Archive for the ‘Khaudom Days: Dries Alberts Essays’ Category

Khaudum Days: More from Dries Alberts.

November 19, 2011

 

Hugh Paxton’s Blog ran a series of chapter excerpts from Dries Alberts’s remarkable collection of essays recounting his experiences as chief warden of one of Namibia’s wildest National Parks. The series lapsed (for a few months) but now resumes. I’ve met Dries, shared drinks and stories around camp fires far from the bright lights of electricity but beneath the brighter lights of a southern hemisphere’s nightly starscape. I will assemble all the Dries stories shortly. 

Over to Dries for the latest, called:                                                                                                                                                                            

Buffalo “Hunting” and Other Merciful Acts

 

Among the many treasures in Bushmanland, just 8 kilometers from Tsumkwe lies the home of over sixty-five disease-free African Buffalo.  They are in an enclosed camp which was made just for them about six years ago.  They have more than ample room to roam, and if you drive through the camp you will most likely never see the buffalo.  They travel in herds and have so much space that they can easily “disappear” when man is nearby.

 

There were approximately 60 buffalos in the camp according to Nature Conservation’s most recent estimate from full-moon game counts.  Twenty-eight had been released in the camp originally, but there had been many calves born over the past six years, and of course some natural deaths as well.

 

The buffalo had previously migrated between Gura Pan and the Okavango Delta.  During the 1980’s Botswana had a huge loss of cattle from Foot and Mouth Disease.  They were forced to kill and burn a half a million of their own cattle.  Botswana proceeded to erect a 1.2 meter high fence with steel cables at the top and the bottom.  All cattle, and cattle-like animals cannot pass through as these are normally the animals who carry Foot and Mouth Disease.  The buffalo’s migratory route was interrupted and these twenty-eight buffalo remained on the Namibian side of the fence and were subsequently captured and put into the camp.  Currently every disease-free African Buffalo has an estimated value of $N170,000.00.

 

I was fortunate enough to be here when the Game Capture crew came back to test the buffalo to ensure that they remained free of foot and mouth disease.  I had never seen an African Buffalo.  Before the week had ended, I was riding through the bush in the back of a bakkie with baby buffalos resting on my lap.

 

September 9, 2002

 

I had been looking forward to this day for months.  The full orchestration of such an endeavor required many months of preparation by the Ministry of Environment and Tourism.  I had high hopes that I might join them at least one of the days they were darting.  That decision would be determined by the veterinarian and the game capture people.

 

At8:45 a.m.Monday morning I heard the helicopter hovering overhead.  My heart was

racing as fast as the propeller was spinning.  I rushed out to take pictures of the pilot landing on the landing  pad, just about a hundred meters from the house.  Many of the local bushmen were eagerly gathering around to witness this “technological wonder.”  I was amazed at its small size.  There were only two seats and no doors. 

 

The team consisted of one veterinarian who would dart the buffalos, a member of Game Capture, two Nature Conservationists, the pilot and a friend of the veterinarian who was familiar with these type of projects.  The entire crew was obviously as excited as I was about the coming week.  We had coffee, made plans and they were off to the buffalo camp to survey the area where they would spend the upcoming week.

 

I was soon informed that it would be no problem for me to accompany them any and all days they were here.  Needless to say, this was far more than I’d ever hoped for and again, I was left speechless as Dries delivered the news of their generous offer. 

 

Every morning we rose at around5:30 a.m.  The pilot and the veterinarian would “lift-off” first as they’d require a bit of a head start to sight and dart the buffalos.  We’d follow shortly thereafter in two vehicles.  Upon arrival at the camp, we’d wait until the helicopter radioed to tell us they’d darted a buffalo.  We could see approximately the area they were targeting as we watched from the ground.  The pilot could see us quite clearly

and he would direct us exactly to where the buffalo was likely to drop after being darted. 

 

The objective was to try to “direct” the buffalo with the helicopter so the buffalo would drop as near to the road as possible, thereby giving us easy access for taking blood samples and other important data. 

 

We measured the inside and outside curve of the horn, the distance between the tips of the horns, the length of the “boss,” or helmet, the shoulder height, from the hoof to the top of the shoulder, the tail length, the total body length, from tip of nose to tail bone,  and the “half-girth,” – the center of  the chest cavity to the spinal cord.  One measurement of neck circumference was measured at 140 centimeters (just behind the head).  The biggest bull, tip to tip was 124 centimeters.  This is currently the largest bull on record inNamibia, exceeding the past Namibian record by five centimeters and a minimum of five inches. 

