The road between the Lubungu and the Lunga pontoons has held up remarkably well considering that its gravel surface has seen no maintenance for the past decade.
As I stood leaning against the side of the cab I could see the road’s gradual gradient dipdown steeply into a gap carved in the river bank to form a loading pad. Here the drawbridge of the metal monster would be driven into the soil by the momentum of its approach, so that we could easily drive up onto its loading platform.
My consideration of the road led me to think how the white tribe of Africa has been scrumming on the sub-continent far longer than the copper colored newcomers. This is because those sections of the road between Mumbwa and Kasempa, built by the South Africans, are in a far better condition than those done by the Chinese, as evidenced in the shallower washed out ruts scarring the short gradient down to the river.
Moses was standing next to me, facing back towards the cab, with his elbows resting on the hood of the engine, as he looked down and scratched at a few pebbles with the toe of his shoe.
By now both of our patience was waning.
‘If I had to start a war in this part of Africa,’ I said, ‘Sunday morning is when I would start shooting.’
Moses paused the scratching of the gravel, and turned his head to look at me with a quizzical grin on his face.
“Very little shooting would be necessary, ‘I muttered, ‘It would all be over in a few minutes. All those fuckers over there are still so hungover, they wouldn’t even be able to find their guns let alone their god-damned rifles.’
Moses pursed his lips, ‘Guns? Rifles?’
‘Yup.’ ‘Remember how Sergeant-major Oliveira would make new recruits grab their package and repeat after him ‘this is my rifle, this is my gun, this is for shooting, this is for fun.’
We watched a single figure appear at the top of the far bank and slowly carry a big blue plastic cannister down the slope and out onto the platform of the pontoon. He then equally slowly began to pour its contents into a funnel inserted into the tank of one of the pontoons swivel engines.
‘I wonder where those sods managed to get enough hooch to get so motherless? ‘ it was a rhetorical question. ‘I guess the good thing about it is that the ladies over there who managed to avoid the consequences of the weekend merriment, are now safe. Those buggers are still so drunk, they couldn’t even get a stiff, let alone point their guns to shoot a blank.
I bet they started binging on Friday eve.’
Moses went back to scratching the dirt with his tow.
Plenty of patience is always necessary in Africa, and both of us had accommodated it by leaving before dawn for the long, slow rutted ride up the road to the village of Chifumpa.
As I watched, another figure appeared. He was still rubbing the sleep from his eyes as he stepped aboard and waited for his peer to finish filling the second engines tank. He then fished a rag out of a scruffy plastic can. He used this to wipe the dipstick in turn as he checked the oil of each engine.
I shook my head as I sarcastically commented to Moses, ‘Why do things in parallel, when you can waste more time doing them serially. If this was anywhere else in the world one would assume that these clowns were union men and being paid by the hour.’
It was soon evident that I needed to dig a tad deeper into my reserves of patients. The first man then walked slowly up the slope and headed away up the road until I saw just the top of his head turn off and disappear into the long grass at the side.
‘What the hell are they up to now?’ I asked.
Moses turned around and called out across the river, and a few sentences were shouted back and forth iin Kaunde, before he turned back to me.
‘The man with the book. They have gone to get the man with the book.’
I often wondered when some scientist type would do some research if it is nature or nurture that gives the African soul such a huge compliment of patience, seemingly from the moment they are born. Moses and I had spent so many years together on operations, whose success depended on meticulous timing, and yet, even with him, his ‘delay fuse’ was always about twice as long as mine.
Fuming was a waste, there was nothing to do but wait for the pontoon crew to get its painstaking act together.
Despite my short fuse when faced with an irritating lack of pace, I had learnt that the only thing to do was distract my mind from thinking about the irritating switch of roles in so much of African life. The pontoon crew saw themselves as doing us a favor, they did not see them selve’s as providing customer service. Especially not on a Sunday morning.
So while I leaned back against the front of the land cruiser, I continued to idly slap at the tsetse flies. They were bad today!
If the pontoon crew was still getting over their bleary-eyed hangovers, I wondered how long it would take us to gather the full complement of scouts for deployment. And how long it would take them to be effective.
I had sent a message through to the stick leader by courier yesterday. That had been as soon as I got word from the men guarding the building materials at the new campsite at Kikuji on the Lunga, that they had heard shots fired nearby during the night.
As I looked at the pontoon still moored on the far bank, I wondered how long it would take to pick up the six scouts in the patrol stick. That was because from the moment one crosses the river, until one reaches the district capital of Kasempa the road is so bad that it will take six hours for any brave sould to travel the next 80 km in a light vehicle. This havoc is wrested upon the road by the huge trucks moving the ore from the Chinese Copper mine, up to Solwezi where it can be crushed.
Not even the South Africans can build a dirt road to stand that sort of punishment during the wet season. Their efforts are churned into a quagmire, and the huts of the village of Chifumpa are dribbled down that quagmire in a desultory fashion for a long way, until some of them reach the inconspicuous track leading to the parks Kavango gate.
