Chapter 26: Scars
The road between the Lubungu and the Lunga pontoons has held up remarkably well considering its gravel surface has seen scant maintenance for the past decade.
In front of the vehicle its gradient dip down 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, making it easy for vehicles to drive up onto its platform.
Moses was standing next to me, facing towards the cab, with his elbows resting on the hood as he looked down and scratched at a few pebbles with the toe of his shoe.
Our patience was waning.
“If I had to start a war in this part of Africa,” I said to him, “Sunday morning is when I would start shooting.”
He paused the scratching of the gravel, then 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? What do you mean?”
“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 figure appear at the top of the opposite bank. He slowly carried a big blue plastic canister down the slope and out onto the pontoons platform. He then equally slowly began to pour its contents into a funnel inserted into the tank of one of its 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 is that the ladies over there 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 departing our camp before dawn for the long rutted ride up to the village.
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 to check 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 being paid by the hour.”
I needed to dig a tad deeper into my reserves of patients. The first man walked slowly up the slope and headed away up the road until the top of his head disappeared 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 in 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 myself from thinking about the annoying switch of roles in so much of African life. The pontoon crew saw themselves as doing us a favor, they did not see themselves 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!
I had sent a message through to the scout stick leader by courier yesterday. That was as soon as I got word from the men guarding the building materials at the new lodge site 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. From the moment one crosses the river, until reaching the district capital of Kasempa, the road is so bad that it will take six hours for any brave soul 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 nearby Chinese Copper mine, up to Solwezi where it can be crushed.
Not even the South Africans, let alone the Chinese, 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 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 northern Kabanga gate.
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 on the way back, we would have a complement of strong men to push the vehicle through the mud, should it be necessary.
However, my annoyance at the tardiness of the pontoon crew and considerations of the road were unexpectedly dissipated. To my surprise the sound of engines heralded two more vehicles which drew up 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, 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 after their family leave rotation, and was going to deploy them in an area which was hosting some suspicious activity.
Alexi nodded a greeting to Moses, who raised his hand back in a perfunctory salutation. Vladimir on the other hand glared briefly in his direction when Moses called a slightly taunting “good morning” across the roof of our vehicle.
Vladimir still harbored a grudge.
Alexei mumbled non-specifically to my query as to where were they headed. It was about something up north a way, they wanted to check it out.
“Hunting?” I asked. Surely not. You will be outside the GMA.”
“Nyet,” He replied, “we also do some consulting while we are here.” Then after a brief pause and a shrug of his shoulders, “For mining.”
“Are you still at Allan’s camp?” I asked, and was 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 up the road behind us and noticed how one of the occupants exited the last vehicle and walked towards us. He stopped a short distance away and beckoned to Vladimir to approach, whereupon he spoke softly as Vladimir dutifully moved across to where he stood and bent his head forward with a slight sideways cock, as if to listen carefully to his words.
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 pulled tightly across 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 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. Maybe it was a suggestion of a distant mixing of an aristocratic Indian ancestry, found amongst the traders of Gujerat, with that of the occasional concubine from Persia. It was the features of the stock who had long ago stretched their fingers to dip and dabble in the slave trade and exotics of East Africa.
I turned back to Alexi. “Hmmm. Who is that? Not exactly a friendly type!” I commented. “Is he travelling with you?”
Alexei looked at me with a shadow of surprised curiosity. “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 his 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 recalled that the Russian pair had previously mentioned how they had been involved with various mining operations in Africa for quite some years. Their lack of interest in hunting now made sense. They were simply staying at the hunting camp for its convenient luxury.
But, picking up on Alexei’s reluctance to talk more about what they were up to, 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 billow of black smoke drifted across the surface of the water like the squirt of an aerial squid’s ink.
Everyone’s attention was drawn to the pontoon as it slowly crept across the river towards us.
It was a good opportunity to have a last leak.
I walked up the road gradient, then cut off to the side where the underbrush almost scratches the vehicles where it encroaches on the cleared access area.
Finishing to relieve myself I turned to walk back. The tall thin Gujerati had moved behind his vehicle, where he had taken off his long sleeved cotton shirt. He was pulling an under vest up over his head.
The suns morning rays had reached the cab of his cruiser. Without the engine and air-conditioning running, it was obviously getting warm inside as he sat and waited.
Holding the vest in one hand he tossed it through the open window.
Turning to faced me, I saw how he raised his arms in the air as he slid them through the sleeves of his shirt, allowing it to drop back over his head and down his chest.
