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Jumping Ships - the global misadventures of a cargo ship apprentice
Book two in David's humorous travel series.
AS FEATURED in BBC Radio 4s flagship travel programme EXCESS BAGGAGE...
‘Packed with enough ship board hilarity to make the reader literally weep with laughter, Ocean Boulevard and Jumping Ships are probably the funniest maritime-themed books in print today.' Ships Monthly
...laughs aplenty, but also top notch writing about the seas, ships and those who sail on them... Sea Breezes Magazine
Top star rating for these tall tales and youthful high jinx. Perfect holiday reading.
The second adventure for Windy and NotNorman finds our heroes on safari in Kenya; dressing up in a nurses’ home in South Africa; taking on the pirates of Nigeria; finding WonderWoman and the best non-existent restaurant in Greece; playing unorthodox forms of chess and snooker in Southern India; drained and amazed in Thailand and, of course, falling victim to all the unspeakable practical jokes his fellow sailors perpetrate on board the cargo ship Global Princess during the sea passages in between. That’s to say nothing of Windy’s days at nautical college in the snowy north east of England, his poaching trip to the Lake District, and a heli-skiing trip in Canada that will curl your hair.
Rest assured – David Baboulene’s second book is every bit as wonderful as his first.
Just the kind of adventures you’d expect a naïve young apprentice to have, including brushes with pirates and encounters with ‘friendly’ girls in Thailand. Witty and well written.'
Gritty and raucous, these true confessions of adventures in the Merchant Navy are a riot from start to finish. his misadventures will make you weep with laughter. But, for all the humour, his shipboard tales are also sometimes frightening, sometimes shocking – and often strangely moving as they chart David’s own growing maturity.
David Baboulene is a seriously funny man with a great gift for story telling.
Duncan Barkes - SPIRIT FM
My favourite author is Bill Bryson. I have been known to embarrass myself on trains while reading his hilarious tales.
And all the time I'm reading your story, I'm thinking - David is another Bill Bryson with big laugh out loud moments, really vivid images and lovely, lovely writing.
The 'alone next to the African pond/lake when the van drives off' bit in chapter two is electrifying. I was reading it on the comfort of my own couch but my heart was going like the clappers.
In a word - fab!
EXTRACT FROM JUMPING SHIPS
Mooning the Bongo
Nature’s wonders fail to grip. The big game hunters’ search for a Big Chicken. 70’s Nite at the fever tree. The name’s Bond… Jumbo Bond. Windy survives alone on the Serengeti plains.
WE ARRIVED IN Mombasa to two pieces of unexpected news. Firstly, the ship hadn’t arrived yet. In fact, it was days away. We would be put up in a hotel to wait. Secondly, I found out that Mombasa is in Kenya, Kenya is in East Africa, and the whole region is extraordinary from the very moment you touch down. The adventure was beginning, and it was doing so in fine style.
So what do you do when you find yourself with time to fill in some far flung place in the world? You summon the Jinx. Simple as that. I remembered how Jinx had convinced an entire troupe of dancing girls to come back to the ship with him in Baton Rouge. How he had emptied a training hospital of its nurses, and coaxed them all out with us in Melbourne. It was said of Jinx that if NASA wanted to find life on Mars, they simply needed to send him up there. With his sheepskin coat, spivvy moustache and his purring Leslie Phillips tones, Life would emerge from every nook and cranny of Mars, probably in the form of pole dancers, wanting to make up for lost time having been deprived of male company as they devoted themselves to their studies. Jinx was just kinda gifted like that – he had The Knack – and, here in Mombasa, he came through in typical fashion. Word went around the table after breakfast on our first day that he had a rather special contact here in Mombasa (he always had a rather special contact), apparently going by the name of ‘Precious’, and between them they had cobbled together some sort of safari. We were to drive for five days up to Mount Kenya and back, stopping at a couple of lodges, riding the steam trains and enjoying the wild and unparalleled glory of Tsavo National Park in Kenya. Was this really my job? Was this work?! I couldn’t believe my luck.
