Chapter 9: Thunderstorm
I woke some hours after midnight.
The old boy of the Chamafumbu pride was noisy.
Maybe it was because he is affected by the eerie light of a full moon, which made him want to fill its monochrome clarity with the sounds of his roaring. The drawn out rumbles of his moaning bellows had ruffled the evenness of my sleep..
Somewhere far away upstream on the opposite side of the river one of the Mushingashi pride was also sounding off. Over there, two young short-mained males recently dethroned the old king.
Wrapped in the darkness of the night, and swaddled within the layers of my sleeping bag like a silkworm in the comfort of its cocoon, the sounds kept me mentally wide-eyed. Instinctively I knew that it is best not to draw the attention of a big prowling cat at night. I needed to relieve myself, but I would tarry a while until the roars receded a tad. They were so close I could discern the intake of breath between the big boy’s bellows.
This is one of the few places in the world where there is no fence between the roar of a lion and yourself. It produces a visceral emotion which is evidence enough of how many countless thousands of years lions were an extant part of our ancestor’s daily reality. I challenge any one to not feel that tingle of fear when it is night and a pride of lions is on the hunt close by. Darkness is when a lion is at its most aggressive and fearless. The unwary and nocturnally reckless amongst our forbearer’s were eaten.
Now, before dawn the birds had already begun to rouse and the big Leadwood and Acacia trees began to take form. So too did the shapes of the shower and chitenge structures across the open space of the camping area. The full moon which had earlier been hazed over by high alto stratus was more revealed as it brushed the landscape with the silver dust of its light.
A Heuglin’s Robin who frequented the thickets behind my tent was the first to herald the pending day. After its first tentative start, almost as if to clear its throat, its crescendo rose to climactic perfection.
Being a sound almost as emblematic as that of the Fish Eagle, the beauty of its song symbolizes, for me, the denser more fecund parts of Africa, the warmer, wetter, more enticing parts, those parts laden with the fruits for my soul.
As the serenading of the robin increased in intensity the slightly less deafening amplitude of Chamafumbu’s vocalizations allowed me to overcome my reticence to rouse.
Soon I was sitting in the predawn dimness with my bare legs extended towards the fire. The rekindled embers were wedged in the V formed between my sandals as my feet hooked over each other. I took my time sipping my coffee, French pressed in my African style, very strong, sweetened with two spoons of sugar and mellowed with a dash of powdered milk, it was perfected with two rusks to dunk in it.
With my elbows on the armrests of the camp chair, I held the mug high, cradled in both hands with the rim of the cup barely touching my lips.
I drank with quiet shallow sips, with minimal arm movement. I didn’t want to disturb the small herd of Puku that had spent the night out in the openness of the grassy dambo. A few of the doe’s which had scampered into the bush line as I had moved out to sit next to the fire, were now cautiously venturing back to graze close to where I sat.
The wisps of steam rising from the cup made the outline of the antelope fade before my eyes, then, as the vapor curled in a different direction, they reappeared with perfect clarity. The steam leaned this way and that as it was nudged sideways by the almost imperceptible drift of the air. Its heavier coolness pressed it slowly between the trunks of the trees, and their surrounds of shrubs, from where it slowly slid across the open expanse of the grass before it slipped down to settle in the broad rut of the river bed.
It was early, and it was Sunday. Without guests at the lodge Sunday has a relaxation in its routine. Things start later than on the other days.
Later I would head across and share another cup of coffee with Morse the manager and get an update on what it happened, if anything, while I was away. Or I could take the boat and head a few clicks upriver to meet with Alan. I was curious if he was aware of anything unusual in his sector of the Lunga-Luswishi. He could brief me on developments with our cooperative anti-poaching activities.
But that would only be after I had met Dimas to get a report on the elephants and missing scout. He had left a message that he would be back from follow-up patrol sometime today.
Probably I should head across and download the messages from the lodge’s painfully slow satellite link. I could come back and read and check the email from the cyber elsewhere as I waited.
Or I could ignore it all. I could experience the wonderful escape from the rest of the frenetic apostasy of modern progress. Why put in the effort? Was I really making any dent in the wounds of Africa. The world was getting jaded with the images of dead elephants and rhino’s with hacked off horns. They were ‘annoyingly’ getting in the way of mankind’s sense of spiritual entitlement.
My tent was pitched on the edge of the altar of one of nature’s last cathedrals, the Kafue. Here I felt I could commune with any of the conventional Gods of the Universe. I didn’t need to pay high fees in an attempt to find the peace and harmony of soul on the couch of a psychologist, or in the austerity of time spent in an ashram. But if the message from the outside shrines was to be believed, all of the world was given to us by some deity, so why should I interfere with some poacher stealing from the tithing bowl of this church. Nobody really seemed to care all that much. The killing of an elephant was not a high crime or misdemeanor.
