(26 – Tracking)
I always imagine the scent of a tracks ‘spoor’ to be like an invisible ether, which if I wore the appropriate filter glasses, I could see it suspended in the air like some faint hazy blue smoke.
With this in mind as a falconer, it was almost magical to watch Eva at work.
The full beautifully sinuous length of her English Pointer body would stretch out in flowing bounds as she course back and forth at an undulating lope across the fields, searching for the scent of a game bird. Then in sharp and sudden abruptness she would jerk to a halt, and transform into a tail-raised, foot cocked nose extended point with all the quivering directional tension of a tightly drawn bow. She would be poised to be released by my flushing shout, which in turn cascaded into the flash of the Falcon as it plunged into its stoop.
Of course all of this flurry would be predicated by the minutest trace of scent buoyed upon the breeze.
And if the nose of a pointer can be almost magic, then the skill of a master tracker is absolutely so.
Because magic is the only way to describe the mix of art and alchemy that goes into such a masters skill.
Yes surely some of the skill of the tracker must be inherited from nature, just as the nose of the pointer is the inherited resultant of eons of evolution. But unlike the automatic detection of a scent in the nose of a dog, or smoke in the eye of an observer, it is in the mind of a tracker that the cognitive mental magic occurs. The nose of the pointer can follow the drift of the sent just as the eyes of a man can follow the smoke of a fire. But there is nothing consistently smokey and obvious in what constitutes a track, its thread must be pieced together in the mind from the faintest shards of a previous passage.
Often I think that those who were the best piano tuners before the advent of modern digital wave harmonizers would have the personalities and compulsive attention-to-detail that is the halllmart of a good tracker.
Like with the old breed of piano tuners who required a lifetime of familiarity with the intricacies and characteristic harmonics of their particular instruments, so too does the tracker need to be exquisitely intimate with every detail of his surroundings.
After all, tracking is all about the ability to synthesize and assemble thousands of details, which change every second as the eye moves and reaps and gathers an intricate plethora of information, and registers it against the memory in the mind of how the bush world should be, while at the same time comparing this with how it actually is.
Tracking is all about noticing the smallest discrepancies from the usual, a depression here, a bent stem of grass further on, a twig broken here, a plucked berry there, the slightly darkker color of a fallen leaf, faintly more moist than the others, indicating its shaded side has been up-turned by some recent passing disturbance.
But it is not only about noticing these discrepancies, it is also about noticing how the environment slowly ages the appearance of the disturbances.
As soon as a hoof, or paw, or foot print presses into the soil, and hence presses down into the moistness of layers not expose to sunlight, or the dry wafting eddies of the air, the process of aging begins.
Any vertical edges or sides of prints in the sand immediately begin to dry. Within a few hours, with the loss of moisture and its adhesive characteristic, the soil begins to crumble. This in turn allows an indication, to those who know how long it takes for the particular soil to lose its cohesiveness, to give approximate time since the imprint was made.
Like with so many things in life it is a mixture of nature and nurture which is to be found in the best of any profession. There will be certain rare individuals who will have a natural year for perfect pitch and hence even without practice or training will become great tuners or makers of music. Tracking is no exception. But it will be those even rarer individuals who will take their God given gift and practice it, and hone it daily, and endlessly, until it is like magic.
However, like Rubenstein’ specialty with the piano, and Perlman’s violin, so also it is with trackers.
The bushman trackers who were with us up on the flat Sandy expanses of Northern Ovamboland and Angola, would not be as good at their craft here in the Kafue Basin. Here the best would probably be some of the lifetime poachers of the local Kaunde tribe, or maybe their fellow tribesmen, serving on the other side of the wildlife equation, in the National Parks department.
To be the best one needs to grow up in an area, to begin to pick up its signs and nuances, even before one begins to walk, to absorb the local color of shaded grass, moist leaves, bird alarm calls, the geography. Only these specialists will truly be able to accumulate the knowledge to detect and interpret the local out-of-place, which in turn will lead the mental sniffing of their minds.
Of course I was not such a magician when it came to tracking, but I had followed in the footsteps of such a one.
Moses had inherited those genes of proficiency, and because of the lonely outsider status of his upbringing he spent a lot of his time in the Bush away from the mission when growing up. This I know from what father Xavier told me. As a child Moses had communed with nature more than with people, and it was in this communing that he honed his gift. It was one of the many things that made him such an asset when on the hunt in the Bush for the ultimate quarry, other men. It was his quiet confident almost uncanny way of knowing when we were close, and contact was imminent.
When tracking at the eleven men section level, we would invariably adopt the scorpion formation. Two scouts walked out ahead a hundred meters or so, depending on the density of the bush, so that visual contact could be made with the section leader. They would be out at 45 degrees to the line of progress of the main formation. Behind and in between them came the designated tracker, and closely behind him the section leader. This ‘V’ formed the head and outstretched pincer arms of the scorpion. Then back behind the section leader came its body, with the troops spaced at slight left right staggering so that an ambushing machine gun could never get more than one or two of us in a single opening burst. The sting in the tail was the section 2 IC, the Lance-Corporal who directed the soldier with the light machine gun, together with the extra ammo carrier who always accompanied the gunner. Being at the back, the LMG group would usually be outside an ambushes killing ground, and thus be able to strike back with the deadly chatter of its venom.
I did not have a gift as a tracker, but having walked behind Moses so many times and watched him point to this clue or that, I felt confident that my basic proficiency would allow me to follow the spoor of the mystery man.
After all it appeared that this individual wanted me to follow and was leaving behind a tauntingly easy track.
(27 – Tracking the claw)
The wide open treeless expanse of the Shalamakanga dambo stretches back lazily from the river as the Kafue slides slowly South West to the point in its ancient past where it was stolen eastwards from the Limpopo by the Zambezi.
If one were an eagle flying high in the sky it can be seen how, after a few kilometers, the length of the dambo spreads and stretches out into four long sluices, which curved towards the West. The hooked extremity of one of them causes the flanks of the arterial road at its extremity to flinch slightly westwards. It is as if the clawed shape of the eagle’s talons are outstretched to grab at any passing vehicle as it scuttles up along the dirt of the road.
So far so good!
The ease of the tracking allowed my mind, like my feet, to wander along the possibilities.
As I reached the shank of the dambo where it widens out into the pad which spawns its tributaries, a small herd of Puku raise their heads sharply from the grazing in the open grassland. They looked at me with some curiosity, before halfheartedly scampering away. It was heartening to see how the numbers of these animals around the Lodge had slowly been increasing from their dearth when I had first visited here two decades ago, and they were being subjected to the poacher’s ravages. It was also heartening to see how they had become so relatively tame and unconcerned. They were even now almost accustomed to the presence of humans on foot, let alone in a vehicle.
As I dropped my gaze back down from the antelope the spoor of the boot-prints was quite clear. It took very little effort for my eye to pick out their shallow indentations in the sand, especially if I walked on the verge of the twin tracts as they headed west along the southern lip of the dambo. If I craned my head over my shoulder, I could easily detect the thin line of their shadow as they were etched by the bright rays streaming in from the sun as it still hung low in the mornings eastern horizon, like a Banzai flag.
It seemed that the mystery man was simply following our lodge’s secondary access road back to the bigger arterial.
A niggle of apprehension tickled in the background of my consciousness. Heading out a long way into the Bush alone was never a good thing. I was breaking rule number one, it was almost as bad as heading out alone on the river to canoe or kayak. Bad stuff can happen very quickly out there, a hippo could become aggressive and overturn or bite a canoe, a boat could be court in the current and flipped. One does not want to be alone without a rescue craft close by in these situations. And in the bush, the danger of hippos is replaced by charging elephants, which are sometimes aggressive in the Kafue, as they are still sometimes the targets of the ivory poachers.
However, another of life’s dictions is that reward is generally matched to risk, and the indirect taunting of the mysterious man now posed a risk which, if not counted quickly, I would lose any information which may be useful to counter any threats.
Thus I had decided to go out alone after him. It was likely that his taunting had been designed to scare me, rather than goad me into following him. I doubt that he knew how much I had hunted men in my past. After all nobody at the Lodge knew much about me, apart from that I had grown up in the Bush. I doubted that he would expect me to track him.
It seemed that he had some knowledge of the Lodge and its rituals and it was certain that he knew that the normal small contingent of village scouts were all out on patrols. Which is maybe why he had been audacious enough to taunt and attempt to intimidate me, expecting that I would not venture after him without the help of a game scout or two, with their weapons.
So what was it to be? Finding some resolution to the conundrum of occurrence’s by chasing to the end of a fresh track, or a risk going bad, way out in the Bush, all alone.
I found my hand reaching up and fingering the shells of the small leather strand around my neck.
But in some ways the urgency of finding out what was going on was enhanced by only having two days before I needed to fly out down to Johannesburg. I was scheduled to attend a meeting with the chairman and coordinator behind the program which I was running. The chairman was the director of a German corporation, who was the main donor of our funds.
I could not leave for a week knowing that I had missed an opportunity to solve the mystery, even if it meant that I had to venture out essentially unarmed and alone.
I reminded myself to be careful, because out here even though it was the 21st century, this was a piece of the world which had not changed significantly for the last few thousand years. In such a world, without technology, a person would be wise to remember that they are not the top of the food chain here. I could not out bite a lion and I could not out run and elephant.
As I moved along the dirt tracks which skirted the lower side of the damboa, jutting out of the bush-line was a small copse, at the center of which a dead tree thrust the fingers of its bare branches up above the foliage like the wizened hand of a witch.
Sitting sunning themselves at the extremities of some of these spindly fingers was a small flock of normally secretive green pigeons. In unison they took flight as I passed by. I watched these beautiful birds head back towards the river, with the olive emerald of their wings flickering behind the brushed grey of their napes, and the bright highlights of their yellow leggings showing even in the shadow of their disappearing tails..
Ohh well, I mused, I had been the catalyst of an early commencement of their usual habit of cloistering themselves in the thick greenery of the local fruit bearing trees, where they would spend the rest of the day sneaking around feeding on the berries and quietly issuing their ‘getting rich, getting rich’ murmurs.
(28 – Slender tracks)
The spoor led unconcernedly, step-by-step along the uneven bumpy center of one of the tracks of the twin -strip dirt road.
Back at the camp when I first noticed its blatant obviousness, it seemed that the lack of its concealment was a deliberate flaunting. Now that I had followed them a good distance away, and the same disregard for concealment was still apparent, I was not so sure if it was that, or if the mystery man discounted my ability to track, to follow after him. Or was it that there was a rendezvous with a vehicle waiting out at the main road to whisk him away,… or, I smiled to myself, was it a hyena that was waiting! Mentally I shrugged my shoulders, I wished I could believe in flying hyena’s, and could conjure one, taxi style. Too bad Precious was not here, I could tease and ask her why, if this crocodile man was such a hot shot sangoma, had he not dialed up his flying hyena by now? Why walk all the long distance to the road.
Because the spoor was so obvious I could follow its progress at a fast walking pace. It was now three hours since I’d heard the scratch of the chair on the Chitenge floor. Mystery man was three hours ahead of me. The secret to good tracking is persistence, with minimal pauses for rest. Only the best trackers can follow along like a dog on the scent, without losing the track. I was not one of the best. I knew that I would find myself generally progressing at a slower pace than my target, because here and there I would lose the spoor and need to scout around to relocate it.
Where I could I would have to walk faster, a lot faster than my target to catch up. It would be exhausting. There would be the mental strain of concentrating on finding and following the clues of the spoor, which was on top of the physical strain of the speed walking, where and when it was appropriate.
