Chapter 27: 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.
As the road meanders northwards, where it meets the Lunga River its gradient dips down steeply into a gap carved in the river bank to form a loading pad. Here the drawbridge of the metal monster is pushed up onto 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 of our vehicle, 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 buggers 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?”
“Yup,” I said testily. ”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. These buggers are so wasted they couldn’t even point their guns out their pants to piss.”
“I wonder where those sods managed to get enough hooch to get so motherless? “ I bet they started binging on Friday eve.”
Finally 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.
Moses went back to scratching the dirt with his tow.
Plenty of patience is a necessity in Africa, and both of us had accommodated it by departing our camp before dawn for the long rutted ride up to the village.
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 the first 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 dug a tad deeper into the reserves of my patients. The first man walked slowly up the slope and headed away until the top of his head disappeared into the long grass at the side of the road.
“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 large 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 didn’t see themselves as providing customer service. Especially not on a Sunday morning.
While I leaned against the front of the land cruiser, I idly slapped at a tsetse flies. They were bad today!
Yesterday I had sent a message to the scout stick leader by courier. It was as soon as I received 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 team. 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. This havoc is wrested upon the road by the big trucks moving the ore from the nearby Chinese Copper mine, up to Solwezi to 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.
The huts of the village are dribbled down that quagmire in a desultory fashion for a long way, until some reach the inconspicuous track leading to the parks northern Kabanga gate. 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.
My annoyance at the pontoon crew and the road was dissipated by the sound of engines heralding two vehicles drawing up behind ours.
To my surprise it was Alexei driving one, accompanied by his father.
As the pair stepped out of their vehicle I 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 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 in a perfunctory salutation. Vladimir on the other hand glared back when Moses called a slightly taunting “good morning” across the roof of our vehicle.
Obviously he still harbored a grudge.
Alexei mumbled non-specifically to my query as to where they were headed. It was about something up north a way, ‘to check it out’.
“Hunting?” I asked. Surely not. You will be outside the GMA.”
“Nyet,” He replied, “we also do some consulting.” After a brief pause and a shrug of his shoulders, “For mining,” he said.
“Are you still at Allan’s camp?” I asked, and was taken aback when he answered in the affirmative.
I whistled, “That must be costing you a pretty penny!”
Alexei smiled at me and shrugged. “We have good client who pays well.”
Behind us an occupant from the last vehicle walked towards us. He stopped a short distance away and beckoned to Vladimir. The Russian moved across and bent his head forward with a slight sideways cock, as they conversed in soft spoken words. The man then return to his vehicle, being driven by what I assume was a servant, who held the door open for his master.
This man’s hair was tinged with grey, indicating 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.
There was a faint ochre tone to his skin, and there was something Hamitic about his hawk-like features. It suggested an ancestry blended from the aristocratic Indian traders of Gujerat, with that of the occasional concubine from Aden, the stock who long ago stretched out and dabbled in the slave trade of East Africa.
I turned to Alexi. “Hmmm. Who is that? Not exactly a friendly type!”
“Is he travelling with you?” I asked.
Alexei regarded me with 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 now masked by the glass of the windshield.
“No, I only arrived back from South Africa the night before last.” I retorted, “And he has not been around.”
“So what does he do with you?” I queried.
“He is an investor.”
I recalled that the Russian pair had previously mentioned how they had been involved with various mining operations in Africa. Their lack of interest in hunting now made sense. They were staying at the hunting camp for its convenient luxury.
Picking up on Alexei’s reluctance to talk 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 resiliance to the hardships of service in this remote location. With its flywheel being furiously cranked by one of the men its billow of black smoke drifted across the water like the squirt of a 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.
Walking up the road gradient, I cut off to the side where the underbrush almost scratches the vehicles as it encroaches on the cleared access area.
After relieving myself I walk back.
The tall thin Gujerati was standing behind his vehicle, where he had taken off his long sleeved 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 waited.
Holding the vest in one hand he tossed it through the open window. He raised his arms 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.
