I grew up in bars. I did, though. The favourite photograph of me as a three-year old is on Chibembe bar, wearing motorcycle goggles round my neck, red leather shoes, and clutching a red notebook.
For me there is nothing more comforting than the smooth solid wood of a bar counter. Sad isn't it? And I guess it may've caused a few problems in my life, but nothing I'm ashamed of. you're probably thinking that the quest for home and security shouldn't be sought in a drinking quarter. But firstly, it's not like that. And secondly, why the hell not?
Seriously though, for a child of safari camps, there was nothing like that ritual of coming home to the polished winterthorn counter and recounting tales of game sitings and who got stuck in which riverbed and who spotted a bird so rare they must be lying, or worse, misidentifying. (shudder). The clink of the grown-ups mosis, the smell of mosquito coils underfoot. At Chibembe it was more of a daytime thing. The 11 am ritual of trying to convince Bonkar that we were allowed a fizzy drink. No! 'minerals' are for paying guests. We could have lime juice. Occasionally, lime and soda. Did you know that adding salt to a lime and soda makes a thirst quencher like you never tasted before? Try it.
Of course a safari camp bar is only as good as its tender. And there have been two bar tenders in my life who can really claim to have had some formative influence. Daniel, and Chitumbi.
Daniel, of Chibembe and later Moondogs fame. The photo of me and the notebook has Daniel in the background, benign and amused. That man was a rock. And a great listener, which is of course an essential quality for the bar tender. Generosity and restraint are words that come to mind. Of course there were many teachers who raised me in that camp, from waiters who taught me how to do fancy napkin folding, to wild boymen who played islands in the dust with us. But Daniel nurtured in me an early ambition to make the perfect gin and tonic and make it right.
When I was a teenager and in my early 20s there was Chitumbi. Chitumbi the long suffering, oh-no-here-they-go-again headshaking host of a bar that saw many quiet watering rights battles.
Please guys, don't hang around the bar when the clients get back from their drives. Says the boss. Who will later be spread out on the bar like a candle left in the sun too long.
We the local riffraffs who eat all the peanuts before you can say "so, did you see a leopard?"
We shuffle off to the fire while they have their dinner and recolonise when they go to bed. And then the elegant joustings to try and get the keys off unbudging Chitums. He of the ever-pert bow-tie. He who has slowly mellowed and laxed his stern looks over the years. Well, whats a man to do?
When all your bosses over years have submitted to the wobbly candle act and stumbled home without a torch, stopping for a piss by chalet 8. And you've witnessed the problem solving, backstabbing and petty gossip of whose sleeping with who and who didn't switch off their spotlight on the nightdrive and whos corrupt in Zawa and whos eaten the bloody peanuts. Chitums who cycles to work past elephants and staunchly holds on to the bar keys past midnight. Chitums who can always organise another bowl of peanuts if you ask right. And if, like me, you were schooled by the best, you might even know the secret of how to get hold of those keys after midnight.