In the African jungle

In the African jungle

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In the African jungle
Illustration: Lau Ka-kuen
As I leave, I glance back at the high, grey walls of Clarion's Finishing School. Here I have been forced to learn sewing, ballroom dancing and the art of conversation; all the things a young socialite should know if she has important parents.

In fact my parents are so important I hardly ever get to see them. It was three years ago that I last saw the petite woman who gave me my fiery red hair and the tall man with my stormy grey eyes.

'Clara, Clara!' comes the happy sound of Mary's voice. I wonder how anyone can be so upbeat after spending nine months being tortured with lady-like manners. Well, it is summer and we are leaving - that is surely something to be happy about.

As I turn and smile at her, she continues jumping up and down, her blonde curls bouncing.

'We are finally getting out of here - and guess what? Our parents met up and decided to send us to the same summer camp!'

I should have known. Mum and Dad aren't satisfied with sending me away during term time, they even want to get rid of me during the holidays.

'Which summer camp?' I ask unenthusiastically. 'I heard Camp Red Sea is very, very uncomfortable.'

She grins from ear to ear. 'No, it's not Camp Red Sea. It's Camp Fox!'

'No way!' I exclaim.

'Yes, way!' Mary squeals.

As I hug her hard, an announcement confirms the 'good' news. 'Will Miss Mary Anne Sanders, Miss Clara Belle Ponds, and Miss Blanche Song please report to the helicopter pad? The helicopter to Camp Fox is waiting.'

On the school roof, a sleek, black helicopter is waiting for us. Inside, sit the pilot and a haughty-looking girl, Blanche Song. Mary and I climb in, and introduce ourselves.

Once our suitcases are on board, the helicopter takes to the air.

Speeding over hills and valleys, rivers and lakes, woods and farms, the views are amazing.

'This journey will take some time, so I suggest you all rest,' the reedy voice of the pilot advises. With grey clouds appearing in the sky, I lean against Mary, and she leans against me. Blanche, however, remains upright, looking out of the window. I close my eyes.

A clap of thunder wakes me. I turn to Mary. She also looks sleepy and confused. Lightning flashes outside and the helicopter shakes. Still dazed, I look for the pilot, but his seat is empty, the controls are set to auto-pilot and ... a parachute is missing! He must have taken fright and escaped. Then I notice another parachute is missing; Blanche has also abandoned us.

A grey shape looms ahead of us. It's a cliff and it's only 20 metres away. Cursing the pilot, I grab the controls.

'What's happening?' comes the woozy voice of Mary.

'Shush,' I snap, as I poke a black button, in the hope something will happen. Something does. While the button seems to have no affect on our course, a huge gust of wind blasts us from the side. We miss the rock face by millimetres.

Realising there's little I can do, I climb back and hug Mary.

She shivers. 'You've been a good friend, Clara.'

'So have you,' I respond with a sad smile.

The wind has turned into a hurricane and the helicopter is now jerking from side to side. A particularly violent lurch throws both of us against the side of the helicopter, and blackness overwhelms me. When I open my eyes, the first thing I see is the ceiling of the helicopter. I turn to find Mary lying next to me. Terrified, I shake her.

'Where are we?' she groans, opening one eye then the other.

Relieved, I get up and look outside. The helicopter has crash landed onto the jungle canopy, leaving us miraculously unharmed in the midst of this treetop kingdom.

'I wish I knew.'

'Let's check the cockpit,' she suggests, getting up.

Looking around, I discover a packet of Smarties and a box. 'A bonus! A survival kit!'

Eagerly, we tear it open and find a knife, a GPS device, 30 big water bottles, and 30 packets of freeze-dried food.

'If we're careful, we can survive for 15 days on this,' I calculate.

Mary switches on the GPS and then frowns. 'Surprise, surprise. We've gone from England to Mali.'

Shocked, I ask: 'Are we near any towns?'

She sighs. 'It depends what you mean by near. Niamay is a two- or three-week walk away.'

I smile, my eyes glinting. 'Why walk when we can swing from branch to branch?'

