Bed, Bath and the Back of Beyond

Back in the back of beyond

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.

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“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!”

Tent Commandments Part 3 – Thou Shalt Not Read Thy Guest Satisfaction Survey Before Thy Guests Have Departed

guest |gɛst| noun ORIGIN Middle English: from Old Norse gestr, rootshared by Latin hostis ‘enemy’.

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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.

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Disclaimer: Not Actual Survey. Actual Survey Much Worse.

Jeez.

Great expectations

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.”

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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?”

An average week in camp

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.

“The Vatican.”

***

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.”

Lettuce with scissorsIt 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.”

Guests who are ‘aard work

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.

The Tent Commandments – No. 2

Thou Shalt Not Compare Thyself to Other Camp Managers Lest Thou Feel Inadequate

There is no escaping from the fact that, despite being immigrants, D and I are not very exotic when compared to other camp managers who, coming from long-standing colonial families, are remarkable just by their very existence.

“You’re from where, dear? The UK? Oh, we’ve just been staying with Tim-Tim and Minty in the Kwumerutiti Swampland, they of course have been here for their whole lives, and now they have two darling girls – Chui and Duma, they’re positively wild but will be sent to London to finish their schooling. Her grandfather started up the national parks in Kenya.”

“You’ve only been here for ten years? Oh, well, we’ve just stayed with Algernon and Fru in the Pwananiti Hills, they were born here, so so clever – she breeds ostriches and her great-grandmother started up the national parks in Kenya. Algie was telling us of the times his great-grandfather shot ostrich from the back of a train! We mentioned we were coming here and they said they’d never heard of you.”

We’re plunged into further doom by the fact that every other camp has some sort of bandy-legged Bambi-like creature gambolling around the lunch table. The Wonder Dog just doesn’t cut the mustard, it seems.

“Oh! You’ve got a little dog? Peregrine and Titty have two dogs and a zebra…”

“Do you know Flim Flam and Fuckwit? They’ve got two zebras, a giraffe and a rhino.”

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Business Class

Plane nose on airstrip with copyright

We’ve currently got an American couple staying with us; let’s call them Brad and Tammy. The wife is mostly synthetic; silicone and Botox. She must share 90% of her DNA with her Louis Vuitton luggage. Presumably during check-in at John F. Kennedy International, after removing her shoes and belt, she gently lay down next to her bags on the conveyor belt, winding her way to the hold, spending the long-haul flights beside the suitcases and golf clubs.

Her husband is one of those sorts that treats being on safari not so much as a holiday but as a personal challenge to be overcome. “Ha! You think I can’t make a phone call to my lawyer whilst next to a leopard. I shall show you – I shall not let these savannahs of gold stop my daily routine,” before donning a Fitbit and trainers and racing off into the bush triggering a frantic search party.

Then, a last-minute booking: a new couple. New as in they’ve just arrived and new as in I believe they’ve only just met. Todd of Toronto is accompanied by a prostitute; Glitterisha from Nairobi.

It appeared that Glitterisha hadn’t been booked a seat on the aircraft for the 45 minute flight from Nairobi, and was therefore forced to sit on the wings for the journey whereupon most of her clothes have been blown off.

D’s safety briefing was shorter than normal as, realistically, Glitterisha was going to freeze to death long before she was going to get eaten by lions. “It can get suddenly cooler during the afternoon game drive, so it’s a good idea to wear, well, something.

We took them to their tent which took longer than usual with Glitterisha’s stilettos sinking into the soft black cotton soil, occasionally stumbling into the foliage. If she’d been wearing any clothing it would have snagged on the acacia thorns.

Todd, for his part, is remarkably unflummoxed for a chap who is accompanied by a flashing sign announcing, ‘I PAY FOR SEX! BUT NOT FOR PLANE SEATS!’

Luckily, Glitterisha put on some extra sequins for lunch and, ever professional, the waiters set two extra places for her breasts.

When introduced, the two couples had more in common than I dared hope. Brad and Glitterisha both think acacia trees must be phone masts in disguise and make a phone call every time they see one. Glitterisha and Tammy are both concerned about the safari bucket showers in the evening; one because she doesn’t want to get her weave wet and the other because she should only be Wiped Gently with a Clean, Damp Cloth.

Cat Hats Trophy

The conservation area in which our camp is located covers tens of thousands of acres and is managed very competently by our chief warden. His is one of those roles that would be impossible to contain within a job description and covers land management, community work, wildlife welfare and ensuring that the camps adhere to the conservancy code of conduct.

As he knows we will be with guests at particular times of the day he mainly communicates via texts, some of which have been very cryptic.

‘It’s possible that a naked man might be running through your camp in the next two minutes.

