This is to document my time with one of the dodgiest men that I have ever met.
It all started on a really clammy afternoon in a hostel in Livingstone, Zambia. I had been to watch the sunrise at Victoria falls that morning and was playing pool against a kid that was annoyingly good (to all watching I was graciously letting him win every time). After about 20 minutes I noticed a guy enter into the pool playing arena, baggy shirt, jeans and of course some very shiny buckle up loafers.
(Words, or indeed pictures, can never capture how beautiful the Victoria falls are.)
“Alright mate” I said whilst rising from another missed easy pot. Nothing. I passed the cue to the kid and backed away from the table to make room. “You from around here?”, again nothing but I took that his silence was due to him being very clearly from around there. Then, for no occasion, he expertly downed one of the awful soupy local beers and was filled with a sense of urgency. “I have a car, do you have money?” he spoke out from the diaphragm in a deep African voice. Such a question doesn’t give you much time to think; before I really had time to assess the situation I caught myself saying “Yeah man, where are we going?”.
On the way out to the car he became a bit more chatty. “My name is “Say”, like talking” he said whilst cracking open a warm bottle of beer using another that he was carrying. “You like talking then?” I joked, then to my surprise he actually smiled (it was at this point I was a lot more confident that he wasn’t going to murder me). He handed me the open beer and then used his teeth to open the second for himself. I got in to the passenger side of the terribly parked Nissan, one of those lowered sports types, said hello to a large lady that was sitting in the back seat (I assumed it was his wife, she had an amazing spherical afro and perfect white teeth but didn’t say much) and off we went.
Over the next few hours we just drove around taking in as much of the scenery and wildlife that we possibly could, it was great! We hadn’t talked it through but it became clear that he was going to take me around the town and get me “local prices” for all of the sites; in exchange I would pay for everything, including entry for him and his wife to everywhere that we went. This sounds like a bad deal but it actually worked out really well, the tourist rates for everything are astronomical compared to what locals pay. Say explained that they call it “Mzungu tax”.
(Elephants blocking the entrance to one of the parks)
Another hour passed, we dropped off his “wife” at one of the police checkpoints and then started to head back to the hostel. A little further along and it was the first punctuation point in our encounter. Do you remember those books that have breaks in the story and they gave you options for the next stage of the adventure? We were parked up at the hostel having yet another disgusting beverage and I had hit one of these decision moments, either call it a day or go with Say and his “wife” for a night out. I opted for the second option.
Later on that evening, the sun had set quickly and the air was a lot more bearable. Say pulled up in the Nissan, there were neat dusty mud streaks along the side of the car and across the windows where he had tried to give it a clean. I opened the door, said hello to the beautiful woman that was sitting in the back seat (probably his daughter, she had perfect straight black hair and was clad in more beads than the teen section of a jewelry catalogue; she didn’t say much).
We started heading away from town and soon the Nissan’s dim headlights illuminated some large metal gates, in front of which were two skinny lads in beige with machine guns and flip flops (picture the “I’m the captain now” guy from Captain Phillips). Say sounded the horn and one of the men walked over to the driver side window. They spoke briefly (almost argumentatively) in the local language, then after we handed the guy a fistful of money he turned to his chum and walked back to his position. They both set about removing the armour of locks and chains that adorned the gate and then slowly opened it. We drove past them slowly, through the gates and on into the darkness, no words, just the Nissan’s crappy engine and a barrage of wildlife noises, it felt a bit like entering through the gates of Skull Island or Jurassic park.
Say explained that he had “convinced” the guy that I was his sick albino brother and that we had been granted the special privilege of exploring the safari park as one of my final wishes. A crap story but obviously the money had helped things along. We proceeded to drive around the park, with only the headlights of the car and a couple of torches to help us see. The Nissan wasn’t meant for the sort of terrain that we were covering (usually frequented by large open topped jeeps and such) so it kept struggling on the track that was made of primarily loose stones. We passed loads of zebras, elephants and antelope in the darkness (it was amazing and terrifying at the same time) and then the inevitable happened. We were stuck.
“I’m going to slash on this tree and then I’ll push us out, shine the torch this way” I said over my shoulder whilst pacing out into the darkness. I did my thing and then turned back to walk toward the rear of the car. I could see inside that Say and the girl were laughing. “Mzungus are crazy” he said catching his breath. I was confused. He told me that I had gone right next to (and potentially urinated on) two crocodiles and that I was lucky that they hadn’t eaten me. I didn’t believe him (and still don’t) but I was never completely sure of anything that he said so I took it as a life lesson. I wedged a stick under the back wheels for some traction and luckily the car was unstuck pretty easily. We drove around a bit more, ate some meat and bread that the girl had in her bag and then went back. The whole night was insane.
We met again the next morning, very early, all Say had said to me was to bring a spare pair of clothes because we were going to get wet. We picked up yet another lady (a “girlfriend” – it was clear at this point that all of the women had been prostitutes and I hadn’t realised) at a small town and then made our way to the Zambezi. We got there after about an hour, there were no signs, gates or anything like that, just open river and a really sketchy looking boat. I hate boats at the best of times but this one was ridiculous. It just looked like a child’s drawing of a raft, about 9 long planks lashed, screwed and nailed together in an ad hoc fashion and what looked like an old tennis racket for a paddle. Still, the water was very calm and it looked like you could see the bottom of the river so I thought “why not”. The raft worked, we paddled over pretty smoothly and the river was so slow that we had barely drifted down stream. We went up the bank on the other side and because the Zambezi actually acts as a border between Zambia and Zimbabwe we had technically gone into a new country. We were in Zimbabwe!
Say did a little dance, then I started dancing as well, he was euphoric and swearing a lot, it was a really weird moment. After about two minutes the mania stopped and we got back on the raft and drifted back over. On our way back to the car he explained that we were very lucky, first that there were no border controllers (they go up and down the river in speedboats with machine guns) and more importantly that there were no hippos there. He said that he knew a guy that was killed by a hippo and that they were the animals that scared him the most. As with most of the dodgy stuff that we did, the potential danger that we were in only really settled in after we had done the thing – we had illegally entered Zimbabwe, avoided being shot at by police or killed by a hippo and returned to the hostel all before breakfast.
The next morning we arranged to meet really early as Say was heading to Lusaka.
It was four in the morning, I stood at the roadside with all of my stuff and waited. Say didn’t arrive until nearly five. He pulled up and formally got out of the Nissan (which at this point was shinier than a new penny) and put my bags in the boot, he was wearing a wrinkled full suit and tie and the loafers were looking particularly buffed. I clocked that in the back of the car this time there wasn’t a beautiful woman, there was a little old man that looked like a black version of Hans Moleman from The Simpsons. The vibe was completely different; silent, professional. About an hour into the journey it became clear that the Nissan wasn’t Say’s, it was the old guy’s (an air conditioning salesman who clearly makes very good money due to where he is). Say wasn’t supposed to have been using the car at all. I got dropped at the side of the road near to Lusaka and never heard from either of them again, thus ending one of the strangest encounters that I have ever had.
I only have one photograph with Say, taken by one of his “girlfriends” before we paddled over to Zimbabwe. I think the forced attempt at a smile pretty much sums up our brief but eventful relationship. Just think, he’s probably still out there, drink driving, soliciting prostitutes and hustling mzungus and local businesses for every Kwacha that he can possibly make. Thanks for the good times you dodgy son of a gun.