Four thirty in the morning and all is quiet. I have sat and watched as the other guests have shuffled slowly into the room, groggy and disoriented. No-one has quite finished with their dreams.
The evening before, a ferocious storm had electrified the sky and kept us all awake.
It has also taken down the pylons, leaving us without power.
“There’s no coffee, I’m afraid” shrugs the girl in the restaurant, I stare at Paolo in horror and we can only blink and rub our eyes. A morning without a caffeine hit is headache inducing.
I think about how soft the pillows are in the bed. Real feather down. How easy it is to fall asleep when your head is bedded deep down within them.
I could still be there now. Is a morning safari really so amazing? Worth the loss of sleep?
Outside a fine drizzle is still falling, adding to the gloom. I watch as a tarpaulin is fixed to the jeep and stifle a groan as Michael, our guide, enters the room carrying waterproofs.
“Looks like we’re going to be needing these today folks.”
We fumble around inside the oversized ponchos, contorting heads and arms into the unwieldy fabric. Beside me, Clara from Brazil is asking me if I was not afraid last night during the storm, one arm lost within the folds of her scratchy mac. She makes a crazy amputated dance in front of me, so that I catch only half of what she says.
Something about the roof catching fire. Lightening striking the thatch.
“I’ve been terrified the whole night.” The only clear sentence I catch as she finally manoeuvres her lost arm through the hole and turns to face me.
“ Weren’t you?”
I shrug “I never actually thought about it to be honest.”
Clara looks at me as if I am deranged. Certainly not the kind of person it is safe to be with on an early morning safari in the African bush.
A clear sense of danger and an appropriate response to it, be it real or imagined, is clearly something she values.
But I’ve had no coffee and the idea of discussing potential or imagined dangers is unappealing.
I pull up the hood on my poncho and head to the jeep. Once safely seated, Helena crawls under my cloak and makes a warm little nest for herself. Every now and then she peeps out to see if anything is happening, but the cold of the rain is soon enough to coax her back into the depths of my lap.
It’s a busy ride today and the jeep is full, meaning Paolo finds himself right up front in the passenger seat next to Michael. A prime spot for spotting animals, but today, just about the worst seat going, given the rain. But he seems not to mind. Just pulls his poncho around him and laughs.
I shiver and think “rather him than me”.
Up front the French family are already seated, an elderly couple and their daughter. The women are soft and plump and pale, their physical presence disconcerting out here among the masculine bush. For some reason, when I look at the mother’s arms, I imagine her kneading bread. It’s an activity she seems better suited to. I take a seat behind her where I can look at her arms at will. There’s something comforting about them. Like the pillows back in my room.
The father, by contrast, is lean and fit and tanned and keen as a bean. I spotted him the day before, roaming the riverside with his camera slung at his hip. Every now and then he would stop dead in his tracks and assume a stiff position, one leg thrust out ahead of him, his left hand balancing the lens. I followed the direction of his thrust out leg, trying to see what it was he had spotted among the reeds of the river bank. But from where I was sat, all I could see was the sway of the grass.
This morning a huge telephoto lens that could no doubt capture astonishingly clear details of life on Mars, has been attached to his camera, and he sits there, lost to the world as he polishes it with a soft cloth, unaware that his wife has stifled yet another yawn.
I wonder about them, back in some clean, neat apartment in Paris, as they discussed their plans to tour Africa. If it was Papa, that had to convince the women of the merits of such a trip.
“Ce sera une aventure!” and everyone nodding and imagining God knows what.
I wonder what it took to convince Clara to come here? What it was they used to lure her from her beautiful beach out here into the wild?
At some point during all these futile musings, we have set off. Into the bush where nothing seems to be stirring. Not even the insects seem to want to venture forth in the rain.
Yesterday afternoon the air had been alive with the sounds of insects buzzing and birds singing.
But today all is still. Even the Impala, which had been nervous and skittish the day before, stand still and watch us impassively as we drive by.
When I spotted then I had been waited for the familiar cry to rise up.
“Stop! Stop!” as Papa rose from his seat, shutter clicking wildly, as another trophy was added to his photo album.
And perhaps it is the rain, or perhaps it’s just the fact that the sight of yet more Impala has lost it’s thrill, but Papa remains seated, his trigger finger limp and bored.
We trundle on. The thrum of rain and the tilt of the jeep as it bumps over the dirt track, almost lulling me to sleep.
