “I took them off for you. They’re still relatively new and unsmelly. I’m not so sure I’d do it again in eight weeks time.”
“Thanks, Fred. Christ, those beers were sliding down like Britney’s knickers. They must be packed with impurities and shit to make me feel the way I do today. And this stinking heat doesn’t help either. What time is it, for God’s sake? It’s a million degrees already.”
“It’s only eight o’clock. I’ve had some breakfast, but it’s nothing great. We have to meet our overlander people at eleven at a campsite just off the Ngong Road. Let’s check out and I’ll come and have a coffee with you. With any luck, Kirsty and who cares else will be down there, so you can maybe score a goodbye kiss on the cheek. If she doesn’t mind your booze-breath.”
“Dear God, yes, I’d forgotten.” He leapt up and cannoned off the cupboard on his erratic path into the bathroom. “That’s cheered me up. I knew something good had happened yesterday; there was this warm glimmering of goodness in my chest. But it was dulled by the fact that I am so badly tusked by this elephantine hangover. No more of that pigswill lager for me. I’m changing brands.”
“I assume all the other available beers come from the same effluent pipe anyway. I bet you a farm on Regent Street that you have one before noon today.”
“You’re on. Now just let me shower and we can vacate this palatial suite.”
Some good news awaited them in the bar. The morning sun was making a concerted effort to light the dark room, which still stank of last night’s cigarettes. In a corner where the rays were concentrated in a hopscotch pattern of gold on the floor, James was sitting with Kirsty and Jocko.
“Where are Carl and Zak?” Fred asked.
“Ah, bad luck. You just missed them,” said James. “They’ve gone into town to sort out their travel plans. But, guess what…” He had a giant grin on his face. “You won’t believe it. Jocko and Kirsty are on the same overlander as us.”
“Isn’t that insane?” said Jocko. “We’ll have a wicked time.”
Toby resisted the urge to scamper around the room like a frenzied puppy. He was conscious of Kirsty watching him. Why was she watching him so closely? She was making him feel very uncomfortable, even though this turn of events had lifted his spirits more than anything he could remember. He couldn’t risk looking at her and finding her apple-green eyes denuding his soul. He didn’t trust himself to speak without betraying his feelings. He left the chatter up to Fred.
“Excellent. Nice to know that at least two of the people we’re going to be in very close proximity with for the next eight weeks are decent.”
“Decent?” Kirsty arched an eyebrow.
“OK, OK. Fun, attractive, intelligent. But Australian.”
“Yeah, I suppose I let myself in for that.” She laughed her broad-mouthed laugh. Her teeth in anyone else’s mouth would have been too big. But with a smile of that calibre, she looked so relaxed and happy that the sun glowed around them and the atmosphere was one of ineffable joy. She wasn’t being funny, but everybody laughed.
After checking out, they wandered into the main road to catch a matatu. Having served the morning rush hour, the matatus now stood in a haphazard rank, attracting custom with booming music gusting from tinny speakers. They chose the quietest vehicle in the rank, which took them, hooting and swerving at breakneck speed, through Uhuru Park and up the other side of town towards the western outskirts of Nairobi.
They got there just after ten. It was a large shady campsite, protected on all sides by a high barbed-wire fence. Large trucks hunkered under the trees near the gate. All of them either a light mustard or a sky-blue colour, and most of them Scania or Mercedes. Two were muddy as hell.
Several acres of dusty lawn were interspersed with neat dome tents. There were a few young people wandering aimlessly about, some carrying washed breakfast pots back from the ablution blocks, others heading that way with sponge bags and towels. A young man sat on a stool nearby and shaved dry, wincing with each stroke, a small mirror hidden in his palm.
In the centre of the campsite under a cluster of trees, a large flat building housed dormitory accommodation and a relaxed bar area. The room was already full of scruffy young people, and it was nice to walk in as a group and not have to face the laidback once-overs alone. By the looks of things, a couple of overlanders had just rolled in the previous evening and disgorged their passengers in a party mood. The room smelled of stale beer and smoke – it probably always did – and the morning’s ambience was one of lethargy. There was some low chatter, but mostly the congregation looked at the newcomers with detachment.
With a lack of guidance to the contrary, the group sat around one of the few unoccupied tables in the corner. It was sticky and wobbled between two legs when touched. Only Fred remained standing and returned the impassive stares as if directly challenged.
