Guide books should teach one to say “What the hell?” in the local lingo
The campsite was clearly marked on the map and equally clearly wasn’t on the ground. Some bright spark had put in a wrong GPS position and invented a campsite on paper that would never exist on earth.
Giant shade trees on the banks of a small chuckling stream. The cacophony of a canopy-full of colourful birds. There’d have been monkeys. And probably a host of other forest critters. But no cleared piece of ground for a human to put up a tent.
The perfect position for a camp, we agreed, giving up any hope of staying there and pushing deeper into sparsely-populated central Tanzania. The Chinese were re-building the road; we zigzagged across it and alongside it on deeply rutted and potholed truck tracks. It was getting dark. We needed lodgings.
On a section strewn with boulders kicked up by monstrous oriental graders, our increasingly incompetent map showed a plethora of small towns which turned out to be barely more evident than the idyllic forest camp.
There was equally nowhere to pitch a tent in the bigger town of Kondoa, on an unannounced detour off the under-construction future Chinese timber-poaching artery, so we passed instead through the portals of the Grand New Geneva Hotel In Africa.
A power failure throughout the town saw an askari night-watchman lead us by the dim light of a cellphone screen down a long white-tiled corridor to a room named ‘Lion’, sporting a couple of adequate beds and a shower and loo which appeared to be connected to a water supply. More astonishingly, the shower would later turn out to be hot, although with all the pressure of fine Scotch mist.
But that was later. The priority now was food and we ventured out into the darkened streets, where the night air was filled with shouting and laughter although we could barely make anybody out in the gloom.
Here and there a guttering candle gave away a stall selling biscuits, pots and pans and soap, but we hadn’t eaten all day, so a packet of Maries wasn’t going to sustain us. We ducked down a particularly rowdy side-street.
Half-way along, the light of a couple of paraffin lamps spilled out onto the roadside, throwing ugly jumping shadows of drain-strewn litter onto the walls. On crumpling garish plastic chairs sat two dozen people at non-matching tables, drinking milky Swahili coffee and tucking into omelettes and chips. We looked around for a kitchen.
There would be no English here and our Swahili was limited to dated greetings gleaned from a guidebook of the kind that teaches you how to say “Is it possible to buy toothpaste on this train?” but not how to ask “What is that spiky-looking thing lurking in the corner of that broken glass-fronted warmer?”
We pointed to said spiky-looking thing and shrugged our shoulders in enquiry to a busy-looking owner. He glanced at the thing, looked back at us and said “Hedgehog”. Eish!
We tried to order an omelette but the eggs had run out so – what the hell? – we pointed to the hedgehog after all. We’d give it a go. With tepid soggy chips and lots of taste-masking chilli sauce.
Gingerly prodding it with a knife to split it, we pushed though the spikes into the hard crust, expecting an explosion, any moment, of little hedgehog guts. Nothing.
The hedgehog was a batter-spiked scotch egg. Hedgehog. Scotch Egg. I suppose they sound similar.
But had we wanted a real hedgehog, there would still be plenty creeping around the forest where the campsite was supposed to be, we thought. Until the Chinese discover them, that is.