The track is overgrown with tall grass, but a vehicle definitely passed this way, once upon a time. That should be a comfort, but it isn’t.
I peer at the guide book in the yellow light of my torch and try to sound confident.
‘It should be along here somewhere. On the right.’
I doubt anything’s along here, actually. Much less a campsite. But at least we’re not sinking. Yet. Why did I read that story? Six months before they got the vehicle out – with a helicopter.
We’re not prepared for this. No sleeping bags. No blankets. We do have food and bottles of water but I haven’t drunk anything for hours now. I dread the thought of stopping the vehicle again and getting out to pee. Experiencing that sinking feeling for real.
Despair is gaining the upper hand when I spy the flicker of flames and a large fire, a veritable bonfire, illuminates a cluster of small grass huts.
It’s the campsite. Despite the look of the place, I feel relieved.
I should have known better.
We turn off the track and approach the fire.
That’s when we see them.
Several shapes appear behind the leaping flames. Men in dark clothing, wearing black Dunlops* and carrying big sticks. At least, that’s what I hope they are.
One man makes his way round to the front of the fire.
‘You cannot stay here.’
We’ve been in scrapes before in rural Zambia. People appear from nowhere to help, expecting nothing, happy with a lift, a handshake, a packet of biscuits. Thrilled if we have a Kwacha note or two to spare. So this is not looking good. Not good at all. In fact, it’s looking what you might call sinister.
‘We are lost,’ pleads anthro-man, ‘we need to stay the night.’
‘You cannot stay here. Where are you going?’
We tell him.
He waves an arm – no, he shakes it, as in fist – in the direction we were heading before we turned off.
‘Thirty minutes that way. Go straight. Keep going.’
We don’t really have much choice.
The tall grass disappears and our meagre headlights shine on flat ground – or is it a shallow lake? In the dim starlight we can just make out a causeway, slightly raised above ground level, the obvious way to drive across this floodplain.
‘It says not to take the causeway,’ I say, desperately wanting to take the high ground. ‘Too damaged, worse than crossing the swamp at this time of year.’
There, I said it, swamp.
I can hear the shoosssshhhhhh of the water, as the tyres roll on.
‘Aim for the tree,’ I say.
Bloody guide book. Puny headlights, star light – they’re not much use when you’re scanning a vast horizon for one solitary tree.
By now I’m beyond frightened, I’m terrified. We can’t stop. We’ve no idea where we’re going. Are we going in the right direction? Did that man tell the truth?
I clutch the guide book, the printout of directions and the torch as if rigor mortis has set in. I bite my top lip. Then my bottom lip.
Anthro-man grips the steering wheel as if his life depends on it, hunched over, head close to the windscreen, peering into the night.
What seems at first like a dark cloud but is actually a wave of dark, moving forms appears to one side, rushing headlong towards us. It’s a vast herd of Black Lechwe antelopes, but we can’t stop. I cringe as if they’re going to hit us.
The herd parts and passes us, front and back, like a wave round a ship, as we make our slow way across their territory.
I wonder if we’ll ever be able to stop. We might end up in the Congo. It’s not very far away now.
It’s not a comforting thought.
*Wellingtons or gumboots