This turned out to be a herdsman who, when caught by rangers grazing illegally through a conservation area, had panicked and caused a mini stampede amongst his cows, one of whom had stood on his shuka [wrap-around blanket that the Maasai wear] which meant the herdsman continued his frantic run without it. An unusual number of our female guests showed a remarkable interest in using the binoculars in the mess tent that afternoon.

A couple of months ago he sent us:

Have you got any room in your freezer for a lion’s head?

A lioness had died in a suspected case of poisoning and the head needed to be stored until it could be collected and tested by the relevant people in Nairobi. D was really hoping that someone would annoy him over the following days so he could do a bush version of the oft-quoted Mafia threat.

Then, today lunchtime:

‘Is anyone’s guest missing a hat? We’ve found it next to the Simba lion pride, a bit pawed but still ok.’

D read out the message to our guests who all confirmed that their hats were safely on their heads. Then:

‘On second thoughts; are any of the camps missing a guest? The good news is; we’ve found their hat.’

Did you know?

A common guest habit is to assume that, because D and I live in a tent for 8 months a year, we are a little bit dim. Last night a guest very kindly took it upon themselves to tell me who the president of Kenya is.

Now, I’m not the most politically astute person in the world and I would struggle to tell you the name of the president of Mali, for example. [Just had to look it up; Ibrahim Boubacar Keita. See? Now I even know who the president of Mali is.] It would however take a special person not to know the name of the president of the country in which you reside.

The hospitality challenge is of course to react politely when someone tells you something that you’re very likely to already know. What I want to do is slap my forehead in a dramatic manner and yell, “KENYATTA?!You’re sh*tting me?” and then make the guest listen whilst I list lots of facts about their home country; “So, in England you’ve got the Houses of Parliament and you have a Prime Minister, David Cameron, that’s right. Now let me tell you all about the Queen ‘cos I read a 200-word paragraph in the front of a Lonely Planet Guide on the plane and am therefore now something of an expert.”

A hare’s death

The half-wildcat (that is half-tolerated in camp by The Wonder Dog) brought a freshly-killed scrub hare into the tent at one o’clock this morning and hid it under our bed. I got out of bed at the sound of the first crunch and gently and respectfully carried the poor dead creature outside so that the cat could finish its meal al fresco without disturbing us.

The cat didn’t get the point and half an hour later brought the hare back under the bed. I got out of bed again and, imperceptibly less respectfully, moved the slightly stiff creature outside but a bit further away.

Cat didn’t get the point. At 4am this morning, in an attempt to get the creature far enough away to deter the cat from bringing it back, I found myself standing naked in the moonlight on our verandah swinging the completely rigor mortised hare around my head like the Olympic hammer before releasing it, whereupon it flew through the cool air like no hare has flown before, landing twenty feet away with a thump(er).

Watership Down it wasn’t.

Leopards have the decency to eat their kills in trees

Leopards have the decency to eat their kills in trees

A difficult dinner last night; we’re hosting a group of twelve Americans in their seventies and eighties. Although there are a few friends in the party, most met for the first time in Nairobi three days ago.

Everyone has their story to tell, and it’s clear that some of these stories must be told at any cost. One lady, let’s call her Dorothy, will not stop talking. She segues effortlessly from one subject to the next without pause. Last night’s dinner was twenty minutes late as the waiter couldn’t find a gap in Dorothy’s monologue long enough to announce the menu. In the end I just yelled rudely, ‘DINNER IS SERVED!’

There was a little dance around the dinner table as the other guests tried to second-guess where Dorothy was going to sit and moved accordingly. Myself and two guests from Alabama lost the game of musical chairs and we sat at one end of the long table with Dorothy. The collective sigh of relief from the others blew out the candles.

Through sign language and telepathy the couple from Alabama, Cecilia and Robert, and I decided that our tactic had to be to not let Dorothy start talking otherwise the game was lost. Unfortunately, Dorothy is nobody’s fool and had started on her chosen topic of tennis before we’d unfolded our napkins and relit the candles.

After a twenty minute discourse on the merits of a grass surface over clay, the situation was desperate. I could see from their eyes that the Alabama two had lost hope of ever escaping; Robert handed me a note for me to pass onto their children.

I was struck by inspiration and leapt from my seat, “Oh my GOD!” I yelled, “I can smell burning!”

I dashed out of the dining tent to investigate hoping that the couple would play their part and use the distraction as an opportunity to stop talking about bloody Roger Federer.

When I returned to the table it had clearly not gone entirely as I hoped and I was disappointed to hear Dorothy say, “… so my friend has bought me tickets for the Open, we’ve gone together for the last twenty years…” but it turned out Cecilia and Robert had plumped for another tactic; Dorothy was going to carry on talking and they were both just going to talk over her. It resulted in a very bizarre three-way conversation about growing rhubarb in the southern states of America, the merits of getting tickets for the Australian Open and the state of the Danish monarchy.

