Overnight it had rained again to the north. This was evident from the slow but inexorable creep of the waterline up the sand bar where I was sitting .
But that slow progression was not what occupied my thoughts. Instead it was what I would report to the police, the story seemed fictional. Would they believe me?
Hearing a vehicle I walked up the steps cut into the sand of the river bank. As it approached I saw it was Lauren accompanying Moses in the cab of my cruiser.
Much earlier, well before daybreak, over a cup of coffee, with a hint of sadness in his voice Moses told me he didn’t know when next he would meet Narina. Soon he hoped, but he felt an urgency to squeeze as much bliss from the present as possible. He wanted the sun to shine its rays on their happiness as they watched it rise from the peak of Eden’s Outlook. That of course being the reason for his wanting to borrow my vehicle.
From there he would take Narina back to the lodge the long way around, up the eastern dambo, across the western edge, then down on the far side of the Lodge. He would give her a last game drive. He wanted something the two of them could remember. Something that only they shared, the early morning sun backlighting the herds of Puku and Impala, with maybe a solitary Reedbuck or a cluster of Kudu at the tree line.
He had tried to convince her to travel with us as far as Mumbwa, but that would be disrespectful to her father she had replied. So this morning time with her would be his last for a while he said.
From here she would be heading up to Tanzania for some weeks. Who knew what her schedule would be after that.
But as the vehicle stopped I saw that he no longer looked so glum. His dawn excursion must have gone well.
Lauren leaned her head out of the cruiser’s window before it stopped.
“I hear that you are taking me all the way to Lusaka,” she said with an edge of relief in her voice.
“Yes.” I answered, “You are stuck with Moses and I for a while.”
“I Like that!” she grinned back at me.
Throwing my overnight bag onto the back of the cruiser, I squashed myself up next to her on the tandem passenger seat. She smiled broadly as she leaned across to peck my cheek with a little kiss, and announced loudly, “This is going to be fun.” With that Moses engaged the gears as he turned the vehicle back onto the track out to the main road and we headed for the pontoon.
Two other vehicles were already waiting when we got there.
The first was Mustafa’s Land Cruiser, with its baggage portion piled to the roof with suitcases and bags. The engine was running with the air-conditioning on. Narina sat in the front with her father. Behind them were the elegant pair of latin gold-diggers. Mustafa was correct, they didn’t travel light. Neither did their departed mail consorts whose left behind luggage obviously contributed substantially to the overload.
The third vehicle was an old shabby batted Isuzu pickup. It had crawled out of the Bushland from somewhere, and gingerly eased its sad and creaking joints down the long road to where it now stood second in line to load.
Giving it a gum-less gawk its tail gate had fallen off long ago. The back-bed was piled to the top of its sides, and then more so, with old fertilizer bags filled with who knows what, maze meal, kapenta fish maybe? Sugar? Tucked between the bags were scruffy plastic containers also filled with the necessities of bush-life. Instead of a tailgate, a latticework of scrap metal shelving lashed together prevented everything from rattling onto the road. Beneath all of this, like the leached tail-feathers of a diseased peacock some transparent sheets of corrugated roofing drooped out to the rear.
Sitting on the fertilizer bags, were two men and two women. Presumably a husband and wife in one case, and a grandmother and grandfather in the other. The driver sat in the cab. He was joined by two woman who stood next to its open-door.
The one was emaciated even though she was clearly middle-aged, most probably a victim of AIDS . The other bearing a fine figure, stood fashionably with a long wide copper colored cloth wrapped around her waist, where it served as a skirt, below her bright polka-dot blue blouse.
As I examined the group, she was the only one worth looking at.
Four young children engaged in a tag game, with shouts and peals of laughter as they dashed between the vehicles. Their raucous antics annoyed Mustafa. He would look angrily across at the parents as he spread his upturned palms towards the adults, as if to ask why they were not controlling the kids. They of course looked blankly back not understanding why anybody would find the rowdy play of children worthy of sanction, after all African life is always full of noise and motion.
Lauren and I stood to one side on the bank surveying the scene.
“Take a look at that.” Handing my binoculars to her I pointed to a small narrow strip between the bushes on the other bank. A big crocodile lay sunning itself on the sand.
From the croc I shifted my binoculars to watch how the rusted hulk of the pontoon pushed its way across the river, following the parabolic path of its guide cable.
