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The Queen was an afterthought. Long before we heard of her, we hatched the scheme in Africa—in Zimbabwe, on the Zambezi, in a canoe. In the long white afternoon, the intensity of the sun propelled us, lightheaded, into a reedy little backwater to rest. We drew the four canoes together, and Dave, our guide, opened a cooler and pitched us bottles of warm Coke. I dipped my bandana in the river, wrapped it around my eyes, smarting from the glint of sun on water, and lay back against the thwart, half dozing, embraced by my friends’ banter. Images of the African morning played upon the inside of my eyelids: Elephants showering in the shallows at the river’s edge. Crocodiles lying like logs against the banks, innocent and sinister. A flight of carmine bee-eaters darting from their nests in the riverbank, flinging themselves like rubies over the bright water. Now, as heat enveloped us, pressing our bodies as a lover might, everything grew still as all that had gone before and all that was to come converged upon this single suspended moment that was both dream and reality: Africa.
Of course we couldn’t bear perfection. Who first pitched dream trips into the silence I can’t recall, but my companions leaped upon the subject, describing half a dozen places that might be better—more beautiful, more exciting, more perfect than this. It’s the subject that always comes up among travelers: Where do you really want to go? Someone spoke of Timbuktu: of camels and drifting coppery dunes, and blue-robed masked men slim as swords. Another spoke of rain forests along the Congo: of furtive okapis and tiny Pygmies hunting with nets, and women who make houses out of leaves. Someone spoke of the Skeleton Coast: of ships flung inland among desert elephants, and lions prowling among seals on the beach. And then a British voice was saying: “I’ve always been keen to drive all the way through Africa.”
This was Kevin Muggleton, a photographer from pastoral Wiltshire. He spoke offhandedly with an easy tantalizing laugh. Not even Muggleton could seriously make this proposition: to drive from one end of Africa to the other. But his voice carried a decidedly un-British edge of enthusiasm that drew me out of this moment—relaxed and contemplative in a green canoe on a blue river in the heart of Africa—and flung me by the sheer force of its vitality into an uncertain and adventurous future. “It’s classic,” Muggleton said. “You know, the old ‘Cape to Cairo’ sort of thing.” That’s all it took. Later I stumbled upon the Queen and used her as a good excuse, but in fact I decided everything in that moment.
When I was a kid, my father’s idea of a good time was to get in the car and drive somewhere. Anywhere. Anything to escape the malicious carping that passed for family life in our house. “Want to take a little ride in the jalopy, kiddo?” he’d say to me when tension sucked the air from our kitchen, and off we’d go in the old green Ford for a few hours or a few days. Even in winter we’d roll down the windows for a faceful of wind. We’d go where my father felt like going and head home when he was laughing again and felt like going back. Maybe he had a plan all along, but he never let on. To me and my dog, Lady, this aimless wandering was bliss. When I grew up I labeled it “travel” and kept at it, which is how I came to be lazing in a canoe on the Zambezi in the first place.
I lifted my bandana and squinted up at Muggleton in the next canoe. He was young, big, tall, lean. He’d grown up in Hong Kong, a military brat, gone to boarding school in England, and after Sandhurst done a stint as an officer in the British equivalent of the Green Berets. Later he’d started a video business in Victoria Falls, and once, for the hell of it, he’d walked through South America. If ever a man was qualified to go anywhere, Muggleton was it. He had the right attitude for the job too, perhaps because he was one of the last known male descendants of Prophet Muggleton, the seventeenth-century English sectarian who taught that “God takes no notice of us.” That dogma left the younger Muggleton self-reliant and endlessly amused by the human comedy, if also somewhat slack in his moral scruples.
"Me too,"I said.
"Great news," he said. And then he asked me: "Do you want to take a little ride?"
Everybody laughed. I laughed. I closed my eyes against the light and mulled it over. We’d been on the river for days—we being four American journalists; Diane, the travel executive who’d invited us on a press trip; Dave, the guide; and Muggleton. We’d run into Muggleton, an old friend of Diane’s, in Victoria Falls just after most of the journalists confessed to her that they’d significantly exaggerated their experience in canoeing. We were scheduled to leave for the Zambezi, a big river full of crocodiles and hippos, and Diane was desperate to bring her journalists back alive. She asked Muggleton to come along. He was a man who could paddle his own canoe.