It was unconventional but I thought I was handling it well until I said, “Are they fruits or vegetables?” to Cecilia who I thought was the one talking about rhubarb but it turned out that she was the one talking about the Danish royal family.

I was forgiven and learned an interesting fact about Bluetooth.

The Tortoise and the Zebra

Two of our new guests had sleepless nights because of an unseen herd of large creatures munching away at grass near their tent throughout the night. They shared their misfortune with us this morning before their 6am game drive.

"They said what?"

“They said what?”

“Probably zebras,” explained D, thinking this because a) there were zebras everywhere last night, b) there’s zebra poo everywhere this morning, c) there are zebra hoof prints surrounding the guest tents and d) the askaris said they saw zebras overnight. D pointed out the overwhelming evidence to the guests who said in all seriousness, “Oh no, we don’t think it was zebras. No, we’ve been talking about it all night, we’ve worked out what it was – it was tortoises.” So, in the minds of our guests herds of giant tortoises went marauding through camp last night – we’re lucky to be alive…

Owlet

During our inspection around camp this morning, D and I spotted a small bird sitting in an acacia gerrardii. I ran to the mess tent to grab the camp copy of Stevenson & Fanshawe’s Birds of East Africa.

I flicked through the pages, trying to identify the stranger. “It’s like a mini owl” said D, “with a pissed off face.”

I found a suitably angry-looking candidate on page 204, pearl spotted owlet, and started reading aloud the supposed characteristics.

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“It says here, partially diurnal, check, call starts with a long series of short piped fwoo-fwoo-fwoo…notes.” At that precise moment the owlet uttered that very call. “Often mobbed by small birds.” As I read out that line, a small murmuration of superb starlings mobbed the owlet, which flew to a farther branch.

I continued reading, “Has it got intimidating yellow eyes?” The owlet’s gaze fell upon us and both D and I were intimidated.

I’d never come across such an obliging bird and even D was unusually enthusiastic, “It’s like Jumanji – everything you read out happens.”

We turned back to the owlet, it was jumping up and down on the thorny tree, egging us on to read more, “Read the bit where I have copious amounts of sex, read that bit.”

A little bit crapper than Mufasa

A little bit crapper than Mufasa

We knew they were going to be trouble the moment they arrived. Rather than leaping enthusiastically from the Land Rover they surveyed our camp with dismay from within the vehicle before stepping carefully out, unsuccessfully picking their way through the dust and scat.

A three-generational vineyard-owning family from California, they looked like they’d packed for a cruise; tiny pointed shoes, hair immaculately dyed and styled, delicate little Hermes scarves. The wives looked high-maintenance too.

When I introduced myself to one of the ladies, she limply took my hand; “You guys have Wi-Fi, right?” When I said no, she looked over her shoulder and called to the rest of the family, “They’ve not got it here either. What are we going to do?”

The thirteen of them stood in front of us, looking vaguely panicked.

The first lady turned back to D, “Well, do you have a TV room at least?”

The panic spread to us; these guests were here for four nights and had booked all of our six tents.

“Well, hopefully you’ll be out on too many game drives to worry about TV,” said D continuing to introduce himself to the mixed group.

The smallest of the four children, a girl, tugged at the shiniest of the adults; “I don’t want to go on another drive.”

“Wait until you see the lions and elephants,” D said, “you might even see hippos in the river.”

One of the other mothers stepped forward and spoke gently to D as you would to a simpleton; “We saw a lion on the way from the airport,” she said, “we don’t need to see any more.”

Knowing it was going to be a long few days for all of us, we introduced them to the non-existent facilities of the camp before leading them to their tents to reveal the hair dryers, bathtubs and minibars that the camp also doesn’t have. In the face of their disappointment, it seemed churlish to point out the flushing toilets.

They remained unmoved by the beauty of the camp, scared of the few bugs that made an appearance, bored by game drives although the wildlife did its best to impress; leopard, cheetah, lion, elephant and rhino all made an appearance during their game drives, despite them only being out of camp for an hour a day.

“So did you choose to work out here?” asked one of the daughters, implying that I was an victim of a lesser-reported human trafficking ring; condemned not to a sordid life as a sex-worker in Soho but to live in the wilderness and talk to guests until I could have my passport back. It was clear which she considered the worse fate.

On their fourth and final day, D and I walked down to the dining tent to make sure that the family had everything they needed. It was 4pm, a time when guests would normally be out on game drives; traversing the grassy plains and escarpments before watching the sunset in all its glory.

As we approached the tent we could hear music.

Whilst bona fide lion cubs, warthogs and hornbills went about their lives only kilometres from camp, we found the family huddled together watching Disney’s ‘The Lion King’ on the grandson’s iPad.

Hakuna matata…