We didn’t notice the storm as it gathered. We were too busy taking in the magnificent African landscape, my binoculars perched on my nose. Watching the elephants, I had been so intent on watching the animals by the river that I hadn’t noticed the darkening skies.
When we set out this morning, the sun was just rising, pale salmon and gold giving way to blazing sun and azure skies. The long grass shone copper, punctuated by thorny acacia trees, their spindly trunk topped by unruly branches. Rocky outcrops scattered through the grass, leftovers from the craggy mountains.
Daniel had been determined to see the ‘real Africa’ and we’d set off alone, armed with GPS, maps, and food and water. The guides had advised against it and had lectured us about safety before allowing us out. But we’d become bored with travelling in a group, waiting perpetually for slower members to catch up, and as we headed out, it felt wonderful to be together to enjoy the rugged scenery.
We’d had the liberty to stop where we liked. We watched zebra and Thomson’s gazelle come to drink at the waterhole, skittish and wary of crocodiles. At first, t seemed there were rocky mounds in the water, but they moved, and an enormous toothy yawn revealed the hippos. As we moved on, we caught a glimpse of a leopard dozing in a tree. We were held up on the dirt track as a pride of lions passed ahead of us.
Within a short space of time, I’d taken hundreds of photos. Daniel pulled over under a shady tree, to take a short rest from driving. The heat outside was stifling, even with the air-conditioning. Winding down the window only made it worse. The heat decimated our appetites, but we drank cold drinks, grateful for icepacks and cooler bags. While we sat in the shade, two other cars passed. It was the first we’d seen of anyone since leaving the camp that morning. Out there, it was possible to travel for miles without seeing anyone. I shivered at the thought, at once both exciting and frightening.
Daniel checked the GPS and turned back onto the track, which carried us alongside the river bank, the place where game sightings were most likely. As the sun reached its zenith at midday, the heat continued to build, and sweat trickled down our backs, in spite of the air-conditioning. We reached a small safari camp and stopped to use the facilities. The air was so hot and thick breathing felt difficult. I thought wistfully of the tame English summer as we sat in the restaurant drinking tall iced drinks. The air was heavy and still, and little stirred in the bush around us. The cicadas’ incessant chirruping filled the air.
Returning to the comfort of the air-conditioned Land Rover, we set off again. The dirt track shimmered in the haze of heat. We drove, scanning the long grass for the tickle of ears or glimpse of a horn. An enormous baobab loomed in the distance, its trunk so thick it would have taken at least six people to circle it. In its shade, a pride of lions flopped lazily, only their eyes indicating their awareness of every move around them. Ears flickered in annoyance at buzzing flies. A cub lazily batted a flicking tail.
‘Look’ Daniel urged, and my eyes followed his finger to the distant grass, where twin giraffe necks stood tall, and in-between them a baby giraffe peered out, bushy eyebrows just visible over the long grass. We moved on to catch a closer glimpse, and we watched as they loped off into the distance. ‘I’m going to have some amazing pictures from this trip,’ I said.
‘This is really incredible. I’m so glad we came.’ Daniel agreed, kissing me lightly.
The road forked ahead, but there were no signs to indicate any destination. Daniel stopped, scrutinized the map, and GPS, and shook his head.
‘I think the path to the right goes back along the river, but the map doesn’t show that fork.’
‘The track on the left is broader. It looks more travelled. Perhaps we should stick with the main path.’
‘At this time of the day, we’re more likely to see animals along the river.’
‘Ok, then let’s take the path less travelled,’ I joked. ‘Just as long as you know how to get back again.’
‘According to the GPS, we’re here. We cross the bridge here, then we travel back on the other side of the river,’ Daniel indicated on the map. ‘It’s not that far from here, and if this path goes the wrong way, we’ll turn back and take the other road.’
We drove off again, down our path less travelled, which promptly became rocky and Daniel slowed as we eased over bumps in the road. A few meters further, and water sparkled in the sun, and we pulled into the shade to watch elephants bathing in the water, throwing sand on their backs to cool their hides. I alternated with binoculars and camera, grateful that the bright African sunlight allowed for a telephoto lens.
Frenetic splashing caught our attention, and we watched a gazelle attempting to wriggle from a crocodile’s jaws. It thrashed helplessly, churning mud. The crocodile shook and bit until the twitching limbs were still, and it swam off with its prey. Hanging out of the window (we were strictly admonished against leaving the car), I’d caught the whole thing on film, and as I pulled back into the vehicle, I suddenly noticed a breeze. ‘Thank goodness, it’s cooling down at last,’ I said as I flopped back into the seat.
‘Did you get it?’
‘I’ve got some fantastic shots. Look.’ I handed Daniel the camera and he flipped through the pictures.
The breeze tugged at the bushes, and the river rippled. The birds became livelier, snatching dancing insects, darting above the water.
We watched the elephants move off, noticing they were the last to leave.
A sudden flash caught my attention. Lightning cleaved a tree in two, and thunder crashed so close to us that even Daniel jumped. Sinister clouds swirled, ahead, punctured by sharp strikes of lightning, and the earth shook with the rumbling of the thunder. I’d never been afraid of storms, but seeing nature in full force was terrifying.
Thunder almost drowned out Daniel’s voice ‘I think we’d better move out from under this tree.’ The ground shook as another flash hit nearby and thunder growled. Daniel reversed the car carefully, and then pulled back onto the track. The rain began to fall, large droplets, almost like water balloons falling, flicking up the dust. The sky was dark, the clouds ominous and threatening.
Daniel drove slowly, trying to see the track through the rain. He turned on the headlights, but the curtain of rain prevented us from seeing beyond the bonnet of the car. The dirt track was replaced by a river.