Somewhere through the silence I hear the radio crack and buzz, and a scratched voice relay information down the wire. Something about a skunk.
Michael upfront asks for co-ordinates and asks for clarification.
“Skunk? Or skunk, skunk?”
“Skunk, skunk” comes the reply.
It takes me a while before my brain kicks into gear. Skunks. In Africa?
What’s a skunk doing here?
I shout down to Michael.
“What’s a skunk doing here? Did someone introduce it or something? Is that allowed?”
He looks confused for a moment as if he doesn’t understand a word I just said.
“Skunk” I offer again, and a smile crosses his faces and he just laughs.
“Ah right, I see.” Then he turns away and keeps driving.
I share a confused look with Papa and we both just shrug.
Michael brings the jeep to a stop and explains to us all that we will have to get out and walk the next few meters.
“The animals we’re going to see are just inside the bush there, but we can’t get in with the jeep.”
Funnily enough, it is Clara that is one of the first out of the jeep, walking on ahead and being pulled back and told to wait.
“One guide up front, one at the back.”
The seriousness of Michael’s instruction enough to snap us all awake, like a shot of espresso to our sleepy synapses.
I can hear Maman muttering.
“C’est loin d’ici? Ce n’est pas dangereux, eh?”
I pat her on the arm.
“I don’t think skunks are dangerous. We’ll be okay.”
She nods and smiles and again, I exchange a puzzled shrug with Papa.
Out of the corner of my eye I catch Michael smiling conspiratorially with the other guide and figure something is up.
Helena meanwhile has decided that the best place for her is high up on Paolo’s shoulders, safe from harm and with a great view of what lies ahead deep in the bush. I catch sight of her dipping under branches as they take off into the bush.
Warily, mama and the rest of us begin to walk through the scrub into the bush.
It’s strange the instinct that overcomes you at such moments. The way your speech falls to a whisper and then to nothing. How your eyes skim the ground for anything that moves. The way the sound of the twigs and leaves scrunching underfoot become heightened.
All of it as reflexive and involuntary as the shrinking of a pupil in sunlight.
I can’t say it’s nerves or even excitement per se. More of a sharpened awareness. A tension that is vital if you are to stay alert.
Underfoot one of those movements catches my eye and I stop dead. In among the grass something tiny and green, vibrantly green, is moving around. I point it out to Michael and ask if it’s a stick insect.
We hunker down and peer into the grass. And true enough, camouflaged and barely discernible, two tiny young stick insects are moving around among the grass.
“Well spotted” Michael says and I must admit to feeling a little proud that I have managed to spot what will no doubt be the smallest creature we will encounter out here today.
Michael is too polite to push me on and allows me to gaze a moment longer at my discoveries. Perhaps he imagines I am some amateur entomologist. But eventually his patience comes to an end.
“We should get going.”
Ahead I can already hear some barely supressed Oohs and Ahhs.
The skunks must be a sight to behold. But as we emerge into a small clearing, I see them and it is all I can manage to stifle a loud guffaw, as Michael punches me in the arm and smiles.
Under the shade of a tree two young cheetahs lie stretched out in the grass, relaxed and nonchalant, barely acknowledging our arrival. Two brothers that have stuck together.
It’s a sight that knocks the wind out of you. Wild animals up close.
We all stand there transfixed. All fear gone. Only simple wonderment remains. I knew that cheetahs were beautiful animals, but this close the markings on their coats are beyond anything I could ever imagine. They keep an eye on us of course, that yellow gaze a reminder that these are wild animals and that not all caution can be disregarded. But something of their lazy, sleepy attitude has taken hold and no-one moves much.
It’s Michael eventually that breaks the spell and reminds us in a whisper to take some photos.
I smile at Papa as we remember we have cameras with us. Even the weight of Papa’s unwieldy lens has not been enough shake his wonderment.
As we head back to the jeep I catch up with Michael.
“So, what’s with the skunk business?”
He just smiles.
“It’s just the name we use, just so as not to ruin the surprise.”
“Come on, you didn’t actually think there were skunks out here did you?”
I just laugh.
“You know Michael, I was kinda looking forward to it. I’ve never seen a skunk before.”
And with that I am bundled into the jeep with a gentle prod. It’s only when I’m comfortably seated that I notice the rain has stopped.