The Queen was an afterthought. Long before we heard of her, we hatched the scheme in Africa—in Zimbabwe, on the Zambezi, in a canoe. In the long white afternoon, the intensity of the sun propelled us, lightheaded, into a reedy little backwater to rest. We drew the four canoes together, and Dave, our guide, opened a cooler and pitched us bottles of warm Coke. I dipped my bandana in the river, wrapped it around my eyes, smarting from the glint of sun on water, and lay back against the thwart, half dozing, embraced by my friends’ banter. Images of the African morning played upon the inside of my eyelids: Elephants showering in the shallows at the river’s edge. Crocodiles lying like logs against the banks, innocent and sinister. A flight of carmine bee-eaters darting from their nests in the riverbank, flinging themselves like rubies over the bright water. Now, as heat enveloped us, pressing our bodies as a lover might, everything grew still as all that had gone before and all that was to come converged upon this single suspended moment that was both dream and reality: Africa.
Of course we couldn’t bear perfection. Who first pitched dream trips into the silence I can’t recall, but my companions leaped upon the subject, describing half a dozen places that might be better—more beautiful, more exciting, more perfect than this. It’s the subject that always comes up among travelers: Where do you really want to go? Someone spoke of Timbuktu: of camels and drifting coppery dunes, and blue-robed masked men slim as swords. Another spoke of rain forests along the Congo: of furtive okapis and tiny Pygmies hunting with nets, and women who make houses out of leaves. Someone spoke of the Skeleton Coast: of ships flung inland among desert elephants, and lions prowling among seals on the beach. And then a British voice was saying: “I’ve always been keen to drive all the way through Africa.” This was Kevin Muggleton, a photographer from pastoral Wiltshire. He spoke offhandedly with an easy tantalizing laugh. Not even Muggleton could seriously make this proposition: to drive from one end of Africa to the other. But his voice carried a decidedly un-British edge of enthusiasm that drew me out of this moment—relaxed and contemplative in a green canoe on a blue river in the heart of Africa—and flung me by the sheer force of its vitality into an uncertain and adventurous future. “It’s classic,” Muggleton said. “You know, the old ‘Cape to Cairo’ sort of thing.” That’s all it took. Later I stumbled upon the Queen and used her as a good excuse, but in fact I decided everything in that moment.