OCTOBER 2008 – NO. 27
The lost game park
In September, it's my turn to take a vacation from my work at the village clinic and I hitch a ride to Ishango, the "lost" game park, with Leo, the photographer. National Geographic is interested in Leo's photos of the tiniest flowers in Kivu. I'm interested in taking a walking safari in a place where there are over 250 species of birds, and I think I'm interested in Leo. He's six foot three, single, American and has beautiful, strong hands. But something tells me to bring my own tent and once we drive for a while, leaving the crush of people behind in the village, Leo begins to blame the road, the antique Land Rover, and then me for all of his problems driving. I listen to him for a bit and realize I haven't been alone in over a year. Tonight, I think, I'm sleeping in my own tent.
As Leo drives into territory that neither of us know, we both worry that, like so many who'd tried before us, we won't find the park. But Leo has directions that remain true even after the dirt road ends. We drive across savannah for 40 kilometers and then reach a gate to the park. There's no fence, but we're both so stunned and happy to have found it, I hop out and open it.
Hints of cool air from the Semliki River and Lake Idi Amin touch our cheeks long before we can see the camp. Then we smell the Station House. Bat guano fills each room of the royal camp the Belgians had built in the 1930s to house VIPs. Vultures stand as sentries by the entrance now; they look well fed. There are no phones, but the game warden has gotten word we've arrived and he and his wife walk up from their cottage to greet us.
Kambale, the warden, says hello in Swahili with the lilt of a Lingala speaker from the western edge of Zaire, thousands of miles from here. His wife, Sophie, is lovely in her brightly colored pagne wrapped twice around her hips. She wears her hair in antenna-like braids all over her head.
Delighted that Leo has found the park, they each hold one of his hands as he tells them about the drive. And like all Zairois I'd met in my travels, they graciously welcome me, too, the unexpected guest.
Kambale and Sophie direct their servants to unpack our truck and then lead us to the gazebo. It's bigger than the ones in my village and sturdier with its cement floor and tin roof. A large round table with six chairs fills only half the space. The structure looks a bit naked with miles of savannah to the left and right of it, and since it's on a slight rise, I can't see what lies beyond it until I step into it. Here, Lake Idi Amin spreads to the left like a newly formed ocean and the Semliki River bends to the right. The gazebo rests above the heart of the isthmus. Leo steps up, next to me. He says nothing at first. We both simply stand and look out at the interior ocean. The air is quiet and he puts his arm around me. "I feel like Adam and Eve," he says. I stand on my toes and kiss his cheek. "Thanks for the ride," I say.
Our first night, like each night of our stay, Sophie prepares the meal and we four dine together in the gazebo. I listen to Sophie and Kambale tell stories of their life here, protecting the animals from the poachers, protecting themselves from the animals. And I hear the workers gathering wood for the fire they'll set tonight at their camp.
Twilight is brief on the equator and when Kambale lights the kerosene lamp, all we can see is each other. Leo's pale cheeks glow in the lamplight like the moon and Sophie and Kambale look ten years younger. "And so do you," they insist. "But that would make me 14," I say and this leads Kambale to tell stories of when he and Sophie were young, just after the war for independence, and just before AIDS. We don't speak of the war we know is to come.
We all speak French and Swahili, and take our pick of words from each to convey best what we want to say. "Tutalala bien, ce soir," Sophie says to me as she gathers the dishes, and I agree; I will sleep well tonight, but when I ask her where I should set up my tent, she and Kambale glance at Leo. He shrugs. "She's only 14," he says in English, but they understand and all is arranged. Leo is sleeping in the guest room and Sophie leads me to a spot behind their cottage where I can set up my tent, out of the path of hippos.
At sunrise, I make my way to the gazebo and look out to the center of the universe — the Semliki River still bends to the right, touching Lake Idi Amin. I've lived in the bush for a year, but I've never been close to a lion or a hippo; I've never seen a fishing eagle or a water buffalo; I've never heard a bee-eater. Now, if the stories are true, I'm surrounded by such life here, in Ishango; all I have to do is step outside.
I'm the first one up at the camp, and I can't wait for Leo or our unknown guide. I walk toward the river and watch three hippos tiptoe down paths that lead from the top of the cliff to the river. They walk very slowly. One stops and looks around, as if he's heard a strange noise. When the others reach the same spot they, too, pause and look around, appearing even more agitated than the first. Wary, they head down a different path. Can they pick up my scent? I wait for them to get well ahead of me. Never get between a hippo and water. First rule of the day.
