The lone human spoor we had found, and followed because we were curious about who could have left it in this remote place? It led to a den, a lair, of bush hunters – poachers, some would call them.
There were six of them. They had been using the camp for a day or three and they seemed to have planned to stay longer. They had burnt the area around their den for safety and had lain some grass for a little comfort at night. Their beds were positioned between fires to protect them from predators, and for warmth. Logs on either side prevented them from rolling too close to the coals in their sleep.
They had left about a day earlier, and their departure had been hasty. A few items had been left behind: a torn shirt, a blunt knife obscured by leaf litter, its blade honed away to a spike, a few pieces of string, frayed with use, some snare wire, bits of animal carcass… They had probably become aware of our presence and mercifully decided that we were not the kind of adversaries they could take on; rather than risk a happenstance, they had left quietly.
I stood gazing down at the pitiful traces of their doings. It was almost as if I was there, among them, part of them moving around, resting on the grass mats, working the meat and the skins they had taken, cooking, chatting, joking. It was like an image of a woman not seen but formed from the lingering fragrance of her perfume.
It was strangely personal, yet it was neutral, like the next stone or dead tree. I could distance myself and think of them as phenomena of the wilderness. In “civilisation” they would be called criminals, and rightly reviled. They conjure up images of animals pulling the snare wire ever deeper into their flesh as they struggle for life, or bloody-headed rhino carcases, or mounds of rotting flesh that once were magnificent grey giants with pole-sized tusks.
Poachers yes, but as always, there are many sides to a story. These men live by ancient laws and customs. They may be distantly aware of the machinations of politicians and their bureaucrat-cohorts in some distant city, but to them it seems hardly relevant to the realities of their daily lives. To them it is about finding whatever ways to survive in their wilderness that, despite its remoteness, is still influenced by ephemeral tentacles of that distant civilisation and its needs and, especially, its greeds.
But, even as I nodded at this innocence I knew that they trade in gory scenes of butchery. They are ruthless killers, and here, far beyond the reach of any law, ready to take advantage of any opportunity they can exploit – including us.
Here’s a story from The Wanderers about an actual encounter with such a group in the Tete area south of the Zambezi a few years earlier.
I looked around for a leafy tree – might as well do the thinking about what to do next, sitting down and out of this bloody sun, I thought. It was then that I suddenly noticed an unusual mark on a tree trunk. I called Elias over and we went to investigate. It was a fresh chop mark made by an axe or a machete. There weren’t any tracks at or around the base of the tree, but it was unmistakably human made. The brown globules of gum that had seeped out from the white wood were still soft on the inside, so it was probably made a few days or possibly a week ago. It was typical of someone wanting to mark a route or a position – perhaps to a snare or a beehive or a kill? But who on earth would be wandering around here?
Now communication was a problem. Elias might have had some idea of who had made this mark in this remote spot and why. But how to ask him? Could it be someone from another semi nomadic family living in distant isolation? I looked around, and, sure, there was another mark on a tree some 200m away. I pointed it out to Elias. He nodded but seemed strangely averse or disinterested; I couldn’t quite place his reaction. I was intrigued by the marks, wondering who had made them and where they led to, and I started following them. They were easy to follow and I moved quite fast, Elias tagging along unenthusiastically and looking a bit miserable.
After about an hour, I found some human footprints, made by someone wearing sandals made from old car tyres, and then more footprints along a fairly well-worn path. Elias was now getting inexplicably uncooperative, lagging behind and shaking his head every time I looked back at him.
At some point I caught a whiff of wood smoke, and the hint of fried meat. This was really interesting! We were both ravenously hungry, and I was painfully aware of our precarious food situation. Could we perhaps scrounge off some bush dwellers?
Then, suddenly, we came upon a huge baobab tree around which the vegetation had been cleared for about fifteen paces. There were three men there, sitting on their haunches around a lazily smoking fire, eating meat from a lattice made out of saplings tied together with bark. They jumped up as they saw us, their faces ashen with fright. One hinted at running away, but restrained himself, and as we stood uncertainly staring at each other and they gradually got over their surprise their attitude turned more surly. I looked around warily. The area around the tree was trodden to powder and untidily strewn with waste and camp equipment: Sleeping mats, some spread, some rolled up, a few earthen pots of various sizes, items of clothing, animal skins, some spread out, some hanging, and lots of meat, mostly cut into long thin strands, and at various stages of drying, hanging from sapling frames. Leaning against a tree trunk stood a muzzle loading gun, and a homemade one, with a water pipe for a barrel – crude, but probably deadly at close quarters. It suddenly became clear to me: It was a hunter’s camp. Some would call it a poacher’s camp, because this was an official hunting concession area (or at least I assumed we were still in the Game Trackers area), and no hunting other than by the holders were supposed to take place in it – in fact every operator winning a hunting concession would have as one of the conditions of his tenure that he must control poaching in the area.
We greeted the men but their response was hesitant, and I sensed a guardedness on their part, and an unease on the part of Elias. They started a conversation with him and I had an opportunity to look then over more closely. The “wanted to run” character was the youngest, and still seemed as if he was a bit homesick, but anxious to live down his almost-ran reaction. Those types are usually the most unpredictable, I thought briefly. Of the two others, one seemed like an affable, harmless sort when by himself or in different company, but the other one, very dark in complexion with heavy eyelids, was staring at me somewhat insolently and, I noticed, taking the lead in being quite assertive in his manner. He also showed a special interest in my rifle.
