The location was an hour or two’s bumpy car ride on the Zambezi, northwest of the falls. At the river’s edge, we loaded our gear and ourselves onto some balsa dugout canoes, pushed by oarsmen who stood in the back with a single long oar, used for pushing or rowing. Sam in one canoe, I in the other, I tried to explain Sam’s challenges to the oarsman.
‘He may not understand you completely; Sam is a bit different.’
‘OK, sure. Just stay still Sam.’
‘Are there hippos?’ Sam asked.
‘Yes, but we’ll stay away from them.’
As we glided down the smooth waters, the honks of the hippos echoed through the reeds. Elephants grazed and drank on the Zimbabwean bank. We reached Bovu island where a white Zambian man, Brett, had set up the magnificently relaxed Jungle Junction. Sam and I were the only guests when we arrived, which was good and bad.
Bova Island is also referred to as Simaleu Island after Mr Simaleu. Many years ago he found a dead hippo on the island and tried to remove her uterus as material for some black magic. Unfortunately for Mr Simaleu, she was not dead but asleep, and no doubt awoke in a somewhat surprised state.
She contracted her private parts, trapping his arm inside her, and marched to the water, Mr Simaleu dragging behind her to his impending doom. Axe in hand, and options running out fast, he did what he needed to do; he chopped off his trapped arm, and lived to tell the tale.
In the afternoon, one of the oarsmen who had brought us across, Godfrey, took Sam and me on a sunset canoe ride, a chance to have a fish from the canoe. Sam only reluctantly agreed. He doesn’t like fishing; the first time he caught a small bream out of a boat when he was about ten, he was so frightened by the flapping flopping white streak on the end of his line he promptly tried – and nearly succeeded – to jump out of the boat.
On the water, I lamely tried a few casts of the lure but was really going through the motions; I didn’t want to risk Sam attempting to exit the canoe in these waters. The sunset over the Zambezi was heroic. Ta-NA! Godfrey kept us clear of the rapids, as that was where the crocs congregated. He pushed hard on his pole as we inched upstream in the reeds and shallows, struggling against the incessant current.
As we turned and headed back for Jungle Junction, gliding easily with the current now Godfrey’s friend, he mentioned to me that Brett had told him Sam was autistic.
‘My sister is autistic.’
‘Really, how old is she?’
’25.’ A pensive pause. ‘So does Sam go to school?’
‘Yes, he is in Year Eight.’
‘And does he shout at people?’
‘Not very often.’
‘My sister doesn’t want anyone near her. She lives by herself.’
Godfey was clearly interested in Sam and the fact he went to school, and could excel at maths and computer science.
‘People in the village think my sister has autism because she has been bewitched. Perhaps her father or someone else put a curse on her. She is actually my half-sister.’
I decided this wasn’t the time or place for a lecture on autism causality.
At dinner, we were joined by Brett in the dining hut, a thatched roof built around a giant African ebony tree. We chatted about autism, science and Harry Potter as I pushed Sam to eat a meal somewhat challenging for him: chicken cacciatore, rice and vegetables.
As we ate we were suddenly joined by a genet, perched on the railing beside me. A metre long including her long thin tail, her body was the size of a small domestic cat. Despite appearances genets are not cats, but are actually related to the civet. Her blonde coat was checked with dark brown markings, her tail striped.
She eyed the three of us off, and then the chicken. Before I knew it, a chicken bone on my plate was gone, and up with her in the tree. She was fast, very fast. Sam ate his chicken a bit faster.
Our thatch hut was set away from the bar, restaurant and office, the only powered site. The hut sat on stilts over the water. There were toilet facilities but Brett suggested wees over the veranda at night were probably safest There was no Diesel here to protect us from hippos.
Elephants trumpeted, hippos honked, stomped and splashed, cattle mooed off in the village. Something small landed on the roof, something large trampled in the reeds off the veranda. All that separated us from the river was a mosquito net and five wooden stairs.
Before dawn the hippos started up a ruckus. I creeping out onto the veranda. In the dim moonlight I could see the hulking silhouettes a stone’s throw away, but I sure didn’t throw any. I reminded myself again that they can’t climb stairs and retreated inside.
To be continued…