Big Game

‘I want a 3000-word piece. Light, fun, informative,’ said the voice in my cellphone.

‘Sure, Mandla. What’s the angle?’ I asked.

‘Simple lodge story. A wish-you-were-here piece. No politics please,’ said Mandla.

‘No mention of Bob?’ I asked.

‘Look Jeremy,’ there was an edge to the editor’s voice. ‘We’ve heard enough about the perceived horrors of the great dictator. Give it a break. It’s not our job to chase visitors away. Besides, Vic Falls is a lucrative route and Southern Air wants to see tourists going there. So does the economy. And that’s good for all Zimbabweans. Mugabe is not my enemy, nor is he yours. Got it?’

‘Got it.’ I said.

‘The story is about a new lodge called Chief’s Camp in Matusarira National Park. Maybe do a box on conservation efforts while you’re at it. The usual fact file with contact and booking details and a nice plug for Southern Air. Get some pics with that new F100 of yours, but not to worry if it doesn’t work out. We’ve got lots of generic Zimbabwe in the photo library.’

‘Will do,’ I said.

‘The flights are our indaba, but keep slips for everything else and we’ll reimburse you. Okay.’

‘No Bob it is then,’ I said, trying to make a joke. Mandla had already hung up.

I’m a freelance journalist for a bunch of South African newspapers and mags. Cushy travel pieces, like this one for Southern Air in-flight magazine, don’t come up that often. And they’re a breeze. Travel is the easiest thing to write. Lounge around the pool with cocktail in hand and craft some fluff about tasteful ethnic interiors, sumptuous cuisine, awe-inspiring African sunsets and thrilling game drives. One-two-three, in the bag. After 20 years in the business I do it in my sleep. It’s just a matter of following the editor’s brief. What Mandla really wanted was a bit of feel-good advertorial. He simply needed me to massage the client with pretty words and pictures. Hell, who’s complaining?

But things were bad in Zimbabwe just then. In the week leading up to my departure the papers ran a series of stories about poaching and how safari operators were taking advantage of the country’s mess to conduct illegal trophy hunts. Some said more than 50 per cent of game had been wiped out in the national parks. War vets had taken over game ranches and internet images showed animals that had been hacked with pangas and left to die.

But I’m not a news hound and politics isn’t my thing. The odd chatty column, lifestyle stuff, profiles on celebs … and travel of course, whenever I can get it. Luxury lodges are a particular favourite. A little prostitution here and there never harmed anyone. I mean, which travel journalist or tour agent doesn’t play the game? Zimbabwe wasn’t my fight.

The road led east from Victoria’s noisy falls. Petrol shortages meant we were just about the only car on the road. After turning onto gravel near Wange, we didn’t see another vehicle the entire drive to Chief’s Camp. Craig, the lodge owner, was at the wheel – coming along to show me a good time and make sure I wrote ‘nice things’. I knew the drill. He knew the drill. It was the old PR dance.

It was October and dry-nostril heat gripped the land. The vegetation looked brittle, cowed. Goats and donkeys stood by the side of the road, heads drooping. Villagers sat in the shadow of their huts, skin-and-bone dogs at their feet. Naked children with distended stomachs and snotty noses waved. It was kusi piya – the suicide time.

‘What with Aids, drought and the politics and all, things are helluva grim for these people right now,’ said Craig. ‘But Chief’s Camp is an island of hope. We’re employing locals, preventing poaching … making a difference, you know. It’s a symbol of what’s still good about this place. You’ll see.’

Craig: big man, late 40s. Khaki shorts, bush shirt, strops, stained leather hat, tufts of grey hair. Standard-issue bush jock. His wild brows seemed to cast a shadow over his eyes. A rifle rested on the dashboard of the Land Cruiser and provisions for camp were piled up behind his seat.

Further east there were fewer villages and eventually we were into pristine bush. We drove in silence, windows wide, sweating into our seats. The heat pressed every living thing into attitudes of submission. White butterflies filled the air like confetti.

‘Us Zimbos are a resilient lot. I mean wars, famine, corruption, we’ve had it all. Inflation is I don’t know how many percent and a day’s wage buys two loaves of bread. But everyone puts on a brave face. We’re a fucking remarkable nation.’

