Crocodile Isle

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Chapter One of a novella Day #1 EVERY YEAR OVER THE WEEK OF MY BIRTHDAY, for the last three years anyway, I have invited ten of my friends, together with my partner Chase, to celebrate on an exclusive island in the middle of the great lake at the n...

Chapter One of a novella

Day #1

EVERY YEAR OVER THE WEEK OF MY BIRTHDAY, for the last three years anyway, I have invited ten of my friends, together with my partner Chase, to celebrate on an exclusive island in the middle of the great lake at the north of our fair land.  It is the fourth largest man-made lake in the world and the second in Africa, but the largest in the world by volume.  It is home to an abundance of wildlife.

The venue is actually called Serenity Island, but I decided to rename it, the reasons for which will become apparent as you read on. 

My birthday is 18th January and this year it falls on a Saturday, which is perfect.  It’s going to be my thirtieth so we have arranged to have a rip of a party.  Our trip is planned so that we arrive on the island on Thursday 16th and we’ll be there for seven days, only leaving the following Wednesday at midday.

Unfortunately, the entire contingent will not be present this year as Hilton and Julie had married shortly before Christmas and are still away on honeymoon, but Jordan and Merrill, who also recently married will be joining us; and of course, so will Kyle and Kayla, and their friends, Chester and Tabatha.  Jordan and Kyle are brothers while Hilton was married to their sister before she was murdered a couple of years ago.

I remember with amusement having a crush on Hilton when I was a youngster; he was married to Sabrina at the time.  Hilton is certainly a good-looking man with his dark hair and a Roman nose, but I eventually got over that…

As I said, Jordan and Kyle are brothers and are virtually inseparable.  They own a computer company which they started up together; Jordan takes care of the hardware side while Kyle is the software specialist.  Even when not at work they can always be found together because they both enjoy sports and the outdoors.

Jordan is affectionately known as the gentle giant, standing in his bare feet at six feet two inches; an exceptionally handsome figure with broad shoulders and dark hair.  Kyle on the other hand is five feet ten inches tall with a shock of blonde hair styled just like Rod Stewart.  He’s also an exceptionally handsome figure, only a little shorter, and their personalities too are quite different, although both are easy-going and mild of nature.

Jordan and Kyle, together with their female counterparts, are a delight to have around.  They both have the most amazing sense of humour and continually tell tales of amusement, usually using themselves as the topic of fun.

Chase and I arrived by speed boat just after lunch time, ahead of the others, and as always were shown to the honeymoon suite.  People of Hilton and Julie’s age would probably consider this venue odd for a honeymoon, since they believe that time should be spent alone, but that’s not the case for those in my era.  Generally speaking, most of us have lived with our partners for many years before taking the plunge, so we prefer to have the honeymoon with plenty of friends around.  Anyway, this chalet is set slightly apart from the rest, nestled among a stand of trees not too far from the water’s edge.

All of the bungalows, known locally as rondavels because of their circular construction, are strategically placed around the central units and each has its own paved pathway leading directly to the door.  These paths are illuminated at night by small solar-powered lights embedded into the earth along either side.  The thatched rooves extend to the ground with rounded arches allowing light through the many windows, but the interiors are still fairly dark as a result.  The thatching has always amazed me as each of the chalets has an animal carved into it.  The honeymoon suite has a hippo engraved into the thatch while each of the other five have the ‘big five’ of Africa.  Those, of course, are the elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion and leopard.  I’ve always found it fascinating how artistic some people are, and there’s no shortage of them among the local tribesmen.

We hadn’t been there very long before the launch carrying the ten people joining us arrived.  In addition to those I have already mentioned are more long-standing friends, Terrence and Nina, who run a safari lodge in Mopani Park to the south of the country, and they are extremely knowledgeable about the wildlife.  The last couple are Raymond and Abigail who have not joined us before, but I wanted to fill the void created by Hilton and Julie, and I like Ray and Abby immensely.  These families have all been intertwined over the years as Abby is Julie’s daughter while Terrence and Nina were participants in the rescue of Chester and Tabatha, who were abducted and brutally tortured not long after Sabrina, Hilton’s first wife, was murdered.  It turned out that it was the same unsavoury crowd responsible for both brutal attacks.

