Chapter no 24


AS A ROYAL YOU WERE ALWAYS TAUGHT to maintain a buffer zone between you and the rest of Creation. Even working a crowd you always kept a discreet distance between Yourself and Them. Distance was right, distance was safe, distance was survival. Distance was an essential bit of being royal, no less than standing on the balcony, waving to the crowds outside Buckingham Palace, your

family all around you.

Of course, family included distance as well. No matter how much you might love someone, you could never cross that chasm between, say, monarch and child. Or Heir and Spare. Physically, but also emotionally. It wasn’t just Willy’s edict about giving him space; the older generation maintained a nearly zero-tolerance prohibition on all physical contact. No hugs, no kisses, no pats. Now and then, maybe a light touching of cheeks…on special occasions.

But in Africa none of this was true. In Africa distance dissolved. All creatures mingled freely. Only the lion walked with his head in the air, only the elephant had an emperor’s strut, and even they weren’t totally aloof. They mingled daily among their subjects. They had no choice. Yes, there was predation and prey, life could be nasty and brutish and short, but to my teenage eyes it all looked like distilled democracy. Utopia.

And that wasn’t even counting the bear hugs and high fives from all the trackers and guides.

On the other hand, maybe it wasn’t the mere closeness of living things that I liked. Maybe it was the mind-boggling number. In a matter of hours I’d gone from a place of aridity, sterility, death, to a wetland of teeming fertility. Maybe that was what I yearned for most of all—life.

Maybe that was the real miracle I found in the Okavango in April 1999.

I don’t think I blinked once that whole week. I don’t think I stopped grinning, even while asleep. Had I been transported back to the Jurassic period, I couldn’t have been more awed—and it wasn’t just T. rexes that had me captivated. I loved the littlest creatures too. And the birds. Thanks to Adi, clearly the savviest guide in our group, I began to recognize hooded vultures, cattle egrets, southern carmine bee-eaters, African fish eagles, in flight. Even the bugs were compelling. Adi taught me to really see them. Look down, he said, note the different species of beetle, admire the beauty of larvae. Also, appreciate the baroque architecture of termite mounds—the tallest structures built by any animal besides humans.

So much to know, Harry. To appreciate. Right, Adi.

Whenever I went with him on a wander, whenever we’d come upon a fresh carcass crawling with maggots or wild dogs, whenever we’d stumble on a mountain of elephant dung sprouting mushrooms that looked like the Artful Dodger’s top hat, Adi never cringed. Circle of life, Harry.

Of all the animals in our midst, Adi said, the most majestic was the water. The Okavango was just another living thing. He’d walked its entire length as a boy, with his father, carrying nothing but bedrolls. He knew the Okavango inside and out, and felt for it something like romantic love. Its surface was a poreless cheek, which he often lightly stroked.

But he also felt for the river a kind of sober awe. Respect. Its innards were death, he said. Hungry crocs, ill-tempered hippos, they were all down there, in the dark, waiting for you to slip up. Hippos killed five hundred people a year; Adi drummed it into my head over and over, and all these years later I can still hear him: Never go into the dark water, Harry.

One night around the fire, all the guides and trackers discussed the river, shouting stories about riding it, swimming it, boating it, fearing it, everyone talking over each other. I heard it all that night, the mysticism of the river, the sacredness of the river, the weirdness of the river.

Speaking of weirdness…The smell of marijuana wafted on the air. The stories grew louder, sillier.

I asked if I could try. Everyone guffawed. Sod off! Willy looked at me in horror.

But I wouldn’t back off. I pleaded my case. I was experienced, I said. Heads swung round. Oh really?

Henners and I had recently pinched two six-packs of Smirnoff Ice and drunk them till we passed out, I boasted. Plus, Tiggy always let me have a nip of her flask on stalking trips. (Sloe gin, she was never without it.) I thought it best to leave out the full breadth of my experience.

The adults exchanged sly glances. One shrugged, rolled a new joint, passed it to me.

I took a puff. Coughed, retched. African weed was much harsher than Eton weed. And the high was less too.

But at least I was a man. No. I was still a wee baby.

The “joint” was just fresh basil wrapped in a bit of filthy rolling paper.

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