We arrived at Matusarira under a brewing sky. The approach to camp was along a winding road that led onto a koppie studded with mountain acacia. We were met by a group of singing staff (not much to sing about – just me, the freeloading journalist). I dug out my notebook.

  • Five safari-style tents (nicely appointed, mention the soapstone carvings)
  • Honeymoon suite (shag heaven)
  • Spill pool, deck, chaises longues (sundowner paragraph)
  • Friendly staff (something about gracious locals)

‘You’re the first guest in quite a while. Tourists are staying away ’cause of the politics,’ said Craig. ‘If they only knew…. It’s completely safe to travel here and prices have dropped through the floor. Besides, they’re hurting the tourist operators, not Mugabe.’ This was a hint: ostentatiously I jotted down his words.

Later we sat with Zambezi lagers on a veranda beside the pool and watched an electrical storm stride towards us across the plains. Two rainbows ploughed ahead: locomotives dragging a dark load. The thunder was so loud we flinched. ‘The big boys are moving lots of furniture around up there,’ said Craig. Drops began to fall. Then the air turned to water.

‘This is our first decent rain!’ shouted Craig above the roar as we took cover. ‘Great for the farmers – what’s left of ’em.’

The afternoon’s rain rinsed the air, releasing a heady infusion of soil and vegetation. European bee-eaters enjoyed in-flight snacks of termite alates emerging from their mounds like dandelions. Distant lightning purpled the sunset gloom in scribbled sheets. The earth seemed to quiver, tortured by electric prods. The land and the moment were achingly beautiful, all the more so because of a brooding unease I couldn’t quite place. Was it the sky, the light or the proximity of wild animals?

An evening drive brought us to a natural spring where the sandstone had been worn into a trunk-shaped keyhole by generations of elephants using their proboscises to Hoover out the water. Later the Land Cruiser rounded a bend and we came upon a surprise bush dinner, laid on especially for ‘the journalist’. The trees were festooned with paraffin lamps which lined our path (nice touch). Staff in starched white uniforms with zebra-print cummerbunds and pith helmets (brilliant!) waited in the tree line, beaming. It was old Africa, the safari dream straight out the bloody brochure.

A carpet of giraffe skins decked the ground and a single table for two stood in the middle of a leadwood clearing. A hand basin with lemon water was brought for us to wash. Craig made the call of a pearl-spotted owl and got a response from a nearby tree. Red wine was poured and red meat served from the fire. Stars filled the gaps in our ceiling of branches. Candles became magnets for every Zimbabwean insect inclined to suicide. Incinerated beetles crackled, then ponged. Fireflies wove threads of light around us and moths flew through the flames, igniting their wings. Bigger creatures droned overhead like helicopters, making up their minds on the merits of kamikaze. A praying mantis climbed one of the candles, singeing its antennae and getting its legs stuck in the molten wax, where it waited to die.

Craig talked about conservation and the need to resurrect ‘Campfire’ – the Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources. ‘The project has fallen on bloody hard times, but its aims are worthy: the sustainable use of our natural resources and poverty relief. Money from ecotourism needs to be seen to be working to uplift these communities. It lowers dependency on poaching, land invasion in the park, that sort of stuff. At Chief’s I think we’re making a difference and poaching is right down in our sector.’

Back in camp, I said goodnight to a regiment of staff and made my way to the honeymoon suite, a leopards’ eyrie set on a boulder outcrop with its own Jacuzzi and treetop deck. It was well away from the other tents and my torchlight walk to bed was a little nerve-wracking. Three sides of the suite had no walls and it was exposed to the elements. There wasn’t much to prevent a determined animal scaling the rock and joining me in bed. My four-poster offered views of a waterhole and a sweep of wilderness beyond. It was enchanting in that safari chic, I had a farm in Aaafrica, colonial fantasy sort of way. I could feel the adjectives poised on my tongue. As I thought, an easy write.

I crawled under the mosquito net and listened to the urgent conversation of a million insects. Perhaps I slept for a while because the night’s darkness had a deeper hue when I opened my eyes again, and the insect sounds were at a different pitch. There was also something wrong. A presence. I was afraid. Was it a breaking twig that had woken me? Close by.