It is this combination of mental concentration, linked with the need for relentless persistent pursuit, an where circumstances permit, the physically fast pace of walking which makes tracking a human target so difficult, especially if the target knows they are being followed, and they can themselves move as fast as possible, or even sometimes run, while engaging in evasive counter tracking actions.
The blatant this of this spoor allowed a sense of slight elation to boy me along. A lot of tracking is also getting inside the head of a target, the way a Buffalo will behave is different to the way it will behave when it is wounded, and aware that it is being followed. Was it more likely that a man’s track would lead around the right, or left side of a thicket, or was it likely, every few hundred meters that he would head towards a patch of longer grass, so that a strand could be plucked and chewed upon. Getting inside a targets head, with its individual idiosyncrasy’s, often affords the tracker a slight anticipatory advantage.
It seemed that mystery man did not expect to be followed, and thus I felt that I had the advantage of surprise, at least in these early stages.
Thus, half an hour later, when the lodge’s dirt-strip road and the spoor I was following reached the main arterial, I estimated I had gained 15 minutes on him.
I could see how the individual had paused and milled around, as if he had looked back at the way he had come. This gave me another few minutes gain. From there he had resumed his steady progress, this time it was northwards along the verge of the road. He was walking at a regular pace, there was nothing hurried in his gait,
I could see this from the way that the heel of the imprints was not accentuated, as it would be if the pace was faster and the pressure of the impact slightly more pronounced by the jarring of a faster forward inertia. Correspondingly there was no deeper toe print, as would be anticipated if there was a more pronounced rock across the ball of the foot for the spring in a rapid step.
This part of the road, between the Lubungu pontoon and Kasempa, was laid down over a decade ago by a South African firm. The surface of the road was in a better condition, even after all the years of use than the section between Mumbwa and the pontoon. That particular length had been awarded to a Chinese company. The South Africans have had 300 years of engineering experience in Africa. The Chinese are new comers… they are still learning how to make things that last for a time in Africa. It would have been easier to track on the Chinese road surface.
But I was lucky, with its center section still comprised mostly of hard compacted dirt, his spoor had not moved out into the well travelled and slightly rutted part of the road. It hugged the softer verge, which was spotted with tufts of grass and the creeping runners of the vine like plants, which at the beginning of winter would be covered in diminutive purple flowers and thousands of white butterflies.
This made the spoor easier to follow and it suggested that its creator was loathe to be detected by passing vehicles. His tracks were out of sight at the edge of the road, and it meant that if he heard an approaching vehicle there would be sufficient time to move into the Bush to hide.
This was borne out when a short distance later I could see how the spoor deviated sharply to duck into the Bush. It indicated that the mystery man had crouched down in the longer grass surrounding one of the thicker tree trunks, where he had turned to look back at the road. The likelihood was that a vehicle had passed by, and the individual had moved into the trees to avoid detection.
I followed along the verge of the road, using the occasional faint outline in the patches of dust which had not been disturbed by random vehicle or bicycle traffic. Every now and again the maker of the spoor reaffirmed his carelessness, with the crushed or tugged foliage of the vine runners indicating his direction. Following in these footsteps was not difficult, but required a bit more of my concentration.
I tracked along the spoor, until it reached a small disused quarry where the road crew had dug up the hard-pan to lay down for the roads substrate.
Here the mystery man had stopped and waited.
And it was here that he had been joined by somebody else. Moving in from the opposite side of the quarry and now mixed in was a different set of prints, with a more conventional shoe pattern than that of our crocodile man’s ZIPRA boot.
But there was something else which really surprised me.
The arch of the female foot is almost always more pronounced. It has a greater bow to the arched outline that joins the heel to the pad forming the ball of the foot.
It was just such a set of footprints, delicate and slender which trailed alongside those of the newcomer.
These were the tracks of a woman, a small woman, maybe those of a teenager.
She was barefoot!
As I stood and contemplated this discovery I bent down and without undoing the shoe-lace, tugged off one of my leather veldskoen and shook out the fine grit that had somehow slipped into it to annoy the comfort of my pacing.
Then not quite straightening up I brushed my hand up my calves and behind both knees to check for the little black bush-ticks that find the soft skin there a favorite place, sheltered from the brushing of the legs through the longer grass, to surreptitiously sink in there proboscises and engorge on blood.
Sure enough I found a fat little bugger. I pinched it between the nails of my thumb and forefinger until it split open and its meal of my blood squirted over the tips of my fingers.
It took a while for me to figure out a probable scenario of what transpired in the quarry.
The new tracks led in from the opposite, north side of the quarry.
There was a confused jumble where they met, as if there had been some pacing around, or examination done, and they had spoken for a while.
Then the pair of newcomer tracks led out towards the road, where I could see a fresh set of vehicle tracks cutting in and stopping at the entrance of the quarry. I surmised that the vehicle had picked up the newcomer and the woman, but not my mystery man.
Interestingly I noted how his spoor had stopped a few meters away from the vehicle tracks. And how they turned back across the quarry to lead me off into the Bush towards the east.
How much time had they spent here? I was not sure. A conservative guess was that it would have been at least half an hour.
The girl’s tracks had been relatively stationary. The other two sets had milled around hers. Was this because she was a submissive and non-intrusive wife, or relative, as is the case with many relationships out here. Was she just hanging back while the men interacted, or werethey examining her?
But, whatever was the case, I assumed that I was now only two hours behind my target.
As the spoor led off into the trees towards the east, it was still relatively easy to follow. This time the most obvious indication of its track was the way the longer grass had been bent forward and then crush down to lay in the direction of the Walkers progress.
The trail through the bush did not last long. It emerged out into the openn beginning of a large dambo.
I recognized this as the one that loops in a wide clockwise sweep across the top of the talons clawed complex of the Shalamakanga. Then it runs parallel as its magnanimous breadth is squeezed by the bushline into a ribbon which dribbles further upriver into the Kafue.
Out here my tracking progress was slower. The dambo grasses were shorter and coarser, and their springy toughness was more resistant to the snapping and crushing, which had been easy to follow in the longer more etiolated grass under the trees of the bush, even though it had been sparser.
Also, along the bushline in this section seemed to be a favorite resting place for the Puku that I could see dotted across the grassy spread further down the dambo.
Here, these medium sized antelope had lain on patches of grass and compressed them, so that the tracks of the mystery man hardly made any further disturbance. I had to carefully search from one flattened Puku mitten to the next.
By now the sun had begun to angle more steeply above the horizon. Its rays were heating and herding the patches of air more emphatically as it formed and nudged them into a breeze. These puffs stumbled across the dambos from the north east like a dormitory of school kids rousing from their beds in the morning. At this time of the year these zephyrs were laden with the monsoon moisture from the Indian Ocean, which as the day heated further, would riear up into the afternoons thunderclouds.
The increased difficulty of tracking the disjointed continuity of the spoor, meant that I was not paying as much attention to my surroundings further away than the close proximity.
But suddenly a distant and faint cracking snap of a branch in the background registered in my consciousness.
I stopped and listened for a minute or two before slowly resuming my scanning the grass and stubble for the spoor.
But now I moved more cautiously, with a heightened awareness for the sounds of the bushveld, not just for the visual cues to clue me to where I should follow.
Then a short while later another distant snapping crack, once again drifted in on the wind from deeper in the bush in front and slightly to my side.
By now I had followed the spoor of the mystery man to that point in the dambo’s sprawl where it angles to the southeast towards the river.
And I knew that sort of sound, of large breaking branches, could only come from one source. . A herd of elephants was feeding up ahead.
The Elephant herds in this part of the Kafue are sometimes some of the biggest I’ve ever seen. They comprise a single matriarch and up to 50 cows, calves and young bulls.
The groups here formed huge clusters. Maybe they had learned that to survive the ambushes of the poachers they needed the experience of the oldest and wisest of the cows. And there were not many of these around after the decades of poaching, especially the poaching of the lawless days of the transit camps of the ZIPRA insurgents, heading south to fight across the Zambezi.
I was very aware that I was not the king of the castle out here alone in the bush. I did not want to get myself downwind from them.
Somehow the young bulls in the Kafue area had learned that the best defense is offense. They are aggressive.
I knew that they would not distinguish my scent from that of a poacher. We would all be dealt with in the same manner.
The elephants were ahead of me, working their way along the tree line on the edge of the dambo. They obviously had been down to the river to drink and now were slowly working their way back inland. They were heading directly towards me.
To avoid them, I could not cut to my left into the tree line because that meant I would be heading up wind, and would be scented.
My only option was to jog back fast and then cut across to the other side of the dambo and then wait for them to head past, presumably and hopefully keeping to the current overall direction, which was back along the spoor which I’ve been tracking.
This I did.
Then keeping just inside the tree line on the opposite side of the dambo, and downward from the big herd, I slowly moved along to a ppoint which I estimated was beyond the last stragglers.
I was about to cut back across the dambo to see if I could pick up the spoor of my target, when looking downat a smallsandy patch where the shade of some trees had starved the grass, was the bootprint of my mystery man.
I was astounded by my luck. What seem to have turned out to be a big set back time-wise, if not tracking wise, with the herd of elephants potentially obscuring the mystery man spoor, had turned into a good jump along the timeline of his progress.
I cut through the Bush line following his tracks. It then proceeded to cross directly over the shank of the Shalamakanga dambo.
The mystery man’s spoor turned back onto the tracks of the strip road near to where my tracking had started.
I could see his prints moving once again along the twin dirt tracks of the access road.
But this time they were not just moving out towards the arterial.
I could see that each time I deviated, such as where I had stopped and moved off the road to look at the green pigeons, the spoor of the mystery man followed my tracks.
The sudden realization sent a shiver of shock through my whole being..
I was being tracked..
It was now the hunter who was being hunted.
(29 – Chased)
There was an almost imperceptible simplicity in the way the cross pattern of the traction pads of the prints pressed their faint uniqueness slightly deeper into the sandy outline of my own..
I stood for a moment, transfixed, while I looked down at the twin sets of imprints, as my mind scurried over the implications.
Then, with my thoughts still scrambling through the shards of my shattered plan, I quickly came to terms with the realization that the big loop had been a set up. It had been a way to somehow get the better of me.
As I crouched down to inspect the tracks I noticed that in one of the little inverted funnel like scrapes at the bottom of the road ruts, an ant had fallen into an ant-lions trap. I could see how the ant-lion, which was still hiding under the sandy grains at the bottom of its inverted cone, had begun to flick sand over the ant. It would not take long before the ant found itself buried under the suffocating flicks. Then it would become prey to the ant-lions voraciousness.. I could not help my feeling of empathy when I broke off a stem of grass and helped the ant clamber up and over the walls of its imprisonment.
I guess my empathy stemmed from a faint sense that I was also at the bottom of a much larger blight. That it would not be long before I would feel some virtual flicks over my head. But, for me there would not be some higher power to drop me a rope from the wide cloudless skies, which could allow me to clamber over the sides of my exposure in the middle of the broad grossi dambo, which pushed the bushline back on all sides like the unfurling of some gigantic carpet.
If I was to get out, it would be with my own resourcefulness. Surprise the surpriser. In adversity or conflict, I had learned the hard way, the most aggressive of the participants almost always won.
But something did not add up. Was this aggression I was facing? Had the mystery man been leading me into an ambush, or was he just trying to mess with my mind.
After all if it had been an ambush that had been intended, why had it not been sprung at the quarry, when there were two of them. Or maybe even three. I was still not sure if the third set of tracks had been from a girl who was there with them willingly or not.
And why had the mystery man done a complete loop? A loop which had allowed me to come up on our tracks, to let me know that I was being followed.
Was this deliberate? And if so, why?
It did not make sense.
