The Hummingbird

Light pooled and dispersed between the shadows, containers of cool air vaulted beneath the broad leaves. Through the canopy vines we bathe in the greenery and soak up the wildness of nature surrounding us. I look across at Choco, sitting on a wooden bench sipping his Belikin, with the beginnings of a smile and finally a look that bordered on contentment.

I started out this morning with Choco. Round head, dewlap like flap at the base of his skull, large belly, Mayan descent. I knew little more about him despite the fact he had picked me up every day since I had been in Belize. He was very pleasant but also very quiet and he had a look as though the monotony of daily life had worn him down a little.

Each morning he would arrive at 6am to take me to the dive shop. Mostly our 10 minutes together was consumed by my excited ramblings of today’s scuba diving excursion, my sub-aquatic adventures from the day before and if we had time, what happened last night at the pub. I didn’t get much by way of a response from Choco, he nodded and responded with brief sentences like “very good” or “what will you do tomorrow?”

Today though I was going on a road trip to explore a large cave system about 3 hours from Placencia and I faced the proposition of over six hours alone in minivan with Choco. As usual he was on time. I was keeping company at the top of the road with Miguel, a security guard from the guest house at which I was staying. “Good luck with the Hummingbird” he commented as I jumped into Choco’s van and waved him goodbye from the window.

“What is the Hummingbird?” I asked Choco.

“It is the road we will be driving”

“Is it dangerous?” I asked

“No” he replied and with that we slipped back into our usual early morning one directional discussion. However, not feeling like driving in silence for six hours and tiring of my own voice, I started pressing him for conversation.

I pried from him an update on the border dispute with Guatamala and his view on whether I should hitch there the next day. Teased from him details regarding his family life and growing up in Belize. Investigated the Mayan peoples and the remnants of their rich culture; and when we had exhausted all standing topics I pressed back in my seat and felt the warm morning air flood through the window as I commented on the postcard perfect scenery along the Hummingbird Highway.

By the time we got to our destination Choco had relaxed and was now starting to initiate some discussion. I almost wished we could drive a little longer, thinking I had nearly cracked him.

About four hours after he dropped me off I found Choco diligently waiting for me for our return journey. He was leaning back against his van with his shirt off. The Belizian sun reflecting off his protruding round smooth belly. He saw me emerging from the jungle and quickly whipped his shirt back on and gave me a wave.

I had spent the morning hiking through the jungle, zip lining through its canopy, exploring an extensive cave system and floating down a stream. Wet and filthy dirty I grabbed a change of clothes and beckoned Choco to join me for lunch. I handed him a beer and we sat along a wooden bench quietly admiring the tumble of rapids in the nearby stream.

We jumped into the van and a discernibly more jovial Choco declares “Guinness is my favourite. I like Belikin but Guinness is the best.” It seems as though beer has acted as a social lubricant for the now much chattier Choco. I suggested I might want to get some beer for the trip back. “Guinness is the beer I drive best on.” Choco adds. “ I know where we should go!”

A local toothless man with a weak chin stepped from the verandah of the general store as I exited with my bag of Guinness. “You’re gunna need something to get you back through the Hummingbird.”  He quipped, following this statement with a booming laugh as he scratched his head and looked out towards the jungle.

“I wonder what he meant by that?” I asked Choco as I handed him his first can of Guinness. Choco shrugs. His beam widening as he cracks the top of his can. We swerve off down the road with Choco chuckling aloud. “I like Guinness”

At first Choco’s chuckles made me smile at him enjoying himself so much. Then I couldn’t help joining in. Both of us chuckling like school children, Choco’s whole body shaking, as we cruised the Hummingbird. Then I saw a sign by the road that said “Prepare to meet thy maker.” I still hadn’t determined the nature of the threat of this road. Needless to say it was a little disconcerting seeing that sign as Choco cracked another beer with another high pitched chuckle.

