Highly Commended by Writers Village Best, UK
I threw myself onto the firm double bed and looked around my dazzling white colonial style room. The wooden shutters were wide open, allowing in a welcome zephyr breeze and one last glorious glimpse of the exhausted sun, sliding gracefully underwater. It’s face was brilliant crimson, as if embarrassed by its departure.
“Good evening baas,” said the ever so polite waiter. In his over-starched, double-breasted, snow-white tunic, he resembled cricketer Viv Richards in full test match attire.
He placed my gin and tonic carefully on a lace doily beside the bed, then smiled and adjusted his flat-topped, conical red fez with its funny little black tassel that swung to and fro like a pendulum.
‘Hmm…he’s a bit like a black Tommy Cooper too,’ I thought, slipping a coin into his huge hand. “Thanks…by the way, what’s your name?” I enquired.
“Never Mind. Zakernaker…… Goodnight sir,” was the reply as he turned to leave.
A bit startled, I called him back. “No, don’t say that. I’d like to know your name please.”
With the same yawning pearly-white smile I’d seen on every African since arriving on the continent a week earlier, he looked softly at me, clasped his hands together and quietly whispered, “My name is Never Mind…. that’s my name.”
My return grin wasn’t as big as his but my teeth not so white. I bid him goodnight and giggled to myself as I sipped my gin. Never bloody mind indeed. He must think I’m daft.
It was hard to sleep with the air conditioner and my mind rattling in infuriating harmony. Finally, after years of longing and planning, here I was on holiday in Africa, maybe not the darkest part, but pretty close.
The humidity was horrific with my body rebelling, appeased only by ice-cold alcohol. Could I survive another week?
Flamingoes, giraffes, lions and elephants flew, loped, prowled and lumbered through my gin-soaked dreams. Sometimes, the elephants flew, the giraffes prowled and the flamingoes loped.
By bacon, egg and sunrise I was exhausted and primed for some real slumber, but I had just an hour to get ready for the day’s adventures with the rest of the ‘Flame Lilly Tour.’
Another cricketer - Gary Sobers I think - delivered my breakfast, served with tomato sauce and the traditional African smile.
“Good morning baas. Here is your breakfast sir,” he said and hovered a little in expectation of a small remuneration.
I knew only five words of the Shona language and proudly used two of them for the first time. “Mangwanani. Zakernaker,” I said placing a few cents into his waiting palm. “And what’s your name?”.
“Doesn’t Matter, sir. Zakernaker,” he replied.
My burst of laughter echoed throughout the hotel as I grabbed his hand. “Now don’t you dare tell me that’s your real name!….. is that your real name?”
“Yes baas. My name is Doesn’t Matter.”
“Do you by any chance know Never Mind?” I said sniggering.
“Yes of course sir…he’s a friend of mine,” said my waiter, who I thought would make a great wicker keeper.
They either think I’m a gullible idiot or they’re eating some powerful bloody mushrooms, was my conclusion.
The joke and a good shower woke me up and breakfast was delicious. Now for my first taste of rural Africa.
At dusk, the sinking sun looked harmless and divine. By day, it unforgivingly scorched Kariba, its people, its abundant wildlife…. and me.
A huge dam holds back a vast lake of the same name, stretching all the way down Zimbabwe’s western border and separating it from Zambia.
An hour on a boat, a visit to the dam wall and a convivial but rich meal of barbecued venison concluded with what most of the tour party of British, Americans, German and Australians had really come for - to see an elephant in the wild and to look into one in its tiny eyes.
There they were, four massive, glorious grey beasts trundling clumsily, beautifully down to the lake’s shallows at dusk. Each majestic giant had at least one tick bird on its back, travelling and dining gratis.
Enormous tusks caught the last sparkles of the day’s sunlight as their owners sucked up gallons of lake, sometimes spraying it on their backs, other times playfully squirting it onto their offspring or their lover. It was like Sunday bath night when mum would simply hose you down.
