I love to wander into really remote stretches of unspoilt bush, and then lose myself; just dawdle in whatever direction the voices whisper.
To properly hear the voices though, it is often best to find a quiet local medium – someone that you can communicate with and has that quietly confident instinct for the language of the bush; and the inclination to teach me about it. Also, someone that can withhold me from offending the spirits there, or overstepping the local do’s and don’ts, or not pay the right respects; also, know when it wouldn’t really matter – someone that knows the bush and the local customs, personalities and language.
It is a profile usually encountered in the rare forty-something that has lived close to the bush all his life. Finding him is a challenge and could take time – days, even, of moving among the little villages there, asking around, chatting, persuading…
We had been working our way westwards from the Indian ocean for about four days. It was hard work, and slow, because although the bush was open in some areas, and in places had huge white syringa forests with a closed canopy overhead that was wonderfully cool and more or less clear underneath so that it allowed easy passage, most of the way was through dense shrub acacia, which required a lot of chopping and clearing to get the vehicle through.
We had been lucky to find a wily old bush character called Mazenya to act as our guide and tracker. He had come highly recommended by the patrons of a shebeen (a local drinking spot) several of whom boisterously testified to his impeccable credentials from the smoke darkened interior of what was once the store room of the small shop next door, but had since been put to less reputable use. The pragmatic owner hadn’t thought it conducive to business to attend to the crumbling structure, which had lost part of one wall. Instead he had invested in a counter made of two empty oil drums with some rough planks placed over them, and a few a tree stumps to serve as seats for his patrons and the hostesses that kept them company – and of course a stock of Mozambican beer (which was actually not bad-tasting at all, considering that one almost invariably had to have it at room temperature or well above).
I suspected that the patron’s enthusiasm for Mazenya might have had something to do with his own frequenting of the shebeen, but by then we had already lost a day in fruitless inquiries in and around the ragged little villages along the Save, and we decided we would throw in our lot with the famous man.
We had to find Mazenya from the vague gestures and howls emitted by those most excellent and reliable patrons of the shebeen – “in the bush” and “maybe along the river” and “somewhere there,” with generous sweeps of the arms, all delivered with knowing smirks – Mazenya, it turned out, was the chief poacher in the village.
We eventually found Mazenya where he was in fact poaching in the bush some twenty kilometres west of the village. We at first noticed only signs of his activity; he himself avoided us until he could establish our bona fides – by observing us from cover. Once he had overcome his fears that he might be in some sort of trouble, he made an appearance and loudly informed us with much arm waving that he was the son of a chief, and that he had been widely recognised as the best tracker around “in the time of the Portuguese”.
He turned out to be quite a remarkable old character. He was very jovial and had a pleasant sense of humour, always ready for a joke or a prank. But importantly, we could communicate with him, and he certainly knew the area and the bush and the odd soul living there quite well. We didn’t have much opportunity to test his skills as a tracker, but we found no reason to doubt his instinct and experience of the bush and the animals