 

We would track the darted buffalos by spray painting sequential numbers in large white numbers on their backs after collecting all the data to allow the pilot and veterinarian aerial viewing.  This tracking ensured no duplication, and only “non-numbered” buffalos would be targeted.

 

As soon as a buffalo had been darted, we’d drive as quickly as possible to where the buffalo went down.   If the buffalo did not make it to the road, we drove off-road, through very heavy thorn bush.  One day there were four flat tires; three on one vehicle, and one on another. 

 

Approaching the first buffalo was probably the most intimidating.  He would “drop,” but was still somewhat alert.  Two of the Nature Conservation people were charged with holding onto the horns.  They’re “curled” like a ram, but much, much bigger.  The buffalo was heavily sedated.  Holding onto the horns, keeping his head off of the ground allowed the buffalo to breath more easily as opposed to his nose lying in the sand, thereby preventing suffocation while the tranquilizer was in effect. 

 

So there I found myself, sitting on the ground, petting this massive beast.  I caressed his heavy head, stroked his eye-lashes, walked around his body, touched him as long as I could before all the statistics had been taken and it was time for the injection that would counter-act the tranquilizer.  Of course in this “state” they seemed so gentle and harmless, but African Buffalos kill hundreds of people inAfricaevery year.  I knew I was experiencing another incredibly rare opportunity.

 

Once the injection was given to awaken the buffalo, we would run back to the bakkie before he was alert enough to charge us.  On one occasion, a Game Capture member was chased up into a tree as the buffalo woke too quickly and charged him.  We heard his cries for help and rushed to him in the bakkie.  The branch he clung to had broken and he seemed to be in serious danger.  The sound of the bakkie scared the buffalo away and he was soon back in the safety of the vehicle.

 

It was beneficial for the veterinarian to dart a few buffalos together to expedite the measuring and blood taking procedures.  Often, the pair was a mother and calf.  Typically they would become separated before the effects of the tranquilizer set in, thereby leaving them lying several meters apart.  We would first collect the calf, quickly place her in the back of the bakkie with the rest of us, and take her to her mother’s side.  There, the statistics from both buffalos were taken and the anti-anesthesia administered simultaneously so that they would wake at the same time. 

 

One afternoon, as we had a calf in the bakkie with us, the mother who had also been darted, came after us.  She was an unusually large, very strong cow.  She wasn’t moving very quickly, as the effects of the drugs were setting in, but still she followed us for at least 20 or 30 meters as she knew we carried her baby with us.  As her calf’s head laid on my lap and I witnessed the determination and perseverance of her motherly instincts, I wanted so badly to convey to her that we there to do them no harm and that this endeavor was purely undertaken for the survival of her species.  All she knew from her perspective, was that a group of two-legged beings had shot her, and were fleeing with her injured baby.  Finally she had run out of strength and went down.  We measured and took all statistics from mother and calf and they both woke together.

 

On the second day of darting as it was time to return to the house for lunch, the pilot approached me and asked if I’d like to ride back with him.  No verbal reply was necessary; I quickly got out of the bakkie and followed him.  I was instructed to walk around the front of the helicopter and keep my head down, avoiding the propellers.  I climbed in, was securely harnessed; headphones in place.  The headphones enabled the pilot and I to communicate during flight as the engine is quite loud.  “What do you want to see?” he asked me.  Still hardly able to formulate a sentence, I nervously answered,  “Anything.” 

 

We lifted off and all I could do was laugh hysterically!  It was an incredible feeling.  I watched the crew beneath me, still working on waking the last darted buffalo.  They all became tinier and tinier as we ascended.  Some waved from below, probably remembering the excitement they experienced the first time they’d taken this ride.  We twisted and turned and swirled in every direction.  He was a master at maneuvering this little “bird.”  Since there are no doors, it is a very “vulnerable” feeling, but still I felt quite safe especially after witnessing the veterinarian hanging, un-harnessed  in mid-flight while darting.  He took me to several herds of buffalo and allowed me to see things from the veterinarian’s perspective as they darted.  We swooped down very quickly over a herd of fifteen or so buffalos, and were only within a few meters overhead as they fled from the noise of  the helicopter.  I saw very clearly the large, white numbers we’d  spray-painted on their backs.  But what struck me most was their gracefulness as they ran together in such uniformity.  On the ground, face to face with them, they’re so big they almost looked like they’d be clumsy; unable to pick up much speed.  I got a true sense for the danger that is imminent if one should cross the path of such a stampede. 

