Alexander McCall Smith is the author of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, the Isabel Dalhousie series, the Portuguese Irregular Verbs series, the 44 Scotland Street series, and the Corduroy Mansions series. He was born in what is now known as Zimbabwe and lives in Scotland, where in his spare time he is a bassoonist in the RTO (Really Terrible Orchestra).
The girl in this picture is called Precious. That was her first name, and her second name was Ramotswe, and when all this happened she was nine. Nine is a good age to be. Some people like being nine so much that they really want to stay that age forever. They usually turn ten, however, and then they find out that being ten is not all that bad either. Precious, of course, was very happy being nine.
Like many of us, Precious had a number of aunts—three in fact. One of these aunts lived in the village in Botswana where Precious was born, while another lived on an ostrich farm almost one hundred miles away. And a third, who was probably her favorite aunt of all, lived right up at the top of the country, in a place called the Okavango Delta. That’s a lovely name, isn’t it? Try saying it. OKA-VANGO.
A delta, of course, is made up of small rivers spreading out from a bigger river, a little bit like a human hand and its fingers.
Usually deltas are on the edge of the sea—this one was not. The great Okavango River flowed backward—away from the sea, to spread out into smaller streams that simply sank into the sands of a desert. And where this happened, there were wide plains of golden grass dotted with trees. On the bank of the river itself, the trees towered high. That was a bit like a proper jungle, and you had to be very careful when making your way through it. It was all very wild, and was home to just about every sort of wild animal to be found in Africa.
The aunt who lived up there was called Aunty Bee. Precious had been told her real name, but had forgotten it. Nobody ever called Aunty Bee anything but Bee. It was just the way it was.
Aunty Bee was not one of those aunts who scold you or tell you what to do. She was fun. She was also very generous and never forgot to send Precious a present on her birthday. And what presents these were! They were all made by Aunty Bee herself, from things that she could pick up in the bush around her.
One year there was a hat made entirely out of porcupine quills. As you know, porcupines are very prickly animals that have coats made of extraordinary black-and-white quills. These are sharp, and if anything tries to attack the porcupine all that he has to do is shoot out these quills. The animal attacking him then learns a very painful lesson: do not try to eat a porcupine! Indeed, some say that this is the very first lesson that a mother lion or leopard teaches her children: do not try to eat a porcupine! Unfortunately, some of them do not listen:
The porcupine hat was made of quills that Aunty Bee had found lying around on a path. She picked these up and took them to make into a hat.
Precious was very proud of it.
“What a beautiful hat,” people remarked. “May we touch it?”
“Yes,” said Precious. “But I wouldn’t, if I were you!”
Another present Aunty Bee sent one year was a bracelet made of twisted elephant hair. This was very special, as people said that elephant hair was lucky. Such bracelets were also very rare, as the elephant hair had to be plucked from the end of the elephant’s tail, and it was very dangerous to do that. Elephants do not like you to pull their tails, even if all you want is to borrow a few hairs for a bracelet.
Aunty Bee bought that elephant hair from a man who was very thin. People said that an elephant had sat on him and squashed him a bit, but nobody knew whether or not that was true. But it certainly made an interesting story to tell to people who admired the bracelet.
And there were other presents, too. There was a cup made out of the seedpod of a great baobab tree. These trees are very wide and fat: so wide that it can take twenty people holding hands to go all the way round them. Think of that! Twenty people!
It was not just on her birthday that Precious heard from her Aunty Bee. Often a letter would arrive with news of what was happening up at the safari camp where she worked. A safari camp is a place where people go to make trips into the wilderness. They go out for days on end to see wild animals and take photographs of them. They live in tents and eat out in the open and usually enjoy themselves very much indeed.
The camp that Aunty Bee worked in was called Eagle Island Camp. She was one of the cooks there, but she also earned a bit of money telling stories to the visitors. She knew all the old Botswana stories and would recite these beside the fireside at night. People loved to hear these and would clap and clap after she finished.
Aunty Bee was very busy but she always seemed to find the time to write to Precious, even if the letters were not very long—one or two lines perhaps. And it was in one of these short letters that she asked Precious whether she would like to come up to visit her.
“Dear Precious,” she wrote, “I know that the school holidays are coming up soon. Would you like to come and stay with me up at the safari camp for a few days? Something very exciting is about to happen. I do hope you can come. With love, Aunty Bee.”
How would you answer a letter like that? Exactly—so would I!
When Precious showed this letter to her father, Obed Ramotswe, he looked doubtful.
“It’s a long way away,” he said. “It takes a whole day to get there—sometimes more.”
“I don’t mind,” said Precious. “There are buses that go that way, aren’t there?”
Obed scratched his head. “That costs money,” he said. “And I’ve had a lot of bills to pay this month.”
Precious tried not to show her disappointment. Her father was kind to her, and she knew that he would do anything to make her happy. If he said that there was no money for the bus fare, then she knew that this would be true.
“Perhaps I can go some other time,” she said quietly. “I’ll write to Aunty Bee and tell her.”
Obed held up a hand. “No,” he said. “Don’t do that. I think I may know somebody who’s going up there for four or five days. He’s a cattle buyer and he has some business to do in those parts. He might be able to give you a ride up in his truck.”
Precious hardly dared hope. “Do you think so?” she asked. “I wouldn’t take up much room.”
Her father smiled. “I’ll ask him,” he said. “He owes me a favor, anyway.”
That evening, Precious wrote a reply to her aunt telling her that there was a chance—just a chance—she would be able to come to stay with her. The next day, though, even before she had time to post this letter, her father went to have a word with his friend. When he returned to the house, he was full of smiles.
“You can do your packing,” he said. “You’re going to be leaving tomorrow.”
