Having to find a guide to take them upriver slowed them down a couple of days. Patch took off his dirty beat up hat and wiped the sweat from his forehead with his shirtsleeve. The African sun was merciless and along the river it was so humid you could taste the fish long before you caught them. The mosquitoes were sporadic, but thick when you ran into them. All his men were covered with bites already and they hadn’t really begun their journey yet.
Again, Patch squinted into the sun to look up and down the dusty roadway. They’d been waiting for the guide so long that the villagers had stopped staring at them like the out-of-place white people that they were. They sat at the side of the road in their rented old Jeep, laying in the sun, playing cards, staring into space and spitting in the dirt. None of those things were what he was paying them for. Every hour that ticked by brought more frustration. He’d even been tempted to just take his crew back to the airport in Johannesburg, call it quits and cut his losses.
He was jerked out of his thoughts by the approaching sound of high-pitched yelling. Amidst the jabbering he (sort of) recognized his name. His guide had arrived.
After ten minutes of barely communicative bantering (both of them), frantic hand signals (Patch), and head nodding (the guide), he gestured to his men and they began to unload equipment and supplies from the Jeep and headed for the barge waiting at the small dock that passed for the marina.
The barge captain took the opportunity to barter for more money which Patch gave him without too much grumbling. Who could blame the man — he had had to wait too.
An hour later they were chugging their way upstream through dirty water and overgrown jungle. There had been no sign of other people, or other villages. The village they were heading to was supposed to be a three day trip. They couldn’t have missed it, but there hadn’t been any sign of people in the past four days.
After dinner on day five the water got rougher, the boat began to make odd screeching sounds like it was gasping for breath and then all hell broke loose.
Just as the sun went down and the temperature dropped somewhere lower than comfortable, one of his guys had gotten seasick into the choppy water. Crocodiles rammed the barge, making it rock in the water. Men fell down, supplies fell over, and in the water huge tails thumped the river’s surface. Patch’s world became a cacophony of shouts, cries and gunfire. Some of his men were firing into the water, the guide was up with the captain who was trying to turn the barge around. Another thump from the swarming crocs and he watched helplessly as one of his men fell into the river and was torn apart. The combination of gunfire and the unexpected snack were enough to make the crocs back off.
They rode quietly downstream for about a mile before the captain docked at a shallow at the side of the river. The barge was tied to a large tree and the remaining men disembarked. Everything had happened too fast. They were all confused, tired, frustrated and in shock. Patch made a fire. The captain made dinner. No one spoke for hours.
When they did speak it was over the dog-eared map Patch had kept in his back pocket. The creases were fraying and the map was starting to fall apart. But clearly, just inches up the river from where they had begun was the village of Dukat. Why hadn’t they reached it yet?
In the morning Patch sent out his men in teams of two to look around the jungle for signs of the missing village. Maybe the map was too old and the village didn’t exist anymore. Maybe it never had. Maybe the stories of ancient people and their discoveries were just stories. Maybe he was a fool to believe in them.
By dinnertime the four teams of men had returned to the campsite and said they hadn’t seen anything but jungle. No village. No ruins. Nothing. Patch swore and threw the map on the ground. With one man dead and another sick he decided to head back downriver to where they had started. He didn’t want to leave, but what else could he do? They had to get somewhere before their food and water was gone, and it was going fast. He’d think about whether or not to try again when they got back to the village.
The next morning was unexpectedly foggy as they reboarded the barge and made their way downstream. There were no signs of crocodiles or anything else. Suddenly Patch realized that it had been too quiet the whole journey. No insects had chirped, no birds called, no animals had crashed through underbrush. There hadn’t been any sound other than the wheezing of the engine and the lapping of the river as they made their way through.
On the fourth day they had expected to arrive at the village. They had been traveling with the current so they should have arrived faster, but once more they were surrounded by quiet jungle and dirty, lapping water. The barge was chugging, coughing and sputtering its way downstream, but they hadn’t yet run into civilization. The food was gone.
Two days later panic set in. The only world they knew was river and jungle. They were all sick of the sound of the engine. There were still no signs of people. There were no signs of animals. It was too quiet. Someone said they must be lost. You can’t get lost going downstream. There were no tributaries. There were no inlets. They hadn’t missed a turn because there was none. They went upstream five days, turned around and came downstream six days. Where was the village? Where were the people? Where were the animals? For that matter, where were they?
They continued downstream. By the time the barge drifted into the ocean they were all dead.