Gentlemen, start your engines
On account of the time constraints and their excitement, none of the group elected to go into town for lunch. The risk of delaying their departure was too great. They idled around the campsite with some adequate sandwiches and a few more beers, and then dozed in the shade.
Fred began writing in a leather-bound journal his mother had given him especially for the journey. It worried Toby to look up from his repose and see Fred staring at him thoughtfully and sucking his pen. He became wary of doing anything to attract Fred’s written comment. He further warned him against any entries of a personal nature, cautioning Fred that an artist’s truth and poetic licence were not worth the heavy beating that Fred would sustain were he to be unflattering.
“You lampoon me, I’ll lamp you!” Toby had advised.
By one o’clock, many of the party were already aboard, investigating the interior of The Blue Meanie. Geoff and Rabbit seemed to have established themselves in a corner of the truck with an unmistakeably proprietorial air. Their claim-staking had a strong stink of ‘the back-seat boys’ on a school bus outing. Fred almost laughed aloud. Nevertheless, he vowed not to let them dictate the seating for the entire journey.
The inside of the truck had a coach-like feel to it. James stood with arms akimbo at the back.
“This is pretty swanky,” he said. “I thought these things were converted flatbed trucks with a roof and not much else.
“They used to be,” Gabby stroked the felt covered seats. “Were hellishly shit. Open sides. Dust. No tarpaulins to keep the rain out. And it can rain here like no one’s business.”
“I’m from Jo’burg, I know thunderstorms and downpours.”
“Trust me. It rains here. Properly. Worse than Jo’burg.”
The seating was arranged as booths, more like a train than a bus, with pairs of seats facing each other over sturdy refectory tables that were fixed to the floor. The seats were designed for long-distance coaches with a compromise between comfort and resilience and covered in the kind of coarse felt from which chewing gum could easily be removed. But, on the whole, the bus had a comfortable feel, and their excitement mounted as they all tried out the chairs, and considered the various seating permutations that would develop.
Outside the main cabin, beneath the seated area, there were lockers for the backpacks. And attached to the sides of the vehicle were various jacks, spades, winches and metal tracks for progressing along quagmirish roads. There were long-range fuel tanks and water tanks. The tents were all bundled neatly into another side compartment and the food was kept inside in fridges.
Gabby watched, smiling at the keenness as they clambered about the vehicle discovering ingenious storage compartments and discussing the functions of certain items of equipment.
She called for their attention, and began to run them through their duties.
“Basically, we’re going to split up into teams of three, and these will be your camping and shopping buddies for the rest of the trip. Provided you don’t tear each other’s hair out, of course.” They all tittered politely at this. Of course that wasn’t going to happen.
“On the day that you are assigned to duties, you will have to help Goodness with the shopping and then make the fire and do a bit of light prep work for the evening meal. Now, I can see you looking surprised, boys,” she continued, looking pointedly at Fred and Toby, who were casting glances at each other, “but even though you’ve paid for a more upmarket sit-on-your-arse type tour, I’m afraid one cook can’t cope with all this on his own. And if we brought any more staff with us, there wouldn’t be any room for you guys, so you do have to get stuck in a little bit. If we’re in a non-camping spot, bungalow accommodation like at Lake Malawi or Vic Falls, you can sit on your arses and drink beer. Some places we have to camp. Simple economics. Sound fair?”
“Of course,” they all agreed. Gabby smiled around at them, getting a nod of assent from each.
“Right,” she said, “let’s stow your gear. Because none of you really knows anything about where the best spot to have your stuff is, I don’t want to waste time while you squabble among yourselves trying to get your backpacks into what you think are the best lockers. So I’ve drawn names out of a hat and will show you to your rooms, so to speak.”
As they watched from the shade, Gabby called each one in turn and, like an usher in a theatre, held her hand towards a locker, which was to be the limit of their personal storage space for the journey. The sun was closer now and stung their exposed arms and thighs. The dust hung in the air, turning the view down the valley to Nairobi’s city centre into a ruddy shimmer. Even the soporific cicadas had ceased their steady rasp and only a few desultory cheeps came from the birds flitting among the trees.
Gabby’s enthusiastic manner was unaffected by the pressure of the sun. She cheerily bustled around The Blue Meanie, gesturing each to their locker space.
