MAY 2008 – NO. 24
Princesses and Jacks
Before I became a guide, I learned that what I feared most was not getting killed myself, but having it happen to someone in my care
A specialist guide is someone who has been around long enough that he or she can market a safari to past clients and their associates, and on that alone stay busy and profitable. Some have a specialty to go with their name, like in-depth knowledge of birds or the night sky. The good ones tell stories that enthrall their clients at night around the campfire, and may even have an element of truth to them.
Before I ever became one myself, a specialist guide came to Mombo, and I learned that what I feared most was not getting killed myself, but having it happen to someone in my care.
This specialist was one of the good ones and was known to be a tad wild. His party included a couple who were members of the British royal family. They were far enough from the throne that it would take an extraordinary series of accidents for them to become king and queen, but they were close enough to it that they spoke with their teeth clenched, smelled rich, and somehow made you feel like Oliver Twist asking for more every time they spoke to you.
With them were their three grown children and another young guy who was friends with one of the younger royals. It was hard to tell which one, because at some point the mother must have given birth like a machine gun — Pop! Pop! Pop! They weren't triplets, but they did all seem to be around 20. So did their friend, whose name was Charlie, and he too was a young lord or baronet himself.
It may have been Charlie who started it, but the commencement of that evening's festivities, like much of that night, is hazy. The guides often ended up in one of their or the manager's tents after all the guests had gone to bed. We'd play stupid drinking games or just drink. It relieves the strain of being polite all the time. Because these royals were young, and wanted to have fun, they got themselves invited to the rarely seen back of camp. In addition, the girl was pretty, and one of the guides had a bit of a thing for her already. "Guys," Hayden said earnestly. "I really like her. I think she likes me. Can you watch us and let me know if she likes me?"
"It's unlikely," said Al.
"You're not that good looking," added Anna, the English manager.
"Not that charming either," offered Robyn, the Canadian.
"Like an incontinent warthog," I finished.
This was the way we spoke to each other most of the time, in short offensive blasts. When we spoke to the young royals, however, we portrayed him as if he was some sort of god. Perhaps we were going too far, but we decided there was no point underdoing it and calling him a king, because this girl wouldn't be impressed by that. We needed to talk him up and hope that a lot of alcohol might make him more appealing.
There was solidarity in our effort. Most of the people that came on safari were too old or too recently married to be open to the seductive charms that a khaki uniform holds. If an attractive, single girl did arrive in camp, and there was a guy who didn't have a partner on the staff, we'd all do our best to help him. Otherwise you had to listen to them complaining about it.
That night there were three guides and two camp managers, plus the four young royals in the canvas-and-pole structure that we called a house. In Northern Botswana this is considered a large gathering. Al, the specialist guide, brought some poker dice that had the faces of various cards instead of numbers on them, and he suggested playing strip poker. None of us knew how to play poker, or how to use these particular dice, so Al suggested that we take turns rolling the dice and every time the jack's face came up, whoever had thrown it would take off an article of clothing or drink a shot of tequila.
For some reason it seemed like a good idea. Al was the only one in the room over 25. We all started drinking, and then when we felt couldn't drink anymore, started stripping. On occasion somebody would wander off to the bathroom or outside to pee. (Outside was just as easy and private for the guys. The bathroom was only a basic basin and toilet screened by a thin sheet of canvas.) If you timed your exit right, you could avoid a turn with the dice and the chance of another tequila or lost garment.
Arguments as to whether a belt was clothing or not, and whether one sock counted, came and went, with a lot of joviality and drink pouring. Charlie, wearing only his underpants, got up and went out the door for a piss like most of the guys had been doing. We drank on and stripped down.
The noise we were making was just enough to drown out the usual night sounds of distant lions, shuffling porcupines, wailing bush babies, and the occasional alarm of an antelope that would make us all think "Leopard!" But we weren't too loud. If we became too raucous, we would keep the other guests awake and then have to deal with complaints from our bosses in the distant town in the weeks to come. We were professional enough to hush anyone who got too vocal, but not enough that we ended the game when we should have.
Finally Hayden was naked and pale in the lantern light. Nobody was sure if the game was over, because we were making up the rules as we went along.
It was decided that from that point on, if Hayden threw a jack he would have to fulfill a challenge, or down a tequila shot. At this stage the mention of the Mexican liquor was enough to make us all gag, but we were still having fun. Hayden announced that the game would be over only when everybody was naked. Al kept rolling queens and kings, and to this day I suspect him of cheating without a theory as to how, and soon he was the last one with a stitch on.
We all sat with our knees clutched against our chests for the little privacy it offered, but on occasion one of the girls would laugh a little too loud or readjust and you could sneak a peek. Maybe they were doing the same with us guys, but I don't think so.
Hayden had edged closer to the little princess and slithered an arm over her shoulders. We were all grinning at this with the subtlety of baboons, except her brothers, who didn't seem that happy. Then Hayden rolled a jack, the first fully naked person to do so. It was suggested that he make the sound of a dying warthog while standing naked in the clearing outside to see if lions would come, which the young princes liked the sound of, but Al and I vetoed it as too risky. Instead we made him do a flaming arsehole.
