Chapter 17: Downstream
We had left our hosts at the hunting camp to continue upstream.
Initially we had gingerly navigated through another section of narrow channels. There, the river was again split apart like paper through the blades of a shredder, with the jumble of blocking boulders strewn in the river’s course by a game of geological backgammon.
Stopping at the old Mushingashi guessed camp I had explained to Moses, “The new owners of this place don’t 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 a wealthy American may be interested. But negotiations are at a halt because other stakeholders have up there prices when they sensed that money is on the table. Like hyena’s they are too greedy, and as such will probably go hungry.”
We had continued further upstream beyond the old guest camp to where the river broadens into a wide open flat area. Here it took on the appearance of a flood plain.
While there I gave a wide birth to a nervously snorting pod of hippo. I didn’t want to get into shallow water, with the risk of the prop getting mired in mud, before I could tilt up the engine, if the big resident bull decided to charge.
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 humans 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 were 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 elephants suck up the water in their trunks and spit it into their mouths to drink, I pushed the engine tiller gently away from my knees so that the prow swung in a wide circle, allowing the boat to move faster down river as its bearing meshed with the flow.
Heading slowly down stream, as we passed the hunting camp we waved to the lad on the jetty tucked away in its small inlet.
The Russian pair were still sitting on the riverside deck, with their whiskey glasses clutched in their hands.
They stood when they noticed the boat, and then sat as quickly once they saw it was us.
“It seems that they are expecting someone.” Moses commented.
As their unsmiling stares faded into the distance so did my shallow preoccupation with what they were up to.
“Be careful of that place!”
I pointed in the direction of a low rocky hillock pushing its dark basaltic crown up above the tree line on the north bank of the river.
“If anybody is going to succumb 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 view up there is if they dropped dead from a heart attack.”
As the steady flow of the river drew our boat closer, I continued, “Even though it isn’t high, the view from up there is stunning. Especially when the Bush is green after the new rains, like now. From there you can see how the dambo’s are like emeralds of a necklace clipped along the blue strand of the river. ‘Beauty beyond words’, was how one couple described it after braving the scramble to the top.”
I call it Eden’s Outlook.”
We were letting the slow river current do the work.
Moses flicked his head towards it
“Let’s 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.” I jokingly mused to him, “On the other hand maybe it is best to see it, so that you can know the risks, and avoid finding yourself bringing any lass who drifts your way up here.
“Who knows”, I quipped, “Maybe the nganga has put a spell on the place, and you will get all your senses messed up before you even begin to help sort out the strange stuff around here.”
With that I gunned the outboard to swivel the boat’s prowl back into the current and edge the boat under the shade of the river trees at the foot of the hill.
In hindsight, with my life spent in Africa, I should have known not to joke when it comes to witchcraft.
“So what do you make of that delightful pair we met this morning?”
I pose the question to Moses as we sat atop the hillock and admired the view, which was as beautiful as I had described.
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. 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. Someone told me that the concession fee to the government runs at about quarter million dollars a year, and that is before all of Alan’s overhead of staff, 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 Bateleur took off from a big dead tree across the river, and after a few sharp rapid flaps of its wings began to twist skyward in a thermal. I imagined it had come down to the river to drink.
“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 as if their main interest is sitting out on the deck, waiting for something to happen.”
I let our thoughts brew for a while.
“I wonder how they made their money? Very few of the rich folks I have known are alcoholics.
It stands to reason that anybody who has become wealthy has done it by staying away from booze, unless they earn it the traditional old world way, by inheriting it. I don’t think there were any bourgeoisie left in Russia to pass on their wealth after Lenin and Stalin finished with them. The new kleptomaniacs surrounding Putin, are not yet old enough to die and pass on their money.”
Moses nodded his head, “Gidi, you have spent more time than I have around these hunting types, but even I can sense something strange with those two. However, they are Russians. As you know we met 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, “They didn’t care about where they were, 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. “Those two certainly are happy around a bottle.”
Here I am helping to train the scouts who will patrol this area, to protect the game for them to hunt. But they don’t care if there are animals around or not. They sit in the middle of one of the most unique areas in Africa, and they take no notice of who we are or what we do.”
“When you think of it,” I was talking more to myself than Moses, “This Lunga-Lushwishi area, is 8000 km² in size. Across the river is Mushingashi, also a huge block of land. These areas are adjacent to the second biggest national park in the world. Alan, me, now you and many others, are helping to preserve them in pristine condition. Here visitors are not even exposed to the pressures of busloads of gawky photo tourists, with cameras clicking like the castanets of a fucking flamenco dancer. And those two assholes don’t give a shit about anything except drinking vodka and being rude.
Far away from across the river, deep in the national park, came the sound of a gun-shot.
‘Did you hear that?”
Moses nodded his head.
Come on we need to get down to the scout camp.