The next morning we all convened in the hot Kenya sunshine outside our hotel. Jinx introduced us to Precious. He was a long, black gentleman, built along the lines of a huge rotary washing line, but with huge hands and feet at the end of long limbs. This was the man who was was to guide us through the wonders of East Africa. He had a gun (which wasn’t his) and a safari truck (which wasn’t his), but if his height was anything to go by he was on personal whispering terms with the giraffe population, so it wasn’t all bad. NotNorman’s guess was that he must have eaten too many leaves as a child. There was great excitement as we loaded up. We were off on an adventure of the type generally associated with the rich and Royal. A safari in East Africa.
The participants leapt aboard: Ffugg, Payphone, NotNorman, Giewy, Jinx, The Famous Dick Wrigley, MegaWatt, KiloWatt and me. Precious folded himself up like a collapsible chair into the driver’s seat of the car, and adopted his very own driving position: one knee either side of his ears, arms running down outside his legs and under his knees to hold the wheel in-between his calves, with the back of his neck flat against the cab roof. He looked very uncomfortable; all curled over like a grown-up on a child’s tricycle. I looked at him doubtfully. If that guy ever got cramp, it could turn the truck over. Once or twice on the journey he attempted to drive and simultaneously unwrap sweets and place them in his mouth. He was fortunate to be amongst sailors who knew how to untie him.
The first day of the safari passed pleasurably and with no unseemly events to report. Spirits were high, the case of beer had not yet run out, and the novelty of a wild horizon, the bound of a Thompson’s Gazelle and the classic silhouette of a fever tree at sunset had not yet withered. The first night was spent at a spectacular lodge where we oooh’d and aaah’d over fine food, spotted big game from a balcony terrace overlooking the watering hole, and enjoyed a great night’s sleep in the cradle of humanity. It was nothing short of magic.
But on day two, as we bounced off in the truck for another day’s wild riding, the cracks began to show through. These were young men. All but Jinx were under twenty-eight, and the best of them was acting no more than fifteen. It is, alas, the nature of man – and particularly that of sailors – that they should find nature’s bounty short on what they would call Essential Facilities. The kind of things that talk to a man’s fundamental instincts and makes him feel life is worth living, such as bars, clubs and that special type of local friend with whom a young sailor, in the prime of his life, can have a fight.
The lads were getting bored.
‘Oi, Precious!’ shouted MegaWatt, tapping the Long One on the shoulder. ‘Where’s The Business, then?’
‘Yeaaah!’ agreed KiloWatt in a slovenly drawl, stoutly supporting his boss. ‘Wot he says. Yeaaaah!’
Precious looked puzzled. ‘Business? What do you mean, business?’
MegaWatt explained with exaggerated patience. ‘Precious, this is Africa. We want to see some Business.’
‘Yeeeeaah, wot he says! Yeaaah!’
Precious pulled a face. He already knew it was Africa. MegaWatt took a deep breath and spelled it out for him. ‘We wanna see like, a spider leopard beastie mother drop out of a tree onto a pig!’
‘And we wanna see some lions killing some villagers.’
The others were getting the hang of it now, and the call for blood grew stronger.
‘Yeah! We wanna see tigers and – and –’
‘…and – and bears, and and – ‘
‘..and… and sharks!’
‘Yeaaah! And… and.. and we wanna see a snake eat a whole cow, yeaaah!’
‘Yeah, and we wanna see a cheetah leggit after one of them Bambi jobbies!’
‘Yeeeah, wot he says, yeeeah!’
There appeared to be a general thirst for blood that no number of grazing wildebeest could satisfy unless they were being torn apart by something.
Precious stopped the truck and turned around to address us in deep, golden-black tones from beneath his right knee. ‘You mustn’t expect to see any big cats. It’s very unusual that we even see any big cats, and they certainly won’t be hunting in the daytime. You have to expect that we won’t see any at all.’
