14: The Rver
In the dawn stillness the ash of last night’s fire lay in spiked powdery shadows. From the tip of a wooden stub a strand of translucent smoke rose as straight as the stem of a bulrush, until its wispy resolve faltered, where upon it spiraled and mingled aimlessly before disappearing into the smoothness of the air.
The gusts of spring were long gone. There was little possibility that an errant puff would fan an ember into a windy swirl. But taking no chances I pushed the smoky stub into the sand, smothering its heat. Then with the blunt end I stirred the ashes to smother any glows lurking in the spent powder. Recently an inexperienced guest didn’t properly douse their fire. The resulting flames raced across the grassy spread, reaching up into the dry leaves of the trees as it roared towards the lodge threatening to set its structures ablaze.
Even in the dawn dimness it was apparent that the recent rains had been absorbed into a tinge of lush vitality by the dambo’s grassy cover. Winters wrinkled dryness was being usurped by summers flush.
Overhead the quietness was wrinkled by the braying calls and pulsing swish of their wings as a gaggle of Trumpeter Hornbills spread out upriver from their evening roost in the thick riverine trees.
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 listened to his quiet steps as he filled the little pot of water before putting it on the gas ring. Then came the click of the spoon, as the ground coffee beans were ladled out into the French press, followed by the clink of mugs on the table when he spooned out the sugar and powdered milk.
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”.
Finally there was the soft gurgle of water as it poured over the lip of the pot onto the coffee grounds, drawing the flavor out of the dark grit in the press.
In the quiet efficiency of his movements it was evident that Moses’s habits was still extant.
It showed in his oneness with the bush, where efficient minimalism is important for self-sufficiency.
Finally rousing, with my shoulders hunched, I stood with hands pushed deep into pockets to ward off the chill. Even though it was early summer, the front that had herded the thunder storms earlier, had left its cooler hint behind like dust settling on a dirt road.
The Cicadas would begin their shrill screeching soon, when the sun warmed the air. Already the sound of birds was everywhere. A Black headed Oriole issued its courting call even though it was after the flush of spring. It was probably second clutching after losing its clutch to predation.
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 sweeping the pathways.
Crossing the footbridge over the shallow gulley bordering 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 smell of cooking. The combination was enough to make me look back over my shoulder at Moses, and with a nod of my head, I commented “Smells like something that needs to be checked.”
In the predawn gloom of the kitchen there were some moments of shyness as the three girls adjusted to Moses presence. 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. With giggles they responded to his saying that if they didn’t want dogs sniffing around the kitchen this early, they shouldn’t cook bacon.
The girls affected indifference and the slightly louder banter between them, hinted that they were responsive to the presence of the newcomer. Their surreptitious scrutiny was evident in the way their gaze lingered when he wasn’t looking.
Moses was stil a handsome man. I was a tad envious of how he had aged so benignly.
My pale Europeans skin had not stood up to the rigors of the African sunshine as had his brown leather.
Where his was as unblemished and viscous as melted chocolate, Mine was pale papyrus, which when exposed to the elements, did not take long to wrinkle and crack.
Of course he was younger than I by quite a few years.
The handful of Americans in the old unit, some of the flotsam from Vietnam 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.
All this was not lost on the girls.
Whatever it was, I wasn’t averse to riding the coattails of his popularity. Not only were we presented with 2 cups of coffee, but also a sandwich of thickly cut fresh 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. What better way to do this than to traverse it by boat, starting with an introduction to the neighbors with a dog in our hunt.
Picking up my binoculars I headed down to the boat tether site, which looked out across a faint fog lingering on the water.
Glancing up I saw Precious had followed me out to the river’s edge. She stood above as I loaded the boat.
“What is all the activity about?” I asked.
I tucked the oars out of the way against the gunwale, together with the small anchor, 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 season guests will be arriving.” Precious looked down at me contemplatively. “We only were told about it last night. Morse has left for the village to pick up 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”
Flicking the dregs in my coffee mug 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,. I was unsure if saintly patience would be necessary.
Two-stroke engines can be as temperamental as teenagers reluctant to rouse in the early morning coolness. Like with them, it was best to get things stacked for a quick start, so that the first kick of action occurs before realization sets in, and like stubborn donkeys, a lack of response ensues.