 

After allowing me to take several aerial snapshots, we ascended very quickly.  We wanted to disturb them as little as possible, as they were in for four or five days of this “noise” for which they would never understand its purpose.  We soon spotted two Roan Antelope running across Tsumkwe’s small, gravel runway.  We flew closer for a better look and they were magnificent against the white background as they ran and leapt in great strides across the runway.  As we flew over the remainder of the landmarks of Tsumkwe, I got a feel for how tiny this little town I now called home really is.  Just a few roads, two shops, the school and the Lodge.  The few spatterings of huts in what they call “locations” were a pleasant reminder that I was living among the bushmen. 

 

All did not go well unfortunately.  I had not gone on the afternoon shift that day and the crew returned in very somber spirits.  The pilot pulled me aside and explained that one of the buffalos they darted did not recover from the tranquilizer.  It happened to be the buffalo they had been working on as I watched from the air with the pilot.  The veterinarian was particularly disturbed, feeling responsible for the buffalo’s death.  It was actually quite emotional and I was touched by the deep and genuine disappointment these men were experiencing.  It wasn’t even a particularly old buffalo and seemed to be in very good health.  After lengthy discussion and theories as to why the buffalo had died, they determined that animals, just like humans sometimes will have adverse reactions to anesthesia, and this was just one of those unfortunate cases.  The next few days would begin with a new sort of anxiety.  They definitely didn’t want to lose any more.

 

On the fourth day, as we watched the chopper flying above in the camp, the pilot radioed to us below,

 

We’ve lost another one – and we’re coming in.” 

 

We had all been standing near the bakkies, looking up at the location of the chopper, waiting for word on where to go next.  As the grim news registered for each of us, our heads dropped in disbelief and sadness. – All seemed to have been going so well.  The chopper lowered onto the road and the veterinarian dropped a buffalo skull!   – A very old, skull.  A few of the men raised their hands to their heads in grateful disbelief.  The pilot radioed,

 

Sorry, couldn’t resist that one,” and again ascended in search of another herd. 

 

The humor was eventually appreciated, but they truly succeeded in altering our spirits for a few moments . . .

 

Each day it seemed the crew darted a few more than the previous day.  Within five days they had successfully darted and documented statistics on 65 buffalos, and I had been privileged to ride in the chopper on three separate occasions.  The last two were at sunset when we’d finished for the day. 

 

From the air the pilot sighted a growing bush fire that would never have been noticed until it had spread to the point of endangering the buffalo and the other game in the camp.  We brought in more Nature Conservation employees that afternoon and they successfully extinguished the fires. 

 

On the last day, the pilot also spotted an Eland who had recently given birth, but was in very bad shape.  The remains of the birth were exposed and she clearly would only live for a few more days, if even that long.  The calf was not with her, but had to be nearby as the mother couldn’t have walked far from the birthplace, considering her condition.  We soon found the calf.  It was a baby bull.  He was lying underneath a small tree, very near the road, all curled up.  He looked to me like a tiny reindeer with the most beautiful big, brown, wide eyes, long, long eyelashes and two tiny black sprouts that would become his horns in adulthood.  I wondered what would become of him now that his mother wouldn’t survive.  Surely other Elands would care for him.  It was explained to me that the calf would die.  They must let nature takes its course and it wasn’t the way of the Eland to care for young other than their own.  The most humane thing to do would be to kill him so he wouldn’t suffer through starvation. 

 

And this seemed like a horrible ending to such a successful and exciting week! But there was one option other than killing him.  If we could find someone that would agree to pay for milk, bottle feed him and keep him until he was old enough to survive on his own, he wouldn’t have to be shot. 

 

Upon returning home late that afternoon, Dries phoned the local Lodge owner and asked if he’d be willing to care for this young Eland.  Gratefully he agreed and we were off to collect the baby Eland.  First the mother would need to be euthanized, otherwise she would only suffer unnecessarily.  We stopped the bakkie where the calf was lying.  Dries walked into the bush, in the direction of where the pilot had seen the mother Eland.  A few minutes later we heard one shot.  The calf was loaded onto the bakkie and we drove in the direction of where we’d heard the shot.  Dries was standing at the road, waving us into where the mother was lying.  We would need to draw milk from her to initiate feeding.  We had brought along several 2-liter plastic containers and a large nipple.

