Obviously the originator of the spoor was making no attempt to hide his presence or passage. Quite the opposite, it was as if he was deliberately picking the most blatant, soft bare dirt places in which to leave his sign. To anyone who had spent some time tracking both animals and people, as I had, the dual meaning was written in the sand as clearly as any newspaper headline. ‘I own this place!’ they proclaimed, and almost in the same breath, ‘I do as I please.’
It was the taunting arrogance of their cheekiness which I found both vexing and exciting at the same time. The throwing down of the gauntlet triggered a long dormant stimulation of some part of my brain like that of a wild dogs, just before it joins the pack on a hunt. It almost felt as if I had to suppress the virtual yimmering of anticipation in my mental jowls.
From around my tent the tracks led back towards the camp shower block. From there they angled across the clay grassless patch behind the thatched structure towards the twin tracts of the sandy dirt road as it led to the main lodge area.
The back–tracking was easy. I noted that the individual had deviated slightly to climb and stand on the top of a bush covered ant-hill, which is close to the patch I call the Gateway. Here the big acacia trees spread their wide boughs across the road like a bower with the huge mound of the anthill as if it were an altar at its side. It seemed that the stranger stood there for a short while, possibly looking across the wide grassy field of the dambo to survey my campsite before making his approach.
The ‘spoor’ of the tracks led back to the lodge and through the opening in the grass fence which shields the logistics area from the guests. They led all the way across to the vehicle sheds. The tracks indicated someone standing and milling around for a while in the exact spot where I had first seen the old mystery man. They led also, to my surprise, down to the cutaway ramp of the boat launch, which is where Eddie had been grabbed by the crocodile. Why would anyone stand on the edge of the river in the darkness. With the moon setting after midnight, there could not have been much of a view in the pre-dawn blackness.
Looking across the channel to the little island opposite the lodge I heard a hippo snort. It seemed the local pod was going to spend the day in the water under the overhanging trees of the island.
From behind me I also heard the sound of voices and the occasional higher-pitched tumbling laugh of a woman. The staff had arrived to begin the day. I was surprised at the earliness of the activity. It being late in the season without clients in camp, and with only maintenance to be performed, it was generally at a later hour that things got under way.
Although I was eager to begin tracking the spoor, I knew that a bit of planning and preparation was in order. And of course, if the spoor did become difficult, it would be better to follow when the sun was a tad higher and its light able to reach deeper into any shady areas..
I had no idea how far the tracks would lead, thus it behooved having something to eat, and to drink as much as I could before setting off. It was going to be a hot day. I would need to take a lot of water. I could find myself away all day, so something light to eat along the way would also be wise.
Turning away from the river’s edge I slowly walked back up towards the kitchen area.
There’s a certain comfortable African untidiness about the logistic area of the lodge which I guess stems from an enhanced hoarding trait that tends to develop as a survival shield, to protect from the unknown. One never knows when one can cannibalize something, a bolt or a nut, off an old obsolete piece of equipment. As I walked back towards the kitchen I cost my eyes around for some section of metal pipe that could be cut into an appropriate length. I did not feel a sufficient sense of danger that would oblige me to ask Idaa to borrow the lodges .375 rifle. But on the other hand a long thin metal baton would certainly afford some ‘stand-off’ offensive, or defensive capability if I came upon a belligerent adversary.
Reaching the kitchen I determined to scrounge another cup of coffee. I was sure that by now one of the voices would have put the old black metal kettle on a plate of the kitchens equally old and black propane burners, which act as its stove. And, sure enough, as soon as I entered the gloom behind the entrance doorway my attention was drawn to the hiss of the kettle. The scuffed roughness of its sooty surface blended into the austere simplicity of the kitchens high ceiling with its thatch lattice underwork.
Over the years some faint traces of smoke from occasionally over cooked meals had eluded being wafted out the elongated squatness of the window behind the stove. Instead they had risen to faintly color the grassy surface and ribs of the roofs under-belly with a grey dusted rime.
The kettle and its hiss with its warmth and appropriateness at this unexpectedly early hour seemed to me to be a good omen at the start of my hunt. The kettles sides had been scuffed into dullness by the myriad of scratches gathered like battle scars from years of being rattled around in the back of vehicles as they bumped over rough bush roads. As I looked at the kettle and let my eyes adjust to the gloom, I thought it could almost be a metaphor for my life, both of us banged up and scratched, but still able to get fired up and hiss at the world.
I mused to myself that It would be better if I could take at least one of the village scouts along to track with me.
