Dispatch from the Razor's Edge, the Blog of Michael Stephen Fuchs
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Hippos On My D, 1 2 3
or, Giving Thanks You're Not In Zambia
or, What the Bloody Hell Do All These Flies Want, Anyway?
"I have found myself in the course of my life in many strange situations. More than once I have been within a hair's breadth of death. More than once I have touched hands with romance and known it. I have ridden a pony through Central Asia along the road that Marco Polo took to reach the fabulous lands of Cathay; I have drunk a glass of Russian tea in a prim parlour in Petrograd while a soft-spoken little man in a black coat and striped trousers told me how he had assassinated a grand duke. I have sat in a drawing-room in Westminster and listened to the serene geniality of a piano trio of Haydn's while the bombs were crashing without."
        - W. Somerset Maugham, The Razor's Edge

    I suppose that the trouble really started in Cape Town – the truck trouble, that is. I'm much more amazed than angry that Nomad doesn't maintain their trucks – given that their business pretty much is their trucks, and they (not to mention their customers) are going nowhere fast without them. At the outset, I wrote it off – as we had gotten stuck with Jimi rather than Sid, due to unforeseen circumstances. Still, Jimi was in sad shape: no fourth gear, the remainder grinding away, dirty filters, and (probably related) power problems. We were really groaning up some hills; but it was only for a week, then we got Sid. Off we went!

Until Sid started overheating. Badly. Paul and Jo were forced to pull the cab forward, lay out the tools, and get their hands dirty fixing the truck. This was enough to keep Sid together, but ultimately it needed a new fan. Nomad shipped us one; then another; then the right one – which was put in the wrong bin at the Vic airport, and shipped back to Jo'burg. This was not really, precisely what Paul needed.

The most northerly point at which we could receive the part and do the repair was Lusaka, one of the larger Zambian cities. What can I say about Zambia? It reminds me a lot of Mexico: dusty, scrubbily mountainous, direly poor. The signs, though, are in English; and the people darker-skinned – and, moreover, a lot friendlier: waves and brilliant smiles all around. The roads, alack, are every bit as hostile as in Mexico. We bounced over a lot of them, making our way toward Lusaka. We found this veritable metropolis crowded, loud, dirty, a bit threatening – but no more so than, say, West Philly. People hit the town trying to score U.S. dollars, getting food, etc. Then we sat around, and had lunch, at an auto garage. The part arrived, and the repair seemed to take. We were mobile again!

Far too much for anyone's good, as it turned out. To make up for lost time, Paul decided to drive through the night (essentially skipping a camp site). At first, driving through the night was fun. We listened to early ChemBros, as we bopped down the road. We took our first night-time roadside relief break – and I found I no longer see Orion as upside down.

However, the appeal faded fast: Trying to sleep half-twisted in the seat – and then, for a couple of hours, up on the roof (when Paul stopped to give himself a couple of hours of winks). Night turned to morning turned to afternoon – and we even got slightly lost at the end. Someone put in a mix tape – with Eminem on it. My own personal hell was coalescing, right before my eyes. Feh. Ultimately, (seemingly) blessedly we checked in at "Wildlife Camp" – one of the very few camp sites near South Luangwa National Park. (Luangwa is a smaller, lesser-known park – though somewhat renowned for its leopard population!) The camp site struck us as similar to the last one, in terms of infestation. Then we saw the "Wild Animal Warning" signs. Emblazoned with a clip art lion, these informed us in no uncertain terms that walking outside the borders of our area, or between our area and the main site, after dark, was strictly prohibited – due to numerous, dangerous animals in the area. The sign didn't elaborate that obeying the prohibitions was no real safeguard against the numerous, dangerous animals. We'd figure that out ourselves a little later. But for now: a game drive!

Pleasingly to me, the game drive trucks are melting away, a panel at a time. These ones lacked even the shade roof, and sidebars, that we had in Chobe. They also lacked doors, and a windshield. For some reason, the animals just strongly tend to ignore vehicles – unaware that an easy, hot lunch is a mere paw swipe away. And but so we toured Luangwa. This was a four-hour drive – two before nightfall, two after. Overall, it was a mixed bag. We saw a number of things we (at least the holdovers from the Cape -< Vic tour leg) had already seen (often many times): lots of impala, a warthog, a couple of shy elephants. Here are the new things we saw, on the daylight leg:

Finally, we pulled onto a ridge to drink some fruit juice while enjoying a sundowner. (Mark enjoying it in his own inimitable way.) Then we went back out – our game spotter producing a handheld, monstrously powerful spotlight, with which he scanned the darkness, and most failed to find game. That he did find, I failed to photograph, due to the aforementioned shortcomings of my camera – and due to almost everything being outside of flash range. We did have some fun close encounters with some elephants (including when we inadvertently blocked one's path). But these were nothing compared to the close encounters waiting for us back at home.

By the time of our return to camp, I was a sweaty, exhausted wreck. I hadn't showered in 72 hours, nor properly slept in 36. All I wanted was a shower, and to collapse on my rack. The former I got . . . but as I stumbled back from the showers toward our little, dimly-lit ring of tents, I very nearly stumbled directly into . . . hmmm, that's a tremendous, bulbous, black shape . . . on stubby legs . . . directly between me and my tent. Pretty sure it wasn't there before. Oh, bloody 'ell . . . I made what might pass for an orderly retreat back to the showers, where I found Stephen. I explained our hippo issue, not to hysterically I hope. He stepped out to assess. Happily (or so it seemed at first), our heavyset friend was grazing slowly toward the water – which soon left us with a decent-sized path on the right, to slip back to camp. Amazingly, the rest of the group were sitting under a pavilion, oblivious.

