Faint of Heart in the Heart of Darkness

A worrywart ventures forth on a deluxe safari -- very, very reluctantly

Day One

TODAY I leave, with trepidation, to go on safari in Malawi and Zambia. My companion is an adventure-seeker. For Nancy, travel in dangerous -- well, difficult -- places is exhilarating. She has hiked in Nepal, been to the base of K2, lived on an ashram in southern India -- all, thankfully, before we met. I, on the other hand, am a risk-avoider, the kind of person who when he goes for a walk in the woods worries that there might be a madman behind every large tree, his ax poised.

But you can't live with someone who lives to travel and not join in. One entire wall of her mental space would be hung with unshareable memories. And I would hate to be left behind to wait nervously for promised calls that never came. The first missed telephone appointment would send me into a paroxysm of worry. No -- better to go and face the anxiety of being there than stay at home and deal with the anxiety of not being there.

Martha Gellhorn, Ernest Hemingway's third wife, wrote in a letter to a friend that Ponce de León was wrong -- the fountain of youth was not a spurt of water but a spurt of travel. It works the other way round for me. Now we are only a hundred miles out of Boston, and I have already aged a year. Thousands of miles and several days of pure, unmitigated travel stretch ahead of us.

Day Five

WE are on the road, headed for the Shire River and a flat-bottomed boat that will take us to our first safari site, Mvuu Camp, in Malawi's Liwonde National Park, where we will stay for three days. On both sides of the road are people carrying goods: tomatoes, peanuts, cabbages, garlic. Bicyclists have rigged frames in which they pile five-foot-high towers of firewood. They collect it thirty miles from town, cycle in, and sell it to feed the hearth fires of Lilongwe, the town we flew into. Some cyclists carry live goats behind them, others bits of furniture. We pass one house where hand-wrought watering cans hang along the roadside like lanterns.

Our boat holds seven plus the boatman, but a small outboard motor is all it needs to move in a stately fashion up the river. A green awning covers the deck, and we sit nervously on khaki-colored canvas seats -- any shift of weight causes the boat to list heavily to one side or the other. It will take us three and a half hours to reach Mvuu Camp.

Traveling up the Shire (pronounced to rhyme with "leery") is a bit like being on a float during a Fourth of July parade. Both sides of the river are lined with spectators -- in this instance spectators who are almost completely under water, with only their eyes, pink ears, and bulbous nostrils, which occasionally spout four-foot-high jets of water, signaling their presence. They blink as we motor by, turning their massive heads to watch. Above us flocks of white-chested cormorants stitch the sky. The water is calm, and as the sun sinks lower, the sky turns pink, then orange, then gray.

When we finally reach the camp landing, the sky is black, save for the billions of stars one can never see in a city. We are greeted at the dock by our safari guide, David Foot, and several members of the camp staff. I step onto the dock feeling like an arriving dignitary. I think that must be the desired effect.

We are shown our tents and the showers, and told where to take supper. We are told to carry our flashlights with us whenever we move about the campsite after dark. We are told that two hippos typically come up into the camp to feed at night and not to worry if we hear them snorting at all hours.

The dining room is an outdoor space set with several long tables and ringed by a fence made from dead branches stuck in the ground. At one end is a huge baobab tree, and in front of it there's a circular fire pit whose flames illuminate the baobab so that it looks like a giant prop in a Tarzan movie. Supper is buffet-style, meat, vegetables, salad, and bread. A bar offers wine, liquor, and soft drinks. During dinner three staff members sing, accompanying themselves on conga drums and a makeshift marimba. The rhythms are complex -- seven against four, four against three, something like that. Another African dances, shuffling, with small incisive steps to accent every seventh beat, though sometimes the drummers are there with the beat and sometimes it is only understood. They all know what they are doing.

I am seated between Nancy and Gary Brown, a second safari guide. Gary is an amateur herpetologist. I ask him if black mambas are in the area. He says yes. I tell him I have heard they can grow twenty-five feet long and, unlike most snakes, are very aggressive. He says that they only grow to fourteen feet and are this big around -- he makes his hands into the compass of a fire hose at full blast. He tells me a story: A few years ago he was driving in a Land Cruiser with his wife and came upon a fourteen-foot-long, fire-hose-thick black mamba asleep across the dusty dirt road. He jammed on his brakes, and the vibrations of the skidding wheels woke the snake. It reared up to a third of its length, darted over the hood of the Land Cruiser, and struck the windshield like a baseball bat, shattering it. It then slithered off into the underbrush. Gary said the whole thing took place within a nanosecond. I can't decide which I hate more -- black mambas, which I have never seen, or crocodiles, which I have.

Tonight we drift off to sleep with the promised hippos foraging just beyond our tent area. They sound like chain saws starting up.

Day Six

THIS morning, at six o'clock, we take a nature stroll. David and Gary are guiding. We walk no more than a hundred yards from the compound, and in the course of an hour see waterbucks, a herd of impalas, two baboons, a flock of monkeys, and God knows how many birds, including the elusive bat hawk and a martial eagle. We examine civet spoor and determine that the civet cat eats crabs and berries; we see an impala midden (impalas don't eat crabs) and a slew of elephant tracks.

