Getting soaked in a broken-down jeep.
A single, bare, overhead 300 watt light bulb hung over our orientation meeting. While it attracted most of the mosquitoes in southern Africa, it did little to dispel my gloom. The rainy season had started that afternoon with a fire hose ferocity. Gullies, dry and sandy the day before, were now churning with thick, ochre colored syrup. Ponds formed where streets intersected. Children played in knee deep puddles as adults scurried for cover. Low clouds loomed over a red mud landscape, pocked with sparse thorn trees and scruffy cattle. The intense but intermittent rains allowed only peek-a-boo glimpses of a world I had traveled thousands of miles to see.
A local travel agency had assured me there were still weeks of dry weather for game viewing and the safari they recommended was supposedly run by a first class operator, with great food and top of the line equipment. I wanted my first African safari to be a no-brainer, a taken care of, slightly spoiled American kind of trip, far beyond the reach of faxes and cell phones. I needed a break from my frantic contracting business dealing with deadlines and emergencies. I fantasized about a guide who looked like Meryl Streep seducing me under the Southern Cross, while hyenas howled in the darkness.
But our guide looked more like a college freshman on spring break, wearing a yellow Bart Simpson t-shirt, rugby shorts and no shoes. Pretorious, an affable, somewhat shy, local lad stumbled through his introduction and mentioned, as an aside, that he was just now leading his first safari. He outlined our week of travel through Zimbabwe, Botswana and Zambia, described the carious campsites and the several places each day where we could restock our beer cooler. The Aussies in the group were relieved at this news, but those of us not from Down Under wondered why he failed to mention anything at all about the local flora and fauna.
Rain the next morning came in loud, torrential bursts, as if some celestial trickster kept yanking on the chain of an old fashioned toilet. We boarded what was mislabeled a bus. The front of the cab had a Mercedes star, but no German engineer ever designed the passenger compartment. Some local welder had taken what may have once been a steel shipping container and transformed it into a Stalinist Winnebago. The dirty windows bore a striking similarity to 1950’s aluminum residential sliders in both fit and ease of use, difficult to open or close. The textured, grammar school green, vinyl bus seats evoked a childhood nightmare of setting off on a class trip with a mean teacher, to a place where the monsters could really eat you. This was to be our deluxe transport for the next week.
Pretorious handed me a sleeping bag from a storage compartment under the floorboards. It smelled like a musty Camembert left too long in the sun, and felt both damp and slightly crusty. When I pointed this out to him, he said “We must have a better one somewhere,” and sorted through several more.
“This one looks good” he said, handing me a bag that bore the unmistakable perfumed aroma of at least one of its last female occupants. He stuffed his damp first choice back where he found it.
I was told the front of the bus is the best place for game spotting, but the problem with our metal lunch box on wheels was the front facing widow of our seating compartment offered only a view of the back of the truck cab. You couldn’t see ahead, only to the sides. I took a seat up front anyway. I noticed a spot of water on the seat next to me but gave it hardly a thought. Maybe someone had spilled something. I didn’t care. I wanted to see the elephants of Chobe and the famous Okavonga delta. Rebooking was not an option. It should have been.
We set off in a downpour. Easy chatter drifted from the fifteen hearty souls spread across seating for twenty seven. The bus got up to speed and started eating up the soggy miles. The presence of cattle told us there was no wild game to be seen as we crossed the Botswana panhandle. The talk quieted and some of us caught a nap. The first time the driver hit the brakes for a beer stop became a rude, wet awakening. The overhead luggage bin sloshed loudly. The arrested forward momentum of the bus created a mini tsunami of water that had collected in the overhead luggage bin. Those of us in the front of the bus were treated to a shower of cheese scented water.
Then the rains intensified and new leaks appeared as if by magic. Water spurted in around windows, dripped from light fixtures, cascaded from the skylights. No seat stayed dry. We all endured an African version of Chinese water torture. The Brits popped open umbrellas. The rest of us donned hats, parkas and ponchos in the sweltering heat. Grimaces replaced smiles. Pretorious allegedly had received some kind of instruction before being given the responsibility for fifteen rookies in the wild, but his training did not cover a leaking bus. So he did nothing besides readjust his pillow in the dry comfort of the Mercedes cab and resumed his nap.
But a leak to a contractor is like a cobra to a mongoose. It must be vanquished, particularly when said leak is causing personal or financial discomfort. I knew there had to be an easy fix, but the tool box from the bus contained only a useless assortment of rusted wrenches. I longed for my tool belt. I wished for my roofer. I wanted a dry seat.
At our next lunch stop during a break in the rains, I climbed on top of the bus and saw the problem: every roof rivet had loosened, bouncing over bad African roads. There were hundreds of places water could enter. A few tubes of caulk could solve the problem, but we were now in Botswana where the preferred caulk of choice was a mixture of mud and cow dung.
Damp and daunted, we continued on to Chobe National Park where documentaries about the extensive elephant population are filmed. Herds come to the river several times a day. But the first rains of the season are like the 3PM recess bell from grammar school. Every elephant takes off to distant feeding grounds, knowing water has become plentiful and can be found in every indentation and low spot. We didn’t see a single elephant. We did see some hippos, alligators, waterbucks, impalas and other four legged creatures Pretorious couldn’t identify.
Rain came down so hard and fast the driver actually had to stop the bus and pull over several times because of zero visibility. Nonetheless we continued on to the Okavonga Delta and got wetter. Pretorious’ solution was to make more frequent beer stops. The leaks didn’t affect him in the dry cab. Besides, this was Africa. Things like this happen. Live with it. What harm can a little water do?
Rum seemed like a good analgesic for the rest of this soggy trip. When we stopped at the next small town market, I went looking for a large bottle. Oblivion was preferable to waiting for the next intermittent drip. Searching among the odd assortment of wares, I froze. Before me was an extremely rare African sighting, something Pretorious said could not be found in this part of Africa. I paused in disbelief before reaching out to touch what I first thought to be a product of my imagination. A brown cardboard box about 10 inches square, covered with a thick layer of dust sat half hidden behind a row of canned goods. Beneath the dust the words “Dow Chemical” and “Silicone” were barely visible. Reverently I took it into my hands as if it were a delicate, ancient factory sealed artifact. My heart started pounding. I cut through the tape right there and found a dozen tooth paste sized tubes of caulk, still soft, still pliable. Salvation was in hand.
Forgetting all about the rum, I rushed outside with my find. A half hour of sunshine had turned the muddy parking lot into a steam table but had dried the roof of our bus. I climbed up and began to caulk the rivets. There were hundreds of them. The job became a United Nations relief effort as Aussies, Kiwis, Dutch and English all joined in to help. Pretorius stood watching from the street with his arms folded like a proud father as we fixed his bus.
Eight thousand miles from home, fixing someone else’s problem and not getting paid for it, it felt like I had never left home.