Well, it’s no exaggeration to say the lads were deflated. There is only so much merciless plains of Kenya that a chap can take without a kill before he begins looking for alternative forms of entertainment. There didn’t appear to be any change coming over the horizon, so a plan of action was required.
‘Jinx,’ said the Famous Dick Wrigley placing a hand on the great man’s shoulder with a certain solemnity in his voice. ‘It is now perhaps more important than at any time in your illustrious career that you come up with something brilliant.’
Now here was a challenge even for the notorious Jinx. He had proven himself in this way on many previous occasions, but this, surely was a bridge too far even for the Pied Piper himself.
We looked on with apprehension as the Jinxed brain churned and the moustache twitched like a divining fork above his ever smirking lips. There were definite signs of activity. I, personally, was not confident that Jinx could create a party under these circumstances. I had a brain, just like he did, and could see no potential for a happy ending. There was no raw material here. Nothing to work with. I looked in the trees for the beautiful girls he might summon out of nowhere. There were none. The lads would simply have to wait until Mombasa’s Kilindini Road rolled over the horizon again; a place where they could definitely give themselves diseases.
A smile began to rise at the edge of Jinx’s lips. His eyes flitted furtively from one breath-holding onlooker to the next. Precious looked back in wonder as the sense that something was about to be delivered overtook us all. Suddenly, Jinx clapped.
‘OK!’ he said. ‘If there’s no sizeable pussy around, we’ll have to see if we can’t hunt down a different species…’ he opened his arms wide to emphasise his point, ‘…we are gonna bag ourselves…’ he milked the moment as we all waited with bated breath, ‘…a Biiiiig Chicken!’
We all cheered. We didn’t understand why, but the build up meant that cheering still felt like the right thing to do. I could see through him at last! He just buzzed people up and came out with nothing! Africa had exposed him. I was about to ask why it was that anyone ever rated Jinx so highly, when he continued.
‘And Windy. You are the first-tripper, so you get to go first. Let’s see if YOU are the Biiiiig Chicken!’
I shut my eyes and counted to ten before delivering my withering retort.
‘I am NOT a first-tripper. As you all well know, Jinx, I am on my SECOND trip, and I refuse to be treated in any way unbefitting of my status.’ Sometimes a chap has to stand up for himself. I wasn’t going to be the butt of everyone’s jokes for the next six months as well as the last. ‘Ffugg,’ I said, using both hands to indicate the six-foot embryo sitting next to me, ‘is the first-tripper.’
‘Chic-ken! Chic-ken! Chic-ken!’ chorused everybody towards me. Even Ffugg joined in with them; he placed me in a chummy sort of half-nelson and noggied me on the head with his knuckles, and The Famous Dick Wrigley attempted to strut about doing a chicken impersonation (a tough trick in a safari truck, but his commitment to the programme was there to be admired).
Jinx leaned forwards and looked me in the eye. He appeared to be surprisingly angry.
‘Listen, to me. When we are all in our old age and we have grandchildren on our knees and we are telling them of the time we went on safari, we want to be able to show them some special photographs. Now, if I can’t show a picture of myself with one foot victoriously atop a fallen lion, then I want the next best thing: a picture of me with a Big Chicken. One of us, in this truck, will go down in history as that poultry figure, and will be derided by generations to come. Is it you, Baboulene? Are you the Big Chicken, and proven to be so before we have even begun our search?’
Now, I didn’t particularly want to patronise his childish game (or at least, I didn’t want to go first) but as he spoke, the Baboulene brain was working. The others may not have realised it yet, but I could understand the coded message Jinx was imparting to me. He was letting me know that there wasn’t a real Big Chicken at all. There quite possibly wasn’t even such an animal in Kenya. This was going to be a test of bravery. Jinx and I were now in tune. I looked from the enigmatic expression on Jinx’s face to the gormless one on Ffugg’s and I instantly knew what he was getting at. Jinx and I were communicating on a higher level of conscience – and it was Ffugg who was to suffer.
‘OK!’ I cried, slapping my thigh in the manner of Hercules approaching the first of his tasks. ‘Tell me what I have to do.’
