Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Chapter 19: The Snake Charmers

Have you ever been pinned down by a question?  Nailed even?  On the school run earlier I was staked through the heart by my daughter, simply:   "What are you scared of, Mum?" I squirmed.  I writhed inside. My knee-jerk response, you see, would be:   "I'm terrified by the thought of losing you."  Bit heavy for a six year old, at that hour of the morning.  So instead, I replied  "Snakes."  She burst out laughing.  "Seriously?! But that's silly.  I've had a snake round my neck and it's nothing to be scared of.  It's a bit slimy, and sure, it moves, but it's cool, I loved it." Actually, I had to correct her, you've worn a snake twice round your neck,  once at a reptile party when you were two and a half, and once on a nursery trip to the zoo a year later. 

Snakes.  Charming.  A memory of a fabulous, award-winning shot slips into my mind, taken by the photographer Stormy Sloane in boudoir mode. It's of sultry circus performer Katrina Lilwall with her albino python nestled between her breasts.   The art of circus boudoir  - including bare-faced chic labels such as @strippedbeautiful - merits its own post, to follow.

Photographer:  Stormy Sloane
 Model:   Katrina Lilwell and Sunny the Python

I was once informed by a rather charismatic guy, Peter, in Botswana that he could cure me of my fear of snakes.  I nearly burst out laughing. Nervously. Peter owned a luxury camp in the heart of the Okovango Delta.   I had heard about Peter long before we arrived.  Oh, he's mad, said the pilot of the tiny Cessna.  Long-haired, bare-foot hippy, talks to everyone.  A real character. Even the Rough Guide referred to his hitchhikers' camp down the road as "Oddballs - named after the owner".   We arrived at the camp via mokoro, a canoe-styled punt.  One thing I couldn't get over was how clear the swamp water was.  Shouldn't it be murky and stagnant?   We pushed on through the reeds, how tempting to lazily trail your hands in the cool, inviting waters, but probably wiser not to.  I remember turning the corner and seeing the honeymooners' tree-house.  That's for us, right? I joked. Turns out that my boyfriend and I were the only ones staying in the camp that night, and it sure was.

I'm not sure, even now, whether I was relieved or disappointed to learn it was the dry season and not a snake in sight.  I am curious like that. There was only the old skin of a rattle-snake to welcome us to our tree-top dwelling, alongside the pair of wild cats gambolling on the stairs.  And the eagle perched on top.  Or was it a vulture?

We stayed in a total of three camps on safari, and what I couldn't stand about the first two was the regimented life.  Rising at crack of dawn to see the animals was tough but enchanting, it was the pointless afternoons when you had to be off again that really irked.  Guests weren't allowed to glimpse the workings behind the scenes at camp, and isn't that the most interesting part?  So arriving at Peter's camp was a huge relief.  If we didn't want to go on a walking safari the next day, then we were free to stay in bed. Actually, we did make a stab at venturing out, but it was the morning after the night before, polishing off an entire bottle of port with our host, and the first thing we happened across was a rotting elephant.  The stench was so grim downwind it made us turn again, Whittington, not now Livingstone. We learnt about dung and tracking, we'd spend evenings cupping our ears, listening to the lion's mournful soliloquy, the elephants hefty approach - there, where no fences or barriers around the camp - the swish of hippos galumphing in the swamp.  Mud, mud, glorious mud. 

The stories came thick and fast with Peter, tales of home-life in Maun, the half a dozen snakes he kept there, the festivals of the Eclipse, hilarious adventures with guests who think they own the place, and some real nuggets of wisdom:  a girl should always have her nails buffed & polished, declared the guy who never would wear his own shoes, let alone polish them.   And we talked books.  We could have spent hours swapping titles, and ideas.  When I left, the visitors' book had one page of thanks to everyone, and the other page a shed-load of Latin American titles I thought Peter would enjoy.  The short stories of Horacio Quirroga, tales of struggles in the jungle and with nature reminiscent of Joseph Conrad or Graham Greene,  then there was Julio Cortázar, Juan Rulfo's "Pedro Páramo", Gabriel García Márquez, epic. And I clicked as well with Karen, the camp manager - a South African athlete (aren't they all?), full of energy.  One day, I made the mistake of signing up for a forty minute power walk with her, over to the landing strip to catch the mail plane.  I half-expected a lion to jump out at any point, but you are invincible when you are young, and somehow I survived. 

We travelled straight back to Cape Town after our stay with them.   I couldn't sleep that night in the hotel room.  I felt trapped, I missed the stars, the sounds of the animals, the scent of the wild.  The real world, my world, felt stale, fake and claustrophobic.  It reminded me of returning home from my first trip to Cuba, where there had been nothing on the store shelves or shop floor.  When back in the UK I then walked into a Boots pharmacy and saw so many varieties of shampoo it made me feel sick.  Won't one do?  How quickly we acclimatise to our own reality.   Looking at my bathroom cabinet now, well, it's ridiculous, but it's all essential, you know...

A year or so later Peter, in London for a Kensington Olympia travel fair, came over to the Docklands for dinner at ours.  We lived enclosed in a small flat that looked over the Thames, and had invited another couple of friends too.  Peter had chopped off all his hair.  Sampson, I wondered? He was as edgy as a caged animal to begin with, and who can blame him?  Even with floor to ceiling windows and double doors opening out to the balcony overlooking the Thames, we were were essentially in a confined space. And what do you know of Africa, he tartly asked my beautiful girlfriend, who it turned out lived and worked in Guinea Bissau for two years with the V.S.O.  Credentials established, we could all relax.  My cooking wasn't really on a par with five-star camps though.   It makes me laugh now to think I served up a rather heavy spag. bol. for supper. Should have opted instead for the tiger prawn curry - my only other dish.  Washed down with a beer, a Cobra, obviously.  Yup, the food was definitely an anti-climax, and the tequila slammers  afterwards finished us off ...

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