Because of the Pandemic, I have no travel stories to tell, and an uneventful life at home. So here is one of my long stories, about an amateur writer who goes on a family fishing holiday on the Zambezi River. It describes another lifestyle, another country, another time. Remember: this is fiction! Enjoy
There’s small glossary at the end, should you need it.
The two Land Rovers forged noisily northwards, bypassing Harare, through Rusape, past ruined tobacco barns, past rotted polythene growing tunnels; past deserted mud huts, thatch threadbare and holed, past straggly stunted mealies, past ragged children who waved listlessly at the small convoy, past all signs of cultivation or human habitation until finally there was nothing but bush. Virgin bush on every side, up to the horizon which was framed by the clear blue sky. Aileen gave a sigh of contentment. This was what she had worked for, saved for, dreamed of and slogged for with iron determination. Just bush, and a glorious ten days of no office, no telephones, no kids. Just bush, the river and some fishing and finally, the chance to get down to some serious writing. Perfect!
Up front Uncle Harry drove, completely on automatic pilot, intent on a PhD level discussion with Neville on the new Bok team to play Scotland. Next to Aileen in the back, Aunt Susie sat knitting, also on automatic pilot.
Clive drove the second Landy, with George as navigator, and Phineas and Enoch as passengers. Uncle Harry believed in camping in comfort with all mod cons, which included hot and cold running camp staff, hence the presence of Phineas and Enoch. In his scheme of things the perfect fishing trip did not include fire making, water carrying, dish-washing, fish gutting and cleaning, camp site cleaning or the digging of latrines and erecting of shower shelters. However, Phineas and Enoch also benefited from fishing trips to the river, as they filleted and smoked the fat Zambezi tiger fish which they later sold at an enormous profit in the Bulawayo townships. Everybody happy.
That evening the party relaxed by the fire after a long hot day’s drive to the river. The night was warm and utterly dark, frogs creaked on the river banks, the mosquitoes sang busily but this was all part of the bush experience and Aileen loved every bit of it. A long day’s travel is best followed by an early night and the party thankfully crept into their two-man tents. Aileen was too tired to even attempt her usual day’s end diary entry. Tomorrow, she thought sleepily, tomorrow I’ll ………
Phineas arrived at 5 a.m. with mugs of tea. So getting up very early to catch the freshness of the river at sunrise was no hardship. Aileen and Neville set up-river with George and Clive, the rubber-duck making good headway against the strong current. Clive piloted them to an old favourite fishing spot and they settled down to enjoying the coolness of the early morning, competitively identifying bird-calls, spotting a pod of hippo further upstream on the far bank, casting out their lines, waiting for the tell-tale bob of the float, the tentative tug on the line.
Aileen planned to use river scenery details in the novel she was working on, and scratched around in her backpack for her Writer’s Notebook, greatly irritating the men who knew that Zambezi fish have ultra-sensitive hearing easily disturbed by the sounds generated by females flapping around in small boats. She glared at them, and continued to dig fruitlessly in her backpack. Damn! She must have left her vital notebook back in their tent. Oh well. She began to make mental notes about the sounds, colours, smells, sensations and string together a few handy phrases, when her reverie was interrupted by Clive who angrily hissed that her line had drifted across his and now look what had happened! Lines crossed and inextricably tangled! Lines and peace were finally restored, but since the fish were not in a co-operative mood, breakfast seemed like a good option.
Enoch and Aunt Susie had produced a mammoth breakfast. Uncle Harry, a man of fixed view and pronounced paunch, held that a substantial breakfast around 9 a.m. followed by a light snack lunch of beer around mid-day (too hot to eat, anyway, proclaimed Uncle Harry) and then a decent early braai was the only sensible catering scheme for fishing trips. Fortified by breakfast the party applied sunblock and determination in equal quantities and fished until lunch-time, returning from the river with ten fat tiger fish and powerful thirsts.
Aileen had discovered that her essential Writer’s Notebook was not in the tent, or anywhere else. Seemingly she had left it behind in Aunt Susie’s spare bedroom. The only other paper in camp was Aunt Susie’s beloved collection of Agatha Christie novels and removal of the spare flysheets at the back of the books was unthinkable. This pillage would have been fatal to their battered constitutions. What to do? Oddly enough Phineas came to the rescue with a modest blue Croxley writing pad. “Madam can use this,” he offered. Aileen seized it gratefully and hastily jotted down some of the rapidly vanishing phrases from her morning sunrise on the river. Better than nothing, she supposed, writing extra small, so as to save precious paper.
