“Snakes, I don’t like snakes,” Phillip said. “I was bit by one as a child and stayed in hospital for eleven days.”
Phillip hummed as he draped the hood of our Land Cruiser with a checkered tablecloth while I stood in the damp grass and marveled over how his khaki shirt and trousers, despite the humidity and heat, appeared crisp and pressed. Embroidered across the top pocket were the words, “Adventure Safari Tours.”
“What kind of snake?” my husband Mark asked. Mark, a high school biology teacher, had been a zoology major in college. It was his idea to go on an African safari. And then we had to wait, sixteen additional months due to the global pandemic. The original plan was to celebrate our 25th anniversary, only now it was closer to our 27th.
“No one knows, but it had some kind of poison.” Phillip grinned, showing a silver cap on one of his teeth and commenced humming again.
“Is that a tribal tune?” I asked, “It’s a nice melody.”
“It’s a hymn,” Phillip said, “Something I learned in Lutheran church school.”
I reached in my pack for sun block. The temperature was beginning to climb.
“Dear,” said Trish, one of our traveling companions, “Do you have some extra sun block you could share? With packing up all the camera equipment, I must have left ours back at the lodge.”
I squirted some more lotion in my hand to share with Mark and handed her the tube. We’d only known Trish and her husband Bill a few days, since arriving in Nairobi, and already they were wearing on me. A pair of very wealthy retirees, they’d spent the lockdown in Florida playing golf. This was their third trip to Africa.
“Do you usually see snakes on safari?” I asked Philip.
“I’ll tell you a story about a snake,” he said. “You’ve heard of a Black Mamba, right? Very poisonous.”
Mark and I nodded. Bill gestured for Trish to stand underneath the nearby umbrella tree, holding a mug of coffee, so he could take a few pictures.
“There was this soccer team,” Phillip said, “returning home from a soccer match sitting in the back of an open truck. They were celebrating. They’d won their game against another team from Kenya and they were cheering, singing, drinking on their way back to their village. They were making a lot of noise and the truck passed under a tree. A Mamba snake was up in that tree. He heard the noise and dropped down into the truck and bit three players. It was in the papers. They all died.”
“All three died?” Mark asked incredulously.
“Mamba snakes can bite many times. Their poison is very deadly,” Phillip said.
“Won one and lost three,” Mark said.
I gave him an angry look. “This is nothing to joke about,” Phillip said.
* * *
“You, you have any more lip balm? I heard Bill ask Trish. He spoke slowly with slight hesitation. “My lips are so chapped.”
“It’s all this dust. It dries out everything,’ she told him. She was right about the dust. As soon as we got back on the road, the wheels of the jeep ahead of us created a cloud of dirt that blurred our vision and got into our throats and noses, making it difficult to look for animals.
Out my window, I saw Maasai tribesmen. Tall and gaunt, robed in red and blue, they were leading their cattle to graze. The sun had fully risen. “Can we stop to take pictures?” I asked.
“No pictures,” Phillip said. “We’ll visit a Maasai village later, after we visit the crater. No pictures of people without their permission.”
Phillip assumed we’d follow his direction, but I noticed Bill and Trish holding out their phones and cameras.
“Please,” Phillip said, “This is the third time I ask.” His hands clenched the steering wheel tightly as I saw him watch us from his rearview mirror. “No pictures.”
Trish wasn’t kidding when she told me they’d brought all their equipment—; a tripod, multiple lenses, digital reflex cameras, as well as the latest tablets and smart phones.
“Oh, were you speaking to us?” Trish said, “Just wanted a photo for our blog.”
This is going to be good,” I told Mark. “I read in the guidebook that the Ngorongoro Crater contains 100 square miles.”
I imagined Trish, standing before an audience in her orthopedic shoes, lecturing to her garden club on the flora and fauna of Tanzania, when she returned to Parsippany, New Jersey. Her husband Bill, a former aeronautical engineer, would probably be giving a similar lecture focused on animal life, to his Country Club or Civics organization.
* * *
“LEO-pard,” Phillip called out, “ there’s ones near.” The land cruiser downshifted to pick up speed.
“You realize he means leopard, right?” I said.
I remembered how Phillip pronounced my name where we first met. He’d been easy to recognize, holding a large hand lettered sign outside baggage claim. Tall and broad shouldered, he spoke English with a slight British accent. He slowly pronounced all three syllables of my name. “Beth-ann-y.”
