Each day, we walk down the red dirt track that rises up like a sand spit from the lake. We pass groups of men, women, children sitting by the side of the road, watching the port, waiting. The dust billowing out from under H’s size eleven hiking boots settles on my pale, bare feet like fake tan. It never occurs to me that to eschew shoes in front of those who can’t afford that choice might be in terrible taste, but then everything seems back to front and upside down on the equator. The moon rose twice last night. The previous week we stood with one foot either side of that imaginary line and photographed each other laughing, still high on a Silverback. Now we wait for a train to take us on safari, to keep moving.
We were hitching a lift in an overland truck to Zaire, when the driver – twitchy – turned up his radio, “… thousands fleeing across the border since the Rwandan President’s plane was shot down.” We glanced at each other but didn’t discuss the matter. We really wanted to see the mountain gorillas. H once told me his only phobia was of entering a water-filled chamber when spelunking and not being able to find an air pocket. I reminded him that a phobia is an irrational fear.
Restless from a week’s stasis at the station, H buys boat tickets to an island nature reserve. It is a Sunday and a dozen considerably better dressed day trippers are waiting at the jetty in high spirits when we arrive. They laugh and pass around tiny, oily cakes as we all sit together on the boat’s wooden benches. As we pull in to the island’s stony beach, H says, “Oh God, no,” and I follow his gaze. The nature reserve has a series of little barred boxes along the shore, from the smallest of which is coming a dreadful moaning. Our fellow passengers spring along the plank and bury into bags and pockets for cameras and cigarettes. The first cage contains a young adult chimpanzee who is holding out an arm through the bars and chattering wildly. Someone lights up a cigarette and passes it to him; he puts it straight to his lips and inhales expertly, bringing a roar of approval. I start to feel nauseous. The second cage contains a vast, prehistoric crocodile who is so cramped that his head and tail are forced upwards against the bars at each end. The game is to throw coins on his back and goad him into twisting and turning himself into a knot from which he cannot be untangled. H is white and sweating despite the cool air from the lake. We don’t speak. Next is the lion, whose clownishly huge scarred paws extend through the bars of the otherwise entirely concrete box that holds him. He rocks his head continually and never once stops ululating – a sound so pained that my stomach contracts. H is flicking through his battered guide book, desperately, “It said a nature reserve …”
We follow the path of uncomplicated teenage righteousness to the other side of the island, alone. From the top of the red cliffs, the endless fresh water is far more of an ocean than the narrow sea channels at home. Big cerise and indigo lizards scramble around us and scarlet birds hop about nonchalantly, as though they were any old dowdy starling. The gentle lap of the lake is so far from the snarling waves that last week had threatened to wreck our packed ferry and wash us up faceless and bloated on the Ugandan shore. We have found the sanctuary but the lion’s low rumble still echoes off the rocks.
On that ferry deck, we met a man in suit and tie, leaving Rwanda. He fidgeted constantly, his breathing rapid, “I haven’t been able to contact my family,” he said, looking over the edge into the swirling churning waters. “They say the tilapia they are netting now are huge,” his voice broke, “from eating all the bodies.”
That accordion-buffer between two carriages doesn’t exist on these trains. Instead, if you are curious and foreign and stupid enough to want to travel up and down the train, you simply jump the two-foot gap as the track rushes past underneath you. Leaving H to his book, I find a set of steps that haven’t yet been occupied and sit on them. There is no door and I hold on as we break the sick, dust-thick air into soft warm breezes, finally on our way to the Serengeti after eight days in Mwanza. The conductor tells me I should not sit there, it is dangerous and not a place for ladies. I choose to ignore him. Soon I will watch elephants from a tourist campsite which, even though our driver locks himself in his jeep at night, will feel like a giant Home Counties safari park. Today I see three giraffes galloping through the nameless scrub alongside the train, for free. It will be years before I fill in the gaps.