Try finding a contractor in the African bush.
The orientation meeting was haloed by a single overhead 300-watt light bulb which attracted most of the mosquitoes in sub-Saharan Africa, but did little to dispel our gloom. The rainy season had started that afternoon with a fire-hose ferocity. Gullies, dry and sandy the day before, were churning with ochre syrup. Lakes formed where streets intersected. Little kids played in knee-deep puddles as adults scurried for cover. The intense but intermittent rains allowed only peek-a-boo glimpses at a world I had traveled thousands of miles to see. Low clouds loomed over red mud, pocked with scruffy cattle and sparse thorn trees. This was not my “Discovery Channel” image of Africa.
They told me there were still weeks of dry weather for game viewing when I booked this safari in Cape Town. They also claimed “Nomad” was a first class safari operation with great food and top-of-the line camping equipment. I wanted my first African safari to be a no-brainer, a taken care of, 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, leaks, and emergencies. I wanted a guide who looked like Meryl Streep to seduce me under the Southern Cross while hyenas howled in the night.
But our guide looked like a beer-bellied Dudley Do-Right in bare feet and cut-offs, an affable, somewhat shy, local lad who was just now leading his first safari. He stumbled through his introduction, outlining our week of travel through Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Zambia, describing our campsites and the several places each day where we could restock beer supplies. The Aussies in the group were relieved at this news but those of us not from Down Under murmured afterwards about his failure to mention anything about the local flora and fauna. I had uneasy dreams that night, like the dreams I have back home before starting a job with a tight profit margin.
The next morning rain came in torrents, like from some old-fashioned, pull-chain toilet. We boarded what was mislabeled a bus. It had the front cab of a Mercedes truck, but in place of the usual truck body was a seating pod of sorts. It looked like a tacked on, Stalinist Winnebago designed by someone with severe visual impairment. The windows bore a striking similarity to old aluminum, residential sliders in both fit and ease of use, difficult to open or close. The grammar-school-green, textured, vinyl bus seats evoked a childhood deja vu of setting off on a bad 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 six days.
Pretorious, our novice leader, handed me a sleeping bag from the overhead storage bin. It smelled like a camembert left too long in the sun and felt lumpy, like it had been used to sop up toilet overflow. When I pointed this out to him, he said, “We must have a dry one somewhere,” and sifted through several more stored in the overhead rack. “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 the wet, malodorous thing back where he had found it.
I looked around for a seat. 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 window 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 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 Okavango Delta. Besides, I had arranged to meet my daughter in Victoria Falls the day the trip ended. 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. All was well as we got up to speed and started eating up the 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 we got 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 up there, and we were all treated to a shower of cheese-scented water. The rains intensified and leaks appeared as if by magic. They spurted in around windows, dripped from light fixtures, cascaded from skylights. No seat was safe from these torrents. This was Africa but it was the Chinese version of water torture. We 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 that training did not cover a leaking bus, so he did nothing beyond readjust his pillow in the dry comfort of the Mercedes cab and resume his napping.
But a leak to a contractor is like a cobra to a mongoose. It must be vanquished, particularly when it is causing personal or financial discomfort. I knew there had to be an easy fix. The tool box from the bus contained only a useless assortment of rusted wrenches. I itched for my tool belt. I wanted to call my roofer. I wanted the damn leaks to stop. I wanted a dry seat.
At our lunch stop, 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. Cow dung was the local caulk of choice on the huts we passed. Home Depot had not yet penetrated this market.
Damp and daunted, we continued on to Chobe National Park, home to 35,000 elephants. Documentaries get filmed in Chobe because of the easily viewed, abundant population. Herds come to the river several times a day. But the first rains of the season are like the 3P.M. 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. Not one elephant was in sight. We did see some hippos, alligators, waterbucks, impalas, and other four legged creatures our guide couldn’t identify.
It didn’t seem possible, but the rains came down even harder. The driver actually had to stop the bus several times because of zero visibility as we continued on to the Okavango Delta. No one believed it could rain so hard. We got wetter. Pretorious’s solution was to make more beer stops. The leaks didn’t bother him. 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 shouldn’t have been there. A small, gray cardboard box about 10 inches square, covered with a thick layer of dust sat half hidden behind a row of canned goods. Under the dust the words “Dow Chemical” were barely visible. Just below the brand I could make out the word “Silicone.” Reverently I took it into my hands as if it were some delicate, ancient artifact. It was factory sealed. 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 street into a steam table but had dried 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 joined in to help. Pretorius stood watching 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, I needed a vacation.
Jim Mannix is a contractor and writer who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For an archive of these stories go to the Editors’ Choice link on The Flying Carpet; for more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.