And if it was a mind game, it also begged a ‘why?’
I realize that my instinct was to enter the mental-set of an enders-game situation when following human footprints. This instinct was a mental frame formed of necessity, decades ago, when the assumption was that the conclusion had to be a deadly catch or be caught drama. Back then we had been marionettes, dancing at the end of long invisible strings being tugged and manipulated by the imperatives of huge political ideologies, which were blowing across the landscape of Africa, Nationalism, Socialism, and Democracy, in their varied nuances.
Like puppets, we had each danced to the variances of the tunes and scripts in our individual deadly dramas. These were played out countless times, on each of the small platforms sprinkled across Africa. Seldom were there audiences, because they had been hidden from public view. Our stages were set in grassy glades, or thicket groves, and between the rocky kopje hills of the bushveld.
Sometimes, like in this current tense moment, I still have to remind myself that even though the winds of these ideologies still blow across Africa, they are now usually more regular and dependable. They mostly no longer cause the buffeting crosswinds as intensely and troublesome as in the past. This is because over most of Africa, the minds of the people now face into the winds of their particular ideology. The politicians no longer need to foster violence and revolution to woo or war the opinion of their Povo. It is no longer the privilege of the colonialists to pillage the underlying abundance of the continent. Now, in many places it is a new set of indigenous masters who can sit back and do this at their leisure.
I reminded myself that the Africa of today is mostly no longer host to such extremes of position, especially Zambia, which obtained its independence early enough in the pan African struggle, to avoid the bitterness of racism which adds its veneer to the color of its nationalism, as has happened in some of its neighbors. Also it did not have to pander for material support so deeply to any political master. Thus it does not find itself so deeply entrenched in bankrupt ideologies that almost any business initiative, even from an indigenous African, has its entrepreneurial blood sucked out of it like an undipped cow infested with socialist ticks.
With my thoughts back on the present I noted that after all, there had been ample opportunity for the mystery man to inflict physical harm. Only last night he had circled my tent in the darkness. All he had done was to send a signal with the scrape of a chair.
But maybe his tactics were more insidious. Maybe he was instilling a sense of increasing mysteriousness to events. To give an appearance of the magical, which would play to the superstitions that lay just under the surface of many of the beliefs in the bush.
So what should I do? Keep following the tracks and see if I could catch up from behind.
Or should I double back and see if I could catch him unaware if I could run frontally into him.
Or should I back track and wait in ambush assuming he would keep following.
I looked more closely at the tracks. I slowly let my eyes follow them as they progressed along the dirt strips of the road. A thin stem of grass, almost imperceptibly rose up from where it had been impressed into one of the footprints. As the sand dried in the warm breeze, it was losing its damp adhesiveness. The slight torsion in the stem had pulled it up and free from where it been held in the moist stickiness of the soil.
This footprint was less than half an hour old. Somehow I had gained an hour and a half on the mystery man. It meant that I would be more likely to surprise him if I kept following, rather than doubling back on our tracks.
I quickened my steps so that I was almost pacing along the dusty ruts like a speed walker.
I did not have to think as I let my eyes automatically pick up the sign of the footprints. I let my mind drift over the possibilities.
I had been lucky. Gaining an hour and a half on attract target is not easy if the target is also moving. It was obvious that my luck had stemmed from my diversion caused by the elephant herd, and my shortcut across to the other side of the dambo, where I had stumbled back onto the mystery tracks.
He must have proceeded down to the river and then headed back to the road line through the thick Bush. He had not counted on me unintentionally cutting across his big loop and thus tucking even closer behind his progress.
What was also quite possible was that although the mysterious man had taunted me into falling him, and as such had obviously left a blatant set of tracks all the way along the dirt road, and up to the main road as far as the quarry. But, he probably did not know that I could track reasonably competently. He probably had counted on me being a Muzungu, and as such I would have limited bush-craft ability. It seemed his assumption was that he could easily make me lose his track. That was why he had headed out of the quarry towards the east through the difficult lodged dambo grass.
Speed was of the essence.
I looked up as a Bateleur eagle rocked its way across the skies, with its wings set in its characteristically deep dihedral.
Almost vulture like in its habits, in some ways it was an even more magnificent flyer than a vulture.
It hardly ever flapped its long pointed wings, and when it did, they were short bursts of fast stiff winged flicks.
Gazing up at this magnificent bird I wished I could cover the ground as rapidly as this wild creation, and be able to see as much as it could.
I certainly knew it was not sweating as much as I was.
Nor was it feeling the heavy weight of my remaining water bottle rubbing its weight uncomfortably into the small of my back, as its heaviness in the back pack swayed in time to my rapid pace is.
I was just following the spoor, without much conscious thought.
I glanced up and saw that the eagle had already crossed the wide spread of the dambo, as it sped its pointed winged progress through the skies like an acrobat swaying his pole on a tight-rope.
Bateleur! I mentally mouthed the name. It was another disappearing relic of the old, more romantic Africa. These days the new Ornithologists would call it a ‘Short tailed Eaglle’,… What a piss-pot unimaginative name! I thought to myself how Le Valliant, the flamboyant young French naturalist who named the eagle when he came out to Africa in the 1770s, must be turning in his grave as he watched political correctness favor the names given in East Africa, now that southern Africa had rejoined the political correctness of the continent.
Despite the rapid panting hurry of my pacing, my eyes were automatically and unthinkingly following the signs left in the dust of the twin tracts which led out towards the main road. At the same time my thoughts remained caught in a reverie about political correctness and Le Valliant. In some ways, for me he epitomized a disrespect for social correctness, because back in the 1770’s his mistress was a beautiful Hottentot mulatto, and back then it was a time in history where open interracial affairs was strongly looked down upon.
Maybe it was because my mind was wandering across the quicksand of political correctness that it took a few seconds for it to pick up what my eyes had already registered.
There was a third track in the dust.
It had a boot print like no other I had seen for a long time.
With my mind now fully engaged on the signs in the sand, I backtracked a few yards. I could see where the third set of tracks entered the roadway from the Southwest.
This change the picture completely. I felt I had a fighting chance if it was just myself and the mystery man who I would potentially confront, but two of them. No, this was not just someone willing to simply mess with my mind. It would be foolish to find out what would happen if I caught up and confronted a pair of them.
I assumed that maybe there had been another individual in the car at the quarry, and maybe he had got out and joined the mystery man for some reason. Whatever it was it was not worth my while finding out, on my own.
I quickly turned on my heels and cut into the Bush to the south. At a half jog I began to move as fast as I could back towards the lodge, where at least there was much less likelihood of the duo of the mystery man and his companion luring me out alone again.
The heat and my thirst caught up with me. Despite my urgency, not wanting to risk any muscle cramps from dehydration, I stopped, and took the water bottle out of my backpack. Raising it high in the air I began to gulp the soothing relief of the water. As I gulped I searched my memory for the new third boot print. I had seen it before. But where? It escape me.
But anyway now, by draining the bottle, I could move more comfortably at speed, because at least it would not be digging into my back as I ducked and dived under low branches and around the outstretched clasping fingers of some of the thorn trees.
Then, as I hoisted my backpack, from not too far away, I heard the snap of a branch.
The only things that break branches in the daytime in the bush are elephants, and the herd of elephants I had run into earlier were heading in the other direction.
The only other animal that breaks branches in the daytime is the human animal, and that only happens if they are careless or moving fast.
Someone was following me, and I had to assume they were moving fast. Out here in the Bush only the citydwellers are careless.
I turned and began to half jog, half run where it was appropriate, where the bush was not quite as thick.
As I ran I began to think of how I could make a stand if I saw anyone catching up. After all I was now past my prime, and maybe the third set of prints belonged to somebody in their late teens or 20s, someone as old as I had been when I had chased men through the Bush. At my age, I could not out run a young fit pursuer.
My mind was racing over the possibilities of what to do if I did not make it back to the Lodge before any of my followers caught up.
Then, suddenly, I remembered where I’d seen that print.
I stopped running. I turned around.
I slowly walked back along my tracks.
There was only one person I had ever seen with boot prints like that.
Moses wore boots with that strange unique pattern!
(30 – The soul)
Far, far away beyond the horizon, as the sun inexorably slid closer to its collision with the empty expanses of the Kalahari, its rays filtered through the haze of desert dust blown in from even further west, from the Namib at the edge of Africa.
This evening dust burnished the suns halo an even richer gold, causing its last light to sink and spread out like the unfurling of immense wings, stretching both north and southwards beneath the thin layer of alto-stratus clouds, which slivered across the horizon in pale ceramic mauve like the wing feathers of a goose which had just laid its golden egg.
Fifteen minutes earlier, I could still see how the lazy tendrils of smoke rose up from the fire at my feet. These unfurlings filtered the light of the setting sun into faint shadows on my bare legs. From there the light began to fade into the dapples of dusk as it crept through the leaves of the trees forming the bush line across from our camp-site.
But now, after the orb of orange light had settled out of sight, it was as if all the light of day had been drawn into the vortex of the globes disappearance as it tugged its brightness even further away, out over the Atlantic.
Night comes quickly here in the tropics.
This sudden plunge into darkness often takes the uninitiated by surprise. Visitors from the higher latitudes of Europe and North America, assuming that there is still time to prepare for nightfall, suddenly find themselves without flashlights to light their way in the darkness.
From the flickering licks of the flames at its center, the branches that fed our small fire spiked out from the embers of this hub like the spokes of an old wagon wheel.
The glowing stubs which formed the hub slowly receded outwards as the embers feeding the flames dropped away as ash. Every now and again a small pocket of moisture trapped in the seemingly dry timber, would give a sharp snap as its steam burst the cell of its cloister, and a sprinkle of sparks would cascade almost to where our sandal clad feet stretched towards the warmth of the fire.
We had been sitting together at the periphery of this fire for some time. There was no longer any pressing need to talk. Most of our catching up had been done.
We simply sat and let our minds move at their own pace, or even not move at all.
As anyone who has been camping will know, even a few moments spent looking at a fire will work its mesmerizing magic and hypnotic effect on our minds.
The slightly erratic and yet repetitive flicker of the flames seems to slowlly brush away our cognitive contemplation, which empties our minds of the logic of reason. It leaves us aware only of our emotions, and the basic stimuli of our bing alive, with things such as; the image of the flames dancing, its warmth on the shins of our bare legs , the faint chill of the air on our arms, the pressure of our bodies in their camp chairs, and of course the sounds of the night creatures.
I often wondered if the state was as close as my mind could get to that of one of the wild animals, like that of the Black-backed Jackal that we could hear yipping intermittently, and excitedly, almost hysterically, a short distance away. Obviously this little dog found itself motivated by its emotions and not words. Food? a bitch in heat? I wondered. Lucky devil I pondered if it was the latter, and emmediately examined myself to realize that my mental words had been motivated by emotions surfacing out of the depths of my subconscious. Words, which if I examined them portended an hint of excitement no less profound than that of the Jackals yips. Afterall it had been six weeks since I had been back to Lusaka and some time with Claudia, the mulatto mistress I shared with Muhammed.
Every now and again when the overlap of the branches at the center had been burnt back to leave a slightly wider hub of
ash one of us would stretch out a leg to nudge or kick one of the spokes slightly forward into the center of our fire, or if the branch was stubborn, it would require us to lean forward and manually push it a few inches into the embers.
And we would continue to sit mezmerized as we watched the small flames lick resurgent and higher like the Jackals yips.
None of this required verbal cognizance or coordination, it was just the yips of our soul.
So what is Eben up to these days?
I looked at Moses as he stared down at the desultory flickers of the flames at our feet.
I was struck by how he had not aged.
