Admittedly, I’m not the first European woman to move to the wilds of Africa and write about her experiences. However, as half of an expat management couple of a luxury tented camp in a famous game reserve in Kenya, most guests seem to think that after waving them off on their game drives I pop back to bed for the day, presumably with a gin, resurfacing only in the evening to listen to their tales of the bush. Others think I have clearly made a terrible mess of my life (I do live in a tent, after all) and I must be hiding in the African bush working up the courage to enter ‘real’ life again; as did one pitying lady who asked me in a whisper over dinner, “how long do you have to do this job for, dear?”. This blog is an attempt to put the record straight.
So, here we are. Opening camp after a closure of several months for the rainy season.
The usual things have happened. Most of the staff have suddenly found reasons to be urgently needed elsewhere, those that haven’t have got malaria, someone has stolen a beautifully embroidered loo-roll holder from one of our guest tents, (we can only presume that someone with great taste has a rather well-appointed mud hut in the vicinity) and, in our absence, the travel agencies have been urgently scouring Hitler Youth rallies, senior amateur dramatics societies and the local prisons to find us our first guests of the season.
Meanwhile, some idiot thought that the below was a good advert for a close neighbouring camp, as though the savannahs are a gigantic showroom for bathroom fittings with a two hundred kilogram cast-iron claw-foot bathtub here, a porcelain bidet there.
“You can just make out the young leopard between the trees, see how alert she is to the hyenas presence? She’s hoping the smell of her kill won’t attract their attention. But if I can just have your attention for a moment, I would like to show you the Austen range of claw-foot baths, normally £399 but I understand there’s a offer on the moment: £299 including the hurricane lanterns and spears.”
For some of our current guests, I fear this would be the highlight of their trip. I’m always glad when people are pleased with the accommodation, but we’re hosting an American family who were over-enthusiastic about everything in the tent whilst I was showing them around.
“OH MY GOD! Is this the toilet?” they asked, pointing at the toilet. After I’ve confirmed that it is definitely a toilet, they call the rest of the family over. “Jackson! Look at the toilet!” Six of us crowdily gather close, reverently staring at a toilet. A hand falteringly reaches out to touch but, losing courage at the last moment, sinks back to its owner’s side.
Joe shakes his head, laughing, “That is the strangest toilet I’ve ever seen!” Everyone, save me, nods in agreement. “It’s a toilet! In a tent!”
I cannot deny it.
Shannon gets our her iPhone, “Would it be weird if I took a photo?”
Nope, believe me, someone taking a photo would be the least weird thing about this moment.
Bill goes to leave the room when something catches his eye, “OH MY GOD! JULIE! Check out the toilet-roll holder!”
Sometimes some guests are so desperate for their trip to Kenya to be authentically African they lose all sense of perspective.
Pointing at the bow and arrow hanging on the canvas wall; “Is that African?”
At the hand-stitched, oversized leather-and-bead ceremonial necklace; “…and that?”
Closely examining the stretched hide shield and rusted spears; “…what about this?”
Wondering why anyone would think we’d be displaying artifacts from, say, Ecuador, I nod enthusiastically and confirm their suspicions; yes, it’s all from Africa, and unsurprisingly, specifically Kenya.
“Um, that’s a wine rack.”
“Yes, but is it traditionally Maasai?”
“The wine rack?”
“Um, not so much, no.”
guest |gɛst| noun ORIGIN Middle English: from Old Norse gestr, rootshared by Latin hostis ‘enemy’.
Each and every guest is given a satisfaction survey to complete at the end of their stay with us. Luckily, 99% of our lovely guests are 100% happy but every now and then a little pen-and-paper hand grenade is thrown into our trenches.
We’ve learned not to read the completed papers until the guests have gone otherwise we’d march to their tents to grab them by their lapels whilst shouting, “Whaddya mean, you didn’t like the quiche?! Whaddya mean?! I watched you eat it with your mouth open and YOU WENT BACK FOR MORE and I watched you eat that with your mouth open too.”