That was supposed to give us an experienced paddler in the stern of each of our four canoes: Dave in the lead canoe, Muggleton, a journalist named George, and me. About George. He was young, like Muggleton. But that was all they had in common. George was a feature writer from a Midwestern daily, on his first trip to Africa—his first trip, I believe, outside the United States. He called Africa "The Dark Continent," intoning the phrase in a deep booming voice, pausing ever so slightly between the words for emphasis, utterly untroubled by the racist history and implications of the label. George had done some research on Africa. He’d read Bartle Bull’s big glossy book on safaris. He’d studied the extravagant exploits of several Victorian adventurers. He’d read up on Tarzan and the man-eating lions of Tsavo. He knew that The Dark Continent was a place of prodigious peril, fraught with dangers, yet his reading had taught him that a man could face those dangers and surmount them. A man like Sir Richard Burton, for example, or David Livingstone or Henry Morton Stanley. A man could be a hero. (My own hero was Mary Kingsley, who had contrived to explore West Africa without shooting a single local resident, but I could tell she wouldn’t figure in George’s fantasy.)
George wore the hero’s clothes. He’d assembled a natty khaki safari outfit—all tabs and flaps and epaulets—such as Robert Redford wore in Out of Africa, such as even Denys Finch Hatton himself might have worn had he been able to avail himself of permanent press. He wore a Leatherman Super Tool on his belt and a large sheathed knife like the one Tarzan whips out of his loincloth when caught unawares by a crocodile. Even the strap securing his safari hat under his chin spoke not of sissyhood but of forethought and preparedness. When we walked down to the canoes to begin our river trip, George carried his paddle at the ready like an elephant gun.
That’s when he turned to Dave and boomed: "If hippos attack and overturn your canoe, is it better to swim for shore on the surface or underwater?" The question astonished me. Could a person really plan a thing like that? I wondered. Where did forethought cross the line into fruitless worry? But George had been asking questions like that all along, directing them at Dave, the expert. "Are there any man-eating black mambas around here?" he asked on the manicured lawn of our hotel in Victoria Falls. "If a lion attacks, is it better to climb a tree or make a run for it?" "When elephants charge your Land Rover, should you stay in the vehicle?" Dave was a pro—unflappable and unsurprised. But this time, when George asked for help with his hippo-escape plans, I saw Dave glance up quickly, stifling a smile and careful to avoid catching the eye of Muggleton, who was bent double over his paddle, rolling his eyes and miming hysterical laughter.
“In a case like that,” Dave said, straight-faced, “you should just swim, George. Just swim.” Then, watching as George stepped boldly into his canoe and almost overturned it, Dave added: “When we’re on the river, George, why don’t you keep right behind me?”
With another journalist named Bob in the bow, I was designated to pilot the third canoe, right behind George and his bowman, Kenny. Muggleton, with Diane in the bow, was assigned to bring up the rear. Dave peeled off from the bank, and Muggleton pushed George’s canoe off into Dave’s wake before jumping into his own boat. I slipped into line behind George and watched his canoe begin to weave. I could hear him booming out to his partner, Kenny, "Paddle on the left. No! Paddle on the right. Faster!" —all the while shifting his own paddle from one side of the canoe to the other. Dave swung about and tactfully offered us all a quick refresher course on basic canoe strokes. Muggleton sidled his canoe up beside mine. I knew without looking that he was fairly shaking with repressed laughter.
"Could you let us see that one again, Dave?" he called. "That’s a bloody tricky stroke."
So that’s how we went down the river—with Dave always looking over his shoulder, keeping one eye on George; me hanging back every time George’s canoe took another wide swing abreast of the current; and Muggleton hanging in beside me, cracking jokes behind a mask of sublime innocence while Diane watched out ahead for hippos and held her breath. "I wish I could make those little circles," Muggleton would say as George’s canoe spun aimlessly, out of control. "How does he do that?"