 

It’s hard to explain the feeling I had upon seeing this beautiful cow lying dead, partially shaded by the trees she fell beneath.  How sad it was that she could no longer roam, or nurture her calf and watch him grow.

 

The bushmen began drawing milk and soon we were all taking turns, trying to get as much nourishment as possible from her for her baby who had probably never nursed.  What a strange and sad feeling, to be drawing life from the dead. 

 

We coaxed and stroked the calf until finally he began to suck from the bottle.  The cow and calf were loaded onto the bakkie and we returned to Tsumkwe.  The mother was taken to a nearby village where the bushmen would butcher her and be provided meat for the next few days.

 

The primary objective of the week’s project began with the continued maintenance of a valued population of buffalo.  This endeavor lead us to a mercy killing, and ultimately resulted in the perpetuation of the Eland species.  We’ll never know how many animal lives were saved as a result of the bush fires being sighted from the air.

 

Eland roams the Tsumkwe area freely now and is a welcome sight and comforting reminder that there are times when man’s intervention with nature, if initiated with compassionate intent, successfully reunites us with the animal kingdom and our mutual struggle for survival. 

 

A few weeks later we received the results of the buffalo blood samples.

They indeed remain, disease-free.

 

Namibia: More from Dries – “The Keeper of the Stars.”

September 19, 2011

Keeper of the Stars

 Hugh Paxton’s Blog is proud to present the next installment of Dries Alberts experiences in Bushmanland, remote north eastern Namibia. We’ve so far been treated to demonically posessed elephants, man-eating lion hunts, gun battles with UNITA poachers and a deadly race against time to rescue a lost man being tracked by hyaenas. Today’s offering has a rather mystical element and involves diamonds.

Over to Dries. This one he calls THE KEEPER OF THE STARS. 

It was January, 1999.  Rain was in the air and everything was green, a beautiful time of year in Bushmanland.  I had just arrived in theOmatakoValley.  This was the end of my 140 kilometer journey from Tsumkwe.  I had been called out to Omatako to investigate a problem animal case.  I was only given a name and told that Wild Dogs were the culprits.  They had killed three cattle. 

 

The bushmen in this area were quite poor and they relied heavily on farming and livestock.  It was their only possession of wealth.  I started asking around for a man called !Xashe.  I was told to drive another fifteen kilos into the bush and I would find him at Boebi Post.  It was still quite early in the morning, and  I found Boebi Post quite easily although there was no road leading from Omatako to Boebi Post.  I stopped my vehicle in the shade of a huge Camelthorne Tree.  I got out of my car and walked over to a little hut.  There I greeted the people and asked for !Xashe. 

 

An elderly woman went inside the hut and came out holding the hand of an old bushman.  This was !Xashe.  He smiled as he saw me.  He greeted me with warmth.  His body had seen many moons and his skin was rumpled with the years of beauty with which he had been privileged.  His eyes looked about seventy years, his hair white and his eyes sunk deeply into his skull.  I took his frail hand in mine and we shook hands. We sat down next to the fire and he explained to me what had happened. 

 

A pack of fourteen Cape Wild Dogs came during the night and killed three of his milking cows.  I took careful notes and wrote everything down for the problem animal report.  I explained to him very sympathetically that there was no compensation given for damages incurred by wildlife and that that there was very little that we could do about this problem.  His voice was soft and gentle as he told me that he understood. 

 

By 10:00 a.m.I had all the information I needed and I was on my way home.  !Xashe called me back.  He told me that he understood that I was a busy man but if I had the time could I possibly help him with one of his goats.  He told me that his sons were grown and had moved to other villages and he had no one to help him.  He only had a couple of milking cows and a few goats.  But still I marveled at his existence, this simple way of life. I told him that he was a very tough old man to grow so old in such a harsh environment.  He smiled and said to me, “I’ve got many secrets.”

 

I smiled as well.  I actually enjoyed helping the old man with his goats.  His ways were that of a mentor that I had not come to know yet.  He gave me a couple of lashes with his walking stick as he told me to hurry up.  I found joy in this and for a moment I forgot that I was there on official business.  It felt to me as if it was my own grandfather, teaching me, talking to me – telling me to hurry up with the work. 