‘I think we’d better stop here and wait it out,’ Daniel said. Too scared to speak, I nodded. A blinding flash pierced the darkness, and the GPS fizzled and died, along with the radio. We’d had no mobile phone signal all day. We’d wished to be alone, and now we were totally isolated. Suddenly, I desperately longed for human contact. With no radio, no GPS we were lost and alone in an African storm.
The wind buffeted the car, and lightening flashed around us. The thunder roared, and the ground shook. Within seconds we were completely surrounded by water. I was terrified to see wave-tongues lapping at the sides of the car, and I felt the water pull us sideways. I clung onto Daniel, my head tucked under his chin. I could feel his heart pounding in time with mine, but the rage of the storm smothered all sounds. We had to shout to hear one another, and so we huddled together in fear and watched it rage around us.
Then almost as suddenly as it came, with a hiss and bang, it was gone. The rain stilled, and the clouds cleared. We looked around us to see trees on their sides and bushes uprooted. The river was swollen and angry, and right beside the car. If I opened my door, I would be ankle deep in water. Although the skies were clear, the sun was setting. Sunsets were swift, and it would be dark long before we reached our camp.
Daniel turned the key in the ignition, but there was not even a spark of life. We looked at each other in dismay. ‘I’ll get out and look – maybe something is loose. Keep a watch for any animals.’ Looking carefully around, Daniel gingerly climbed out of the car and popped the hood. He poked around for a few minutes, and I sat hoping it would be simple. Mechanics was not Daniel’s strong suite.
‘Bwana, it is not safe for you to leave your vehicle.’ We both jumped at the sound of the voice. Daniel backed away, and I surreptitiously locked my car door. ‘Jambo, Mama.’ The stranger smiled toothily.
He was tall, ebony skin stretched over high cheekbones. He wore the red robe of the Masai, numerous beaded necklaces encircled his neck. Long hair braided in hundreds of tiny braids was crowned by a red and white beaded headdress. His bearing was regal. His steel-tipped spear glinted blood-red in the setting sun. It was little wonder that they were so feared, frequently employed as security guards. I pulled back, in alarm, and sensing our fear, he spoke again:
‘Do not be afraid. I will keep you safe. I will stay with you through the night. Bwana, get back into the car and prepare to settle for the night. I will watch over you.’ Having said his piece, he took his place beside the car, spear at his side.
Daniel climbed back into the car, looking as bewildered as I felt. We weren’t sure whether to be concerned about the possibility of being found by more Masai warriors, of being attacked by wild animals, or of simply not being found at all. We whispered softly, discussing alternative scenarios, but the only thing we could do safely was stay in the Land Rover and wait. Travelling unknown bushveld populated by wild animals was out of the question. It would soon be dark, and we had no idea where we were.
‘The wardens know we are out here. When we don’t return, they’ll have to come and look for us.’ Daniel reassured me. I didn’t remind him that we were no longer on the road and that it was a vast area to search.
‘We’ll make up a bed in the back of the Land Rover, have something to eat, and get some sleep. It will be better in the morning.’ The activity was a good distraction. We invited the warrior to join us for slightly soggy sandwiches and warmed cold drinks, but he shook his head and returned keeping watch.
We lay on our makeshift bed, watching the stars. The skies were clear and the stars sparkled brightly. We heard the chilling laugh of a hyena in the distance, and I snuggled closer to Daniel. A lion roared nearby and I jumped. Still, our sentinel stood, impervious to the threats. I knew I’d never be able to sleep, and I lay twitching at every sound, imagining slithering, crawling, fanged and clawed creatures coming to find us. Yet not even the mosquitoes came close. Still, our Masai warrior stood, and I fell asleep seeing his strong profile in the moonlight.
We awoke with dawn streaming in. Sitting up stiffly, I looked around for our warrior. I caught a glimpse of red as he disappeared into the tall grass. We staggered out of the Landrover, desperate to answer the call of nature, furtively scanning the bushes for any animals.
The air was crisp and clean. The river receded and calmed, sparkling in the morning sun. A passing snake hastened our return to the car.
‘What do we do now?’ I asked Daniel.
‘We wait until they find us.’
We watched the animals coming to the river, but this time, I left the camera packed away, worrying instead about how long we’d have to wait.
It was midday before we saw the dust approaching and sat up eagerly as a white patrol van appeared. Daniel and I waved frantically and they drew up alongside us. Armed rangers climbed out of the van, talking quickly. We were so relieved to see them, and eagerly transferred ourselves and our belongings to their van. Driving back to the camp, we explained what had happened, and told them about our Masai warrior.
‘You were very lucky,’ they told us.
‘We’ll be staying with the tours from now on,’ we reassured them.
‘We’d like to thank the man who stayed with us last night.’
‘It will be hard to find him, but we’ll ask around.’
As we entered the gates of the camp, I noticed a statue of a Masai warrior. His face and bearing were strangely familiar.
‘Stop.’ I cried ‘There he is. That’s the man who guarded us. Who is he?’
‘Madam you must be mistaken.’
‘I am not,’ I stated emphatically – I stared at his face for so long last night that I’d know him anywhere.’
‘I saw him too,’ agreed Daniel.
‘Madam,’ the ranger spoke again gently. ‘It could not have been him, madam. He was a great Masai chief. He’s been dead for over a century.’
I don’t believe in ghosts. I looked at the familiar profile again, feeling a faint chill. There was no doubt in my mind.
Denice Penrose was born in Zimbabwe and now lives in England. She has travelled extensively in Africa and uses her experiences in her writing. Denice works part time in a UK University and writes freelance. Her work has been published in a range of journals and sites. You can follow her on twitter @denicepenrose, or read her blog at http://penrose-enterprise.wixsite.com/writelink