As the dawn light filtered through the leaves my attention was drawn to the background hum of the thousands of bush bees gathering nectar from the tiny composite flowers of the tree above my tent. With the pollen wiped from the legs of a bee onto a receptive stigma, the tiny petals of the wilted flowers sprinkled from their florets like confetti at a wedding. The hum I was hearing was one of nature’s beautiful porn shows, the myriad matings of flowery.
By mid-morning outside the tent it was hot, and hotter inside. I furled up all of the tent’s window flaps to let in the breeze flowing across the dambo and tickling the leaves on the trees sufficiently for me to detect the faint rustles of their response.
By late afternoon Dimas had yet to appear. Finally I decided to have a shower and shave and got ready to go over and join Morse for a sundowner.
I would check emails and texts again while there.
While shaving the sound of distant thunder mixed with the splash of water in the hand basin. Back next to my tent, as a precaution I unfurled and secured the window covers, in case it rained a tad before my return.
Walking the short distance between the camp area and the lodge, a few spits of rain dimpled the sandy surface of the road.
Despite the growing ominousness of the distant thunder, It seemed that it would remain that way for a while. But it was as if someone had quickly flicked off the lights. Leaving my tent it was with the light of afternoon. Five minutes later and halfway down the road it was dusk! This is how it is in Africa. As soon as the sun sets, day is done, and it is dark. But now it was more pronounced. I sensed that the clouds were coalescing above me.
Suddenly, the skies aloft were split by a flash so intense that it could only have escaped from a toolbox left behind by the creators of Genesis. The massive juddering strobe lit the darkness directly overhead, freezing the leaves and branches of the Acacia and Euphorbia trees at the side of the road. The deafening clap of thunder which blew away the images frozen on the retinas of my eyes, arrived only seconds later.
I was glad that my sandals had thick rubber sole’s with good lightning protection. But even this would be useless in a close strike. The statistics from the war in Angola showed that the fourth biggest killer was a toss-up between lightning strikes and crocodile attacks.
It is dangerous to shelter under big trees during a thunderstorm. I headed out away from the road which follows the tree line. From the center of the open dambo I could look over the trees and see that the whole South east sky was possessed by a wall of hell. It was flooded with a mighty wave of angry purple clouds. They were seemingly suspended in motion, at the same time as they oozed danger. The light of the setting sun still lingered in the west. It highlighted wispy front-running clouds painted in shades of light and dark mauve.
On the other side of the sky the purple wall roiled with sparkling bolts of hell rippling across its surface like the licks of a serpents tongue.
The rumbles of thunder even overwhelmed the sounds of the swish of my feet through the thick grass of the dambo.
I made it to the Chitenge before significant rain arrived.
From the Chitenge deck, which cantilevers out over the river bank, I had a great view of the show.
As I watched, like the roar of cars on a highway, it came rushing at us from across the distant low hill and river.
The trees on the other side shook and lashed about like possessed dervishes.
Then, with a pant and growl it arrived, the blasting, flapping, tumbling body of air. Trees everywhere bent and succumbed to the push of the wind, thrashing their boughs and fluttering off leaves. A crash came from the vehicle sheds… Something big had been pushed over.
It opened up! Sheets of deluging rain lashed across the trees and under the thatched roof of the chitenge and splashed against the furniture.
One of the staff came running across from the kitchen. I helped him drag the big padded chairs further back under the roof and out of the rains reach.
It lashed down as the water poured from the roof and flooded across the lawn.
It went on, the rain and the wind, for half an hour, until with a sigh of submission, it was spent. Its force and fury was replaced by the soothing brush of a warm drizzle.
The summer wet season had arrived, heralded with a statement of nature’s power, a big bruising African thunderstorm.
And there it was again, the surprising unexpectedness of Africa.
Because, from the gap in the fence, instead of Morse coming to join me for a belated sundowner, it was Precious who came striding across the lawn through the softness of the drizzle.
Her wet clothes clung to her figure, showing her femininity, as well as indicating that she had come all the way from the staff quarters and not just the kitchen.
But this time, instead of with an air of supplication, she strode directly to where I stood.
She looked down at her shirt as she took the fabric on both sides between thumb and forefinger, to tug the cloth from the closeness of her shape, so the fabric no longer clasped her form, and gave me less excuse to let my eyes drift.
While still flicking the fabric of her shirt free from its cling, it was as if she could sense the edge of her hold on my attention. She lifted her head to look at me, and I could detect a faint glimmer of haughty superiority in her eyes.