 

Before I left Tsumkwe I had prepared a couple of sandwiches for the day and I was more than happy to share these with !Xashe.  He touched my shoulder and told me it made him proud to see the Namibian people working together like this.  He touched the scar on my face and asked what had happened there.  I told him the story of this leopard that had crossed my path while hunting as a boy on my father’s farm.  His hand was shaking a bit and it came to rest on my shoulder.  I saw the expression in his eyes change.  “A leopard?” he asked.  I nodded and showed him the other scars from the same leopard.  He asked me if I enjoyed my work, if I had found my peace yet.

 

“ I am keeper of the game,” I told him.  “They talk to me,” saying it in such as way as to make the conversation a bit humorous. 

 

“And they listen to you?  he asked. 

 

“Sometimes” I said.  Then he told me that I am one of Africa’s children.  And as I am the keeper of the game, he too is the keeper of the stars.  He was very serious when he said that, and for a moment I thought I saw the reflection of the moon in his eyes.  The bushmen have many myths and stories, for example, The Tusk-Keeper, the men who look after the elephant.  These are very old men that were taught by Africa herself.  I greeted !Xashe and as I drove away he said to me again, “I am the Keeper of the Stars.”

 

A week later I was called back to !Xashe’s village.  I was devastated to find that his last milking cow had also been killed by Wild Dogs.  I walked over to him and expressed my condolences, almost like he had lost a family member.  Somehow, in a very short period of time, the two of us had bonded in a sense.  We sat around the fire as his wife made us a cup of coffee.  I did not feel ashamed to drink from a dirty cup, nor did I complain about the smoke from the fire burning my eyes.  It felt good to be there and I told !Xashe so. 

 

We talked about many things that day.  We talked about the rain and the way life is.  His wisdom was unmatched.  I realized pretty quickly that he was indeed, one of the bushmen Holymen.  I had so much respect for him, and maybe he could see it.  He was very serious when he told me that his life would end soon.  And that his ancestors were calling for him. Africawas taking everything from him, and she was calling for him. 

 

!Xashe looked up into the sky and pretended to touch the clouds.  He then touched my scar again.  And in his gentle voice, he started telling me a story.  He said, “I am telling you this, only because you are one of Africa’s children.  You admire and love her just as I do.  And her secrets should always be kept.  There are too many people that don’t have the time to sit and stare at the beauty that is Africa.”

 

When he was a young man, he one day went out hunting with his bow and arrow.  It was a dry year.  And with the drought, came suffering.  On that specific journey, he walked twice as far as he normally would have gone to hunt.  He told me he had walked past ten very large trees and the soil changed from red to white.  He was alone on this hunt, but he did not feel afraid.  One night he woke to hyaenas walking right past him.  From that night, he knew Africahad called for him, that she had lead him on this journey, with a specific purpose.  He could not sleep again after this.  He made a big fire under the full moon, and light was plentiful. His heart was pounding and racing, for what reason he did not know yet.  He could sense magic in the air, almost touch it.  And as he had been taught by his father, and by his father’s father, he started dancing around the fire.  He was caught in a trance quickly.  The dance that he was performing, paying homage to the elephant, turned into the dance of the holymen.  He felt dazed and confused, but still he kept dancing until all the logs had burned out.  Exhausted and sweating he fell to the ground, staring up at the moon.  “What is it that you want from me?”  he asked the moon.  “What do you want to tell me?  What do you want to show me?  Tell me now, because I am ready to listen.”

 

!Xashe got up from the ground and in the distance he could see a bright, luminous glow.  At first he thought it was another fire.  But as he got closer he could see that the light was a different color.  He walked over fields of thorns and crawled underneath a thorn bush, but his body was not harmed.  Then he reached this place of light.  Standing on top of a dune he looked down onto a pan, filled with stars.  It felt to him as if he was still in a dream because he had never seen such a thing.  It was a glorious sight.  He walked onto this pan, and the stars – they were all around him.  As his shadow from the moon fell on the stars, they did not shine anymore.  He thought they were alive, living off the light from the moon – tears from heaven.  He picked up one star and held it in his hand.  The stone’s power crawled into his veins.  And he knew then, he was called to protect them, to look after them, to be the Keeper of the Stars.  My throat felt dry and I could not speak.  For I realized what the old man had just explained to me. 