"Are any of you aware," I asked, a bit too pointedly, I fear, "of the four thousand-pound animal standing about forty feet from you?" They weren't, but Laura needed to use the bathroom, and thus needed an escort. Taking a few paces out, we discovered that our guest had now taken up a position directly in front of the facilities. We turned on our heels, and made for the block of loos on the other side of camp. Laura emerged from the Ladies: "One stall has no paper. In the other, there is one frog inside the bowl; and another on the paper." She moved to use the Gents. "At least there are no lions. Yet."

Back in our increasingly beleaguered circle of wagons, Paul had made me and Mark a stellar expatriate Thanksgiving repast – a goulash of shredded spinach, tomatoes, onion, and tons of garlic, in a sweet-and-sour marinade. I took a pot of this goodness, and retreated to our tent – getting in while the getting was good; earlier, the hippo had been a mere couple of meters from our door. When we got a chance, we turned the tent so the door was facing camp, rather than toward prime grazing land. After eating, I tried to roll over and lose consciousness. But the amazed comments floating over told me that I was besieged, and cut off, again: "Jesus, it's only a couple of meters behind that tent." From this comment, and a few others, it became clear to me that my last stand here in the tent was going unheralded. From the loud munching sounds on the other side of the tent wall, it was also clear that I couldn't afford to call out. I twisted on my torch, and waggled the beam out the window. "Oh shit, Michael's IN there." So, that worked, anyway.

Improvising like a champ, as always, Paul produced some of the fireworks he keeps around to terrify us when we're least expecting it – and prepared to put them in the service of hippo-herding. As I began to apprehend the details of this plan from the lonely darkness of the tent, one question (I confess) began to dominate my consciousness? Which direction would the freaking hippo run? The fireworks went off. The ground trembled. I remained in one piece – uncrushed. I fled the tent.

* * *

Later, Mark and I snuck in again, to take up an exhausted – but uneasy and evocative-noise-plagued – sleep. Very late, I awoke to Mark rustling around. I mistook him for going out – and cautioned him to be careful – but he was coming in.

Mark: There are hippos all over the place.
Me: How close?
Mark: Well, remember how when we came in they were too close for comfort, but not dangerously close?
Me: Yeah. Now they're dangerously close?
Mark: Right.

     At this point, I realize I'm needful of the facilities. I float the possibility of cracking a tent flap and dangling something out. (Hippos: "Look! It's a tent . . . with a penis!") Mark avers that he wouldn't blame me. Instead, I peer out the net window: Holy &%$#! I count one, two, three, four hippos. That I can see. I sit in complete, slack-jawed awe (and terror), as the nearest (who I fancy is our buddy from earlier) munches his way up to within 20 feet . . . 15 . . . 10. It's now right in front of me, and loud munching fills the world. I actually contemplate taking a flash photo – then have visions of a charge, and Mark's singular head being turned into a homogenous red-gray mush. (And me explaining same to his sisters.) Instead, I sit silently, waiting for the sun to come up. It does, shortly after, driving away our flabby, ambling nightmares with it. I emerge from the tent.

Later, in the late morning, it turns out most of us had similar experiences. David: "Yeah, I woke up needing a piss – and heard a sound quite like a grazing animal. And I thought, What type of animal grazes around here? Let me think. Hmmm, perhaps four tons of killing machine."

* * *

The next day, today, the 29th, is a full day off. Eating, swimming, and lounging have been big themes. I've mainly sat around swatting flies, charging various batteries – and getting caught up with dispatches (I was woefully behind). I know I haven't posted in nearly a week, and apologize for any worrying this has caused. (As you can see, it was completely justified.) I'm hopeful that we'll find a netcafe tomorrow in Chipata, or shortly after in Lilingua, in Malawi. Meantime, I can tell you that Mark and I are already verily looking forward to the holidays, and to being around loved ones. That's one thing about traveling – it makes quotidian pleasures back in the world (Blockbuster movies, blended fruit frappes, hugs from Mom) start to seem absolutely exquisite. See everyone in three weeks. Happy American Thanksgiving to all!

Next: Lake Malawi, I think

  danger     africa     pitely     somerset maugham     wildlife  
close photo of Michael Stephen Fuchs

Fuchs is the author of the novels The Manuscript and Pandora's Sisters, both published worldwide by Macmillan in hardback, paperback and all e-book formats (and in translation); the D-Boys series of high-tech, high-concept, spec-ops military adventure novels – D-Boys, Counter-Assault, and Close Quarters Battle (coming in 2016); and is co-author, with Glynn James, of the bestselling Arisen series of special-operations military ZA novels. The second nicest thing anyone has ever said about his work was: "Fuchs seems to operate on the narrative principle of 'when in doubt put in a firefight'." (Kirkus Reviews, more here.)

Fuchs was born in New York; schooled in Virginia (UVa); and later emigrated to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he lived through the dot-com boom. Subsequently he decamped for an extended period of tramping before finally rocking up in London, where he now makes his home. He does a lot of travel blogging, most recently of some very  long  walks around the British Isles. He's been writing and developing for the web since 1994 and shows no particularly hopeful signs of stopping.

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ARISEN : Operators, Volume I - The Fall of the Third Temple by Michael Stephen Fuchs
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