December 2006. Christmas, again.
‘Let’s do something different,’ we said. ‘Cancel the cake. Stuff the stockings. Forgo the pheasant.’
‘I know,’ says atheist-anthro-man, ‘why don’t we take a box of little plastic tubes to Africa, in the rainy season, then head into the swamps and get a load of people from the most reviled tribe in Zambia to spit into them for us.’
‘Yay. I’m up for that,’ I might have said. But probably didn’t.
Christmas Day arrives and finds us moping at Heathrow. Flying today was meant to be fun – quiet, good food, everyone friendly and full of cheer – but of course it’s British Airways, plus there’s been fog for three days and everyone is grumpy.
Things start looking up on Boxing Day. We arrive in Zambia to rain, but also sun. We pick up our Land Rover, with unaccustomed ease, and drive away in an optimistic bubble for our big Christmas adventure.
The Great North Road is my favourite main road in Zambia – not that there are too many – Great East, Great South… you get the idea. And we’re not talking motorways.
He’s driving carefully, well within the speed limit, when a policeman steps out from under a mango tree and waves us down. A ticket for not speeding. Do we want to pay here or drive back a couple of miles to the office?
We drive to the office, pay and get our certificate. Well, at least we had a choice, the official way and the other, cheaper one, but it’s not an auspicious start.
We recover, dust ourselves off and drive back down that hill at 80 km per hour below the limit.
Several hours later we pull into the sanctuary of the Forest Inn for the night. It’s usually a pleasure staying here, but things turn nasty as a group of young Zimbabwean farmers insult the polite, religious Zambian staff and re-enact things in the public rooms that should stay private. We intervene, they apologise, but the insults don’t stop. We keep a fan on all night to mask the noise and leave early next morning, a sour taste in our mouths that has nothing to do with breakfast.
We chug for yet more hours up the Great North Road, past lone women standing by the roadside, swathed in patterned cloths and babies, selling bowls full of bright red chanterelles that look for all the world like pots of poinsettias.
At last, turning right, we slither and squelch our way through wild, wet woodland to Mutinondo Wilderness.
It being Christmas, there’s no room for us at this isolated but popular ‘inn’, so they fix us up with a tent. Yes, I know, the rainy season. A tent.
But it’s fun. The Christmas tree’s unusual and our hosts are welcoming as ever.
I wake on the feast of the Holy Innocents (28th, my birthday) to a mug of tea in my tent and anthro-man’s gift of a local silver necklace. It’s been made right here and boasts not just a local amethyst but a couple of ancient trade beads. I wear it, for the journey. Well, why not?
I’m edgy. I can see in our hosts’ eyes that they aren’t quite sure about this trip, but they know us, know there’s nothing we can do now – except go.
It’s not raining as we set off. We make good time and soon we’re at our point of no return – a lodge famous for its bats. Here we pick up food and water to take to our destination. A tsetse fly bites my lip. There are none here, they say. Hmm.
Marjorie, a beautiful young woman who works here, is on her way home for a few days and we give her a lift. Although we nearly brain her – by accident – within just a few hours of meeting her, she doesn’t hold it against us. Just as well since she’s the grand-daughter of the tribal Chief we want to meet.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Next time – an innocent little detour off the track, onto the green, green grass, just half an hour into our epic – some might say barmy – journey . . .
*after TS Eliot’s beautiful Christmas poem, ‘A Cold coming we had of it’.