Precious was too excited to go to sleep easily that night. Eventually she dropped off, and dreamed that she was already up in the Delta. There were tall trees, and these trees were full of monkeys, swinging adventurously from every branch. There was a wide river, filled with clear, swift-flowing water, and in this water there were the long dark shapes of crocodiles and fat, floating hippos. There were wide plains of high grass, and in this grass, half-hidden and staring out with large yellow eyes, there were lions.
She awoke to her father’s voice.
“Time to get up, my darling,” he said. “The truck will be here any moment now.”
She leapt out of bed and dressed quickly. Her father had made her a breakfast of thick porridge and goat’s milk, and she ate this while he checked that she had everything she needed. There was a little bit of money—not much—tied up in an old handkerchief. “You can use that to buy yourself a treat,” he said.
She wiped the traces of milk from her lips. “I’ll buy you a present,” she said.
“You don’t need to do that,” he said, smiling. “You may need some food on the way. Use it for something like that.”
There came the sound of a horn from the road outside.
“That’ll be the truck,” said her father. “Off you go, now.”
Obed’s friend was called Mr. Poletsi. He was traveling with his wife, who was called Mma Poletsi, and there were ten passengers—friends and friends of friends—who had crowded into the back of the truck. The Poletsis sat in the front, in the cab, while everybody else made themselves as comfortable as they could in the back. There were also several chickens in a small coop, a dog tied to somebody’s toe with a piece of string, and a baby goat. Precious thought it a very strange mixture, but the important thing for her was that she was on her way to see her aunt. That was all that mattered, she thought.
In spite of the fact that the truck was crowded, everybody seemed to be in a good mood and very happy to be traveling together. Some of the others had brought food with them, and this they shared with their fellow passengers. Precious knew that this was very important. She had been taught to share, as people are taught in Africa, and if she had had any food with her she would have shared it too.
At the beginning of the journey, it was cool enough sitting in the back of the truck, but as the day wore on it became hotter and hotter. Now, with the midday sun directly above them in the sky, it became very uncomfortable for the passengers and Precious would have given anything to be sitting in the comfort of the cab with the Poletsis, but she knew that this was impossible.
They stopped at a small store along the side of the road and they were able to have a long drink of water before continuing. This helped, but after half an hour or so she began to feel thirsty again.
“I hope we arrive soon,” she said to the woman sitting beside her.
The woman laughed. “Oh, we won’t arrive soon,” she said. “We’ve still got hundreds of miles to go.”
“When will we arrive?” asked Precious.
“Midnight, I think,” said the woman. “Not before.”
The road was straight and narrow, with very little traffic on it. For mile after mile it ran across great empty plains that stretched out on either side as far as the eye could see. And it was while they were crossing one of these plains that the truck’s engine suddenly coughed and died. One moment it was working and the next moment there was silence as the truck drew slowly to a halt.
They all got out. Mr. Poletsi opened the front of the truck and looked at the engine. He soon enough found the problem—a broken fanbelt. “This is very bad,” he said. “We’ll have to wait until somebody comes past. Then I can ask them to take me to the nearest town. I’ll find a new fanbelt and come back with it.”
“But that could take hours,” said one of the passengers. “We may be here the whole night.”
“I see no other way,” said Mr. Poletsi. And then he added: “Unless anybody else has got any bright ideas?”
Precious looked at the fanbelt. It had been a complete circle, a bit like a massive elastic band—now it was just a single strip of rather sad-looking rubber.
She looked down. She was wearing the belt that her father had bought her a few weeks before. She was very proud of it, but this was clearly an emergency.
“Has anybody got some string?” she asked.
The woman who had been sitting beside her replied that she had some and passed it to her.
Precious took off her belt. Carefully threading the string through one of the holes in the belt, she made it into a strong circle, exactly the size of the broken fanbelt.
Mr. Poletsi was watching her. “You clever girl,” he exclaimed. “I can see what you’re doing.”
The makeshift fanbelt fit perfectly. Mr. Poletsi then closed the engine compartment and went back to his place in the cab. There was an anxious moment as everybody waited to see whether the truck would start. But it did, and it ran perfectly sweetly with the repair that Precious had made.
“I think you should come and sit with us in the front,” said Mma Poletsi. “As a reward for what you’ve done.”
Everybody agreed that this was well-deserved, and so Precious made the rest of the journey in comfort, snuggling up against Mma Poletsi in the cab while the sun dropped down below the horizon. She felt proud and happy, and of course excited. Very soon she would be seeing Aunty Bee and finding out what the exciting thing was that her aunt had talked about.
They arrived at Eagle Island Camp by night. It was very different from home, where the lights of houses and of cars meant that it was never really dark; here in the bush there was complete darkness, with only one or two tiny pinpricks of light showing from a campfire or a hut. Precious was sleepy, and Aunty Bee said that she should go straight to bed.
“You’ll see where you are when you wake up in the morning,” she said. “There’ll be plenty of time to explore then.”
Her aunt had laid out a mattress on the floor in her own room, and Precious found this very comfortable. She closed her eyes and in less than a minute she was fast asleep, not waking up until the first rays of the sun came through the window the next day.
She looked about her, half-forgetting where she was. But then she remembered, and got up to dress herself as quickly as she could. There were sounds coming from the kitchen next door, which meant that Aunty Bee was already preparing breakfast.
She greeted her aunt and sat down at the table. Through the open door of the kitchen she could see that Aunty Bee’s house was in the middle of a circle of small buildings that housed the people who worked in the safari camp. Not far away, at the end of a path that ran through a clump of very high trees, was the camp itself. This was made up of thatched huts on the edge of a river, all joined to one another by a raised wooden walkway. It looked like a very exciting place to stay.