The small licks of light managed to push back the darkness enough to let me make out his features.
Its warm yellow hue reflected softly and surreptitiously off his skin, thereby imparting it with a wrinkle free smoothness.
Whatever blemishes there were, if any, were removed by the faint ripples of the shadows on his countenance. The effect was to impart a polishing, almost a honing to his outline.
Also the taut lay of the muscles of his face as they tightened over his cheekbones and spread down to flex with his lips and chin, suggested a toughness which had resisted the rigors of the passing years.
It seemed that time had burnished his face into agelesssness like the leather of a cavalry saddle.
In a strange way it had made him into an even more handsome man than the one I remembered.
I dropped my eyes back to the mesmerizing flames and leaned forward as I spoke
– The last I heard he was up in Nigeria.
I could feel the fires hypnotic effect, and it was almost as if I had to force myself away from its grip as I continued,
– I saw this in a post on FB from one of the veterans.
Moses slowly extended his arms above his head, and looking up he lazily dovetailed his fingers with the palms of his hands facing up towards the swathe of the Milky Way.
At the same time he stretched and straightened his body in a gesture of relaxed contentment as if offering a supplication to the heavens overhead. Or maybe it was just to dissipate the unaccustomed stillness of his body, after all we’ve been sitting together in this way since just after sunset.
Uncannily I could see that from his position opposite me he was sitting directly between myself and the moon. And its fresh fullness almost seemed to be cradled in the upturned palms of his hands. It was as if he was pushing the moon up through the latticework of leafy branches etched on the night sky by the trees between our fire and the river bank.
Yes, he is there a lot of the time.
Moses still had a deep timbre tone to his voice, which was almost deceptively slow. It gave a simple profundity to his words.
His lips barely moved when he spoke. Everything about him was as such. It was as if there was something ingrained into his being which caused a conservation of energy in all he did.
Why move his lips more than was necessary to convey his thoughts. And he could stay as still as the shadows of the moon across the ground around us when he wanted.
Thus Moses spoke quietly
– He is probably the most senior consultant to the Nigerian Army in their fight against Boko Haram.
He paused before going on.
– That is where I have spent the last few years. I was part of his team. At least the Nigerian government got it right and had the balls to hire the right type of advisory group. You know what they call us these days.
It was a rhetorical question and he continued almost immediately.
They no longer call us mercenaries, we are now PMC’s, or private military contractors.
The Nigerians were clever enough not to use any of the other foreign PMC’s, the Americans, Russians and even some Israeli’s. They all are operating in Africa. They have never fought on this continent, let alone fought here successfully. They bring all their silly ideas and methodology from the far or middle East, A few of them even act as if they are still fighting the old Soviet campaigns.
Sheesh! I retorted with a slight whistle of my breath. PMC’s. All this political correctness Bullshit.
There was a hint of bitterness in my voice as I picked up on the thread of the subject.
I remember how Eben went into Siierra Leone with 200 men and with Nellis and his Mil24 gunship. They sorted out everything and PC pisspots come in and give the word mercenary a bad press rap, because the 18000 UN ‘peacekeeepers’, who had done fokall, suddenly found themselves with Peace and no need to keep. All the bureaucrats back in UN HQ suddenly found themselves without a job. And all the suppliers and logistic parasites with no more contracts. And the pisspot countries like Zimbabwe who are paid to send their soldiers. All of them with no conflict to feed on. They all could no longer suck money out of gullible Western taxpayers. UN peacekeeping is one huge big racket.
I was silent for a while as we both sat and listened to a lion roaring not too far up river.
– Eben is pretty smart, It was Moses turn to speak. So I’m surprised he hadn’t thought of this marketing gimmick, which the PC gurus came up with to make outfits like ‘BlackWater’ politically correct – just change the name to an anacronym, and say they are in the PMC business. But it is good that they did, because it has allowed us to keep going ever since those first EO days.
– Yes, I agreed quietly, Sheeesh, PMC, it sounds like some post menopause woman thing.
Moses chuckled as he murmured Haven’t lost your barrack humor!
The lion was roaring again, and somewhere down River a hippo was snorting. Strange that it had not left the river to feed I thought. I also thought how strange it was, that considering the outward and apparent differences between the two of us, our lives had linked together again and again in so many ways to produce such a wonderful bond. Even though we had not seen each other for years it was as if the last time we had nodded goodbye was only yesterday.
The fire had died down by now, and neither of us had kicked any of the branches in towards its center to keep it burning.
Okay Jackie, I used the nickname the yanks in the unit used to call him, time for us to turn in. Tomorrow I will take you up river by boat to meet our neighbors who are also involved in this whole anti-poaching gig.
As we rose and moved towards our respective tents, I said to him,
– On the way up I’ll show you some great fishing spots.
(32 –Morning rituals)
The embers of last night’s fire lay in powdery grayness between the spikes of the branches which had fed its flames. In the stillness of the dawn, from the tip of one of them a fine strand of almost translucent smoke rose up as straight as the stem of a bullrush, until iits wispy resolve seemed to falter, and it began to mingle and spiral aimlessly before it disappeared into the coolness of the morning air.
I picked up the smoking branch and pushed its end into the sand to smother its heat. And then more from habit than anything, using this bluntness, I stirred the ashes to ensure no glow lay beneath the surface of the spent powder. After all, it was only a year ago that an inexperienced guest did not properly doused their fire, and the resulting flames had raced across the dambo, reaching up into the dry leaves of the trees at its periphery, and even threatened to set the thatched rooves of the chalets ablaze.
Now, with the winds of late August no longer pushing winter aside, there was little chance of a gust, energized by the rising sun, fanning an ember and lifting it into its swirls as it panted across the bush.
Also, even in the dawn dimness, as I looked out across the dambo I could see how the recent rains had been absorbed into a tinge of lush vitality by its grassy cover. It was obvious that winters wrinkled dryness had been replaced by the start of summers flush.
I looked up to the braying of calls and the pulsing swish of their wings as a gaggle of Trumpeter Hornbills passed overhead , spreading out upriver from their evening roost in the thick trees of the island across from the Lodge.
Earlier, well before any hint of dawn, it was the hiss of the gas cooker which had gently pulled back the cloak of slumber while it still wrapped me in its comfortable folds. Moses, as he had always done, roused before me.’
I had listened to his quiet steps as he crossed to the ablution block and fill the little pot of water and put it on the gas ring to boil.
I also heard the click of the spoon as he ladled out the ground coffee beans into the French press, and the sound of mugs being set on the table as, in turn he spooned out the sugar and powdered milk.
Still deep in the warmth of my sleeping bag I heard his grunt of acknowledgement as I said loud enough to be heard, ‘There is a box of rusks at the back of the chitenge on the top shelf’.
This was followed by the clink of the pot, and the faint gurgle of the water as it spilled over the lip onto the grounds where its water swilled and suck the flavor out of the grit in the press.
The ritual of coffee being prepared was not unique to the bush, in fact its sounds could probably be heard almost everywhere people gathered to enjoy this habit which gently readies the body and soul for the rigors of the day.
What was unique here was the surreptitious and quiet efficiency of the sounds, the hiss of the gas burner was somehow subdued, and I could barely make out when the last mugs were placed on the little wooden table, or the lid of the coffee can was opened and some of its grit scooped out into the press. I recognized in the quite efficiency of his movements that Moses’s habits from the past was still far more extant than with me. He had been practicing our craft long after I had left the trade.
There was still a sense of his almost one this with the Bush. Back then we had adapted and perfected this ritual to its essential simplicity, tin mugs were lighter than porcelain, and would not break when squashed into a backpack. The single large spoon could serve both to stir the coffee and to dig into a can of baked beans, the little pot would hold 2 cups of water to be boiled, why have more water which would just need more fuel and time to bring everything to a boil. Efficiency and minimalism was everything in the Bush.
I stood with my shoulders slightly hunched, and my hands pushed deep into the pockets of my shorts to ward off the faint chill that remained from the evening. Even though it was early December and almost midsummer, the front that had herded the thunderstorms before it earlier in the week, had left the cooler hint of its disturbance like the dust settling slowly on a dirt road behind a passing vehicle .
The slight chill meant that the Cicadas, the Christmas beetles of my youth, would begin their shrill screeching later when the sun warmed the air, but already the bush was full of the sound of the birds. There’s nothing quite like the sound that greets the early morning when the summer migrants are here.
I stood and listened to a Black headed Oriole. Even though it was almost Midsummer, it was still issuing its courting call.
I guessed that it, like many other birds would be second clutching after having lost eggs or young to the predation of snakes, or monkeys, or genet cats, and As a result the courting songs of these unlucky once always seem to have an under-current of urgency to get on with it. They no longer had the luxury of time to get their progeny and themselves ready, before the shortening of daylight would trigger an urge so powerful that it could not be ignored, which would push them to abandon everything in the rush to face the daunting challenge of crossing the vastness of the Sahara, and almost immediately be squeezed, in their billions, around or across the Mediterranean.
I had introduced Moses to the lodge staff yesterday and so now as we headed across to the Lodge complex from our campsite it was not much more than the customary ‘Mabuka Virongo’ Wake Well, that we exchanged with a few of the casual staff who were sweeping the pathways.
Then crossing the small footbridge over the shallow gulley that borders the lawn in front of the Chitenge we could hear women’s voices coming from beyond the straw fence which screens the kitchen.
The draw of the friendly chatter was augmented by the faint smell of cooking. The combination was enough to make me look back over my shoulder at Moses, and with a nod of my head towards the source, I commented ‘Smells like something that needs to be checked’, as he returned a rhetorical grin.
Entering the predawn gloom of the kitchen there were a few moments of shyness as the three girls adjusted to Moses presence. But their awkward reticence was soon dispelled by the smile and politeness with which he greeted them in their native Kaunde, ‘Mabuka Mwane’, asking politely if they had woken refreshed. And their giggling response to him saying that if they did not want dogs sniffing around the kitchen this early, they should not cook bacon.
I had to smile to myself how the girls affected indifference and the slightly louder banter between them, showed that they were not unaffected by the presence of the new-comer.
Their surreptitious scrutiny was obvious in the way their gaze lingered over his figure when he turned away to preoccupy himself with examining the lay out of the kitchen.
Moses was stil a handsome man. I was slightly jealous of the way he had aged so benignly.
He was an African, and a lucky one, because as with many of them the outward signs of age set in long after that at which most Caucasians look decidedly decrepit, especially those who have spent their lives in Africa. The pale Europeans skin does not stand up to the rigors of the African sunshine. Like thin white papyrus exposed to the elements it does not take long before it begins to wrinkle and crack, unless like the Dead Sea Scrolls, its bearer is a book-worm who got secluded in the jar of a pen-pushing colonial or government desk job. Or the pale surface is protected from the elements with a constant smothering of creams, and few young African Caucasian have that much forethought to so protect themselves.
Add to that the Afro-European culture of the sundowner beer or gin and tonic, and it is the exposure of the booze induced lattice of fine veins just beneath the surface of a dry skin, which may be additionally blotched by alcohol derived high blood pressure, that make many Caucasians in Central Africa so often seem older than they are.
Moses was fortunate to still possess a dark healthy countenance, with skin as unblemished and uniformly viscous as freshly melted chocolate.
And of course he was younger than myself by quite a few years. He had joined the unit only towards the end of the conflict.
He was still a handsome man, and I could see that the girls on the staff had noticed this.
I cast my mind back to the handful of Americans in the unit, a few of the flotsam from Vietnam who had become addicted to the excitement of combat, and could not readjust to the boredom of urban lives. They had come over to join our struggle. These men gave Moses the nickname ‘Jackie’, because although not quite as big in build, he had a remarkable resemblance to Jackie Robinson, the first American of African descent to play in the baseball major-league.