When I reach the river, two hippos are swimming like butterflies, one behind the other. Mating? Playing? Definitely laughing. A joyous rumble. Hippos are the drums of the river. Their calls bounce down the sides of the cliff, reverberating through air and water and me.
In my village, I walk along set paths, steering clear of places where snakes like to hide; I'm always on my guard for anything — everything — that might cause harm. Here, I've only just arrived, but I feel as if nothing, including me, is separate from anything else. I know that violence is occurring all around me — it's time for breakfast — but I feel no fear. Is my ignorance the source of my calm? Or is it simply the comfort of being here that leads me well beyond any path?
I walk along the river until I reach the opening of what looks like a low tunnel in a wall of reeds. Where does it lead? I bend down and enter slowly. I watch my feet as I make my way and when I look up, I'm face-to-face with a wart hog's tusks. He looks frightened, too. I stay bent at the waist and hold his gaze as I slowly, silently, walk backwards. When I reach the point of entry, I turn into the open and head swiftly back to camp. I should be frightened, I think, but I want to laugh.
At breakfast, I tell the others of my meeting with the wild pig. Leo and Kambale look surprised, but they seem to understand my desire to be in the world. Sophie is furious. She scolds me for going off by myself. Don't I know it's dangerous? she asks. Yes, I nod and think, the tusks did look very sharp.
I play with the eggs Sophie has so lovingly prepared. I know she's right, and I know it's inconsiderate, even cruel of me to have stepped out on my own. If I'm hurt, Kambale and Sophie will be blamed for my stupidity. They could lose their jobs — or worse.
But after breakfast, Kambale heads out to check his traps for poachers, and Leo steps into the cottage to catalogue his slides. Sophie directs the servants in the kitchen, and I set out again; my desire trumps my good intentions.
I have no gun or camera. I carry nothing. I'm pale, so I wear a hat, and my feet are tender so I wear shoes, but, like every other woman in the country, I wear a skirt. I'm not married so it's only wrapped once around my hips, which makes it easier to walk. I head to the left, along the edge of the lake until I find a place to sit where I can watch the hippos and pelicans. How dainty hippos are, testing the ground as they walk with their four fat toes.
I think I see a swan, but then the pelican's bill comes into view. So elegant. Pelicans don't fly; they float.
Two plovers in flight spread their wings. Their clean geometric shapes of white, black, and chestnut are like modern art in flight. A squawk of Egyptian geese flying close by makes me turn in time to see flashes of white, like elegant make-up around their eyes.
The storm clouds come fast. Birds gather around me, standing quietly. The light blue sky deepens to grey, green, black. I see the rain in the mountains and feel a cold wind and then a few drops. It will pour soon, but I don't change my course.
I walk out to where I saw the wild pig. This time, I walk past the tunnel in the wall of reeds. The feathery rays of papyrus float above the marsh, and the yellow prairie flowers with deep red centers are open, as if to receive the rain.
Now as I walk, I hear the splash of a fish feeding on low flying insects. I stand for a moment near the wall of reeds and listen to the river I can't see. I hear a splash much louder than the others and think, perhaps an animal is in the reeds, fishing. I don't bother to consider, what animal? It doesn't matter. I, too, am an animal, and I keep walking along the wide, open hippo paths until a leopard bounds across, so close, I could touch its coat. Tawny with dark brown spots. Healthy. Well-fed. I turn sharply and walk back to the safety of the hippos. I don't feel fear, but rather deep delight. She's just warning me — turn back, turn back. This is my home.
The scent of jasmine fills the air. I head back up the cliff to camp. A python lies stretched, asleep, across my path. I leap over it.
At lunch in the gazebo we share rice and beans, passion fruit. I don't mention the leopard. Sophie thinks I've been reading in my tent and has forgiven me for my solitary walk this morning. After lunch, she shows me where she likes to stand near the gazebo and watch the birds take off and land in the water below. Ducks, when landing, put their webbed feet out in front of them, wings and body back, like someone reaching for a foothold. Pelicans tap the water with their feet three or four times while taking off, as if the water is a solid wall they can push off from, like swimmers who flip, turn, and push to finish a race.