Following Dave’s lead, we kept close to shore, and each time we came upon a pod of hippos lazing on a sandbar, we moved closer still, to hug the riverbank and scoot past them at a safe distance. The biggest hippos grunted and roared and opened enormous jaws in a threatening display of armament. When they thought we’d come too close, they rose up and charged as we sped through the narrow passage between them and the bank. Hippos are big and fast, and from the human point of view the most dangerous wild creatures in Africa. At that critical moment, when they considered shifting gears from intimidation to serious attack, we needed speed and luck on our side. "Dig in!" Dave would sing out, and we’d dig.
Once, when we cut it close, something happened to George. Maybe he panicked. Or maybe he saw an opportunity at last to be a hero. In any case, he undertook to steer. As we drove forward, George’s canoe sheared off from the line and wobbled along a new trajectory toward the threatening hippos. From the bow, where Kenny perched, utterly exposed, like an offering being delivered to the river gods, came a strangled cry: "George! Oh my god, George!" Kenny snatched his paddle from the water and held it in front of him like a spear, at the same time twisting about to aim his full-throated scream at George. The canoe lurched under his weight and spun until it faced upstream, where it hung just out of reach of an onrushing hippo until the current sucked it suddenly downstream, backward, to safety.
That evening we made camp on the riverbank. As we gathered around a campfire for our nightly ration of maize meal and stew, everyone congratulated George and Kenny on their narrow escape. "I could see right down that hippo’s throat," Kenny kept saying. "I mean, I could see his tonsils. I could count his goddamn cavities." The sun falling behind the convoluted mountains of Zambia on the far shore shone on the water, and the great river wound a bloody path into the darkness downstream. In a moment the river silvered, a strip of tinsel in the deepening dark. Then it was gone, vanished into the African night.
George’s voice boomed out of the darkness: "Say, Dave, what time do the malaria-carrying mosquitos come out?"
"They’ll be along any time now," Dave said.
"Is it best to put on insect repellent and get inside your tent?" George asked.
"Good plan, George," Muggleton chimed in. "Good man."
Later I was awakened in the night. Under cover of darkness, the great river horses—the hippos—had come out of the water to graze among our tents. All around me I could hear their slow soft munching, and from the tent next to mine, a sharper sound—the high keen rasping sobs of Muggleton struggling to stifle a fit of laughter.
I mention George because his ineptitude helped seal my decision to go for a ride with Muggleton. Poor George posed a danger to himself and others on a simple camping trip, but his incompetence amplified by contrast the easy strength and capability of Muggleton. His deadly seriousness pointed up Muggleton’s freewheeling wicked wit. Next to George, Muggleton seemed peerless: a man you could count on to get the job done and keep you laughing all the while. Bitsy was with us too, the only other female journalist on the trip. In the first days she’d fallen off a horse and doctored herself with enough Valium and Prozac to precipitate total collapse and a night in the Victoria Falls hospital, watched over by Diane. On the river, unable to paddle at all, she sat huddled under her safari hat in the bow of Dave’s canoe, popping pills and periodically replenishing her sunblock, while Muggleton and I, side by side, guided our canoes downriver. Just as Muggleton was not George, I was not Bitsy. In our superiority we became conspiratorial and daring. It didn’t occur to me to wonder what might happen when Muggleton reached the limits of his skill, or how heartlessly he might laugh when I reached the limits of mine. And I don’t think it occurred to either of us that in our overland journey across Africa, we wouldn’t be traveling by canoe. We shrugged off such reasonable reservations, and by the time we returned to Vic Falls, we had reached an understanding. We would go.
. . .
A couple of months later Muggleton, Dave, and Diane showed up at my New York apartment and we walked over to Milady’s Bar in SoHo for breakfast. Diane, who runs her travel business out of New York and Harare, had brought Dave to the States to publicize Zimbabwe at an adventure-travel conference. Muggleton, who had a near-fatal crush on Diane, had appeared uninvited for a visit. We talked over vehicles and routes for our trans-African expedition and points along the way where Dave or Diane might join us. Anything seemed possible.
"What do you think it will cost?" Dave asked.