I slipped from under my net – feet keyed to the squish of frog or centipede – scrabbled in the dark for a torch and stepped onto the deck. My eyes could make out nothing. Matusarira’s blue-black night stretched forever. The stars seemed insignificant, the sky wide and imposing, more alive even than the bush.

Then I spotted it. An elephant bull drinking in the moonlight just below me. How could I have missed him? A branch snapped like a rifle crack, then he stuffed it in his mouth. I watched for a while, then crept back to bed, feeling a strong sense of relief. Big brother – a ghostly presence – was watching. I listened for the occasional sound of foliage as I slid back into sleep.

Next morning we were up at sunrise for a walk. ‘Just a cupl’a hours to acclimatise and get a feel for the area,’ said Craig, leading the way with his .404, followed by Innocent Simunchembu, our tracker. Craig, it became quickly apparent, was particularly knowledgeable about minnows such as lizards, bugs and beetles. He’d obviously spent an inordinate amount of time in the bush. There were fascinating cameos on velvet mites, ant lions and the medicinal uses of the more unusual plants. It was an outdoor lecture of the highest calibre. (Make him a quintessential ranger-type – readers will love him. Get a pic.)

Scrambling down the side of a cliff, we entered a small cave which Craig said was probably a thief’s lair. There were the remains of a drum, assegai, knobkerrie, a few pieces of broken pottery and a tin chest. Innocent suggested the drum might have been used to summon more thieves to trap returning migrants in the valley and rob or murder them. I thought it might be a poachers’ hideout. (Nice cultural add on.)

Later we came across the spoor of a buffalo herd. Innocent squeezed ash from a leather pouch to check the drift of our scent, then set off after the quarry. We’d been tracking for some time when we began to see vultures. Assuming a kill, Innocent led us up a valley whose trees were decorated with the ugly birds. Then we saw smoke.

‘Oh no!’ said Craig through his teeth.

The plume curled skyward from a narrow gorge 50 metres to our right. A fire this far inside the park, Craig whispered, could mean little other than poachers curing meat, particularly after the night’s rain.

‘Find some cover,’ said Craig. ‘Innocent and I will go take a look.’

The two men moved on their hands and knees into the gorge’s thick vegetation. I hid in a bush, waiting for the sound of shouting or shots. How could this be worked into the story, I wondered? A poaching angle? Maybe an intro describing exactly these moments of excitement, present tense, short sentences, terse dialogue, lots of drama.

Suddenly Craig and Innocent emerged from the bush at a crouching run, motioning me firmly to fall back. I grabbed my camera bag and followed them. Further down the valley we stopped in the cover of trees. ‘Must be seven or eight of them,’ said Craig, breathing hard, his face animated with anger. ‘The fuckers are curing racks of meat. Got hunting dogs too – it’s a wonder they didn’t hear us.’

‘They might have guns,’ said Innocent.

‘We’d better get the police,’ said Craig. ‘Innocent, you run back to camp, take the Land Cruiser and go to Madisulu police post. Bring as many cops as you can.’

Our Tonga guide set off at a run. It was better to bring in the law and not try anything on our own, explained Craig. Besides there was the ‘tourist’ issue: me.

Craig figured it would take Innocent about two hours to round up a posse, so we made ourselves comfortable under a jackalberry tree. ‘In these fucked-up times, the one thing we’ve got, you know, as a bankable resource for the future is our parks,’ said Craig, trying to disguise his anger. ‘Poachers are destroying our last hope.’

I too felt anger welling up. I’d seen photos of the way these bastards killed animals – the inhumane traps, barbed wire, the excruciatingly slow deaths. If there was to be a fire fight, let the pigs have some of their own medicine. Suddenly my lodge story seemed ridiculous.

For Craig this ‘contact’ was triggering all sorts of memories and talk turned to the ‘old days’. He told me he’d been a recce in the 70s. ‘My .404’s a nice rifle – good action, relatively light – but I’d prefer something else at this point. Great for taking down charging buff, but not for a contact. And I’ve only got five rounds.’

‘How d’you feel about the war now?’ I asked. ‘It’s been, what, 25 years?’