“Is there a representative from AfriCan-Do here?” he said in a slow clear voice.
A freckled girl with dark hair and strong brown legs got up and walked towards him. She wasn’t beautiful, but had a fierce vitality about her. Her jaw tilted forward slightly as she extended her hand and strode the last few steps towards him with it outstretched. Fred was surprised by the strength of her grip, and the enthusiasm with which she pumped his hand.
“Hi, I’m Gabby. You must be one of the three blokes from London. Pleased to meet you.”
“Fred Vaughan. Pleased to meet you.”
“Fred Vorrrrrn,” someone mimicked quietly with a snigger far across the room.
Fred was unfazed. “These are the other blokes from London, and that is a pair of Australians.” Fred didn’t want to destroy their anonymity by giving their names out loud. That they could do themselves. The entire room was still watching with a tired interest as if there was nothing better to do, which there probably wasn’t. “Why don’t you join us and let us know the game plan.” He beckoned to an empty plastic chair, which looked to have some congealing remnants of the previous evening’s boozathon in the seat. Gabby plopped down onto it.
“What are all your names?” she asked.
While they were chatting and going through the introductions, another excited group wandered in. They too suffered the laconic scrutiny of the old guard as they created a fortress of backpacks along the window, and stationed themselves there. One of them, a shortish young man with brown curls peeking out from a broad-brimmed leather hat, wandered over to the bar, and in his broad Australian accent, said loudly, “What does a man have to do to get a drink around here?” James was pleased to see Kirsty’s eyes narrow with the same kind of distaste he felt when his own countrymen were gauche in public.
A barman materialised, and the shortish young man bought two beers and wandered back to the backpack fortress. He gave the other beer to another shortish man who looked a bit like Mickey Rourke, with spiky hair and a neatly trimmed goatee. A cigarette dangled from his lips. Rourke drew on the cigarette and plucked it from his mouth with forefinger and thumb as if he were throwing a dart. He tipped the bottle, drank lustily and let out a barely suppressed belch, blowing twin plumes of smoke from his nostrils.
“Those two beauties will undoubtedly be on our overlander,” said Toby. “They look as rough as gaolhouse buggery. It’s been too good to be true so far. They probably all met in a hotel last night like we did. They look like they are still trying to impress each other, and those girls certainly don’t look that impressed with them, but they’re hanging out with them until they know somebody else.”
Gabby stood up. “I’ll go and see. It’s about time I rounded you all up anyway.” She wandered over to them. All watched as the group started nodding and shook her hand in turn. Gabby beckoned over to their table and then scanned the room. “Is there a Charlie Watson here?”
An enormous lad rose to his feet in the middle of the room. He had been sitting on his own, reading. His English club rugby jersey had the sleeves cut off. Putting his book into the thigh pocket of his cargo pants, he hoisted his backpack easily and wandered over to their table smiling.
“That’s everybody in our truck,” said Gabby. “Why don’t we all go and sit outside and I’ll introduce you to your driver, and show you the truck, and then we can all introduce ourselves and tell a bit about ourselves. Anybody want to grab a beer or coke or something before we head out there?”
James looked at Fred and Toby and said, “I would. You guys keen?”
Fred smiled, remembering their bet and looked at Toby pointedly. “I’m definitely keen. Mmmm. Ice-cold yummy Tusker for me please.”
Toby looked at his feet and shuffled them. Then he smiled at Fred. “OK, you win, but Regent Street’s not very arable land. How about a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills? Tusker for me too please.”
They wandered over to a leafy copse, and dumped their packs in a circle to use as backrests. Mickey Rourke dug around in his pack and pulled out a wide-brimmed hat, which he perched on his head before easing down next to Toby. Gabby sat on an upturned beer crate, her back against a peeling tree trunk. Looking down the hill, the dusty bowl of Nairobi’s chaotic business district was a world away from the peaceful shade and churring doves. Behind them, the blue Ngong Hills struggled up from the horizon.
“Right everybody, I’m Gabby. Your mummy for the next eight weeks. As you may have guessed from my ‘ecksent’, I’m South African. I grew up on a farm in the north-eastern Transvaal, as it was known then. There’s quite a lot of bush and wildlife up there. Many of you would have heard of the Kruger Park. James, I’m sure you’ve been there. I grew up loving the bush. Studied zoology at university, and then when these overlanders started becoming popular, one of the operators asked me to come along as a wildlife guide. Now I love doing it so much that I co-ordinate trips on my own.