Next came an experience of a humbling, intriguing kind, courtesy of those unbelievably awkward, gawky, gangly creatures called giraffes. From their privileged position, they would have spied me at least five minutes before I spotted them. As I strained my neck to study them, they strained theirs to look down upon me, in more ways than one. We were species clearly not suited to each other’s gaze.
There was no attempt to hide the disdain in their bulging, thyroid eyes. They were without doubt profane females with their elongated lashes perfectly curled, their regal heads demurely tilted like Princess Diana.
From their lofty status in life, their contemptuous gaze and rubbery camel-like mouths seemed to tell us me I was not worthy to be on their soil or in their company. Haughty and naughty, I adored them anyway.
That day, a sizeable dose of African Magic was injected into my veins and I was convinced that baby elephants were the cutest things on the planet and iraffes the most supercilious.
When we arrived back at the lakeside hotel, Never Mind and Doesn’t Matter both waved and beamed vigorously, convincing me they were playing a cruel native game.
With a few minutes to spare before dinner, I decided to call reception and ask for the laundry service to collect some dirty clothes. “Good evening baas,” smiled the laundry man. ”I have come for your dirty washing.”
Everything I’d encountered in Africa to date had been huge - elephants, giraffes, men, hands, lakes and gin and tonics, so the laundry man came as a shock. He was so small, possibly a pygmy.
It might have been alcohol but I’m certain I once read that what Mother Nature had failed to provide pygmies with in size, she’d compensated for in the realm of survival.
Apparently the little folk of the jungle had - buried deep inside their bottoms and close to their bladders - a special reservoir enabling them to store generous measures of water, useful during long hunting journeys in drought-stricken forests. I’d never considered how they tapped into it .
Every part of him was in proportion and his teeth and face glistened by order of what I now believed was African decree. Definitely not a dwarf, but a fine-looking, small man nonetheless.
I handed him the washing and attempted to place a coin in his other hand, but alas it didn’t exist. His entire left arm was missing. I desperately wanted to know his name, what happened to his arm….. and could he carry water in his bum? Seemed a little personal so I restricted myself to the name.
“Mistake….have I made a mistake?” I asked surprised.
“No baas. My name is Mistake…that’s my name.”
“Of course it is,” I laughed. “Very good. How on earth did you get a name like that?”
He tilted his head like a giraffe and with a gentle sad voice replied, “I was a mistake and so they called me one."
“And how did you lose your arm?” I decided to ask.
“That was another mistake baas….I had an accident when I worked on a farm.”
I shook my head in amazement. Did everyone here conspire to play a trick on me or did they all genuinely have weird and wonderful names?
I never asked him about his bum, but I really wish I had.
Dinner, more gin with cracking ice and another disturbed, sweaty sleep spent snatching at elusive mosquitoes saw me less than alert for the next day’s itinerary; a flight south to the famous Hwange National Park on Zimbabwe’s aouth western border with Botswana..
After a short flight and a bumpy, dusty drive, everyone settled into their plush motel rooms that overlooked pristine jungle.
From the luxury of an armchair and clasping a beer, I sat beneath a twirling fan in front of a huge window, mentally melting while another majestic African sunset painted the clouds a delicious blend of blood red and pink.
The hotel compendium advised that at approximately 7.20pm, the ‘Show’ would commence. Don’t be late.
At 7.10pm, external, carefully placed lighting illuminated the forest. At 7.19pm, two gigantic elephants - or Nzoe - swung their huge torsos from out of the black night and into the filtered spotlight, to display themselves.
For almost half an hour I was mesmerised as they twisted their trunks around eachother; rubbed nose against nose like Icelandic lovers and sidled playfully together.
Not once did they made a noise as they proudly displayed their undying elephant love. They were Romeo and Juliet of the Elephant Kingdom and I never wanted the ‘Show’ to end. It was as if they were auditioning for a job in a western circus, yet not once did they blow their own trumpet.
Eventually, they turned their huge heads and peered directly through my window, then, for me and me alone, performed a finale of synchronised lumbering, back to their secret world.
