Our 3:30pm departure stretched to 4:45pm as we finally heard the buzz of our Safari Lodge boat approach the Shell Jetty near Plaine Village. By now the two-hour boat trip would deliver Lisa, Carla and myself to Safari Lodge in Sette Cama on the other side of sunset. Not that there would be a sun to set. The sky was hanging heavy and low with fractured gray clouds threatening any moment to deliver the promise of the rainy season.
Our crew, busying themselves with securing extra provisions of fuel, consisted of Jean-Alain, our guide, the boat captain and assistant, and menagére, Patricia, on her way to Safari Lodge. We completed our load to capacity and pushed off, the 90HP motor plowing the Africa-weary fiberglas tri-hull across N’Dogo Lagoon. A half-hour into our adventure, the crew swaps out a gas tank and shortly after restarting, our hum of progress is punctured by unplanned silence. We turn to see that the engine cover has been removed, and after some adjustment, we realize that the engine is broken. We are soon informed that the back-up is to ring Plaine Village for assistance. Our crew of four is now holding cell-phones to the sky in an attempt to snare a signal from the village. Four phone screens glow with an odd cheerfulness as it becomes evident that Plaine Village cannot hear us now. The back-up plan now evolves to drift to open water where there may be a better signal, or prepare for a night on the water, whichever comes first, I guess.
I spied a paddle in the bottom of the boat, a paddle apparently regarded with scorn, so with hand gestures and butchered french, I offer to start paddling. But no. As a guest of Safari Lodge, I am not allowed to paddle. Jean-Alain takes up this seemingly hopeless task as we drift in a light breeze through the narrow channel, spinning a slow pirouette towards the open water of the silent lagoon. A solitary tern appears suspended over our heads, balancing in the light breeze on delicate wings, and settles gently on the foredeck. It seems unafraid and gives Carla hope that we will be rescued soon.
Trying to assist in some small way, I fashion a makeshift sail from a rain smock, catching puffs of evening breeze. Taking a compass bearing, I glass the horizon to find a landmark and see what appears to be a small hazy village on the distant horizon, perhaps five kilometres away. The village of Mougambi, a point of light on an island hilltop, penetrates the failing light. Too far away, laughs our crew. For Lisa, Carla and myself, who are not laughing, it is the only plan left.
My headlamp directs an S-O-S in the direction of Mougambi at 10 minute intervals. By the fading glow of Plaine Village and a well-head burn to our north, we could just discern the wash of night sky from blackness of islands and the bottomless dark of the lagoon subterraine. To allay fears of our boat marooned in a pool of night, Carla talks incessantly, updating us on lives of mutual friends, recent movies, the life of Voltaire, and the location of insurance policies, emergency contacts, and how much she appreciates our level-headedness.
We drift past islands of fragrant night-blooming mystery, enchanted by staccato melodies of insect chorus, passing an inquisitive set of large glowing yellow-green eyes that gaze on our progress from the swirling night water. Hippo? Crocodile? Manatee? Have we discovered the N’Dogo version of Loch Ness monster? We bob in and out of rain squalls and shifting breezes, focussed on the light of the village before us as we inch closer, hour by hour. The village of approximately 30 residents appears to be asleep. No one in view beneath the beacon. A flying fox, illuminated beneath the lamp, darts through the mangoes to disappear in the blackness.
By midnight, we are a hundred yards from the island, only to discover no landing. Changing course, we battle another hour through several hundred yards of charging currents to round the point of the island and enter a sheltered cove and landing. Having seen our S-O-S, the village is awake and awaiting our arrival, though uncommitted to our rescue. Jean-Alain convinced a loan of a 40HP motor and went to work installing alongside the failed 90HP. Our captain clears the fuel line of water by squeeze-bulbing fuel into water beneath the dock, above which the village men stand smoking their cigarettes in disregard. I back off the dock in horror of impending calamity, fearing if the fuel caught a cigarette spark, not only would the dock and boat be engulfed in flame, but the additional fuel on board would surely create a spectacle. No such nightmare unfolded outside the bounds of my tired imagination, and we were soon on our way, now at half-speed, to arrive at Safari Lodge by 1:45am.
My headlamp illuminates a dark and sleepy landing, our arrival noticed only by crickets and frogs. Jean-Alain disappears into the night to rouse our hosts, and we stumble up the landing to collapse on deck. Welcome to Safari Lodge.