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 while bracing myself, I hauled 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.
This time to appease the River-God I did make the cross sign while scowling my annoyance.
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 losing 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, from where it shivered into a reassuring buzz as its head heated up.
With my trust in the River God briefly restored until its next trivial challenge, 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 been faced with the obstinateness of uncooperative machinery.
My small four metre boat with its fifteen horse Mercury was tethered alongside thee lodges twin, slightly upriver from a bigger six meter boat which served to do some of the sight-seeing on the river.
Moses lightly walked down the steep bank and untied the tether from the exposed roots of the large tree spreading its shade over the deck.
Stepping aboard, he held onto a root until I nodded my readiness.
I flicked the engine into reverse, turned the throttle a tad so the propeller cut into the water, making the motor hesitate with the new load.
Sliding the boat backwards out from under the overhanging branches, the current ccaught and pulled us further out, before I gently gunned the motor while turning the engine to point the prow into the river’s flow..
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 periscopes on huge submarine bodies, as they followed our progress. With chesty snorts 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, where it hesitated in anticipation of a push past the island.
The island signals the change in the character of the river. Only after the next two big ones further on does this significance of the change become obvious. It is found in the deeper eddies and swirls of the faster water, indicating a preponderance of big boulders lurking beneath the surface.
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 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 into a faster flowing channel.
So, 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 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 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 war.
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 for his reaction! None came.
“But to his credit,” i said, “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.”
Rolling his eyes, Moses glanced back at me. “Gidi, 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 me.”
Beyond the two big islands the boulders, like a boisterous mob, began to rear above the surface. Gaining audacity they challenged the smooth flow of the river. It in turn, as if taken by surprise meekly gurgled its protestations as its flow was roughly split up into a confusion of channels slithering 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 rocks as they churned the flow, causing the stern to wiggle its way across the eddy’s like the sway of a belly dancers hips.
“Hunters!” I answered rhetorically.
Beyond the channels was a 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 last summer.
Moses shrugged his shoulders without looking back.
“I’m going to introduce you to some world class conservationists.”
I clarified, “Well at least one of them. He has shot more animals than anybody I know.”
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 confident enough to gun the engine so the boat rose into a plane. Licking my lips, the air pressed against them with the speed of the boat.
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 bush camp. It was the head-quarters of 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 saved this whole 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 swept into 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.
We watched as they gained height. “One day I want to try flying one of them at Guinea Fowl.”
Then nodding my head back in the direction of the jetty, “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 a back eddy.
“Roger is a great guy, but his father is the one you should meet.”
Reaching under the prow deck, Moses took hold of the mooring rope. He then stood up and waited in anticipation to throw it to the young man walking towards us across the grassy lawn.
“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.
“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.”
By flicking the engine into reverse I tucked the stern against the jetty. Moses tossed the rope to the youth, who pulled the prow along the side of the dock, and held the gunwale. He and Moses then secured 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 a copse of big trees.
I spoke as we walked. “Uncontrolled hunting can deplete the number of animals. Sometimes drastically. Such as with the poaching of elephants and rhinos. 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 rushing sound.
We started walking again. Approaching the first of the cabins I said to Moses, “This camp has been here for a long time”.
There was an air of tiredness in the color and tidiness of the thatching of its roofs, or the obvious swept cleanliness of the surroundings could not hide the occasional crack in the brick work at the base of a half wall.
Further along a cracked concrete platform looked down onto a lower wooden deck 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.
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 to be used as their nest sites.”
Finishing my missive we waited in silence.
Part of the lower deck was obscured by bushes, but from its direction, above the rush of the water in the rapids, we could hear voices. It wasn’t possible to make out the gist. Some of the discourse was being stated in loud and emphatic tones.
We didn’t wait long.
A tall slim elderly man appeared around the edge of the shrubbery. 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 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.
Three things always stood out whenever I met Alan. His smile made is broad mouth even wider. Close up, if you could draw ones attention away from his disarming smile, was the twinkle in the tawny tint of his eye.
Finally, for which he was infamous, he was barefoot. In the bush he was always thus.
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’, the word for war.
“Moses is here to help me to figure out what’s going on with this witchcraft stuff in our area.” I said.
Alan 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. The usual deadpan expression on Moses face flickered its recognition that here was a mzungu of a different ilk, 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.