She was an easy talker and held their attention. “I’ve been doing this for over three years, so I think you’re in good hands. We know most of the border posts and game guards on the trip by now, so that smoothes our progress. Feel free to ask questions at any time. Later, we’ll have a look at the truck and go over the duties and responsibilities that are expected of you.
“This afternoon we’ll head out of Nairobi and through Narok, about two hours from here, where we’ll refuel. We’re headed for the Masai Mara – another couple of hours on from Narok, depending on the road – which I’m sure you’re all very excited about. I’m happy to tell you that it’s awesome at the moment. The migrating herds are in full flight so we should see stacks of animals.
“Tonight’s campsite is nothing special, but it’s right outside the park gates. So we can get into the park first thing tomorrow morning. Before we do anything else though, let’s get to know each other a bit. Let’s just go around the circle, starting with you, James, because you’re nearest, and going anticlockwise. Tell us your name, where you’re from, and a little bit about yourself.
“Well, I’m South African too. Although I’ve been living in London for a few years. I’m a non-working citizen at the moment, having quit my job a few months ago, because it sucked. So, I’m here to ‘find myself’,” he raised his hands in the air and twiddled two fingers like quotation marks. He knew it was a trite expression, one he would never normally use. “I imagine I’m not the only one.”
Fred was sitting next to James. “I’m an Englishman. My name’s Fred Vaughan. A lawyer, I’m afraid. I just needed a break from work and some time out.”
“A lawyer. Fucking great,” said Mickey Rourke, swigging his beer. “That’ll be handy.”
“Well,” continued Fred, raising an eyebrow at him, “at least I will be able to act on our behalf if we are charged by an elephant.
“I am not quite out of work yet, although I think I may be when I return. I’ve taken unpaid leave so that I, too, may ‘find myself’.”
“You should find each other,” laughed Rourke, on his own. He slid down onto his back and rested his head on his pack. His hat tipped onto his forehead. Watching this, Toby resisted the urge to fix it firmly in place by thudding on the crown with his fist.
“I’m Toby. Was a banker. Until my employers figured out I couldn’t really count. So I’m jobless too.”
It was Rourke the wag’s turn. He was on his third Tusker already and still had one lying by his side. He seemed determined to mow through as many as he could before they set sail. Fred was secretly hoping they wouldn’t stop to let him piss once the truck was rattling along on the bumpy Kenyan roads. Although a lot younger than Fred’s thirty-one years, Rourke already had fairly ruddy cheeks, and his skin had the dehydrated pinch of one who has been overly fond of the turps from a tender age.
He lifted the brim of his hat out of his eyes, but didn’t shift his recline. “I’m Geoffrey. I’m from England as well. Maybe a different part from these gents here. I don’t got no job neither. Come to think of it, I never really had one. Not a serious one, like. I’m on me way to South Africa to see if I can work for a while down there, and figured, what better way to get there, than on the back of one of these here trucks? Had the good fortune to meet up with this mad geezer last night.” He beckoned towards the Aussie, “Top lad. And these girls was in our hotel as well.”
The first of the girls spoke slowly in a pretty southern States drawl, “Hi, y’all. I’m Stacy. I’m from the US. From a coastal town down south called Charlotte. I just finished school and I am so excited about seein’Africa before I gotta start working. My girlfriend from school did a trip just like this one last year, and she said it was so fun.”
“Just our luck,” James whispered. “Only four girls on this truck and one of them’s a lesbian.”
“I don’t think so,” Fred whispered back. “Americans always talk about their girlfriends. Let’s ask her. Hey, Stacy.”
“Shut up you idiot!” James spat under his breath.
“Yeah?” she chirped with a smile as white as a mint.
“James wants to know,” he looked at James and paused, “what state Charlotte is in.”
“Well, there are many Charlottes in the US, but I’m from the one down in North Carolina. It’s the biggest one. But that’s enough about me. Now this here is Inga, who I met last night. Inga’s Swedish. Go on: tell them about yourself, Inga.”
“Yes, I am Swedish. I am still studying. I have taken some time away from my studies to come and see this place.” Inga’s clipped Swedish accent was in stark contrast to Stacy’s drawl. Both accents were attractive. Spoken by such homely girls made them charming. The girls were not pretty, but certainly not ugly either. Fred warmed to them both immediately.
