By the time Derek caught up with his clients, a middle-aged father from Toronto and his two teenage sons, they had already gathered by the vehicle in their safari outfits, with their hats, camera bags, water bottles and backpacks. The shiny, black-on-black Land Rover Discovery III, affectionately known as “the Blackback”, was state of the art in off-road driving. It was Pedro’s baby, and he kept its all-black flow coat and leather interior in tiptop condition. “Art of the state,” he declared proudly. No one else in Uganda had one to drive. It was also the company’s last remaining asset, but there was no way Pedro was going to let Derek cash in on the only expensive thing they had left in the world.
The Blackback’s engine was already running, warming up for the game drive ahead, and Pedro was in the back packing the cooler with fruit, soda and locally bottled water (which the clients refused to drink), as well as frozen ice packs. Derek insisted Pedro refreeze the ice packs every night, “Because you never know when you’re going to get another chance. It’s all about survival, rafiki. With just a handful of frozen ice packs you can keep a cooler full of perishables fresh for days.”
“Other safari operators have in-car fridges,” moaned Pedro.
“Which put a drain on your petrol supply,” replied Derek, “and are completely useless if the car breaks down. Totally inappropriate technology for the bush.”
Pedro was much more than just a driver for the safari company, he was Derek’s good friend, right-hand man, consigliere, partner in crime, bodyguard, and fixer. Together they struggled to keep the wheels turning on a private label safari business, taking high-end clients to the remote corners of East Africa to view rare wildlife. Pedro had a sixth sense about things, and Derek did well to heed his advice. Nevertheless, they rarely agreed and through their regular argument about supplies, survival and safari circuits, they continued to add to the base of bush knowledge they used to ultimately aid the design of the perfect safari.
“Ready to spot tree-climbing lions?” asked Derek cheerily, as though he lived for these early departures. The clients nodded and grunted their replies. “Tu Wende,” he added. It was Swahili for “Let’s go”. Pedro accelerated the Blackback, kicking up a plume of gravel, and drove out of the lodge parking lot like he was engaging in a counter-terror manoeuvre. The effect served to make the clients feel very important indeed as they sped off into the park.
Dawn burst over the rim of the Rift Valley escarpment, quenching the dry savannah with a revitalising orange glow. The day was clearer and fresher for the short rains, and they could see for miles. Pedro took the western circuit, between the Ishasha River, which marks the border with Congo, and the shores of Lake Edward, crisscrossing the terrain with the agility of a hunting predator. One minute they were up on to a ridge with a commanding view of Lake Edward and the towering Ruwenzori Mountains in the distance, and the next down in a dip on the edge of a swamp, unable to see even beyond the brier. Notwithstanding the Blackback’s superior suspension, it was not at all a smooth ride.
On the plateau, in the scattered savannah forest, where the soil was dry and ashen, acacia trees dominated the landscape, about twenty metres apart, and cast long shadows on the parched grass. Many had been snapped and some smashed to pieces.
“What caused that?” asked the younger boy.
“The handiwork of Ishasha’s lesser-known tree-climbing elephants,” quipped Derek.
“Over there, in the distance,” said the older boy, pointing to a large herd of elephant moving through a grove of acacia trees on a ridge, but they were unreachable on the Congo side of the border. The elephant population at Ishasha had grown considerably in recent years, due to an outbreak of peace and conservation in the region, and they knew no boundaries in their quest for new pastures.
As the Blackback carried the eager game-viewers out of yet another ditch, they happened on a large cluster of antelope grazing a hump. There were kob, impala, waterbuck, oribi, hartebeest, and topi, with the latter keeping watch on the high ground. Pedro slowed to around ten kilometres an hour, while Derek scrutinised the periphery of the herd for the telltale signs of a predator: a pair of circular beige ears in the short grass, a twitch of a bush, or indeed the antelopes all looking in the one direction. Subtle changes in the gently undulating graben offered good cover. There were no signs of any lions, so they began to drive away.