His allure had much to do with the broadness of his smile and twinkle of eye, but there was also something else that reach beyond the African and both him and his namesake, something not quite African, but hard to pinpoint, a slight refinement of the features.
Whatever it was, I was not averse to riding the coattails of his popularity because, not only were we presented with 2 cups of coffee, but also a sandwich of thickly cut fresh baked bread liberally smeared with butter into which were embedded a few slices of crispy bacon
Had it been only me, all I would’ve gotten was the coffee.
Leaving them to the bric-a-brac interaction of the conversation, which in its spirit of flirtatious banter was too fast for me to follow along with the native corn day language, I headed for the boats.
It was going to be a quick and rushed reconnaisance that I was going to give Moses of the area, and what quicker way to do this than to traverse the area by boat. This way I would also be able to introduce him to some of the neighbors who had a dog in our hunt as well.
And if we were going to be on the water, why not show him some of my good fishing spots.
I laid out the two short carrying cases and set together the four piece rods which were my private prize, and picked up the case of my favorite lures, dihedral deep divers, with a silver minnow bearing a black dot on its gills and a russet brown Kapenta mimic with a smidge of orange yellow on its belly below where the gills would be located if it were a real fish.
I made sure that at least one of the barbs on the belly hook were cut, so that it would be easier to remove the lure from the mouth of a landed fish.
I loved catching fish, But, I seldom kept any of those I caught. For me fishing was about the skill and excitement of catching not about eating fish.
After attaching the the reels and threading the line, I secured a small swivel to the end of each, using my favorite knot of parsing the line through the eye of the swivel, then twisting it six times around the line, after which I passed it back to thread through the bottom and top loops, before everything was tightened and the excess line cut just above the swivel.
Then picking up the rods I headed down to the boats tether site, which looked out across a faint fog that still lingered on the water.
‘What is all the activity about?’
Precious had followed me out to the boats, and she now stood above me holding onto the edge of the platform railing while I loaded the boat.
I tucked the rods out of the way against the gunwale, together with the spare oars, and placed my tackle box under the deck at the prow. I also checked that we had the life jackets and two full water bottles.
‘Some unexpected late guests will be arriving.’ Precious looked down at me contemplatively.
‘We only were told about it last night. Idaa has already left for Chifumpa to pick up James the chef and a few of the casuals’.
‘When do they arrive? ‘
‘In three days’ she replied.
‘How long will they be staying?’ ‘
Precious shrugged her shoulders, ‘You will have to ask Ida.’
I took the last sip of coffee before the edge of its heat drifted away like the water rustling beneath the boat. Flicking the dregs into the river, I leaned over the gunwale to scoop and swirl the cup clean, and then before setting it aside I poured its contents back into the water.
Despite being an apostate, I was tempted to make the sign of the cross, because I was unsure if some saintly patience would soon be necessary.
After all, I knew that two-stroke engines could be as temperamental as teenagers not wanting to rouse in the coolness of early morning. Thus it was best to get everything ready and stacked for a quick start, so that the first kick of life occurred before realization set in about what was happening, and as with a stubborn donkey, a lack of response ensued.
Pumping the ball valve of the fuel line to clear any air lock, I then pressed the engine primer, and cranked the throttle handle open and closed twice, which I don’t know why, always seems to help. Then setting it just a tad post-idle, and taking a deep breath I braced myself, before hauling back on the starter chord.
Another lunging haul… A third and a fourth followed.
Looking up I saw Precious leaning forward with her elbows resting on the decks rail, and her chin cupped in her hands, as if settling herself for an extended period of idle entertainment.
Slightly annoyed, this time to appease the River-God I made the sign of the cross, as I grimaced back at her.
I cranked the throttle full open-closed one more time, maybe it gave the carburetor a suck of air, and biting my lips with the effort, I hauled back as hard and quickly as I could.
I was beginning to lose my belief in the benevolence of whatever God it was that I had sought to appease.
One more time.
With a cough the engine took for a brief second, only to die out in a erratic flutter sounding like the spiritless wings of a dying moth. But now, with invigorated zest, and to catch this wind of fortune before it faded, I quickly hauled on the chord.
The engine caught again, This time it spluttered unevenly for a few moments, and then slowly condescended to stutter into life, and then shiver into a reassuring buzz as the cylinder head heated up.
Now with my trust in the River God briefly restored until the next of life’s trivial challenges, I looked up at Precious and gave her a thumbs up. She straightened and with a toss of her head turned to disappear back across the deck towards the kitchen. I sensed her disappointment at missing the entertainment of my godless cusses when faced with the obstinateness of a piece of uncooperative machinery.
The 12 foot boat with its 15 horse Mercury was tethered alongside its twin, and slightly upriver from a bigger 16′ boat which served to do some of the sight-seeing up and down the river.
I watched as Moses lightly walked down the steep bank and untied the tether from the exposed roots of the large tree which spreads its shade over the deck.
Stepping aboard, he held onto one of the roots until I nodded that I was ready.
I flicked the engine lever to put it into reverse, and turned the throttle a tad as the propeller cut into the water and the motor hesitated as it took the load.
Sliding the boat backwards out from under the overhanging branches, I let the current catch it and pull us out even further, before gently gunning the motor and turning the engine to point our prow into the current.
A pair of White-Crowned Plovers stood clinking their alarm from atop the outcrop of rocks which is the only feature to disturb the broadness of the river before it splits and slides past the island opposite the lodge.
Beyond the rocks and the plovers, like curious children, a few hippo from the local pod popped their heads above the water’s surface, exposing little more than their lumpy snouts and stubby ears, and with their protruding eye-sockets space midway between those features. They swiveled their heads like periscopes to follow our passage, leaving their huge bodies submerged like some ancient Jules Verne submarine. And then with a chesty snort of spray, one by one they ducked under the water as we drew opposite.
This local pod, after years of our presence, was of little concern, unlike those on the Lunga , where the pressure of the poaching was greater, and hence with it the nervousness and aggression of these big animals.
I was not sure of those further upstream towards Mushingashi, where we were headed. Up there I would afford them a wider berth.
Turning my attention back to the river, as we left the hippos behind, under its light cloak of fog, I could see how the flat surface of the river was dimpled and slightly wrinkled by the drift of the current as it tightened to slide past the big central boulders, and then how it seemed to hesitate in anticipation of its push past the island.
This island signals the start of the change in the character of the river. But it is only after the next two big islands further up-river that the significance of the change becomes obvious. It is to be found in the deeper eddies and swirls of the faster water, which indicate a preponderance of big boulders lurking beneath the surface.
These huge rocks disturb the smooth progression of the flow by pushing their massive pale ochre hefts up from below with all the lumpy unevenness of giant Chantrelles. Their big impediments force the waters to split and fork repetitively into narrower channels, before they weave together again, much like the Cleopatra braids that dangle lazily from Precious’s crown.
With the recent rains the river had risen. It would make our progress easier. I was not nearly as proficient at navigating the channels and avoiding the numerous lurking obstacles as the lodge guides.
With 30 years of guiding on the river between them, Everet and Thurston knew the waters and channels like the back of their hands. They could gun the engine to full throttle and push the boat into a plane as they headed upstream all the way as far as Mushingashi.
Now with the waters a lot deeper and flowing well, I was fairly confident to raise the boats prow to a plane in the big broad pool with its hippos, and I would be buoyed along by my confidence past the first big upstream Island. But a tad further, soon after, where I would need to cut sharply to port to take the narrow gap between it and the next, my confidence would wane almost as soon as I hauled the tiller back to starboard to point the boat into the stream of the next narrower and faster flowing channel.
Thus it was, cranking hard to starboard, and over the buzz of the engine, I shouted out, ‘That is one of my best fishing spots’.
And as Moses turned his head to look at me, I jerked my thumb over my shoulder to indicate the gap of calm waters we had skimmed across.
Cutting back on the throttle I let the boat drop off its plane. More caution was now needed to look out for the big standing swirls with their hints of a big boulder lurking beneath the surface. I did not need a broken blade from a prop strike.
With the quieter buzz of the motor, it was not necessary to shout over its sound.
I spoke to the back of Moses’s head, When was the last time you tried my sort of fishing?
I heard him chuckle, ‘It has been a while. It must’ve been when we were still at Buffalo camp on the Kavango.’
Without turning around he continued, ‘But you know us Lozi’s, we prefer our traditional methods, our read fish traps, and nets, and spearing the barble cat-fish in the dried up pools at the end of winter. We do not have the patience for your Mzungu sort of fishing.
‘Yes I know,’ I replied, somewhat tongue in cheek, ‘But to be happy in life everyone needs an addiction’.
‘Neither of us can get high on the excitement of contact anymore, and we are both lucky that we have eluded the demon of alcohol and drugs that got so many of those who were with us.
The back of Moses’s head slowly nodded in affirmation.
I read somewhere that the best way to get hooked on something is to provide an eratic and variable reward.
So, exactly like the gambler pressing the buttons of the ‘one armed bandit’ in the Swazi casinos, fishing provides me with the same sort of buzz with its erratic and variable reward. Like them I never know when I am going to get lucky!
Moses pointed to the side of the river, and I slowed the motor until the boat stood still in the current. We both sat in silence while we watched the form of a bushbuck ram moving with slow mincing steps through the thick undergrowth just above the water line. With his flanks flecked with white and his throat swatch contrasting strongly with his dark fur and even darker under belly, he was crowned with a fine pair of tightly swirled horns.
‘What a beautiful creature!’ Moses murmured quietly back to me. God provides me with my erratic and variable reward!’
And after a pause, ‘God is my addiction’.
I was caught unawares. Back then we had all slowly come to realize the depth of Moses beliefs. But all the events, both back then and afterwards, had made many of us, myself amongst them, cynical of the dogma with which we had fortified our moral convictions. Most of the religious conviction we may have entertained had not been immune to the ravages of time and its cynical treatment of our history.
I knew I would get push back when I stated, ‘Yes, but my fishing is better than a gambling addiction or religion, because I can beat the odds!
In the casino the odds are always set by the house, and I am not sure if I would want to bet against God!, he seems to stack the odds too high for me.
But out here if I am good enough, I can get an edge on the margins set by the river’. Here on the water, I can beat its edge, and keep coming back.
I drew a breath, ‘And this is my heaven. Nobody kicks me out, not even a God, even if I am a sinner.’
Moses glanced back at me as he rolled his eyes, ‘Gidi, I don’t think that God wil kick you out of heaven, at least not yet. You make him laugh too much, with your silly sins, He likes to play with you..’ Moses chuckled, ‘Do you think his hand was not with the engine this morning?’
I ignored his quip and as I opened the throttle, I again address the back of his head, ‘Talking about luck and gambling’, I said, ‘It must have been a fisherman who invented poker. Isn’t one of the biggest single prizes for anything, given in the game of Texas Hold’em at the world series of poker, a game with its flop, its bend and its river.?’
Beyond the two big islands the boulders which until then had been lurking below the water, now like a boisterous mob, began to rear up above the surface. Then gaining audacity from their numbers and heft, they challenged the smooth silent flow of the river. It in turn, almost as if taken by surprise at this sudden disruptiveness, meekly whispered and gurgled its protestation as it allowed the homogeny of its flow to be split up into a confused weave of channels which merged and diverged like the slither of hatching snakes beneath the shady cuffs of its water trees.
‘Hey Moses’, I called out above the sound of the engine, ‘Do you know who are the best conservationists in the world?’
