Travel and travellers have changed drastically since I was a boy in the late Pleistocene. For instance, I was in the Okavango Swamps in Botswana not long ago where I realised how neurotic tourists were about insect bites. One evening, an English family became almost hysterical when the father found he had an itchy raised spot on his arm – probably a mosquito bite.
Amid the hubbub my mind went back to a 2010 travel conference in Britain where a travel agent said that British travellers to Africa flew into a panic if they were bitten “by just about anything”.
The British – that one-time nation of intrepid explorers – never used to be like this…
1850. The scene – The early morning mist lifts to reveal a small camp in Africa.
Ponsonby (walking into his companion’s tent): What ho, Carruthers! I say! Still in bed?
Carruthers: Be up in a jiffy old bean. Had a tiresome night.
Ponsonby: Not well, old boy?
Carruthers: Actually dear boy I was bitten during the night.
Ponsonby (noticing Carruthers’ leg has been torn off at the knee): I say, that IS a nasty bite!
Carruthers: Lion. Tried to carry me off! I’m surprised you didn’t hear the commotion – though I tried not to wake everybody.
Ponsonby: I say! But how are we going to cross the Semliki?
Carruthers: My dear Ponsonby, it’s a bite. That’s all. I’ll be tickety-boo after a cup of tea.
Ponsonby: But what if we run into the waHitto and have to make a run for it?
Carruthers: My dear boy, you worry so. Be a good man and help me to my feet. Or, rather, my foot! Ha ha ha. That was rather droll, what?
Ponsonby helps Carruthers to his foot.
They make their way through the jungle occasionally beating off creatures unknown to science. Inevitably Carruthers’ bloody stump attracts hyenas. One bites off his arm.
Carruthers: I say, Ponsonby, I’m dashed if I haven’t been bitten again!
Ponsonby: What beastly luck. Here, try some more Peaceful Sleep.
In crossing the river Ponsonby is bitten by a crocodile. Stifles a curse. On the far bank he whispers: Don’t look now but we are surrounded!
Try as he might not to look, Carruthers just has to peep. He finds himself touching eyeballs with a fierce waHitto warrior leading a war party.
Ponsonby (addresses them): My dear chaps, we come in peace for all mankind. And also womankind of course. We just want your land in the name of the Great White Queen, that’s all. Of course, if you want something for it… A bag of salt maybe? Beads? We have some lovely beads.
The tallest warrior signals in sign language: Chief Lambile, Chief of Chiefs, Lion Among Men, sends cordial greetings to the bwanas and says he would be awfully glad if I brought you fellows back for dinner.
Carruthers: How dashed decent of him!
Ponsonby (whispering): For goodness sake Carruthers! When the chief says he wants us for dinner I rather think he wants to casserole us. We must hop it!
Carruthers: That’s all I can do is “hop it”. Ha ha ha. (Then, becoming serious) Look, Ponsonby old boy, you make a dash for it. You’ve got twice as many legs as I have and the waHitto probably see me as being perfectly ’armless. Ha ha ha! There I go again. Armless! I’ll distract them with my rendition of Greensleeves until you are safely away.
The waHittos, fascinated at first by Carruthers’ quite beautiful singing (under the circumstances), become restless and close in with their spears.
Carruthers switches to God Save the Queen as best he can while maintaining a stiff upper lip. The spears sink home.
Carruthers: Ouch! (Dies)
Extract from “Recalculating”, a new book of travel humour by James Clarke. Available on Kindle or Smashword