I searched the road up ahead for signs of danger but it gave me no hints. It seemed like a perfectly safe road. Perhaps there were tight turns that fall away to plummeting ravines or cliffs with loose shoulders that I hadn’t noticed on the way here. Maybe bandits that lay in wait; or could the warnings I had received be the universe cautioning me about my increasingly intoxicated driver. My vigilant watch for impending disaster was broken by Choco opening up and giving me the run down on his girlfriends. In fact now that Choco had started talking I couldn’t shut him up.

Choco it turns out was 44, had a wife and 4 kids and despite appearances was an unscrupulous seducer of tourist women. Didn’t see that coming. He started with his relationship with a Canadian tourist that he became, in his words, “overly friendly” with. He was going to run off with her, except there was a problem with his papers that required his wife’s signature. That was the end of that one he lamented.

After cataloguing a number of star crossed affairs he talked me through his relationship with a Spanish tourist who agreed to be “on the side” until she got his wife’s number from his phone and started texting her that Choco was going to leave her.  Choco denied everything and then “gifted” his wife a new smart phone, with a new number of course and broke it off with the Spanish lady.

He told me he was a bit hurt by the Spanish girl because he trusted her and she broke his trust. I tried to explain there may be some irony in a married man feeling betrayed by his lover but he didn’t grasp the concept and besides he was now having such a good time on this trip back home I didn’t want to spoil it for him. Choco and I were finally connecting. It may have taken half a day and a good deal of Guinness though.

I imagined what it would be like if I could always take the time to connect with the people around me. People I usually pass in my day that I don’t have words to say to or perhaps just no time to say them. Choco and I had little in common but for the next couple of hours we laughed, we drank beer and we ate some of the Namibian Oryx biltong I had in my bag.

By the time we pulled back into Placencia, Choco leaned over and patted me on the knee and told me he was very happy with the drive home, he had never had such a good time working and he felt like the day was for him.

We pulled up in front of my accommodation, the lady at the front desk called out “I see you survived the Hummingbird.” I looked at Choco, he shrugged again. I never found out what if any risks there are driving the Hummingbird. I did find out a lot about my driver Choco though.

Choco. Guinness lover, chuckler…. lothario.

The search for the Pangolin

Today is World Pangolin day and so I thought I would share with you a little bit about my search for this amazing little creature.

Pangolin are the world’s most illegally traded animal. The Asian market uses the scales for jewellery and medicines (most likely for impotence) and drain foetal blood for an elixir to reduce blood pressure. This wonderfully funny looking creature is now critically endangered.

The Pangolin is the only mammal covered in scales (made from the same material found in a rhino’s horn), it can live on the ground or in trees, it eats up to 70 million insects a year and its tongue can be longer than its body. In 2012 Sir David Attenborough chose the Pangolin as one of his ten favourite species he would save from extinction.

I first became intrigued about Pangolin when I was asking a Zimbabwean local about black magic.  He told me a story of a worker at a cotton mill near Harare in Zimbabwe who had found a Pangolin in the bush. The worker didn’t know what the bizarre creature was; describing it as a lizard that walked on its hind legs that had fish like scales. So he killed it.

African tribal beliefs are that the Pangolin is a mythical creature. This belief may partly lie in the fact that Pangolins are attracted to eat shiny objects and as such, years ago, when you killed a pangolin and cut open its stomach it sometimes contained diamonds.

The worker in this story showed the Pangolin to his co-workers who explained what it was and that it was very bad luck to kill a Pangolin because it held magical powers. Because the Pangolin was already dead the workers ate the animal. That day the cotton mill they were working at stopped. Without warning and without explanation.

The German owners of the mill called for their technicians to source the problem but no problem could be found. They engaged electricians from Harare who also could find no problem with the equipment. They had no choice but to call on their German headquarters to fly down experts in the machinery mechanics but they too could find no trace of a problem with the mill. It was a mystery that the mill could be in perfect working order but simply would not turn on.