In the brief moment that he fumbled to find the sleeves, his full profile was exposed to my view.
The visual flash revealed that the skin of the front of his narrow rib cage was covered with the welted tautness of a large scar. The blemish of its pale color contrasted sharply with the ochre chocolate of his skin. It had an unusual shape, as if boiling oil had been poured down from the top of his chest in a widening splash, puddling out sideways into a broad deep pool, above his belly.
Strangely it resembled an inverted map of Africa.
Admittedly if one was in a hurry the road could be frustrating, even exasperating, as when the vehicles progress, already limited by its corrugation induced shudders is slowed even further by an obstacle.
In this case it was a tree toppled across the road by an elephant. From their footprints, spread across the dirt like lily pads across a pond, it was evident that it’d been a big heard. This was also indicated by the other obvious signs of their passage, broken branches lay strewn along a broad swathe, having been snapped from bigger boughs as they were flicked by trunks into broad munching maws. We had missed the hurts passage by not more than half an hour, some of the dung piles still sported steaming wisps of foggy vapor.
But now, after having collected the six scouts, my sense of urgency had abated, and with it my propensity for annoyance with the road and its current obstacle.
I slowly brought the snout of our vehicle to a stop before the fallen tree.
With no regular maintenance authority, the obstacle could remain for weeks, even months. The tree was too large to be summarily dragged aside, and the Bush on either side sufficiently accommodating to allow a detour.
If I gave in to exasperation and pioneered a skirting path my tracks would be widened with successive vehicles following sheep-like. Each set of wheels pressing into the sand and mud, until the weight of big trucks would dig trenches so deep that they are impassable to light vehicles, causing their diffs to snag in the middle. Then a new path would be pioneered slightly further out, until the bush around the obstacle is festooned with a web of inconvenience.
I glanced at Moses as he looked back at me with mild curiosity.
Switching off the engine, I stretched back in the seat.
“Can you ask the scouts to cut the tree?” I asked Moses, “the government is supposed to clear the road, like the government is supposed to be paying the scouts, so we may as well get our money’s worth out of them.”
I watched how the raised sinewy ebony arms of two men began to drive the flared blades of their bush axes into the flesh of the tree. Each swing as effortlessly and precisely executed as the wrist pivoted chip of a golf pro in a bunker. Angled first from the left than the right, or the top after the bottom, in successive patterns, each bushmaster chopped their wedges into the bark, until the tree slowly sagged its stiff form into a shapeless pile of wood, chips, and straggly branches.
I was touched with a sense of sadness as the once regal tree crumpled into formless lumber. A few hours earlier we had obviously driven past it when it was one of the proud pantheons which make the Miombo of the Kafue valley so uniquely special.
“Isn’t the bush beautiful?”
Looking beyond the butchering of the tree, I gazed down the length of the road as it leaned gradually to the left before it burrowed into the canopy of the tall woodland far ahead.
“It is only when one is dispossessed of it, that one realizes how subliminally exquisite it is. But unfortunately that realization usually arrives too late.”
Moses made an indifferent face as he sat next to me in the cab of the Land Cruiser.
“Oh boy!” he cocked his head without returning my glance, “Who kicked the cot of your philosopher this morning? What woke your deep thinking?”
“I”m serious. I was thinking how lucky you and I are to be sitting here. Looking at a tree pushed over by an elephant, in a place in the world which, for at least a hundred kilometers roundabout is still almost untouched by man. You and I have so often been dispossessed, not just by others but by circumstance, even by our own stupidity. None of that has yet taken this stuff away from us.”
“What do you mean?” he had a quizzical look on his face.
“Where else in the world is someone sitting in the middle of a Garden of Eden, watching a tree pushed over by an elephant being cut up? You have to admit it is unique.”
“And this road.” I lifted one hand off the steering wheel and gestured towards the swathe of gravel that stretched through the Bush before us. “Isn’t it so beautiful when it comes out with all the shades of green after the rains.
Moses shrugged his shoulders, “So what is your point?”
Look carefully at this road,” I said to him, “it stretches along what other people think is monotony between the two pontoons, and then it goes on even further, for a long way, until it rises out of the Kafue valley.”
I paused. “The bush on either side is pristine. The cancer of human occupation, has not yet eaten away at God’s garden along the cuts people have made into its flesh. It is not philosophy that I’m talking about. It’s our ability to recognize when life is so good around us that it can be described as paradise.