Even though he was sitting in the prow of the boat and facing away from me, I did not have to ask him to move slightly to the right of center. It was the instinctiveness of how we had always worked together. He had shifted to the side to even the balance of the boat which was offset by me being right handed and thus sitting to the opposite side of the outboard as I tugged its tiller. This nudged the boats nose between the big boulders as they pushed the flow to and fro, causing the stern where I sat to wiggle its way across the eddy’s and whirlpools like the sway of a belly dancers hips.
‘Hunters!’ I answered myself rhetorically.
Soon we again reached a broad open section of the river, with only one little half submerged outcrop at its center. This was oddly out of place, adorned with a straggly litter of flotsam left behind by the floods of the previous summer, and a single little water tree clinging for dear life to a few clefts in its rocky crown.
I intended to stop here on our return. In the back eddies behind the crown I would almost certainly find a few big ‘Robbies’ lurking in the lee of its rocks. They would be waiting to flash out and gulp down any unwary bait fish struggling in the faster water further out in the main stream..
Moses shrugged his shoulders without looking back.
‘I’m going to introduce you to some of the best conservationists I have ever met’.’
I paused for effect and clarification, ‘Well at least one of them. I think that this guy has shot more animals than almost anybody I know.’
Then looking upriver as we eased past the little island I could see the almost unbroken reflections of the clouds marching away on the broad flat mirror of the river. This meant that there were no obvious rocks to stir its flatness.
And I felt more confident in gunning the engine to make the boats prow pick up just enough to get into a plane.
I licked my lips and felt the air press against them as we rushed through it with the speed of the boat. And I pointed my chin in the direction of our travel to maximize their sense of coolness before I spoke again.
A half hour later we found ourselves nosing into a little cove with a small concrete jetty. And beyond it, tucked under a grove of huge trees was a permanent bush camp. It was the head-quarters of the folks holding the Lunga Lushwishi hunting concession.
As I edged the boat into the cove and its jetty I spoke to Moses,’This place is run by Roger. He and his father have held the concession here for over a decade, originally it was his father, Alan, who tendered for it.
He basically saved the whole huge area’.
Moses raised his arm and pointed to the side and just above the tree line ,’Some NKondo’s are here to greet you’ He said.
Following his gesture, I saw a pair of handsome black and white raptors winging away from the trees and begin to make tight circles as they searched for a thermal.
‘African Hawk-eagles,’ I said. ‘That is the third time I have seen them on this section of the river. They must be nesting somewhere close by.’
I paused. ‘One day I want to try flying one of them at Guinea Fowl’.
Then nodding my head back in the direction of the jetty I continued, ‘When I was here two weeks ago they were preparing for a month long booking, so I hope they are in camp right now, and not out on a hunt.
With not much forward motion the boat twisted sideways in the slow swirl of the coves back eddy.
‘Roger is a great guy, but his father is the one I want you to meet.’
Reaching under the prow deck of the boat, Moses took hold of the mooring rope tucked beneath it. He then stood up and waited in anticipation of throwing it to the young man who was walking towards us across the grassy lawn towards the ramp of the boat lauch and its jetty.
‘The elder one, the Madala, he is the really interesting one,’ I said.
‘What is so special about him?’ Moses asked.
‘He is the one who has shot more animals in his life than almost anyone else I know, at least elephants. Probably hundreds of them. In my humnle opinion he is one of the greatest conservationists I have ever met.
Moses glanced at me and tilted his head while raising one eyebrow and making a questioning grimace of disbelief.
‘Conservation,’ I quickly followed up, ‘is not primarily about shooting animals, it is about habitat, and Alan, the father has preserved more habitat than almost any man alive today, at least here in Central Africa.’
As I flicked the engine into reverse to slow its forward motion, Moses tossed the rope to the youth, who pulled the prow along the side of the dock, and held the gunwale of the boat parallel to its edge. Moses stepped onto the platform and assisted him in securing the boat to the mooring tethers.
‘Mabuka mwane’ I greeted the shy smile of the dockhand. ‘Are the bwana’s here today?
I received an ‘Ehe’ of affirmation.
We followed our helper across the broad lawns to the structures tucked into the shade under the branches of huge trees.
‘Hunting and shooting can reduce the number of animals. Sometimes drastically. Such as with elephants and rhinos, with all the poaching. But we can set up mechanisms to prevent the hunting. Actually that is our bread-and-butter right now, it is why I need your help. At least as long as it takes to figure out all this witchcraft stuff.
We had stopped where the lawn spread out after leading up out of a gap in the scrubby undergrowth.
Moses had turned to look to our right through the liana’s hanging from the huge trees at the edge of the river. The set of shallow rapids opposite the camp, roiled the water and provided it with the constant backdrop music of rushing water.
I resumed my explanation.
‘If nobody preserved their habitat, the only place you would find elephant and rhinos is in zoos. And zoos mostly only work for big signature animals that can get headlines in news reports, with big ghastly pictures of tusk and horns hacked off.
We started walking again. As we approached the first of the cabins I said to Moses, You can see that this camp has been here for a long time’.
Ther was a slight air of tiredness in the color and tidyness of the thatching on the roof of its chitenge. And the obvious swept cleanliness of the surroundings could not hide the occasional crack in the brick work that formed the base of a protecting half wall. It enclosed the rear section of a large concrete platform that looked down onto a lower wooden deck situated just above the river.
Our dock hand had stopped. He turned to us and ask us to wait as he went to tell the Bwana that we were here.
‘OK, twasanata,’ I said to him, thank you.
Addressing Moses again I continued, ‘Nobody notices, or cares for the little insignificant butterflies, or lizards or birds that are on the brink of extinction. For them, even if they were put in zoos, they would stil die out. Few zoos can replicate the habitat that some of these need to breed.
The passenger pigeon went extinct in the United States not because they hunted it to extinction, but because they cut down all the forests on the eastern seaboard where those birds fed and nested.
The big old Ground hornbill here in Africa is slowly disappearing, not because it is hunted, but because they are slowly cutting down all the big trees with holes in them large enough for these birds to nest in. They are destroying its habitat.’
I finished my missive and both of us stood in silence as we waited.
Part of the lower deck at the river line was obscured by some bushes, but from its direction, above the rush of thw water in the rapids, we could hear some voices engaged in conversation. Although it was not possible to make out its gist , it was obvious that some of the discourse was being stated in loud and emphatic tones.
We did not have long to wait. A tall slim elderly man appeared around the edge of the bushes, trailing behind him are doc hand. He was wearing full-length khaki clothing. His attire suited him like a second skin. Although its fabric was obviously faded and very well worn, its neat tidiness and the way it draped austerely on the long wiry frame of his body, gave him an almost regal air. His hair although not the thick crop of his youth, stilll covered his head in a mop, with longish unclipped sideburns, which had turned almost white by the time they reached half way down his ears.
But there were two things that always stood out every time I met Alan. Firstly it was how his smile made is broad mouth even wider, as it dominated the lower part of his face, between the squareness of his chin and the leanness of his cheeks. And it was only when one got closer, andn could draw ones attention away from the disarming nature of his smile, that one became aware of the twinkle in the tawny tint of his eye, which enhanced his visage even further.
The second thing, for which he was infamous, was that he was barefoot. In the bush he was always barefoot.
Alan greeted me warmly, and I turned to introduce Moses.
‘Moses is my sidekick. We go back a long time. He and I spent years on the wrong side of the’Chimurenga’ in Angola.’
I knew, given his history, that Alan would understand my reference to ‘Chimurenga’.
I have asked him to help me as I try to figure out what’s going on with all this witchcraft stuff in our area..
Alan reached out and shook hands with Moses in the traditional African way, with its European style clasping of hands on the down movement, and then as the hands lift up the fingers of each outstretched hand wrapp momentarily around the thumb before spreading back to repeat the shake two or three more times.
‘Bwerani Bwanji’, Alan addressed Moses in fluent Nyanja. And I saw how the usual deadpan expression on Moses face flickered its recognition that here was a mzungu of a different ilk. Here was a mzungu who could speak an African dialect as fluently and faultlessly as a native Nyanja.
I listened as they exchanged pleasantries in the dialect.
A raucous shout of laughter filled the air.
Alan nodded his head over his shoulder to indicate the direction of the hilarity.
‘We have a real pair of dodgies this time’.
Another loud set of guffaws rolled up the slope towards us.
‘Not since I guided Escobar back in the 80’s have I come across a pair quite like these two.’
Allan nodded again in their direction, ‘‘Actually Pablo was a breeze once you got used to all the loaded sidearms being packed around by his bodyguards.’
I raised my eyebrows, ‘Really you guided Escobar?’
‘Yes, compared to our current duo he was quite a gentleman. He would fly in with his private jet, no passports needed. And he paid very well, Cash!’
I chuckled, ‘So much for interpol and all that law and order stuff.’
‘Actually what did I care about the morality of Escobar selling stuff to stupid people. When it is moved out here money can buy almost anything. And if you are invited to these bad boys table, it is best to accept their invitation, otherwise one may find oneself on the menu.’
Alan tilted his head at us and turning he indicated to follow him.. ‘Come, let me introduce you to our current guests!’
To the one side of the deck was the customary serving table covered with a tablecloth sporting a vibrant African motif.
Opposite it, were four comfortable camp chairs set in a half circle facing out towards the river.
Three of the chairs were occupied.
I immediately recognize Roger, with his dark brown hair, and bushy beard which could not hide the roundness of his face. Being much shorter than his father in stature, he must have inherited many of his features from his mother, including the propensity to follow, which, I could imagine, was necessary if one was to get on with his father.
Seeing as it was not yet midmorning, the one half of the table sported what was to be expected at this still reasonably early time of day. On the table were the flasks, jugs and cups, all laid out to make coffee or tea. Next to these was a woven basket containing toast and another with freshly baked muffins. Both were covered with a gauze cloth to keep off any insects. and alongside lay the cutlery to spread the butter, marmalade or jam in glass jars. All the elements of a light Bush breakfast.
All of it untouched.
On the other side of the table, somewhat forlornly, stood an empty whiskey bottle, and two bottles of vodka, one of which was half empty. An ice bucket and a few scattered and crumpled soda cans completed the picture of a different sort of indulgence.
Roger stood and moved across to meet me. I reached out to shake his hand. He greeted me as warmly has had his father. In the same fashion I introduced Moses.
Then with a broad sweep of his hand, Roger gestured towards the other two men, who had remained seated as we arrived.
‘Let me introduce our guests.’ Roger paused, ”Alexei’.
A man withdark eyes and a face whose roundness and dark brown hair bore a vague similarity to a shaved Roger, nodded back at us.
The second man, had a nondescript build, and was slighter than his companion,. Even though he was still sitting in his chair, it was obvious that like his friend he was not tall. His fair hair was closely cropped, in almost a military style. I was not sure if the thinness of his hair was as a result of its close cropping, or because he was going bald.
I stepped across to where he sat and extended my arm with an open hand for a friendly shake.
Vladimir did not rise from his chair, but he did lazily raise his arm to give my hand a perfunctory and listless clasp as he briefly drifted his small piercingly blue eyes in my direction. He accompanied his glance with a nod of his head and an indecipherable grunt. This was issued when he had already turned his head towards his companion, to whom he began to address in what I assumed was Russian.
He did not seem to register, let alone care, that I was introducing myself. ‘Hi, Nice to meet you, I am Gidi’.
I waited politely for him to finish speaking to his friend, and then as he swivelled his eyes at me, I addressed him, ‘This is my partner, Moses’.
Now it was Alexi who spoke, once again in Russian. Vladimir did not even grunt us an acknowledgement before he turned to reply to whatever it was Alexi said.
