Chapter 1: The Road
Each time I travel the road between the towns of Kasempa and Mumbwa, I am reminded of an aged alcoholic. This is because the road between them slowly wends its barely satisfactory way across the landscape.
I guess, like a few of my old red faced friends, it is still a functioning one. It gets from here to there, but not much else. It does so not so much because it follows the most direct, or efficient path, but rather it survives, like my friends, due to decades of experience gained from the dictates of a hard and unsteady life, as is commonplace in this remote part of Central Africa.
It, like those old soaks, now with its blemishes, and no longer having the nimbleness of youth, has learned that it is more expedient to give a wide berth to as many obstacles as possible. As such, at times its dusty surface leans and teeters to the left, or the right, as it sways its way around a low hill, or behind a marshy patch, on its winding progress through the timelessness of the bushland. Scruffy, dirty, and pock marked with ruts and pot-holes like the wrinkles of neglect and the blemishes of aged acne, it also sometimes staggers sharply to avoid a freshly fallen tree, or a recently formed rip, cut into its mud during the wet season, by the wheels of the overloaded trucks scarring its skin.
“Damned trucks” I cursed, as the vehicle I was driving, a Toyota Land-cruiser, jolted through an especially deep dip in the road…
I am always filled with wonder at how mostly, unlike this recent lurching failure, my muscle memory reacts automatically to guide the vehicle gingerly between the rifts and daunting potholes, which are the progeny of the roads sloppy construction and misuse. There is no need to think about coordinating a press on the brake pedal, or a tug on the gear shift, they simply blend with the emphatic, and often urgent twists of the steering. However it happens, all this wonder of my being unthinkingly enables the vehicle to progress slowly along this section of the “route”, as it runs through the thick bush tucking below, and hugging the lea side of a low ridge, which heralds the gradual climb up out of the basin of the Kafue River valley.
As a result my mind was free to toy with the strategy I would craft at my meeting with Ernest Banda, the local park warden at his regional HQ in Mumbwa. The motivation for the meeting was driven by a note scribbled in pencil on a torn piece of brown packing paper in my pocket.
I hoped to collar the warden before his midday lunch break. But from experience, this being Africa and circumstances tending to poke a stick in the wheel of any schedule , there was no guaranteeing, despite assurances, that a meeting would be convened at all. Hence I had my sleeping bag and a mosquito net, as well as some bread and dry meat to slice onto it for a sandwich, in the event of a lay-over while I waited for the next opportunity to meet.
As usual, much earlier before daybreak, I was stirred from sleep by the splash of the hippos as they returned from their nocturnal grazing.
As these massive creatures had lumbered past my camp site, after feeding further inland all night, they were satiated and hence not tarrying to nibble the grass around my tent. Once back in the river, they would spend the rest of the day in the deeper pools.
Thus it was quite unconcernedly, in the pre-dawn darkness, that I had stood sipping my cup of rich coffee under the eve’s of the large open thatched roofed structure, called a chitenge in the local language, which stands across the bare swept ground from the dome of the canvas tent that has been my home for the last two years. Looking out from under the apex of the chitenge’s low roof line which spread like a big dim umbrella above me, I could make out the outlines of the leafy Acacia and Leadwood trees making up the riverine arbor outside.
The first cries of a fish eagle had yelped that the dawn was nigh and it was time to go. Thus I had swallowed the last sip of coffee to the sound of another returning hippo’s splash, which in turn, was heralded by a chorus of communal hrumph”ing grunts as the other members of the pod welcomed it back.
Setting out from my campsite , a kilometer upriver from my hosts at the Safari Lodge, I had driven past the slumbering shapes of it structures in the half darkness , then eased along the few kilometers of a winding track through the Bush , followed by a dozen clicks on the dirt arterial road which had brought me to the ferry pontoon. Here I would cross the broad width of the Kafue River.
Being early I had found myself having to wait for the operating crew to rouse from their huts, and get to where the pontoon raft was beached on the opposite bank. When an early crossing is needed, it often takes a lot of shouting and banging on the steel pillar holding the rafts anchor cable, to shake up any activity across the river.
Luckily, an occupant of a small waiting vehicle was already doing the boisterous rousing.
The vehicle was a sad little Japanese sedan. It had obviously tussled with the road so often its dented and scratched surface barely afforded brand recognition. I couldn’t make out if its dull scuffed grey color emanated, like the camouflage of a chameleon, from its original enamel hue, or was it a color blended with the thick coat of dust on its surface. Smooth tires, and a crack running from side to side the length of the windshield added to its air of fateful resignation.
The other occupants of the vehicle stood at the water’s edge, or sat on the bank formed by the cut of the road as it dropped down to the load point.
A spirit of uneasiness had tapped me on the shoulder as I watched the kids skipping stones across the river from its sluggish margins. They had never seen how shockingly quickly, and how far, a crocodile can reach when it erupts from the water. This section of the river holds some of the biggest crocs I have ever seen.
