Zambia: 1977

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Zambia: 1977
By Geoff Wainwright

The heavy rains signaled the end of another safari season, and I looked forward to seeing my parents on the Copperbelt in Zambia. I had been employed as a PH by Zambia Safaris.
In my home town of Kitwe-Nkana I lazed about for a day or two, got bored and caught up on the maintenance of my two Toyota Land Cruisers. The task completed, I soon longed to get back into the wild. I had joined the ranks of the Honorary Wild Life Rangers, a dedicated group of volunteers much older than I, under the stewardship of the late Byron Henderson. The association worked closely with the resident police force and government Wild Life Department based outside capital city Lusaka.
Henderson had received word from a village informant – the bridge I had constructed in the North Western province had been destroyed by poachers. . . Please could I go and rebuild it? Yes!
I recruited my anti-poaching unit. In our ranks was hunter and good friend, Honorary Ranger, Gordon O’Brian. His servant, and jack-of-all-trades, affectionately nick-named Skelm, had a penchant for booze and loose women. There were two uniformed policemen – I’ll just call them Sargent and Constable. We left Kitwe in the dead of night. I took the lead. The policemen were crammed next to me, their AK 47s tucked behind the seat. My precious Holland & Holland .375 was cradled on the dashboard. Long-time safari cook, McCloud was on the back, and truck was loaded down with camp equipment. We drove southwest on good, paved roads, then later through the mining town of Chingola, our headlights cutting into the night. Suddenly, with an almighty bump, our vehicle was airborne then hit dirt! My wheels bounced over and through countless potholes.
In the early light of dawn we had just crossed the bridge over the Lufwanyama River when a bushbuck sprang in front of us. I swerved violently to avoid it, lost control, and the vehicle slid sideways. Luck being my companion, it righted itself. Much relieved, I carried on driving. Gordon’s visibility through my dust was limited to about thirty yards. He knocked down and killed the little antelope, and skidded to a halt. Helped by Skelm, it was loaded onto his Land Rover.
From there on, being a wiser man, he followed me at a greater distance. We passed odd thatched huts where roosters crowed to announce the dawn, the town lights of Solwezie aglow on the horizon. I pulled to one side and stopped at a miserable collection of native huts guarded by spindly pawpaw trees and clusters of banana plants. Gordon pulled up behind us.
“We were almost killed by a bushbuck!” I yelled.
“I hit it,” said Gordon. “It’s lying in the back of my truck.”
Hollow-bellied dogs barked and chickens scratched, and a village headman arrived, elderly, silvered-haired, wearing a suit jacket and shorts. He was followed by a rabble of bare-footed men. He lectured them in Bemba (local language) to work hard. The majority of them were young with a few, grizzled, old-timers. They tossed their kit over the side of Gordon’s Land Rover and clambered eagerly into the back.
We drove on, and finally turned off the main road and parked under an ancient fig tree. Gordon and I searched in foot-high grass for tire ruts, found some, and followed them into the miombo forest where we found my old blaze marks on the trees.
My mind went back two years. My Toyota Land Cruiser had been loaded with a mobile camp, with McCloud seated next to me, a compass and map on his lap. We drove at a snail’s pace, following a group of men as they cleared the track and marked the trees. We had navigated raw country, visited remote villages and established our anti-poaching presence. Somebody yelled and woke me from my day-dreaming!
I focused on the job in hand. We clambered on board, eyes on the blaze marks, as we wove our way between the trees till we arrived on the edge of a vlei. There the tsetse flies welcomed us with their blood-sucking bites. Buffalo, elephant, lion, leopard, roan and lesser species roamed the country. From the top of a hill, we had a commanding view over a sea of greenery. I scanned to the horizon, where there was smudge of dust made by heavy earth-moving equipment at the open pit copper mine of Kalengwa, named after a legendary chief. Carried by the wind, one could hear the dull thud of dynamite exploding. The mine, surrounded by countless thatched huts, resembled a small town. It marked the beginning of the end of one of Zambia’s prime hunting and conservation areas. Resident villagers had created a high demand for bushmeat, and the poaching was rampant.
