WRITTEN BY JOANNA BARNDEN
Can Alice find her way amid the scary wildlife, and even scarier Nairobi crowds?
“What the blazes was that?” Alice demanded into the darkness. Not surprisingly, no-one answered.
She was alone at the edge of a Kenyan lake – or rather, by the sound of it, not alone. She sat up in her tent, flesh prickling. There it was again – a strange, raw, tearing sound as if something was pulling the earth up from beneath her.
Fear gripped her supposedly brave heart and she found herself wishing Dylan was here. Dylan, however, was in Corfu with the rest of the gang… and she was left with midnight monsters for company.
The silvery moon threw an imposing shadow onto the canvas and she gasped. Hippos! Of course. She’d heard that the two-ton creatures sometimes came out of the lake to graze, but she’d never thought they’d pick tonight! It was fate. She was going to be crushed to death for being “too snooty” to spend her hardearned waitressing money on a holiday in Corfu.
Dylan’s mocking voice echoed in her ears, a shrill descant to the mumbling, tearing bass of the great beasts just two millimetres of canvas away from her as Alice made a teary vow: if I get through tonight I’m taking the train straight back to Nairobi to book on a safari.
She closed her eyes against the looming shadows outside
She’d been saving the safari for the final highlight of her “holiday of a lifetime”, but what was the point of that if you were going to be trampled out of existence beforehand?
Clutching her sleeping bag tightly around her as if it might offer the protection Dylan’s strong arms should have done, she closed her eyes against the looming shadows outside and tried not to wish she’d gone to Corfu after all.
Jamie tried to focus on the white horses rolling onto the sand
Jamie sat in his tent and listened to the sounds of Party Night at the nearby Beach Paradise hotel. He tried to focus on the iridescent Kenyan stars and the indolent white horses rolling onto the white sand just ten metres from his bed, but it was hard.
“Back to nature,” Becky had said. Full of it, she’d been. “Oh come on, Jamie! Don’t be boring – let’s have an adventure, let’s go to Kenya.” Then she’d pulled up so many beautiful images on the internet that he’d given in and spent his modest inheritance from his dear gran on the flights for their “holiday of a lifetime”.
“Ha!” he scoffed into the soft night air. Becky was right about one thing: Kenya was beautiful and Jamie loved it. Becky, however, hadn’t turned out to be as much of a back-to-nature girl as she’d thought. Along the beach, the tinny band moved enthusiastically into Come on Eileen and Jamie wondered if she was there, clapping along with her new bloke. Putting extravagant cocktails on his account, sharing his verandah suite…
He flung himself down on his travel pillow and tried not to care. Becky had done little but annoy him anyway, complaining about the African food and spending hours in the campsite loos plastering make-up on her pretty face.
“I thought you wanted to be natural?” Jamie had snapped eventually, but she’d just given him her most withering stare. That had been the night she’d gone off with Mr Verandah-Suite.
“Good riddance,” Jamie told the mosquito that now seemed to be his only companion.
It buzzed sympathetically and he was forced to smile. Let Becky go and stay in a stupid, plastic hotel. He was in Kenya and he intended to make the most of it. Tomorrow he would get the train back to Nairobi, book a safari and just hope there was someone nice in his group to talk to. Pleased with his own certainty, Jamie closed his eyes, trying to ignore the bloodsucking bedfellow circling lazily over his head and the small worm of fear inside him.
Alice was grateful to have survived her night
As the train pulled into Nairobi station the street vendors ran alongside the open windows proffering trays of fruit, nuts and swiftly iced drinks. Alice, grateful to have survived her night of hippo horror, watched it all in delight. Inside the carriage, however, the crammed-in passengers were leaping up, assembling bags and finding children and Alice was unceremoniously shoved into the aisle.
“Oh, I’m so sorry.”
She stepped hastily off the toes of a very large woman with a neon pink suitcase. The woman glared.
“Sorry,” Alice muttered again and yanked her own rucksack out from under her seat. “I bet it’s not like this in Greece,” she grumbled to herself as the train jolted to a halt and the human tide began to roll towards the doors in a frothing, sweating mass.
Firmly, she reminded herself how dull and shallow it would be in the concrete-and-clubs part of Corfu her gang of so-called friends had opted to visit.
“18-30,” Dylan had called, back in the dark month of exams, waving a brochure. “Sun, sea and all-you-can-drink sangria. How cool is that?”
