No-Woman's Land

On Safari In Tanzania

Christine Watt

© Copyright 2002 by Christine Watt

Drawing of a pyramid with a treasure inside.

It was the loo that finally made me realize I was living my dream. The nightmare was that I lay inside, while the loo stood quite definitely outside . . . across no-woman’s land. You see, I had to “go,” and it’s a well-known fact that as soon as you can’t, and no matter you’ve just been, you have to “go” again.

Thus it had ever been when I was a child many years ago in the British Isles, and Dad would drive the family all the way up England to visit our relations. Not very far nowadays and certainly not loo-less, what with all the motorways and their grand, sparkly rest rooms these days; but in the 1950s, with no motorways . . . well, that was a very different story. Public toilets in England in the 1950s were the outhouses of those poorhouses Dickens had berated the previous century.

In my precocious way, I had even drawn up a Map of Loos the length and breadth of the land, rating these ghastly holes from “Crossed-legs” to “Only if thou bursteth” by means of a color-coded key. “What’s the one at Yarm like?” Mum would ask from the front seat, and I’d consult the Loo Map.

“Has our Tinty been?” Dad asked Mum when the last of the suitcases had been squashed and bent into the trunk.

Mum assured him that I had.

But as soon as the car tootled off our country lane onto the main road, up I piped from the back, “Dad, I have to go.”

He would pretend he hadn’t heard, and I would go along with that . . . for a while. We had over 300 miles to bounce along roads that by today’s standards were little more than cart tracks. But when nature calls . . .

“Da-ad,” I yodeled, a bit louder.

“I thought you said she’d gone,” he grumbled over at Mum.

She pretended she hadn’t heard.

“Da-aa-ad!” I wailed. “I have to go-o-o.”

His shoulders in front of me rumbled. Then an encouraging, “Hang on, pet.” He was not a cruel father.

So I’d hang on until I was in a sweat and could think of nothing else. Then we’d jostle over a railroad crossing and it was all she wrote.


And now here I lay all alone in the dark on the Serengeti, desperate for a loo, listening to things eat my tent. Africa is like that--charming during the day, a Grimm’s horror story at night. During daylight hours baby baboons tumble up and down branches and you think, Aw isn’t that the cutest sight you ever did see? Then suddenly night falls like a curtain--whoosh--and gangs of muggers start prowling about. Nighttime on the Serengeti, miles away from any house, street, shop, or proper loo proved noisier than my apartment in Los Angeles. I’d never heard such a racket. Everything was murdering everything else out there. But out there was where the loo was. And I had to “go.”

Ever since I’d been a little girl and realized that “hefelumps” really did exist, I’d wanted to see wild and free elephants and their wild and free chums in Africa. So here I was on safari in Tanzania. In only a few days I’d seen it all, too: a million wildebeeste fulfilling that mysterious calling to thunder across the plains all at once; black rhinos, massive as tanks, carving out swathes of territory on the gallop through herds of graceful antelopes in the Ngorongoro Crater; ostriches snapping up rat-sized grasshoppers and shimmying feather-boa wings like divas in high dudgeon because their shawls won’t stay put; leopards nonchalantly kicking back in thorny acacia bushes alongside doggy-bag lunch; vultures clumped in trees like black garbage bags tossed up there by the wind; golden-eyed, black-maned lions sniffing delicate wildflowers; and plump-bottomed zebras (I identify with zebras and like them) in their prison pajamas. Giraffes had peered superciliously down at me through jungle canopy surrounding Lake Manyara; a mighty old water buffalo had charged my Land Rover near the Olduvai Gorge of Dr. Leakey fame; a tiny baby elephant and his behemoth mother had crossed our path so closely I could have mascara’d her long, thick, curling eyelashes; heck, I’d even witnessed a cheetah kill up close and personal the first day.