‘The hondo?’ There was a long silence. ‘I’ve got nothing personal against the gondies. I mean look at Innocent – fucking decent bloke, like family. But what could we do back then? We would’ve lost everything if we didn’t fight. There weren’t any options after UDI. Any case, how do you think I’d have felt if some troopie took a bullet for me? We just had to….’

‘Did you do patrols or how did it work?’

‘Ja, three weeks at a time in the shlateen. Back to camp for a bit of R and R, get pie-eyed drunk for a few days, stock up with food and ammo, then off again. Cat and mouse. Sometimes, when we knew where the gooks were, we’d be dropped by chopper. But mostly it was footslog. Sometimes we had two or three contacts a day. That was heavy, really heavy….

‘All we had was each other. You go into the shlateen with three other ous and live off the bush, eat, shit, sleep together; always crapping yourself. You become brothers. You kill together. There’s no other bond like it. Buggers you up for later life though. I mean, how d’you ever really come off that? Couldn’t hold down my marriage, two businesses went belly up, the farm was nabbed by war vets…. But I’ve still got the Chief’s Camp concession, and this piece of Zim is still heaven on bloody earth.’

‘What sort of action did you see?’

‘Ah, all sorts. All sorts. The first few times you’re so scared you can’t see straight. You just lie there with your buddies shitting in your pants. Every little sound is like an explosion. Your movements go into slow mo. Like you’re treading water. Then the shooting starts and adrenalin kicks in. Head rush! You start shooting, running, shouting. Ape shit. Instinct takes over…. One time our stick attacked 50 terrs.’

‘Jesus! Weren’t you scared taking on so many?’ I asked.

‘You know Jeremy, munts can’t shoot straight. They slap their AKs on automatic and spray the bush. It’s what saved us, time and again. We were well trained. We picked our targets and we killed. No mucking about.’

‘So what happened?’

‘We came across fresh tracks, lots of them, and realised it was a well used terr route. So we prepared an ambush. I set a claymore mine on the path – the kind you detonate with wires – and the four of us lay there all day, waiting. Eventually we heard the feet, the whole fucking bunch marching in a line, straight towards us. A gook shongololo. I signalled to my boys to hold fire till we could see the whites of their eyes. Closer and closer. They were singing a marching song. Bloody haunting shit.

‘When they got to the claymore I put the wires together … and nothing happened! It was a dud. The most terrifying moment of my life. But then my guys opened up and the terrs scattered. Fortunately for us. We got about 10 of them. Well, eight dead, the other two.…We left the bodies out there in the sun and cleared out quicksticks. Flies, heat … man.

‘I still get nightmares about that claymore: putting the wires together and then nothing.’

Two hours had passed and we were now listening for the vehicle. Not having much faith in Zimbabwe’s police force we feared they might be apathetic; maybe send one man with a rusty revolver. But to our surprise the Land Cruiser appeared through the bush bearing a posse of eight policemen carrying FN rifles.

Craig greeted the sergeant and immediately took command. He switched into bush-war speak and drew a map of the valley on the ground with a twig. The plan was to split into two groups, Craig leading one onto the ridge above the gorge, from where they’d initiate the arrest; the rest, led by the sergeant, would fan out at the mouth of the gorge to intercept anyone who tried to flee.

‘Hey Jeremy, you’d better go back to camp and have a cocktail by the pool,’ suggested Craig. ‘I can’t vouch for your safety.’

‘Not a chance,’ I said. ‘If there’s a fire fight I’ll stay right at the back out of harm’s way.’

Rifles were cocked, rasping in the still air, and our party marched out in single file. As we entered the valley, watches were synchronised for an arrest in 15 minutes. Then we split into our two sticks. I tailed at the back of the valley detail behind a clumsy young cop who kept tripping over stones, sending them bouncing over the rocks, clink-clink-clink. Brittle leaves made crunching sounds under our feet. Stern looks from the sergeant. When we were 100 metres from the gorge, the sergeant signalled that we should close up and move into ambush positions. I set the Nikon’s focus to manual: infinity. Speed 250. My hands were trembling. Make that 500.

Next thing a line of seven poachers stepped from the foliage directly in front of us, and everyone froze. For a moment nothing happened. The cicadas screamed at the midday heat. Then all hell broke loose.

