My four companions on this sojourn, ready for the day’s trek.
For those wondering about “the day’s trek,” it would be a wander in a general direction, say north, but easily deviated from to investigate bush phenomena we might notice, or to search for water, or to explore stories we might pick up from local bush people, and the like.
On the right is Jacqui, whom I recruited as bush medium. He spoke a few words of English and a few of Fanagolo. Fanagolo is a pidgin language based on Zulu that developed on the South African gold mines as a kind of lingua franca between men from all over Southern Africa that came to find work there.
I was lucky to find Jacqui. I had turned off the main north road (itself no more than a rutted and potholed dirt gash through the bush) onto a faint east-running track, in the hope of getting deeper into unspoilt bushland. It turned out to have been made by illegal loggers poaching tree-giants from the ancient miombo forests east of the Gorongoza Game Reserve.
Jacqui was a camp hanger-on with them and he happened to be walking along the track when I came up. Fortunately he didn’t run away. I think he immediately surmised that my bush beaten old Land Cruiser couldn’t possibly have any connection to the authorities – well, the “authorities” was actually a very distant and unlikely phenomenon in that place anyway.
Jacqui was able to ease me past the not-too-friendly loggers and deeper into the bush and he also deftly recruited his two friends on the left, Pedro and Victor as carriers of gear and food. But he turned out to be less than the bush sage I was looking for and I think he realised it. So when we came across semi-nomadic bush-dwellers some three day’s walking from where we had left the vehicle, he suggested I ask Bonzamane, whom we found there, and who is standing immediately to the left of him – note the bare feet – to accompany us.
The backpacks the men are carrying are loaded with some supplies and other necessities of survival in the bush. I don’t take a tent; just my hammock, which I sling so I can sit in it next to the fire and sleep in it. If it rains there is waterproof poncho we can hide under until it clears. Bonzamane took over Jacqui’s backpack. Jacqui insisted that he carry the smaller one that I had – please ignore the embarrassingly new machete from the coop in Pretoria that he has in his right hand. I was left with my rifle, ammunition, my binoculars, and my compass. Pedro, next to Bonzamane has the green medical bag and the blue map holder.
Bonzamane turned out to be excellent in the bush, but communication with him was difficult. It happened through Jacqui and that consisted of a few painfully-twisted Fanagolo and English words, which had to be copiously augmented with sign language. But Bonzamane was intelligent and he usually understood what I was asking even before I could remotely get Jacqui to comprehend. I learnt a lot from him.
My companions change with every expedition, because I usually go to a different area and I would recruit from among the local people. Finding the right people to take along into the bush is always a patient and time-consuming task. The crux is to first find a good anchor man – one that could be a true bush medium, was willing and able to take on the rigours of life on foot in the wilderness and with whom one could communicate.
Such men are scarce, especially those that carry that deep instinct for the bush and the animals that I find so fascinating. Once the right man has been found and recruited, he would usually be able to assist in getting hold of the rest of the crew.
I though to drop in a short extract from The Wanderers about having the right bush sage here:
It takes years to build up that kind of experience and “bush intuition” and it shows on the person. The best trackers I had come across tended to be past their late thirties, usually rather demure individuals, gnarled by exposure to the harsh African elements, and with a few old scars from bush mishaps and violent encounters with animals. I usually feel comfortable with such individuals and had developed strong bonds of comradeship with most trackers I had worked with.
A few questions in the course of the conversation with Jerry and John quickly confirmed our suspicions that Jerry was more of a “village man” than a “bush man”. The closest he had ever come to tracking was when he worked for a safari outfit in Zimbabwe as a camp hand. He had probably presented himself as a tracker to Stephan to improve his chances of getting a job. The tracker (actually, he should be called a guide) is the most prestigious position in the safari outfit – even more prestigious than the cook or camp master, and finding a good one is difficult. With Stephan never seriously getting out into the bush, Jerry’s skills weren’t ever put to a real test. It is to his credit that he realised he was going to be completely out of his depth. Quite early in the conversation he proposed that we find a certain guy named Jo’burg (of all possible names!) that he knew lived close by, and who was a hunter and tracker of some repute.
This now suggested a slight change of plans – to first go and find the famous Jo’Burg. Mack was somewhat reluctant, mumbling that “we would get along”, and we “needed to get out there as soon as possible” (without really being able to define where “out there” was) but Gerhard and I insisted. It was simply going to take too long to make this work without good trackers with local knowledge. As it was, Stephan’s lack of good wildlife intelligence on the area now had us rather aimlessly working along the Panhame in the hope that we were on the right track, but we might just as well have journeyed along the Zambezi to the east