Tsavo National Park, Kenya, 1971
I wondered whether the lioness would eat R.
There was a part of me that would have enjoyed that. Not because I wanted to lose my little brother, but because it would have been interesting to see how much blood was spilled. I was glad the lioness’s yellow-eyed gaze was fixed on R and not on me.
She was staring at him, from her position on a low anthill, every muscle in her lean body taut, like a coiled spring compressed tight before being sprung loose, and she was calling softly, a long, low moan that she thrust forth from the back of her throat.
R was beside me in the rear seat of the car with his window wound up, right to the top. He was sitting very still with his thumb in his mouth. The lioness did not take her amber gaze off him. Not even for a moment. Her tawny eyes bore into him, unblinking. I knew he’d like to slip beneath the seat to invisible, safe obscurity. But his pride wouldn’t let him.
‘Why is she making that horrid noise?’ asked R unplugging his thumb briefly.
‘Why is she staring at Robert?’ I asked, grinning at my small, scared brother.
Dad said that the lioness had probably lost her cub, and that R’s mustard coloured jumper reminded her of it. I was glad I was wearing blue.
I told Robert, ‘You don’t get blue lions’
Somewhere in Western Tanzania, July 2010
I wasn’t wearing blue on Saturday, though.
And she stared hard at us. The lioness. We stared back. How deep those amber eyes burn. A flare. A stare. She and her sisters didn’t hang around for long. We weren’t Going on a Bear Hunt. We were going on a bird shoot. (Or at least Husband and son were; I was sitting obligingly and, given lionesses’ expression, a little stiffly in the open back of a land cruiser faced with a rack of shot guns I didn’t have a clue how to use). She’d heard the pop-pop of a -22 and wasn’t going to hang around. She didn’t know it’s target was a flock of pea-brained guinea fowl.
Open Season now. I just go along for the ride. And to garner enough dust in my hair so that it sits Elnett Sprayed high on my head, so rigid it refuses to be teased by the wind.
I sit on the periphery of these eminently masculine occasions; I listen to the stories, I sniff the scent of recently cleaned, slickly oiled guns, I watch heads tilted to the sky to train a barrel upwards at a bird whom I will silently on. Miss, miss my eldest daughter used to shout when she was younger, Fly, fly. I am too grown up to do the same so I hiss it silently instead: miss, miss.
Not, I should point out, because I am averse to men exercising primal hunting/gathering instincts (provided they eat what they shoot – and nobody eats lions). But because the weighty task of conjuring a swan-proportioned Spurwing Goose into something that approximates edible falls to me. And given that the usual advice to cook a Spurwing is to boil it with a rock, chuck the bird out and dine on the stone, I am frequently stymied.
But to be out, to be out here, to have scaled the sides of the bucket, to have escaped is worth the prospect of dealing with blood and gore and feathers and juggling the contents of my vast deep freeze in order that I can bury within its depths a goose the size of a small aeroplane.
The land cruiser forges through grass as high as an elephant’s eye. Bundu bashing I told Hat, that’s what your grandad would have called it: bush-whacking so that small-as-ant seeds are projected heavenward to join the dust and when I look behind me at a sinking sun I capture in my lens the quintessential African evening, painted with exactly the right light. My mum calls it kind light.
It’s a quite different light to the sort that illuminates the dawn, which steels over the east and torches the valleys with an iron hot-cold flame so that the river boiled in the bitter chill of daybreak and smoke-filled the valley. I cupped my mug of tea. And watched Africa spill, spill, spill all around me. An exhilarating, intimidating, cut-you-down-to-size space that lifts the soul and makes it soar.
Especially when you’ve been captive in a bucket for weeks.
So you gather all the sounds – the hectic cackle of guinea fowl, the cough of a leopard, the rush of the savannah as the wind and wildlife whip through it – and you hope you’ll remember all the stories that are told around a campfire (big, big man stories which make you say oh my! out loud and smile a little inside). And you log the memory of leaves the colour of claret so that they distilled the sunshine as wine.
And the honey hunter you encountered who wore a Beckham shirt and who sold you five litres of liquid gold and introduced you to his ancient father who wore a string bearing a single bead about his calf, ‘for it keeps the snakes away’, he told us as he rolled his trousers back down.
And you drag fingers whose nails are black with the best kind of grime (dust and heat and sweat wrought of real work) through your Elnett stiff hair and you grin and your face cracks for the wind burn and too much sun and you head home.
To face the blood and the gore and the feathers and the perpetual pursuit of a recipe for Guinea Fowl Casserole which is redolent of tender flesh and sweet herbs and not the sole of your shoe.