The embers of last night’s fire lay in powdery grayness between the spikes of the branches which had fed its flames. In the stillness of the dawn, from the tip of one of them a fine strand of almost translucent smoke rose up as straight as the stem of a bullrush, until iits wispy resolve seemed to falter, and it began to mingle and spiral aimlessly before it disappeared into the coolness of the morning air.
I picked up the smoking branch and pushed its end into the sand to smother its heat. And then more from habit than anything, using this bluntness, I stirred the ashes to ensure no glow lay beneath the surface of the spent powder. After all, it was only a year ago that an inexperienced guest did not properly doused their fire, and the resulting flames had raced across the dambo, reaching up into the dry leaves of the trees at its periphery, and even threatened to set the thatched rooves of the chalets ablaze.
Now, with the winds of late August no longer pushing winter aside, there was little chance of a gust, energized by the rising sun, fanning an ember and lifting it into its swirls as it panted across the bush.
Also, even in the dawn dimness, as I looked out across the dambo I could see how the recent rains had been absorbed into a tinge of lush vitality by its grassy cover. It was obvious that winters wrinkled dryness had been replaced by the start of summers flush.
I looked up to the braying of calls and the pulsing swish of their wings as a gaggle of Trumpeter Hornbills passed overhead , spreading out upriver from their evening roost in the thick trees of the island across from the Lodge.
Earlier, well before any hint of dawn, it was the hiss of the gas cooker which had gently pulled back the cloak of slumber while it still wrapped me in its comfortable folds. Moses, as he had always done, roused before me.’
I had listened to his quiet steps as he crossed to the ablution block and fill the little pot of water and put it on the gas ring to boil.
I also heard the click of the spoon as he ladled out the ground coffee beans into the French press, and the sound of mugs being set on the table as, in turn he spooned out the sugar and powdered milk.
Still deep in the warmth of my sleeping bag I heard his grunt of acknowledgement as I said loud enough to be heard, ‘There is a box of rusks at the back of the chitenge on the top shelf’.
This was followed by the clink of the pot, and the faint gurgle of the water as it spilled over the lip onto the grounds where its water swilled and suck the flavor out of the grit in the press.
The ritual of coffee being prepared was not unique to the bush, in fact its sounds could probably be heard almost everywhere people gathered to enjoy this habit which gently readies the body and soul for the rigors of the day.
What was unique here was the surreptitious and quiet efficiency of the sounds, the hiss of the gas burner was somehow subdued, and I could barely make out when the last mugs were placed on the little wooden table, or the lid of the coffee can was opened and some of its grit scooped out into the press. I recognized in the quite efficiency of his movements that Moses’s habits from the past was still far more extant than with me. He had been practicing our craft long after I had left the trade.
There was still a sense of his almost one this with the Bush. Back then we had adapted and perfected this ritual to its essential simplicity, tin mugs were lighter than porcelain, and would not break when squashed into a backpack. The single large spoon could serve both to stir the coffee and to dig into a can of baked beans, the little pot would hold 2 cups of water to be boiled, why have more water which would just need more fuel and time to bring everything to a boil. Efficiency and minimalism was everything in the Bush.
I stood with my shoulders slightly hunched, and my hands pushed deep into the pockets of my shorts to ward off the faint chill that remained from the evening. Even though it was early December and almost midsummer, the front that had herded the thunderstorms before it earlier in the week, had left the cooler hint of its disturbance like the dust settling slowly on a dirt road behind a passing vehicle .
The slight chill meant that the Cicadas, the Christmas beetles of my youth, would begin their shrill screeching later when the sun warmed the air, but already the bush was full of the sound of the birds. There’s nothing quite like the sound that greets the early morning when the summer migrants are here.
I stood and listened to a Black headed Oriole. Even though it was almost Midsummer, it was still issuing its courting call.
I guessed that it, like many other birds would be second clutching after having lost eggs or young to the predation of snakes, or monkeys, or genet cats, and As a result the courting songs of these unlucky once always seem to have an under-current of urgency to get on with it. They no longer had the luxury of time to get their progeny and themselves ready, before the shortening of daylight would trigger an urge so powerful that it could not be ignored, which would push them to abandon everything in the rush to face the daunting challenge of crossing the vastness of the Sahara, and almost immediately be squeezed, in their billions, around or across the Mediterranean.
I had introduced Moses to the lodge staff yesterday and so now as we headed across to the Lodge complex from our campsite it was not much more than the customary ‘Mabuka Virongo’ Wake Well, that we exchanged with a few of the casual staff who were sweeping the pathways.
Then crossing the small footbridge over the shallow gulley that borders the lawn in front of the Chitenge we could hear women’s voices coming from beyond the straw fence which screens the kitchen.
The draw of the friendly chatter was augmented by the faint smell of cooking. The combination was enough to make me look back over my shoulder at Moses, and with a nod of my head towards the source, I commented ‘Smells like something that needs to be checked’, as he returned a rhetorical grin.