Muggleton shrugged. "We’ll get sponsors," he said. "They’ll pay us."
"Why?" Dave asked. "What for?"
"For making the bloody expedition," Muggleton said. "Why not?"
"No offense, mate," Dave said, "but we drive around Africa all the time. Nobody pays us for it. We live there. If you want to call your trip an expedition, don’t you have to have a mission or something?"
"Right," Muggleton said. "A mission." He turned to me. "A bloody mission."
That very afternoon we found one at the Museum of Natural History. We took the subway uptown, hoping that in the African sections of the great museum we would find inspiration. There, in one of the cavernous halls of African animals, some drummers and dancers from East Africa were performing. I stood among the little crowd, mostly schoolchildren with their teachers, and let the boom-boom-booming of the drums carry me away. The dancing women, wrapped in red, shuffled and swayed as if blown about by the rise and fall of a fine hot wind. Behind them lions prowled in the yellow grass of a diorama.
After the dance I traipsed after Muggleton, who was wandering slowly through the Hall of African Peoples. And there I came upon a glass case containing a display of artifacts associated with the lives of Bantu women: pots, pandanus mats, beer strainers woven of grass. Reading a caption neatly lettered on a card affixed to the case, I was struck suddenly by a tiny dependent clause buried deep in the middle of the paragraph. Somehow I’d missed this sentence on previous visits to the museum, but now it stopped me.
Except for a few tribes like the Lovedu, where women rule, they seem unimportant in political life. Did some mad feminist lurk in the back rooms of the museum, writing subversive signs? Or could it be true? Women, perhaps, like the dancers I’d seen? Tall. Serene. Splendid. Could there be such a place?
I dragged Muggleton over to the exhibit. “Read that!” I said. "There’s our mission." I felt inspired. Triumphant. 'We’ll go looking for Lovedu. We’ll find the tribe where women rule. We’ll pay homage to the Queen. There must be a queen."
Muggleton read the caption again, his forehead creased with concern.
"This queen business," he said. "You’re not looking for some ancient matriarchy, are you? Some feminist la-la-land?"
I hesitated only a moment, pondering the tenderness of the masculine ego. "Well, yes and no," I said. "I don’t have an axe to grind, if that’s what you mean. But I admit I’m very curious to see a land ‘where women rule.’ Wouldn’t you find it interesting to hear from the Queen?"
"I have a queen," he said. "And Mrs. Thatcher."
Muggleton studied the grass mats in the display case as if he might find a clue encoded in the woven designs. "Can we visit some other tribes as well?" he said. "Pygmies perhaps? Or Masai? Or Ndebele?"
"Of course," I said. Why was he suddenly so serious? So hesitant?
"I’d rather like to visit some tribes where men still have something to say."
"No problem," I said. "How can we miss them? Men always have something to say."
Muggleton didn’t smile. What had become of his irrepressible sense of humor?
"You’re not going to go all wobbly on me, are you?" he said. "You’re not going to wind yourself up for that mystical hoo-ha?"
"What are you talking about?"
"All that new-age born-again life-changing nonsense you bloody Americans are always going on about. You know. Spiritual growth."
"No, no, Muggleton. I promise. I never grow."
"You’re sure you’re not going in search of your true self?"
"I am my true self!" I said. "Anyway, all that transformation stuff is just a literary cliché. Somebody takes a trip, has some ‘peak experience,’ and comes back a new person."
"It’s wish fulfillment," I said. "It’s what a lot of travelers hope for. But in real life it doesn’t happen. People come back from exotic holidays talking about how it changed their lives; but there they are—same house, same job, same relationship, same tax loopholes. So what’s changed?"
"Exactly," Muggleton said. "So let’s just make an expedition."
"C’mon, Muggleton," I coaxed. "You heard Dave. We’ve got to come up with an official purpose to justify the journey. And what could be better than this? Looking for Lovedu." I pronounced it "love-dew," making it sound like some kind of romantic elixir. (It was months before we learned to say correctly: "low-BAY-doo.")
"Looking for Love-Due," Muggleton echoed. "It does have a certain ring."
We shook hands on it. Our mission was agreed.
From the Hardcover edition.