At the time that Sabrina was killed Chester was illiterate, having had an unfortunate upbringing, but when he came into the family fold in the most unexpected fashion, Kayla, Kyle’s partner and lover, spent endless months teaching him the basics of reading, writing, arithmetic and speech, exhibiting inexhaustible patience.  Kayla is a beautiful young woman of Irish descent with an extraordinary body, long, strawberry blonde hair and green eyes.  Needless to say, Kyle and Kayla make a striking couple.

During his uneducated years, Chester was unable to find employment and consequently had no financial income to support himself, so was basically a homeless tramp.  Back then he had no means with which to maintain his personal hygiene either, and as a result always carried with him a most unpleasant odour.  After his crash course of basic education with Kayla, when he was at last able to find gainful employment, that was the first thing he rectified.  He decided that having his head permanently shaved was the most sanitary way to go, and he has continued with that to the present day.  He’s a very ordinary-looking fellow, apart from his eyes which appear to have been accentuated by the lack of hair; they are a remarkable blue and almost look straight through you.  He’s over six feet tall, but of average to slender build, with no other noticeable features.  He’s an extraordinarily kind person, and would give you the shirt off his back if he thought you needed it.

I’ve always thought of Tabatha, his lover and best friend, as a ‘plane Jane’, and don’t think I’ve ever seen her wear make-up.  Her mousey-coloured hair is always severely tied into a pony tail at the back of her head, and she really doesn’t have any redeeming features, except, perhaps, for her very shapely body.  Having said all that, she is a really nice person, and like Chester, is very kind.  Unfortunately, she doesn’t have much of a personality either; she’s very quiet and keeps to herself, normally with her nose in a book of poetry, but what the hell, they love each other, and who am I to judge anyone?

The island is exclusive, as I’ve said, having only six chalets.  It is small and privately owned, but the resort does have a communal kitchen and living area which are great for parties.  I’ve seen the island from the air and it’s almost the shape of a teardrop, with the tail end stretching into the water.  It’s important to note here, that we must hire the entire resort for the duration of our stay as we wouldn’t want any strangers gate-crashing our party. 

The chalets each have elegant bathrooms with showers overlooked by the stars at night, while the adjoining bedrooms are luxuriously furnished and have queen-size beds; not quite what one would expect in the middle of nowhere.  The honeymoon suite naturally has a king-size bed and the adjacent bathroom is also equipped with a bath, so the entire rondavel is considerably larger than the others. 

While the bathrooms are open to the elements, by that I mean that they have no roof, they are secured by wire netting across the top walls to prevent any of the ape family from venturing in.  Monkeys in particular, are extremely destructive.  They would take great delight in squeezing out every last drop of toothpaste from your tube, or for that matter, draining any other toiletries you may have on a shelf.

The wire netting, of course, doesn’t prevent any of the creepy-crawlies from getting in, so one must be vigilant about where one steps during a night-time visit.  There are plenty of stories arising from that scenario.

The well-appointed kitchen is fitted out with all the mod cons, but due to the island’s remoteness, the power supply is only by generator and/or solar.  The venue is serviced, but the staff don’t live on the island.  They leave each evening after dinner and reappear in the morning like clockwork at six, having crossed the water by canoe from the mainland, which isn’t that far away.  There are a chef, two cleaning men and an overseer.  That doesn’t sound like a great many people to attend to the needs of twelve guests, but it works surprisingly well.

The lake is a major source of hydro-electric power for the two countries it borders, but the wall where this takes place is a long way from our island, hence the need for other sources of power.  The wall was built way back in the fifties and upon its completion in late 1958, the lake filled at a far greater rate than anyone anticipated.   Within the first twenty-four hours the water level had risen by six metres, and a few months later, by sixty metres.  This created enormous problems for the wildlife, and animals were stranded on newly formed islands.  It’s not all bad news though because a huge operation was launched to save the animals, but sadly a great many were lost.