Eventually word got round the crew of the worker who killed the Pangolin. Some of the men went to the site manager and explained that the killing of the Pangolin had caused the machinery to stop working. The German managers at first dismissed this information but as the days grew to weeks they became increasingly desperate for a solution.

The workers finally convinced them to call in the local tribal chief who suggested if the bosses promise not to punish the worker for his mistake in killing the pangolin, and for a moderate fee of course, he would be able to fix the situation. The German managers reluctantly agreed to payment on result and the chief called in the local witch doctor.

The witch doctor performed a ritual and when he was finished the chief sent the managers back to the mill. The machinery began to work immediately.

 

I have been searching for a Pangolin in the wild for over a decade throughout Africa and Asia since hearing that story and last year I got my best chance yet to finally see one.

My friends and I were staying at Erindi Reserve in Namibia. It was my first time back in Africa since I finished working as an overland tour guide many years ago. The first few days we had been on morning and evening game drives and by night we braii over a fire twenty metres from a waterhole where we were visited by Hippo, Crocodile, Oryx, Springbok, Impala, Blue Wildebeest, Red Hardtebeest, Elephant, Kudu, Giraffe and Zebra. Not bad viewing over our boerewors.

However this day we were to join our guide PJ to monitor a male Pangolin on the other side of the Reserve. We started out through the savannah of Erindi following a weak signal from the tagged Pangolin’s transmitter. PJ uses the transmitters to gather information about the Pangolin to help ensure their survival in the wild.

Early into the drive we encountered an Aardwolf with her cub. Aardwolves are shy nocturnal insectivorous mammals. It is extremely rare to see one at all, especially in the middle of the morning. Two Aardwolf cubs peek from the hole in their midden and curiously glance at us before darting away and returning. We unfortunately must interrupt this beautiful moment, we have a more pressing engagement with the Pangolin.

We continue through the scrub when we spot a Lion pride of nine. PJ identifies this pride as one led by Etosha, a strong and aggressive matriarch. Always a blessing, we must give appropriate time to appreciate the majesty of this animal. As we sat transfixed to the scene metres in front of us, two new males approach the pride.

PJ turns to me with an excited look.

“Takeover?” I ask. He nods back with a grin. This was truly a rare experience and one that sent thrills through our group. Traditionally the approaching males will kill all the cubs, bringing the lionesses in oestrus so they can start to build their own pride.

We watched on for hours as the lions tactically positioned themselves and attacked. However, after an aggressive and violent start, Etosha was too powerful and the males submitted, leaving her pride in tact. We still had a long way to go and had burned valuable Pangolin time. A detour that no one regretted.

One more stop to fearfully admire a three metre Black Mamba that crossed the path of the vehicle. I am told if a Black mamba bites you it is best to find a shady tree and lie down beneath it… dead bodies don’t smell as much in the shade. We watched on and followed slowly alongside the snake that seemed unphased by our presence. The Pangolin signal was strong, we weren’t far, so we said goodbye to the terrifying Mamba, all hoping we would never see one this close again.

Eventually we made it to where the transmitter was sending its signal but it appeared the Pangolin had already gone underground. We found fresh spoor as we walked around an Aardvark hole. We could smell the Pangolin, on musk, deep in the hole but he wasn’t coming out to meet us this day.

On the way home we found another pride of five lions. This one PJ said was led by Shadow. A 230kg male who terrifyingly got his name from his habit of following people home. We again sat transfixed to the pride before the declining sun cast a caramel hue across the savannah and beckoned us home. Diligently watching we didn’t have Shadow on our tail.

We eventually got back to our camp after an exciting day in the Reserve. Once again the Pangolin had eluded me.

Bizarrely, I kind of like that though. I love that nature isn’t on demand. Many years I have spent roaming the wild, looking for the Pangolin. Each trek leading me through breathtaking scenery and chance encounters with wildlife. It occurs to me, the experiences I have had in search of the Pangolin have contained some of the most deeply enriching and exciting moments.

