Chapter 7: Vultures
For many the drive back from the western edge of the country is long and boring, an arduous affair, full of monotonous flatness. This is not surprising considering that it is made even more uninteresting by the fingers of human occupation, which have scratched away much of the original vegetation like the hair of a mangy dog.
However, on this particular return, the boredom was pushed back by my preoccupation with a text message that came in shortly before Dawn, as we were preparing to leave.
‘Two elephant carcasses found, tusks hacked out. A scout is missing.’
The message was from Dimas, the lead of one of the scouting sticks I was training.
I say ‘we’, because I wouldn’t be alone on the return. Seldom can one travel from anywhere to anywhere in this huge country without someone needing a lift. Father Zavier lined up five passengers to ride along, two women with a child each. Also was a young man who claimed to know someone in Mumbwa who might know someone, who might know how to contact Moses. The young man sat in the cab next to me as we headed east back along the ribbon of the Great West Road.
However, anyone knowing birdlife, and keeping their eyes open, seldom finds anywhere in Africa monotonous. This time I was surprised to see a Kori Bustard striding through the grass near the road. Then there was the beauty of the Lilac Breasted Rollers. To distract my thoughts of the elephants and scout, I counted how many were stationed along the road, waiting for a passing vehicle to startle and flush a grass-hopper. The sighting of a pair of Lanner Falcons also helped to divert the tickle of my anxiety. They being a falcon not averse to taking prey on the ground, they have benefited from the plethora of scrawny village chicken chicks. There was plenty of food available, but I wondered where they could be nesting in this flat open countryside.
We had left the mission as the sun peered up over the horizon, after a last hot mug of coffee and a slice of toast with Father Xavier. Now even though it was only three hours later, the road far ahead was already breaking up into shivering aqueous ripples by the refraction of the hot air.
It was going to be a long, hot journey.
But I could not shake the niggle of apprehension. It had been two years since an elephant was poached in the area. So why now. Add to that the disappearance of the scout. This couldn’t be the absence in the wake of a booze binge. That was too regular to merit mention. Why all this at the same time as the appearance of the Crocodile man?
As we drove, I watched how the bush has given way to the clumps of huts clustering along the roadway for convenience, then how they stretch away into the distance on each side, where they are serviced and fed by the arteries of dirt tracks spreading back like the varicose veins on the cheeks of a drunkard.
These untidy little clusters always come with their symbionts, maybe a few sporadic cows, as well as the goats and ubiquitous chickens, scuffling between the bristles of subsistence corn clinging to the barren soil. Long gone is the canopy of trees, whose leaves provided the shading shadows and fallen mulch which for millions of years caressed the soil. Instead, like the flat, wizened breasts of an old woman, after decades of monotonous childbirth and monoculture, all of the flush and fertility of life has been suckled out of it.
It is definitely not the mythical images promoted in the glossy tourist brochures, but it is what much of Africa is becoming.
In my mind, as I drove eastwards, I wondered why I bothered fighting for what was left of this land. What did the old priest say, we all need a good mother? Was not the land the ultimate mother? And if so, was it not mine as much as it was the mother of all those who lived in the huts straggling away on each side of the road.
As I headed back to the heart of my struggle, in addition to noticing the specks of nature’s beauty, clouded with worries about poaching and missing men, I surreptitiously engaged with a ghost. It visited surprisingly and unexpectedly late last night, on a day which no less strangely, was my birthday.
Tantalizingly elusive, I had hunted it for thirty years, and like the rest of the old Africa that I loved and wanted to preserve, it in many ways had been part of that dream and the hopes of a future.
“Hi, Is it u? I am younger and older now”.
Her text hada arrived just hours before that of Dimas.
I am not a religious person. But the timing of this reappearance seemed as ordained, as it was unsettling.
Maybe Father Xavier had insight into spiritual realities, and maybe so did Precious, with the necklace of snail-shell “muti” around her throat.
