Herbie stood on the edge of the runway watching the Cessna plane, his flight out of the remote African Ocean island, disappear into the distance without him.
It had been the fulfilment of a lifetime’s dream to come to the island to see the natural habitat. But in that moment, as the four-man aeroplane grew ever smaller in the sky, the flora and fauna of this place were far from Herbie’s thoughts.
As he watched his ticket home finally disappear from view, Herbie’s vision blurred and panic began to build in his chest. Feeling suddenly light-headed, he sank heavily down to the crusty earth.
What to do?
First of all, he needed to get out of the sun. The heat, despite the early hour, was already flaying his skin and sapping his willpower.
“Get a grip, Herbert” he scolded himself.
Unsteadily Herbie rose to his feet and looked around for shade. The light scrub by the dirt runway was useless, but a row of baobab trees on a slight ridge caught his eye and he started in that direction.
These monstrosities of trees with their massive bare trunks and flimsy foliage high above offered little in the way of cover, but he could at least shelter on their lee side for a while – until the sun was directly overhead.
Herbie reached the baobabs and squatted by the largest of them. He began to take stock of his situation.
Nothing remained of the camp that the expedition had made their home for the past week. There was no help to be had there, and the only provisions that Herbie had were in his backpack: three energy bars, a thermos with half a litre of water, and his medication. A dead mobile phone.
That was all. Herbie swore softly to himself.
“Might they come back for me?” he thought, but instinct crushed that hope. The pilot and the two Russians who had made up his party had pretty much ignored Herbie once the camp was set up; in fact, when a heavily-built African had rocked up in a dilapidated old taxi, they had all disappeared for two full days, leaving Herbie alone in the camp.
A fine way to treat the man who had funded the whole enterprise.
“If I ever get out of this…” Herbie muttered. The implications of this thought hit home hard.
What were his chances?
He had to move, find help. The sun was now high above and murderous. Wearily, Herbie rose again and looked about him. Inspiration came in the shape of tyre marks – those left by the taxi on the dusty track: maybe they would lead him to civilisation. Shouldering his bag, Herbie set off.
An hour, hour and a half later, the scenery where the dirt road led Herbie had changed. Here there was more in the way of tree cover. Herbie recognized some of the trees: traveller’s trees. These held accessible water in their trunks. Herbie knew this from his study of the islands fauna and he knew how to extract it. At least he wouldn’t die of thirst.
Herbie made himself take a break; he ate an energy bar and drank from his flask. Then, stressed and weary though he was, he knew he must press on.
Half a mile deeper into the forest, the tyre marks and the very track itself petered out and vanished.
“What the..?” Herbie stood perplexed, searching around him for explanation. There was now just a dirt path leading on into the darkness of the trees. Herbie retraced his steps to see if he had missed a side track, but found nothing.
He had no choice but to follow the forest path and hope…
The forest was strangely silent. Where were the Lemurs that Herbie had discovered on his field trips over the past few days? And why no birds to be heard? Herbie knew there should at least be signs here of woodland species such as Ibis, flycatchers, Cuckoo-rollers.
Herbie walked on, deep in thought, so that by the time he spotted the children, they had already surrounded him. Dozens of them, standing silently, each with a sharpened stick in hand.
Huge white eyes staring at the elderly Englishman from coal-black faces.
The largest of the children, who couldn’t have been more than ten years of age, stepped forward.
“Tonga soa e!”
“Hello” Herbie croaked, his mouth and throat d ry as parchment.
The child, whose eyes never left Herbie’s face, nodded and then, with his stick, pointed to the path. The children by the path parted to let Herbie through.
All together they marched on into the forest, the boy leading, Herbie following, and a train of small bare-footed infantry behind.
As he trudged along the uneven, tree-root strewn path, Herbie’s thoughts were flying off in every direction: he thought of home, where no-one was waiting for him, nobody aware of his plans, no search party readying; he thought of the pilot who had callously left Herbie, with his serious medical conditions, stranded here. And he thought of where these silent, serious-faced children were leading him – and what reception he might expect from their families.
They reached a clearing where a few huts were scattered about. These were dilapidated, barely holding together. A pungent and strangely familiar smell pervaded the area.
The settlement was, to Herbie’s surprise, completely deserted. Were the adults all out foraging, hunting?
The boy led Herbie to a seat carved from a single tree. Herbie collapsed gratefully into it and closed his eyes for a few moments. When he looked up, he saw his child escort ranged about him, still with spears in their hands, staring at Herbie.
At a word from their leader, two of the children ran into a nearby hut and emerged with a bowl that they brought to Herbie. With one gesture of his hand, the boy mimicked “Eat!” to Herbie. The food, a sort of porridge, tasted good. The boy smiled in approval as Herbie ate.
Then a cup with a sweet-tasting liquid was offered and Herbie took it, drank and smiled back. “Good” he said.
The children laughed at the sound of his voice.
The cup was refilled and Herbie drank again.
The sound of the children’s laughter rose and rose again and then slowly, faded to silence.
When Herbie came to, he found his arms and legs were bound tightly.
Because he was laid on his back, he couldn’t see, but could smell and hear a fire crackling and smoking fiercely.
And although he wasn’t gagged, Herbie never made a sound, or spoke a word of protest, as the children surrounded and gently lifted their prize from its’ resting place.