I took the last sip of coffee before the edge of its heat drifted away like the water rustling beneath the boat. Flicking the dregs into the river, I leaned over the gunwale to scoop and swirl the cup clean, and then before setting it aside I poured its contents back into the water.
Despite being an apostate, I was tempted to make the sign of the cross, because I was unsure if some saintly patience would soon be necessary.
After all, I knew that two-stroke engines could be as temperamental as teenagers not wanting to rouse in the coolness of early morning. Thus it was best to get everything ready and stacked for a quick start, so that the first kick of life occurred before realization set in about what was happening, and as with a stubborn donkey, a lack of response ensued.
Pumping the ball valve of the fuel line to clear any air lock, I then pressed the engine primer, and cranked the throttle handle open and closed twice, which I don’t know why, always seems to help. Then setting it just a tad post-idle, and taking a deep breath I braced myself, before hauling back on the starter chord.
Another lunging haul… A third and a fourth followed.
Looking up I saw Precious leaning forward with her elbows resting on the decks rail, and her chin cupped in her hands, as if settling herself for an extended period of idle entertainment.
Slightly annoyed, this time to appease the River-God I made the sign of the cross, as I grimaced back at her.
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, I hauled back as hard and quickly as I could.
I was beginning to lose my belief in the benevolence of whatever God it was that I had sought 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. But now, with invigorated zest, and to catch this wind of fortune before it faded, I quickly hauled on the chord.
The engine caught again, This time it spluttered unevenly for a few moments, and then slowly condescended to stutter into life, and then shiver into a reassuring buzz as the cylinder head heated up.
Now with my trust in the River God briefly restored until the next of life’s trivial challenges, I looked up at Precious and gave her a thumbs up. She straightened and with a toss of her head turned to disappear back across the deck towards the kitchen. I sensed her disappointment at missing the entertainment of my godless cusses when faced with the obstinateness of a piece of uncooperative machinery.
The 12 foot boat with its 15 horse Mercury was tethered alongside its twin, and slightly upriver from a bigger 16′ boat which served to do some of the sight-seeing up and down the river.
I watched as Moses lightly walked down the steep bank and untied the tether from the exposed roots of the large tree which spreads its shade over the deck.
Stepping aboard, he held onto one of the roots until I nodded that I was ready.
I flicked the engine lever to put it into reverse, and turned the throttle a tad as the propeller cut into the water and the motor hesitated as it took the load.
Sliding the boat backwards out from under the overhanging branches, I let the current catch it and pull us out even further, before gently gunning the motor and turning the engine to point our prow into the current.
A pair of White-Crowned Plovers stood clinking their alarm from atop the outcrop of rocks which is the only feature to disturb the broadness of the river 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 water’s surface, exposing little more than their lumpy snouts and stubby ears, and with their protruding eye-sockets space midway between those features. They swiveled their heads like periscopes to follow our passage, leaving their huge bodies submerged like some ancient Jules Verne submarine. And then with a chesty snort of spray, one by one they ducked under the water as we drew opposite.
This local pod, after years of our presence, was of little concern, unlike those on the Lunga , where the pressure of the poaching was greater, and hence with it the nervousness and aggression of these big animals.
I was not sure of those further upstream towards Mushingashi, where we were headed. Up there I would afford them a wider berth.
Turning my attention back to the river, as we left the hippos behind, under its light cloak of fog, I could see how the flat surface of the river was dimpled and slightly wrinkled by the drift of the current as it tightened to slide past the big central boulders, and then how it seemed to hesitate in anticipation of its push past the island.
This island signals the start of the change in the character of the river. But it is only after the next two big islands further up-river that the significance of the change becomes obvious. It is to be found in the deeper eddies and swirls of the faster water, which indicate a preponderance of big boulders lurking beneath the surface.
These huge rocks disturb the smooth progression of the flow by pushing their massive pale ochre hefts up from below with all the lumpy unevenness of giant Chantrelles. Their big impediments force the waters to split and fork repetitively into narrower channels, before they weave together again, much like the Cleopatra braids that dangle lazily from Precious’s crown.