Prior to the filling of the lake, the valley flora, which consisted mostly of Mopani and a thicket-type of vegetation, as well as the mighty baobabs, had been cleared with the intention of creating fishing beds.  For the most part, the clearing was done using bulldozers pulling giant steel balls connected by enormous chains, but there were a great many trees that had to be left standing because the locals believed they were sacred.  There were also unreachable areas such as the sides of ravines.  This meant that the trees, when submerged, became fossilised.  With the varying levels of the water during the many seasons that followed, those petrified trees remain today and create a unique vista of the lake’s natural beauty.  The sunsets here are spectacular.

Also before the lake filled, the local tribes were relocated to higher ground and it’s from one of those villages that the island’s staff come every day.

Once everyone had settled into their rooms and unpacked, we all congregated in the Boma, a name given to the living area, and I was eager to get started.

“Let the party begin!” I yelled, holding up the beer I had in my hand.

Everyone erupted with cheers, and those who didn’t already have drinks in their hands descended upon the fully-stocked bar.  Because it was still early afternoon, the alcohol everyone chose was either beer or wine, but there were abundant quantities of both.  The staff were busying themselves preparing dinner so we had the Boma to ourselves and we all ambled around mingling.

Besides the bar being housed in the Boma, it also provides a lounge and dining area.  The only wall is that behind the bar, otherwise it is an open-air space with a thatched roof suspended on beams and supported by gum-poles.  It’s been decorated with some incredible arts and crafts from the local tribesmen.  These people have unbelievable talents as I’ve already mentioned, but the one item that really stands out for me, is the full-sized warrior carved from a trunk of hardwood.  This ‘man’ stands only as high as my waste, sports a hunting spear and is clad in nothing more than a loin cloth, but is so intricately whittled, he could be human.  He’s been fashioned to resemble the local people, and the likeness is uncanny.  He’s short in stature, has a pot-belly, large eyes, a broad, flat nose and extremely thick lips, while his tightly curled hair is short-cropped.  

Another piece of interest is a spear that was found buried deeply in the ground during the digging of the foundations for the resort.  It is believed this artefact dates back at least one to two hundred years.  It has been honed with precision from some sort of metal, and is thought to have been used all that time ago by the tribe’s hunter-gatherers.  I actually did some research after our first visit to the island, and discovered that spears of that era had forged iron tips.  The almost five feet long spear currently holds pride of place hanging above the bar.

Chase and I strolled across to Ray and Abby since it was their first visit to the island and I asked, “so what do you two think of the place?”

“It’s fabulous Coral,” Abby replied enthusiastically.  She’s a lovely young woman who looks like a younger version of her mother.  What she lacks in height she makes up for in natural beauty, and her dark shoulder-length hair always looks salon-perfect.

“I’m very impressed, but it’s so far from anywhere,” said Ray, “What happens if one of us has an accident though?  Is there cell phone coverage here?”  Ray is your average kind of guy, good-looking in his own sort of way, and a self-made millionaire.

“Nope... cell phones don’t work here, but we have radio contact with the mainland, and unlike the launch you arrived in, it only takes a speed boat forty minutes to get here,” Chase responded.

“Okay, but that forty minutes could be stretched beyond an hour if there’s need for a doctor who’s not necessarily going to be standing by waiting for something to happen,” Ray said.

I had forgotten how stuffy Ray could be.  With his fancy education and mountains of money in the bank, he tended to be snobbish and I wanted him to relax and enjoy the party as well as the company, so I said, “Oh come on Ray, what are you expecting to happen?”

“Hopefully nothing Coral, but I like to be prepared.”

“Well, if it helps you to feel better, this is our fourth trip to the island and we’ve never had to use the radio.”

“Are you sure it’s working?”

I was a little taken aback with that question because I hadn’t even thought about it, let alone checked to find out if it was working, so my response was a little caustic, “Of course it’s working or we wouldn’t have everything set up for us.”

“That is not the answer I was hoping for Coral.”

“Okay, okay, I’ll go and check,” I replied somewhat scathingly and strode away toward the kitchen.

I was still within earshot when I heard Ray’s next comment.