Swahili, unlike English, spells out every sound phonetically. Phillip’s rendition of English words articulated every vowel and consonant.
Trish and Bill sat in the front of the Land Cruiser, behind Phillip. “How near do you think we’ll get?” Trish asked, glancing at the illustrated field guide Phillip had handed her to pass around.
I squirmed in my seat and tried to stretch my legs. Forced to sit inside a motor vehicle for hours, my calves felt stiff and my lower back ached. “I had no idea there’d be so much driving,” I whispered to Mark. “I wish they gave us time in the morning to get out and walk.”
‘Just think of me, my long legs,” Mark said. “I’m going to need another Motrin.” He kissed the top of my head and I adjusted the camera hanging around my neck.
“We’ll get as near as we can,” said Phillip, “without scaring them.”
The leopards were resting under a tree. They blended into the shadows made by the leaves and branches above. I could see them panting, we were so close. “They’re lovely,” I said. “Are they a family?”
“A female and juveniles,” Phillip answered. “Adult leopards live alone.”
“So they don’t hunt in groups like lions?” I asked.
“No, they are by themselves.”
“Look at this,” Trish was showing Bill the photo on her camera. “I’ve got all three. A nice shot. Should I brighten it up a bit?”
“Maybe, I can do better.” He took off his trail shoes, and holding on to the side of the roof, pulled himself up to stand on top of his seat. ‘Trish, hand me the Pentax.”
I whispered in Mark’s ear. “The man is over seventy years old. What is he doing?”
Phillip turned around with a worried look on his face. He leaned forward. “Hold on. Lean on my shoulder if you feel unsteady.”
Bill waved him off. “ I, I know what I’m doing. I’m fine,” he said.
“Is he crazy?” I mouthed to my husband.
Mark grimaced and shook his head. “Super executive type.” Is how he’d summarized his assessment of Bill after our initial meeting. “Thinks he’s the expert, you know the type Bethany, and very controlling. Didn’t you used to have a boss …”?
“Please don’t remind me.” This was supposed to be a vacation. The last thing I wanted to talk about was corporate America.
Phillip mumbled something in Swahili as he pulled a folded handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his forehead. “Please Bill, be careful.”
“Got it,” Bill told us triumphantly. “You see,” he showed Phillip the image in his camera, “I, I told you I know what I’m doing.” Philip handed him back the camera as soon as Bill was safely sitting down and Bill passed around his camera for all of us to see.
“You take the best pictures,” Trish said. “ Doesn’t he?
“With all our traveling we’ve had plenty of practice,” Bill said as he scrolled through the images stored on his tablet. “Oh, here’s one of my favorites.” He looked at me. “Did I show you the photos I took of the Bengal tigers in Corbetti Park?”
“Yes, I believe you did,” I politely replied.
“India was so exciting?” Trish said. ‘I just loved the Taj Mahal and Humayu’s Tomb.”
“Yes,” Bill agreed, “we’ve been there three times. Ridden on the elephants, been on a Brahaputra river cruise, hiked in the Himalayas.”
It was hard to listen to the conversation and not be jealous. This would probably be the only big international trip we could afford to take. Expensive for us, but with so many people getting sick and dying from Covid, I felt grateful to be alive. Money wasn’t everything.
“Should I crop this?” Trish asked, showing Bill a photograph on her tablet. “What do you think?” Bill pulled a flip magnifier out of his pocket and studied the tablet screen. I wanted to shake them. Why are you worrying about your photos and editing them in the middle of your trip, when you should just be enjoying what you see?
“Bill did you take your pills this morning?” I heard Trish say.
“So many pills,” Bill grumbled
“You know what the doctor said.”
“Not now. I want to take a photo entering the crater.”
Entrance in and out of the crater was by a one-way road, one entrance and one exit. The most exciting part of the day was about to begin. We were entering what geologists refer to as a volcanic caldera. I took in the landscape; open spaces of grassy plains, lakes, blue sky and fluffy clouds. As we reached level ground, zebras, wildebeests, and gazelles appeared.