I hope I see a Pangolin one day. Regardless of whether I am lucky enough to spot one though, given my encounters on the way, searching for this magical creature may bring some of the most rewarding times of my life.

 

The Pofadder

We start on our afternoon walking safari through the Okavango Delta, the sun still hanging high in the sky. A light breeze occasions our sweaty skin providing a momentary reprieve to the oppressive heat. The dry open fields of bush and savannah grassland framed by fingers of delta water carving through the dryness.

Ahead of us an unsuspecting Pofadder basks in the sun, camouflaging itself in the dryness of the grass. Bitis arietans, is a particularly aggressive biter and is answerable for more fatalities than any other snake in Africa. Preferring to bite rather than avoid confrontation it releases a cytotoxin venom, which in the remoteness of the Delta is likely to result in a best case scenario of the victim losing the limb this viper strikes.

We head out along a thin trail carved by animals through the savannah grass. Master, a member of the local Bayei Tribe and expert tracker in the Delta helping me lead the group. He has been training me to track animals through the bush, to decipher the subtle notes of broken twigs and tracks. I recall my many failed attempts when I started this training. At each track in the dirt he would point.

“Wildebeest?” I would look at him like a student eager to please his teacher

“No Robbo”

Hartebeast?”

“No”

A sounder of warthogs run by, tails in the air as a guide to the scurrying suckers following an impatient mum. The babble of the Delta waterways close by, keeping inconsistent time, occasioned by a stirring bush. The whisper of the breeze through the Mopani trees only interrupted by the coos of tourists spotting something big in the distance.

Our group stops momentarily to observe a cohort of zebra grazing across the expanse. No fences, no vehicles, in a line we pause to appreciate the wildness of it all before starting out again. We try to keep our footfall light on the dusty track, eyes keenly scanning the scene for hints of wild in the dry savannah.

The Pofadder ahead recoils, ready to strike.

Overhead the shrill and ominous cries of an African Fish Eagle, the sound of the African wild, signals the danger unfolding. The grass reaches up, slowing our steps, pulling us at our legs in an attempt to prevent our path to the wickedness ahead. But a sinister trap had already been laid and we were about to be under attack.

The Pofadder strikes. Silently, swiftly. I saw nothing, heard nothing, only the barking and high pitched braying of the zebra as two long fangs inject a venomous cocktail deep into the fleshy skin. The victim jumps back in a terrifying and futile panic. Kicking out as the Pofadder recoils, resets, pausing as the heavy feet of our group push up the trail.

Again the Pofadder strikes. A new victim now. Master and I turn to see the terror in her eyes as the serpents powerful thrust sends frantic and repeated blows to the ankle of one of my female passengers.

This second attack however was thwarted. The Pofadder’s mouth was still full of frog. Its first victim kicking, sheathing the viper’s fangs. The girl jumps away with a shriek and the Pofadder retreats back into obscurity in the grass.

Our hearts race frantic. We stand there all scanning the ground for further terror before composing ourselves to continue cautiously forward. A close escape. Fortunately for us, not so fortunate was the poor frog.

Want Power?

I follow the rope down. The blue slowly suffocates the light as I keep my eyes fixed on the braided cord.  Every few metres I lower my hand to my mask to equalize the pressure building on my face. Upside down. I follow the rope still. Down into the blue.

At twenty metres I grope for the weights at the bottom of the rope, my breath running low. I feel I’ve been underwater too long already. My chest tightens as I straighten and look back up towards the surface. Its too far and I first feel my lungs start to burn. A desire to swallow filling my mind to distraction I start my ascent. My diaphragm starts to tremble. Fighting to breathe I foolishly open my mouth, it floods with water causing me to cough.

“Calm yourself Robbo” I repeat in my mind, “you’ve trained for this.” My blood is still fully enriched with Oxygen. “You don’t need to breathe” I tell myself.

