This year, I woke up on Christmas morning to the sound of a baboon unceremoniously peeing on my roof.
In the Linyanti (Botswana), it is an unmistakeable sound, and mildly concerning when your roof is made of old canvas: it is usually advisable to brace yourself under the covers in case your head cover gives way to a barrage of primate toilet activities above.
I will point out two things here: firstly, that this marked the beginning of my very first Christmas in the bush, and secondly, that it followed 22 years of highly ritualistic Middleton family Christmases, in which I have always been the notorious and merciless enforcer.
Without meaning to sound like the festive season’s answer to Darth Vader, I love Christmas, done in the proper way, with no changes to the programme. So bear this in mind, as I describe the ensuing scene that morning on December 25th, 2011: I lay in a kind of amused horror as the baboon numbers on my roof increased. There was soon an entire orgy going on above my head, which prompted Callum to run around skidding on Sycamore figs and yelling at the top of his voice in language that I’m pretty sure even a baboon would recognise as filthy. Home feels very far away at the best of times, but that morning it felt as if it were on a different planet.
Each year, my family has insisted on buying the biggest Christmas tree in England to stuff into our Victorian hallway, creating an interesting forest effect which always results in a carpet of pine needles and an annual decorating/arguing session between my dad and his three ‘helper’ children. My sister and I have been banned from fairy-light duty. Apparently we don’t have the eye for such high-grade decorating responsibility.
This year, Callum, the head chef and I had to go and find ourselves a suitable tree from the surrounding bush-veldt to take pride of place in the main area of the lodge. We found a child-size fever berry tree that had been stripped of its leaves by some obliging caterpillars, and brought it back to camp to spray-paint it silver and adorn it with various baubles, ribbons and stars.
Not quite the elaborate indoor pine forest, but an African equivalent that we all felt proud of.
Unfortunately, the baboons seemed just as pleased with it, and the poor tree had to be lugged in and out of its curio shop shelter every morning and evening to prevent our in-house kleptomaniacs from striking.
At the end of the evening, after I had walked the last of the guests to their rooms, I walked sleepily down the boardwalk, reflecting on the day. Ok, I hadn’t had a stocking to open, or sung carols, or heard the Queen’s Speech, or seen my family open presents that I had bought lovingly and wrapped horrendously. Instead, I had run around a lot, chased baboons, wished the baby warthogs a Merry Christmas, watched a beautiful Linyanti sunset and sung and danced (badly) with the staff choir until my feet hurt and my voice was hoarse.
They were my family this Christmas, and I was privileged to have spent it with them. As I was about to descend the steps down to the ground, for the last few metres to my house, I shone my torch casually about me, searching for the tell-tale glint of a predatory pair of eyes. Instead, my stomach lurched as four large purple shapes came into focus. A train of hippos was marching slowly and deliberately down to the river, unperturbed by their stunned observer. I sat on the top step and watched as they passed my house and into the darkness. It was a fleeting encounter, but one that reminded me how lucky I was to be spending Christmas in this magical place, where tradition, albeit of a different kind, still has its firm place.