The Vintage Explorer is a title I gave Rebecca ages ago during the first Chuck Hiatus. Today I wanted to do something involving flying machines since I hadn’t told you I have a Goodreads Giveaway on for my father’s memoirs White Water Landings, until the end of June. I refer to ‘Pett” as the Imperial Airways man on the spot in this story. It is fiction (c1750 words), but it is set where my father was based when he set up the flying boat base there, and he describes the sisal plantations in the book. Apparently making sisal is very smelly process.
The Vintage Explorer
The trading dhow floated gently into the sandy bay. On the beach someone shouted in response to the native captain’s ululation.
“Can you understand what he’s saying, Carruthers?”
“Oh, just checking for reefs, that sort of thing. The boy on the beach is showing him the safe area, look.”
Sarson was impressed. He’d become accustomed to Carruthers’ superior knowledge of all things in Darkest Africa, but understanding the locals… His relaxed and authoritative manner was precisely the reason Sarson had sponsored him in this trip. One had to use one’s inheritance wisely. Scouting the trackless bush for the lost wine region of the lower Tanya would put one over on his friends who had gone to Kenya to start coffee plantations.
On this occasion it seemed Carruthers’ confidence was justified. The white painted boat with its lateen sail flapping idly in the light air swept on the current into the mouth of the creek, swishing over a sandbar with the slightest of lurches.
“Just cleared that one.” Carruthers nodded sagely. In fact he knew almost nothing of the local language, although he had a few useful Swahili phrases by now, which usually produced the necessary results, along with repeating himself loudly in English and waving his arms about. As long as it fooled his clients, he didn’t care.
After landing safely, getting his supplies off and stowed under a nearby palm frond shelter, Carruthers paid the captain in Imperial pound notes, and watched him reboard his dhow. The wind had turned, along with the light tide, and there was enough to get the dhow out into the bay once more. Carruthers looked up as a commotion amongst the locals caught his attention.
“What are they shouting, Carruthers?”
“No idea. Some nonsense or other. We’d better get this lot divided into each day’s usage, and then I’ll find some local bearers.”
“Sounds like ‘mberiali’, or something like that.”
“Well, that’s not a Swahili word I know. Must be some local jargon. Stand by, old chap!” Carruthers shifted his attitude from dismissal to warning as the shorts-clad black-skinned youths came crowding round them, flashing whites of their eyes and teeth.
“Mberiali!” they shouted, reaching towards his arm. He reached for the pistol in his holster, and the crowd immediately fell silent, backing off. The ones at the back muttered something, and they turned and ran back down the beach.
“That showed them, what.” Sarson said, watching their departure.
“Just have to be firm with these native chaps. Don’t want them trying anything once you’re out in the jungle with them. You never know, some of them might be worth hiring.”
Carruthers left Sarson with the supplies while he went up the creek in search of a village. He knew it wouldn’t be far, since he could see outlines of wooden huts and a spiral of smoke rising up through the trees. Twenty minutes later he returned.
“That’s all fixed. Savvy tribal elder there, happy to get five of his men out to accompany us. Quick on the uptake, must have done sign language before. We’ll stay the night and move on at dawn. We’ll just take the two man tent inland a little. Fix it up and we can be snug inside the mosquito net before sundown.”
Three hours after dawn Carruthers called a rest stop.
“You’re new to this. Mustn’t overdo it on your first day.” He called one of the boys over, took two camp stools off his pack, together with a tripod, kettle and tin mug. “Let’s have a quick brew.” He mimed making a fire to one of the boys, and the local sped off to collect some sticks. Within a few minutes a small fire was heating up the water. “Must remember to boil up the next days’ supply of water each night,” he confided to Sarson. “Never know what might be in it.”
Sarson nodded, grateful this explorer knew so much.
“Did you hear strange noises last night,” he asked after sipping his tea for a while.
“Oh you shouldn’t worry about them. Hyenas, monkeys, all those sort of thing. Harmless, but make sure they can’t smell the food.”
“No, this was more like an engine. I couldn’t work out how far away it was, but it sounded almost like an old station wagon.”
“Probably some local variety of bush cricket.”
Sarson subsided and finished his tea.
“Ready to go, then?”
The trackless bush appeared to be riddled with paths.
“Animal runs. Probably hippo, or elephant. May be swamps ahead. Drat these flies.” Carruthers swatted another and pulled his cravat up to cover his nose and ears. Sarson copied him, then pulled it down again.
“What’s that awful smell?”
“Particularly bad swamp, probably. Possibly with rotten meat in it. Better take care not to disturb a big cat. Keep your rifle ready. I’ll just see what the boys think.” He sped up to the lead bearer, pointing in the general direction of the smell and holding his nose.