I close my eyes. I feel tired. I try and concentrate on my slow kicks to the surface, searching for the power to overcome the desperation in my lungs.

*****

“Something… want something?”  A murmur comes from a local boy as I pass. I’d have questioned whether he was even talking to me if there was anyone else remotely close. “Hey, you want something, want power?”

I continue walking down the dirt road to the centre of town, picking my way around puddles in the street and dodging a Shetland horse drawn cart. Wooden shop fronts with thatched roofs line the strip. Restaurants, bars, yoga studios, and dive shops. Purveyors of tours and Bintang and ice cream attempt to prise me from my path.

I had made it to Gili Trawangan in Indonesia to learn to free dive. The goal was to dive on one breath to a depth of 20 metres. Each day my instructor Victor refined my technique. Victor is the second best freediver in the Ukraine and he can dive to 85 metres. Mike who owns Gili Freedive is the British champion who reaches depths of 103 metres on a single breath. I am in awe of these guys. Baby steps.

After two days of exercises and training, breaking through the mental urge to breathe and the physical symptoms of CO2 build up I surfaced to the cheers of Victor and my fellow students. Mission accomplished. This evening I am out on the town ready to relax and celebrate over dinner.

Travellers pock the road. Their hair braided and skin deeply tanned. There are no cars on Gili Trawangan. Travellers walk, take a cart or ride a push bike. The horses were not well maintained and one had already bitten me on the hip as it passed, leaving a bruise and who knows what rabies type mad horse disease it might be carrying.

Another man sidles next to me on the road. “You want something, you want power?”

It is said some of the locals are on crystal meth and they will approach you trying to sell you drugs to support their habit. Some follow you into the toilets, they stand next to you while you are peeing and pull out a bag of weed. Others simply prop up next to you at a bar and pull out a little box with bags of cocaine, HDMA, crack and ice. They refer to drugs as power. “You want something?” they would ask.

I start out down the road and immediately am beckoned towards a pizza shop. I stopped to give courtesy to the tout, pointing out to him though that there was a mouse in the window walking on the toppings. He acknowledged that it was in fact a mouse. “Good eye, please come and sit.” I don’t.

I move further along to the town centre. Under a mish mash of tarps, strung across a square concrete football field, the smoke wafts from coal BBQs, the heat being fanned to cook fish, rays, crustaceans, and local chicken. Aromas swirling through the mugginess around cats on the ground, Christmas lights hanging early or really really late flashing in one corner, across seafood stalls, laden with today’s catch under melting ice blocks and the more than occasional fly.

Locals are choosing their dinner, the newer tourists with a little more care circling a couple of times before committing or moving to a more “western” restaurant.  Bintang and fresh juices adorn pink lino covered wooden bench tables. Travellers are picking through charred fish and their day’s adventures in tongues from across the world. The smoke thickens, the sweet clove smell of Gudang Guram cigarettes linger in the air, I feel totally in place.

After dinner my dive buddies and I find an outdoor bar with live music. Travellers walk past us on the street as we settle in for the evening.

A guy selling DVDs comes by intently trying to sell his wares, surely this is a diminishing business that once flourished in South East Asia.

A guy walks by intently trying to sell some portable Bintang speakers. I have seen this guy no less than 10 times in the last few days and every time he played Sultans of Swing. He must really like that song, or by now really hate it.

A guy walks by selling woven bracelets… intently.

As we talk a local man is grabbing at my arm. “Want power?” he mutters. His eyes look through me, his clothes dirty and torn, face shifty and world worn. I politely decline as he pulls up a stool directly behind us. He opens his box of drugs and puts his feet on the back of my chair. Again he grabs me with his rough hands “what you want? Again I politely fob him off.

He interrupts us again, now bragging about taking HDMA that morning. He looks left and right down the street. “The high very good, you want?”

“No mate I don’t”

His partner in crime hassling a couple nearby spun around, his pupils like saucers, pronounced aloud “I take crack. You want something?” He grabs a bag of HDMA and tosses it into my lap. I pick it up urgently and throw it back at him.

