18 – Poachers:
The rusted frame of the Park Land Cruiser creaked gingerly along a rough game viewing road as it led loosely upstream north east towards the Lukamga Swamps,. In doing so the road sometimes pinched between a hillock dipping its flank into the river, or at others it respectfully swayed back inland to hedge around the damp open muddy spread of a dambo.
The six scouts of the team had never seen anything like it, this method of scouting for tracks.
It was a technique he had learned from the bushman trackers serving in the army on the Angola border. Sitting on the scratched and dented engine hood whith his feet on the winch drum at the front, Moses could pick up sign even with the vehicle traveling at speed.
If the poaches had come from the north, as most of them did, they would have crossed the river somewhere. If so they would also have crossed the road to get deeper into the park from where the sound of the shot had emanated. The other likely possibility was that they had walked a long distance from the tribal areas to the east. In both cases their endeavors would be multi day affairs, entailing a temporary night base. Moses new that any such base would be within reasonable distance of the river for its drinking water.
With only an hour of sunlight left, if they were to get a jump on things this was their best bet of finding a start point. It was a trade-off, a quiet foot patrol would give greater stealth to catch any poachers unaware, but it would be slow and take time. Considering that the Land Cruiser had a good muffler and could barely be heard further away than a few hundred meters when running at low revs, Moses felt that it was worth the risk.
He indicated to the driver to stop a number of times to check out various footprints. A few of them were clearly not human made. Three sets were, but they were old, with the imprints only surviving the recent rains by being protected by tufts of lodge grass bending over the road strips.
“When was the last time you had a patrol here? Moses asked Musekela..
“About two weeks ago,” he replied.
“I can see your tracks in the sand.” Moses pointed at the set, and Musekela nodded.
It was when the vehicle was almost at the edge of the national Park, where it bordered with the Mushingashi private reserve that Moses quickly raised his arm motioning to the driver to stop.
Musekela and his team were astonished. They were good but not as good as this. Off to the side was a small flattened patch of grass, with a faint crumpled tuft between the strips and another on the other side.
Moses pointed to the grassy indents. “Someone has jumped from one side of the road to its center and then to the other edge.”
He slid off the hood and began to carefully scout around. Musekel opened the cab door.
“Wait! Stay on the vehicle,” he ordered. “I want to look for other sign before we disturb it.”
Like a pointing dog Moses edged back and forth as he picked up the ‘scent’.
“There are four of them,” he stated. “You can see from the way the grass has risen back up that they are about two days old. Probably made when they entered the park.”
“OK, everyone can get off the vehicle and we can begin.” he said.
By now it was only half an hour to sunset.
“I suggest you track these people until dark, then come back here to sleep next to the vehicle. Without your sleeping stuff you will move faster. You can head out before Dawn to pick up the tracks where you left off.”
Moses looked at Musekela questioningly. “If it’s okay with you I am going to continue along the road here to see if I can pick up anything else. Then we can meet back here after nightfall.”
Moses didn’t explain his hunch that the tracks would head back towards the river where the poachers would potentially have a rudimentary base.
Musekela gave orders to his team. They shouldered their weapons and set off.
At a fast almost jogging pace Moses headed on up the road.
As the dusk sucked away the last of the daylight a grass stem flicking up caught his attention. Here a reach of thicker bush proliferated on the higher ground where it eased back to touch the river, Four sets of fresh tracks had crossed the road. Very fresh tracks with the grass they had trampled rising back up even as he watched.
Tracking in the dark would not be possible, but Moses knew that fresh tracks heading towards the river meant that a temporary base could be close. It was now a matter of very careful movement and patients which would let him check out his gut feeling.
Any poacher base should logically be between where these tracks crossed and the river. Their direction should point generally to its location.
It was fortunate that the vehicle was three kilometers away, so the poachers would not have heard it, and realized that someone was on their heels.
From here on Moses would be using his ears rather than his eyes to hone in on his target. Being unaware of their discovery the poachers wouldn’t be as careful. With patience, at some stage Moses would hear voices. Maybe even laughter.
Catlike he carefully, silently moved forward, stopping every few meters to listen.
A hyena yodel its call not too far away, and there was the yeimmer of a jackal. Probably the scent of meat hanging on drying strings in the trees had caught the attention of the carnivores.
Meter by slow stealthy meter Moses placed careful footstep in front of careful footstep.
With slow smooth motions he crept forward. There is nothing that draws attention as easily as a jerk of movement, even in the dark, or the snap of a twig beneath a misplaced step.
If there was a group of men close by Moses was counting on them being unaware that they were being stalked. The group wouldn’t be overly cautious. They would talk softly amongst themselves, maybe even give a laugh, a cough. Or maybe there would be the sound of breaking branches if they had made a fire in a shallow pit to hide its flames. If so there would be the shimmer of its light reflected on the leaves of any tree overlooking the camp, and the smell of its smoke.
It would be a patient’s game, and Moses had plenty of it.
It took two hours for him to gradually move towards the river through the half kilometer of long grass, bushes and around the large tree trunks of this section.
His senses were at their peak. He was now only a few hundred yards from the river. If the poachers had made a camp it had to be very close.
But, maybe he was wrong and ther was no camp after all.
A twig cracked to his left. He froze. An animal maybe? He stood barely breathing for some minutes before resuming his careful progress.
Barely breathing he listened. There was the faintest sound of another twig snapping. This time to his fore. .
All his senses now focus on one point ahead, faintly visible in the glimmer from a rising moon. Something was moving.
Was he walkiing into a trap?
Had they detected his approach and were waiting.?
Without warning, a flash stabbed through the darkness, and a thunderous roar ripped apart his tense cocoon of quietness.