He found Inga vaguely attractive in her manner, her poise. She seemed wistful, and dreamy. She wasn’t a classic Swede. Not tall, blond and blue-eyed. Quite the contrary: she was short, slight, and dark. Her hair was cropped and chic, like a young boy’s. The American girl was going to be fun, if only because Americans are always fun if you’re not American. Like being in a living movie, in which people really did say “holy crap” and announce when things were “totally funny”, instead of just laughing.
She was a bubbly prom queen. Also short, she had enormous blue eyes – almost like a doll – and an extravagant mane of blond hair that was besieged on top of her head under the precarious management of a quiver of clips and combs. He was sure that her teeth were not naturally that white. She was cute, and a little chunky. She had magnificent breasts. Perfect, in size and shape, and perhaps also not natural.
Although James’s head was facing Gabby, Fred could see his eyes behind his sunglasses, glued to Stacy’s chest. Fred dragged his gaze away and concentrated on the other short guy talking. Funny how two people could be from the same place and yet he sounded so coarse and Kirsty sounded so lovely.
He was also from Melbourne. His name was Rabbit, he said. He was also a banker, having worked in Sydney. Only as a temp, you understand. He wasn’t a career man. None of that shit for him. Liked his travel too much, you see. He was a bit of a spreadsheet jockey, it paid well for doing fuck-all, mate. Work a bit, travel a bit. He had always wanted to come to Africa. The beer was even cheaper than in Thailand or Laos. And it didn’t taste as shit either. Although it wasn’t as good as VB, mate.
Next up was Jocko, although he seemed reluctant to follow directly on from Rabbit’s abrasive introduction lest he was tarred with the same brush. Fred almost laughed when Jocko started to speak. He had been educated at Eton since last he had spoken, and sounded very different from the beach guy they had been drinking with the night before. Jocko kept it simple. He had just finished a master’s in Sydney and was as yet undecided as to what he wanted to do with his life. He was a marine biologist.
“I like this guy,” James leant towards Fred to speak directly to his ear, “even if he is the official enemy.”
“So you assume. He didn’t mention anything about being here with Kirsty,” Fred whispered back. “Know thine enemy better.”
Kirsty didn’t mention it either. She gave them her brief bit about the travel present from her parents, but nothing salved their eager curiosity as to whether she was here on her own.
The huge guy in the rugby shirt grinned. “Alright all? I’m Charlie, from Newcastle in the UK. I’m doing a belated gap year now to avoid a midlife crisis. I was in the Forces for a while, but managed to extricate myself, cos I was tired of having short hair.” It was still short, but you could see Charlie was trying; it was unkempt at least. “I hope you all like rugby, because I think there are enough of us here to play a bit.”
“I see you’ve been smoking the local weed,” said Toby. “You must be high to think we’d want to play rugby with you.”
“Look forward to it, mate,” said Rabbit. “Always a pleasure to come up against the Poms, ey, Jocko? Though I reckon they’ve got the better of us in numbers, I’m not sure about skill.” Jocko looked terribly like there was a bad smell under his nose. He didn’t answer.
There were two African men sitting on Gabby’s left. One was middle aged, and the other was young, thirtyish. The elder one spoke. “Hi, guys. I’m Cuthbert. This is your captain speaking. I will be driving you down through this wonderful continent. I have done many, many of these trips, so I will get you there in one piece, no worries.” Presumably his laidback travel speak had rubbed off from various clients through the years. It was a source of some comfort that he appeared so relaxed.
“This guy is Goodness. He’s our cook. He will also help me with the driving when I get tired.” Goodness continued chewing impassively on the stick of grass he had plucked when they had sat in the shade. He was playing it as cool as Kilimanjaro.
“Right!” Gabby stood up and dusted her palms on the back of her shorts. “It’s noon now. You can have a few more beers and get to know each other and grab some lunch either here or in town, if you want. I’d like you to be back at the truck, which is this magnificent blue specimen here called The Blue Meanie – see where it says ‘The Blue Meanie’ on the front – at one o’clock sharp. I want to run you through where everything lives and what your duties will be, and we aim to be out of here by two at the latest. It would be good to get to our first camp in the light and although it should be a doddle, we don’t want to be under the gun to get there.”