Chapter 13: The Rver
The embers of the 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 bulrush, until its wispy resolve seemed to falter, where upon 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, smothering its heat. 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 didn’t properly doused their fire, and the resulting flames raced across the grassy spread, reaching up into the dry leaves of the trees at its periphery, and even threatening to set the thatched roofs of the chalets ablaze.
Now, with Augusts wind spent after pushing winter aside, there was little chance of the rising sun energizing a gust, and fanning an ember and lifting it into the hot swirls which would pant across the bush. But I took no chances.
Also, even in the dawn dimness, looking 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 was being usurped by the new summer flush.
I looked up at the braying calls and pulsing swish of their wings as a gaggle of Trumpeter Hornbills flew overhead, spreading out upriver from their evening roost in the thick trees of the island in the river.
Earlier, well before any hint of dawn, it was the hiss of the gas cooker which gently pulled back the cloak of slumber while it still wrapped me in its comfortable folds. Moses, as he had always done, roused first.
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, followed by the click of the spoon, as the ground coffee beans were ladled out into the French press, and the clink of mugs being set on the table before 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”.
Then came the soft gurgle of the water as it poured over the lip of the pot onto the coffee grounds, where upon the swirling water drew the flavor out of the dark grit at the bottom of the press.
The ritual of coffee being prepared was not unique to the bush, in fact its sounds could probably be heard everywhere people gathered to enjoy this habit which gently readies the body and soul for the daily rigors.
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 quiet efficiency of his movements that Moses’s habits from the past was still extant. He had been practicing our craft long after I had left the trade.
There was still a sense of his oneness with the Bush. Back then we had adapted and perfected this ritual to its essential simplicity, tin mugs were lighter than porcelain. They wouldn’t 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 needing more fuel and time to bring to a boil. Efficiency and minimalism is everything in the Bush.
I stood with my shoulders hunched, and my hands pushed deep into the pockets of my shorts to ward off the faint chill remaining from the evening. Even though it was early December and midsummer, the front that had herded the thunderstorm’s earlier in the week, had left its cooler hint behind like the dust settling on a dirt road after the passing of a vehicle.
The slight chill meant that the Cicadas would begin their shrill screeching later in the day when the sun warmed the air. However, already the bush was full of the sound of birds.
I stood and listened to a Black headed Oriole. Even though it was after the main flush of spring, it was still issuing its courting call.
I guessed it must be second clutching after having lost eggs or young to the predation of snakes, or monkeys, or genet cats. The late courting songs of these unlucky once seem to have an urgent under-current to get on with it. There would now only be a few weeks to incubate the eggs and rear their young, and themselves ready, before the shortening of daylight triggers an urge so powerful that it cannot be ignored, which would push them to abandon everything in the rush to face the challenge of crossing the vastness of the Sahara, and then be squeezed, in their billions, around or across the Mediterranean.
I had introduced Moses to the lodge staff yesterday. Now as we headed across to the Lodge complex 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. They came from beyond the straw fence and 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 reflected my grin.
Entering the predawn gloom of the kitchen there were some 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 his saying that if they didn’t want dogs sniffing around the kitchen this early, they shouldn’t cook bacon.
I smile to myself how the girls affected indifference and the slightly louder banter between them, hinted that they were not unaffected by the presence of the new-comer.
Their surreptitious scrutiny was evident in the way their gaze lingered over his figure when he was not looking.
Moses was stil a handsome man. I was a tad envious 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 Africans look decidedly decrepit. The pale Europeans skin does not stand up to the rigors of the African sunshine. Like thin white papyrus exposed to the elements it doesn’t take long before it begins to wrinkle and crack. Add to that the culture of the sundowner, whose alcohol induced lattice of fine veins beneath dry skin, further blotched by blood pressure, paints the pale faces with premature aging.
Moses was fortunate to possess a dark healthy countenance, with skin as unblemished and uniformly viscous as freshly melted chocolate.
And of course he was younger than I by quite a few years.
All this stuff was not lost on the girls.
The handful of Americans in the old unit, some of the flotsam from Vietnam who had become addicted to the excitement of combat, had given Moses the nickname “Jackie”, because although not quite as big in build, he had a remarkable resemblance to Jackie Robinson, their baseball legend.
His allure had much to do with the broadness of his smile and twinkle of eye, but there was something else that reach beyond the African, 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 their bric-a-brac conversation, whose spirit of flirtatious banter was too fast for me to follow, I headed for the boats.
It was going to be a quick and rushed reconnaissance that I would be giving him, and what better way to do this than to traverse it by boat, starting with an introduction to the neighbors who had a dog in our hunt.
Picking up my binoculars I headed down to the tether site, which looked out across a faint fog that still lingered on the water.