“Rabbit, your pack in here.”
“Excellent, mate, right near the door.” Rabbit hoisted his pack and stuffed it into the locker.
“Before you do that, guys,” said Gabby, “bear in mind that you don’t have access to your packs on the go. Could be several hours at a time, so keep everything that you may need – books, water bottles, malaria tablets, cards and so on – in your day packs.
“I would put your valuables in your lockers though, better than on you. I’ll remind you on days that involve border crossings, so that you remember to have your passports out.
“Charlie, here you go, next to Rabbit.” As Charlie dug his huge hands around in his pack for the things he thought he might need, Gabby took the rest of them around the truck, assigning each to a compartment.
Within fifteen minutes, they were ready to go. It took another fifteen minutes to get the departure team photograph taken by ten different cameras, with Goodness patiently carrying out the many instructions he was given as the photographer-in-chief. There was a barely polite scramble for the window seats the moment the last shutter had clicked, and the three Londoners were split between booths. James and Jocko both slid into a booth and looked hopefully at Kirsty. She smiled back at them and deftly sidestepped the issue by sidling in next to Toby, who had sat down on his own in the adjacent quartet of seats. Stacy and Inga joined James and Jocko and Fred plopped himself down opposite Toby. Rabbit and Geoffrey sat together and Charlie had Gabby next to him. At the side of her seat was an intercom to the driver’s cabin, in which Cuthbert and Goodness sat, laughing and lighting up cigarettes in preparation for their departure.
The Blue Meanie shuddered awake and with a roar coughed a huge blue gust of diesel smoke that drifted into Fred’s pained face through his open window.
“That’s why he’s called The Meanie,” Gabby laughed. “You’ll grow to love him by the end, I promise you.”
“Not unless he cuts down his smoking and does something about his breath,” Fred remarked as they bumped out of the campsite and onto the Ngong Road.
“Right, guys, the first part of the trip will just allow you to take in a little of the sights and sounds of African travel. I take it from your red eyes, booze breath and yawning this morning that you all saw a bit of Nairobi last night, so this dash through the outskirts will give you an idea of what the ’burbs are like in an African city. Don’t expect too many gnomes and white picket fences. Not that scenic.
“The road to Narok is tarred; from then on, it can get a little rough and bumpy. It’s rained recently, so dust shouldn’t be a problem.
“We’re sitting quite high up, as you can see, so you needn’t worry too much about people snatching stuff when we slow down through crowded parts. Even so, I’d keep your valuables out of sight. It’s just a good habit to get into. When you’re out the truck, stuff gets snatched and you’ll be amazed at how fast someone can disappear in the crowds. If the crowd doesn’t catch them and beat them half to death. The Kenyan cops are a pain in the bottom. The locals do their own justice. Beat the poor bastards senseless if they catch them.”
“We should have that in London,” said James. “Imagine: You get pickpocketed in Waterloo, everyone joins the chase, and we lynch the bastard from the rail bridge over the Thames.”
“Good idea, James,” said Toby. “And then we could use their bodies to study anatomy and discover a cure for bubonic plague.”
Geoffrey piped up, “Gabby, are we allowed to smoke onboard?”
“If everybody else agrees, and you clean out the ashtrays yourself. I personally don’t mind, but priority must go to those who don’t like it. One veto and the answer’s no.”
“Does anybody mind?” Rabbit enquired.
“Well,” said Charlie, “it’s not great, is it? The truck will smell awful from day one.”
“Well,” James began, “my vote depends. If smoking is allowed, how about boozing? Does that promising-looking fridge behind us contain any frosty ales, Gabby?”
“Sorry, James, drinking is definitely not allowed in The Meanie. Used to be, but then we get too many pit stops – unless everyone agrees to wee in a bottle.”
“Jesus!” said Toby.
“That’s taking the piss,” said Fred.
Gabby continued, “And also it’s like herding cats to get camp set up at the end. But don’t worry, it’s all the more rewarding to wait until you’re relaxed around the fire.”
“It’s just that I appreciate beautiful scenery so much better through a haze of alcohol,” James sighed, and looked out the window at the passing city. They were slowly leaving Nairobi, and on the outskirts the informal sector held sway. Everywhere they looked, there were vendors, hawkers and stalls selling foodstuff and oddments, most of which seemed useless. Toby tried to reconcile the profit margins of the man offering mobile phone headsets and calculators in such an impoverished neighbourhood. Who needed this shit?