‘Good man!’ said Jinx, the anger evaporating as rapidly as it had arrived. ‘Did you ever play ‘Dares’ when you were a kid? Knocking a policeman’s helmet off, that kind of stuff?’
‘Ooooh, yes,’ I said. ‘Only last week we put a hose pipe through next door’s letterbox. Ha, ha! And whilst they were trying to stop the water, we went round the side, rang the bell and ran away. Yes, and then we got a roll of cling film, right, and we stretched it across the toilet, you see, and when my dad came home –’
‘Yes, yes. OK. I forgot – you’re still a kid, aren’t you. Well, we’re going to play dares now. AFRICA style…’
A chill ran down my spine as the words emerged from his mouth. These supposed grown-ups were planning to play childish games, but not risking an irate neighbour, the wrath of a village bobby or even a little parental splash-back. These guys wanted to go and take childish risks… on the savage, uncompromising plains of Africa.
Now, I’m sure you realise that it is not actually very difficult to take childish risks on the S.U.P. of A. Indeed, it’s very easy to find dangerous things to do. Having said that, it turns out that there is fundamentally only one obviously dangerous thing to do, and that is to leave the safety of the safari truck and the reassuring presence of the long bloke with the gun, and wander off by yourself. The variety in the dares will only ever come in the manner in which you risk being pounced upon and eaten.
‘OK,’ drawled Jinx. ‘Your first round test, young Windy, is to re-enact for us a scene from a James Bond movie. Your co-star will be – Jumbo, over there.’
I followed his pointing finger. There in the bushes, lazily tearing shoots from a camel hair tree, was a large bull elephant.
‘What?! You want me to –?’
‘Get on with it, then! Nothing more to discuss!’
And they bundled me out of the truck. As I headed away from the truck the earth felt strange under my feet. Was this real? I was walking on Masai earth. Wild earth. The reality of what this meant made me feel instantly insecure. This was dangerous terrain. I had read only the day before of the notorious man eaters of this area – the Tsavo lions. People who didn’t stay in the truck got themselves killed, it was as simple as that. It didn’t seem to matter to my sniggering shipmates whilst it was Me roaming the plains – they had yet to feel the reality of walking on this earth – but the sense of vulnerability was instant and alarming from the moment I stood outside the truck.
The elephants are tame in Tsavo National Park. Well, no, that’s not the right word. They are not exactly tame, but they are not scared of us – why should they be? You can wander amongst them quite safely, provided someone is there who can recognise when it is best to leap back in the truck and hide under the seat.
I tiptoed gently up to the large bull. He stopped his ruminations and looked down on me with a profound, reproachful eye. His head was huge and wrinkled. Had he been wearing a judge’s wig, I would have begun a full confession immediately. I looked back to the truck, some thirty metres away, and was met by hand-signals from Jinx telling me to get on with it.
I looked the elephant in the eye, took a deep breath and adopted a thespian pose.
‘Sshoo, Mr Bond...’ I said, in a Sean Connery drawl. ‘We meet again.’ I changed my pose to place my gun-finger across my chest. ‘But this time, you… are an elephant.’
We stared at each other for a few moments as my point hit home. The elephant raised his eyebrows. No doubt about it, he was surprised to be mistaken for James Bond. He was about to make the point that, given that I had called him Mr Bond, it should surely be he who was allowed the Sean Connery accent and that I had therefore just turned myself into Miss Moneypenny, when his co-star suddenly cut the scene short, turned and galloped back to the safety of the truck. I was sweating heavily by the time I got back to my seat. I counted my limbs and it became evident that I had not been eaten. I had done it!! I wasn’t the Big Chicken, and I could hardly contain myself.
‘Wow, man, what a BUZZ! You guys have just GOT to get out there! This is a great game! Whose turn next?!”
