Please click link above for PDF file from FHM Romania, May 2010. Multumesc.
ex Africa semper aliquid novi
It’s cool where I’m living at the moment, but only after I switch on the AC. In June, temperatures can reach 50C. It’s so hot we put suntan oil on the car. All the donkeys wear Ray Bans. OK, maybe not all of them, but welcome to Sudan, Africa. I can see the Sahara from my balcony. Almost.
A Romanian friend came round last night. He works for the UN. We were swapping tales. Here’s one he told me, from south Sudan. True story.
Imagine you’re a middle-aged African man. Business is booming. You own a big house and drive around town in a flash car with the window down, showing your Rolex. The locals gawp: We ride donkeys and that smartass drives a Lexus?
One day you stop at traffic lights. A beggar comes up to your car. The good news is he likes your Rolex. The bad news is he pulls out a machete and chops your forearm, just above the wrist. But the blow is not clean. “Damn,” he says and puts his foot on the side of the car while he tries to pull your hand off. He fails, but you won’t be playing piano for a while.
“Scary, huh?” says my Romanian friend. Then it’s my turn. So I tell him about the scariest thing I ever heard in Africa.
Picture this. I’m living in Congo and a gang of friends hire a big jet to fly to Zambia for the weekend. Wanna come? You bet. Off we go.
We stay in a hotel on the Zambezi River. The itinerary is flexible: visit Victoria Falls, then swim in the pool, go quad biking, rafting, whatever.
I choose a kayak trip. My guide is Tony, a white Zimbabwean. He’s a computer expert who fled the Mugabe regime. He looks fit and reliable in his green uniform. “I work as a tour guide to relax at weekends,” he says.
The other kayaker is Dr. Sanjay, an Indian medic who works in Livingstone, a local town. He’s overweight in a sweaty shirt and a big hat. We set off, driving in a jeep alongside the river to avoid the rapids.
I chat with Dr. Sanjay, who treats people with HIV and malaria. “Six out of ten Zambians have HIV,” he says, “But the last time I explained to a patient that he was infected, he tried to strangle me. So, these days, if my patients have HIV, I treat them for HIV, but I tell them they have ‘flu.”
“Is that ethical?” I ask, “What if they infect their partners? What about the Hippocratic Oath?”
Dr. Sanjay smiles. “I’d prefer to tell lies and stay alive.”
Soon we’re gliding down the Zambezi in our three kayaks. We stay close to the riverbank and Tony points at uprooted trees, broken fences, squashed grass. “Damage caused by elephants,” he says, “They go where they want, wreck farms.” Next, we pass a family of hippo bobbing in the water. “Very dangerous,” says Tony.
It’s good to know. We smile at the hippo. They don’t smile back.
“Any crocodiles?” I ask. Tony shrugs and says: “Don’t worry, their favourite food is dead hippo, floating in the water, although sometimes they’ll attack a kayak. Anyone can make a mistake, right?”
Tony grins at us but the Zambezi River no longer seems quite so idyllic.
“Actually,” he says, “I’ve heard there’s a pregnant croc around, looking for some quiet place to lay her eggs. So keep your eyes open, guys.”
I watch the water and the riverbank. It all looks like a Tarzan film. But there’s no croc, just sun and silver ripples. Tony is talking about plants and, little by little, it’s nice again on the Zambezi. Oh, look, a cute monkey.
At the next bend, I spot a dead tree trunk, halfway up the bank. It looks like it has been hit by lightning, all grey and cracked. The tree trunk rises up on four short legs, zigzags down to the river and slips into the water. I look at Sanjay. We look at Tony. “Ah,” he says, “There she is.”
The crocodile is about four meters long. I watch her swim under my kayak, flicking her tail, gently, left and right.
“Holy Mother of God,” says Dr. Sanjay.
I’m struck dumb. I have not been this scared since the day I was chased by a baying mob of Chelsea fans around the London Underground. At the time, I was 13 years old and stuffing my Liverpool scarf down my pants.
“Don’t worry,” says Tony, “She’s just checking us out. She’ll find a quieter spot.”
We paddle on, passing two men spearing fish from a narrow canoe. They are naked, pre-historic, a vision from the dawn of time. Women are cooking over fires in a clearing.
Later, back at the hotel, I sip a drink and watch a huge red fireball on the horizon. It’s the most spectacular sunset I have ever seen.
My friends from Kinshasa are swapping stories of rafting and bungee jumping. I tell them about the pregnant croc and they whistle: wow.
But I keep Dr. Sanjay’s anecdote about HIV to myself. I don’t want to spoil their holiday. It is the scariest thing I heard about Africa, so far.
< This column first appeared in FHM Romania, May 2010. My thanks to and S.C. Sanoma Hearst Romania SRL and Angela Nicoara.