The rest of the gang had agreed enthusiastically
Alice hadn’t been sure how to say that she didn’t think it was as cool as seeing flamingos at dawn on Lake Naivasha, but the rest of the gang had agreed enthusiastically. Sure enough, when she’d tried, it hadn’t gone down well.
“That’s OK,” she muttered under her breath now. “I’m having a good time on my own.”
She made it to the carriage door but someone behind her pushed and she all but fell out the train. Her rucksack strap caught and yanked her back, so her foot missed the rough edge of the platform, and for a moment she thought she was done for.
“Whoops! I’ve got you.”
A kind-eyed young man steadied her then politely held back the hordes
Alice almost cried with relief as a kind-eyed young man steadied her then firmly but politely held back the hordes on the train whilst he untangled her bag. He was English, she was sure of it, and he seemed to be alone.
“I’m Alice-” she started but already he’d been collared by the large woman and was staggering away beneath the weight of her ridiculous pink suitcase.
“Ah well,” Alice said and realised she was speaking out loud again – wasn’t that the first sign of madness?
Pulling herself together, she fixed her eyes on the fading grandeur of the colonial station’s exit and the mass of holiday reps beyond.
Someone in the last hostel had recommended Simba Safaris but now she was here, she hesitated, her hands twitching to the gold hoops in her ears. Do not wear loose jewellery in the street of Kenya’s capital, the guidebook had warned. Thieves may tear it from you.
“And that’s the sort of place you want to take me?” Dylan had crowed. “I think it’s time you and I parted company.”
She’d booked the trip anyway
She’d tried to be sad but tears hadn’t come and she’d booked the trip anyway. And now she was here and she had to make the most of it. Setting her chin, she ducked into the ladies to remove her earrings before seeking the safari she could hardly wait (“hardly wait,” she told herself sternly) to take.
“Very kind young man, very kind. Here have a… ” Jamie felt a flutter of hope as the large woman’s hand went into her capacious handbag, “… mango.”
He stared at the fruit, so misshapen and squishy he feared it might burst in his hand.
“Thanks,” he managed to stutter out and turned away.
He thought of the girl he’d helped down from the train. She’d had wild curls and lost eyes and he’d hoped to talk to her more before Mrs Mango had grabbed him. He searched the ebb and flow of the shouting, laughing crowd and, catching a glimpse of her, tried to fight through the throng but she disappeared into the ladies.
What had he expected – love across a crowded platform?
Jamie cursed, less at losing the girl than at his own silly hopes. What had he expected – love across a crowded platform? Hardly! He hefted his rucksack onto his back and braved the raw, teeming streets of Nairobi.
“Safari, sir? I do you good deal. Our drivers find best animals.”
“Lions, elephants, rhinos. Only our company find rhinos, sir.”
Jamie looked around the hand-held signs, seeking out Simba Safaris. A group on the campsite had recommended them and, spotting the sign, he collared the man, causing a clamour of protest amongst his rivals.
“I want a safari for tomorrow,” he gasped out.
“Yes sir, of course sir. I have bus leaving at six a.m. and I do good price for you – very good price.”
The rep nodded keenly at him and Jamie smiled and began haggling, getting himself a decent deal plus a discount on the “very friendly ” Golden Gate Hostel nearby.
“Driver pick you up from there in morning,” the rep assured him and Jamie said he would be waiting.
See, he told himself as he threaded between the mass of people crowding the narrow pavement, you can do this.
Be more fun with someone else though, wouldn’t it? a little voice niggled back, but he ignored it. He had to.
Alice fought her way out of the station
Alice tucked her jewellery into her rucksack and clicked the padlock into place then, squaring her slim shoulders, she fought her way out of the station. Her keen eyes found the Simba sign and for a moment she thought she saw the man from the train beneath it, but the safari-selling sharks descended and by the time she’d waded through them he was gone.
The rep was turning his best spiel on three floral-shirted Americans but he waved her keenly forward as he closed the deal. Alice caught the price and panicked. She couldn’t afford that! What was she going to do with her last week if she didn’t go on safari? She couldn’t stay in Nairobi, it scared her too much, and…
“Don’t worry, lady – that just American price.”
The rep grinned cheekily at her and she was so relieved, she grinned right back.
“So what can you do for me then?”