Or we’d sit down with the guests whilst they’re packing: “Can you justify why you’ve marked me down as average on ‘friendliness’? Hmm? Can you? Because I don’t think you can, mate.”
Every once in a while guests arrive and we can tell immediately they’re going to spend all their time complaining; we call this a premoanition, or if the guests are particularly nasty we say we’ve made a predicktion. We circle these surveys with trepidation, poking them with long sticks and consider calling in the bomb disposal people.
However, some guests appear to be having a lovely time, say they’re having a lovely time, tell the staff they’re having a lovely time but when it comes to completing the survey it appears they were overcome with misery and, to be honest, we were lucky that they didn’t kill themselves during their stay.
Said by guest on departure: “This has been the most incredible experience of my life, I will never forget it.”
Written on survey: ‘Impalas kept me awake at night. Disappointed to get a flat tyre.’
Said by guest on departure: “This has exceeded all our expectations, it’s been an amazing week. Life-changing, in fact.”
Written on survey: ‘Too many avocados.’
Another guest marked us poorly on the interior style of the tent, but when we went back to have a look, she’d actually stolen most of it. We could only assume that she nicked everything before going to bed, forgot, and when she woke up in the morning to pack, looked around and thought, ‘Blimey, it’s a bit bare in here,’ and then, ‘Gosh, I don’t remember bringing a Moroccan lantern on holiday with me.’
The ones that hurt the most, the ones that leave you with open mouths and stinging eyes, are the bad surveys from people after you’ve performed conspicuous hospitality. The guests who turn the camp upside down with their requests and once, memorably, unbelievably yet truly, at Christmas time, the guests who weren’t supposed to be staying at our camp in the first place – their travel agent had made an error but filled with the Christmas spirit, we made room. I’m not going to say they were miserable but, as they walked past our acacia Christmas tree, a little hanging Santa flung himself to his death.
We have an American family of six in camp.
The parents think we’re dim and the wife keeps comparing my job to when she worked as a chalet girl for a ski season. The four young children are somewhat precocious. I know this because, over yesterday’s lunch, the 12-year-old, Kit, told me so himself. “Yes, it’s been somewhat of a transitional period for me as I turn from a child into a young man. I’m hoping to become a tax lawyer like my father.”
I nod, immediately lose all confidence in myself as I’m not sure I ever made the transition from a child into a young woman and resolve to sit next to the eight-year-old girl, Rosa, in the evening.
Turns out I am not a desirable companion for Rosa either. She had previously complained that she’d finished all her books. Remembering that I had one left behind by another family, I brought it down to dinner. She took the book out of my hand wordlessly, looked at the title, flipped it over and read the blurb in silence. Finally, she looked at me and said, “Is this yours? It’s a little below my normal reading age but I’ll try it.”
Deciding that the four-year old represents my only hope of having a normal conversation over the next week, I carefully devise a seating plan.
It’s Kit’s 13th birthday today and late last night the father gave me three enormous presents and told me to wrap them.
“No problem,” I said, “let me just pop to the shops in the local village for some wrapping paper and ribbons, the 24-hour newsagents is next to the monorail station.”
Then they asked us to inflate the ‘Happy Birthday’ balloon which turned out not to be a normal balloon, oh no, it turned out to be, I shit you not, a ‘Five-Foot Banner Balloon’ which took D twenty minutes to inflate into something that didn’t resemble a giant penis, before passing out through hypoxia on the floor of the office.
During today’s lunchtime celebrations some new guests arrived, they looked vaguely worried when they saw the four young children. Guessing what they were thinking, I reassured them. “Oh, don’t worry, they’re not like normal children, they’re perfectly well behaved,” I said, before adding, “though it might be wise not to disclose your taxable income to the oldest.”