For the first round of dares, we were only going twenty or thirty metres away from the safari truck – hardly a trek into the heart of Africa – and yet it was ridiculously scary. Each of us in turn was obliged to creep nervously off, perform some pointless charade, then scramble back to the truck in a blind panic, being pursued by a thousand imagined beasties with teeth. Payphone, for his first round dare, had to score a goal for England. He had shown a little more of his character since London office, and he was more than just an anxious telephonist. He had been born within the sound of Bow Bells, and was a cockney through and through. He had a pork-pie hat to fend off the sun (‘a titfer wot set me back a nugget up Whitechapel,’ apparently), a permanent roll-up (known fondly as his ‘oily rag’) in the corner of his mouth, and he spoke with such an extraordinary cockney accent that I could barely understand him, even though I had grown up not ten miles south of him. He was excited by his task (it was, to be precise, ‘aaandsome’), as it had always been an ambition of his to ‘stick one in the old onion bag’ for England. He hopped out of the truck, ran over to a patch of open land, took off his left ‘ow-do-ya-do, and placed it carefully and centrally in line with two acacias which were to act as goalposts. He took a few paces back and took a long, dramatic drag on his oily rag as he psyched himself up for the penalty that would put Germany out of the World Cup. He eyed the keeper (a small bush, well out of position to the right hand end of the goal line), stretched his neck, flexed his elbows and his knees, took his short run up and, with his right boot, booted his left boot high up into top of a baobab tree.
‘Geddin, you beauteeeee!!’ he yelled, wheeling away victoriously with fists clenched. He pulled the front of his T-shirt over his head in the classic style of an Italian striker, and ran in a circle with his arms out to the sides as if pretending to be a plane. Luckily, when he ran headlong into the baobab, it gave it such a jolt that it caused his boot to drop back down to earth again. He picked it up and jogged triumphantly back to the truck looking pleased with himself.
‘You missed,’ said MegaWatt, dryly. ‘Go do it again.’
Giewy’s first-round task popped up when we stumbled across an apparent rarity. A large, striped antelope known as a Bongo. We all laughed at the name, but Precious stopped the truck some distance from the beast and told us in an excited whisper that it was very unusual to find Bongos in this part of Kenya. They were very rare, very timid and we should feel honoured to see one. Once we heard this news, Giewy was charged with performing a scientific experiment to test Bongo timidity. The research process required Giewy to adopt the professional standards of a nuclear scientist… and go moon the Bongo. Or for those of you who don’t understand all these scientific terms, showing it his arse. If the beast was as timid as Precious said it was, Giewy’s bum could surely make it burst into tears.
Giewy prowled, cat-like, up past the bushes to get near to the creature. He then leapt up, dropped his trousers, and with a sing-song ‘Nurr-nurr-ne-nurrrrr-nurrrrr!’ waved his bottom at the poor defenceless creature. The animal twitched palpably as he tried to get his head round what was, one assumed, a new experience for him. But he did not react as we predicted. There were no tears. It didn’t even run away. He merely sneezed heavily – perhaps some sort of allergy to tit-heads – then returned to his ruminations as if this sort of thing happened on a daily basis. So much for timid. I guess if you live with the nightly opportunity of being mauled by lions, it takes more than the contents of even Giewy’s trousers to make you jump. Mind you, from what I’d seen, I’d take the lions any day. As Giewy climbed back into the truck, KiloWatt cruelly suggested that he should wave his face at it next time, but was immediately told to calm down. We wanted to have a bit of fun, not eradicate a species.
Ffugg got a childishly simple exercise, having to go and pretend to take some money out of a cash machine. He acted it out as if there was one in the trunk of a tree, and his acting was rewarded with laughter from the boys. It wasn’t funny, but they laughed. It was pathetic. Were these guys actually protecting him?! How come they were so brutal towards me on the previous trip, and so easy on him this time?
By the end of the first round of tests, we had not definitively established a Big Chicken. There had been some shaky moments in which a couple of eggs had been laid, but each of us had successfully completed our tasks. We would have to turn up the heat for round two.