Sarson paused, swatting more flies; Africa was not his cup of tea after all. Carruthers returned.
“Stupid. Just chattered ‘see-sa’ and mimed climbing a rope. The others just said the same word. Hopeless. Never mind, we’re heading around it, I got them to understand that much.”
They continued on a slightly different tack, along yet another wide path, the smell of the swamp shifting to their left.
“If I didn’t know better, Carruthers, I’d say a jeep had been along here recently.”
“Jeep? I doubt it. Not out here. We’re fifty miles from anywhere likely to have gasoline, for a start.”
A few minutes later Sarson stopped.
“What now?” Carruthers was getting irritated.
“I just thought I could hear voices. And an engine noise. It’s ahead of us, not far, I think.”
“Imagination gets you out in these desolate places. All the colonials say that. You have to stick rigidly to proper British customs, tea on schedule, G&T at sundown, dress for dinner and all that. Otherwise you get the imagination going and boof — you’ve gone native.”
“All the same, old chap, it does sound like a motor.”
They came to the end of a stand of thick grass nearly the height of their heads. The native bearers were gathered in a group at the side, waiting.
“What now?” Carruthers strode forward.
“Hello, you on an expedition or something? Jolly good. My name’s Hawkins. And you are…?”
“Carruthers, and this is Sarson.” Carruthers covered his shock at seeing an impeccably dressed white man with a handlebar moustache, a red spotted cravat, khaki shirt and light serge trousers, by reverting to formal introductions.
“Patrick Sarson, son of the late Lord Sarson of …”
“What, old Charlie’s son? I was so sorry to hear of your father’s death. What are you doing out here?”
“Um, well, we’re exploring, searching for—”
“—Lord Sarson here was kind enough to sponsor my latest exploration, Hawkins. How do you come to be here?”
“Oh, you’re on my sisal estate. Just doing a recce for the next area to be planted. You’ve just come through it. Did you put up any bucks?”
“Oh, yes, we’ve got gazelles a-plenty here. Join us for dinner, I’ve got a little party going on.”
“Well, I’m afraid—”
“We’d love to!” Sarson stepped forward and climbed in the passenger seat. “Can you fit in the back there, Carruthers? I expect the local boys will follow on, won’t they?”
Carruthers spluttered, but climbed in.
“Just let me check on my other guests. Halloo! Do you want to go back with the others — found some more guests for this evening.”
Two men in khaki shirts and shorts, complete with pith helmets, waved back at him. They started walking through a field of drying sisal towards a station wagon at the further edge.
“So you were after the legendary Tanya vineyards, then?” Hawkins sat around with the rest of the men, drinking port after an excellent dinner.
“Well, I happen to have information on their location.” Carruthers was trying not to show his discomfort. If the vineyards were not a myth, these men would surely have found them.
“Well, I’m sure we can help you there.”
“You can?” Sarson’s hopes had fallen since they’d found that civilisation of a sort was not so far away.
“I expect so.” Hawkins turned to one of the young men they’d displaced from their host’s car. “What do you think, Pett? Any chance of doing a recce from the air?”
“Well, the pilots have never mentioned anything, but we could always call the Wilson Airways chap down and get him to take you up for a look.”
“That’s first class!” Sarson enthused.
“Pilots?” Carruthers said at the same time.
“Yes, our pilots in the flying boats are good look-outs, if they’d seen anything I’m sure they’d have said. They tip us off about animal migrations if they see them.”
“What are flying boats?” Carruthers was confused.
“Ah, that’s our latest service from London to Durban. There’s another service from London to Australia. Only started up four months ago. That’s why I’m here.”
“Aeroplanes. Land on water rather than on land. That’s why they’re flying boats. The natives decided to call them mberiali, because they’ve already got words for boat and plane, and these were something else, so they invented mberiali for Imperial Airways. Very clever, don’t you think?”
“Excellent. I suppose that’s why the boys on the beach waved frantically at our dhow when we arrived.” Sarson was with it now.
“Oh, was that your dhow? Yes, they made sure it wasn’t in the area the ‘boat was due to land in. They’re good boys, I find, as long as you know what’s what and aren’t afraid to get your hands dirty too.”
“So, Carruthers,” Sarson turned to him, “what do you think? Shall we get this Wilson fellow in and do an aerial recce? It would save a lot of effort.”
Carruthers tipped the rest of his port down his throat and coughed a few times.
His style of exploration seemed to be old hat now. He was a man of another vintage entirely.
“Yes, what an excellent idea,” he said faintly, holding out his glass to his host, who obliged by topping it up again.
Hawkins looked at Pett and winked. Carruthers had finally met his match.
Vintage Explorer © J M Pett 2017