“Why you scared?” he demands.

“Im not scared, I’m tired and you are annoying me” I replied curtly

“Tired huh? You just need some power!”

A lo Cubano (The Cuban way)

You don’t walk through Havana, you stroll dreamily but with an excitement that really only grips you when you explore a new city. And when you do that in Havana it is as though everything you have known is forgotten and you are born again, learning a new world for the first time. The streets are alive, the musica heady and emanating from the corner of every old town bar. Street vendors sing for our attention and cats lazily watch on as we make our way towards our accommodation.

We rented an apartment in the old town for CUC40 per night. Options were scarce but our casa particulares was only the equivalent of AUS$30. The owner, like everyone else in Cuba, spoke no English. Usually this is no problem. In fact we revel in determining our way deep in another culture. However today two Nicoles booked to rent this apartment…. on the same day. This added a degree of difficulty to our interactions, as our Spanish had deteriorated to phrases used most regularly on Speedy Gonzales cartoons.

Our host confused, thought she had one guest named Nicole coming in on the evening flight and so didn’t pick us up at the airport in the morning. As travellers who always pack a healthy dose of patience and good humour, my Nicole and I made our own way into the city, unruffled. In fact we were delighted to do so, finding the incursion into new realms energising.

The building in which we were to reside for the next week had a dangerous look to it. There was no predatory vibe from the people, more from the broken staircase, the exposed nails and electrics, and the balconies that hung on the dirty facade out into the street. Hung sounds too secure, more dangle precariously than hung. Held by layers of peeling paint, remnants of a chore long since abandoned.

The doorbell didn’t work so we managed to follow someone in and meandered our way through the building, at times finding ourselves moving through people’s living rooms that had somehow over the years morphed into common walkways. They smiled and nodded, unphased as we passed by their tele.

There was no one home in our apartment but through an elaborate display of hand gestures and broken Spanish that may have looked like interpretive dance to the onlooking residents, a neighbour found what I guess were the communal keys to all apartments and let us in.

We somehow managed to sign out a need also for the owner’s phone number and after much referencing of our phrase book I managed to communicate to her that Nicole was aqui ….ahora. Here? Now? A squeal that seemed like a mix of delight and panic came down the line. Then click. Nicole asked if she was coming? I shrugged.

We spent the next 15 minutes taking in turns of walking onto the balcony and waving to the children on the opposite balconies, when our host burst into the room with a flurry of hugs and a niece in toe that could translate in broken English.

We worked out the apartment had been double booked and so a couple of phone calls later by our host and we were being led through the streets of the old town to our new apartment by the niece and her boyfriend who were eager to find out everything they could about Australia. The new accommodation was equally small, dated and tired but clean and our new host was lovely. So with that sorted we headed out into the city.

The streets of Havana are clean, save the rubble of abandoned building sites. The architecture captures perfectly time and place and still in places shows glimpses of their majesty in the 1950s. Now they are run down, their brightly coloured paint faded though to charming hues. Doors, walls and balconies maintained over the last 60 years only with bits of wire to keep them functional. The sides of some buildings possess the stigmata of stairways and rooms that were once in an adjacent building that didn’t survive the decay.

People sitting in corrugated iron doorways or on the footpath in front of their house watch on as we explore their streets. Their clothes dry in barred windows as they gather around a small television. Their doors all open to the street for ventilation. As we walk towards the centre of the old town we pass the faces of those who look worn and saddened by poverty, contrasted with those that laugh and dance in a carnival of energy and pizzazz. Vintage cars pass you in the streets and add to the scene which demands you to wander wide eyed. For a moment then, you are transferred to a world that looks like Las Vegas may have looked 70 years ago…. If nothing was ever maintained again. An intriguing and maybe a little sad product of the country’s politics.