I knew from previous pick-ups, that at least two of the scouts lived at the far extremity of the village, thus it was with no sense of pleasure that I contemplated the next three hours crawling from one mud bath to the next, with the diff locked and the vehicle in low -ratio four-wheel-drive. My only consolation was that at least on the way back, we would have a complement of big strong men to push through the mud, should it be necessary.
However, my annoyance at the tardiness of the pontoon crew and my considerations of the state of the road on the other side were short-lived. To my surprise the sound of engines heralded the arrival of two vehicles which drew up at the top of the slope, behind ours. My surprise was further compounded when I saw that I was familiar with the two occupants of the lead vehicle.
Alexei was driving. He was accompanied by his father.
As the pair got out of the vehicle I walked around and greeted them. They responded warmly enough and asked where I’d been and what I was doing. I explained I was headed to pick up some scouts who had been on family leave rotation, and then was going to deploy them in an area which seemed to be hosting some nefarious activity.
Alexi nodded a greeting to Moses, who raised his hand back in a perfunctory salutation. Vladimir on the other hand just glared briefly in his direction when Moses called a slightly taunting ‘good morning’ across the roof of our vehicle to him.
OK, I thought, Vladimir had still not got over his slight.
I then asked Alexei where they were headed. He mumbled non-specifically about something up north a way, they wanted to check something out.
‘Hunting?’ I asked. Surely not. You will be outside the GMA.’
‘Nyet,’ He replied, ‘We also do some consulting while we are here.’ and after a brief pause and a shrug of his shoulders, ‘For mining.’
‘Are you still staying at Allan’s hunting camp?’ I asked, and was a bit taken aback when he answered in the affirmative.
I whistled softly, ‘That must be costing you a pretty penny!’
Alexei smiled at me and shrugged. ‘We have good client who pays well.’
I looked back up the road behind us and noticed how one of the occupants had exited the last vehicle. He was now walking towards us. He stopped a short distance away and beckoned Vladimir to approach, whereupon he spoke softly as Vladimir dutifully bent his head forward with a slight sideways cock as if to listen carefully to what was being said.
The man then turned and return to his vehicle, which was being driven by what I could only assume was a servant, because he held the door open for his master.
This third man was a tall thin ascetic Indian with hawk like features, accented by slightly sunken cheeks hanging from narrow cheekbones. The edges of his thinning hair was tinged with white, which indicated his maturity.
His white cotton shirt was tucked neatly into long charcoal trousers, which were slightly crumpled around his waist by the clasp of a thin black leather belt. This suggested that either he had recently lost weight, or it had been a long time since he had bought a pair of pants.
There was a faint ochre tone to his skin, and there was something hamitic about his hawk-like features. This suggested a distant mixing of an aristocratic Indian ancestry, as could be found amongst the trader class of Gujerat, with that of the occasional concubine from Persia and the Euphrates valley, and those families who extended their fingers to dabble in the slave and exotics of East Africa.
I turned back to Alexi. ‘Hmmm. Who is that? Not exactly a friendly type!’ I commented. ‘Is that guy travelling with you?’
Alexei looked at me with a shadow of curious surprise on his face. ‘Haven’t you met him yet ?
He is staying at your lodge.’
It was my turn to be surprised. ‘Oh really, that must be Mustafa Beyh!’
I peered more intently at the last vehicle, and try to make out the features of the man which were now slightly masked by the glass of the windshield.
‘No I only got back the night before last.’ I retorted, ‘And he has not been around.’
‘So what does he do with you?’ I asked.
‘He is an investor.’
I then remembered that the Russian pair had previously mentioned that they had been involved with various mining operations in Africa for quite some years.
But I picked up Alexei’s reluctance to talk much more about what they were up to.
And just then, I turned back to look at the river as the first thump of the single cylinder diesel signaled its coming to life. With its flywheel being furiously cranked by one of the men its flag of black smoke drifted across the surface of the water like an unruly banner at the front of a parade.
I looked around and saw that everyone was looking at the pontoon as it slowly started to creep across the river towards us.
This was a good time to have a piss.
I walked up the road’s launch pad gradient and cut off to the one side, where the thick underbrush almost scratch the sides of the vehicles as it encroached on the cleared area.
As I finished relieving myself I turned to walk back. I saw that the tall thin Gujerati had moved behind his vehicle, where he had taken off his thin long sleeved cotton shirt.
He was in the process of pulling an under vest up over his head.
The suns morning rays had now reached the cab of his cruiser, and without the engine and air-conditioning running, it was obviously getting warm inside as he had sat and waited.
Holding the vest in one hand he tossed it through the window of his vehicle.
He turned towards me and raised his arms up in the air as he slid them through the sleeves of his shirt so it would drop back over his head and down his chest.
In the moments that he fumbled to find the sleeves, his full profile was turned in my direction.
In the brief visual flash I saw that the skin of the front of his narrow rib cage was covered with the angry welted tautness of a large scar.
The blemish of its pale color contrasted sharply with the ochre chocolate of his skin.
The scar had an unusual shape. It was as if some boiling oil had once been poured down from the top of his chest in a widening splash, until it puddled out sideways into a broad deep pool, just above his belly.
It somewhat resembled the upside down shape of a map of Africa.