From the slow inexorable creep of the water up the sand bar where I was sitting it was obvious that somewhere far to the north it had again rained hard. But its gradual progression barely made it over the threshold of my consciousness, instead I was preoccupied with what to report to the police.
The story seemed fictional. Would they believe me?
Hearing a vehicle I walked up the steps we had cut into the sandy river bank. This time it was Lauren who accompanied
Moses in the cab.
Earlier, well before daybreak, over a cup of coffee before he left to pick up Narina, , with a hint of sadness
in his voice Moses said he didn’t know when next he would see her. He felt an urgency to squeeze all the bliss from the present. He wanted the sun to shine its rays on their happiness as they watched it rise above the horizon from the peak of Eden’s Outlook.
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. A last game drive. Something the two of them could remember. Something 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.
“Gidi I want to show her that Africa you always talk about. A place untouched by man since the beginning of time.”
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. From here she would be heading up to Tanzania for some weeks. Who knew what her schedule would be after that.
But now as the vehicle stopped he smiled. The 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 gay relief .
“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 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.
Passing the Lodge complex precious walked out to the edge of the road and waved us a goodbye. As she did I heard my cell phone give a whatsap ping as we drove through the satellite dishes reach. However Lauren and I were packed in so close together I could not reach back into the Bell harness to take out the phone. No matter, I would check the message later when we stopped.
Two other vehicles were already waiting when we arrived at the ferry point.
With the engine running and air-conditioning on Mustafa’s Land Cruiser had its baggage portion piled to the roof with suitcases and bags.
Narina sat in the front with her father. Behind them were the elegant consorts. Mustafa was correct, they didn’t travel light. Neither did their departed mail partners whose left behind luggage obviously contributed substantially to the overload.
I wondered what they would think once they found out that their partners were somewhat encumbered.
Behind them was an old shabby batted Isuzu pickup. It had crawled out of the Bushland from somewhere, and gingerly eased its sad 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, 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.. Two woman stood next to its open-door.
The one was emaciated, probably a victim of AIDS . The other bearing a fine figure, stood fashionably with a long wide copper colored cloth wrapped around her waist, below her bright polka-dot blue blouse.
She was the only one worth looking at.
Their boisterous bunch of children played tag around and between the vehicles.. Their shouts and peals of laughter were annoying Mustafa. He look angrily across at the parents as he spread his upturned palms 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.
But then I lost interest in the group as I remembered the earlier text ping.
I check the message.
THe sounds of the children faded.
Lauren and I were standing to one side on the bank surveying the scene.
From far away I heard her ask “what is that over there?” From equally far away I heard her repeat the question as I reread the text message.
‘I am in Lusaka. Staying at Pioneer. Wanna meet? – Sophia.’
“What is the matter with you?” I heard Lauren remonstrate. “Is your cell phone more interesting than me?”
Give me your binocularsshe ordered. I did so.
“Take a look at that.” She pointed to a small narrow strip between the bushes on the opposite bank.
Still preoccupied with the implications of the message, I took the binoculars back. I pointed them to where Lauren indicated.
A huge crocodile lay sunning itself on a small sandy bar below the long grass at the river’s edge.
But I still couldn’t focus.
Why now? Why here. Did she always have to catch me off guard?
I shifted the binoculars to watch how the rusted hulk of the pontoon pushed its way across the river, following the parabolic path of its guide cable. Why didn’t I also have a cable to guide me across the waters of my life?
It would make it all so easy. North to south, south to north, back and forth with no east and wests, or all the degrees in between. Those directions which had so often taken me to nowhere from the love of a ginger haired maiden with her hips like bells and eyes as blue as a cloudless sky.
As I watched, one of the ferry 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 engines the hulk lined its nose up with the bank as it ground to a stop.
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 bending and buckling under its burden lurched up onto the pontoon, with its occupants streaming in its wake.
With me distractedly trailing behind her, Lauren and I boarded. We held to the railing to avoid being bumped by the children’s on-going mele.
As the two engines thumped arduously back to life, the passengers gravitated into 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 the pontoon scratched its tail off the gravel, unable to 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.
They threaded themselves between the vehicles and people, to stand at the edge of the Stern ramp behind the peacocks forlorn feathers where they were partially obscured from her father’s rear view mirror. There, she quickly 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 the adults as he looked back to check for his tagging pursuer.
The boy pulled up sharply!! He realized he was about to bump into the back of a woman. It was too late. His momentum barely nudged her back. Despite the flailing of her arms, she toppled forward into the water.
I have watched a soldier drown on the Kavango River. Drowning is a quiet affair, lungs are filled with water, not air to shout with.
The cries of the men trying to reach out and grab her drew everyone’s attention.
We rushed to the back of the raft. Mustafa 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 increased.
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 towards her.
Raising my binoculars I quickly scanned along the bank line. I couldn’t see anything.
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 lept ashore and hurtled along the river bank, oblivious to the thorn shrubs tearing and ripping at my clothing and skin.
I was meters away, almost able to 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 huge 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 as the fronds teased to the edges of a slender wrist.
With a tug from Moses desperate grip around her chest, and with a swirl of water, an African Eden lost its innocence.
The Crocodile of old Africa claimed its sacrifice.