Things That Go Bump In The Night

9 04 2008


Lake Kariba, The just-before-dark Continent


When the 19th explorer Henry Morton Stanley wrote “Through the Dark Continent” on his travels in Africa, his title referred to the large uncharted area in the centre of the continent that hadn’t yet been reached by Europeans. When the lights went off in my Nairobi hotel room and I tripped over my backpack and fell flat on the floor while looking for my flashlight, I couldn’t help but wonder if Stanley had actually been inspired by a similar experience a century earlier.


I consider myself to be a fairly perceptive person, but the large plastic garbage bin of water that I had found in the bathroom when I’d arrived several hours earlier had had me stumped. In my jet-lagged state, I reasoned that the cleaners had left it behind when they prepared my room. Just quite why they wouldn’t simply have used the water from the taps didn’t occur to me. When I unpacked and found a stack of long white candles and a box of matches in my bedside table, I still didn’t make the connection between these provisions and the reliability of the power supply.


It was only when the lights went off that evening that I saw everything clearly – while actually seeing nothing at all!


There I stood, like a deer in the headlights – except without the headlights – listening to the ebbing-creak of the ceiling fan as it ground to a halt. Outside the window I could hear insects and the hum of traffic, and watched as a sea of candles gradually flickered to life in the neighbouring windows and surrounding buildings. Kenyan life had barely missed a beat, but unfortunately I hadn’t missed my luggage and now had my nose pressed against the wooden floor. I eventually found my flashlight, climbed to my feet, and lit several candles – just in time to see the electricity return.


Nighttime is very special in Africa. There is a gentle scent of wood smoke that drifts from every village and even seems to permeate most cities. It mixes with the ever-present smell of dry-earth and the occasional blossom to provide an unmistakable aroma. Once away from the cities, you can follow the embers of your campfire as they dance skyward and join a myriad of stars, planets and galaxies.


If you’re well off the beaten path you may hear laughter or singing from distant villages carried through the cool air, and occasionally even the beat of drums. But for me, the greatest allure of an African night is one particular sound heard while sitting around that campfire, warming your hands as the hard dry ground quickly surrenders its daytime heat, or when separated from it by only the thin canvas of a tent.


There is something utterly primeval about the mournful roar of a lion at night. The sound starts as a low bass roll that grows louder and more forceful, somehow pitching in your chest before reaching a crescendo and dissipating into the air. It is infintely more powerful, more solemn and more blood-curdlingly fearsome than anything Hollywood has ever produced. There is a physicality to this sound that seems to scythe through the canvas, pummel your lungs and raise every goose bump, yet it is a sound that I love for reasons that I do not quite understand. If I was standing outside alone and unprotected I would be rightly terrified, but in the sanctuary of my tent, I lie open-mouthed and open-eyed relishing every breathy grunt and exhalation with utter wonderment and fascination.


It is these moments that provide experiences that last a lifetime and which have made me an addict for adventure travel.


Unfortunately, it is also invariably these moments that my bladder chooses to remind me just who is boss and dispatches me into that very darkness.


Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008




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