Beyond the two big islands the boulders which until then had been lurking below the water, now like a boisterous mob, began to rear up above the surface. Then gaining audacity from their numbers and heft, they challenged the smooth silent flow of the river. It in turn, almost as if taken by surprise at this sudden disruptiveness, meekly whispered and gurgled its protestation as it allowed the homogeny of its flow to be split up into a confused weave of channels which merged and diverged like the slither of hatching snakes beneath the shady cuffs of its water trees.
‘Hey Moses’, I called out above the sound of the engine, ‘Do you know who are the best conservationists in the world?’
Even though he was sitting in the prow of the boat and facing away from me, I did not have to ask him to move slightly to the right of center. It was the instinctiveness of how we had always worked together. He had shifted to the side to even the balance of the boat which was offset by me being right handed and thus sitting to the opposite side of the outboard as I tugged its tiller. This nudged the boats nose between the big boulders as they pushed the flow to and fro, causing the stern where I sat to wiggle its way across the eddy’s and whirlpools like the sway of a belly dancers hips.
‘Hunters!’ I answered myself rhetorically.
Soon we again reached a broad open section of the river, with only one little half submerged outcrop at its center. This was oddly out of place, adorned with a straggly litter of flotsam left behind by the floods of the previous summer, and a single little water tree clinging for dear life to a few clefts in its rocky crown.
I intended to stop here on our return. In the back eddies behind the crown I would almost certainly find a few big ‘Robbies’ lurking in the lee of its rocks. They would be waiting to flash out and gulp down any unwary bait fish struggling in the faster water further out in the main stream..
Moses shrugged his shoulders without looking back.
‘I’m going to introduce you to some of the best conservationists I have ever met’.’
I paused for effect and clarification, ‘Well at least one of them. I think that this guy has shot more animals than almost anybody I know.’
Then looking upriver as we eased past the little island I could see the almost unbroken reflections of the clouds marching away on the broad flat mirror of the river. This meant that there were no obvious rocks to stir its flatness.
And I felt more confident in gunning the engine to make the boats prow pick up just enough to get into a plane.
I licked my lips and felt the air press against them as we rushed through it with the speed of the boat. And I pointed my chin in the direction of our travel to maximize their sense of coolness before I spoke again.
A half hour later we found ourselves nosing into a little cove with a small concrete jetty. And beyond it, tucked under a grove of huge trees was a permanent bush camp. It was the head-quarters of the folks holding the Lunga Lushwishi hunting concession.
As I edged the boat into the cove and its jetty I spoke to Moses,’This place is run by Roger. He and his father have held the concession here for over a decade, Originally it was his father, Alan, who tendered for it.
He basically saved the whole huge area’.
Moses raised his arm and pointed to the side and just above the tree line ,’Some NKondo’s are here to greet you’ He said.
Following his gesture, I saw a pair of handsome black and white raptors winging away from the trees and begin to make tight circles as they searched for a thermal.
‘African Hawk-eagles,’ I said. ‘That is the third time I have seen them on this section of the river. They must be nesting somewhere close by.’
I paused. ‘One day I want to try flying one of them at Guinea Fowl’.
Then nodding my head back in the direction of the jetty I continued, ‘When I was here two weeks ago they were preparing for a month long booking, so I hope they are in camp right now, and not out on a hunt.
With not much forward motion the boat twisted sideways in the slow swirl of the coves back eddy.
‘Roger is a great guy, but his father is the one I want you to meet.’
Reaching under the prow deck of the boat, Moses took hold of the mooring rope tucked beneath it. He then stood up and waited in anticipation of throwing it to the young man who was walking towards us across the grassy lawn towards the ramp of the boat lauch and its jetty.
‘The elder one, the Madala, he is the really interesting one,’ I said.
‘What is so special about him?’ Moses asked.
‘He is the one who has shot more animals in his life than almost anyone else I know, at least elephants. Probably hundreds of them. In my humnle opinion he is one of the greatest conservationists I have ever met.
Moses glanced at me and tilted his head while raising one eyebrow and making a questioning grimace of disbelief.
‘Conservation,’ I quickly followed up, ‘is not primarily about shooting animals, it is about habitat, and Alan, the father has preserved more habitat than almost any man alive today, at least here in Central Africa.’
As I flicked the engine into reverse to slow its forward motion, Moses tossed the rope to the youth, who pulled the prow along the side of the dock, and held the gunwale of the boat parallel to its edge. Moses stepped onto the platform and assisted him in securing the boat to the mooring tethers.