Before it ground its ramps into the gravel of the slope, one of the operators idled his engine, while the other swiveled his forward, then to the side. With gushes of black smoke and a shuddering rattle of its single stroke beat, the engine pushed the hulks nose to line up with the river bank.
Waving his hand the operator motioned to Mustafa to drive onto the ramp, where he was directed to move forward, and to squeeze to the side of the platform, so that the next vehicle could park alongside.
Next he signaled to Moses to squeeze in parallel to Mustafa.
Lastly the scruffy little pick up bent and buckled under its burden as it lurched up onto the pontoon, with its occupants streaming in its wake.
Lauren and I boarded holding close to the railing to avoid being bumped by the children’s mele.
As the two engines thumped arduously back to life, the passengers gravitated into three groups,. The Latin ladies remained in their vehicle with Mustafa and Narina. Moses, Lauren and I stood on the ramp that was now the prow. The group of pickup travelers congregated at the rear.
As soon as the pontoon scratched its tail off the gravel, as if she couldn’t help herself, Narina abandoned her father’s cruiser to join us.
The thump of the engines pushing us across the water only seem to excite the children more fervently. They continued playing their game of tag, dashing between and around the vehicles, sometimes almost bumping into us on their forays.
When we were half way across Narina and Moses disengaged from our group.
I watched as they threaded themselves between the vehicles and people, to stand at the edge of the Stern ramp. Obscured from her father’s view in his rear view mirror, she tilted her head up and shyly and lightly kissed Moses on his cheek. Then touching the tips of their fingers they looked at the wake of the raft stretching back across the river.
One of the children scampered out from between the two front vehicles, around the dusty scratchy pickup, and dodged between some of the adults as he looked back to see where his tagging pursuer was.
The boy pulled up sharply as he suddenly realized he was about to bump into the back of a woman. But it was too late. His momentum barely nudged her back. Despite the flailing of her arms, she toppled into the water.
I have watched a soldier drown on the Kavango River. Drowning is a quiet affair, lungs are filled with water and not air to shout with.
So it wasn’t Narina’s cries which drew everyone’s attention, it was the shouts of the men trying to reach out and grab her.
Mustafa rushed to the back of the raft. He screamed frantically for someone to pull his daughter out of the water.
With horror filled eyes, I saw Narina struggling to stay afloat. She had the strap of a bag over her shoulder. It weighed her down, as I knew were the bangles on her ankles, and the shoes, and the clothes, and the wet hat drooping like a wilted flower on her head.
Her struggles were barely enough to stay afloat, not enough to make any progress back towards the raft against the current, which was winning the battle. Slowly the distance between her bobbing had and the raft gradually greater.
Suddenly there was a splash,.
Moses had stripped-down to his shorts and dived in after her. He was swimming powerfully out into the middle of the stream.
The pontoon came to a stop, but being tethered in place it was helpless to follow the current down to pick her up. Its occupants were shouting, gesticulating and waving.
As they saw the figure swimming strongly out towards the girl everyone fell silent.
They were pointing as if to give Moses some aid in his rapid steady strokes out towards her.
Raising my binoculars I quickly scanned along the bank line. I couldn’t see what I was looking for.
Moving the glasses back to the action, to my relief I saw Moses reach the struggling girl.
With our old training I knew he could do it. He turned on his back, grasping her under her chin, then with one hand and using the other and his legs he began back stroking towards the south bank where we were headed.
I shouted to the operators to start moving,.
“Quickly! Quickly! Get to the bank”.
The engines coughed black smoke and clattered like a pair of castanets.
Gradually Moses dragged the pair of them across the current towards safety.
The pontoon had not yet ground its snout into the gravel when I leaped ashore and hurtled along the river bank, oblivious of the thorrn shrubswhich tor at my skin and ripped my clothing.
I was meters away, almost could grasp his hand when Moses screamed as never before.
It was deep, desperate, from the heart of Africa. Like Precious’s scream at the Crocodile man.
“YENGA! TU YENGA AKUNO”, “Go, Get away from here!”
Behind them, the sinister elongated snout of a crocodile broke the surface.
Unaffected by the screams it opened its jaws to take hold of Narina’s ankle.
For a moment, suspended above the water, was an arm decorated with the loveliest of tattoos, a floral
filigree etched onto the amber of sun burnished skin. Its pattern brushed behind a flailing elbow, then delicately reappeared from whence the fronds teased to the edges of a slender wrist.
Then, with a swirl there was nothing.
(8th edit – 03/18/2021)
(9th edit, 06/10/2021)