The price was almost half what the oblivious Americans had happily signed away but Alice haggled anyway, for pride’s sake, and felt quietly triumphant when she gained herself a further ten per cent discount.
“Great,” she agreed. “I’d like to go tomorrow.”
His face fell
“Tomorrow is full, lady. I’m sorry. The Americans took the last three places but I can do the next day? Better driver the next day – know all the best rhino places.”
Alice glanced behind her at the frightening bustle of the rough-and-ready capital. She didn’t want to stay here an extra day, but she couldn’t face negotiating with someone else.
“I get you special rate at Golden Gate hostel,” the rep promised, “just near here. Very handy for bars. You have a good time, meet lots of English people.”
For a moment Alice was tempted but then she shook her head. She’d go back to the place she’d stayed in when she’d arrived in Kenya. The Happy Hostel was a little further out but quieter, and its name made her hopeful.
“I’ve got somewhere already, thanks.” She wrote the address of the hostel on the booking sheet and paid her deposit.
“We pick you up at six fifteen a.m. in two days,” the rep promised and she nodded and tried to look excited.
She’d loved animals since she was tiny and had been so looking forward to this safari, but now it felt like something just to prove to Dylan that she’d dared. She just hoped the hostel had a bed so she could get in and stay there until Simba Safaris finally arrived to take her away.
Grinning, Jamie ran downstairs
Jamie’s hostel had been as friendly as the rep had promised. Indeed, a group of Irish lads had turned it into an all-night party that he’d tried (and failed) to get into the spirit of. Now they were snoring in the chill air of a Nairobi dawn and the horn outside made one of them jump rather comically in his sleep. Grinning, Jamie ran downstairs and threw himself onto the plump white mini bus outside.
“Are you excited?” asked a little girl of about ten. She had three books on The Big Five and was clearly, from her fidgeting and her parents’ weary looks, very excited herself.
“I am,” Jamie agreed, taking a seat behind her.
“Are you on your own?”
“Chloe!” her mum said sharply, but Jamie just shrugged.
“Am I what?”
The girl was yanked away with a sheepish apology and Jamie was left to his own thoughts. Was he afraid? Not really, but, whatever he’d said to Chloe, he was struggling to be as excited as he felt he should be.
He leaned back in his seat as they pulled up outside a swanky hotel and two Americans lumbered onto the bus. They beamed at everyone but the driver wasn’t happy.
“Three people,” he said, jabbing at his clipboard. “You are three people.”
“You saying we’re fat?” the man joked.
The driver ignored him.
“You book for three people. I need three. I need money for three.”
“Sorry. My mother-in-law is unwell; tummy bug. She can’t come along.”
They sat firmly down as the driver threw up his hands, babbling in Swahili and jabbing at his mobile. Jamie groaned, but within minutes the bus was jolting away.
“Driver seems to think he might have a replacement,” Chloe’s mum told him and sure enough, they were soon pulling up outside something called The Happy Hostel.
Within minutes the driver was back
As the driver dived inside Jamie closed his eyes, seeking patience. Dream holidays weren’t meant to jolt around like this, were they?
Within minutes, however, the driver was back and with him, to Jamie’s amazement, was the girl from the train. He blinked as she was ushered on board, her curls wilder than ever, her sleeplined eyes just as lost. Then, as the bus pulled triumphantly forward and she swayed a little, he instinctively put out a hand to steady her.
“You,” she said, her voice soft and lilting, and stomach-churningly happy to see him.
“Me,” he agreed stupidly. “Would you like to sit down?”
Five days later…
Alice stared in wonder across the calm waters of Lake Naivasha as the sun uncurled itself over the horizon. Its pastel light fell between the rose-tinted flamingos before laying itself graciously at her feet.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” she breathed. For a second no-one answered and her heartstrings tightened, but then a warm hand slipped into hers and she felt a light kiss on her neck.
“Utterly beautiful,” Jamie agreed. “Just like you.”
“Soppy,” Alice teased, but gently. For a while they stood taking in the view before she added, “And so much nicer together.”
“So much nicer – and we could so easily have missed each other! Hey, Chloe…” He handed his camera to the little girl. “Will you take one of Alice and me to show our kids some day when they’re your age?”
“Jamie!” Alice berated him, but she cuddled closer for the shot anyway.
The future felt as rosy as the horizon before her, but for now she was just going to enjoy every last minute of what had truly turned out to be the holiday of a lifetime.