A truck commercial on television in Australia 10 years ago was for a “one tonne Rodeo.” The commercial was set to the song Guantanamera. The country’s most noted patriotic song calls to us from every other bar. It has been slightly ruined for me now as I can’t get the damn commercial out of my head.

We head to La Floridita for my Daiquiri and La Bodeguita Del Medio for my Mojito. An old lady, craggy face, hat and long cigar, the Cuban portrait personified stares at me as we walk by and then bursts into a loud cackle throwing her head back in full body display. I think I missed the joke…..  or maybe it was me?

This was our first stop since leaving Mexico. Mexico was an easy lover. She provided brilliant food, breathtaking lodging and relatively easy travel. Cuba makes you work for her love. The food is not so great, you continuously encounter money situations and the accommodation is certainly questionable. But Cuba is a seductress. She has a rhythm, a vibe that is intoxicating, that takes you by the hand and draws you into a salsa dance curb side.

The smoke from fat Cohiba cigars drifts into the air around us, tantalising our cerveza cristal and 18 year old rum before catching the cool breeze and mixing with the music from the band. We sit back on our plastic chairs on the street corner, taking it all in as the humidity of the day lifts.  Glad we made it to Cuba before the western world arrives in droves, with their oversized red shoes and golden arches; putting a Starbucks and Hooters on every other corner.

I look across to Nicole enjoying the Cuban music and sing along….. “one tonne Rodeo, guajira, one tonne Rodeo.”

An African Morning

The shimmering mirage creating a river in front of us through the barren and alien landscape. Cruising through Kuisab Canyon, the sky is bright, the koppies familiar, plummeting into a maelstrom of ravines. A series of striated earthy colour surrounds us and creates a back drop in a study of browns. The wind is given form by the dust trailing our truck…. I know this road.

I had now been guiding in Africa for the best part of a year. We head north through Namibia and make our bush camp.

Sleeping in the bush can be confusing. The groans, gasps and cries in the night of animals I didn’t know initially disorientate years of conditioning. But now I am woken by a noise. It was a familiar sound and I lay there. Still. I feel the stony ground through my swag against my back. Breathing slowly and silently, terrified. Skin prickly, I hear the throaty exhalation of a male lion. Listening intently, trying to determine distance….. “huh….. huh….. huuuuhh”. It’s close, very close. I lift my head, ever so slowly and look into the darkness. There are no other points of reference. I can’t see anything. Slowly I release my arm from my swag, and ever so stealthily I reach behind me and grab hold of the side panel of the truck. Slowly I pull myself under the truck and peek out from under it.

Another low grumbling growl comes from the darkness. My hands tremble as I reach for my swag and pull it under with me. For the next hour, I keep a silent vigil. Eventually I fall asleep, satisfied the roar of the lion is now miles from me.

I wake up, as always just before dawn, crawl out from under the truck and kick the Black Backed Jackals away from the base of my swag. I wrap my maasai blanket around me, light my cigarette and move to tend the smouldering coals of last night’s campfire to life, grinning that Rod is also under the truck up the other end. He obviously faced his own midnight confrontations with the passing pride.

My Grandfather used to tell me pre-dawn was the best part of the day. It won’t be long until the older of the tourists stir but until then this is my time. The air is crisp and so still it can noticeably be disrupted by the turbulence of movement. The sky sand washed, dust cleansed, incrementally shading to blue. I stand there, the coldest part of the night. Watching the movement of elephant, of buck, of monkey as a side show to my focus on the horizon. Gripping the maasai blanket tight around my shoulders as I light another cigarette. Enjoying the cool against my face that barges past the fluttering edges of my blanket. And then the sun pokes up. The expanse providing room for awakening clouds to battle, tumble and streak away. Levitating herds grip the pinks and dissolve into the blues.

Sometimes a passenger gets up and tries to join me in conversation “Wait…..” I would say “listen, watch” and we stand there waiting for the brightness of the sun’s orange to force a squint upon us and the heat rush our faces. Then you notice the beating of wings. The birds darting through the tousled head of the tree tops, the hum of the insects keeping one pitch, then the whisper of the morning breeze through the acacia. I never believed my Grandfather until now.