‘Stop! You’re all under arrest!” shouted the sergeant.

But the poachers had already ditched their bags of meat and were sprinting up the valley. I found myself running in pursuit with a policeman on either side firing from the hip at fleeing figures. Rifle cracks punctured the air. The cop behind us began shooting over our heads at a poacher scaling the ridge.

Then a .303 opened up on us and we ducked. Taking incoming fire, I suddenly felt brutally vulnerable. I guessed none of these young cops had ever been shot at either. How easily metal penetrates flesh, how little protection our sheet of skin offers.

‘Go back, mister!’ called the sergeant. ‘Everyone is shooting crazy.’

I needed no encouraging, turned and ran into the gorge. There I came upon the remains of the butchered buffalo, its severed head and a bloody axe. I stood among entrails buzzing with green flies, the air thick with the stench of death. Curing fires still smouldered and hunting dogs circled me, barking. The sergeant arrived and dispatched one of them. The rest took off, yelping as they ran.

Next thing the bushes on the ridge erupted with more rifle fire. We ducked and the sergeant shouted, ‘Cease firing, we are down here!’

Then Craig appeared leading a man whose left arm was covered in blood. ‘Thank God I got one,’ said Craig, sounding shaken.

The poacher was just a teenager and explained to the sergeant in halting Ndebele that this was his first raid, that he’d been brought along to help carry the meat. When pressed, he named all his co-conspirators and their villages. The lad said he lived with his grandfather, was hungry, unemployed … just trying to make a few bucks to feed the family. His shorts were torn and his sandals held together with string. He had high cheekbones and a face somehow ennobled by the look of despair. He swayed on his feet, close to fainting.

My adrenalin was draining and the heroic anti-poaching sting now had a different complexion. I, too, felt light on my feet and didn’t know if I shouldn’t sit down. So much for the faceless, heavily armed poachers we’d hunted in our heads. And yet. And yet, politics or no politics, he was a criminal.

There was still an occasional rifle shot in the distance, but it seemed the rest of the poachers had got away, for now. Craig removed the boy’s shirt and found the perfect hole made by his bullet, which had shattered the humerus. The police showed no interest, so Craig applied a tourniquet with strips of torn shirt. ‘We’d better get him to hospital soon,’ said Craig. ‘He’ll have to lose that arm, I think.’

I wanted out too. It felt like the scene of a crime where everyone was complicit. The police insisted on collecting all the nyama (meat) and taking it back to the station. ‘Evidence,’ they said. My arse. Two of them carried the buffalo head between them, each holding a horn. It’s nose and upper lip had been hacked off giving it a despotic grin. Seeing as I, the tourist, couldn’t be expected to carry a 30-kilogram pack of meat, I was handcuffed to the boy.

We set off, a parody of the walking safari suggested in the brochure. Brushing through the long grass I glanced down and noticed my boots and legs were streaked with blood. I looked for a wound, then realised it came from the boy. He smelt of wood smoke, sweat and dried fear. His body shook uncontrollably and his eyes now had a dull, resigned look. Every time we stopped, he rocked on his feet, but I couldn’t steady him with my arm because of the handcuffs. So I let him lean against me: far too intimate, but he’d keel over otherwise.

Craig, trying to salvage something of the game walk, pointed out an edible caterpillar and each unusual bird we passed. How on earth could he still register the miracles of the bush? ‘You know, we’ve got some lifers in the park: emerald cuckoo, Angola pitta, Livingstone’s flycatcher … shit, did you see that purple-crested touraco!?’ he exclaimed. But the flash of its scarlet wings reminded me only of blood and I didn’t stop to look.

Back at the lodge the policemen wanted me to take their picture, for which they struck team poses. The poacher was propped up on the ground in front, his blood staining the sand. The trophy. Taking the picture, an image sprang to mind of a 19th-century photograph I’d seen in Olive Schreiner’s Trooper Peter Halket. In it a group of Rhodesian pioneers pose beside a tree in which three Matebele ‘rebels’ are hanging. The dead men are dressed only in skins, arms reaching up in a futile attempt to release themselves, necks elongated by the rope. The pioneers strike unconcerned poses. Hands on hips. Arms folded. A job well done. The cicadas are shrill, insistent.

