Mountains of the Moon 6
To mountains of the moon
Alvarez survived that night, and partly thanks to Shankar’s care, was on his feet within a couple of weeks. Another week later, he said it was time to move on. Shankar knew what he wanted. He said: Do you remember what you said that night? About the yellow diamond?
The old man had been silent about his past after the first night. In fact, most of the time Alvarez just sat there silently. He replied: You know, it’s not that I haven’t thought about it. But are you brave enough to chase the rainbow?
Shankar: May be I am, may be not. Only one way to find out. If you’re game then I’ll wire the company today to find a replacement for me.
Alvarez: Wire them then. But think about it first. Prospecting more often than not leads to nothing. I know an eighty years old who found nothing — but every time he claimed to have come close. Spent his entire life prospecting Australian deserts and African veldts.
It was another ten days or so before they headed out. First stop was Kisumu. From there they took a steamer to Mwanza, across the Lake Victoria. It was a British steamer. Cabin was reserved for whites only. They took the deck. Other passengers included African women with children at the back, and a group of Masai coolies going home on leave.
From Mwanza, the next destination was Tabora, three hundred miles south. From then they went to Ujiji, a port on the Lake Tanganyika, another three hundred miles west.
Alvarez warned Shankar about travelling through Tanganyika: Tanganyika is a very dangerous place. There is a kind of fly here, if it bites you get sleeping sickness. There’s no cure for that.
Most of the trek was grasslands. And this was just as much a lion territory as Kenya was.
At one place there were thousands of giraffe, zebra and deer. Shankar had never seen so many animals in his life. Giraffes were not afraid of them at all. But the deers were very frisky.
There was a small bungalow about ten miles out of Tabora. An European hunter was staying there. He was very happy to see Alvarez. Seeing Shankar, he asked: An East Indian. Where did you get him? Your coolie?
Alvarez: My son.
How do you mean?
Alvarez described in great detail how Shankar had saved his life. Of course he didn’t mention where they were heading, or for what purpose.
The hunter was very impressed. He invited them into the bungalow for the night. They had canned sardine and tomato juice for dinner.
The hunter had a small gramophone. He put on a record. They were talking about the new railways when a lion was heard from rather close. The hunter said: Tanganyika is full of lions, and compared with elsewhere in East Africa, there seems to be more man eaters.
They started again the following morning. The hunter also warned them about the tsetse fly.
Their trek cut through the grasslands. Alvarez said: Be very careful, and stay right behind me. There are definitely lions around.
Alvarez was what one would call a crack shot, that is, he seldom missed. But Shankar was not reassured. After all, he saw in Kenya that when the lion attacked, it was so swift that one wouldn’t have enough time to even load the rifle.
They had to camp in the middle of nowhere. Until then, they had stayed in a village or town every night. Alvarez said: There’s no village until Kigoma, and that is still fifty miles away.
It was well after the midnight when Alvarez awoke Shankar: Get up. There’s a beast outside. Get your gun ready.
Shankar heard the beast, or rather, he heard its heavy breathing. Shankar was about to get our of the bed when the old man stopped him. The very next moment, the beast tried to push into the camp. Alvarez fired two shots. Shankar also fired a shot.
And then it became quiet.
Tip toeing outside the tent with the torchlight on, they saw a huge lion pushing into the eastern side of the tent.
It hadn’t died yet, but was severly injured. Two more bullets and it breathed its last breath.
Looking at the starlit sky, Alvarez said: There is a lot night left. Leave that here. Let’s finish our sleep. Both returned to the tent — soon enough Shankar was surprised to notice Alvarez snoring. Shankar couldn’t sleep.
Within half an hour, it appeared to Shankar that all the lions of Tanganyika started roaring in competition with Alvarez’s snore. That was one awesome roar. It wasn’t the first time that Shankar heard lions roar, but this was a night he would always remember. The roar was from within 20 feet of the camp.
Alvarez woke up again. Said: Ah, not letting us sleep. Must be the partner of the other lion. Be careful. Nasty beast.
A very troubling night. The campfire was almost dead. Beyond that, darkness. The only separation between them and the beast bereaving its companion is the fabric of the tent. Roaring loudly the beast sometimes comes close to the tent, sometimes moves away, sometimes circles it. The lion left just before dawn. They also started their journey.