This time a week ago we were on our way back to school. And our hair was thick with Tsavo dust, standing up on end with that and the wind and not enough clean water or shampoo.
What do you want to do the last weekend of the hols, I asked my son?
(the last weekend that I still have you as a boy not the man you will be when I next see you: I complete a passport application for him and sign the section that says If your child is under eighteen … I forgot, you see).
Go camping, he said, in Tsavo.
So we did.
And we drove and kicked up the dust that got tangled in our hair and wondered if the rock we could see was a lion. (It wasn’t; we scrutinized it long and hard through the binoculars). And we ate biltong and drank cold beer and too many cokes. And we counted loglike crocs sunbathing on sandbanks growing ever larger with each passing desiccating day and fat hippos slumbering in warmbath water (not that I stuck my toe in: not with crocs snoozing with jaws agape).
And we wanted to cry when we saw a dead baby elephant, its mother and sisters standing sentinel over its silent, still, small body. Elephants feel grief acutely. I don’t know if they cry. I don’t know if their long elephant lashes are wet with tears. But I know that they sway hopelessly and wave their trunks as fists in the air to some god unseen or Mother Nature: Why ours? Why our baby? That’s what they seem to say.
Do you think the baby elephant died because it was hungry, Hat wanted to know.
Quite possibly: a lot of animals are going to die because they’re hungry this year. And if the diminished browsing and grazing and water doesn’t take them, hungry poachers will. Another elephant lay, its prize hacked from the front of its face.
When I was young, I had a sticker plastered to my school tin trunk: Only Elephants Should Wear Ivory.
When I was young you could see elephants from the main road. And rhino too.
I tell my children that. But I don’t think they believe me.
My eldest daughter is packing to leave home. She has packed her bikini. She is arriving in almost-autumnal England. I frown and question her choice of nearly-winter wardrobe.
‘I can but hope’, she grins.
She’s a good example.
I can but hope the days until the Christmas holidays pass with smudge-blurred speed so that my little house will quickly fill with the sound of scraps and laughter and chairs will be overfull with long flung limbs. I won’t mind that I haven’t a clue where the remote control’s gone.
I’m taking her to her new school. So I pack too. I try on unfamiliar shoes and the dogs go wild assuming that being shod means I shall take them for a walk.
I laugh. And then I want to cry: no walks for more than a month and I bend low to scratch their ears. I think they know though: they’ve seen the suitcases and the sulks have set in.
My brother tries to salve my anxiety of my daughter’s soon far flungness.
‘Remember when we were young’, he prompts, ‘no emails or mobile phones: remember how much further away that made us feel. At least you can stay in touch at the press of a few buttons.’
When I tell my daughter, she crossly says, ‘I know Mum, everything was much harder when you were young’.
But that’s not what I meant.
When I get back to the Outpost, it will be panting high-hot summer. I’ll swim at dawn again, I’ll slip into the pool as the sun lumbers up above eastern horizons and brands the sky pink and chases the stars and the moon racing away before they’re melted to nothingness by mid morning heat.
They’re talking El Nino. The drought, says the Met Department, will be followed by heavy and unrelenting rains. Last time El Nino struck the Outpost, years before I got here, it was cut clean off. The railway line was washed away; the roads were impassable and the airstrip a quagmire. Nobody – and nothing – got in or out for three months. If that happens this year, I shall surely go quite mad.
When I was young they didn’t talk about El Nino. They talked about the Floods of 61. Which was before I was born. Mum said, ‘the roads and the railway got washed clean away that year. We couldn’t get off the farm …’
There is a heron in the garden. He, or is it she?, stands and watches for fish and frogs in the pond. She, I think, for the elegant pose she strikes, all Parisian model composed in an oyster grey suit (can I see pearls?) and perfect posture with her long, thin legs, takes to the air when I try to get close for a picture. Will she still be there when I get back? Or will the pond have quite dried up?
And will the family of Marabou storks which has nested on a tree over the road have moved out.
They aren’t nearly as lovely as the statuesque heron.
When I was young we had a tortoise in the garden, it used to feast on bright pink hibiscus flowers. I tried some once, hibiscus flowers, they tasted of nothing. Much like lettuce. Which is why, I suppose, the tortoise enjoyed them and I didn’t?
Yesterday I met a man called James. Met as in collided with online whilst doing some research for my coral conservation project. During the course of our conversation he suddenly exclaimed wait – you’re the memsahib lady, dammit!?
When I was young you couldn’t meet people like that – you couldn’t have a conversation through the sweet syrup of the ether. You couldn’t keep in easy, affordable, instantly gratifying touch with your children half way around the world, you couldn’t write stories about your funny old African Outpost life and pin them up on an intangible notice board called a Blog and benefit from company you otherwise wouldn’t have.
Sometimes, despite the wrinkles and the obligation to be Grown Up and the school fees I must pay and the way I squint at the contraindications listed for medicines because I am too vain to wear my glasses, I’m glad I’m not as young anymore.