Then it's back onto the river. Our green-awning-covered flat-bottomed boat looks like a Victorian lady out for a stroll with her parasol. We make for the opposite shore, where there is a small beach. The beach is filled with about fifty white-faced whistling ducks, brown affairs with white heads punctuated by tiny black eyes. They are lined up in a row, as if for inspection. Although they don't seem concerned, they must be: about four feet from them is a great swath of crocodile flesh. At least twenty crocs -- twenty that we can see -- are sunning, venting, lolling, dissembling, along the water's edge. They are fat, well fed, and fascinatingly ugly. We will see at least a hundred more this morning. But this first sighting, in a keel-less boat that is sensitive to every shift of weight, is unnerving.

Day Seven

IN the morning we take a motor trip through the park. In a grassy river meadow about a half mile above our camp our guide leads us to a stand of more than seventy elephants. By the time we have finished watching, the number will have increased to 106 by David's count. Others count ninety-three, or ninety-nine. I am surprised that everyone is counting. For me, it is enough to know that a hell of a lot of elephants are standing in front of us, chewing, milling, wallowing in mud, giving themselves mud baths by tossing large globs of the river bottom over their shoulders and under their chests.

The elephantine social order is matriarchal. In front of us are the gargantuan mothers, with a host of baby elephants following close behind. Imagine a Volkswagen Beetle nuzzling up to a Baltimore and Ohio locomotive and you'll get some sense of the scale. Although the size of the panoply is memorable, what I remember most is the silence. First there is the river, then the river meadow, with its wet earth and moist elephant grasses, and then the elephants themselves, shoveling grass into the bottomless pits of their bodies. With the engine of the Land Cruiser off, the only sound we hear is the occasional swish of grass uprooted by trunks.

As if the elephantine cast of thousands weren't enough, suddenly, seemingly on cue, a herd of sable antelopes appear stage left. Everyone has wanted to see the skittish sables, and here they are, a crowd of them -- the males black and sleek, with vertical black stripes on white heads that make them look as if they were behind bars, the females with their warm-brown bodies and narrow white faces. Their horns sweep back like Art Deco hood ornaments.

Day Eight

WE'RE on the move. Small children rush up to the Land Cruiser when we slow down and show us the palms of their hands and the brightness of their teeth as they shout for us to stop. We don't. People are everywhere -- in the village clearings, on the road, asleep on porches, their backs to the road. They wave incessantly from the roadside, undeterred by the clouds of dust that the Land Cruiser spins into the air and onto them. We wave back. Soon it becomes tedious, and we assign official wavers, spelling one another as we barrel along the dry road.

Day Eleven

TODAY we have another long drive. At midmorning we reach the large town of Mzuzu, where David and Gary deposit us at a market. We are told when and where to rendezvous, and off they go to buy supplies. Nancy wants to adjust her safari jacket, and by the time we have finished fussing with it, the others have disappeared. Now the two of us are standing in the middle of the Mzuzu market, the only white people in sight, and I begin to seize up inside. I do not expect these people to be friendly, courteous, kind, cheerful, and reverent. What I expect is that they will be gripped by the injustice of the great disparity between their desperate poverty and our obvious wealth -- that their sense of injustice will turn to rage, and out will come the machetes that are hidden for the moment in the folds of their seedy jackets.

I look around. What I see is narrow alleyways of rickety stalls selling the cheapest of wares: red, white, and blue plastic dishes; rusty tenpenny nails, some straightened with a hammer for reuse; mountains of secondhand clothes; shoes; herbal and other remedies, including the head of an owl. There are chickens, cassava flour, rice, tomatoes, carrots, leeks.

We maneuver among the stalls, which are so close that they block out the sky. I hit on a strategy -- just keep moving, and make no eye contact. I adopt a frozen grin, so as not to look frightened.

Nancy is toting an expensive camera and calling attention to the fact by taking photographs left, right, and center. Why is the damn shutter mechanism so noisy? I am carrying a fancy portable computer. Either of these objects is worth five years of Malawian income. I don't understand why no one has been at my throat by now.

On one wall I spot a public-health message about AIDS. It admonishes Malawians to avoid bush sex, and shows a silhouette of a man and a woman, nude, standing up to their waists in bush. One edge of the poster has come loose and folded over, so the message is inaccessible. I can't help thinking that one in every six of the people I am looking at now may, barring a miracle, be dead from AIDS in ten years. I begin to feel guilty about my paranoia. I am not only richer than these people but also healthier, and will live far longer than most of them. What am I supposed to do -- congratulate myself on my good fortune? When we leave, I am still grinning.

is an emeritus professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The Atlantic Monthly; May 2000; Faint of Heart in the Heart of Darkness - 00.05 (Part Two); Volume 285, No. 5; page 48-56.