She looks at the GPS and chuckles. 'True. So let's swing in a south-easterly direction.'

I pry open the helicopter door with the knife, and hand Mary one of the two remaining parachutes. 'In case we fall,' I explain, taking the other.

Taking a deep breath, I walk out onto a thick branch and look down. I wish I hadn't. The drop is dizzying. Swallowing my fear, I grab a branch and swing to the next one.

Because the branches of the trees are so closely interwoven, it isn't that difficult. I wave encouragingly to Mary, and she leaps and lands next to me. We smile. Within minutes we are used to the extreme height, and making rapid progress.

When night falls, we lie down on a very thick branch to rest.

Morning comes all too soon. I turn to see Mary waking ... and before I can reach her, she has rolled off the branch and fallen.

The guilt I feel for not warning her to leave her parachute on is like a tornado, destroying my common sense. I swallow then jump after her, with my parachute on my back.

I land next to Mary, stuck in another layer of branches. She is unconscious. Does she still have the GPS with her? Is she seriously hurt? How do we get back up to the canopy?

It is then I discover my talent as an inventor. Using the knife, I carve a large branch into a wheel. After tying a vine to Mary, I haul the wheel back up to the treetops.

The mechanics of my pulley system is simple. The other end of the vine is wound around the fixed wheel, lessening the effort needed to raise Mary. When I pull, her small, almost pixie-like body immediately begins to rise.

Back on the canopy, I watch for signs of consciousness until she suddenly sits up. 'Oww!'

Mary has a broken leg, which I splint with another branch and some vine. However, she does still have the GPS device. We're a week's journey from Niamay.

The next six days pass in a dream-like fashion as we make our way, slowly and awkwardly, towards safety.

But the air of unreality is suddenly ripped apart by a low, feral growl that raises the hairs on my neck. I slowly turn and look into the golden, gleaming eyes of a leopard.

Desperately I try to recall something - anything - useful from our Animal and Environment lessons ... that's it: leopards tire quickly. While trying to move as little as possible, I pass on my idea to Mary.

In a mad dash, we jump out of the tree, launching ourselves from branch to branch. On the ground, I pick a random direction and run, with Mary clinging to me. My veins filled with adrenaline, I burst out of the trees and find myself running at full speed towards a fleet of ambulances, police cars, and for some reason, fire engines. Looking back, I see the leopard stop, then slowly skulk back into the jungle.

A woman with black hair rushes towards us. 'Miss Clara, Miss Mary, right?'

As I smile, she nods and waves over to an ambulance. Despite my protests, I'm taken to the nearest hospital.

On the way there, I'm told that my parents are flying in to see me, and I'm not sure whether I feel happy or furious that it has taken something like this to get their attention.

At the hospital I wander around until I find a nurse and get directions to Mary's room.

Mary has a faintly green complexion, and there is a doctor at her bedside. I like the doctor immediately; with her long brown hair and black eyes, there's something familiar about her.

The doctor looks up - it's my mother! 'She fell into a thicket of branches, correct?' I nod. 'They seem to have been carnivorous,' she continues. My eyes widen. 'Furthermore, the splint that you skilfully made had a particular fungus on it, which ...'

I stop listening. I hadn't noticed the fungus and now I'm responsible for Mary's illness. The world stops. The floor rushes forward. Silence.

'Hello? Can you hear me, bebe?' I wake to the sound of my mother's voice. 'Mary is okay. That fungus on the splint saved her. You're a hero, Clara!'

I open one eye, then the other. My father is here, too. I sit up and look at their guilty faces. I am silently daring them to talk, and they can feel it, too. I am elated about Mary's recovery, but it does not change the way I feel about them. 'We've ... well, bebe, can you give us another chance?' my father asks.

The silence is awkward. I nod. They both rush forward to hug me. This feeling is nice; I've never experienced a hug before.

I can't believe that in the past few days, I've crashed in a helicopter, got lost in the jungle, and, right now, my parents are confessing their wrongs ... what an impossible summer!

Vaishnavi is a student at Delia School of Canada

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