The audience said "Awwwwww". It was a first, I'll give you that. In this game you learn to cope with most eventualities.Hecklers, fire alarms, technical breakdowns, singing (thanks Glasgow), snoring (thanks Tokyo), snogging (hello Moscow) even having your whisky being hijacked (thanks Joburg), but no-one can hold a crowd when there's a bush baby dangling from a branch above your head.
It's certainly not a topic which I recall reading up in whisky class manual. Come to think of it, there wasn't a chapter on 'how to conduct a tasting in the African bush at night.' Nothing for it but to press on. The bush baby's eyes grew larger as I started the camp impala impersonation.
It had started like this. One moment I was singing 'Flower of Scotland' in Joburg's Sandton Square as the dawn came up, the next I was in the bush looking at a lion gnawing on a newborn giraffe. Quite how I got there remains a blur. I seem to recall giant chickens, bags of biltong, ravines, a soundtrack which switched between Paul Simon and Samuel L. Jackson, the slow encroachment of the thorned, many-eyed bush.
Somewhere along the line I had changed my name. "What's Shangaan for broom?" Fasie asked our receptionist. "Nkukulu" came the reply. "Then meet Nkukulu," he said. "He's a Shangaan from Scotland." As the amused and bemused staff tried to work this out, I was trying to make sense of the sky. If the constellations are upside down, then how can I teach the Shangaan about whisky?These friendliest of people don't know about distillation, or barley, or peat but if they are to become top waiters and bar staff catering to the guests at these five-star game lodges then they need to understand the basics.
That's where Fasie and Dale come in. Their training company, Let's Sell Lobster, has made gardeners into sommeliers and has done so in a stunningly simple way, by talking to people in terms they can relate to. If the Shangaan have never tasted wine or seen a vine then how can you expect them to recommend one? By teaching them using the life around them, that's how. So, for example, in their (copyrighted) course Cabernet Sauvignon, the biggest wine, becomes an elephant, the biggest animal. Now it was whisky's turn, which explains why at 5.30am the next day I was rocking and bouncing over the red dust in search of leopard.Sean, our ranger, is telling us how honey badgers have taken to breaking into the camp at night, opening the fridge and drinking the Red Bull. Now, a honey badger is fearless at the best of times. One stoked up on Red Bull is truly scary.
"What kind of whisky would that be?" Fasie asks. "A young peaty one," I reply."
It comes at you teeth bared, all yarrrrrrwrrararara!" Simple when you think of it.
"I don't know if it's just me," I say after another browse of impalas looks our way, "but don't you think that impalas are.. well.. camp?" Fasie and Sean stare at me in the oddest way. "I mean they if they were human they'd be gentlemen working at a perfume counter, don't you think?" So, impalas become fragrant whisky: thin legs, light gold in colour, a dry grassy note on the finish, light and skittish on the palate, an aperitif for human .. and leopard.
Over the next few days whiskies are turned into elephants, bateleur eagle, zebra, leopard, lion, crocodile. Lagavulin becomes a buffalo, 'Dagga-vulin'. The ideas begin to cohere, the ark begins to fill. I become Ranger Nkukulu.
The bush baby scarpers in the face of the frolicking impala. Beyond the lamp light, black shapes grunt and graze, a hyena howls. You are perilously insignificant in this place where things eat things, where the circle of life radiates from the kill through lion, hyena, wild dog, jackal, while above the eagles and vultures hover. The bush is a chance for recalibration of the self. It's been a chance to reassess how to talk about whisky, find new paths... and learn how to deal with bush babies.