I saw that the skin of his narrow chest was covered with the welted tautness of a large scar. The blemish of its pale color contrasted sharply with the ochre chocolate of the rest of his skin. It was 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.
It was in the shape of an upside down Africa.
When in a hurry the road can be frustrating, exasperating, like now when the vehicles progress, already limited by its corrugation induced shudders is slowed further by an obstacle. It was a tree toppled across the road by an elephant. The footprings of the herd were dappled over its surface like lily pads across a pond.
It was a big heard. Another signature of their passage, broken branches, lay strewn along a broad swathe, having been snapped from the tres by outstretched truncks into the rhythmic chews of their 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 obstacle.
I brought the snout of our vehicle to a stop before the fallen tree.
With no regular maintenance, the tree could remain for months. It was too large to be summarily dragged aside, and the Bush on either side sufficiently accommodating to allow a detour.
If I succumbed to exasperation and pioneered a skirting path my tracks would be widened with successive vehicles following sheep-like. Each set of wheels would press into the sand and mud, until the weight of big trucks would dig trenches so deep that they are impassable to light vehicles. Then their diffs would snag, necessitating a new path further out, until the obstacle is ssurrounded by rings of rutted inconvenience.
Moses looked at me with mild curiosity, waiting to see what I would do.
Switching off the engine, I stretched back in the seat.
“Can you ask the scouts to cut the tree?” I asked him, “The government pretends to maintain he road, like it is pretending to be paying all the scouts salary, so we may as well get our money’s worth from them.”
I watched as the raised sinewy ebony arms of two men drove the flared blades of their bush axes into the tree’s flesh. Each swing as effortlessly and precisely executed as the wrist pivoted chip of a professional golfer. 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 sank its stiff form into a shapeless pile of wood, chips, and straggly branches.
I was touched with sadness as the regal tree crumpled into formless lumber. A few hours earlier we had driven past it when it was one of the proud pantheons making the Miombo of the Kafue valley so 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 sideways before burrowing 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 is usually too late.”
Moses made an indifferent face. “Oh boy!” he cocked his head without returning my glance, “Who kicked the cot of your philosopher this morning? What woke your deep thinking?”
“’m serious. Consider 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 and circumstance, but 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 as it is 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 is pristine. The cancer of human occupation, has not yet eaten away at God’s garden along the slashes humanity 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 that it can be described as paradise.
As a kid growing up in this sort of world, I took it for granted. Later I realized what I lost. . In my teens I would dream of returning to places like this. 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. The beauty of the girl fades. Here it doesn’t. 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 all over 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. It doesn’t grow old, it comes back to life when the rains return. It 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.”
That is why we are here, to make all this last as long as possible. .
I ask you, doesn’t it seem as if the open spaces of the dambos are carefully put into the landscape, in such a considered manner, as if done by God’s gardener 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. 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. It isn’t its essence.”
I am not wallowing in victimhood. I am lucky. Up here I feel a sense of belonging, the anti-white man attitude is not as strong as further south. Here I can 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 was now 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 wasn’t yet ready to broach the subject which perplexed me. Because earlier, while slowly driving up the river bank off the pontoon, past the place Mustafa had taken 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.
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 beside 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 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. Thus 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, 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, I thought, 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 recent wetness. 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, after slowly negotiating the road with its obstacle had turned off towards the new lodge site. A primitive track led westward to the Lunga River. We had to skirt even further out around the edges of waterlogged dambos, until we finally reached the site where the future Kikuji Camp was being built.
There wasn’t much evidence of a luxury lodge, except the site of the chiteng. It would be in the shade of a 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. Other supplies could be brought in when it was dry enough for a bigger truck not to get 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 downriver on the east bank in the direction 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 were close by. I was worried that there was a message in their proximity. Shots alone would suggest a hit and run operation and 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, mocking of 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 didn’t 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 mganga 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. You need to be with them,” he said, “and 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 of a pair of little black and white birds.
(8th edit – 03/01/2021)