“Look at that,” laughed Charlie. “I never knew that The Body Shop had made its way out here. I wonder if they have any of that soap-on-a-rope I like so much.”
The others all looked across to where he was pointing to see a large fig tree in the middle of a dusty pavement with a sign hammered into the trunk saying “Body Shop – you fux it we fix it.” Around the sign, hanging from the huge horizontal boughs of the ancient tree, were a number of blocks and tackle. Beneath one of them, a car was parked with its bonnet up and its engine, which a number of men were dismantling industriously, hoisted in the tree. There were even more men standing around with comments and ready advice, not in any official or employable capacity, it seemed. Just helping in an annoying way. Men who had nowhere else to be and nothing better to do, and who were frustrated experts.
The city outskirts began to recede though there was no discrete boundary. The small overcrowded homes and hovels became surrounded with tight plots of maize. The palm trees sheltered little groups of huts and homesteads that were more agrarian and less reliant on the wealth generation in the city centre. Gradually, as they drove, there was more space. The squares of maize became plots, the crowds of people became small groups. The bare earth yards became vegetable gardens.
The subsistence could be more closely felt. Each homestead had a threshing mortar, often being worked by teenage girls clad in colourful cloth pounding the maize for porridge. Goats became herds of goats, no doubt all recognised and well known to both neighbours and owners alike, since they had free reign between the huts. James noticed a naked toddler wandering around unsupervised, and then squatting and leaving a tidy coil in the middle of a well-swept courtyard. He grimaced.
The road was still good tar and they made the time to Narok with little conversation, the group soaking in the unfamiliar countryside in which they found themselves. Even Gabby wore an expression of dreamy excitement, happy to be on the path of a new adventure.
Toby pulled out his Out Of Africa and opened it to his place.
“You’re lucky,” said Kirsty.
“How so?” Toby looked up, putting his finger on the place where he was reading.
“You can read in a car. Wish I could,” she said.
Toby coloured slightly and forced his eyes back to where his finger was placed on the page while Kirsty looked at him a little longer, turned away and smiled to herself.
James leant across the aisle. “Hey, Tobes, if you gonna read, swap seats with me. I get carsick too so Kirsty and I can chat rather.”
As Toby sat in James’s old seat, he suddenly couldn’t read either, thanks to the fact that he was now listening to James’s anecdotal war stories, most of which he had heard before. He had to give it to James, he could tell an amusing tale, but Kirsty’s appreciative laughter brought out an uncomfortable envy in Toby.
Eventually, with a force of will, he channelled Karen Blixen’s fluid words into his brain until he was involved once again and free from the torment of James getting to know Kirsty better.
As he dipped in and out of the book, he felt the very air about which he was reading blowing hot on his own skin, saw the very people being described; and the experience of contextual enjoyment of his reading thrilled him and awoke in him a sense of appreciation of the now, his immediate circumstances.
His years in the city had always consisted of looking ahead to the next bonus, to the early retirement. There was very seldom an appreciation of the minute. It was a wonderful pleasure to him as they bumped along the pot-holed, scorching road to Narok.
Narok was buzzing with safari matatus and tourist buses. As the last refuelling point before the Mara, it was always bustling with hawkers, souvenir sellers and safari touts trying desperately to fill their sometimes less than comfortable minibuses to capacity. It was the entry point into the famous plains and safari lands that so many thousands of visitors came every year to see. From Nairobi, Narok was the funnel that fed them all into the park, to the wealth of game and the subjects of endless documentaries on television.
Fred was pleased to see the numerous backpackers trying to haggle their way into the reserve with other safari groups and, more than anything else, felt vindicated at their choice of coming through on an overlander.
As Cuthbert and Goodness organised the refuelling of The Blue Meanie, Fred wandered among the hawkers, trying not to be rude while trying even harder not to buy anything. James and Toby chatted to Kirsty. Jocko, Rabbit and Geoffrey scuttled into a dingy roadside bar for a quick one for the road.
They bumped out of Narok with renewed enthusiasm, the prospect of approaching one of the world’s last great wild places a tangible thrill. They laughed raucously, chattered and sang.