“As a kid when we left our big remote farm in the bush, a visitor asked how badly I would miss it. I did not understand his question. I took it for granted. Later I realized what I lost. Even though we moved to what is considered countryside, it was not these huge swathes of Bush with all the animals. In my teens I would dream of returning to places like this. It made me appreciate these special places. It took longer to learn that once gone, like with an old girlfriend, it isn’t possible to return and pick up where you left off.
Elephants have been pushing over trees here for a million years. It is how it is supposed to be. A hundred years ago they were still doing it over much of Africa.
Almost everything that we’ve known in life has changed. Only the sun, the stars, the moon, the wind and this bush woodland has not. The Bush doesn’t grow old, it comes back to life each time the rains return. That is why all those trees and grasses and stuff out there is magical for me.
I gestured towards where the scouts were pulling the last remaining branches and chopped up sections of the trunk to the side of the road, “look at how easily we can kill a pillar in Gods Garden.”
It is why we are out here. And why I need your help, to make all this last as long as possible.
Because, who knows, one day some piss-pot politician will come along and say it is more important for the peasants to live here than everything that has existed here for thousands of years. Including these trees.
The politicians may say that only rich hunters benefit, or the land is underutilized. Or they will say that the minerals below the surface are more important than all the creatures above it, and everything must be dug up for the benefit of the people.
But maybe by then some of the citizens of this country will recognize the pricelessness of unspoiled land. The peasants are too poor and desperate for food to care, and the politicians are still too busy pillaging. How many people travel along this road and are filled with awe at these trees. How many can see their magnificence, or have their spirits lifted by its beauty?”
I ask you, doesn’t it seem as if the open spaces of the dambos are inserted into the landscape, in such a considered manner, as if God’s gardener designed the layout himself.
We humans too easily take the familiar for granted. Even when it is paradise.
“Sheesh!” Moses exclaimed, “The philosopher in you certainly has had a lot of coffee this morning and is on a buzz.”
I ignored him. “There are few things that I haven’t fallen in and out of love with. About the only thing I’ve remained true to is the Bush. In some ways it has replaced my need for people.
Both of us have lost much that was important, or it was taken away. I have lost the country I grew up in. It has a different name. So are its towns, its streets and rivers. Because I am a mzungu I’m a pariah in the country of my birth. But the towns and names are the veneer that humans give to it. It is not its essence.”
Don’t get me wrong, I am not wallowing in victimhood. I am lucky. Up here I still feel a sense of belonging, the anti-white man attitude is not as strong as further south. Here I can still reach out for that underlying essence of my land, and touch what I love, smell its smells, feel its sweat on the skin of my arms and ankles, its hair brushing my legs as I walk, and the sound of its breath in the rustle of the leaves.”
I paused for a moment.
“You, you did not lose your country, instead it was your family. I sometimes wonder what that must be like, how it affected you. Do you wonder about your mother?”
I peered at him to see if I could read his mood. “I guess Father Xavier must have told you about her.”
He nodded almost imperceptibly.
I hesitated, I was not sure I was ready to push the conversation to where, at some stage, it had to go.
“Do you sometimes wonder about your father? Do you wonder about brothers?”
“How about a sister?”
I let my missive sink in.
The tree had been cleared and as the scouts clambered back onto the vehicle, I let out the clutch and we resumed our progress along the path of paradise.
I was glad I could concentrate on the driving. I was not yet ready to broach the subject which now perplexed me.
Because earlier, while slowly driving back up the river bank off the pontoon, past the place I had seen Mustafa take off his shirt, I recognized what had been bothering me while slopping through the mud to pick up the scouts.
I remembered what father Xavier told me about the shape of the scar on the chest of the man who raped Danai.
It had been the shape of an upside down Africa.
This year it was a pair of Arnots chats which scolded me every time I exited the vehicle and walked across the small Sandy parking area towards the chitenge.
I wondered what had long ago broken the branch of a big Leadwood tree on the lawn side of the pathway as it wrapped around the anthill towards the lodge’s kitchen. Possibly the tug of an elephant’s trunk? Perhaps the roaring downdraught of a thunderstorm? Whatever it was, the break was such that the healing of its bark had wrapped around to leave a little aperture to a glove sized interior. It was a space sufficient for the chats to raise a family. A seemingly safe spot, but this was their second attempt. So I also wondered what became of the prior brood. Maybe a ground squirrels dashing snatch up the trunk of the tree, or had the squeaky begging clamors of the chicks caught the attention of a mamba. Had the snake surreptitiously slithered along the branch, peered its big black unblinking eyes into the gloom, and opened the wide grin of its mouth as it bit and swallowed the little pink morsels, one at a time, like cocktails at a party, even as they unwittingly continued to beg for food.
