Leave this area.
Even the scouts know not to be here.
Learn from them.
The note in my pocket preoccupied my mind.
However, I let my thoughts drift back to the more immediate task at hand, namely driving, and how each time I travel the road between Kasempa and Mumbwa, I am reminded of an aged alcoholic. This is because the road slowly wends its barely satisfactory way across the landscape.
I guess, like a few of my old alcoholic friends, it is still a functioning one. It gets from here to there, but not much else. It does so not so much because it follows the most direct, or efficient path, but rather it survives, like my friends, due to decades of experience gained from the dictates of a hard and unsteady life, as is commonplace in this remote part of the world.
The road, like those old alcoholics, now with its blemishes, and no longer having the nimbleness of youth, has learned that it is more expedient to give a wide berth to as many obstacles as possible along the way. As such, at times its dusty surface leans and teaters to the left, or the right, as it sways its way around a low hill, or behind a marshy dambo, on its winding progress through the aged timelessness of the bush.
Scruffy, dirty, and pock marked with the ruts and pot-holes like the wrinkles of neglect and the scars of aged acne, it also sometimes staggers sharply to avoid a freshly fallen tree, or a recently formed rut, pressed into its mud during the wet season, by the wheels of the overloaded ‘malasha’ trucks. These trucks, are not only an anathema to the ribbon of this road, but also to the bush fabric through which it weaves its way. Piled high with their sootiness, they bear the black bags of their burden back along these arteries to bleed into the slums of the far away towns and cities.. The charcoal malasha which is the heating of choice in the shanties, provides the fuel, to smolder like a cancer.
It is a cancer now feeding, inexorably, upon the sprawling tree lined fringes of the deceptively endless, timeless and fragile beauty of the bush.
‘Fucking malasha trucks’ I cursed, as the Land-cruiser jolted through an especially deep rut in the road…
I am always filled with wonder at how mostly, except for this recent lurching failure, my muscle memory can act almost like an automatic cruise controller. Usually I don’t have to think at all to guide the Land Cruiser gingerly between the ruts and daunting potholes which, unlike some of the roads I remembered in far off Angola, where they were scarred and scuffed by the exploding ‘ripples’ of our Valkiri rockets, or dimpled by the hastily filled-in craters of their landmines.
Instead here the damage is from poor construction and misuse.
I do not have to think about coordinating my actions on the brake pedal, accelerator, and the gear shift, as they blend with the emphatic, and sometimes urgent twists on the steering. But however it happens, all this wonder of my being unthinkingly enabled the vehicle to progress sloly along this section of the ‘route’, as it ran through the thick bush tucking below, and hugging the lea side of a low ridge. It heralds the beginning of the almost imperceptible climb up out of the broad flat basin of the Kafue valley.
This left my mind free to think about what I was going to say at the meeting scheduled at the park HQ at Chunga.
My plan was to return by nightfall, before the river pontoon crew left at sunset. With this in mind, I had deliberately left from the lodge early. But this being Africa there was no guaranteeing any meeting would be convened at all, let alone it being on time and on schedule. Hence I had my sleeping bag and a mosquito net, as well as some bread and biltong jerky to slice onto it for a sandwich.
As usual, earlier, much earlier, I had been stirred from sleep by the splash of the hippos as they returned from their nocturnal grazing. A few of the pod had taken to nibbling the stubble of the lodge lawns like a scattering of sheep, before heading deeper along their ‘hippo highways’, towards their principal grazing areas further from the river.
Hippos are always a concern Idaa, the camp manager, held for guests who had imbibed a tad too much, and wanted to walk, alone, the short distance from the lodges lounge ‘chitenge ‘to their chalets. Especially in the early evenings when the hippos leave the waters of the river. Would a hippo feel cut off if a guest passed too close between a seemingly slow and lumbering giant and the river. The speed that a hippo can run is astonishing and its bite often fatal.
I had roused before dawn. I knew that as these massive creatures passed bck between the chalets and the camp area where I resided, they would be fed, and not tarrying to nibble. Once there, they would spend the rest of the day in the river.
Thus it was quite unconcernedly, in the pre-dawn darkness, that I stood and sipped my cup of sweet, strong coffee under the eves of the thatched cooking chitenge. It was across the bare, swept ground from the big, airy canvas tent which had served as my home for the last few months. Looking up to the apex of the thatched roof, which spread like a giant dark umbrella high above me, I could just see, under its eves, the outlines of the leafy Acacia and Leadwood trees that make up the riverine riperia outside.
I listened as the first cries of a pair of Hadeda Ibis added a noisy backdrop to each returning hippo’s splash, which in turn, was heralded by a chorus of communal hrumph’ing grunts as the other members of the pod, already in the river, greeted each returnee.
Once at the pontoon, I had to wait for the operating crew to arrive from their huts, to where the raft was beached on the opposite bank. They seldom get going before 7am, and if an earlier crossing is needed, it takes a lot of shouting and banging on the steel pillar which holds the anchor cable across the river, to rouse a response from the far bank.
Luckily, I was not the first. There was already a small vehicle waiting, doing the rousing. Like the Land-cruiser I was driving it was also a Toyota, but it was a Corolla sedan. A dull, scuffed grey in color, it had seen better days, with smooth tires and a crack running from side to side the whole length of the windshield.
Its occupants stood down at the water’s edge, or sat on the bank formed by the cut of the road as it dropped down to the pontoon load point. A vague uneasiness crept into my consciousness as I watched the kids skipping stones across the river from its sluggish margins. They had obviously never seen how shockingly quickly, and how far, a crocodile can reach when it erupts from the water. This section of the river holds some of the biggest crocs I have ever seen.
I spoke to the driver. He and his cousin were heading from Chifumpa to Lusaka. With them were three wives and five children.
I mentally grimaced when I noted to myself that it was going to be a long journey for that number of occupants in that size car. But this is Africa. Few people in the West can fully understand how things can be coaxed to such stunning limits of performance. This is because the expectations of comfort and redundancy have different metrics out here. If you have slept on no more than a woven straw mat laid down on the hard dirt of a hut all your life, why would you be bothered when crammed into a small car, for hours, in a way that only college students do for a few minutes as a stunt in the West.
I was facing down river toward the confluence of the Kafue and the Lunga while leaning against the side of the ‘Cruiser, watching those kids.
Upstream from the confluence along the west bank of the Lunga, sprawling north and west all the way across the bush and wide-open dambos to the edge of the Busandga plains, is the unknown. It is a huge area, ignored for decades by the authorities, leaving a vacuum of civil law and order. Even Geverton, the oldest of the ZAWA scouts based at the lodge, said that he last patrolled there over two decades ago.
It was to this unknown land that Idaa had sent Morse and Kings. They were tasked to continue the casting of the concrete cinder blocks which would be used in the construction of our future Chukudzi Island fly camp: our camp on the edge of the unknown Lunga land.
Morse and Kings had found the bags of cement, transported there a week before, slashed, and on top of them a piece of paper with a scribbled message.
I was headed to Chunga to negotiate training a few more village scouts to help me in my job. This was supposed to attempt to restore some semblance of law and order, at least to where we had reached out in our tenuous attempt to protect and preserve one of the last unspoiled areas of Africa.
When the pontoon finally approached across the river, I glanced down once more at the spidery, erratic handwriting on the paper.
I wondered at its threatening and slightly mocking message.:
Leave this area.
Even the scouts know not to be here.
Learn from them.
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