I had not expected, however, to turn into a twitcher. East African birds are so flamboyant, they could convert the most ardent mammal-spotter. Forget any attempt at camouflage; think, “Here I be!” They’re every color of the rainbow, and frequently all on the same bird. The great birdmaker in the sky must have been smoking something when she assembled these critters. Take, for example, Hartlaub’s Turaco--a mainly green bird with a blue crest; white patch around the eye, which is further ringed by coral-red; green beak; violet tail; and crimson wings. My bird book says that “it draws attention to itself by its loud calls.” Huh?

But if the birds’ colors are resplendent in East Africa, the noises they come out with are truly bizarre. Take the “bottle bird”--sounds just like an emptying water bottle with an air bubble, bloop bloop.

My favorite has to be the Martial Eagle, Africa’s largest eagle, if only for his Latin name. He’s a Teutonic-looking raptor, fierce of eye and vicious of beak, with wings that look like epaulets when resting and a magnificently bellicose profile with a bit of a crest, as if he’s donned a Visigoth’s helmet for a spot of marauding about the plains with the boys. In Latin he is Polemaetus bellicosus. Ah! How that bellicosus trips off the tongue and says it all.

1998 was an El Nino year, and insect life teemed throughout Tanzania. I’ve never seen anything like it. I thought Florida was bad for bugs. Ha! The insects, no doubt about it, shall inherit the earth. When the first wave of living, shiny, black golf-balls dive-bombed our group at dinner that first night on the Serengeti plain, I leaped sky-high along with everyone else. What the hell was going on! It was a blitzkrieg. Whether it was light from the hurricane lamps or the smell of food (or us), every flying thing for miles around trucked on over to our camp.

There was something surreal about that first meal al fresco on the Serengeti thousands of miles from L.A. The food could rival any posh restaurant; tables were set with gleaming silverware and spotless linen; our gracious waiters wore bow ties; the chef was even able to cater to my veggie preferences; yet the closest potable water was prides of bulimic lions away and we were being buzzed by squadrons of dung beetles. By the end of the meal, we were all blasé as insects stumbled relentlessly over our bread rolls, crawled up our cuffs and slithered down our collars, and cascaded out of our hair into our pudding, while the floor heaved like the swell of the sea with thrashing, clacking life forms and green mantises as long as your forearm swayed from the thatch above.

After dinner I entered my bush-tent to see a pale, bloodless spider the circumference of a dinner plate clinging to the wall right alongside my pillow. I tottered. I didn’t know what to do. I’d rather have burst in on a crocodile munching my passport. There was no way I could sleep in here with that spider on the loose. But there was no way I could remove her either. I could scarcely breathe, let alone walk over there, invert a tumbler over the creature, slither the tumbler onto my palm, and transport her outside, far outside. First of all, she wouldn’t damn well fit. Second of all, she could be poisonous. Third of all, what if she homed? Fourth of all . . . well, I just couldn’t do it and that was that. Fear of spiders increases exponentially with regard to size, and this was one was as big as a Buick, to quote Woody Allen.

Shamelessly wilting into helpless female mode, I backed out of my tent squawking until a man came along. Fortunately he was one of the camp staff and knew his spiders. I almost fainted clear away as, without hesitation, he clapped his palm over my spider. Her legs were so long that they actually stuck out from under his fingers! I clasped my hand over my mouth in shock-horror. The spider, on the other hand, was having none of this. She squirmed--I remember whimpering at this point--then, with alarming velocity scurried out from under his hand, zoomed down the side of the tent--I could even hear her footsteps!--and disappeared into a murky shadow. Dear God, I had to sleep in here. My brave savior assured me the spider was harmless and, in fact, beneficial because she was a mosquito eater. Just mosquitoes, eh, not human faces That’s all right then. No problem. Hah! I’m way cool. Jane Goodall has nothing on me for derring-do.