“Bwana, we need to speak.”
With a slight edge to her voice she added, “The crocodile man was here last night. He spoke to some of the staff.”
“Can we meet tomorrow morning?” I replied, “Morse will be here in a few minutes.”
“No Bwana. I want to speak to you now when the others will not see us talking. I will come to your camp after you are finished here.”
With that she turned and walked away through the softly falling rain.
I am not sure if my first reaction was a gasp of surprise, or a quiet whistle of wonder!
The cut was conventional. The sleeveless frugality together with the austerity of its simple square neckline freed my eyes to drift down over the sumptuous pattern of the fabric. From there they could revel in the exhilaration of the slide over the fit on her figure, which reached all the way down to a modest termination. It was all about color and pattern. However, the subtle simplicity avoided prudery with a judicious exposure of the knees.
“Wow, that is an amazing dress!”
The intricate intertwining of the underlying pattern of orange-gold and yellows, was overlain with dominating splashes of big nested windowed rectangles and eye-like circles. The starkness of these random sized dashes of black and white was ameliorated with an occasional substitution of turquoise gray. It was a dress which could have been picked directly from the wardrobe of Adele Bloch-Bauer, after she had modeled for Klimt himself.
The smooth ebony slenderness of one arm demurely crossed over her midriff as she cupped the elbow of the other, as it in turn dropped its stillness like a shadow at her side.
Maybe the visual shock of its colors appearing out of the darkness of the night would have been less impactful if this was Durban, and it was July, and the grand horse race had not yet switched the attention from the fashionable to the racing horses.
Instead the stage was my lonely and forlorn campsite in the North East corner of an immense solitude. It was not exactly the appropriate place for a fashion parade.
“thank you, she murmured quietly, I wanted you to see it.”
Her words were accompanied with a mock curtsy, and a toss of her head which hinted at an air of indifference to any compliment.
“Where did you get it?”
“I made it. I bought the fabric in Lusaka, at Manda Hill.”
As my surprise ebbed I pulled another camp chair closer to the halo of the fire, whereupon I indicated for her to be seated.
“Do you go there often?”
My question was rhetorical. The young women who worked at the lodge didn’t earn enough to afford frequent travel to the far away city.
“I don’t go there enough!” There was a barely hidden edge of bitterness in her voice.
I changed the subject. “So how is Eddie?”
Leaning back in the camp chair and stretching my legs I was a tad self-conscious of my attire.
Even though there had been a slight evening cooling in the aftermath of the downpour, it was still sufficiently comfortable to sit outside in the drabness of my khaki shirt and shorts, with my feet pointed at the camp fire.
I wasn’t sure if it was this contrast in our clothing, or something else. Whatever it was, like a pond ruffled by a breeze I was aware of a faint uneasiness.
She had been a butterfly, always with its wings closed, blending with the bush. Now, in the blink of an eye, this Charaxes had opened her wings to reveal the brilliance of hidden colors, and a potential to fly faster and higher than I imagined.
I reminded myself that she had the stature of a menial servant at the lodge, and was significantly younger than I.
Admittedly I was not her boss. I didn’t really need to concern myself with maintaining a formal working distance.
But, now, wearing that dress, she was transformed into something else. What exactly I was not sure. There was also the surprise of that subtle brazenness in how she had earlier virtually ordered me to meet.
Maybe there was a crack in my armor. Maybe she had detected it when I let my gaze drift for too long over the shape under the wet cling of her uniform.
But as we both gazed at the flickering dance of the fires flames, I had that almost forgotten six sense one learns to detect when walking into the killing ground of an ambush. There’s nothing upon which to place a validating finger. There is just the sense that someone else has the advantage. If it were you, this is where you would set a trap. That to survive, sounds needed to be listened to more carefully, eyes opened wider, gazes cast quicker, footsteps more cautious. A sense to move away from the obvious and easy, instead to hug the denser and more impenetrable margins. In this case my senses told me that I was at the cusp of an inflection point. Something was about to change. I needed to pay careful attention to where things were headed. But if this were a real ambush… Sheesh I thought to myself, what a killing ground, what a way to die! The sparkle of herfig looks was spectacularly augmented by her attire.
But that was a ridiculous and out of place premonition. My ego reasserted itself. Yes, she was young, but despite my age, the Bush life had kept me fit and trim, so why not assume the obvious. Why else would she come to my campsite three hours after sunset, when the rest of the lodge had shutdown. Why would she endure a distant walk in the darkness? Why else would she dress so sumptuously? There was the temptation to think it was for me.