Just then Pedro heard a kob’s alarm whistle and a family of warthogs burst out of the scrub on to the road. He jammed on the brakes and brought the Blackback to an immediate halt in a cloud of dust. “There,” he whispered, “in the short grass in the distance, next to that broken acacia tree: a pair of lions. It looks like they’re feasting on a kill.” The clients scrambled for their cameras and lenses, while Derek and Pedro surveyed the scene. Pedro cut the engine off, so all that could be heard was the whir of camera shutters and the low warble of a nearby ring-necked dove: wo-wooh wo-wo wo wo, wo-wooh wo-wo wo wo. The air was light and fresh like baby’s breath.
“Are they the lions we heard the other morning?” asked Derek, grabbing the binoculars on the dashboard.
“They must be,” whispered Pedro.
“Definitely a couple of males,” said Derek, “no older than five years...Looks like they’ve got a fresh kill all right but I can’t quite make out the species of the unlucky fellow.”
“They must be from the Congo.”
“Congo, really? What makes you say that, rafiki?”
“Well, we’re right by the border here. You know, these prides at Ishasha – they can sometimes cross back and forth to the other side. Congolese lions come here. Ugandan lions go there. They have no need for passports.”
“Why would Ugandan lions need to go to Congo,” asked Derek, steadying his hand to get a better view, “when there’s plenty of steak-elopes on the hoof right here in Uganda? I mean…” He stopped mid-sentence. “Hello…what have we here? Damn, these binoculars are useless at this distance. Can’t we get any closer?”
“Are you sure it’s the binos and not the booze, boss?” asked Pedro, starting the engine.
“Banange! You know I haven’t had a drop in a month. Hand me the Bushnells from my field bag.”
“Exactly,” replied Pedro, handing him the Bushnells, “that’s why your hands are so shaky. I watched your latest safari film, mzee, and I got very seasick.”
“You just drive!” said Derek, “and get us a bit closer to the lions.”
“It is forbidden to drive off road in the park.”
“Yes, but when UWA’s not around, you drive off road.”
“Have you seen that ditch up there? We won’t reach beyond it.”
“That’s why we have the Blackback, rafiki. Engage the Terrain Response system! It’s what it’s there for.”
The Terrain Response system was the Blackback’s coolest feature, and Pedro had mastered it without ever once referring to the manual. It took away many of the difficulties of off-road driving. Not that he needed any help in this department but he enjoyed experimenting with different types of terrain. Illuminated on a dial on the dashboard were four settings: “Sand”, “Grass, Gravel & Snow”, “Mud & Ruts” and “Rock Crawl”. Once engaged, the on-board computer system selected the correct gearbox settings, adjusted the suspension height and the differential lock settings, and altered the throttle response of the engine.
Pedro selected “Sand” and immediately the hydraulics began to whine, as the vehicle rose on its haunches. He listened to be sure the engine sounded as it should do before he put it into gear, and then he slowly moved closer. The lions were still about three hundred metres away, and had not yet even noticed them, but Pedro could not get the Blackback any closer because of a very steep ditch.
“OK, fine. That’s a bit better,” said Derek, adjusting the focus, “but it looks like there’s something not quite right about the carcass. It doesn’t look like any ordinary kill. Hang on a second…No...It can’t be.”
“Wharrup, afendi?” asked Pedro, picking up the other pair of binoculars. He trained them on the kill and whispered, “Aya mama sita yango!” It was a meaningless expression that he had invented himself; an amalgam of Swahili and Spanish. But Derek knew it to be Pedro’s ultimate expression of astonishment.
“Is that what I think it is?” asked Derek. They were both glued to their binoculars.
“He’s dead,” whispered Pedro, so as not to alarm the clients. Nevertheless, they had more powerful telephoto lenses and had already come to the same conclusion, that the lions were eating a person.