But this time fate was on the side of these latest chattering youngsters. They owed there domicile to the presence of lodge guests back in September, at the time of spring-time nest selection. Being chats, their parents had more tolerance for the presence of humans than the glossy starlings, whose greater size and aggressiveness would otherwise have won the struggle for nest real estate.
But, so much for the little black and white birds and their family, because a few minutes earlier it had not been their nervous scolding which caught my attention, instead it was the silhouette of Lauren’s hand, stretched high above her bare shoulder and energetically waving as I drove past. Even though she was backlit by the bright openness of the river as she sat in the cool gloom of the chitenge, I could see that she wore a tank top and faded cut-off jeans.
Hmm, sun tan time for those nice long legs and arms, below a bit of burnishing for her shoulders and cheeks.
Thankfully the forecast had a few days of hot sunny weather in the offing. A nice respite from the last few day’s wetness. And it would give my journey a chance to dry out a bit.
Why not catchup with her before I headed to Mumbwa early tomorrow morning. She was fun.
I was heading for Mumbwa because, yesterday we, the scouts with Moses and myself that is , after slowly negotiating the road and its obstacle, followed by the primitive track leading westward to the Lunga River, and having needed to skirt even further out around the edges of the waterlogged dambos, had finally reached the site where the future Kikuji Camp was to be built.
There was still not much evidence of a luxury lodge, except the site of the chitenge, which would be in the shade of a truly gigantic Mahogany, towering its ebullience over that of its peers. Further back was a small platform onto which were piled the breeze blocks, and metal sheeting that would be used to begin the construction when the surroundings dried out, and the other supplies could be brought in without the truck getting stuck. Over the platform a framework of wood held up a canvas tarpaulin covering the goods, as it also served to shelter the three guards rotating their presence.
It being late in the day by the time we had arrived, Moses and I had joined the scouts on a short patrol heading downriver on the east bank in the direction, shouted and pointed across the river to us, from whence the guards had heard the shots fired two nights ago.
It having rained since then, it was unlikely that we would pick up any telltale tracks. But it was always worth checking for snares, an indication that the poachers would be back. Should any be found, it would confirm that they were deliberately and tauntingly arrogant. As it was, from the guard’s description, the shots had been close. I was already worried that there was a message in their proximity.
Shots alone would suggest a hit and run characteristic to any operation. On the other hand only snares would imply a silent sneaky stealth to an endeavor. But shots combined with the setting of snares would signal something else altogether. It would be a taunting, almost a mocking of any authority.
“Catch us if you can”.
Sure enough, it didn’t take long to find the first blatantly set snare!
On either side of a well-worn game trail leading down through a break in the undergrowth at the river’s edge, cut brush was piled loosely to funnel any hapless animal towards a waiting wire noose.
It was a flagrant throwing down of the gauntlet. I tried to remember the wording of the warning note, left here, what now seem so long ago.
“Moses I had said. “What do you think?” It looks like somebody is playing games with us. Like we did in Angola, “tempting” with a small bait, for others to follow and hit us, so we could pulverize them back, when they walk into our ambushes.”
“Yes!” he had replied, “But I am not sure that is the motive. It might just be that they want to scare us away.”
“Why would a snare scare us?” I asked.
“Because there was muti involved.” He had said. “Where the snare was tied to the tree, the wire was slipped through the vertebra of a jackal.”
Moses had let his words sink in, “I had suspected this, so I looked for it. It was a small bone pressed into the flakey bark of the tree. I removed it before the scouts noticed it. I did not want them to be worried about following these people if they were protected by muti.”
“Maybe it was only this one, but if there are any more, we need to find these muti snares and remove them. We do not need the word getting out that the poachers have a sangoma on their side.”
“I will go with the scouts tomorrow and look for sign further down, on this side of the river, But I think that you should go to ZAWA in Mumbwa and ask for them to deploy another stick. They can start at the confluence and search on the other side of the river, in case. But you need to be with them,” he said, “and be the one to untie the snares and hide any bones if you find them.”
“Then later, together we can work up towards the Kabanga gate.”
That was yesterday.
Now I halted the vehicle, dismissed my thoughts, opened the door, and let my eyes search for Laurens wave.
As I did so my ears were assailed by the scolding’s of a pair of little black and white birds.