While waiting and speaking to the driver, he had revealed that he and his cousin were heading from their village of Chifumpa to the city of Lusaka. With them were three wives and four children.
I mused that it would be a long arduous journey for that many occupants in such a car. But this is Africa. Few people from the outside can fully understand how things can be coaxed to such surprising limits. Here the expectations of comfort and acceptability have different metrics. Why would anyone who has slept on a woven straw mat spread on the hard dirt floor of a hut all their lives, be bothered when crammed into a small car, for hours, in a way that only students do as a stunt in the West.
As I had waited for the pontoon I had looked not too far downstream towards the source of my problem. That problem spread out behind a low ridge, which indicated where the Lunga River merges its waters with those of the Kafue. .
On the other side and upstream from this confluence, along the west bank of the Lunga River, the flat topography supports lush bushland, interspersed with wide open marshy grassland patches locally known as “dambos”. This is the eastern side of a huge untouched area, which spreads north and west all the way to the edge of the distant Busanga Plains. It is also an area ignored for decades by the authorities, and it was this neglect which had consequently created a vacuum of control. Even Geverton, one of the veteran game scouts I worked with, said it had been two decades since he had patrolled deep into that area.
Recently the park officials had decided to allow the construction of an additional private lodge, and for it to be sited in this huge unsupervised area.
Thus it was to this forgotten Lunga region that Morse Manzola, the manager of my hosting lodge had recently sent three men. They were tasked to continue the casting of concrete cinder blocks which would be used in the construction of that new future lodge.
The men had found the bags of cement, transported there earlier, slashed, and on top of them a message scribbled on a piece of brown packing paper.
I was working for a private organization providing specialized training to the parks game scouts, and thus indirectly overseeing the support of law and order in our area of influence, this being within the huge park and its adjacent conservation areas.
With the start of construction of a new lodge, it meant that the patrol roster in our area would be stretched to the limits, if we were to provide emphasis patrols in the vicinity of the new ‘Kikuji Island’ site.
The looming direness had been exacerbated by the sudden and unexplained quitting of three of the twelve game scouts I was training.
My problem was twofold. Firstly there was the threat scribbled on the paper.
Secondly, seeing that conservation is poorly funded by the government, even if I could get head-warden Ernest Banda’s permission to train and deploy additional game scouts, I wasn’t sure if I could raise the necessary private funding to subsidize their hiring and training.
But, whatever happened I was determined to do whatever it took to protect and preserve one of the last unspoiled areas of Africa.
Then turning my attention back to the kids skipping stones, my reveries had been dismissed by seeing that the pontoon crew had finally roused and were readying the hulk across the river.
As the big raft approached, I had reached into my pocket and glanced down once more at the spidery, erratic handwriting on the soiled paper scrap.
You are warned, Leave here.
Or you will be punished and suffer.
It was signed,
Returning the note to my pocket, I had opened the door to the cab of my vehicle and followed the little sedan onto the pontoon.
Years of experience in almost every facet of life had taught me that the worst thing when threatened, was to back down.
The bite of a Tsetse fly is painful, especially that of a young fly.
I glanced up from slapping at the back of my calf, following another futile attempt to kill the offending insect. A uniformed guard slowly rose from his austere wooden chair, where he was leaning back on its two rear legs in the shade under the eve’s of the simple brick guard house.
I had brought the vehicle to a stop in front of a pivot barrier that stretched across the road. This barrier and the small guard house next to it signaled the edge of the Kafue National Park, which, after the Selous in Tanzania, is the second biggest park in Africa.
Looking ahead beyond the barrier, the road crested before dipping down under the trees, whose boughs reached out like the fingers of so many artists dappling its sandy surface with their shadows.
The guard post was the first of two landmarks. A half hour ahead I would pass the prison farm, a prison set so remotely into the bushland that it daunted the ardor of any prisoner contemplating escape.
Thereafter, a further two slow bumpy hours would bring me to where the scratches of civilization eventually coalesced into the scruffiness of the little town of Mumbwa, my destination.
The guard slowly picked up a big ledger book, while I again slapped at the fly, this time as it buzzed on the vehicles side window.
Still smarting from its nip, “You little bugger”, I muttered, “When I catch you I will pull off your wings and make you walk”.
As the figure, resplendently officious in a neat, but faded olive green uniform, lazily moved across the few feet of compacted dirt which separated the guard house from my vehicle, just as slowly, I rolled down the window.
I leaned back in the drivers” seat as I nodded my greeting to the guard.
“Bwwanji Bwana.” The guard greeted back, also in the informal ‘lingua franca’ Nyanja, which at the ‘street level” replaces the official English, left behind by the British after Zambian independence in 1964.
“Where do you come from?”