‘Mabuka mwane’ I greeted the shy smile of the dockhand. ‘Are the bwana’s here today?
I received an ‘Ehe’ of affirmation.
We followed our helper across the broad lawns to the structures tucked into the shade under the branches of huge trees.
‘Hunting and shooting can reduce the number of animals. Sometimes drastically. Such as with elephants and rhinos, with all the poaching. But we can set up mechanisms to prevent the hunting. Actually that is our bread-and-butter right now, it is why I need your help. At least as long as it takes to figure out all this witchcraft stuff.
We had stopped where the lawn spread out after leading up out of a gap in the scrubby undergrowth.
Moses had turned to look to our right through the liana’s hanging from the huge trees at the edge of the river. The set of shallow rapids opposite the camp, roiled the water and provided it with the constant backdrop music of rushing water.
I resumed my explanation.
‘If nobody preserved their habitat, the only place you would find elephant and rhinos is in zoos. And zoos mostly only work for big signature animals that can get headlines in news reports, with big ghastly pictures of tusk and horns hacked off.
We started walking again. As we approached the first of the cabins I said to Moses, You can see that this camp has been here for a long time’.
Ther was a slight air of tiredness in the color and tidyness of the thatching on the roof of its chitenge. And the obvious swept cleanliness of the surroundings could not hide the occasional crack in the brick work that formed the base of a protecting half wall. It enclosed the rear section of a large concrete platform that looked down onto a lower wooden deck situated just above the river.
Our dock hand had stopped. He turned to us and ask us to wait as he went to tell the Bwana that we were here.
‘OK, twasanata,’ I said to him, thank you.
Addressing Moses again I continued, ‘Nobody notices, or cares for the little insignificant butterflies, or lizards or birds that are on the brink of extinction. For them, even if they were put in zoos, they would stil die out. Few zoos can replicate the habitat that some of these need to breed.
The passenger pigeon went extinct in the United States not because they hunted it to extinction, but because they cut down all the forests on the eastern seaboard where those birds fed and nested.
The big old Ground hornbill here in Africa is slowly disappearing, not because it is hunted, but because they are slowly cutting down all the big trees with holes in them large enough for these birds to nest in. They are destroying its habitat.’
I finished my missive and both of us stood in silence as we waited.
Part of the lower deck at the river line was obscured by some bushes, but from its direction, above the rush of thw water in the rapids, we could hear some voices engaged in conversation. Although it was not possible to make out its gist , it was obvious that some of the discourse was being stated in loud and emphatic tones.
We did not have long to wait. A tall slim elderly man appeared around the edge of the bushes, trailing behind him are doc hand. He was wearing full-length khaki clothing. His attire suited him like a second skin. Although its fabric was obviously faded and very well worn, its neat tidiness and the way it draped austerely on the long wiry frame of his body, gave him an almost regal air. His hair although not the thick crop of his youth, stilll covered his head in a mop, with longish unclipped sideburns, which had turned almost white by the time they reached half way down his ears.
But there were two things that always stood out every time I met Alan. Firstly it was how his smile made is broad mouth even wider, as it dominated the lower part of his face, between the squareness of his chin and the leanness of his cheeks. And it was only when one got closer, andn could draw ones attention away from the disarming nature of his smile, that one became aware of the twinkle in the tawny tint of his eye, which enhanced his visage even further.
The second thing, for which he was infamous, was that he was barefoot. In the bush he was always barefoot.
Alan greeted me warmly, and I turned to introduce Moses.
‘Moses is my sidekick. We go back a long time. He and I spent years on the wrong side of the’Chimurenga’ in Angola.’
I knew, given his history, that Alan would understand my reference to ‘Chimurenga’.
I have asked him to help me as I try to figure out what’s going on with all this witchcraft stuff in our area..
Alan reached out and shook hands with Moses in the traditional African way, with its European style clasping of hands on the down movement, and then as the hands lift up the fingers of each outstretched hand wrapp momentarily around the thumb before spreading back to repeat the shake two or three more times.
‘Bwerani Bwanji’, Alan addressed Moses in fluent Nyanja. And I saw how the usual deadpan expression on Moses face flickered its recognition that here was a mzungu of a different ilk. Here was a mzungu who could speak an African dialect as fluently and faultlessly as a native Nyanja.
I listened as they exchanged pleasantries in the dialect.