Silently we stand, connecting. It’s a failure of the western world that it becomes an awkwardness when the silence lingers and inevitably nature’s magic is broken. I’m never the first to speak but when they do it is always in some blessing of the wild. It doesn’t matter. The troops are rising, back to the fire to get breakfast organised and to discuss the sounds everyone heard last night and their hypotheses on the creatures from which they emanated.

Acacia’s Parents

Everyone has that one amazing story. The one you will retell at the next hostel. Sometimes you will hear it in the first ten minutes and sometimes you will have to dig deeper, because not everyone knows their amazing story. It depends more on the listener rather than the teller.

I was thinking back over my travels. Thinking about the countless travellers I had met. One stuck out in my mind. It was a brief encounter about 12 years ago.

I don’t think I ever knew her name. If I had to guess I thought it may have been Susan. She was another encounter on my journey. Another person to pass time with, to share an experience. It was at Acacia Camp in Kenya that I met her. I only knew her for twenty minutes, though I walked away with a great respect for her as one of the people who bravely seek out a new way to live.

I asked her what she was doing way out here?

“We are back here visiting” She said. “My husband and I actually started this camp many years ago now and named it after our first born girl Acacia.” Acacia circled her legs, she had dark caramel skin with beautiful blonde curls in her hair.

Susan was a white Canadian who moved to the Mara years before to study the lives of the Masaai people. At first she wasn’t accepted by the women of the community but after time she began integrating into their way of life. It was then that she met her husband David. At least I think his name was David. He spoke no English and she no Maasai but they began teaching each other and their relationship grew.

In love and married they eventually became pregnant. Susan did not want the baby to be born in Africa so she got on a plane back to Vancouver. Unfortunately she had to take an earlier flight than David and so David made his way to Nairobi airport and caught a flight on to Heathrow for his transfer to Toronto.

David joined our conversation, he was tall and very dark with a strong look and kind eyes. David added that he had his spear taken from him when he reached Heathrow. So in full Masaai blanket, looped earlobe holes, a club , limited English and an onward ticket to Toronto he roamed Heathrow looking for his next flight.

This was the first time David had been out of his country. Another traveller who recognized him as a Masaai rescued him and directed him to his gate, telling him to sit there and when all the other people get up around him, he should follow them.

“So what was the most amazing thing for him being in a western civilization?” I asked. Susan jumped in to answer.
“Well he was so captivated by the light switch, he used to stand there and switch it on and off”

I asked David what he was thinking at the time, he chuckled subtly “I was amazed at being able to turn the sun on and off”

“Maasai men are very proud and, as a woman, you cannot teach them anything unless they request you to” Susan continues. “We were in the hospital one time when I was heavily pregnant about to give birth. I asked him for a can of coke from the vending machine. He took the coins, went to the front of the machine, assessed the coin slot and the buttons. Put the coins in and hit the button and with a clunk the can of coke rattled to the tray below him. He cautiously opened the tray, took out the coke and handed it to me sitting in a wheelchair. David then bent down and looked into the flap, straightened and moved from one side of the machine to the other then tried looking behind the machine. Nodding his head he seemed pretty comfortable that he knew what was going on. Of course I dared not clarify. Any questions he may have had were his to ask.

A few days later we were driving and we went through a McDonalds drive through. We drive up to the little box and a voice came out, ‘may I take your order.’ At this David was shocked. He had understood that there was a guy in the coke machine handing out cans and while he thought it was a terrible job to be in the box with no windows he could not believe how small the man in the box was at the McDonalds drive through. He has had to learn quickly.”

My time with Susan and David was cut short and although I got to share the briefest snippet of their life, my time with them is one that will stay with me for years to come.

I understand David now works at a hardware store in Toronto.