We drove a few miles and I noticed Phillip talking Swahili on the phone and grabbing for his field glasses. Up ahead in the distance, lined up on the side of the road were more than a dozen safari vehicles filled with tourists taking pictures. “A lion has killed something, a gazelle I think.” Phillip was looking towards a small patch of water about 200 yards away, through his binoculars. We all stood up and grabbed our own field glasses and cameras.
I could see the lioness gnawing on a bloody carcass, and the curved horns and the light brown fur. Nearby her, were other members of the pride, waiting for a share of the kill.
“See the hyenas,” Phillip pointed to the right of the lions. I refocused my field glasses and watched the spotted hyenas and the odd way they moved, as if skipping, their back legs shorter than their front legs. “They are calling to one another,” Phillip said.
I listened to their low moaning call and imagined them saying “Soup’s on.” Peering through my field glasses, I shifted my gaze back and forth, taking note of all the animals and trying to identify each one Phillip had mentioned. Vultures circled overheard, while jackals and hyenas prowled nearby waiting to devour the bones, meat and skin after the lions had eaten their fill. We were too far away for good photos, at least not with my camera equipment, so I took some pictures of the audience; the tourists standing inside their vehicles, cameras and binoculars all facing in the same direction.
Then I focused my field glasses on a trio of lionesses, who previously had been on the outskirts of the “dining area” and noticed they appeared to be moving towards a lone gazelle grazing. Was I about to witness a kill? I watched the gazelle nibble grass and twitch her ears, but no lioness pounced. Where were the lions? They’d changed direction and appeared to be moving in our direction. One lioness was growing larger. She was coming towards us. I didn’t need my field glasses.
I heard a click and saw Bill pushing down on the handle of the side door. What was he doing? It happened quickly, but Phillip was faster. He grabbed hold of Bill’s shoulder and pushed him back down into his seat. “You do not get out of the truck,” he said.
“It’ll just take a second for me to get a shot of the lion coming towards us,” Bill said. “I know what I’m doing.”
“Bodies, legs, hands, arms, stay inside. “You are never to leave the vehicle without my permission,” Phillip said, his hand remaining on Bill’s shoulder. “Stand up and look out over the top to take your picture.”
The lioness, less than ten yards away, continued towards us. My throat was dry and my heart was pounding. I squeezed Mark’s hand.
Bill stood up, leaned out the side as far as he could, and started taking pictures.
“Does this happen often, that they come so close?” I asked.
“Yes,” said Phillip. “They are used to the vehicles, but you must stay inside. These are wild animals, unpredictable. There was a Japanese tourist who wanted his picture next to a lion. He was badly mauled. He didn’t survive.”
“I heard that in South Africa you can walk with the lions,” I said.
“Probably the guides travel with a well-aimed gun,” Mark said.
“I don’t have a gun,” Phillip said.
Our lioness stretched and learned against the tires of our Land Cruiser and all of us took dozens of pictures, before she got up to cross the road. I watched her until she became a small distant figure on the grassy plain.
I looked again through my field glasses to where the first lion had been eating and now saw the hyenas, jackals, and vultures finishing what remained. We’d seen the entire cycle of death, life, and survival.
“Everyone get enough pictures? Did you get your picture?” Phillip asked, “Ready for lunch now?”
“I probably could have gotten that shot,” Bill said, “If you hadn’t of stopped me, before she came so close. If you’d just let me open the door.”
“Hush,” Trish said.
As Phillip had promised, there were picnic tables and restrooms. A pond shaded by a large tree contained hippopotami to watch. They were mostly submerged in water, but every so often you could see ears, eyes, and nostrils as they raised their heads to take a breath.
“They come out and feed at night,” Phillip explained. “They make a trail in the grass and you do not want to get in their way.”
As Phillip started carrying the box lunches to the table, I headed towards the lady’s room, looking forward to washing my hands with real soap and water. I let Trish go ahead of me, while I used the time to stretch and watch several yellow beaked black birds flying low and calling to one another.
“Be careful of the birds, kites,” Phillip had said. “Don’t give them any food. They are aggressive, have very sharp claws.”
“We’d seen some beautiful birds in Africa. My favorites were the lilac breasted roller, a small bird with a lavender breast that shimmered in the sunlight when it spread its wings in flight. The kites’ voices were shrill and high and their beaks had a slight curve. They must be some kind of raptor, birds of prey. They sounded hungry. Well, they were smart birds. They evidently knew a picnic was about to begin.