This sophisticated challenge involves clenching five squares of toilet paper (or bog roll as it is known in Botswana) between the backside cheeks. These are then set alight, and an arbitrarily determined distance must be run by the individual. The heat encroaches and singes some places, and running barefoot is awkward over the thorny ground. But Hayden managed his challenge capably, and we all went back inside to carry on with the game. Hayden circled like a hyena trying to figure out how to get his arm around the girl again.
Then one of her brother's said, "Where's Charlie?"
I had never gone from dead drunk to stone-cold sober before. It is a sensation like an electric shock that leaves you tingling, alert, and with the taste of copper in your mouth. One minute your balance is off, you are laughing too much and too loud, and breasts seem to be the most magnificent things you have ever seen. Then you come back into sharp focus. You can see the imperfections, and the only remnant of drunkenness is the feeling of being a little sick.
I looked at Al, and his tan had disappeared. Hayden, Al, and I all grabbed our shorts at once and pulled them on. One of the disadvantages we had had in the game was that most safari guides don't wear underpants. It was an advantage though now because we were all dressed by local standards as soon as the shorts were on. Add shoes, and you're ready to go on a rescue mission.
We paused at the door of the house, sober enough to want a plan. Al took charge.
"Hayden, he's staying in tent 6, see if he made it back. Pete, head round to the main building."
We got the two managers to stay with the remaining royals and made some half-hearted reassurances that we were sure he would be okay, that he probably just snuck away to bed. I don't know exactly what the others were thinking, but my thought process went like this: Not lions. We would have heard them. Or hyenas. We would have heard them too — and if it were a single hyena it wouldn't have had the balls to jump him, even if he was staggering drunk. Maybe a leopard? But the leopards that we used to see were unusual, almost freakish, in their lack of aggression. Maybe, I thought, a single lion. Some female that had split from the pride to have cubs. She would do it with minimal noise and fuss to avoid hyenas. Shit.
As I walked with a flashlight that I didn't remember picking up, I suddenly started feeling very vulnerable and wished I had underpants on. It wasn't cold, but I felt a chill as the beam swung left, right, left, looking for the forward facing eyes of a predator.
"Charlie!" I hissed, still not prepared to wake the other guests. It would be morning until we could properly look for tracks to see which way he had gone and what had got him, but we all wanted an answer now.
Only now that I was away from the others did all the night noises crash back in. Owls hooted, screeched, or lewdly whistled, depending on the species. Toads croaked in the puddle made where we washed our cars. Somewhere, not far, a hyena whooped, and the hairs on the back of my neck grew bristly and stiff. The light arced around, and there was Al, coming around a corner of the kitchen tent. Both of our lights jumped.
We stood quiet for a moment, taking stock and pondering our careers. Among the mixed sounds of a branch scratching at the thatch and the animals calling, fighting, and dying, was a repetitive and unknown noise. It repeated at odd intervals, almost rhythmic but not quite. Guides follow new sounds, because they may lead to something they haven't seen before.
Al and I looked at each other, still breathing heavily, and wordlessly homed in on the sound. It wasn't far from the kitchen tent, maybe by the laundry room, but the noise was definitely organic. The generator had been switched off long ago, and you could tell when a sound was made by an animal. Every now and then Al and I would pause, shining our lights around and whispering Charlie's name. The sound never paused. It just kept its erratic beat.
Tap tap. Growl.
Tap tap. Growl.
It didn't sound like something feeding. That's a wet sound, with tearing noises mixed in. This was dry and raspy.
Tap tap. Growl.
We rounded the locked laundry door, and there sprawled against the wall, with his legs splayed in front of him, was Charlie. As our light played over his incongruously white underpants, he clapped weakly twice and gave out a hoarse "Hey!" in a scratched and vulnerable voice, just as he must have been doing for hours.
"Fuck," said Al.
"Yeah," I said.
"Hey," said Charlie.
After we'd carried him to his room, we went back and collected the royals, clothed now and looking young and awkward. We told them that Charlie had been found and was fine. He'd confessed that he'd wanted to sneak away, and thought he'd find his tent. He'd found some startled Belgians instead, backed away from their tent, and staggered off into the bush. Looking at his tracks the next day, it could only be considered a miracle that he'd made it back into the camp, such a wandering and tortuous path had he walked. When he'd found the laundry structure, he'd felt saved and was convinced his clapping and "heying" would keep any predators at bay for the rest of the night.
We escorted the guests (their status as guests had been restored with their clothes) back to their tents, bidding them all a safe good night, and regathered at the staff house. We did a half-hearted clean up, sweeping empty bottles into a bag and collecting the random and discarded clothes that still littered the floor. We all decided that the night was over, and shaken but relieved we started heading for our tents. There was only one unresolved issue.
"So," Hayden asked us as we moved into the darkness. "Do you think she likes me?"
Excerpted from the book Whatever You Do, Don't Run by Peter Allison. Copyright © 2008 by Peter Allison. Used by permission of The Lyons Press.
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