|“Do you know how many years I have waited for this?” I asked Johnno, a huge grin on my face.
“Yes, I know, Debbie,” he replied, with a long suffering smile. “But now it’s finally happening, so shut up until we get there.” And he leaned back and closed his eyes.
I smiled, not offended in the least by my brother, and gazed out of the window. We’d traveled overnight from a cold UK, to a sunny South Africa, and now the final part of our trip was in a small charter plane. This is for you, Dad, as I mentally blew him a kiss. Dad had emigrated here forty years before, and been part of the stand against apartheid. He had been forced to flee the country, and had to take his beloved treasures from his home and hide them in the Dukuduku forests along the Northern Kwazulu Coast. As much as there had been changes, this part of Southern Africa was still pretty mainly unchanged, and the forests here had been preserved as part of a conservation drive. Hopefully, the place where he had left his “treasures” would be part of the preserved part.
“This is so different to our concrete jungle back home,” I commented, as we bumped over the sandy almost non-existent road with our pre-booked guide in the Range Rover. I held on tightly to the seat in front of me as we bounced along. “These seats aren't the most comfortable,” I added between gritted teeth.
The vegetation was thick around us, Banana Palms, Wattles, tall Blue Gums , the invasive Triffid Weed which threatened to engulf all the smaller plants of the area. The hum of insects was loud, and the heat stifling. I could feel the perspiration running down my face, and in the small of my back. The blazing sun beat down on my head and shoulders though I had remembered to wear a hat. Johnno hadn't. Abruptly, the driver skidded the car to a halt, and spoke in Zulu and broken English, gesticulating and shaking his head, clearly agitated.
“Aikona, no more. No drive – tokoloshe come,” he said, his eyes white and round in his black face. He turned and ran back along the road we had come.
“What the hell!” Johnno said, looking at me in annoyance. “How can he just run off like that?. You’ve been reading up about this area. What’s a toko….whatever he said it was?”
“It’s an evil spirit that the Zulus – the blacks believe in. They use them to ward off their perceived enemies,” I replied.
“We're the enemy?? ” Johnno said, and climbed into the driver’s side of the jeep. I moved to the front passenger side trying to remember what else I had read.
After a few minutes I realised we weren’t moving. Johnno swore and climbed out the jeep.
“The car won’t start. It was fine when old mojo was driving it and now the engine won’t turn over.” He lifted the bonnet, and fiddled about, but nothing happened, and now I noticed that the hum of insects had stopped. It was deathly quiet. Eerily quiet.
“Johnno, have you noticed how quiet it is?” I whispered, leaning forward in my seat. The vehicle was an open one, and we had no protection from the elements …. or anything else.
“I had noticed, Debs. I didn’t want to say anything. We’re pretty close to where we’re supposed to be, according to Sipho before he disappeared, and I don't know how we’re supposed to get back.” I knew my brother well enough to see he was worried. It was June, summer back home, but winter here and it gets dark much more quickly. I reminded Johnno.
“I know, but I don’t think we have a choice,” he replied and so I helped him take the tent bag from the back of the jeep. We busied ourselves listening all the while for the sound of the insects to resume. Nothing.
And then the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end as I heard the snap of a twig in the undergrowth. We both froze, looking at each other. Maybe an animal, I hoped wildly. We had nothing. No guns. Just a Swiss army knife, and I realized how unprepared we were.
We heard another twig, to the far side of the jeep, not near the first one. And as we stood, semi crouched in place, I heard the sound of drum beats, a savage, rhythmic, barbaric sound that weakened my knees, and churned my stomach to liquid.
“Get in the jeep,”Johnno said softly.
“It won’t help,” I replied but climbed in nevertheless. Johnno stood in front of the jeep, facing the forest.
“Who’s there?" He called out, “Come out slowly, I have a gun.” I knew he didn’t but in the darkening evening, it was difficult to see that the tent pole in his hand wasn’t a gun. A guttural sound emanated from the forest; from in front of him, to behind me, to the left hand side, and then the right, first on its own and then synchronized, a long, wavering, high-pitched vocal sound resembling a howl with a trilling quality.
It scared the hell out of me, and I could see Johnno step backwards towards the car. Then silence again. We waited. And waited. As soon as Johnno moved, it started again. Wavering, high, then tapering off to silence. This time he moved and climbed in next to me. I clutched his arm, my back, neck and shoulders ached from the tension I felt, my throat was dry, parched, my eyes burned from straining to see into the depths of the bush around us.
And then darkness surrounded us and they came. Black bodies, wearing loin cloths, the moonlight shimmered on their oiled skin, the white of their eyes and teeth the only thing we could see. And then the pain! Pounding. Noise. Screams.Theirs triumphant. Ours agonized. Then silence.