His slight high cheeked pinch echoed the tall slenderness of his young physique, which in turn gave him an elegant, almost effeminate air. Despite the slow indolence of the way he approached the vehicle, handing the big ledger through the window, there was a certain unexpected politeness in his demeanor. It expressed itself in the tone of his thick accent, and the way his native Kaunde morphed his English R’s into L’s.
Despite his seeming deference, it was always best to remember that he was the authority figure here, and in Africa authority matters, no matter how trivial it may seem. Here authority is seldom benign. It often kicks downwards, sometimes harshly, as it tends to bend upwards with servility. I knew when to be polite, despite the redundancy of the formalities, and the advantage of my age.
The guards question was rhetorical. This was a ritual, performed thousands of times a day, all over Central Africa, in those parts like this, where these faint echoes of its colonial past are still being scribbled in the lines and columns of these huge books.
“From Chamafumbu.” I replied politely while filling in the details, name, origin, destination, vehicle registration, number of passengers. It was the ritual of pointlessly filling out the information demanded only by the headers of the lines and columns on the thick, blotter like paper of these big black books.
Closing its grubby worn cover, and handing its heaviness back to the guard, I wondered what they did with these things once they were filled with countless, almost incomprehensible handwritten scribbles of information. The ritual was more than the mere recording of every vehicle passing along this remote road. Its use was to suggest to the populous that effective and watchful law and order was in effect.
Like the uncomfortable bumps and jolts of the road, the authority, using its left-behind colonial laws, is the capricious entity in the shabby administrative centers at each end, where when enforced, it is advisable to be aware of the perils of transgression. I didn’t ever want to find myself, even for a single night, in the special unpleasantness of an African jail.
As I watched the guard set the ledger down on the chair, and then, with the timeless pace of Africa, stretch out to begin lifting the barrier to allow the cruiser to pass, I wondered if the big black book would go back to join countless others. Would it mold away for another 60 years, in the low corrugated asbestos roofed sheds where they had been left behind by the British, whose habitual detritus is still being washed up onto the chairs of the gate guards, in some of the remotest and unlikeliest spots across the vast echoed extents of their old bushland empire.
The big black books were still here, long after the petty bureaucrats of that bankrupt empire were gone, so long ago that this representative of law and order, with his book, and AK-47 leaning up against the wall, next to the simple wooden chair, would be too young to remember any of it.
As the guard unhurriedly raised the barrier I could see how the post is set on a slight slope, which edges up out of the vast flat lands as they spread out northwards into the Kafue valley proper. It is well placed with its simple building also shaded by some of the spindle tall elegance of the Mafuti trees.
A few months previously, while stranded here waiting for a replacement fuel pump for the cruiser, I had walked up the slope of the low hill behind the post. From there I saw how those trees, whose unbroken canopy lifts its graceful leafy summer elegance like a song on the wind, spread their melody in a dark coppery green patina, ocean like, until their endlessness spilled over the edge of the horizon.
Twisting my head and craning my neck forward to peer sideways out the window, I checked that the pivot pole cleared the roof of the cruiser. With a pang of regret I realized that despite the generational gap between myself and the guard, even I was almost too young to remember any of them, those British officials who hastily abandoned their roles as imperial Bwana’s. Those masters who, after their brief glorious appearance on the stage of empire, went back from whence many of them came. If they were lucky they returned to the boredom of her majesty’s pensions. If not it was to pick up as best they could, much older than before, but rich with memories and nostalgia as their lives faded and blurred into history and the dreariness of some claustrophobic English city. They had streamed back in the wake of others like themselves in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. They had followed behind the Belgians in the Congo. IN turn the Portuguese emulated them in Angola and Mozambique.
However, left behind, and almost unnoticed by history, were the generations of emotional gypsy’s born and raised on the continent. They, not being considered a true part of the new Africa, or the old Europe, of necessity were condemned to spend life with a mental suitcase always at the ready in case we were told to move on.
But these thoughts were only dimly at the back of my mind as I waited for the barrier pole to reach its apex.
At least this was also the limit of the ‘tsetse land’, from here on I could drive with the windows fully open. There would no longer be the need to choose between the closed sauna like heat in the cab, due to a non-functioning air conditioning, or the relative comfort of the sub-tropical air wafting away my sweat, while it afforded unfettered opportunity to the tormenting flies.
With my left hand, I moved the gear shift from neutral to first, and was about to lift the sole of my left foot off the clutch while easing down on the throttle pedal with the right, when suddenly on the other side of the cab, came a loud whistle.
“EEWEH!” Someone shouted out, “Hey you!”
Another guard, who I had not seen, appeared around the side of the building. Older, and plumper than his colleague, he was more affable about the weight of his authority, which had settled around his mid-rift. Why carry that weight over to the window of the cab to deliver a message when it can be shouted.
Then, with a pause, maybe for dramatic effect, and with a slightly more serious tone in his voice, but still with a broad smile on his wide friendly face, he shouted across.
“On the radio, they say to tell you… Back at your camp!”
He paused again, “They say someone has been attacked and caught by a crocodile.”