Looking up I saw Precious had followed me out to the boats. She stood above me holding the deckrailing watching me loading the boat.
“What is all the activity about?” I asked.
I tucked the oars out of the way against the gunwale, together with the smallanchor, and placed my binoculars 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. Morse 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 Morse”
I took the last sip of coffee before it went cold. Flicking its dregs into the river, I leaned over the gunwale to scoop and swirl the cup clean.
Despite being an apostate, I was tempted to make the sign of the cross, because I was unsure if saintly patience would be necessary.
Two-stroke engines can be as temperamental as teenagers reluctant to rouse in the coolness of early morning. Like with them, it was best to get things ready and stacked for a quick start, so that the first kick of action occurred before realization sets in, and like stubborn donkeys, a lack of response ensued.
Pumping the ball valve of the fuel line to clear air locks, I pressed the engine primer, and cranked the throttle handle open-closed twice. I don’t know why, it seems to help. Then setting it a tad post-idle, and taking a deep breath I braced myself.
Then I hauled back on the starter chord.
Another lunging haul… A third and a fourth followed.
With an amused look on her face, Precious leaned forward, her elbows resting on the deck rail, with her chin cupped in her hands, as if settling herself for some idle entertainment.
Annoyed, this time to appease the River-God I made the sign of the cross, as I scowled my annoyance 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, hauled back as hard and quickly as I could.
I was beginning to lose my belief in the benevolence of whatever God I needed 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. With invigorated zest, and to catch this wind of fortune, I quickly hauled on the chord.
The engine caught again. It spluttered unevenly for a few moments, and then grudgingly stuttered into life, then shiver into a reassuring buzz as its head heated up.
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 and disappeared back across the deck towards the kitchen. I sensed her disappointment at missing the entertainment of my godless cusses had I beem faced with the obstinateness of uncooperative machinery.
My 12 foot boat with its 15 horse Mercury was tethered alongside thee lodges twin, slightly upriver from a bigger 16 foot 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 into reverse, and turned the throttle a tad as the propeller cut into the water and the motor hesitated with the new load.
Sliding the boat backwards out from under the overhanging branches, the current ccaught and pulled us out even further, before I gently gunned the motor and turned the engine to point the prow into the river.
A pair of White-Crowned Plovers stood clinking their alarm from atop an outcrop of rocks. It was the only feature to disturb the broadness of the water 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 surface, exposing little more than their lumpy snouts and stubby ears. With their protruding eye-sockets space midway between those features they swiveled their heads like the periscopes on huge submarine bodies, as they followed our progress. Then with a chesty snort of spray, one by one they ducked under the water as we drew closer.
This local pod, after years of our presence, was of little concern, unlike those on the Lunga, where the pressure of poaching was greater, and hence the nervousness and aggression of these big beasts.
Turning my attention back to the river, as we left the hippos behind, the flat surface of the river was wrinkled by the drift of the current as it tightened to slide past the big central boulders, and then it seemed to hesitate in anticipation of its push past the island.
The island signals the change in the character of the river. But it is only after the next two big ones further on that the significance of the change becomes obvious. It is to be found in the deeper eddies and swirls of the faster water, indicating a preponderance of big boulders lurking beneath the surface.
The massive rocks disturb the smooth progression of the flow by pushing their huge ochre colored 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.
With the recent rains the river had risen. It would make our progress easier. I wasn’t nearly as proficient at navigating the channels and avoiding the numerous lurking obstacles as the lodge guides. With the deeper waters flowing well, I felt confident to raise the boats prow in the broad hippo pool, and I would be buoyed along by my confidence past the first big upstream Island. But a tad further, that confidence would wane as soon as I hauled on the outboard tiller to point the boat through a gap in the islands into a faster flowing channel.
Cutting back the throttle I let the boat drop off its plane. More caution was needed to look out for the big standing swirls with their hints of obstructions lurking beneath the surface. I didn’t need a broken blade from a prop strike.
Moses pointed to the side of the river, and I slowed the motor until the boat stood in the current. We sat in silence watching a bushbuck ram moving with slow mincing steps through the thick undergrowth at the water line. With his flanks flecked with white and his throat swatch contrasting strongly with its dark fur and even darker under belly, he was crowned with a pair of tightly swirled horns.
“What a beautiful creature!” Moses murmured quietly back to me. “Created by our God in heaven.”
I was reminded that Moses was a spiritual man. Back in the old unit the events had made many of us, myself amongst them, cynical of religions moral convictions. My young morality had not been immune to the ravages of reality.
I knew I would get push back when I stated, “Yes, made by the River God, the same God that made the croc that caught Eddie.”
I waited to see if Moses reacted.