Come bedtime, I didn’t even loosen my boots. I lay bolt rigid on top of the camp bed. There was no way I was removing one article of clothing and sticking a bare part of yours truly--shin, sole of foot, toe--down between those sheets. The spider had probably slunk out of the murky shadow, skittered across the floor, hauled herself up the bed leg, and was now holed up at the foot of the bed going “Tee-hee” behind one of her feet.

So here I lay determined to sleep, bedside lamp definitely on and staying that way, as I listened to something with claws rake at the seams of my bush-tent. Something else slithered down the outside beside my head; somebody with way too many legs leaped onto the roof to tap out a soft-shoe shuffle; and something unspeakable scrabbled and snorted, no doubt salivating, at the “back door” intent on getting in. I hummed Puccini’s “Nessun dorma,” None shall sleep, as I counted gnus.

I needed to immerse myself in a good book. I grabbed my Stephen King. [Tip: do not take scary books on safari with you. You won’t need them.] Just when I’d got as comfortable as I was ever going to get under the circumstances, and the little kid had finally entered that hotel room where you just knew something malevolent hung out--though nothing could prepare you for the fishy dead woman in the bath!--I was plunged into the darkest night of my life. The camp electricity was powered by generator--the camp manager had warned us it would be switched off at 10 p.m.--evidently he was a man of his word and prompt with it. I panicked, crumbled, disintegrated.

Gasping, deafened by my own heart’s thumping, I groped my fingers all over the bedside table for the flashlight, praying I wouldn’t brush against anything with a face. I knocked the clock and box of tissues to the floor--thunk, plop--the lamp over--clang--and finally located the flashlight. O joy, o rapture, o bliss! But what if the batteries were dead? Well in that case I would simply scream and scream until somebody came. I pushed the switch. Shadows lunged at me from all over the place. What on earth was I doing here?

After flashing the light from top to bottom of the entire tent--no sign of anything alive, or dead--I decided to read myself to sleep by flashlight. I maneuvered into the least painful position I could find, flashlight grasped in one hand, book in the other; but it was about as sleep-inducing as hanging on a clothes line. Meanwhile my feet were hot and must be swelling within the confines of tightly laced hiking boots. I didn’t dare move though, because when you want to “go,” the last thing you do is move anything.

There was no way I was going to get a wink of sleep at this rate. Apart from the relentless scratching and rasping all around my tent as night intensified, I really did have to “go.” It wasn’t my imagination any more. From now on I vowed, I would not, despite what the travel guides advised and even if temperatures soared into the 90s and Tanzanian coffee is the most delicious stuff I have ever tasted, drink a drop past noon.

Squatting right here was out of the question, though I admit I did think about it. And had spear-toting Masai in characteristic red garb, on one of their night patrols to check nothing was dismembering us in our beds, not scared me witless earlier, I might have. That incident had brought to mind when we still had conscription in Britain and young trainee soldiers swanned around the countryside on maneuvers. I’d had to “go” one day so desperately when I was at that excruciating pre-teen age, that Dad had pulled over for me to hop behind a tree. Just as I was in the act, a whole regiment of bayonet-hefting, teenage boys in uniform rose up as one from behind a nearby hillock, like that heart-stopping scene out of Zulu when a thousand-squillion Zulu warriors loom over the mountains ringing the laughably outnumbered Brits. Dad did not keep his cool like Michael Caine; Dad nearly bust a gut laughing. Fast forward to the present. I’d been so engrossed in my Stephen King to the point of actually being in that terrifying hotel room with the little kid and the fishy dead woman, that when I glimpsed a flash of red through my tent mesh, heard the pad of feet, and caught a glint of something deadly, I nearly popped my clogs anticipating axe-wielding Jack Nicholson grinning through my bush-tent zipper singing, “Here Comes Johnny.” No, no, going anywhere but the loo was not an option.

