On our first night we had arrived in near darkness and ate alone. The following morning we were observed by the neighbours and the children in particular were fascinated to see the Foute using the house. At first they kept their distance but would spend minutes at a time staring at us. When we waved to them they might get embarrassed or smile and giggle, but a few waved back. Next day they were a lot closer and started grouping together on the ground in front of the veranda. We would say hello to them and start asking questions. After another couple of short conversations we found a few of them up on the veranda creeping closer to us at our table. Three in particular were from the family next door. We discovered they were called Sami, Ibrahim and… Ibrahim. I had to call them Ibrahim 1 and Ibrahim 2. They would be so happy just to be around us; they were not after pestering or demanding things. Sometimes they would whisper to each other but otherwise they would spend hours in our company. In the evenings we had to be very firm about saying “Good night” and making sure they went back to their own families. But we chatted simply about how old they were, where they went to school, who was related to whom. I let them play with the items on the desk – they wore my large floppy bushhat and laughed for ages about it – even heading off round the street in it until I had to demand it back.
One day they turned up with a wheel hub and were using a stick to roll it up and down the street. I asked them to give it to me and I stepped down on to the ground from the house and took it in my grasp and used it as a Frisbee. They had never seen anything like it – it hovered across the road, landed on its edge and rolled down into the bush. The kids laughed and went and retrieved it for me and begged for me to do it again. So I threw it up the hill and this time is skimmed along the bare earth sending up clouds of dust. The older children started doing it for themselves and realised how easy it was. I had to help the younger ones who just threw it and it clanked to the ground about two feet away from them. I showed how to put that twist in the wrist as you are about to release the hubcap. It was great fun for them but I had to be careful as if a taxi or 4WD came along I had to stop them – I really did not want to be the cause of any traffic accident in this part of the world. The game ended abruptly when I flung it down the hill, but released at the wrong moment myself and it went sailing up on to the roof of the next door house. The kids and I sheepishly laughed and decided to make ourselves scarce.
Ibrahim tries on my hat
The most intriguing environment in Africa to me is the swamp. In this enormous continent there is such a variety of landscapes, but as I have mentioned elsewhere those landscapes are huge and much is monotonous – miles and miles of Bloody Africa or MMBA. Whether it be the long expanses of desert across the Sahara, the Sahelian, East African or Southern African Savannahs, the thick humid forests that stretch from Guinea in the west down to Congo, Angola and Uganda; it can all look a bit samey.
There are, though, oases of alternative landscapes in Africa – the volcanic areas with its deep rifts and conical mountains, the highland plateaus with their cooler air and temperate vegetation. Of course the Finbos in the southern tip is remarkable, the Atlas mountains and Mediterranean coast varied. My favourite without a doubt, where Africa livens up, is when there is clean fresh water all year round in a semi-arid zone. The Great Lakes are superb inland seas, the great rivers like the Zambezi and the Nile bring life to parched ground.
Less well known and hidden away are the swamp lands. The most famous of these is the Okavango Delta, where a great river from the highlands of Angola spreads over a near flat plain before disappearing on a geological fault as the desert finally wins back the water to the sky. But there are hundreds of smaller swamplands dotted all over sub Saharan Africa. The word swamp conjures up a lot of negative imagery; African Queen with Humphrey Bogart hauling his boat through reeds and becoming covered in leeches. Deep muddy holes, crocodiles and hippos at every turn and of course infestation by biting, malarial mosquitoes.
Apart from Humphrey Bogart and the African Queen, yes these elements do exist here, but these watery landscapes are also hugely biodiverse and productive. The legions of invertebrates swimming, crawling and flying around the swamp are bountiful food sources for animals higher up the food chain, as well as the ever present vegetation providing limitless grazing for the herbivores. So the bird life here is as incredible as anywhere in the world, a range of antelope specialise in plodding through sodden grasslands, others wallow in the water. And in its turn, the rivers, lakes and flooded reed beds provide the perfect habitat for an immense amount of fish.
There is something about a swamp
Geoff’s other great talent was he knew every game you could ever play on a ship. As well as the daytime exploits of quoits and cricket, some of the evening games were particularly inventive. Once coffee was cleared away you might find the tables and chairs moved aside in the lounge and the carpet rolled up. Eventually this would turn into a disco, but usually there was time for some strange games. I got involved in one which ended up with another passenger sitting on my knee trying to throw quoits. We also did frog racing. A piece of string was threaded through a frog drawn on a piece of ply board; one end of the string was tied to a chair, the other end to a hand spindle. The aim of the game was to get the frogs from one end of the room to the other by winding the string on the spindle. There were also the games which involved doing intimate things with balloons. It was a good job the kids were tucked up in bed and could not see it. I wondered where the purser staff kept all the props they used; they had an inexhaustible supply of bats and balls, wooden cut outs, pieces of string that appeared each night.
The entertainment staff did a grand job – they were up at the crack of dawn to get the days’ events going and they were playing music or tidying up long after most people had gone to bed. On the last night they would try and have a big event out on the sun deck. I remembered my first trip the party was cancelled due to bad weather, but I had some memorable evenings up there. By this stage in a voyage you knew everyone and mucked in. The crew set up a barbecue and laid out a huge buffet table and you went back again and again to pile up the plates. After dinner there were games – quizzes and the best game of nine pins I have ever had. One particularly uproarious evening found a gang of us stripped to our underwear swimming in the pool. I had a sore head after that night.
BBQ night on dec – Eddie Duff
Skittles on deck
Night with the Saints
BBQ night – with Edsel an Eddie Duff
And so to the afternoons. There were a few options here. I could join in with a game of deck quoits on the sun deck. I got quite good at that once you had worked out the pitch of the ship and the wind effect. I did not sign up to the Deck Cricket game on one trip, but Edsel, not wanting to shame his West Indian roots decided he would give it a go. He was more naturally a tennis player and his stance was not particularly good for cricket – even in a steady sea. The pursers put up nets all round the sun deck and piled the tables and chairs high against one wall and strapped them rigid. Apart from the constrained pitch, the rules were pretty similar. If someone hit the netting it was a four, if they hit a ball over the netting into the sea you got six, but because balls were a rare commodity on ship you were also declared out. Otherwise other runs were scored running between two wickets.
Setting out the rules (according to the Chief Engineer)
Ambitious swing, but if the ball goes over the net you get 6 and are out
Vincentian who knows how to bowl
Hotel Manager joining in
Some people cheat!
When it goes in the pool
Checking the score card
Bowling was strictly underarm. This infuriated one of the players; he was also west Indian, from St Vincent, long and lithe. Even underarm he would demolish the wicket time after time. In the end they had to restrict his movements to no run up or else he would have bowled the other team out for zero. Many of the crew pitched in on the team and even the captain had a go and got a lot of ribbing from the people he commanded when he was caught out. I perched myself up on the top deck and got a grandstand view.