Entering the predawn gloom of the kitchen there were a few moments of shyness as the three girls adjusted to Moses presence. But their awkward reticence was soon dispelled by the smile and politeness with which he greeted them in their native Kaunde, ‘Mabuka Mwane’, asking politely if they had woken refreshed. And their giggling response to him saying that if they did not want dogs sniffing around the kitchen this early, they should not cook bacon.
I had to smile to myself how the girls affected indifference and the slightly louder banter between them, showed that they were not unaffected by the presence of the new-comer.
Their surreptitious scrutiny was obvious in the way their gaze lingered over his figure when he turned away to preoccupy himself with examining the lay out of the kitchen.
Moses was stil a handsome man. I was slightly jealous of the way he had aged so benignly.
He was an African, and a lucky one, because as with many of them the outward signs of age set in long after that at which most Caucasians look decidedly decrepit, especially those who have spent their lives in Africa. The pale Europeans skin does not stand up to the rigors of the African sunshine. Like thin white papyrus exposed to the elements it does not take long before it begins to wrinkle and crack, unless like the Dead Sea Scrolls, its bearer is a book-worm who got secluded in the jar of a pen-pushing colonial or government desk job. Or the pale surface is protected from the elements with a constant smothering of creams, and few young African Caucasian have that much forethought to so protect themselves.
Add to that the Afro-European culture of the sundowner beer or gin and tonic, and it is the exposure of the booze induced lattice of fine veins just beneath the surface of a dry skin, which may be additionally blotched by alcohol derived high blood pressure, that make many Caucasians in Central Africa so often seem older than they are.
Moses was fortunate to still possess a dark healthy countenance, with skin as unblemished and uniformly viscous as freshly melted chocolate.
And of course he was younger than myself by quite a few years. He had joined the unit only towards the end of the conflict.
He was still a handsome man, and I could see that the girls on the staff had noticed this.
I cast my mind back to the handful of Americans in the unit, a few of the flotsam from Vietnam who had become addicted to the excitement of combat, and could not readjust to the boredom of urban lives. They had come over to join our struggle. These men gave Moses the nickname ‘Jackie’, because although not quite as big in build, he had a remarkable resemblance to Jackie Robinson, the first American of African descent to play in the baseball major-league.
His allure had much to do with the broadness of his smile and twinkle of eye, but there was also something else that reach beyond the African and both him and his namesake, something not quite African, but hard to pinpoint, a slight refinement of the features.
Whatever it was, I was not averse to riding the coattails of his popularity because, not only were we presented with 2 cups of coffee, but also a sandwich of thickly cut fresh baked bread liberally smeared with butter into which were embedded a few slices of crispy bacon.
Had it been only me, all I would’ve gotten was the coffee.
Leaving them to the bric-a-brac interaction of the conversation, which in its spirit of flirtatious banter was too fast for me to follow along with the native corn day language, I headed for the boats.
It was going to be a quick and rushed reconnaisance that I was going to give Moses of the area, and what quicker way to do this than to traverse the area by boat. This way I would also be able to introduce him to some of the neighbors who had a dog in our hunt as well.
And if we were going to be on the water, why not show him some of my good fishing spots.
I laid out the two short carrying cases and set together the four piece rods which were my private prize, and picked up the case of my favorite lures, dihedral deep divers, with a silver minnow bearing a black dot on its gills and a russet brown Kapenta mimic with a smidge of orange yellow on its belly below where the gills would be located if it were a real fish.
I made sure that at least one of the barbs on the belly hook were cut, so that it would be easier to remove the lure from the mouth of a landed fish.
I loved catching fish, But, I seldom kept any of those I caught. For me fishing was about the skill and excitement of catching not about eating fish.
After attaching the the reels and threading the line, I secured a small swivel to the end of each, using my favorite knot of parsing the line through the eye of the swivel, then twisting it six times around the line, after which I passed it back to thread through the bottom and top loops, before everything was tightened and the excess line cut just above the swivel.
Then picking up the rods I headed down to the boats tether site, which looked out across a faint fog that still lingered on the water.
‘What is all the activity about?’
Precious had followed me out to the boats, and she now stood above me holding onto the edge of the platform railing while I loaded the boat.
I tucked the rods out of the way against the gunwale, together with the spare oars, and placed my tackle box under the deck at the prow. I also checked that we had the life jackets and two full water bottles.
‘Some unexpected late guests will be arriving.’ Precious looked down at me contemplatively.
‘We only were told about it last night. Idaa has already left for Chifumpa to pick up James the chef and a few of the casuals’.
‘When do they arrive? ‘
‘In three days’ she replied.
‘How long will they be staying?’ ‘
Precious shrugged her shoulders, ‘You will have to ask Ida.’