Those magnificent mammoth beasts had won my heart. I would never forget my night with the Nzoe. I wondered, hoped they’d remember me? They were supposed to weren’t they?… or was that another trick, like pygmy bum reservoirs and funny names?
That evening, over a delightful meal of roast kudu and carrots, I encountered a waiter by the name of Samson and a waitress called Delilah.
They have an adorable sense of humour, I said to myself. At least they’re not named after embittered emotions like ‘I Hate You’ or ‘You Bastard’ or ‘Bugger Off.’
But now I had to ask someone what was going on. The manager was an amiable Irishman who’d lived in Africa for several years.
“Most of them get their names either from the Bible or from the fust thing their mum thoght of or saw after giving birth,” explained Declan O'Rourke. “Strange but cute, don’t you think?”
Yes. I did think. But at last I had an answer and I knew I wasn’t being made a fool of.
The next day heralded the final leg of the tour, Victoria Falls, where the Zambezi River suddenly drops hundreds of metres, creating an electrifying energy and view.
The Africans call it Mosi oa Tunya, or ‘The Smoke that Thunders.’ I called it the most beautiful place in the world. I could see the thundering clouds from thirty or forty kilometres away and hear them from ten.
They we were, standing in awe at the Devil’s Cataract. Lips moved with emotional words, but not one was heard. The language of appreciation was spoken with thumbs.
A large statue of David Livingstone towered over us, his line of sight directed at the longest curtain of water on earth.
“Didn’t you have your heart pulled out and buried in Africa Dr Livingstone?” I asked the famous explorer. “I presume after you died?”
If he answered, I couldn’t hear for the ear-splitting roaring and crashing waters bursting over the broken rocks and plunging into the gorge to where the Zambezi cauldron miraculously gathers its thoughts, then reassembles itself as a tranquil river, grateful to have survived.
Foam was sprayed everywhere and combined with the African sun to produce an endless display of brilliant rainbows in various shapes and intensity. Mythical pots of 24 carat gold were all around with rainbow beams, some purely vertical, illuminating everyone’s spirit and soul.
Throughout the never-ending display of beauty, big and baby baboons bobbed, bounced and bumbled all around, constantly pouncing or swinging playfully into view, trying to compete with the elephants in audition for circus jobs.
Like Dr Livingstone, I’d discovered Victoria Falls and it had blown my mind as I was sure it had blown his. I wouldn’t get a statue, but I’d have priceless memories forever.
In the afternoon, we still had trouble hearing properly as we relished a peaceful amble beside the Zambezi, which lived up to its reputation of being angry, powerful, menacing and magical.
Beside its banks lurked fresh water crocodiles which bathed dangerously close to the point where the river dramatically vanished from the horizontal, yet they instinctively knew that point of no return.
Sadly, we knew our point of return was the airport, but the bus journey there brought a final African memory I’ll forever cherish.
Broad-hipped women with pots on heads flashed their friendly tv-teeth. Puppet-like smiles split the faces in two of the handsome, loping men; and the almost edible, squeezable picanninis laughed as they skipped and hopped. They were there to greet us and send us home with unconditional African love. They were also there to sing.
Clapping and clasping their hands, the group of around thirty tribesfolk began their lilting, chilling capella, ‘Ishe Komberera Africa’.
Their untrained voices rose up in unparalleled harmony and magical melody as they performed their haunting ‘God Bless Africa’ anthem. It was one of the most beautiful five minutes of my life.
From the jungle close to the tiny airport terminal, I heard a rustling and I’m sure a gentle sob. I had no doubt it was the giraffes, heads tilted and fluttering their wet lashes in emotion.
Time had flown and it was time to fly. Our two native tour guides had been excellent and well deserving of a healthy tip.
“Thanks so much,” I said shaking their hands. “By the way guys…what are your names?”
“I’m Baked Bean,” said one. “I’m Happy Christmas,” said the other.
Copyright Spencer Ratcliff 2011