Now, under the glare of a sun at its zenith, I savored those ghostly words as I stood in the middle of the hook bridge over the Kafue River. I always stop after crossing the bridge, then walk back to its center to stand looking down at the slow eddies of the water. There is something deeply relaxing, even hypnotic to watch the slow roll of the river as it passes below the bridge and my feet.
Here, I like to equally slowly eat my biltong sandwich, and sip the cup of hot sweet coffee from my thermos flask.
Three decades! Looking down at the river I wondered how much water had passed under the bridge. It’s a long time, and yet it is nothing. For thirty years, like the fantasy of returning to an unspoiled place, the ghost of a girl has walked beside me. Sophia always lurked at the edge of awareness.
In the warm humid coastal evening air of that far-away place and time, it had been for a brief hour that we sat side by side on a bench in a city garden. There, amidst the floral opulence, unknowingly for the last time, we touched and spoke, we laughed and embraced. I beheld her magnificence, with a ‘See you soon.’ as we parted.
In the decades since, I have often wondered if she remembered me, what became of me, as I did of her. I am sure if I had made the correct, utterly agonizing choice, and returned in time, today I would believe in love, destiny and faithfulness. It would all be so obvious and easy. But a war intervened. If it had not I would probably be blander, more boring, a believer in constancy.
But, as she had once done with our present, with ten texted words, she had poured the past back all over me.
Ever since, I guess, in mental limbo, the toying with my imaginary maiden has condemned me to be the footloose and fancy-free wanderer that I am.
The memory of her visage has faded. Even if I could conjure it up, time has probably worked its weathering. Today I would surely pass her unrecognized in the street.
Over the years I have occasionally played with my lost recollections. Sometimes I have her hair tied in a bob, with her neck extended. At others her ginger tinted hair is tied over in a Dutch braid… In my mind I can make her whoever I want… Maybe I will recognize her… stranger things have happened…
And yet, even though I have not heard it for thirty years, I remember the lilt of her voice as clearly as yesterday.
And the clay of the river talks to me, maybe if I fashion it, I will recognize her in the mud in my hands.
Space and time according to Einstein are linked, Left is to right, is to up, is to down, is to the when which provides the perceptions of our memories. I guess. The past and future are part of the same left/right, up/down thing, and the present is where we are in time when we happen to open our eyes. And if we did this fast enough, time would come to a standstill and matter turn infinitely heavy, as it melts into and becomes one with gravity.
With the hot azure of the huge sky above, I could feel a ghost beside me reaching across space and time. This is Africa, and here the spirits are everywhere at all times, not just in the haunted darkness of the night or a person’s imagination.
The size of the sky above us, (me and my imaginary ghost that is), was enhanced by the flatness of the unfettered perspective when viewed from the center of the bridge, because out here over the water there is little to obscure the vista in any direction. It was as if the heat of the sun directly above, as it glared down on the river, had melted away the lumps in the landscape.
Looking over the dull muddy turquoise of the waters, the river flowed towards me, and if I turned around, it flowed away, like time.
As I stood on the bridge and squinted my eyes to cut down the midday glare reflecting off the water, all I could see was the huge flat horizon. Like the rip of a tide, it cut across my perception, stretching seemingly forever with its left and right, it’s before and behind and with the ripples of the Bush below and the sky above.
How could I not be imprinted with all this raw African bonanza? Like a hypnotized zombie it drew me onwards and into itself.
But even for a zombie, Africa is about its animals, and not the spirits of its dead. However it was its morticians which I detected as I stood philosophizing in the middle of the bridge. Mere specks in the sky. Less than a handful. Distributed vertically in a loose slowly twisting column, gaining altitude in the updraft of a powerful thermal, so prevalent on a hot African day, such that when I raised my binoculars the spec at the top had risen 3000’ above the tree canopy, whereupon it peeled off to drift north in a flat shallow glide, occasionally giving a shallow wing beat. A signal to others that food was nigh.
