The old Land Rover has old headlights. They’re not much use when you’re lost on a floodplain in the dark. Then you need floodlights, ha ha.
I don’t know why I said that. I’m far too scared to find it funny. But then–
‘Look, the water’s gone.’ Anthro-man points to the feeble glow of the lights on the ground. ‘It’s a hill!’
My heart beats faster. The vehicle climbs a minor incline that would scarcely pass muster as a hill anywhere else.
I hardly dare believe it.
‘There’s a gate,’ I say, then shine my torch on the hated guide book. ‘It says it’s the scout post. Do you think . . . ?’
He reaches out and puts a hand on mine. I shut my eyes. The relief is overwhelming and I fear for tears.
Two men in green uniforms rouse themselves from their lounging, surprised to find two white folks driving through their check point in the dark – and rain.
‘Can we drive from here to the camp,’ anthro-man asks, ‘is it safe, or do we need to take a canoe?’
Please, God, no!
‘Eh. You can drive. It is that way. Maybe ten, fifteen minutes.’
They return to lounging. I brace myself for more lake skimming.
Soon, despite the rain and the blurry swipes of the windscreen wipers, I pick out the lumpen shape of the camp, a bump on the near horizon.
Being able to see our destination does wonders for my morale. I sit up straight, worrying now about what we will find when we arrive, while anthro-man focuses on getting us there without sinking.
More nerve-wracking shooshing through shallow water brings us to another incline and three figures emerge, carrying lanterns, to wave us into a safe parking place.
Now we find out why no-one had come out to find us – they have no vehicle. These poor men are stuck here till someone drives out to fetch them.
A few minutes later and I’ve changed my muddy shoes and socks in our tent – an A-frame, with a bed in it. We wash our filthy hands in a basin then trudge across to the dining room, in the rain.
It’s not so much a shed as a tent with delusions of grandeur, the floor like a spongy cheap marquee’s floor. A long, dark dining table and chairs sits to one side and old-fashioned sideboards line the other. We sit, then have to move to avoid the leak.
One man sets the table, bring out glasses, napkins, place mats, all the trimmings of an old-fashioned restaurant, from the old-fashioned sideboards. Through the open door a kitchen range is visible, a roaring fire, burning bright.
The chef brings chicken à la King. Not a gourmet’s feast, but one of the best birthday meals I’ve ever had. Hot food. Red wine, even.
We retire to bed, drained of the power of speech and desperate to sleep.
As we pull up the sheet and the heavy Zambian blanket, an odour of – I convince myself – onion arises.
‘They probably dry the blankets by the kitchen range,’ I think I say aloud. Or maybe I’m asleep already. Whatever, there’s no reply.
The rain drums on the tent but I don’t give a damn if it’s leaking. At least it’s not sinking.
Next: Let down in a big way by bat man