With the recent rains the river had risen. It would make our progress easier. I was not nearly as proficient at navigating the channels and avoiding the numerous lurking obstacles as the lodge guides.
With 30 years of guiding on the river between them, Everet and Thurston knew the waters and channels like the back of their hands. They could gun the engine to full throttle and push the boat into a plane as they headed upstream all the way as far as Mushingashi.
Now with the waters a lot deeper and flowing well, I was fairly confident to raise the boats prow to a plane in the big broad pool with its hippos, and I would be buoyed along by my confidence past the first big upstream Island. But a tad further, soon after, where I would need to cut sharply to port to take the narrow gap between it and the next, my confidence would wane almost as soon as I hauled the tiller back to starboard to point the boat into the stream of the next narrower and faster flowing channel.
Thus it was, cranking hard to starboard, and over the buzz of the engine, I shouted out, ‘That is one of my best fishing spots’.
And as Moses turned his head to look at me, I jerked my thumb over my shoulder to indicate the gap of calm waters we had skimmed across.
Cutting back on the throttle I let the boat drop off its plane. More caution was now needed to look out for the big standing swirls with their hints of a big boulder lurking beneath the surface. I did not need a broken blade from a prop strike.
With the quieter buzz of the motor, it was not necessary to shout over its sound.
I spoke to the back of Moses’s head, When was the last time you tried my sort of fishing?
I heard him chuckle, ‘It has been a while. It must’ve been when we were still at Buffalo camp on the Kavango.’
Without turning around he continued, ‘But you know us Lozi’s, we prefer our traditional methods, our read fish traps, and nets, and spearing the barble cat-fish in the dried up pools at the end of winter. We do not have the patience for your Mzungu sort of fishing.
‘Yes I know,’ I replied, somewhat tongue in cheek, ‘But to be happy in life everyone needs an addiction’.
‘Neither of us can get high on the excitement of contact anymore, and we are both lucky that we have eluded the demon of alcohol and drugs that got so many of those who were with us.
The back of Moses’s head slowly nodded in affirmation.
I read somewhere that the best way to get hooked on something is to provide an eratic and variable reward.
So, exactly like the gambler pressing the buttons of the ‘one armed bandit’ in the Swazi casinos, fishing provides me with the same sort of buzz with its erratic and variable reward. Like them I never know when I am going to get lucky!
Moses pointed to the side of the river, and I slowed the motor until the boat stood still in the current. We both sat in silence while we watched the form of a bushbuck ram moving with slow mincing steps through the thick undergrowth just above the water line. With his flanks flecked with white and his throat swatch contrasting strongly with his dark fur and even darker under belly, he was crowned with a fine pair of tightly swirled horns.
‘What a beautiful creature!’ Moses murmured quietly back to me. God provides me with my erratic and variable reward!’
And after a pause, ‘God is my addiction’.
I was caught unawares. Back then we had all slowly come to realize the depth of Moses beliefs. But all the events, both back then and afterwards, had made many of us, myself amongst them, cynical of the dogma with which we had fortified our moral convictions. Most of the religious conviction we may have entertained had not been immune to the ravages of time and its cynical treatment of our history.
I knew I would get push back when I stated, ‘Yes, but my fishing is better than a gambling addiction or religion, because I can beat the odds!
In the casino the odds are always set by the house, and I am not sure if I would want to bet against God!, he seems to stack the odds too high for me.
But out here if I am good enough, I can get an edge on the margins set by the river’. Here on the water, I can beat its edge, and keep coming back.
I drew a breath, ‘And this is my heaven. Nobody kicks me out, not even a God, even if I am a sinner.’
Moses glanced back at me as he rolled his eyes, ‘Gidi, I don’t think that God wil kick you out of heaven, at least not yet. You make him laugh too much, with your silly sins, He likes to play with you..’ Moses chuckled, ‘Do you think his hand was not with the engine this morning?’
I ignored his quip and as I opened the throttle, I again address the back of his head, ‘Talking about luck and gambling’, I said, ‘It must have been a fisherman who invented poker. Isn’t one of the biggest single prizes for anything, given in the game of Texas Hold’em at the world series of poker, a game with its flop, its bend and its river.?’
(to be continued)