So off we went again, but this time moving further from the truck to perform our pointless charades. A lot further. We were moving up to around one hundred metres away from the truck. Off into inner Africa the length of a football pitch distant from basic safety. This was properly scary, with additional tension in the atmosphere coming from Precious. Even he was getting anxious about the risks we were taking. He was responsible for our welfare and was not happy to see us larking about in this way. His agitation gave a certain additional bite to the second round, not only because it let us all know that what we were doing was now confirmed as genuinely dangerous, but also because he was now refusing to stop the truck. His theory was that if he kept moving, nobody could get out and risk their lives. This was a complication, but, as the saying goes, the show must go on, so the charades now absorbed this additional component: before you could commence your task, you had to trick Precious into stopping the truck. This was achieved in a safe and controlled fashion, of course, for example, placing your hands firmly over his eyes (and fighting hard to keep them there in the ensuing flail of spinning washing line).
The charades themselves didn’t get any more grown-up in the second round. NotNorman, for instance, was given instructions to travel up to the top of a hill, put a pretend handbag on to the grass and then perform a little seventies disco dancing around it. We got hold of Precious’ gun, pulled it into the back and began larking about with it. Precious knew us well enough by now to see the lethal potential of letting us loose with a high-powered rifle, so he stopped the truck and leaned into the back to fight over it with us. Before you could say ‘Earnest Hemmingway’, NotNorman was out of the truck and off to the top of the hill, mincing outrageously all the way up with his pretend Dolce and Gabbana swinging casually on the end of outstretched fingertips.
At the brow of the hill, NotNorman placed his handbag carefully on the ground, then – as the strains of his singing ‘Stayin’ Alive’ by the Bee Gees wafted across Africa – he began gyrating away, pushing his bottom out from side-to-side, like some hideous cross between the Pink Panther and a slow death in Erasure.
The animals of Tsavo stopped their grazing and looked at NotNorman silhouetted perfectly against the African sky. It was as if they’d never seen or heard anything like it in their lives.
‘Well you can tell by the way I use my walk I’m a woman’s man, no time to talk…’ NotNorman’s grating falsetto rang out horribly across the Serengeti.
Precious couldn’t take any more. He roared the engine and spun the wheels. The truck ripped round and bounced off-road in exactly the way they do on those wildlife documentaries in which they chase a rhinoceros to shoot a sleeping-draught into it, but this wasn’t one of those occasions. Precious was barrelling across the plains not in pursuit of Big Game, but to stop an errant sailor from poncing about on the African plains.
I honestly do not think Precious can possibly have been worried about NotNorman’s chances of survival. Personally, as I watched him – now deep in the groove and thrusting his pelvis outrageously – I couldn’t even begin to think about eating him. Any self-respecting carnivore would surely feel the same way. I think Precious was more concerned firstly, about the damage to the environment caused by hundreds of different species all throwing up at the same time, and secondly to the wider image of Africa. I mean, can you imagine being in another safari party, driving along on the other side of the hill? You are enraptured by the sights: to the left – the impala, the giraffe! To the right – the elephants, the wildebeest! Above us – the monkeys, the weaver birds and, oh! Look there! Dappled in the sunlight, a sailor, disco dancing around a pretend handbag as he murders a Bee Gees’ song… You see? It spoils the savage imagery of the place. People will stop taking Africa seriously. Perhaps Precious was worried that the animals might start picking up the behaviour. Then where would we be? Whichever way you looked at it, NotNorman – now acting out the letters ‘Y, M, C, A’ with a chorus line of Botticelli’s Gazelle – was not good for the environment.
Soon enough, it was my turn again, and I was not looking forward to it. The sun was going down and I was hoping that the game might be wrapped up for the night and get itself forgotten. No chance. We browed the top of a hill and central to the view that greeted us was a lake.
‘There you go, Windy,’ said The Famous Dick Wrigley, indicating the lake with a wave of his hand. ‘You have to run round that lake. On your way!’