However, he had let his gaze drift in my direction just long enough for me to realize that the piercing blue of his eyes emanated not so much from their color, as from the almost pinprick constriction of his pupils, which allowed the hue of his iris’s to dominate my impression.
And it was then that the air shifted towards where I stood. It brought with it the smell of stale whiskey, which even a subsequent half bottle of odorless vodka could not suppress.
‘Can I offer you any coffee or tea? Alan invited us to the table, ‘Feel free to have some of this toast or a muffin or two’. And he added that the coffee was fresh filtered, not the instant chicory knock off stuff.
While Alan poured the coffee, both Moses and I helped ourselves to some of the tables other bounties.
The scene was so idyllic. Beyond the broad leafy shade over the deck, and the swaying fronds of the river grass, the morning sunlight sparkled with a million kaleidoscope glitters off the rippling water as it bumbled across the rocky shallows.
In the background, like a maestro practicing before a performance, the melodious sound of a Red-eyed bush dove rose and fell up and down its repetitive scale with metronomic regularity. It blended into the rivers murmurs as naturally as if into the whispers of a crowd behind the curtain, waiting for their hero to take the stage.
But then there are few sounds of the bush that do not find favor to anyone who is a child of the bush.
I wondered if the two guests opposite me were as affected by the halcyon splendor of the setting.
‘What a great place for breakfast’ I commented to no one in particular.
‘I want more drink.
It was Vladimir who spoke.
‘Vodka’, he added.
Roger obliged, handing him a glass and then filling it almost half full until Vladimir raised it up to clink on the neck of the bottle, indicating it was full enough.
I watched in amazement as he raised the glass to his mouth, and tilting his head back poured its contents down his throat with no more than three or four swallows.
‘Nostrovia!’ I felt obliged to toast him.
‘You speak Russian?’
Vladimir had fixed his beady gaze on me.
‘No’, I replied, ‘I just no a few words, but I can swear quite well in Russian’.
A faint smile appeard on his face.
‘Where did you learn to swear in Russian?’
‘I had a Russian girlfriend.’ I lied. ‘Idi Nahui’ she would say to me all the time, and ‘Idi v pizdui’.
Vladimir gave a snort of laughter and turned and said something to Alexei, whose face had also begun to glimmer with a smile at my expressions.
‘Where was that?’
‘Oh it was a long time ago’ I said, ‘I was scared of her. She was bigger and stronger than me. She taught me many useful things, not just to swear’.
‘What did she teach?’ Alexei had a deeper voice than Vladimir.
‘She taught me how to milk a cow’. I hesitated, I did not want to upset my hosts by offending their clients, but I sensed that it would be something other than raunchiness that would offend this pair. But then again maybe I was wrong. There indifference to my introduction had annoyed me. So I was willing to push a tad.
‘She was a typical Russian cow’.
I had already decided I did not like this man.
There was something about him.
From experience I had learned that there were two types of drunks, the stupid silly, and the nasty aggressive kinds.
My gut feeling was that Vladimir fitted into the latter category. His slightly flattened boxer nose bore testimony to a pugnacious past.
It seemed that like many Russians he had an astounding ability to be a functional drunk. It was clear that on this beautiful morning he was not sober, and probably had been so for quite a while.
I saw that my verbal jab had hit its mark. The slight flush of redness in his face indicated that he had not missed it. There are few things that get a drunk riled up as a jab at their women, even the ugly ones.
I was about to ask him his wife’s name, and then follow it up by telling him how strange it was that my ‘ugly ex-girlfriend’ and his wife had the same name.
But out of the corner of my eye I saw the consternation on Rogers face. It validated that I was dealing with a nasty sort of drunk, and I decided to back off.
‘Actually’, I mused out a loud, ‘I remember now that she wasn’t Russian, she was Ukrainian’.
‘Are you hunters?’
Unlike Vladimir, Alexi spoke very good English, with almost no Russian accent.
‘No’, I replied, ‘I’m working here under a contract to train the scouts, so that they can save animals, so that you can shoot them.’
Vladimir continued to glower at me.
‘Is this the first time that you have come out to hunt in Africa?’ I asked.
‘No, we are here many times. We are involved with mining. Mostly in Tanzania and the DRC. But this is the first time we are in Zambia.’
His expansiveness suggested that Alexei was the other type of drunk.
‘I want more vodka’. It was Vladimir again. ‘I want Vodka and Cola’.
There were no cans of Coca-Cola on the table, and I saw Roger raises hand and beckon with his finger towards the back of the bar, which was situated towards the rear of the chitenge hire up the slope away from us.
As the barman started across the lawn towards us Vladimir spoke again.
He turned to me and with a flick of his head said, ‘Tell your boy to bring me the Coke’..
I was correct, he was the bad kind of drunk.
‘I beg your pardon, I’m not sure if I heard you correctly”.
His escalation had caught me off guard.
The slur of alcohol was now detectable in his voice, ‘Tell your flat nose to bring me a Coke’.
Both Alan and Roger, sprang up and stumbled over themselves as they tried to diffuse the situation.
On my turf I would have pushed the interaction, he was drunk and I was not. But I had to give him credit. In Africa he knew which buttons to push to get a fight going. In Africa, we take less offense over our women, but racial slurs, that is fighting talk.
I could feel my temper rising as I stood and said to Moses, ‘Now that we have finished our coffee I think that it is time for us to go’.
Moses stood and walked across to set his cup down on the table.
He turned, and for the first time since sitting on the deck, he spoke.
‘Vladimir’, he said softly, ‘Your friend Alexi, asked if we are hunters. My friend Gidi said he is not a hunter.
That is not quite true. He used to be a hunter. A very good one.
And I’m still a hunter, which is why he has asked me to help him.
Moses paused as he moved his gaze to Alexei, and then slowly back to Vladimir.
I hunt men. ‘
He moved over to where the barman now stood with the can of Cola in his hand, and took it from him.
‘Vladimir, I have hunted many Russians. In Angola, they were easy to find, and they were even easier to kill. Because they loved their Vodka.
But, today I am a religious man, so now I bring you your Cola, instead of a bullet.
Both Alan and Roger followed us as we walked away.
‘That is a very dangerous place!’
Moses turned his head to look back at me before letting his gaze flow in the direction of my outstretched arm, which was indicating a low hillock of basaltic rock, as it pushed its dark crown up above the tree line on the north bank of the river.
‘If anybody is going to find themselves succumbing to the guiles of another, that is where it will happen. If their heart is teetering on the brink of being smitten, the only way they could avoid the consequences of that vista up there is if they dropped dead from a heart attack.’
As the slow steady flow of the river drew our boat closer, I continued, ‘Even though it is not high, the view from up there is stunning. Especially when the Bush is green after the new rains, like now, and the dambo’s are like emeralds clipped along the blue necklace of the river. Beauty beyond words, was how one couple described it to me after they had braved the scramble to the top.’
We were now back letting the current of the river do most of the work.
Earlier we had left our hosts at the hunting camp and continued upstream.
Initially we had gingerly navigated through the narrow channels where the river was again split apart like paper through the blades of a shredder. There it was almost as if the jumble of blocking boulders had been strewn across the landscape, in a game of geological backgammon.
Stopping at the old Mushingashi guessed camp I had explained to Moses,
‘The owners of this place do not have the passion of their father. After he was assassinated in Lebanon hardly anybody shows up here, and it seems that the sons are looking for a buyer.
Rumor has it that an extremely wealthy American commodities trader may be interested in the place. But it seems that negotiations are at a halt because other stakeholders have suddenly up there prices as soon as they sensed that a lot of money is on the table.
One of our ancient human motivations is obviously still alive and extant in the modern world, human greed.
We had continued upstream beyond the old guest camp to where the river broadens into a wide open flat area. Here it almost took on the appearance of a flooded plane.
I gave a wide birth to a nervously snorting pod of hippo. I did not want to get into very shallow water and the risk of the prop getting mired in mud, before I could tilt up the engine, if the big resident bull decided to charge us.
I raised my voice above the noise of the engine, ‘The border with the tribal area is not too far upstream from here. I spoke loudly to the back of Moses head, which I guess is why these hippos are nervous. Most of their experiences with homo horribilis are probably bad.’
Surprisingly beyond the hippos on the north bank of the river a huge herd of elephant had come down to drink. There must have been at least seventy of them.
‘Well!’ Moses glanced at me, ‘Alan and his son must be having some success with his anti-poaching efforts to have such a large herd on his GMA.’
After watching the herd suck up the water in their trunks and spit it into their mouths to drink, I had pushed the tiller gently away from my knees so that the prow swung in a wide circle. And the boat began to move faster and faster down river as its bearing meshed with that of the rivers flow.
Heading back down river, and passing the hunting camp we waved to the lad on the jetty where we had docked earlier.
We could also see that Vladimir and Alexei were still sitting on the riverside deck, still sitting with their whiskey glasses clutched in their hands.
Then as their vacant stares at us faded into the distance and the low hillock began to appear, Moses flicked his head towards it.
‘Let’s stop and check it out’, he look back at me, ‘You have stoked my curiosity’.
Okay, I replied, ‘but watch out that you don’t fall under its spell.’ And I jokingly mused to him, ‘But on the other hand maybe it is best to see it, so that you can know the risks, and avoid finding yourself bringing any lovely lass that comes your way up here.
‘Who knows’, I quipped, ‘Maybe the sangoma has put a spell on the place, and you will get all your senses messed up before you even begin to help me sort out all the strange stuff that has been going on around here lately.’
And with that I gunned the outboard to swivel its prowl back into the current and edge the boat under the shade of the river trees lining the bank.
In hindsight, I wondered why, with my life spent in Africa, that I should have known not to joke about things even remotely connected with witchcraft.
‘So what do you make of that delightful pair we met this morning?’
I pose this question to Moses as we sat atop the hillock and admired the view, which was just as beautiful as I described it, with all its splendor, which moves me to wonder at the marvel of natures architecture every time I see it.
Moses sat quietly on one of the rocks looking upriver.
‘They are not hunters’, he said, ‘They are hiding something.’
‘Yup!’ I replied, ‘But they must be wealthy. After all only the wealthy can afford to travel to Africa and hunt the big game here. Roger said that the pair had the camp booked for a month! It must be costing them a fortune to be there. Someone told me that the concession fee to the government runs at a about quarter million dollars a year, and that is before all of Alan’s overhead of staff and vehicles and taxes etc… He must be charging the pair nearly two grand a day, each, and that is before the trophy fees to the government.’
I paused to look up as a Banded Snake Eagle took off from a big dead tree across the river, and began to twist skyward in a thermal.
‘But they don’t strike me as being very interested in the bush, with hunting and nature, let alone concerned with aesthetics and the environment. It is almost as if their main interest is sitting out on the deck, waiting for something to happen.
Did you see how they stood up when we first drew into sight of the camp, and then they sat down when they saw thet it was us.’ My question wwas rhetorical.
I wonder how they got rich. Very few of the rich folks I have known are alcoholics.
It stands to reason that anybody who has become very wealthy has done it by mostly staying away from being an alcoholic, unless they have earn their money the traditional old world way, by inheriting it. And I don’t think that there were many bourgeoisie left in Russia to pass on their wealth after Stalin finished with them in the old Soviet Union. And the new kleptomaniacs who surround Putin, who have stolen so much of the wealth of Russia, are not yet old enough to peg off and pass on their wealth.
Moses nodded his head, ‘Gidi you have spentmore time than I have around these hunting types, but even I can sense something strange with those two. But then, they are Russian, and as you know we got to know some of them in Angola. Some of those peasants fighting against us were as tough as nails. It was astounding how much they could drink and still be functional’.