I felt more embedded than I wanted to be, and urged the police to get the boy to a clinic as soon as possible. They seemed mildly amused at my concern. Finally the Land Rover pulled away, blood from the buffalo spilling out the tail gate and the boy sitting between two cops on the front seat, wincing with each bounce.

Next day we drove north to park headquarters to pay respects to the warden and discuss anti-poaching measures. It also gave me the chance to get a good overview of Matusarira, which would make an informative sidebar in the article. The main north–south route was hardly used and Innocent had to hack us through many sections. It transpired that I was the first guest in the park in three months. The game viewing – elephants, zebras, buffalos, kudus, waterbuck – was good (tick) and the miombo and mopane woodland unspoilt (tick).

Park HQ had been a hotspot during the Bush War, a camp fortified against attack. Game scouts effectively became frontline soldiers. ‘With the rise in poaching, it’s just like old times again,’ said Craig. ‘People even take down the fences to settle in the park, say it’s their ancestral land, claim they’re war vets. The rangers have got their backs to the wall. Even the Zanu-PF ous.’

Unkempt rondavels stood on a koppie; a tattered parks board flag hung at the masthead. We were led into an office where a photograph of a youthful Mugabe stared down from the wall. The warden was a soft-spoken young man full of praise for the ‘Chief’s Camp operation’. He lamented the fact that he couldn’t be of more assistance in curbing poaching. Alas, he had such limited manpower, no diesel, no phone and only one operational vehicle. Craig suggested that Chief’s could be responsible for the south, instituting foot patrols. National parks would contribute rangers to lend more authority. Craig promised to seek sponsorship for tents, backpacks and equipment to allow long-range patrols from HQ in the north.

So there were some positives to come from this episode, which could be talked up in my article. ‘We really need to make the cops and rangers feel part of the process,’ said Craig as we headed back to camp. ‘As you can see, the munts on the ground do good work. There just isn’t the political will from up top. I mean we’ve heard from pretty reliable sources that poached rhino horn goes straight to the president’s office and into diplomatic bags bound for the East.’

As we drove I thought about my story. I wanted to include the poaching angle, but not sink the tourism one. Maybe I could emphasise the concern shown by the authorities. Mandla would like that.

 

There is a stereotypical view – reinforced by much shrill reporting – of Zimbabwean parks officials and police as uncaring and willing to rape the country’s natural resources. This is certainly not the case on the ground in Matusarira. The enthusiasm of staff and managers at privately owned Chief’s Camp to team up with rangers and police to fight poaching is a heartening example of grassroots conservation.

Then again, maybe best stick to my brief.

Another army of black clouds gathered for an afternoon thunderstorm. In an open Land Cruiser we’d be at its mercy if we didn’t hurry for camp. Just then we caught a sweet, sickening smell on the breeze. Craig slammed on the brakes and Innocent dropped off his game-tracker seat on the bonnet and headed into the trees on our right. Craig grabbed the rifle and followed. We trekked silently through long grass and I felt a now familiar apprehension. My fear smelt of animal.

We emerged into a clearing. The carcass of an elephant bull lay on its side. It had been dead for a number of days and the parchment skin was covered with the white guano stains of vultures. The rib cage looked like an enormous mouth. It’s eyes had been pecked out. Yellow maggots writhed like a sea inside the stomach. The bull’s tusks had been hacked from its face leaving two circular gaps. Poachers or rangers?

I thought of the boy, the hole in his arm and a bush clinic without medical supplies or drugs. A rudimentary amputation? And then what? He still had a family to feed. A hole inside.

The putrid smell was overwhelming. I turned away and began to throw up, splattering my shoes, eyes weeping from the acid taste. I couldn’t stop. Bent double, the contents of my stomach heaved onto red earth, on and on until I was retching only bile.

A 3000-word piece, no politics? 3000 words? Craig was staring at me with a look of disappointment, like I was letting the stick down, jeopardising my fellow troops. His eyes said, ‘You know nothing.’

The first leaden drops of rain started to fall. Overcome with embarrassment I dragged a sleeve over my mouth and eyes and hurried after him, a green figure striding away with rifle in hand. Innocent was already just a vague shape disappearing into the trees ahead.

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