There was general agreement amongst the lads that this was a good task. But this was because most of them couldn’t have made it around that lake without a cardiac support team pushing them in wheelchairs. I was young and fit. I could run round a little pond like that in no time – I mean, you could hardly call it a lake – and I’d still have enough puff left to tell everyone how easy it was afterwards. I was well chuffed with getting such an easy task, and set about it right away before they had time to change their minds. I reached forwards, picked up Precious’ wallet, and lobbed it out of the truck. He screeched to a halt, and I was off over the side and swiftly up to an easy cruising speed down towards the pondy lake thing. It would be nice to stretch my legs and get a little trot. This would be a breeze. Windy’s Breeze.
What I hadn’t bargained for was that this was Africa. It seems I had forgotten.
You see, the thing about Africa is that it is really, really big. Unless you have grown up here, the sheer scale of the place monkeys with your head. For instance, we had been motoring towards Mount Kenya for two days; we could see it, but it didn’t seem to be getting any nearer. The sky meets the land on a horizon so distant that the sky seems low. So low it’s almost claustrophobic. At night, the canopy of stars we are used to isn’t a canopy in Africa. It’s a three-dimensional myriad of stars; you can see past the near stars to more distant stars, and more beyond them. Africa is beyond the understanding we gain from growing up elsewhere on the planet. My point is that this pondy sort of lake was, well, much, much bigger than it had first appeared. I hadn’t been running three minutes when it hit me, quite hard, that it was a darned sight further to run round it than I first imagined. Of course, this also meant it was going to take me proportionally longer than my initial estimates. A lot longer. So long, in fact, that it would get dark in the time it was going to take me, and when it gets dark in Africa, it gets seriously dark and it does it quickly. As my mind filled with grim reality, it also hit me, quite hard, that this was NOT a lake, was it? Nor was it a pond. I suddenly knew exactly what it was. It was a watering hole.
And here I was, trotting round it looking like a giant sandwich on legs. All I needed was a big, neon sign with a pointy finger over my head, flashing the words ‘Eat Me’ to complete the mistake I was making.
There was a varied mix of wildlife around the watering hole already, chatting of their day, and, one could safely assume, a good deal of other wildlife lying in wait for it in the long grass nearby. I realised that perhaps running round a watering-hole at sunset wasn’t such a clever idea after all. In fact, it was life-threateningly dangerous and, for a Baboulene so renowned as an intellectual force, a notably stoopid thing to do.
I felt the spring go out of my stride and a wave of doubt wash over me. I also experienced a major and involuntary adjustment in my priorities. I no longer cared if my ship-mates called me names. I could be a Big Chicken if that was what pleased their juvenile minds. I had to rise above their childish games and make a grown-up, responsible decision for everyone’s sakes. They would lose their ebullience pretty quickly if I was to get eaten alive, wouldn’t they? It wouldn’t be so funny then, and it was best for everyone if I simply let them have their fun and resigned myself to the status of Big Chicken. I had to choose between losing a childish game and losing life and limb. It wasn’t a difficult decision.
Despite all these thoughts I was still running forwards, albeit without enthusiasm, when suddenly the decision seemed to be made for me. In the middle of the watering hole a large hippopotamus surfaced and set about his evening yawn. It gave me a shake which stopped my legs turning. I stopped and stood frozen to the spot, looking around at some of the other local gang members sent to spoil my day, and for some reason, the clincher was a large bird, waiting for me about half way round. It was one of those big crane-like jobbies – almost as tall as me – on long, spindly legs. It had hunched shoulders, no neck, and a huge heavy beak like a wind-sock full of sand. The Godfather of Africa. It had the angry deportment of a bird who has just been informed that Windy Baboulene has been going about the town calling his mum a sparrow.
‘Jeeez, I’m going to have to give him a wide berth, too,’ I thought. He looked all shifty, like he was packing heat. And that was it. All the evidence suggested that a return to base was the only sensible course of action. It was nearly dark, I was nearly knackered and there were miles to go – particularly with the extra ten minutes it would take to get round the mafia hit-bird. I knew what had to be done. It would take possibly more bravery to go back than it would to continue my run around the watering hole, but I had decided. I would rise above their childish games and go back.
