It must have been in June or July of 2008, that along with a few friends, all recently finished with high school, and full of a spirit of Adventure, that I experienced retrospectively, I must add, one of my most memorable African experiences to date.
My father’s consulting company had been appointed by the Peace Parks Foundation to oversee the integrated development planning process for the development of the Sioma Ngwezi National Park in Western Zambia, which now forms part of the Kavango Zambezi TFCA. On this specific occasion, we had gone up to assist with the arrangements for a large festival, to be held at Ngonye Falls, celebrating the signing of an MoU between the Zambian Government and PPF, officially incorporating Sioma into the TFCA. The trip was about two weeks long and filled with interesting stories to be told later, but one experience, in particular, stood out. A memory that comes back to haunt me every time I watch the sunrise while driving down a jeep track. That very long night, in that very old Land Cruiser.
The day started pretty much like most days, we got up, had a cup of coffee, and went for our morning wash, except there was nothing ordinary about this, you see, we had arrived in camp late the night before, and didn’t really know what was around us. So when we awoke, we found we had made camp right next to one of the most beautiful white sandy beaches I had ever seen. As we drank our morning coffee, we could hear the rumble of the Ngonye Falls, just a little upstream from us, and our morning wash was done in an eddy on the banks of the mighty Zambezi, with one member of the party always on meerkat duty keeping an eye out for crocs. Now, when your day starts out like this, you know you are in for a good time, no matter how things work out.
(The site we camped at is now the Ngonye Falls community campsite – another story for another day)
The rest of the day remained about as mundane as our morning ritual had been. Filled with all the usual craziness that goes along with setting up for a festival to be attended by kings and commoners alike, projected to number well into the hundred or so people. Imagine preparing for a very important families wedding, now imagine doing that 400km away from the nearest supermarket, on the banks of the upper Zambezi, without any electricity. Nevertheless, the park staff and other helpers had put together a great team, and everything seemed well and truly under control. Except there were concerns that there may not be enough Nyama (meat) to feed everyone, so a cow had to be hunted, which is also another story for another day.
Just as we returned from procuring said cow, our friend, and a great aide to conservation efforts in Zambia, Prof Nambota, walked into the office and informed us that there had been a major oversight in the planning. Somehow, it had been forgotten to arrange transport to go and collect all the Indunas (Headman/Chiefs), who were expected to be present at tomorrow’s festivities. This was a big problem, as, without them, this would just be a big and expensive beach party, with no official purpose. Mukubesa, the ZAWA driver and mechanic, was otherwise occupied (I think he was in Katima collecting drinks). Being 18, and full of spirit, and also having no idea what I was volunteering for, I jumped at the opportunity. I mean it sounded just like my kind of thing, jump in a 4×4, drives around some jeep tracks, pick up a few old guys wearing red hats, how bad could it be. Also, they assured me it would not take very long.
It was about 2.30 PM by the time we had offloaded the cow from the cruiser and were ready to leave. Myself, and my 3 mates, who all also thought this was going to be great fun, jumped in the cruiser. Me up front with a parks ranger to navigate, the three of them on the back, and off we went.
At first, it all seemed to be going well. The first 2 pickups had gone as planned, so now we were 7 up in the cruiser, and slowly winding our way through the Bush as darkness started to set in. When I turned on the headlights, which were hardly any brighter than an old energizer torch with equally old batteries, I should have known we were in for a long night.
At this point, I need to mention, that the Land Cruiser in question was not only old, but it had also had a particularly tough life. It originally belonged to Mr Gavin Johnson, a former Springbok full back, who had used it to build his tiger fishing camp, Mutemwa Lodge, as well as cart heavy loads to their fly camp on the Lungwebungu river. When Gavin replaced it with two shiny new cruisers, Peace Parks then bought it off of him, and gave it to their technical coordinator to do his trips between Vic Falls and Sioma, and everywhere else in between. Anyone who knows what the M10 was like back then, a far stretch from the pretty decent stretch of tar it is now, would know that that cruiser had then had a properly tough life. The seats had been sat through, so you were basically sitting on the framework, the window winders no longer worked, the door rattled and didn’t close properly, and that 1HZ was in serious need of a pump service, so at low revs, it had almost no power, to the extent that low-speed manoeuvres in sand, would cause the power steering pump to literally drain all the power from the motor, and force you to stall. However, we soldiered onwards into the dark, with absolutely no comms with the camp, and no idea what lay ahead.