Following its flight with my binoculars, I picked up the next column, and in the direction of my scan, another pillar of circling birds, so distant that it was barely visible even with the magnification.
The birds were on the march. Somewhere far away to the north was a food bonanza. They were gliding across the bush using thermal elevators.
I slowly scanned the skies in every direction. Sure enough off to the east towards Mumbwa, was another thermal column and another progressive avian line heading to where they could join the final frenzy. I wondered if it was an elephant carcass.
Most of them would be White-Backed’s. They are the commonest in this area. A pair had a nest in a tall tree above the dirt road that led upstream from my campsite.
But there was at least one noticeably big bird in the nearest group. A Lappet- Faced who would dominate the feast for a while. The column was too far to pick out the smaller more delicate Hooded variety.
The closest pillar moved slowly nearer, pushed along by the same breeze as made the tall dry elephant grass nod and sway in unison with its eddies. It was dynamic. The birds at the top peeled off out of the spiral. They were replaced by others approaching from the opposite side, in a well-spaced almost direct line. With a sharp left bank of their huge wings they slotted into position at the bottom of the vortex, a few hundred feet above the trees.
Observing these vulture’s circling so effortlessly, seemingly ignoring gravity and spreading across space and time with impunity, allowed an appreciation of their highly evolved complexity. Their biological niche required them to get up high in the sky, to stay there for a long time, almost effortlessly, enabling their incredibly good eyesight to seek the dead or dying. They do not need to get anywhere fast. Their feast will not come to life and run away.
I let my binoculars hang on the strap around my neck. Space, time and gravity. God does not play dice with the universe. But with these vultures maybe there is one who does. No bird in history has, or is, disappearing off the face of the earth as fast as they.
Both wardens and poachers could watch this phenomenon. Maybe it was this stream of birds which had alerted Dimas. Any poacher who kills an elephant, and creates a vulture feast, would also know the birds could alert the warden. Maybe that poacher, if he had access to poison, would taint the carcass with the chemical, so that there would not be future vulture flights to alert others of his nefariousness.
But that isn’t the only dark cloud on the horizon of these magnificent creatures.
The business of independent Africa is conducted by Africans. For many the witchcraft of the shamans still holds its powerful undercurrent.
All over Africa, hidden away in backstreet shops or warehouses, are the bush-meat and muti markets, where the totems, giving luck to almost any endeavor, are found. Crocodile heads, leopard skins, lines teeth, pangolin scales, owls’ talons, hyena snouts, Jackals fur. And, of course, one of the most sought after, vulture’s heads, with their power of sight sparking the belief they will enable the possessor to see into the future. A clear benefit for any aspiring politician, business person, or anyone who can afford such a totem.
I turned to walk back towards the vehicle and its passengers.
Three decades seems an eternity. But in the up down left right relativity of their flight, and my search, that is the time it has taken for these gracious gravity defying birds circling above to quietly disappear, and my ghost to reappear.
A ghost! I wondered if it had the eyesight of a vulture, and if so it could help me look into my future, or at least look to see where I could find Moses.
Sheeesh, I was letting the bush get to me… a ghost? I would banish it from my mind.
Like an out-of-control soccer riot, the less aggressive stood scattered around the periphery with their bright beady eyes scanning the scramble in swiveling heads, while waiting for an opportunity to hop forward into the epicenter of activity, where the fracas was most active, with birds pecking, pushing and jostling each other aside, some with open wings to intimidate and others too focused on how to dig their heads into the stench of rotting flesh to tear off a bountiful beak-full of putrid meat.
In the midst of this chaos a single hyena was standing like an unconcerned referee, half-heartedly trying to reestablish order by unconvincingly baring its teeth or making an effortless lunch at any bird which pushed up against it. Every now and again it lost interest in the boil of birds. Then it would shove its head through a hole in the thick gray hide still stretched across the dead elephant’s rib-cage. Crawling deeper into the cavernous chest space, so that only its tugging haunches were visible on the outside, it would bite and rip free the harder to get at morsels of flesh and sinews lodged between the ribs themselves.