The water is so clear, I can see to the bottom. A water snake swims past, strikes and swallows a fish.
Yellow stripes catch my eye. A giant lizard slips into the bush.
How can I understand this life? A curtain opens — briefly — and I'm in a deep part of the world with lizards and wart hogs, leopards and water snakes. Then, the curtain closes, and I watch where I place my feet; I think about dinner and if there will be enough hot water for a bath. I don't know when the curtain will open or when it will shut or why, but I do know that to talk about what happens — "I saw a water snake eat a fish" — takes me out even further.
Tsetse flies bite me on the ass, elbow, ankle, and back of thigh. Sophie has left with Leo and Kambale to try to find a spring. I move away from the gazebo and out onto the plain. It's crisscrossed with hippo paths. Each night the hippos leave the river and walk as far as they can across the plains, eating whatever lies in their path. I straddle one of the paths and see that their hips are about twice as wide as mine. I'm delighted and surprised by my delight. I never thought I'd be pleased to feel so close to the hippo. They are massive creatures and ephemeral. Piles of hippo bones lay everywhere.
No one knows where I am. I follow the hippo trail for an hour into the bush, but this time, I feel naked, distinct. Spiny acacia, mock cactus, prairie grasses, lacy seed heads wave in the wind. The trail becomes faint. I enter lion country and fear enters me. I turn back; I don't need to see a lion today.
I walk down to the river and find a hippo asleep, nose to bank. What a pleasure to watch it at my leisure. Its mouth interests me most. The creature has presence, I think, even asleep. One eye opens every once in a while. Its ears whirl away flies. A baby spoonbill stork walks by. Jet black with bright yellow bill, like a cartoon. And then I know, it's time to head back to the camp. Before I see Leo's truck, I hear him cursing it. They found the spring but couldn't risk a breakdown by loading it with jugs of water.
In some ways, Nature is easy. She gives and gives. A few drops of blood for a tsetse fly is a small return for the gift of entering the deeper world. There is no sleeping sickness here.
I ask Leo why the tsetse flies like to bite me.
"They think you're just another hippo."
The rains arrive and a scent of lilac from my childhood. Lightning, thunder. I dive into my tent. I close my eyes and dream of pelicans. When I wake, it's still raining and I open my umbrella to take a piss.
The rain stops at midnight, but there's still no moon. I hear a hyena outside the tent. It's too dark to see, but it sounds as if it's close to me. Such a strange cry — low, then high — Brrrrr Brip Brrr Brip. It's an eerie sound, between a human baby and a bird. And then, like a woman singing.
Elusive lover, here's our moonlight.
In the morning, before breakfast, I take pictures of flowers with Leo's micro lens and my head spins when I look up from yellow pollen grains on magenta stamens to the rapidly flowing Semliki. When I photograph the blue, lion-mouth flowers, I notice their pollen is blue as well.
As I photograph flowers, two hippos appear by my side. I stand still and they stay with me for as long as they want. The hair on their tails is like wire. Just before they slip back under water, they seal their nostrils shut. To shit, they turn their backsides toward shore, raise them up out of the water and twirl their tails hard and fast.
I step away.
The bites from the tsetse flies itch and as I move away from the hippos, I feel as if I'm slipping between two worlds: the world of hippo, elodea, ibis, and ladybug; and the world of hunger, fatigue, and irritation; I've torn my shirt.
After breakfast, Mambo, the guide, arrives. He's here to take Leo and me into the wild. If we're lucky, he says, we may see leopard tracks.
We walk along the same stretch of beach where the curious hippos stood by me this morning. Now, I'm with Mambo and Leo. I carry two cameras and the guide has a gun. And I don't recognize the beach. We walk by a dead, bloated hippo. Was it there before breakfast? The stench is nauseating and the ribs of the hippo have been picked clean. The head is intact — except for the eyes — and as I stare at the vacant face, I feel lost, even though I'm in a now familiar place.
We see three hippos and Mambo asks if he can take a picture. I hold the camera out to him and a hippo charges. Mambo raises his gun and shoots it into the air; the hippo stops. Without thinking, I hold the camera out to Mambo again, and again, the hippo charges. She can surely outrun us, I think. Mambo raises his gun into the air and shoots, and I raise my camera; the hippo stops.
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