Her main writing task on this trip, now that she had some time and head-space at her disposal, was to plot the frame-work of her novel, get the story-line into shape, and work out where best to insert the main dramatic events that befell her heroine, a young Scottish lass, newly emigrated to the colonies and faced with life in the raw on an African tobacco farm. Lions , migrating herds of game, yes, all the details of old pristine Africa, the challenges of pioneer-style living, and of course, the romance. Aileen was undecided as to whether the romantic interest would best be served by a pale young DC with a mystery history ( a remittance man? Aristocratic black sheep?) saved by the love of a good woman; or maybe a better foil for the Scottish lass would be a sunburned but silent white hunter? While pondering these options the snack lunch and the furnace heat of mid-day took their toll, and Aileen slept.
Phineas toiled around at 4.30 with fresh installments of tea, and fishing resumed against the gaudy backdrop of the African sunset over the Zambezi. The sun died in a glorious burst of crimson, peach and gold while the pale blue sky turned suitably to deep mid-night blue. Sunburned, relaxed and replete the fishing party gazed sleepily into the roaring camp-fire. Mmmh, thought Aileen, the smell of woodsmoke, the utterly dark sky, night sounds of the bush – oh, the peace! She savoured it. Peaceful, and tranquil, no worries, no crime, no high-jackings, just the blessed, blessed bush. She could have sat in her canvas camp chair all night but Neville prised her out and they wandered off to their tent by the light of their torch. Disturbed by her departure, the large adult puff-adder under her camp-chair gathered itself together and slithered off in search of a frog, leaving a sandy signature in its wake.
“Hau, Madam was lucky last night,” said Phineas chattily, offering an enamel mug of tea at 5 a.m. “big njoka under Madam’s chair last night!” he chortled, trundling away with his tea-tray. “Don’t worry babes,” said Neville comfortingly, “they only bite if you step on them. No need to catch such a skrik!”
The days settled into an easy pattern of early mornings, days on the river, snack lunches of beer, nights around the fire with jovial and embroidered accounts of the monsters that got away, together with the eternal minute analyses of the Boks’ performance at rugby and cricket.
Aunt Susie cooked and knitted. The tstetse flies feasted on the party, save for Phineas and Enoch whose fish-smoking activities would have proofed them against attach by rabid vultures, never mind hungry tstetse flies. The mercury climbed effortlessly into the high 30’s, early 40’s. Enoch had to dig another pit to tidy up the mountain of empty beer cans.
Nothing much else happened. Aileen loved it. Daily after lunch she sat down with the blue Croxley pad and wrestled with the plot, which was proving difficult. Somehow the romantic episodes were proving the most difficult of all. She loathed the bodice ripper style of encounter, all that thrusting and heavy breathing and quivering: ugh! Her novel would be sensitive, tasteful, yet passionate and earthy.
Hmmmmm. Her own experience in this area was limited, due to an early marriage and a husband who took a workmanlike approach to his love life which might best be described as thorough, but uninspired. Apart from his curious habit, she mused, of muttering rugby players names just prior orgasm. She had never understood this odd foible and he had made it clear, long ago, that he did not intend to explain.
The answer was simple of course: by mentally reciting the names of every Springbok player since 1960, Neville was able to delay orgasm very successfully, until he could no longer withstand the urgent tide. And what was even more curious, she ruminated, was that she had distinctly heard George (or was it Clive?) shout out Os du Randt! last night, well after lights out. Surely to goodness those wretched men didn’t dream about rugby all night as well as talk about it all day ? Aileen doodled distractedly on the blue Croxley pad seeking inspiration.
Neville’s sportsmanlike approach to sex had proved equally inspiring to George and Clive, after he had revealed his formula for a happy marriage to the pair one hot afternoon when they had the boat to themselves and the fish were off the bite. It must have been the effect of an usually hearty snack lunch that had encouraged him to reveal these confidences. George and Clive had been impressed by this useful approach and had earnestly assured him they would remember this sage advice when the next suitable occasion presented itself.
Aileen’s thoughts turned to George and Clive – what marvelous heroic prototypes those two were, deeply tanned from days in the veld on the farm, strongly built, clean shaven, clean cut in fact. Maybe she could model her fictional hero on them. She wondered why they’d never married, two attractive men like that. Just as well perhaps, because when Clive had been kicked off his farm by the war veterans George, on the next-door farm, had generously taken him in, and Clive had simply stayed on, two years was it now? No wife would have tolerated that she thought, but still what a pity, such a good looking guy. She dozed off, stunned by the snack lunch and the sun, to be awoken hours later by the ever obliging Phineas, offering a tray of tea.