The chitters and excited chuckles of the avian crowd was under-pinned by the hum of the myriad clouds of flies who’s wings sounded like a huge swarm of bees. It was doubtful if their maggots would have time to hatch and consume the putrid flesh before the horde of scavengers finished off all that was in this banquet.
Wandering in and out of the crowd were three more hyena whose bloated bellies indicated why they were no longer all that interested in the carcass and the frenzy over and around it.. With pricked ears and heads looking out into the bush beyond the scrum, it seemed they were more concerned with a possible appearance of a lion.
However at this stage that was unlikely. The tracks of lion and leopard were visible in the peripheral sand which had not yet been trampled into a dustbowl closer to the carcass by the scrabbling feet of both birds and beasts. At this stage any remaining meat was probably too tainted even for the palate of the lions.
At the far edge of the crowd a few marabou stalks stood like old retired school masters looking disdainfully down there long thick beaks at the display of unruly mob behavior before them. I wondered why they even bothered to show up.
The wretched elephant had obviously been wounded by the poachers, because we could see where the skin at the back of its head was hacked open with a bush-axe so that it spine could also be chopped apart, ending its writhing’s. Obviously the poachers either didn’t want to waste precious ammunition, or didn’t want to risk anyone noticing another shot.
The elephant had obviously been poached for its ivory, because to get at its tusks, the whole front of its face had been hacked off, leaving its pitiful eye-sockets staring emptily out across the blunt mash of flesh where it once had a trunk. .
Four hours earlier, returning from the far west of the country, I had turned off the great West road onto the short tar stretch that leads into and through Mumbwa. I once again headed past the tall steeple of its mosque, and its untidy pavement markets and storefroonts, , until I turned past the grubby entrance to a hotel, the oldest in the country, half hidden behind the screen of its big exotic trees planted when the hotel was built. Here I turned off onto the dirt road that led to the ZAWA building, where I was sure to find Ernest. his time I wanted to follow up on the terse text of poached elephants and a missing scout.
I found Ernest in his office, and obvioulsy ready to be entertained with a few more steak and kidney pies, he was willing to make time for me. Nothing wrong with that!
Thus once again, after the pies and sodas, coated with the donation of another jerry can of diesel, I found myself following his dilapidated white government Land Cruiser along the road towards the Lubungu Pontoon. He had magnanimously offered to show me one of the poaching sites himself.
I appreciated the inexpensivenessof his friendship!
It was not long after we had dipped down into the Kafue Valley, through the thick thorny bush below the shallow rim of the valley, that he had turned off the dirt road and begun following the track of a vehicle already blazed into a rough trail through the long grass and dense shrubbery layered under tall trees. The tracks were his, from his prior trip.
Even though our progress was slow, it took less than a half hour to reach the site. I had to grant the poacher’s their audaciousness of killing an elephant so close to the road.
The jostle of avian activity only really came to an end when our two vehicles were within 50 meters of the shambles.
As we exited and walked towards the carcass the rush of wings of nearly 100 birds taking to the air sounded like the approach of a freight train. Some of the birds had trouble getting into the air with such meat laden crops.
I joined Ernest and is too accompanying game scouts, as they scuttled across to the northeast side of the action with the same alacrity as the birds had taken to the air, so that we could get upwind of and minimize the retch inducing stench that clung to the scene.
We did not stay long. Ernest told me that the poachers’ tracks had also departed in a northeasterly direction, which suggested they were based in the tribal area beyond the private hunting concession adjacent to the park.
He also told me that initially on finding the carcass Dimas had tasked one of the scouts to return to the pontoon road to hitch a ride into Mumbwa to report the incident. But after a day not having any response from HQ, another Scout had been tasked to again head in to report, and find out what was happening.
There was no sign of the first scout.