by Marty Carlock
The adapter plug wouldn’t fit into the socket. What did he expect, they were staying in a tent, for god’s sake. It wasn’t a bad tent, as tents go – mosquito netting over its openings, deck out front with armchairs and tables, queen-sized bed thick with pillows and comforters, ceiling fan, reading lamps, arm chairs, bathroom, showers inside and out. Yes, a shower outside set into something that looked like half a tree trunk, so you could sunbathe and look out on the savanna and watch the elephants walk by in the distance while you were washing. There were even doors built into the side of the canvas walls so you didn’t have to deal with tent flaps and other inconveniences. He guessed if they had to stay in a tent it was as good as they would get.
He had much preferred the accommodations at Sabi-Sabi, where everyone had a spacious little stucco villa with air conditioning and picture windows looking into their own private courtyard. Into which, he was told, lions might wander and guests could observe them close-up but in perfect safety. To his annoyance, no lions came to their picture window; in fact, they had not yet seen any lions at all. He’d had no trouble with his adapter plug there, and his white noise machine ran as perfectly as at home.
But here! He cursed and muttered, he didn’t see why the rest of the world couldn’t use the right electrical hardware, plugs and sockets – and voltages, for god’s sake! – like the ones he was used to. Americans invented electricity after all. What gave these people the right to make plugs in these outlandish shapes and configurations, prongs too fat, too narrowly spaced, too wide, some of them with two round prongs and a flat one, in a triangle! It defied all logic. He had all of those, five variations, one of which the TravelSmart catalogue had assured him would fit any and all sockets he might encounter in the civilized world. This sure as hell wasn’t part of the civilized world, showers be damned. Most of his plugs looked nothing like the socket here. The one that should fit fell out as soon as he plugged his extension cord in. Not that the machine itself weighed much – he was rather fond of it; the technology had advanced until it was no bigger than a deck of cards. And a cinch to pack. But the transformer to step down the voltage, which would have been totally unnecessary if he had been in charge of this country, was heavy.
Although his old white noise unit at home was big, up to now that hadn’t stopped him from packing it and traveling with it. He needed it. It had various settings, surf, waterfall, white sound. He hated to admit waterfall and white sound were exactly alike. In fact, Grace had pointed out he could leave the thing at home and get the same effect from tuning hotel bedside radios to the static between stations. That was not what he wanted. He wanted his white noise machine to work.
All right, there was no bedside radio here, there not being a radio broadcast station within 300 miles. There was a telephone, thank god. Of course you couldn’t call any place but the main lodge, but at least you weren’t isolated. They had felt vulnerable at Duma Tau. They were assigned the ninth tent at the far end of the boardwalk and advised not to try to walk to meals without a guide with them. Baboons infested the place, crouching on rooftops, swinging and climbing, sometimes loping down the boardwalk like they owned it, and some of them, especially the males, were big. Elephants and lions came into camp, too, their guide claimed. He showed them a kill one morning, not a hundred yards from their tent, saying a lion had made the kill. Nothing was left but the kudu’s ear.
At cocktail time you had to wait until your guide came down the boardwalk and called softly, Number Nine, and then you could follow him to the lodge. Not that he had a gun or anything, but he was supposed to know how to control the creatures, or not provoke them, or something. Damned inconvenient. Cut into his cocktail hour severely.
Grace, he knew, was silently hoping he couldn’t get the machine to work. She always hoped that, said she liked to hear the rain on the roof or whatever. She had this idea that roughing it was good for you, made you appreciate your creature comforts when you got back to them. He didn’t buy into that at all. He liked creature comforts. He would have his machine. He was a man who knew how to Get Things Done. The lodge sent over a young girl whose English was, how should he put it, limited. He found himself pantomiming and clowning to explain what the machine was for. “My wife snores,” he said, gesturing toward her, laying his cheek on the back of his hand and making comical wheezes and snorts. The girl laughed and rolled her eyes at Grace, who raised her eyebrows and shrugged a what-can-I-do-with-him shrug.
Yes, he had the right adapter plug, it was just that the transformer was heavy and levered it out of the socket. They jury-rigged supports with a spare pillow and a book. He flipped the switch and the hissing sound responded. He and the girl grinned with delight. Grace grimaced. She always said it was just like being inside a 747. He knew she tolerated the machine only because it enabled her to get up and clank around without disturbing him as much as she would have otherwise. She said he was cranky anyway but especially terrible when his sleep was interrupted. He ignored her sigh as she finished unpacking, the safari shorts, sun hat, binoculars, fleece and down for evening and early morning.
The cold surprised them. Africa was supposed to be beastly hot, and in the middle of the day it was. One day after lunch it was so hot they could not move, just lay on top of the bedding and fell asleep. By the time they awoke and went to meet the guide in the Land Rover, the air was very pleasant, and when they stopped for sundowners they needed to pull on their long pants and parkas. They saw herds of impala, kudu, a family of rhinos, a few elephants, an entire herd of giraffes, but no lions. He was more than disappointed; he was almost irate. He intended to check off all the Big Five: elephants, Cape buffalo, lions, rhinos and hippos, and capture them on video. Not that they were the biggest animals, just the most dangerous. The trophies most prized, back when men were allowed to hunt them. He thinks he would have enjoyed that, lamented the laws now preventing it, another example of galling governmental intervention in a man’s life.