So I sat up and pivoted on my buttocks. My knees were up to my chest, you see--no way was I about to swing my legs out over the bed and lower my feet without having a good shine of the flashlight down and under there. Amazing how you can believe in monsters under the bed in middle age. So I shone. Nothing. Illuminating my path thoroughly, I minced to the back of the tent. I blasted light on the tent zipper attached to the ground sheet. Heaven forbid I touch something with lots of legs down there. I unzipped as far as my nose in a crouch. I peeped out of the back of the tent. The moist, gamy smell of Africa, like steam rising from the skins of animals well-fed on lush El Ni?o grasses, swirled into my nostrils. Each country has its own unique smell, and Africa’s is gritty, fecund, and sweet as hay in a horse barn.

The word awesome is overdone these days. Kids describe everything from pop stars to footage of bombs dropping on civilians on the six o’clock news as “awesome.” Stars in the southern hemisphere, on the other hand, are awesome. There are just so many of them and they seem so close, you could pluck them out of the black, velvet sky. I looked heavenward and sighed. I felt insignificant. My nagging urge was as nothing. Mount Kilimanjaro would go on long after I was pushing up daisies. Being humbled by nature is a good thing. Politicians would do well to camp out on the Serengeti.

Only a few steps separated me from my so-called bathroom, but I honestly didn’t think I could make it. I arced my flashlight to either side, above, below, all around. Nothing but dense vegetation. Unless whatever was out there was plotting an ambush. There’s a spider in Africa who is so enormous she can eat birds. It’s little tidbits of information like that which come to you as you hover inside your tent at night contemplating stepping out into a void of blackness. Meanwhile just beyond the fringes of camp, mayhem continued in all its snarling, shrieking, ripping terror. It’s not how I would have organized things, but don’t you forget it, I told myself as I stared at my goal: a tarpaulin flap, beyond which spelled R-E-L-I-E-F.

I unzipped the back of the bush-tent all the way. Despite the cacophony of groans and moans and yells and howls echoing across the plains, the sound of that zipper was almighty. I hopped out of my tent, spun around in one swift movement to zip it back up again (this is vitally important to prevent ingress of undesirables, such as scorpions and tsetse flies), then I believe I actually flew to the little log structure where resided the loo. A deft flick of the flashlight mid-flight flung back the tarpaulin, and I landed, face to face with a chemical toilet . . . lid down. Hmm.

I glowered at that lid while my imagination conjured up all manner of fangs and stingers just waiting for me to turn my back and present the family jewels. (At times like this, admit it, ladies, we do experience that certain envy.) Something rustled in the thatch above. A three-foot chemical loo eater, no doubt. I cowered . . . as if that would do any good . . . so I stiffed my upper lip and valiantly threw back the lid. I brandished the flashlight inside. Empty. What I would have done had some mutant insect leaped for my face . . . well, I wouldn’t be here to tell the tale, that’s what. I got on with what I came here for, while whatever wild insect was up there got on with what he was there for.

Suddenly I had one of those out-of-body experiences. I departed my own body to zoom to a nearby twig and peer down at myself. I was the funniest sight on the Serengeti that night . . . not saying much, given all the rape and pillage. The urge to laugh totally consumed me. It was probably hysteria, but at the time I decided life was just plain hilarious. I had to fight the desire to cackle like a hyena or I’d wake the entire camp. So I jammed the flashlight between my lips. This turned out to be a practical solution, a sort of coal miner’s headlamp, freeing both hands so that now I could fend off three-foot chemical loo eaters. In my mind’s eye I created the scenario: Gary Larsen Far Side cartoon monsters coming at me out of the bush to devour my loo, caption: “Loomunchaphobia, fear of monsters devouring loos.” I guffawed and nearly swallowed the flashlight.

But as I perched so vulnerably, I wondered what would happen if whatever was up there, still rooting about in the thatch, suddenly dropped down here . . . into my lap. I would die. No ifs, ands, buts, or maybes about it. My heart would stop, and I would quite simply be dead. The Masai patrol would find me come morning, flashlight still clamped between my teeth, shining away.

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