She continued to sit in silence as if mesmerized by the flicker of the flames.
The rhythmic, monotonous peep of a fruit bat came from the dense foliage of the water trees behind us.
Again I asked,
“How is Eddie, have you heard from him.”
Still staring at the flames, she slowly straightened and then hooked her extended legs together, one over the other, and folded her arms tightly across her chest.
“They say he will be fine.”
The gold of the dress was reflected in the warmth of the flames, and its yellow in the light from the propane lamp as it hissed quietly on the table beside us.
The moon had not yet risen and the lamps light also stretched the umbra of her shadow like a faint stain over the paleness of the sand.
I relaxed and enjoyed the situation, with the unusualness of her company.
Sophia could wait, Claudia could wait, Moses could wait. The whole goddamn world could wait. Caution be damned! Why not walkout brazenly into the center of her wide open, maybe fatal, whatever.
“Can I offer you something to drink? I have some mango juice, some Cola.. Do you drink alcohol?” I asked. “I even have some Gin and Tonic for special guests.”
Without answering she rose and stretched like a cat. Then she took the kettle that was on the table and placed it between the logs of the fire.
“Do you have tea? Tanganda or RooiBos?”
Without waiting for my reply, she stood and turned to face me from the opposite side of the fire, looking down on where I sat with fingers furled on my lap.
“Bwana,” she stated firmly, “look at me!”
“Why do you think I am standing here dressed like this? Do you think it is to pander to your pride?”
I sat in surprised silence. I had been led into the virtual openness for a reason. The dress was the ruse for something else.
“I dress this way to show you that I am different.”
“I see you looking at me, and I see how you speak to me. Yes, you are a m”zungu. But you have grown up in Africa, and spent your life here. So many of your friends are African, thus you have their attitudes. Because I am a woman, you take me to be weaker, less capable, even inferior.”
She moved back to the little table and placed two tea bags in the two mugs.
“I watch you watching me. I am too young for you, you know that, and yet you still look at me in that way. I see how you ignore the obvious. You ignore that I am different. You cannot see that I want something more.”
She stepped back to the fire, where she extended a leg , and with the toe of her sandal , pushed a log closer to the hiss of the kettle.
“Do you think that anyone can produce a dress like this out here?”
When caught in any ambush, if one is still alive after the first few seconds of surprise, the only way to survive is to surprise the surprisers, to attack back and hope to win the fire-fight, instead of being picked off as one runs away. She had caught me out in the mental open. But before I could even turn to respond she sprung another.
“And I also ask you.. Are you lazy, are you scared?”
“Why have you not responded to what I have told you. Why have you not acted quickly?”
All I could do was let her pick me off at her convenience.
“Bwana, I have told you that the Crocodile has powerful Muti. He makes it himsellf. It is attracting attention from distant places. That is why the Hyena is here. He flies here when the moon is full to get it. You are a m”zungu who understands these matters of Muti. You know where the most powerful Muti comes from. “
“Bwana, you are here to stop the poaching of animals. Everyone knows that It is the money of China and Asia that is behind the demand for our elephant tusks and rhino horns.”
Taking a hand towel she used it to grasp the hot handle of the kettle as she lifted it off the fire and poured the water into the cups. Then she added the sugar and splash of milk. She knew how I liked my tea, and handed me the mug.
“It is the same in Africa. Independence has given us a middle class with money. But here they buy a different sort of muti. Here they want different animal parts for the muti, but they also want parts of the human animal. A few months ago here, in Lusaka, a Mwenya was court with a freezer full of human parts. As you know the body parts of the albino are the most saught after. The word in the villages is that the Hyena wants the medicine from these Mwaabi. This has made most of them leave, or they are in hiding.”
She sat back down on the chair and looked across at me.
“You thwarted that Crocodile with Eddie. But they say the crocodile is still hungry,. He was back here last night. You need to remember that you have a white skin. So be careful that the crocodile does not mistake your whiteness for that of a mwabi.”
She sat back and sipped her tea as she allowed her words to sink in.
“Also, from what I have told you, do you think that I want to spend the rest of my life married to Eddie, and thus forced to live in the village? “
She paused. “I want to develop my talents in the big wide world. This dress and my skills are lost here.
Thus, this place is a stepping stone.
So now, when I warn you, do not be lazy.
If you do not find him, the crocodile may find you, when you least expect it, and I need you around, alive and well. I want your help to keep this lodge open so that I can find someone or some way to get me out of this old part of the world.”
I sat silent, staring at her, digesting her words.
“So you see Bwana, we can both help each other. But you will need to show me more respect.”
I looked across the fire. “Please stop calling me Bwana, Call me Dudu.”