I stopped. I turned round. I looked back the way I had come and…
…there was nothing there.
The truck had disappeared.
They had gone.
I rubbed my eyes and stared through the shimmering heat haze again. There was nothing in the direction from which I had come except more Africa.
THEY HAD GONE.
I felt my knees go weak and an enormous adrenalin rush remove my stomach. My blood froze in my veins.
THEY HAD GONE.
I span round through three-sixty to check I had my bearings right. There was nothing but a heat haze, wildlife, fever trees, acacias and more Africa in every direction. No safari truck. No shelter. No Precious with a gun. No safety.
The world stood still. I had nothing with me; no protection. No weapons. Nothing. I was bereft of the basics for supporting life, and closer to nature, red in tooth and claw, than humans can advisably get. I felt a kind of static, sickening panic and an indescribable hollowness in my stomach as all the blood rushed away to serve my muscles. My muscles! How laughable! My speed, my youth, my agility, my brain! All were worthless in this merciless, savage terrain. I felt as though someone had removed all the flesh from my midriff – all the organs and fat and meat – and was blowing a chill wind through the exposed skeleton that remained. It was the feeling of death’s arrival. A kind of priming one’s body does when it thinks it’s going to die. A horrible feeling I hope never to experience again.
As I stood in the enormous silence and stifling African heat, the details of my local area began to come to life. It wasn’t just lions and leopards one had to fear in this part of the world. There were insects that could kill you! Plants that could maim! Spiders, snakes, crocodiles! Who knows what might drop out of a tree?! Even the dogs would tear you limb from limb – none of that ‘nice-doggy-fetch-the-stickie-have-a-bonio’ stuff around here. Just Death. This was nature with the roof off. In the West we live in ivory towers, insulated from the workings of nature. Here I was now, a tiny cog being turned remorselessly in the wheel of life, and would be unlikely to survive a single night on my own.
And night was upon me. It was getting dark. In Africa, the sunsets are short but spectacular. The sky goes from slanting warm daylight through a laser show of brilliant yellows and oranges, through vivid scarlets and violets, through blood reds and portentous purples until pitch darkness comes down like a cold blanket, and the hunters and hunted change shifts. You can feel the creatures of the night stirring to life. You can sense the foreboding amongst the prey. In the morning some of their number will be gone.
I don’t honestly know how long I stood there. A sunset takes around twenty minutes, and I guess I was alone for around half that, but let me tell you now, it felt like a lifetime. I can still remember the feeling as if it was happening to me now, and I can bring myself goose pimples just telling you about it. It was mortal terror.
When the lads finally returned, I climbed shakily back into the truck, a significantly older man than the one who had hopped out a few short minutes earlier. They didn’t understand what I had been through. They thought it was hilarious, but I was too traumatised to hear their taunts. What I did divine was that they had chipped Precious about a year’s money, in his terms, to drive off. Precious, our guide and protector. Precious, the faithful man who had been so concerned for our safety. Yeah, right. As soon as he was offered enough cash he was into gear and off over the hill, steering with his knees and counting notes with his fingers before you could say ‘Daktari’. To them, it was just a laugh, and I hid my feelings as best I could, but I had suffered a trauma that would last me a lifetime. I would never forget the day I survived alone on the plains of East Africa.
But, you know, there was some good news too. You see, the boys didn’t know I hadn’t run round the watering hole. So I was NOT the Big Chicken! Ha! I was officially brave, despite being more scared than ever in my life before or since. Strange old world, isn’t it?
The Big Chicken was later revealed to be none other than Ffugg. Ha, haaaaa!! The new boy was exposed for the lily-livered spineless child he truly was when he refused to run off a mere forty or fifty paces into the Serengeti. I mean, how weak is that?! Admittedly, it was pitch black out there, and there were some blood-curdling roars from quite close by, but really. I mean, what sort of animal would want to eat a giant baby? Yeesh. He would have got through it all right, wouldn’t he? Some blokes just don’t understand a bit of fun.
No guts, kids nowadays. No guts at all.