By Helen Savidge
So there we were, a full-sized tour bus driving backwards down a service road across the savanna with a rhino charging us.
Natalie will hate me for telling this one. I woke up on the first night in N’come Village to the sound of loud splashing. For a minute, I had no idea what was going on, and then I heard Natalie whisper, “Hey Terry, I just peed on everything.” She’d missed the chamber pot. In the morning, my coat was soaked, and so were the curtains, sheets, and the bag of food. That was my last sweater. I had thrown up on the other one on the plane ride over.
The hyena on the other side of the bush camp’s electric fence is another good story, or the parade of elephants crossing in front of the safari van’s headlights and away into the moonless bush.
We found a hillside zoo on the edge of a glassy lake between sharp hills, a dislocated Tuscany. They had a common raccoon and a pit full of guinea pigs nearly as big as the pit with bears. Somehow, they make a better story than the black mambas stretching on and on across their tree branch, twice as long as you’d ever expect, and the pacing tigers, the pen of Aldabra tortoises like boulders in the sun along the sail-boat lakeside.
Alexandria Township was miles of red dirt and cramped shacks, a slaughtered goat spread out on the grass between roofless miners’ barracks, a broken pipe in the crowded street gushing like a geyser. Dead trees stood out of the corrugated metal honeycomb, clean-swept doorsteps half broken off, canyons of trash. There were flowers though, concrete pillars curving upwards to colorful mosaic balls. Some had snapped off in the middle, stems broken, wilting into brick rubble and hair extension flyers. People never ask about that.
“How was it? South Africa, I mean.” When I don’t want to talk, I say “It was good!” When I do, I say “Intense.” And then if they want clarification, I tell them about being groped and dragged away from the group by a fat man in a striped shirt, the same one who proposed to Natalie that morning, how he followed us all back through the village. They say “Ack,” sympathetically, and then ask if I saw lions.
Though I don’t like to talk about being sick on the plane over, I tell people about how half the tour group passed a bug around the small bunkers without windows they cooped us up in at a camp in Pretoria. I woke up to the sound of Terry throwing up into her towel, Clara saying “you first,” and ushering her into the bathroom, and the smell slowly seeping through the stale cabin air. We lay shivering in our bunks, because Clara had been fine a few hours ago. Who’s next?
I tell people I got swindled while bartering for souvenirs. I don’t tell people how much.
I don’t usually talk about the three-hour trek down the Blyde River Canyon, a landscape so huge that the sky seemed shallow. The short trees opened up to ancient rock walls, grass slopes too steep for deep roots, a bowl of too much air to breath. Sunlight lit the ridges, but darkness like a summer storm filled the river crack where the trees grew dense and green. We missed the path, took a harder way up, and scaled the rocky walls, hands steadying each other across slimy logs and stepping-stone creeks, straight up the cliffs. I came back with bruised palms and dirty nails, my shirt soaked with sweat, clean lungs, and wide eyes.
One night in N’come, Natalie woke me up to take her to the outhouse since we didn’t want a repeat of the chamber pot disaster. The full moon shone cold and quiet directly overhead, turning the huts, grass, and sky all beautiful shades of glowing gray, so bright that the crushed-diamond shimmer of the Milky Way had all but disappeared into the silvery sky. Inside the hut, the wind sounded like waves breaking right over the dunes. Outside, it carried the sound of livestock and roosters like souls in the underworld. Too much air to breathe. I have only told one person about that. It never sounds like it matters.