He found it irritating that the guides were so dictatorial. He was used to giving the orders. Don’t walk around without a guide, they insisted. He imagined that was so he would be required to dole out more tips. Be punctual, they lectured, as if their clients were children. Sit in the vehicle, never stand. The animals are accustomed to seeing the vehicle with everyone sitting down, they explained. If you stand up, it changes the shape, and the animals could become agitated. That part annoyed him the most. Sometimes it was impossible to get a good video shot because other people’s heads were in it, and he would half-stand. At first the guide said politely, “Please to sit down, sah.” Later the guide would just swivel his head and give him a look. George would stand filming as long as he needed to and gradually sink back into his seat. There was nothing to fear, as far as he could see. Sometimes a giraffe or a gazelle would spook and run, is all.
George wished he had sprung for a private trip, so he could call all the shots. He had liked the setup at Sabi; they drove in jeeps, and their guide was a white boy, an Eagle Scout type of guy from Cape Town. Properly deferential. At the next camp the guide was an older black, businesslike, no smart stuff; George could deal with him. This guide was something else. He claimed his name was Jed. George had no doubt it was more like Jubujubu. His English was good enough that he tried to joke with the guests, even make a little fun of them. Not respectful at all.
It was slow season in the delta, just the end of the dry season. Only one other family was staying at the camp, a couple somewhat younger than George and Grace, and the parents of the woman, who were older. The six of them plus the guide made a jeep load, so they were together twice a day and then at meals. George saw immediately that they had nothing in common. Yet they were polite traveling companions, the young couple brimming with enthusiasm for everything they saw. The young woman, Katie, was fascinated by birds, which irritated George. The guide kept stopping to point out some ridiculously named bird, a bee-eater or a hammerkop or a black tit, that one always amused him. But he came to see wild animals, and he didn’t mind saying so.
The second morning, when they set out and the guide said, What if we go see what those elephants are doing? he said he had seen enough elephants, he wanted to see some lions, or some buffalo, they were Big Five and he expected to see all of them. Never mind this garbage from the guides about the animals being free to roam, even into some other park if they wanted to. He had paid for them to be here. The guide shrugged and drove slowly along with his head hanging over the side of the vehicle until he found what he said were buffalo tracks, a herd of them, and then lion tracks, which they all stopped and photographed. But they didn’t see the creatures themselves. They drove to a waterhole where there was always a hippopotamus and were treated to a view of its spine, its nostrils and its eyes, the very uppermost parts that were not submerged.
He was frustrated, there was no getting around it. That evening he asked for a double shot of scotch for his sundowner, and with dinner he saw to it he had his share and more of their Stellenbosch chenin blanc, just to try and get his money’s worth. It was a damned expensive trip. He should see everything they advertised. He’d be willing to lay money there weren’t even any goddamn lions in the goddamn park. The other people, even Grace, didn’t seem to share his opinions, but then they had all their goddamn birds.
It did make him happy that his white noise machine worked to perfection. They piled on the down comforters, and he slept soundly.
The young couple, Katie and Bob, were already at the breakfast table the next morning, bright-eyed as squirrels. He and Grace sat across from them. “I’m thinking of demanding my money back,” he said.
Bob raised an eyebrow. “Because?”
“False advertising. There aren’t any lions here.”
Katie and Bob exchanged a look. She said, “You didn’t hear them?”
“The lions. Last night, roaring. It was thrilling. Almost as exciting as actually seeing them.”
He was thoughtful for a minute. “We didn’t hear them. Did you, Grace?”
She raised her eyebrows in incredulity. “Of course not.”
He shrugged. “We must sleep entirely too soundly.”
After today they would have no more safari drives. Their flight, the only flight each day out of the tiny airstrip, was to be at nine the next day. The pre-dawn drive that morning, as far as George was concerned, was more of the same. That evening, as they loaded up the Rover, he turned his fiercest executive frown on the guide and said, “Last chance.” “Sah?”
The impudence in the man’s face irritated him. “Last chance to find a lion, dammit.”
“Maybe, sah. We did hear lions hunting last night, sah.”
“Prove it,” George said.
His video got it all: Jed twisting in his seat and shouting at him to sit down! you fucking fool! Then a panning shot to the great beast’s corded hindquarters bunching beneath him, its claws and teeth and head instantly becoming huge, the shrieks of terror and the animal noises, the blood spattering the lens, the kaleidoscope of underbelly and tawny pelt, lights and darkness spinning crazily, then a long unchanging shot of grasses filling out the end of the tape. Jed found the camera in the grass the next day and tried to return it to Grace. She recoiled from it, said she never wanted to see it again.
After a decent interval, Jed entered the tape in the mini-documentary category at the Nairobi Film Festival. It took first prize and proved immensely popular.
Marty Carlock was a regular contributor to The Boston Globe and other publications for almost 20 years; more than 30 newspapers and magazines have published some 1,600 articles under her byline. She is author of two editions of A Guide to Public Art in Greater Boston. At the present time she writes for Sculpture and Landscape Architecture magazines, and reviews fiction and nonfiction for the Internet Review of Books.