At that very moment, Kit must have had a rush of blood to his head and briefly leaving behind the world of federal law and white-collar crime, he threw his new frisbee as hard as he could where it flew swiftly through the air and would have carried well into the long grass, had it not made contact with the side of D’s head.
I turned to the new guests, “Would you like to have private meals in your tent?”
Around the camp fire one evening a honeymoon couple asked D and I where we got married. We explained that we eloped to Europe with a few friends and got married in a 14th-century tower in Italy.
The couple looked aghast so D clarified, “We didn’t want to have a huge wedding or get married in a church as neither of us are even the slightest bit religious.”
I joined in adding, “…that would just have felt so hypocritical. It wouldn’t be right for us to have used a church just so it looks good in the wedding photographs.”
“Anyway, more importantly, where did you two get married?” D asks the happy couple.
Earlier in the week some very nervous guests arrived. As I am a nervous flyer I try to be sympathetic to those with fears but after being asked a thousand panicked questions in the first ten minutes, my sympathy waned a little.
“I assure you that lions have no reason to come into your tent. Nor snakes. No, nor hyenas. Is the salad safe? Well, no-one’s ever had to use the emergency radio to complain that a lettuce has appeared in their tent uninvited – how the hell would it get in? Oh, you mean to eat, sorry.”
It was a long time until nightfall but the looks on their faces would make the wait worthwhile.
Finally, lest you believe that I live a life entirely removed from showbiz, the following was overheard at the lunch table said by a young lady who clearly moves in different circles to I:
“…and so mummy simply had to tell Kanye West to fuck off.”
New guests in the shape of an English couple in their 50s arrived in camp yesterday morning. It’s lucky they’re here because, it turns out, they know everything there is to know about safari camps. They know so much that D and I might hand them the keys and say, “You flew over with Kenya Airways and have read a guide book? You’ve got this.” and take the rest of the week off.
They’d seen an aardvark on a night game drive at their previous camp. I told them that they were very lucky; “D and I don’t get much time to go out on night drives – I’ve never seen an aardvark.”
The wife, Linda, looks at me pityingly; “Well, they’re about a metre high with a long nose and tail, and…”
She chunters on for a minute or two whilst I try to work out a nice way of saying, “Just because I haven’t seen one in real life doesn’t mean that I don’t know what one is, you patronising moron.”
I’m unsuccessful and she ends with, “…and they’re mainly nocturnal.”
Suppressing a laugh, D goes to show the husband, George, how to work the torch, “Be careful not to push the button halfway or it’ll start an annoying…”
“I KNOW HOW TO USE A TORCH, YOUNG MAN,” says George.
“…S.O.S. signal and…” continues D.
“I GO CAMPING IN SURREY ALL THE TIME!”, says George.
Linda adds, “He’s practically a professional.”
Last night, which was completely moonless, we’re sitting round the campfire with the other guests when we notice that George and Linda are the last to arrive.
We look down the path to their tent to check if they’re coming. We can see a rapidly flashing strobe effect illuminating the tree canopy between the tents.
Dot dot dot dash dash dash dot dot dot.
“George, for goodness sake, use it properly.”
Dot dot dot dash dash dash dot dot dot.
“I’m trying woman, I can’t turn this ridiculous thing off.”
We all hear a call of “Jambo!” followed by a high-pitched scream from George. I guess immediately what’s happened: seeing the flashing light make its way down the path, our askari, a watchman, has revealed himself in the darkness to guide the guests to dinner. His sudden appearance out of the long grass, supposed to be one of the most reassuring of sights has, in fact, had the very opposite effect on George and Linda.
As I quickly head down the path, I am greeted by the sight of the guests and Onesmus having a little S.O.S. disco under the acacias. Onesmus is the only one enjoying himself.
I must admit, the sight of his face looming in and out of darkness with the intermittent flashes is rather off-putting and could be a little scary as I imagine Africans leaping out from behind acacia trees are rather thin on the ground in Surrey.