In my experience interactions with Africans are usually friendly and relaxed, but the atmosphere here was nervous, even a bit hostile, and I suddenly realised why Elias was so reluctant to follow the spoor. We were in a very remote place, where there were no laws but the honour of men, and right then we were in the company of men who lived by a harsh code and regarded my high powered hunting rifle as probably the greatest possible prize they could win in their entire life – the means to a much easier hunting life and a source of great status. I suddenly realised that both Elias’ and my life wasn’t worth much more than the risk of injury to them, and that they knew we would be almost completely untraceable if we should simply disappear here.
Their attitude and reaction was quite understandable. They had lived off the land for generations. The laws now preventing them from hunting and snaring were alien to them, made by some unknown entity very far away from their little bush village in a place called Maputo, of which they were only vaguely aware. They probably did not understand those laws, did not agree with them and resented them and all things associated with them.
From the signs around us it seemed as if the camp was being used by at least 15 people, and thinking back on Elias’ graphic demonstration of how these hunters killed their prey, some would be armed, most likely with an automatic weapon or two that had spilled over from the war situation. All of this flashed through my mind, together with an acute awareness from long years in Africa that for all their friendliness and spontaneity, Africans could be totally cold blooded and ruthless in a conflict situation if they sensed that he had the upper hand. A familiar cold tightness in my chest threatened to press my breath up into the top of my lungs, but then The Fatalist lurched forward carelessly from the shadows, twisting the corners of my mouth into a smile and brazenly shouting “What the hell!”, and Fear slinked away and lurked uncertainly in the background.
I had to keep my pose. I fixed a cold stare on Heavy Eyelids and casually but deliberately swung the 404 from my shoulder and slipped off the safety, at the same time discretely retreating with my back towards the tree and the muzzle loader. We were half lucky to have found only the three at home. Elias was talking to them, and I noticed him gesturing vaguely to the west. By this time I had moved back so that I had some distance between myself and the men, and my back against the baobab. I casually sat down on my haunches , rifle resting across my legs. I was heartened to see that my unyielding attitude seemed to have caused some uncertainty in them, and especially in Heavy Eyelids, who had now averted his gaze.
I felt we could actually afford to be a bit brazen while I was holding the cards, and I wished I could get Elias to ask them if they had permission to hunt in the area and to tell them that they had to leave immediately and that I would be back to check, but there was simply no way I could get such complex communication over to him. But I knew that the situation could turn against us very quickly if some of their armed colleagues arrived back, so when Elias looked back at me I gestured with my head that we should leave, putting on an air of bored irritation. I wanted to exploit their temporary uncertainty to make a clean breakaway, and leave them sufficiently unsure to not consider following us, even if some of their companions returned after we had left. I immediately started out purposefully, heading west and keeping an eye on the three. Just before we disappeared into the trees I looked back at them. They still stood as we had left them, and I stopped momentarily and gave them a hard parting look, hoping to drive home the advantage we had gained. Mr Friendly made as if he was going to wave, but then he noticed that his companions were not, and he quickly sneaked his hand back to where it belonged.
I could not discuss their likely behaviour with Elias, but they certainly had a motive for trying to eliminate us and gain access to my rifle, or at least prevent knowledge of their presence spreading. The chances were good that they had the right attitude for it, but their type was usually cowardly (or, perhaps sensible), and they were unlikely to take on something they were not convinced they had a good chance of overpowering without too much resistance. But I remained concerned about them trying to follow us as soon as their numbers and fire power gave then sufficient confidence. They would certainly have the tracking capability to do it. I was hoping that the three would paint a fairly ferocious picture of us to their companions, and that they would be further discouraged by the uncertainty of whether we had any companions, and how far they might be away.
When I thought we were out of their sight I quickened the pace, keeping west. After about thirty minutes, we got to a rocky area where it would be extremely difficult to follow our spoor. I crossed over it, keeping west, but then, after about a kilometre, doubled back in a wide loop, coaxing Elias into leaving as little sign as possible. When we got back to the rocky area I stopped and explained to Elias in sign language that he should move back some distance to see if someone wasn’t trying to follow us. He understood immediately, and cleverly took a route some way off our path. When he got back, shaking his head at my inquiring glance, I swung sharply south, seeking out the hard ground for some distance before I gestured to Elias to take the lead back to our camp site. I was applying classic anti-tracking measures. If they were reasonably good trackers they would pick up our tracks on the western edge of the rocky area and continue west with them, and hopefully when they disappeared where we doubled back they would give up. If they had a real master tracker he might still be able to figure it out, especially if he knew something of anti-tracking, but we could now only hope for the best.
It felt a bit silly taking all those precautions, but on the other hand, it could be an extremely unpleasant situation if the poachers paid us a visit. I also resolved that we would not in future be hunting to the north east. It was clear anyway that the game was aware of the presence of the hunters in the area – it was no doubt the reason for the sudden change in direction of the elephant matriarch which we had followed.