Moses continued, ‘ Like those peasants, they did not seem to care about where they were and its uniqueness, or of being so far from home and outside civilization. For them home was where ever there was a bottle of vodka.’
‘Yup’ I grunted.
‘My experience is that there’s no group of people in the world who are more avid conservationists then rich hunters, after all they have more incentive to ensure the existence and proliferation of lines and elephants and all the other big trophy animals which they want to hunt, than any other similar sized constituent in the world. And no other group is willing to put their money where their mouth is to ensure and enable the conservation, as do these hunters.
Here we are helping to train the village scouts who will patrol this area, and protect the game for them to hunt.
Here they are sitting in the middle of one of the most unique areas in Africa, if not the world, and they take no notice of who we are or what we do.
This Lunga Lushwishi game management Area, is 8000 km² in size. Across the river is Mushingashi, also a huge block of private land. Right next to these is the second biggest national park in the world. These areas are being preserved in almost pristine condition, especially in the GMA’s. There they are not even being exposed to the pressures of minibus loads of gawky photo tourists, with all their traffic and people pressure, so that, as in some of the African Parks, it seems that the animals are no more than an exhibit in a circus, surrounded by a gaggle of game viewers, from which emanates the constant clicking of cameras like the castanets of a fucking Spanish flamenco dancer.
… and those two assholes don’t give a shit about anything except drinking their vodka and being rude.
I paused for breath.
(38 –Go away)
Every now and then I would gun the engine slightly to push the drift of the boat this way or that past, or around a semi-submerged log, or keep it in the center of a narrow channel, as the rivers flow pushed us down or through such features as the labyrinth upstream from the big twin islands. But mostly I held the throttle at idle. It made talking to each other easier.
We were back down from the climb up the low hillock and had resumed our progress downstream.
By now it was mid-afternoon and I wanted to get as far as the confluence of the Kafue with the Lunga River.
There was a certain urgency in my mission, I felt the pressure of showing Moses the lay of the land and to explain some of its features. I wanted us to have some common references if we needed to talk about issues while I was away for the next two weeks.
Our boat trip up and down the river would have to suffice as a reconnaissance survey of our ‘area of influence’ when it came to anti-poaching. In two days I was booked on the early morning South African Airways flight out of Lusaka down to Johannesburg. I would have to drive to Lusaka tomorrow and spend the night at Pioneer on the airport side of the city, to be able to make the dawn check-in.
‘You are going to hve to snoop around by yourself for a while to get a better sense of the area,’ I said to Moses, ‘and see if you can pick up an under-current reason behind all the weird stuff going on around here.’
As we talked the flow of the river had taken us wide and towards its south bank. We could almost make out the deck of our loodge when the snorts of our local hippo pod greeted us.
We waved to one of the girls standing on the deck as we headed past and drifted on towards Leopard lodge, our nearest neighbor, about 14 kilometers downstream.
I was aware of the enthusiastic response of the young woman waving back at us. In a vague way I envied Moses his age advantage over me. The young womans waves were obviously not directed my way.
‘You have an admirer!’ I teased him.
But many a true word said in jest I mused to myself as Moses responded to me with a dismissive flick of his head.
‘You are the one who taught them their tricks!’ he replied.
‘There was nothing for me to teach them, that they did not already know, so no need for any lessons’ I chuckled back at him, ‘But now they have a younger dog on the scene and they sense that there is an audience to display to.’
‘Yeah, really, younger, but not really young anymore.’ Moses grinned back at me, ‘I have known you for long enough to know that you are the real hound with the ‘Why not’ attitude to life. Not me.’ He continued, ‘I am the one wwith the ‘why should I spirit.’
‘I may be a why-not dog,’ I acknowledged. ‘But I am too old to learn or teach new tricks, but, hey, that is all right. I have learned enough tricks in my eclectic life to get by.’
‘And, I continued with conviction, ‘I am looking forward to maybe spreading a deck of tricks while away. After all I have been in the bush for too long this time.’
‘By the way,’ Moses had turned around to face backward on the forward bench seat of the boat. He was now looking at me with an air of focused curiosity. ‘What happened to Sophia?’
His question caught me off guard. I had not thought of her for a while, ever since that short email exchange while I was in Lukulu, ‘Is that you, I am older now, and younger.’
It all seemed so long ago with what had transpired since then.
‘Wow, I replied. ‘You still remember her name.’
‘Of course I do! You were smitten with her for as long as I can remember.’
‘It is a long story.’ A vague cloud of sadness covered my soul as I quietly spoke back to him. ‘She asked me never to contact her again… I had let her down too many times she said. She had found a more reliable man., she told me. She just disappeared’.
Hell, why did he have to bring her up. Strange how the mention of her name still affected me after so many decades. The lonely hunt of the heart is hidden, but it lays inwait beneath the surface of life. Like the ghost of Ven der Dekkenm, condemned to always fail as he tries again and again to sail his Flying Dutchman around the Cape of Storms, my heart had seemingly been condemned to always fail to round the cape of Sophia’s hopes, and sail into the fair weather of her favors.
‘I didn’t hear anything from her, ever since you and I left the bush, until a short while back, when after decades I got an email from her. It was only a few words long.’
‘So where is she now? Moses asked.
‘I don’t really know. Strangely she may be back where it all began, in Bulawayo. There is still a small Jewish community there, only about 50 individuals today, not the 5000 of the old days, when I was at high-school there’.
Moses obviously picked up the reticence on my face and changed the subject.
‘Who is it you are actually going to meet in Joburg?’ Moses queried.
‘I will be meeting the head of the trust which is providing the funding for our efforts to give extra training to the village scouts. They will supplement the anti-poaching efforts of the National Park rangers. But in Joburg, in addition to Jean, the Frenchman who runds the non profit organization, there will be the CEO of a very big German company. They are one of the trusts key donors. I need to give a report to the trust every quarter. But this time they want me to put on a real dog and pony show to impress the German guy.’
‘Of course I hate doing this, but then I have learned to play a role… One of the most useful courses I ever took at University was what we in our macho days referred to as ‘Screech and Trauma’, actually ‘Speech and Drama’.
I took it for one year ‘Non Degree Purpose’, because Sophia was signed up for it.
And since then the basic acting lessons it taught me have come in use over and over again…
You must remember when I had to give a briefing before an operation, I had to stand and sound confident and brave in front of a bunch of scared soldiers. When you stood there with me, we also felt the flutter of fear in our bellies, knowing that some of us may be dead within a few hours. But there was no way in hell that I could allow that fear to show to the men. If they sensed my fear they would not a followed me, or you.
Actingn was what allowed me to hide my real emotions. Or when I have had to give clients here a tour and I am feeling sick with the beginning of the flu… it is my screech and trauma training which makes me seem fit as a fiddle to the audience. So I will give them the dog and pony show that they want down in Joburg.
I will put on a show for them, but in some ways I sometimes get a feeling of hopelessness.. A feeling that we are just pissing into the wind’.At the end of the day, all they are doing is helping us preserve these last remaining big wildlife areas which are no more than agrandized zoo’s. The fact that a few rich individuals can come here and see some of the animals, placates to a large extent the guilt of most of the world’s population at their culpability in the spectacularly successful, and accelerating destruction of nature in the name of civilization and progress.
I find it astounding that almost everyone believes in some form of spiritual bullshit, believing that somehow we are not part of the natural world. That we can piss all over it, can cut it up, and down, dice it and cover it and grind it away. And what is most astounding is that billions of folks, good intelligent folks, not just simple and stupid people, are so convinced of their bullshit spiritual stories, that they think that all of this world is given only to us superior humans, made in the image of a God.
When actually all we basically are is a bunch of murderous primates And it is our murderousness towards each other and everything else that has made us so intelligently destructive.
Jean, the Frenchman, is a good guy, but is also a bit of a ass kisser when it comes to pandering to the likes of Karl, the Germen CEO.
But then Jean is basically a politician. He has to play the game to get the money and to give the donors what they are paying for, which is a bribe to make them look good and green in their marketing efforts.
If you ask Karl if he is a conservationist, ‘Natuurich’ he will tell you.
But if you press him you will find he is like the vast majority of conservationists in the world.
Heiwll come up wiht buzzwords like sustainability, Carbon footprint, carbon credits, clean water… blah blah blah…
And if he is radical, he may even support antihunting bands, to really look good in the media.
At the same time as these frauds pontificate about how green and good they are , they will feel nothing, not a single twinge of guilt or remorse, when a new housing development goes in, or Amazon builds a new fulfillment center, or the central government approves a few more hundreds of kilometers of highway construction.
These hypocritical intellectual plebeians are too gullible to break their adherence to the consensus to figure out that where these shopping malls and fulfillment centers and highways will be built, they willl replace trees and grasses and insects and mice and antelopes, or deer or coyotes, as dictated by the particular ecosystem. Every bit of the life that had existed there for hundreds of millions of years will be gone, replaced by concrete, asphalt, plastic and the pollution of thousands of pseudo-conservationists happily imagining how they are contributing to the sustainability of life on earth by condemning hunters, and buying electric vehicles, which they will park in the convenience of the huge lifeless parking lots, as they do their shopping.
All the biomass that was once being produced, in the area of a single Costco parking lot, is probably equivalent to all the biomass of the trophy animals hunted in Africa in any particular year.
However, the biomass of the hunted animals is being replaced, but the biomass that once was being produced by the parking lot is gone for hundreds or even thousands of years. It has been completely and utterly wiped out.
All of these putz’s are absolutely and criminally avoiding confronting the big elephant in the room, which is the real issue that has to be confronted… There are too many of us on this planet.
The absolute gutlesness of almost every politician in the world, is exemplified by their refusal to sponsor or promote programs which may help limit family size, or limit the number of people that should exist in the world.
Nobody is doing anything to slow down, let alone reduce, the plague of people spreading like locusts across the globe and eating up everything. Humans today are a plague so massive that it does not matter how efficient we become in our energy use and production of greenhouse gases. Eventually our sheer numbers will overwhelm and submerge the ecosystems on which we all depend.
If we continue as we are, most of life will soon be gone, including these puffed up conservation minded frauds, together with all their related bullshit and self-delusion.
Have you ever heard any politician promoting a 1000 year or a 2000 year plan to ensure that the world does not loose any more creatures to extinction?’
‘There is not a Hope in Hades of that any time soon.’.
With that I gunned the motor.
Passing Leopard Lodge it stood in drab shabbiness, left by its largely absentee owner in a state of disrepair and lack of care.
In some ways we were lucky that it was as such, because it afforded our lodge almost exclusive privacy on the stretch of what was once a popular section of the river. But that was back decades ago, when the roads were maintained, and access from the city reasonably easy.
It was not long before the long cable pontoon came into sight. We waved to two of the staff who was sitting idly in the shade of the thatched open sided hut, waiting for the next client needing a river crossing.
It was getting late in the day. And we only had about an hour and a half of daylight left.
It was not long before the low ridge of the geological protrusion came into view. It ran southward as it formed the blocking east wall against which the Lunga river leaned before it merged with the Kafue.
Where the Kafue had pushed through its barrier, the ridge reared up with its small but brooding cliff face looking down on the confluence like the eyes of an old which.
My attention was focused mainly on the river when I noticed Moses motion with his head to me to look up at the cliff face.
Initially I could see nothing.
‘At the top!’ he stated.
Then looking carefully, I noticed a motionless figure standing at the top of the cliff face. It stood justbefore the shrubby vegetation that covered the brow of the hill like the unkept hair on the head of a street beggar.
The figure was wearing camouflage and his hair had the white tinge of an old African man.
And I knew that I had seen him once before.
As I looked, he made a sweeping gesture with one hand. It said go way.