I’ve spent a few days around Naivasha, curling up by the camp restaurant’s fireplace and staring distantly toward the lake and trying to find a decent Internet connection in a town plagued by power cuts. In the morning the birds are chattering in the trees – trumpeting, trilling, piping their little lustful notes; at night, lured by tales of hippos prowling the lakeside, I stand in the deep, croaking dark, shining my headlamp toward the menacing reeds. There are a few lengths of electric wire roping off the campsite; a small, colorful sign warns: “DANGER! ZAP!” Last spring a Dutch woman was gored by a mother hippo protecting her offspring. She’d hopped across the fence and crept closer to take a few pictures; the mother – alarmed by either the bright flash or the tasteless walking sandals – charged and clamped its massive teeth down on the woman’s midsection. By the time they got her to the hospital she’d already lost too much blood. The guy telling the story ominously notes that the hospital is just 200 meters down the road.
Killer hippos notwithstanding, this is a fine place to pass the time. In spite of the ‘80s pop tunes playing by the bar, there’s a primal sort of peace here – a sense that we’re just a couple of steps removed from a world untouched by the ravages of industrialization, mechanization and ABBA. Monkeys brazenly rummage through the trash and climb onto the hoods of cars; bright-plumaged birds perch on the tops of our tents, crapping on the firewood and pecking at the scraps on our breakfast plates. In the bathroom at night, there’s a forest of insects on the wall: winged, multi-legged, wriggling and clinging, antennae quivering. They fill me with a strange sort of dread, as if they’d happily be feasting on my corpse if I’d just be so gracious as to keel over by the urinal. Stirred by their own animal instincts and brute longings, young guys swarm around a pair of blondes at the bar, going through the motions – head cocked attentively, brow earnestly furrowed – of our peculiar mating dance.
It’s an odd and cheerful mix here at Fisherman’s Camp: pairs of backpackers and massive groups of overlanders; white-haired women with small, pink faces; young guys with curious patches of stubble on their chins; men with muscular hands and an air of grave self-assurance – the sort of guys who can tie elaborate knots, start fires, build emergency shelters out of corn husks and pine needles. I meet a trio of chatty English girls and spend a few nights with them in front of the fireplace, happily distracted by their tales of hook-ups and half-baked professors and college co-ed woe. After a few weeks of backpackers with their strident stories of climbing Kilimanjaro and tracking gorillas through the Congo, it’s nice to see that pop stars and snogs are still the preoccupations of most young British girls. Only in passing do they allude to the volunteer work they did at a primary school near Malindi, where they taught the kids English rhymes and painted the ABC’s and 123’s onto a schoolyard wall. One of the girls notes with horror that she’d mistakenly painted ten little dots beneath the number nine, and we reflect on the grave prospects of a generation of Malindi youth whose counting will be tragically confused once they get past the number eight.
One morning we rent mountain bikes and visit Hell’s Gate National Park, with its steaming springs and plunging rock faces and great-winged vultures circling above the cliffs. We spend the day pedaling over a bumpy dirt road, gazelles loping along beside us and zebras rolling and frolicking in the dirt. A pack of baboons crosses the road, flashing us a glimpse of their rosy half-mooned backsides. There’s a light rain falling and the wind is ripping through my hair and one of the girls has a really great ass. I feel a frenzied onslaught of joy, a pure and undiminished freedom that it seems – for just this moment – no one on earth could possibly share. Never mind the three girls pedaling along beside me: I want to take this day and stow it away in the safest of places, hording it away for my pleasure, even if I have to be a total dick about it.
Back at the camp another group of overlanders has arrived, their massive truck groaning into the campsite in a fog of diesel fumes, SPF 40 and insect repellent. It’s a great rolling fortress: the canvas flaps puffing in the wind, the tires the size of rhinos. Inside the seats are upholstered in zebra- and leopard-print fabrics, capturing just the right mood, I suspect, between African safari and ‘70s porn flick. The passengers surge out in great waves of khaki. They have ruddy cheeks and wind-tossed hair and the mirthful bonhomie of people who can spare bundles of cash for a pricey overland trip. They’re wearing zip-up fleeces, broad-brimmed hats, walking sandals with elaborate straps. When they get to the bar they massage the knots in their necks and flex their toned calf muscles and order glasses of chardonnay.
That night I meet a plump, garrulous girl from New Zealand. She’s on a two-week tour of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. “I figure I should get Africa out of the way while I’m young,” Nathalie says, holding an imaginary pen to an imaginary checklist and making a little ticking motion with her hand. “Next!” She’s sitting by the fireplace and nursing a beer, her cheeks fat and flushed and glowing in the light. So far, she tells me, Africa’s been an eye-opening experience.
“People think Africa is so sad, but it’s so different than what you see on TV,” she says. “I asked one of our guides, and he said Kenyans are really happy.”
I admit that it’s not all like the UNICEF commercials would have you believe. Soon we’re joined by a tall, handsome Kenyan named John – one of the guides on Nathalie’s overland tour. He has great knots of hair on his head and an annoying knack for speaking in rhyme. “My people have been used and abused and confused,” he says, etc. We’re talking about poverty in Kenya, about the sprawling slums of Kibera and the treacherous self-interest of the politicians. Nathalie, tipsy and looking into John’s smoldering eyes with a sort of carnal idolatry, seems lost in a boozed-up haze.
“It’s not like there are just starving kids on the side of the road,” she says. Then she adds, “People aren’t hungry, so I’m happy.”
“I’m sure they are, too,” I note.
We have another round while John stokes the fire. He tells us stories about life as a tour guide, most of which would snugly fit inside a volume called, How White People Misbehave in Africa, and Why I’d Like to Choke Them. He’s roused by a tale from his time in Mozambique – a grim, meandering morality play involving a speeding truck full of German tourists, a local woman caught in that truck’s trajectory, and the desperate measures resorted to by a certain pack of Germans to keep from spending the rest of their lives brushing up on their Portuguese behind bars. John’s eyes are aflame with a sense of burning injustice. The Germans had shown less concern for the dying woman they’d left behind than for the passports locked away in a desk drawer at the local police station.
“If people can pay, it doesn’t matter what you say, because they always get their way,” he says, and so on.
Nathalie is smitten. Her eyes are dancing in the firelight, her head bobbing with the cadences of John’s voice. At one point she tips her head back and says, “African! African!” the R’s rolling like someone’s kicked them down a hill. I give her a look. She leans forward and presses her arms together, so that her breasts are bundled like a pair of newborns beneath her sweater.
“What Africa needs is leaders like you,” she says, though what she means is:
“Fuck me into a creamy white pudding.”
She leans back breathlessly and stares into the fire and does a boozy little swaying dance with her shoulders. I ask for the check. When I see her the next morning by the showers, she looks desperately unravaged.
“John is amazing, isn’t he?” she says.
“Um,” I say.
I steer clear until their truck rumbles out in the afternoon; that night another truck rolls in. There’s the musical chime of glasses clinking at the bar; the fire is crackling and popping in dim embers. A dozen Irish girls on holiday are doing shots and dancing barefoot on the couches. The bartender has a salubrious look about him, as if a boatload of shillings just rowed in. Long after I’ve retreated to my tent I can still hear the dance music piping into the night, the croaking and chirping of insects set against a backdrop of drum loops, synthesizers, and drunk, warbling Irish girls.