Our old tracks sloped gently downhill. Finally we arrived on the banks of the Musondwedsi River. Gordon walked behind me, with Sargent and Constable, carrying AK 47s. The fire-blackened remains of my bridge came into view. It had been deliberately burnt by poachers to stop us patrolling the opposite bank with our vehicles!
There was much work to do! Our ragtag men cleared the ground. Some helped erect a huge a tarpaulin strung high below two trees. The corners were tied to stakes hammered in the ground. Mac-loud skinned the bushbuck while others collected firewood. Dusk set in and bedding was laid out on a ground sheet. A breeze blew, the mosquito nets swayed like ghosts. The camp was filled with the aroma of meat roasted on coals. The night wore on and the murmur of voices died, the silence was broken only by the occasional cough.
Mac-loud woke me early the next morning with a cup of steaming coffee. Then, suddenly, two shots rang out downstream! Gordon and Skelm appeared out of the mist, shot guns over their shoulders and a brace of guineas between them.
“Damn it! You have announced our presence to all the bloody poachers!” I said.
With a wave of his hand towards all the workers, he replied, “Don’t worry! We have employed them all!” We smiled. Later, the forest rang to sound of axes and the shouts of men hard at work. By nightfall, the heavy work was complete. Skelm unbolted the driver’s seats from our vehicles and took them out, and Gordon and I sat in comfort round the camp fire, dined on tough guinea fowl, and then retired.
The next morning, after a sentinel baboon had barked, we went off with backpacks, leaving Mac-Loud in charge to complete the bridge. Skelm appointed himself as Gordon’s gun bearer, proudly carrying his new .375 Cogswell & Harrison, Constable and Sargent armed with their AKs.
We balanced precariously on a log bridging the chasm, crossing to the opposite bank. Wits about us and cautious of being ambushed by poachers, we kept to the high ground. There, we had a view over the river and the tree-lined banks on both sides. The miombo was silent, with only the occasional chirp of a bird. There was little sign of game. Much rain had fallen and there were puddles of water everywhere. We walked on a game trail and long grass brushed our faces. Sargent was suddenly stopped in mid-stride, a poachers’ wire snare pulled tight around his chest! He cursed loudly! We helped free him and dismantled it in disgust.
A short distance away, the grass was flattened. The earth had been mashed by the hooves of a snared buffalo – a lone marauder – a Dagga Boy. The terrified beast had dragged a heavy log for a long distance. Finally the log had become snagged between two tree stumps, the cable broke and the buffalo freed itself. The ground was spattered with fresh blood and tufts of coarse hair. We had a wounded buffalo on our hands! I was determined to shoot it and put it out of its misery – the Hunters’ Code.
His tracks led us down the steep bank to the water’s edge. There he must have slaked his thirst, and then sought sanctuary in a patch of dense reeds. They arched overhead and formed a maze of gloomy tunnels. Visibility was now down to six yards at best, and the breeze was not in our favor. Thoughts of being gored to death, or seriously injured did not bode well – and the odds were against us!
Sargent, Constable and I returned to the top of the bank. From this high vantage point we watched, my rifle ready for a long shot below. I covered Gordon and Skelm below us as they searched for evidence that the buffalo might have moved to higher ground, but the old warrior had remained hidden in the reeds.
Skelm shimmied up a tree overlooking the reeds to glass, but saw nothing, only the tassels-tops swaying in the breeze. We hurled pieces of termite mound into the patch of green. Sargent’s clod resulted in loud, gut-wrenching snort, and the buffalo crashed noisily away. Eerie silence followed, then the patter of rain on leaves.