“Oh dear Chase, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to upset her.”

Now I was feeling terrible; it was a natural question for a first-timer to ask and I shouldn’t have reacted as I did, so I hurried onward, putting too much distance between them and me to hear Chase’s reply.

When I arrived in the kitchen which is attached to the rear wall of the bar, but under a separate roof, it was a hive of activity with the chef and his two helpers scurrying around in preparation for the evening meal, while the overseer sat at his desk poring over some paperwork.

I was forced to raise my voice above the rattle of the generator which was housed just outside the door to the kitchen, “Joseph is the radio working?”

“Yes madam... why, is there something wrong?”

“No, no Joseph... but one of my guests was asking that’s all.”

“Do you want to check it madam?”

It suddenly occurred to me that during the night when there are no staff present, nobody else on the island would know how to operate the radio; in fact, I didn’t even know where it was so I said, “Actually, yes Joseph, and maybe you can show me how it works just in case we need to use it when you’re not here at night.”

Joseph, the resort’s supervisor, is a black man from a local tribe on the mainland.  As is the case with most people of this region, he is small of stature and extremely dark in complexion, but he doesn’t have the pot belly as depicted with the statue.  I’ve never known anyone who smiles so frequently.  He has got to be one of the most jovial people I’ve met, and when he does smile, the white teeth create an amazing contrast to his skin.  His very curly hair is short-cropped and as dark as his skin.  I’ve always found it difficult to guess a black man’s age, probably because they age so well.  I’ve discovered over the years that if one of them has grey hair, he is likely to be very old indeed.  Joseph showed no signs of aging and I felt it would be rude for me to ask how old he is.  Besides, it’s a known fact that tribesmen in the rural areas such as this rarely record births, so it’s unlikely that Joseph would even know his age.

He turned to his helpers and instructed them to leave the kitchen and attend to lighting the boiler fires at each of the chalets so that we would have hot water for the showers.  I believe there had been consideration about using solar power for this purpose, but it was decided that traditional wood boilers generally provide a more efficient and trustworthy source of hot water, and there’s no shortage of wood on the island.  The two men were then told to get the pit fire outside the Boma ready for the evening and turn down the beds.  They hurried off through the rear door followed by Joseph, with me behind him.  The chef, his uniform immaculately ironed and his white hat starched upright, continued with his preparations.

Joseph led me to a rondavel just a few metres to the right of the building that housed the large generator.  That piece of machinery took up almost the entire space of its rondavel and the door was left open to allow the fumes from the engine to escape.  The clatter was so loud here there was no point in even attempting a conversation, but when we entered the small round, thatched room which was known as the ‘radio shack’, and the door was closed behind us, the din was remarkably lessened to a dull throb.

A table stood at the far end of the small room, and was adorned with radio equipment which looked totally foreign to me.  In front of the table were two straight-backed wooden chairs and a fan whirred gently overhead.  When I scanned the perimeter of the room I noticed polystyrene, or kaylite, packed against the walls and creating a ceiling above my head.

“That’s why it’s so much cooler and quieter in here,” I said aloud.

“Sorry?” asked Joseph.

“No problem, I was just making an observation.”

Joseph shook his head, not understanding what I was talking about, and walked toward the table.  He pulled out a chair for me to sit on and then sat himself on the one directly in front of the radio.

“I will call the harbour master.  You can watch me do it and then you can call him.”

I scrutinised Joseph’s every move; it certainly seemed a simple exercise.  Less than a minute later I heard a crackling version of the harbour master’s voice.  Joseph explained that he was showing one of the residents on the island how to operate the radio and then introduced me.  He said goodbye and clicked off the communication.

“Now you do it,” Joseph said to me.

Despite this being a new experience for me, I managed it without a problem and was soon saying ‘hello’ again to the harbour master.  I thanked him for his time and switched off the radio.

As Joseph and I were leaving the rondavel he closed and locked the door behind him saying, “This door must always be locked so no wild animals can get into it.  The key is kept in the kitchen.”

I followed him back inside and he showed me where the key for the ‘radio shack’ was hung; then I left him to his chores.


 

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