“Madam is writing more letters?” enquired Phineas eyeing the blue Croxley pad. “Umm no, not letters” replied Aileen suddenly shy about explaining her literary aspirations to Phineas, even though he was the generous donor of precious paper. “I, uhh” she began but was interrupted by a stentorian bellow from Uncle Harry demanding assistance with the cleaning of his days’ catch of tiger fish. That’s a relief she thought as Phineas briskly sped away down to the river bank, his white Bata takkies twinkling brightly through the short grass. However could she even begin to explain the plot of a romantic novel, set in Pioneer Days, to Phineas?
Phineas in fact, had literary problems of his own. Aileen was not alone in her troubles. Had she but known it, he could have provided a very sympathetic ear. His German publisher was snapping at his heels and demanding, via a stream of hysterical phone calls, sight of the first four chapters of the new novel, and he was two months in arrears with his translation from the Ndebele into English of the traditional saga about the Nyami-nyami legend of the mythical water creature that lived in the deep pools of the Zambezi below the Vic Falls. He hacked viciously into the fat belly of a tiger fish and the entrails spilled out in a slimy, bloody knot – curse all publishers, all agents, all accountants, all lawyers, if he could consign the lot of them into the jaws of the nyami-nyami he would!
With rapid harsh movements he de-scaled the tiger fish. A savage stroke beheaded the next fish from the awaiting pile. The glassy fish-eye on the disembodied head reminded him suddenly of Rolf, his drug dealer in Cologne. He looked around covertly. He was alone on the river bank. He stabbed the fisheye repeatedly muttering “you bastard, you bastard” until the terrible craving had subsided. Phineas sank back on his haunches, exhaled deeply, and let the scaling knife drop onto the sand. He washed his bloody hands in the river and noted with irritation that he’d got blood on his Bata tackies. He’d never hear the end of it from Uncle Enoch.
Uncle Enoch was very, very proud of Phineas’ accomplishments and very, very condemnatory of his dissipated European lifestyle. It was Uncle Enoch who had offered Phineas a refuge, a bolt-hole, while he tried to shake off the drug demons and tried to start writing again. As a strategy it had worked beautifully. Who would have dreamed of looking for star writer Phin Makawira, prize-winning novelist Phin, in the cook-boy’s quarters of Uncle Harry’s Bulawayo mansion? Certainly not Rolf, certainly not those hyenas from the lawyers and accountants and publishers.
Phineas hurled the fishy debris as far as he could into the river and watched with respect as a knobbly head surfaced briefly and swirled around the sinking mess. Crocodile would be too good an ending for those people he thought grimly, swinging his pail of fish as he headed for the camp kitchen.
All too soon it was time to pack up camp and drive back to Bulawayo, step back into the real world of business, home and kids. Aileen loved her terrifically relaxing trip and redeemed herself by catching the biggest tigerfish , nearly 9 kgs. Enoch had tenderly entombed it in the gas fridge, and it would be rushed to the taxidermist in Bulawayo at the first opportunity. So much for women messing around in small boats and disturbing the fish thought Aileen smugly. On the whole she hadn’t done much writing and had returned the now rather tatty blue Croxley pad to Phineas who had remarked “Madam has the writer’s block too?” She must have misheard him, what a strange thing to say.
Nothing hugely exciting had happened on the trip, except perhaps the night when Clive (or was it George?) had shrieked Francois Pienaar! At the top of his lungs late one night and startled the eleven hippo who had been grazing quietly on the grass between the tents, and in their mad rush back to the water, had careered into the guy ropes of Uncle Harry’s tent, causing it to collapse on the occupants. The entire campsite was startled into groggy wakefulness and it took some time to calm Aunt Susie and re-erect the tent. Clive had been very apologetic about startling the hippo – must have been dreaming and shouted out, he muttered, sorry chaps!
Phineas and Enoch had rushed in to assist and Aileen couldn’t help but notice that Phineas had the most dreadful scars on his thighs, and, would you believe, Calvin Kline underwear. Probably Taiwanese rip-offs from the market she thought. So she wouldn’t really have anything terribly exciting to report to her Writers’ Circle meeting when she got back, other than her embarrassing lack of progress on The Novel. Nothing like the exciting literary tours that Piet from her Writers’ Circle kept going on, she thought wistfully, wish I could hobnob with famous writers like he does! Oh well, she had at least the glory of that magnificent 9kg tigerfish, if nothing else.
Bok team = South African Springbok rugby team
Mealies = maize plants
Njoika = snake
Skrik = fright
Bata takkies = ubiquitous brand of sandshoes, known as plimsolls in British English