That’s when the fun started, about an hour after dark, we arrived at the third homestead, but unlike the first two, where the indunas were patiently waiting, with their overnight bags packed, and their traditional red headdress proudly on display, here there was no induna to be found. A little investigation revealed that he had been waiting, but as it grew closer to sunset, he assumed we were no longer coming, so he took advantage of a passing vehicle, and got a lift to go visit his brother in another village. Our parks ranger was unsure of the way to this village, so a young boy jumped onboard, who would navigate at there. Every time I tried to ascertain how much further it was, I would be told that we are getting close now. The parks ranger, not knowing where this village was, could neither confirm nor deny the boys estimates of the distance, he could, however, confirm that we were heading in the opposite direction to what we would be taking to the reach the next induna on our schedule. It would turn our we would continue in the opposite direction, along with a track that became more and more of a suggestion than a road, for an hour and a half. Nevertheless, we finally reached the homestead, and found the Induna there, very happy we were able to locate him, as he was worried he would not make it to the festivities in time. Then we turned around, and followed the same track back again, for another hour and a half. We rejoined the main track, turning right to continue on to the next village, where we would hopefully find the final two indunas waiting for us. But again, with absolutely no way of communication, we had no way of letting them know we were still on the way.
It was well after midnight when we arrived in the final village. It was much bigger than the homestead we had stopped at previously. Although it was the middle of the night, and although I only had the faint lights from the cruiser to go on, I remember remarking how neat it all looked, especially the large school building and soccer field in the middle of the village. The two indunas were however nowhere to be seen. In fact, at this hour, the village was pretty much deserted, with everyone sound asleep in their beds.
Our human cargo on the back of the cruiser was also mostly sitting up and sleeping, but I can’t imagine how with the condition of the roads we were travelling. Anyway, our guide jumped out and went off to try to locate the sleeping chiefs. I cherished the opportunity to stand up a little, and to give me backside some respite, as by this stage the framework of the old cruisers seat, had begun realigning my rear end.
Between myself and my mates, we shared a few cigarettes, not having enough supply with us to each have our own. Remember we were expecting to be out for no more than two or three hours. We also used the opportunity to thoroughly discuss all the things we would have brought with us, had we known what to expect. Things like more water, or something stronger, jackets, as it has started cooling off now too. But nevertheless, we would soldier on. Strong and tough. It took about 40 minutes to locate our passengers, get them awake and then get them loaded up, but a little after 1 am, we made our way out of the village, and into what will become known as the longest. Coldest, most uncomfortable night drive of my life. We had no more stops to make, but we knew it was a hell of a long way back. The indunas we had picked up, all had blankets with them, as they were prepared, but we had none, so by 3am, we had booted the park ranger from the cab, and all 4 of us were huddled up, in shorts and shirts inside the cab. So now not only was my arse getting a pounding from the horrible seat, but it was now also a well and truly cramped cab. As we bounced along the rutted track, headbutting each other with every jolt in the road, we realised this would never work. So we started a relay, with three of us in the cab, and the fourth on the back, till they couldn’t bear it anymore, then we would stop, and swap out.
To my benefit, the cruiser was such a dog to drive, especially now that it was fully loaded, that no one else wanted to drive, so I got stuck with the worn out driver seat, but at least I could avoid playing musical chairs with the cold.
The first glimmers of the golden glow of sunrise were just coming into view as we arrived at the junction with the M10 again, where today the new Park headquarters and entrance gate are situated. As I turned left onto the M10 to head to Ngonye, a pack of wild dogs came strolling out of the dense bush. I slammed on anchors and awoke everyone with the jolt, but the dogs were not concerned. They circled around the cruiser for a while, everyone in total silence, myself in absolute awe, and then after a few minutes, they moved off into the bush again, and disappeared out of sight, just as the sun began to rise. It was a 15-minute journey down the road to the park HQ, where we knew we could find a warm cup of coffee and a bite to eat, but no one said a word. It was a silent trip back to comfort, as we were all in awe of what we had just seen.
I am not sure if it was the hardship I had to endure before that sighting or the sleep deprivation that made it seem so special, but I still sit in wonder as I think of how silently those dogs appeared, and then hung around us for a while then walk off so silently again, to go relax in their den for the day, after a long night on the run, just like we were too….