“But that God has made me this heaven. Nobody kicks me out, no father, no son, even if he is a bar room bouncer, no holy spirit, even if I am a sinner.”
Moses glanced back at me as he rolled his eyes, “Dudu, I don’t think that my God wil kick you out of heaven, at least not yet. With your silly sins, God likes to play with you..” Moses chuckled, “Do you think his hand was not with the engine this morning?”“
“Well,” I replied, “maybe, but I would prefer him to stop sending old mystery men to mess with us.”
As we moved beyond the two big islands the boulders which until then had been lurking quietly below the water, like a boisterous mob, began to rear above the surface. Then gaining audacity with their numbers and heft, they challenged the smooth flow of the river. It in turn, as if taken by surprise at the sudden disruptiveness, meekly whispered and gurgled its protestation as its flow was roughly split up into a confused weave of channels which merged and diverged like the slither of eals beneath the shady cuffs of the trees.
“Hey Moses”, I called out over 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, facing forward, I didn’t need to ask him to sit slightly to 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 my right handedness, and thus being on the opposite side of the outboard. My tugs on its tiller nudged the boats nose between the big boulders as they pushed the flow to and fro, causing the stern to wiggle its way across the eddy’s like the sway of a belly dancers hips.
“Hunters!” I answered myself rhetorically.
Beyond the channels was another broad flat section of the river, distinguished by a 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.
Moses shrugged his shoulders without looking back.
“I”m going to introduce you to some world class conservationists.”
I paused for effect and clarification, “Well at least one of them. I think that this guy has shot more animals than anybody I know.”
Then looking upriver as we eased past the little island, the unbroken reflections of the clouds marched away on the rivers broad mirror. There were no rocks to stir its flatness. I was more confident in gunning the engine to make the boats prow pick up enough to get into a plane. Licking my lips, I felt the air press against them as we rushed through it with the speed of the boat. I pointed my chin in the direction of our travel to maximize this cooling rush of air.
A half hour later we were nosing into a little cove with a small concrete jetty. 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.
Edging the boat into the cove 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 this whole huge area”.
Moses raised his arm and pointed to the side, above the tree line, “Some eagles are here to greet you.”
A pair of handsome black and white raptors winged away from the trees, and began 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.
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, the folks here were preparing for a month long booking, so I hope they are not out on a hunt.”
With little 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 Iyou shoud 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 to throw it to the young man walking towards us across the grassy lawn towards the jetty.
“The elder one, the Madala, he is the really interesting one,” I said.
“What is so special about him?” Moses asked.
“He has shot more animals in his life than anyone I know, at least elephants. Probably hundreds of them. In my humble opinion he is one of the greatest conservationists I have met.
Moses tilted his head while raising one eyebrow and making a questioning expression of disbelief.
“Conservation,” I quickly followed up, “is not about shooting animals, it is about habitat, and Alan has preserved more habitat than almost any man alive today, at least here in this part of Africa.”
As I flicked the engine into reverse, slowing its forward motion, Moses tossed the rope to the youth, who pulled the prow along the side of the dock, and held the gunwale as 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 a clump of big trees.
I spoke as we walked. “Uncontrolled hunting can deplete the number of animals. Sometimes drastically. Such as with elephants and rhinos, with the poaching. But we can set up mechanisms to prevent that sort of hunting.
We stopped where the lawn spread out after leading up out of a gap in the scrubby undergrowth. To our right through the liana’s hanging from the large trees was a nice view of rapids. These roiled the water and provided a constant backdrop rushing sound.
We started walking again. Approaching the first of the cabins I said to Moses, You can see that this camp has been here for a long time”.
There was an 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 at the base of a protecting half wall. This wall enclosed the rear section of a concrete platform that looked down onto a lower wooden deck situated above the river.
Our dock hand stopped. He turned 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, “Habitat is not only for the elephants and lions. 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. For example, 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 the water in the rapids, we could hear voices engaged in conversation. It wasn’t possible to make out the gist. Obviously some of the discourse was being stated in loud and emphatic tones.
We didn’t have long to wait. A tall slim elderly man appeared around the edge of the shrubbery, 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 well worn, its neat tidiness and the way it draped austerely on his long wiry frame , gave him a regal air. His hair although not the thick crop of his youth, still covered his head in a mop, with longish unclipped sideburns, which had turned silver by the time they reached half way down his ears.
But there were two things that always stood out each 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 this witchcraft stuff in our area..
Alan reached out and shook hands with Moses in the traditional African way, with its 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, and then repeated.
“Bwerani Bwanji”, Alan addressed Moses in fluent Nyanja. 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 someone of my ilk, another pale skinned mzungu tribesman exchanged pleasantries with my friend.