These were the scouts, hired from the local area of Chief Kasempa, who I was charged to oversee some of the finer points of their training. However, right then it was a moot point, they were all out on patrol.
Without guests and consequently no tourist activity in camp, there was no reason to have a scout on duty to escort our walking safaris in the national park.
Glancing around the kitchen another surprise was awaiting. In addition to Geverton the cook and the two serving girls, both Melody and Idaa were standing further back, close to the storage pantry in the deeper semi gloom. They already had the tea bags dropped into the big tin mugs in their hands. Like me, they were waiting for the kettle to boil.
‘Bwanji’ we all greeted each other.
‘Good morning Idaa’ I quipped as I looked at him with some surprise, ‘this is unusual to find you here in the kitchen and not in the office at this early hour.’ I smiled as I continued, ‘is it because it is Melody who is making the tea.’
I saw the slight flicker of annoyance cross his face at my comment. But then I often like to tease with a true word said in jest.
I suspected that most of the men of the lodge were secretly jealous of Eddie for being the one who was paying her father the Lobola.
I even suspected that some of them would not have minded if the crocodile had succeeded in its attempts to drag Eddie to his demise. I sensed that Idaa was not immune to the aura of indifference that Melody exhibited towards admiring men, which naturally triggered the reverse emotion in the objects of her indifference.
Idaa’s slight scowl confirmed my hunch. But it soon passed as I lifted the boiling kettle off the burner and proffered it to fill their cups.
I noted that Melody had treated my quip with the same ignoring indifference as she did others who tried to trigger a response.
Looking at me over the top of his mug as he sipped his tea, Ida explained ‘I am helping Geverton take stock. I got a text message last night of a late booking. Since we had started closing the camp for the rainy season, we are low on some of the perishable goods.’
After a pause to take a few more sips of his tea and dunk a rusk into it, he continued, ‘I may need to send a vehicle to
Mumbwa to buy fresh vegetables, or more eggs, and maybe a few other things. So that’s why I’m here.’
After stirring the milk and sugar in her tea, Melody put her mug on the cutting table and disappeared into the pantry.
She came out holding a thermos flask and two litre size Coke bottles now filled with water, and what was obviously some sandwiches wrapped in wax paper.
‘You will need this today!’
I was dumbfounded! How in the world did she know that I was about to go out tracking the mystery man.
She looked at me and made a slight roll of her eyes as she explained to me like a teacher to a young child.
Ohh Bwana, you surely heard the hyenas calling last night. If you listen carefully you would’ve noted that at least one of them had a slightly different call. It was a stranger. It was making long drawn out lonely calls, where is the others were excited. You know how the hyenas sounds as if they are laughing when they are excited. That is why I knew you would be going out today.’
I was perplexed, ‘How would you know from the call of the hyenas what I would be doing today?’
‘Bwana.’ She explains slowly, ‘the hyenas were excited because they had a visitor, and it was an important visitor. Why else would all the others be excited? It must have been because it was a strange hyena which brings the sangoma of darkness, and he would’ve been here to speak to the crocodile.’
I was silent as I stared at her.
And I knew that they would be here to check you out, and to plan. And then I came here very early and saw that you were following some spoor in the sand.
I knew that they would be here sooner or later, to poke and prod you, because they are unsure of you, and what kind of muti you have that thwarted the sacrifice of Eddie.
And I know you, especially since we have talked about this. Now, you ill no longer sit and wait for them. You will go after them.
But remember what I said to you about the Mwaabe. The sangomas say the most powerful muti comes from those with white skins.
The crocodile and the hyena may be conferring with the sangoma of darkness, and his spirits. They will be asking if your sort of white skin is as good in muti as those of the Mwaabe’s, the albinos.
And remember Bwanna, when the sangoma’s reap the parts of the Mwaabe, for the best, most powerful muti, the Mwaabe needs to still be alive. They pull first the mboro off, because the testicles have very strong muti. Then they dig out the eyes, which also have good muti. They cut off the ears, nose, lips, and fingers, and maybe even an arm or leg. Then when they feel that the sacrifice is about to die they will quickly hack open the chest to get at the heart while it is still warm, for its full potency.’
We stood and stared at each other.
‘Bwana, as I said last time, You need to get to them before they think they have muti stronger than yours!
You will find that they have a weakness, watch them and find it out.
You will be able to use this to stop them.’
Then, as on the previous occasions, before I could recover from my surprise, she picked up the mug of her tea, and walked out the doorway.
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