The men who go for water don’t make it back till after dark.
My ‘kitchen’ – the back of their vehicle – is covered in bits of charcoal and running with water. But never mind. I rustle up another macaroni cheese and no-one complains.
But the wine that’s been flowing from the box all week, keeping the frail social bonds tolerable, is in danger of running dry. With excellent timing Rosie and I just happen to have a mission to accomplish at the museum next day. We make a plan – we’ll go exploratory shopping.
Bars in Mbala sell odd things – like frozen Russian sausage. And beer, of course. But there’s not a drop of red wine in town.
It feels like a punishment for mocking the late Betty Clark, archaeological illustrator and wife of celebrated archaeologist Desmond Clark who first excavated the Kalambo Falls site in the 1950s. She famously complained that she wasn’t able to obtain the right kind of white wine locally.
Now we’re moaning because we can’t find a box – or a bottle – of red. Any red would do. My, how standards have slipped!
Rosie goes back to dig after lunch, I wash the dishes and start preparing dinner.
I stop my chopping when I hear the sound of a vehicle approaching. The first I’ve heard all week.
Germans. They park where I cook with the mbaula. Pitch a large tent slap bang in front of our view of the gorge.
I rush to make the fire, just in case they colonise that area too.
[Beach towels and package holidays spring to mind.]
Deputy caretaker, Abram, approaches to tell them about the site and take the camping fee. I see him filling in the form with registration details.
He returns, sits on one of our benches looking dejected.
I get on with my cooking. The semi-frozen sausage (yes we bought some) takes forever to cook on the dying embers of the mbaula. I cook cabbage, make a spicy tomato sauce for the potatoes – a bodged patatas bravas.
A kind student tells me he’d have paid good money for it. A compliment at last.
We all turn in very early. The wine has now completely petered out – and with it the pretence of conviviality.
Next morning, after the Germans leave, I notice the caretaker, deputy caretaker and our two Zambian colleagues are sitting in a grim-faced huddle.
Turns out the man – a diplomat at the German embassy in Dar es Salaam, refused to pay the fee.
Five dollars a head.
Said the facilities weren’t good enough.
Here, miles from anywhere, where there’s no electricity and no plumbing.
I’m angry on Abram’s behalf – he‘s recorded the visitors, there will be queries about where the money’s gone.
We can sort that out, have spare dollars, but – well I’m just angry.
As it’s the last day I head for the site after breakfast, snap some pictures. The river’s looking beautiful, the kids as noisy and playful as ever.
But then there’s one last meal to cook.
I’ve kept a treat in reserve. Tins of condensed milk, boiled for an age to make dulce de leche, accompanied by baked bananas.
The treat meets a rather subdued reception – but I’m used to that now.
Not much longer.
On our last morning I pack up while Anthro-man makes eggy bread with the last of the eggs and bread.
Everyone compliments him on a wonderful breakfast.
But it’s been a disappointment, I must admit. Usually on digs, after a day or so of ups and downs, camaraderie kicks in. Something, this time, just hasn’t gelled. And I blame myself – naturally.
But it’s nearly over.
The experts in the leather-upholstered white vehicle make to leave first, but their engine’s flat. Could it be that sitting in it every night reading and writing notes (and shaving) has drained the battery?
It’s an automatic, won’t respond to a hill start. Frowns break out. The mechanically minded manage to swap in a battery from one of the older vehicles. It works. So now there’s just the old one to start.
Aberystwyth man (a skilled washer of dishes and all-round helpful type) is confident. The strongest push the heavy vehicle up our little hill and he lifts the clutch as it rolls down.
Ka-chug. With a cough it starts. And keeps on going.
But a man’s in our way, waving distractedly. He points to a figure squatting on a rock in the bushes. A woman, whose baby is showing signs of popping out any minute, must get to the hospital.
We leave. Bump our slow way up the path.
I wave goodbye to Custard, resplendent in yellow overalls, digging beside the track.
Despite the lurching and swaying of the vehicle, the woman makes it to the hospital.
And we make it to the Great – never so welcome – North Road.
Hours later we arrive at Mutinondo Wilderness and sleep wherever we can find space.
In the morning I’m looking forward to waving the crew goodbye and being alone at last when the Japanese woman shows me her spots. She’s unwell, really unwell. Lari, co-owner of Mutinondo, tells the driver of her vehicle where the mission hospitals are en route and we send her off with a last consignment of anxiety.
Dragging a chair out onto the sunny rocks I prepare to lounge.
That’s when I see the snake.
You know, I just want to go home.