We slipped our rifles into their bags, our raincoats buttoned up just in time. The heavens opened and the rain sheeted down. Between two trees in record time we erected a tarpaulin and took cover. The clouds darkened and lightning lit up the sky. It bucketed down all afternoon and well into the night. Needless to say, we were miserable. While we sat on our soggy backpacks, Gordon, with a twinkle in his eye, produced a flask of hot coffee. He filled the only mug and it did the rounds. The heavy rain continued to drum down on our tarp and we caught only snatches of sleep.
Thankfully, it ceased just before dawn. The eastern sky changed color. Constable made a fire, and we warmed ourselves, and ate bananas and bread as I formed a plan.
Sargent and Constable climbed a tree to recce. The steep bank was slippery as we made our way down to the reeds. The Musondwedsi had burst its banks, and the river was a raging torrent. The flood water reached over our boots. Gordon lit a cigarette and blew the smoke up. We watched attentively as it hung, then drifted back into his face – the breeze was in our favor. Rifles were loaded with soft and solid rounds. Skelm took the lead and we waded behind him. Our heavy boots made too much noise, so we took them off and slung them round our necks, and our feet sank into the mud.
Visibility in the narrow alleys was down to a few yards. We stopped every so often to listen, then quietly waded on. We cast nervous glances, heads turning from side to side, carefully searching in cavern-like hollows and seemingly endless, shadowed tunnels. We made slow but steady progress.
A while later, at a blind corner, Skelm held up his hand, his head was cocked to listen. We came to a standstill. Then, Gordon and I heard it too! It was the sound of powerful wading made by a heavy animal. We listened. As it got closer, the noise got louder. The buffalo was heading towards us!
Skelm moved out of our line of fire. We raised our rifles, ready to shoot. In my mind’s eye, I could see the bull as he waded slowly, body tormented by pain. The snare embedded deep into his neck, head down and horns spread wide…
Suddenly – two huge bush pigs, covered in muck, filled my real sight! They stopped as if they had walked into an invisible wall. Tense seconds passed in a battle of wills. We stood like statues. A loud snort penetrated the silence. They surrendered, wheeled about, and in a roar of water, vanished. The tension broken, we grinned, relieved.
Later, as the sun rose we came to the river, where the reeds rattled in the swift current’s flow. The bullrushes overhead thinned as we emerged into an opening over a pool of water. Out of sight, and behind a mound of creepers, we heard the distinctive, “zhhhhhhh” of red-billed ox-peckers. Their alarm call betrayed the buffalo’s presence. Typically, they flew into the air, then dived straight back.
Our hearts were in our mouths. Gordon checked the wind with a cigarette. It had remained true to us. The Dagga Boy was on the move, wading through the floodwaters. All of a sudden, he appeared on spit of high ground. Gordon fixed him in his sights.
“Don’t shoot! It might be a different bull!” I said.
I raised my glasses, full of pity as I watched shake his head repeatedly in irritation. The ox-peckers flew off, only to return and feed off his open wounds. Some scurried over his body. Others hung under his neck, upside-down. Powerful little beaks tore off bits of raw flesh.
We took no chances, aimed for the tormented buffalo’s shoulder, and fired together.
The ox-peckers took flight, and the buffalo, with a heart shot, ran a few paces, slowed, and folded out of our sight. Sargent and Constable still high in their tree also heard the mournful death bellow, and shouted with excitement.
We sat in the water and put our boots on. Rifles over our shoulders, we waded waist-deep – our buffalo was lying on a small island. Like mini vultures the ox-peckers had continued to feed. As we approached, they buzzed once more and took flight.
The wire snare had done its cruel work, looped over and under one side of the jaw and horns. It had cut deeply into his throat and pulled tight between the bosses. We covered him with reeds. After a long footslog we finally reached our vehicles now parked on our side of the river – the completed bridge was in the background. Mac-cloud and his smiling men welcomed us back…
The clouds rumbled and rain sheeted down.
The Musondwedsi River rose and the buffalo disappeared…
Geoff started his professional career at
Zambia Safaris in 1971 and also became
a Honorary Wildlife Ranger in 1977, in
Zambia. He hunted in Tanzania from 1990
up to 2006