Moses instinctively jerked back in shock as the echoes of the sound rumbled back from the distant hillocks. It took a few seconds for him to realize what it was. Oly a large powder shot from a muzzleloader could produce that sort of flash and sound, the full throated home made roar of the weapon of necessity of a poor village poacher.
A flurry of movement rustled about in front of him, accompanid by low excited calls.
His instinct was to flee. But he held himself, his training and experience had taught him that running away from trouble was a bad thing.
Watching it unfold, he realized that the commotion was heading along the upstream bank of the river. Voices continued calling to each other. The beam of a flashlight cut through the darkness. In its light three men bent over something.
With the adrenaline subsiding, Moses raised his binoculars to watch. The men surrounded an animal. They held its feet as they lifted and dragged it along the ground.
It was a hyena.
As carefully as his approach, Moses cautiously withdrew, moving faster and less cautiously the further he was away.
Back on the game viewing tracks he half ran half jogged back to the scout team vehicle.
Reaching it he could see that the scouts were already laying with their blankets, all preparing for sleep.
They roused at hearing the urgency in his soft tone.
“Yes, we heard the shot.” Musekela said.
“It was strange.” Moses explained. “They were very quiet and if they had not shot a hyena I would have stumbled right into their camp.”
Moses was unfurling his own blankets and was sucking on the hole he had punched in a tin of sweetened condensed milk. “I think that there quietness was intended to get the hyena as close as possible before they shot.”
“But why shoot a hyena?” Musekela asked., “these are strange poachers.”
Moses unfurled his blankets. “I have a lot of experience with catching people off guard from my time in the military.” he
“If it was me in charge of an operation to catch these poachers I would go in before dawn when they are still drowsy and half asleep. They will least expect any interference.”
Moses didn’t want to get Musekela’s back up, by thinking that his authority was being challenged.
“What do you think if our watch wakes us at 4AM?” He asked. “It will take us about an hour to get there so if we leave here at 430 we should be there and in position by 530, and ready to rush them.”
Moses need not have been concerned, Musekela was happy to follow his advice.
He set the watch to wake everyone at 4am
In the darkness each of the men held a cup of hot sweet tea in his hands.
It was clear to Moses that Musekela was not going to give a pre-operation briefing. Why should he? He had never engaged in combat operations. For him policing was simply chasing after a few poachers whenever he stumbled upon them.
Even this predawn operation was foreign to him.
Moses was again worried about treading on Musekela’s toes.
“Do you mind if I give a briefing?” Moses asked.
Looking into the tin cup he held as he swilled it Musekela said, “Go right ahead.”
Facing the group Moses began.
“We should try to catch this group when they are still sleepy.
There are four of them and seven of us. I will lead the way in single file because I know were they are.
We will try to get to within a hundred meters of their camp. At that stage we should spread out in line abreast and pair up.
When I give the signal we rush them as fast as we can. We should be on them in seconds.
If they detect us before then and start to run we must rush from wherever we are.
We will work on a buddy-buddy system. Each pair will have one man focusing on getting handcuffs on their target and the other man holding him and getting his hands behind his back.
The first pair should grab the closes man and so on.
You all know how to give a choke hold if things get rough.
I will be the only one alone to tackle a suspect.
Once you have hand-cuffs on push him down onto his back, and go and help anyone else who is still struggling. It is hard to stand up if your hands are tied behind your back. Cuffed suspects will not be a problem. If they do manage to get up push them down again.
There’s no need for violence unless they try to shoot at us. But from what I saw yesterday they are armed with muzzleloaders. I don’t think they will have time to load once we are running at them.
There were none.
An hour later, as a distant glimmer of dawn started to lighten the skies, Moses left the grassy edge of the dambo with the scouts following single file. He entered the thicker obscuring bush were the poachers base was located.
They had walked silently and easily so far.
By keeping to the open grass Moses had taken the group to within a few hundred meters of their target. But with the dawn approaching, getting any closer out in the open grass, would risk discovery.
Ducking into the thicker bush, Moses slowed their progression, signaling to everyone to be careful where they steps so as not to snap a twig. He need not have worried, the bush craft of the scouts was excellent. They moved forward soundlessly.
It was not long before Moses pointed as he gave the thumbs down signal, Their target was ahead. The scouts quietly spread out. With a motion of both hands forward Moses signaled for everybody to begin to charge,.
Suddenly the bush was filled with the thump of running men as they brushed through grass and crashed through brush.
It was a complete surprise. The first startled shout of warning came from a poacher when the scouts were almost upon them.
Two of the poachers threw off their blankets and were attempting to stand as they were tackled. The other two didn’t even make it that far,.
It was over in less than two nminutes.
As the tension ebbed out of the scouts and they hooted their success , in the background Moses detected the sound of breaking branches.
Standing still amidst the flurry of activity he listened carefully. Someone was running away.
The sporadic sounds faded towards the river.
All around the scouts exclaimed in disbelief. Hanging from the trees were the skins of hyenas, jackals and the skin of a cerval cat. In another treee was the skin of a python. In a third a wire loop had the paws of these animals strung on it. A separate loop even had two vultures heads, a fourth held animal tails.
This wasn’t the usual poacher’s camp.
The exuberance of the scouts slowly dissipated.
Moses paid no attention. Holding his machete he began to run in the direction of the disappearing sounds through the underbrush.
The path of the escape he was not difficult to find. There had been a fifth poacher. Unusually he had slept away from the others, thereby affording his escape. The sign led down to the river’s edge, where his tracks disappeared.
In the mud it was easy to see that the boot prints had a unique crosshatch patent at their center.
They led to where a shallow line indicated where a canoe had been beached.
As he stood looking down at the rivers water, from a long way away, across the river, came a cackle of laughter.