Usually the small birds, the little sparrows that gathered outside the neighborhood coffee shop, were looking for crumbs. But these birds seemed to be hoping for more. Inside my box I found fried chicken, a welcome change from sandwiches. I shared my second piece with Mark and as I handed him the drumstick, one of the dark winged birds flew low.
“Did you see that?” I said. “It looked as if he was going to grab my chicken.”
“Carnivorous birds.” Mark laughed.
The smaller birds, the lilac rollers included, were gathered around a birdbath set up under the tree. I had watched them before we started to eat, perched to dip and splash in the water. Now they were circling overhead and anxiously calling. What was all the commotion about?
The kites swooped down close to our food, as if to seize a stray morsel. “Get out of here.” Mark waved his arms at the aggressive birds.
Meanwhile, I saw Bill intentionally hold out a chicken bone for one of the kites to grab, while Trish scurried about with her camera. “Great action shot,” she said.
“Are you sure, old man, you want to encourage them like that?” Mark cautioned Bill. “You know I teach biology. I know all about raptors. They can get very aggressive.”
I was so tired of Trish, Bill, and their photos. I doubted they’d listen to my husband’s advice. I turned away from them and saw Phillip standing, his body stiff and tense. His dark eyes were poised on the spot where the small birds were circling. “Everyone get up,” he said gesturing for us to move away. “Stand back. There’s a snake. See the black cobra.”
It truly was a cobra. I could see the hood and the way it lifted its head and arched its neck. The small birds kept circling above the snake; angry he’d disturbed their bathing spot. The hose supplying the birdbath had created a puddle under the tree. The snake had come to the picnic area to drink. Just like all the other creatures, he needed water to survive. I reached down into my pocket for my phone to take pictures and heard a scream.
I turned around in time to see a Kite diving down to snatch a chicken leg from the top of Bill’s head. Idiot. He must have put it there, or Trish did it for him, trying to create the ultimate photograph.
Phillip charged across the grass, waving his arms. “Shoo, shoo. Get away,” waving a stick at the bird.
But it was too late. The Kite had already dug its talons deep into Bill’s bald scalp.
“Get it off me! Get it off me,” Bill shouted. Blood was streaming down the sides of Bill’s face.
“Get the first aid kit,” Philip said. He threw his keys to my husband. I dragged a chair towards Bill and Phillip helped him to sit. “Take deep breaths. Breath slowly. How do you feel?”
I could see the deep gashes. They looked ugly. Bill must have lost some blood, or maybe it was shock, but his face had lost its tan. He looked pale and weak and the expression in his eyes radiated fear and pain. He needed medical attention and the nearest hospital or doctor was hours away.
Trish was sobbing. “What are we going to do?” she kept repeating. “Is there some kind of airport nearby? We need a doctor.”
A tourist from another group, who had also been photographing the black cobra, was now taking photos of Bill. I looked at him with disgust and saw other tourists starting to take photos, pointing and staring.
“Quite a picture for their photo album,” Mark whispered to me sarcastically as he handed Phillip the first aid kit.
“This is no time for joking,” I said.
“Don’t worry. Don’t worry,” Phillip said. He took a few steps away from us and I could hear him softly singing a hymn as he attempted to dress the wounds. I saw him pause and bend his head in prayer before walking a few yards away and pulling out his cell phone.
He appeared to be speaking to someone on the other line and then walked back towards us with his arms raised, as if instructing us not to move. “ We’ll have to wait at least twenty minutes for a plane to arrive, “ he said.
He took hold of Bill’s hand, and pressed his thumb on the inside of Bill’s wrist to check his pulse. “I told you not to feed the kites,” he said. “You didn’t listen. These are wild animals, unpredictable. You think you are watching the animals. It’s the other way around. The animals are watching you.”
The wounds were raw and open. I scanned the sky. Surely it was only a matter of time before more vultures arrived.
Nadja Maril is a former magazine editor and journalist living in Annapolis, Maryland, USA. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from the Stonecoast Program at the University of Southern Maine and her short stories and essays have been published in a number of small literary magazines including: Change Seven, Lunch Ticket, and Defunkt Magazine.. She blogs weekly at Nadjamaril.com and is close to completing her first novel Diogo’s Garden. Additional credits include two reference books on American Antique Lighting as well as two children’s books.