We scrambled down from the climb up the hillock of Eden’s outlook. Leaping into the boat and hauling on the engine start chord, I felt how Moses was already shoving the nose of the boat out into the current.
I gunned the engine to nudge the drift of the boat past, or around a semi-submerged log, or kept it in the center of narrow channels, as the river pushed us through the labyrinth above the big twin islands. Where it spread into broader swathes I held the throttle open, praying to a God Unknown that we would not have a propeller strike.
If we could get to the scout base before mid-afternoon I surmised, they would have time to head out in the direction we heard the shot. They would have the best chance of catching any poacher if they could do a preliminary check before nightfall.
“Why don’t you ask the scout leader if we can join his team.” Moses looked at me quizzically.
I hesitated. It meant that my original plan of showing him the lay of the land with its prominent features would be put on a back burner.
In two days I was scheduled to move down to the southern, iTezhi–Tezhi part of the park to train another team.
Before I left, I had hoped to squeeze in a road trip up to Kikuji, the future lodge site on the Lunga River. But the shot changed everything. What better way of Moses getting a feel for things than joining a scout team and observing and having things explained to him first-hand.
“That’s a good idea.” I said, “but if they allow it, you will have to go on your own because I am scheduled to do some training down south.’
Moses shrugged. “So what. I’m a big boy. I can look after myself.” He winked at me.
As we talked the flow of the river took the boat wide and towards its south bank. A few minutes later the deck of our own host lodge came into view, where the snorts of the hippo pod assailed our ears..
“Stop at our camp and I’ll grab my pack.” He said. “Then we can scrounge some food from the kitchen. All I need is some rice and some tins of sweetened condensed milk for energy, like we used to do in Angola on long distance operations when we had to travel light and far.”
A wave from Precious standing on the deck greeted us. I had called out to her to get us the rice and milk even before the boat nudged into the shore.
Twenty minutes later Moses was back with his pack and Precious was giving him the food to put into the packs side pouches.
Pressing the velcro fastenings on the pack closed, we sprang back into the boat and waved at the girls gathered on the deck to send us off.
Their enthusiastic waves were obviously not really intended for me, as their accompanying goodbye shouts were all in Kaunde.
“You have admirers!” I teased him.
Moses responded with a dismissive flick of his head. “You are the one who taught them their tricks!” he replied.
“I have nothing new to teach. so no need for any lessons” I chuckled back at him, “But now they have a younger dog on the scene. They want to see if he knows how to roll on his back and get his stomach tickled.” I faked a hesitation, “Or is it the other way around? The rolling and tickling that is.”
Moses scowled back at me, “I have known you for long enough to know that you are the real hound. You have the “Why not” attitude. Not me.” He continued, “Unlike you, I am cautious.” ”
I laughed. “That maybe so. But I am too old to play tricks, which is OK. I have learned enough to keep on begging my way through life.”
Opening the throttle and pushing the boat as fast as I was comfortable speed wise, we watched a fish eagle fly overhead with a big pike in its claws.
It was not long before the stretch of the pontoon cable across the water came into view. We waved to two of the staff sitting idly in the shade of the trees, waiting for the next client needing a crossing.
Shortly thereafter I pulled into the northern bank of the river and we secured the boat to some low hanging branches.
Our travel had been fast, it was mid-afternoon. If the team could get organized they could get in that initial area check.
Musekela, the scout team’s lead was standing at the top of the bank. He had heard the approach of our boat and come to investigate.
I quickly explained the situation, and he began to shout orders to the others to get ready to head out.
I introduced him to Moses as my helper in the training mission. There was no need to go into details as to what his role actually was. I tentatively suggested that Moses go out on patrol with them.
To my surprise Musekela agreed as soon as I said that Moses’s speciality was tracking. That if you want to see a real professional he should watch how Moses tracked.
“Give us a half hour to get ready.” Musekela said. “But can you go down to the island below the confluence with your boat and pick up one of my scouts who is visitinga friend at the safari fly camp there?”
“Okay.” I replied. “That is good because it will give a chance to show Moses a bit more of the area.
Not far downstream was the low ridge of the geological protrusion which dominates this area. It forms the blocking east wall against which the Lunga River leans before it merges with the Kafue.
where that river has punched through the barrier a high brooding cliff face looks down on the confluence like the eyes of an old which.
It did not take more than 10 minutes of fast planing of the boat to get to the fly camp. A quick explanation was given to the visiting scout and he clambered aboard.
As we passed back upstream beneath the cliffs Moses motion with his head to look up at the cliff face.
I saw nothing.
“At the top!” he stated.
Squinting and searching back and forth with my eyes I finally saw what Moses was indicating.
It was a motionless figure standing at the edge of the cliff. Its camouflage clothes blended into the shrubby vegetation, covering the brow of the hill like the unkept hair on the head of an old beggar.
The figure made an emphatic sweeping gesture with a hand.
The meaning was unambiguous..