In my last dispatch I said I would tell you all about the animals at night, but more interesting than the furry ones are the human ones. Every night we dine in an open-air hut lit with candles and lanterns. In the middle is a long wooden table large enough to fit twenty people, including the guides, who have to eat with their guests.
At the first night’s dinner, Susan and I sat next to each other, with TJ on her left and Moz on my right. Moz was a guide for another group, a businessman from Philadelphia and his wife and son and a son’s friend. I’d overheard in the lounge the other day that they might leave early because the wife had found a big snake in her bed. They’d been on safari now for two weeks and had saved this rustic bush camp for last, not knowing how much adventure the little lady could take, which apparently wasn’t much. The high-end Gucci camps she could withstand, but her chipped manicure, fraying hair bow, and haunted eyes revealed she was past ready to return to what I’m sure is a quiet and tidy home.
As servers came around with dainty appetizers of filo dough stuffed with fine-ground kudu, camp guests compared notes about what they had seen on the day’s game drive. I enthusiastically told people at my end of the table how we’d seen maggots dripping and oozing from an elephant’s head, making sure to describe the stench as accurately as I could. Maybe it wasn’t the best timing for such a story, but I figured we’re on safari, why not? I thought everyone was riveted by my description of the most disgusting thing I’d ever seen in my life, but then I felt a tug on my right sleeve.
“Everyone is waiting for you, you know,” said Moz, pointing to my plate. “They won’t start the next course until you’ve finished this one.” I looked around the table to find all the other plates empty while mine sat untouched. The only one not embarrassed enough to look at me was the vervet monkey sitting on the ledge across from the table. I suppose he was trying to calculate the odds of jumping over a few heads to steal a snack.
After starter plates were removed, Precious, in a long gold-and-orange dress, proudly announced the evening’s meal, which sat steaming behind us buffet style. When she said the main course would be chicken pie, one guest muttered that she had been hoping for something more “exotic” (not yet knowing it would be the best chicken pie of her life!).
Then Moz stood and bellowed our dinner-retrieval directions in a bossy baritone voice. “Ladies first, then gentlemen, then the real men!” He puffed out his chest and gave a knowing smile to the other guides, who smiled politely but did not puff out their chests in return. Susan and I rolled our eyes and sighed. I was relieved to see that someone else might earn the idiot award for the evening.
After dinner some of us gathered around a crackling camp fire. As the wine flowed the safari stories grew taller. One man-eating-animal story topped another until one guest said, “I wonder if anyone has ever died on a safari here.”
“I’m sure it happens all the time,” said another guest.
“I don’t think so,” I said. “How could they keep the camp open if guests were dying all over the place?” I looked at the guides to see if they might chime in on the matter, but they were engaged in their own conversation on the other side of the circle.
“They don’t tell anyone,” said a big man with a southern drawl seated next to me. “They keep it very hush-hush. But it happens. I’ve read about it.”
“You’ve read about it? Where?” I asked.
“In a book called Death in the Long Grass by Peter Capstick,” he said. “Haven’t you heard of it?”
In the distance I could hear twigs snapping underfoot, probably a baboon’s. A family of them had spent the afternoon using our tent as a trampoline. I was hoping that by now they’d have tucked into their own trees for the evening. “No, I haven’t heard of it.” I said.
“I suppose that’s why you’re here then. If you’d a read it, you’d probably a gotten scared off.” He chuckled and took a sip of his Diet Coke. The smoke had shifted and now came right at me. “What’s it about?” I asked, squinting my eyes.
“Oh, man, Capstick’s got some real toe-curlin’ stories about the huntin’ safaris he led all over Africa—Rhodesia, Zambia, Kenya, Ethiopa. Here in Botswana too. And, girl, you better believe hunters get attacked regularly, even in their own tents. One lion killed three men at one camp. Well, technically the lion killed two. One guy lived, but, oh boy, he’s a mess now. Capstick tells all about it in the book. He’s really good with description. Really good.”
“Then I guess I’m glad I haven’t read it,” I said, wiping away smoke-tears with my shirtsleeve.
As TJ escorted us back to our tents in the pitch-dark of the new moon night (we’re not allowed to walk anywhere after sundown without a staff escort), I wondered about those stories. Were they real? Or was this guy just trying to wind me up before bedtime the way older kids do at summer camp with ghost stories?
I tried to soothe myself with the thought that these were tall tales told by an author (is “Capstick” even a real name?) who probably imagined himself a Hemingway hunter, God help him. Here in this concession, hunting isn’t allowed, and so far the animals have appeared downright docile, agitated neither by the jeeps nor the people.
In fact, up to this point the drives have reminded me of the Motor Safari tram at Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo—except, of course, there are no bars or concrete enclosures, for the animals or for us. Certainly the camp’s open-air jeeps and canvas tents offer zero protection from a hungry lion. And that got me to wondering … just how vulnerable are we out here? Little did I know that within the hour I’d find out.
But I’ll have to tell you about that in my next letter. Today I nodded off on one of the game drives, so I have got to catch up on my sleep!
(Hippo photo by Susan Hunsberger)