PLEASE HOLD THUMBS
written by Scott Cherney
Our party arrived at an area of Kruger Park called Nhlanguleni, which not only overlooked a watering hole on one side but sits right smack dab against the border of Mozambique. I really wanted to walk over there just to say I set foot in another country. The support staff of the tour had already set up camp for us once we drove up. A permanent toilet sat at the site while several large walk-in tents sat off to one side along with a portable shower that the Ab-Fab girls thought to be quite the hoot.
“Win yew tik yer shewer in the morning, oy’m gonna open the curtain so ivryone kin see yew.”
“New! Oy’ll be starkers!”
“Thit’s why oy’ll dew it!”
They laughed about that for the better part of an hour.
After introductions to the members of the support staff, we learned that Simone, the sole member of the crew, was to be our cook. A Cordon Bleu trained chef, the statuesque Simone whipped up exquisite meals for us in her makeshift kitchen. Everything appeared to be cooked improv-style, fully utilizing a grill propped up between two rocks in the campfire. Mealtimes at this camp became my own personal Anthony Bourdain experiences, moments that could easily have been preserved on any episode of No Reservations on The Travel Channel.
I always go back to one particular afternoon in 1975 sitting in New York eating a toasted onion bagel, drinking an egg cream and reading the New York Times the same day it was published, a very significant experience for a California kid. Now thirty years later, here I sat in the great wilds of Africa, ready to transcend that experience by leaps and bounds I never could have been able to imagine. As the campfire roared away and illuminated our dining area, we sat at our al fresco café as each course topped the next in steady succession. My dinner plate was filled with meaty treats (natch) including thick bacon-like pork slices sprinkled with lemon juice for an appetizer and main courses of chicken curry kebabs and stew from Simone’s potjie. (Her WHAT?) Look, quiz kid, a potjie (pronounced poy-kee) is a cast iron footed stew pot that sat simmering in the hot coals for hours, its contents a thick savory mixture of beef and root vegetables topped with yogurt. Accompanied by more of that succulent South African pinotage, these meals are forever etched into my culinary memory. My compliments and undying gratitude to the chef.
Our accommodations were absolutely top of the line, at least as far as I was concerned. I admit that I am about as outdoorsy as Woody Allen so these ostensibly state of the art tents and all the fixings included therein were impressive and really comfortable. There’s no way in hell that this could be termed “roughing it”. Laurie and I slept so very peacefully, although in separate cots. I’m surprised no one has invented a sleeping bag built for two.
My only problem stemmed from my own paranoia. In the middle of the night, I heard the all too familiar buzzing of a mosquito circling about my head, zinging past my ear that struck a chord inside my brain not unlike the sound of a dentist’s drill. My eyes popped open when I attempted to swat it, which I believed landed on my neck. Had it bitten me? I gulped and attempted to examine each part of the side of my neck for any indication that this little fucker had his way with me. All I kept hearing in my head was the death knell of “Malaria…malaria…” I immediately began cursing that we passed on the prophylactics Chris suggested we take before the trip. I eventually fell back asleep, but the rest of the time we spent in Africa right up until about two weeks after we arrived home, I believed, in the back of my addled mind, that there had been a good chance of me contracting malaria from that one mosquito, even though I couldn’t be sure if it stung me at all. The slightest headache could trigger my fear all over again.
“I’ve got the fever! Shoot me now!”
Thank goodness I internalized all this and didn’t subject anyone else to my bullshit.
My paranoia really wasn’t much different from the early South African pioneers. As they journeyed though the bushveld, they came across this spectacular tree prominent in the area that they nicknamed the Fever Tree. It’s a large acacia with very characteristic, luminous bark that is bright green or yellow colored that is coated in a powdery sulphur-like substance. These pioneers thought the tree caused a fever since people traveling or living in the area where they grew contracted a fever. They associated the illness with the tree, little realizing that the swampy areas where the trees grow are ideal breeding grounds for mosquitoes, which carry what now? Anyone? Bueller? Malaria. Well, screw the facts. A myth was born and that’s how the Fever Tree got its name.
Copyright 2006 by Scott Cherney