 

I asked !Xashe if he could find this place again.  He smiled at me and told me that all the people that had come into this area to look for the stars were cursed and that he was the only man that could go there and return unharmed.  He touched my hand and said that the stars harm people that do not have pure hearts.  I understood exactly what he was saying, and this vision of extreme wealth disappeared from my thoughts.  !Xashe told me that the secret should be kept – forAfrica.  He said he only told me of the stars because his days on this earth were few and someone needed to know.  He did not want to leave this place without going to see the stars one more time.  When he was younger, he went to the stars once every full moon.  Now that he was old and his legs were hurting, he could not travel there alone anymore.  He needed help to see the stars one last time.  I promised the old man that I would make a plan and that I would return soon.

 

I felt great sadness as I left him that day.  He knew so distinctly that he was dying, yet he saw it as the beginning of a great new journey.  That night I could only think about the stars – the tears from heaven.  It was a powerful feeling, this magical secret !Xashe was carrying around in his heart.

 

A month or so later, I returned to !Xashe’s village with a horse and saddle.  And again, my heart grew heavy as I was told of !Xashe’s wife who had passed away.  It seemed to me as if the world was pushing !Xashe into the ground.  He was walking more crooked and his eyes were heavy and dull.  When he saw the horse he smiled and said,

 

“You understood.” 

 

He told me to leave the horse there and that he would make this journey soon.  As we sat down again next to the fire, I asked !Xashe who would keep the stars once he was gone?  His answer was clear and simple.  He told me that he would return as a lion and that he would protect this garden of the moon.  No matter how strong this emotional feeling was within me, there was still a bit of greed; man’s greatest weakness – greed.  I asked !Xashe if he could bring me back a couple of the stars so that I could admire them to the end of days.  I could see the sorrow in !Xashe’s eyes, and my heart bled for him.  Suddenly I felt ashamed at having asked him to bring me back a couple of the diamonds, when just days earlier he had buried his wife.  And so I told !Xashe that I was sorry, that I did not want any of those stars because I know that they bring evil spirits.  He told me,

 

“I know your intentions are good.  But Africa holds many secrets that should be kept.  Things that no one can see, no one can hear about.  I only pray that my son will  understand

 

It gave me great pride that he referred to me as his son.  I then made a promise to him that

I would never attempt to seek the stars, and that I would pay homage to his cause and to him. He was a great man; a true keeper of the stars – one ofAfrica’s secrets that are meant to be kept.

 

That day I left !Xashe’s village with a supernatural feeling hanging around me.  I did not think of money or wealth, I only thought of  !Xashe.  This great man who was about to embark on a greater journey to a place where beauty is everywhere.  I was reminded that true beauty is hidden everywhere. How could I even start to imagine what this other world would look like – a place of purity, where the sun is never too bright, where the wind is never too cold and where magic is everywhere. 

 

I left the crooked old man standing there with his horse, waving at me as I departed.  I knew it would be the last time I would see him.  It felt so good not to think about wealth or greed.  Life seemed so simple, and beautiful – if you are willing to look carefully at all the riches this earth, and what this place calledAfricahas to offer. 

 

A week later I was told of !Xashe’s death.  I went to Boebi Post to collect my horse and I could clearly see that the horse had been ridden.  The saddle’s imprint on the horse’s back was clear. 

 

Today when I think of  !Xashe, I wonder if he found peace in his last days on earth.  Did his eyes light up when he saw the stars for the last time?  Could he taste the magic that he so truly believed in?  What had become of him?  Questions that would never be answered. 

 

And old !Xashe’s story seemed as if it was but a dream, as if the earth was speaking to me as she had spoken to !Xashe.  He could hear her so clearly.  He did not fear death.  He was a pure man, with the purest heart I had ever encountered. 

 

Since !Xashe’s death, many men have attempted to find this place where the stars lie on the ground.  The story was told by one of his sons and spread through the land like a bushfire.  None who have sought this wealth have returned.  As you read these words, there still lies a pan covered with diamonds, somewhere in Bushmanland.

 

– And !Xashe is the Keeper of the Stars.


Namibia: More from Dries – ‘Africa’s Lost Children.’ Man-eating lions.

September 13, 2011

In recent days Hugh Paxton’s Blog has been proud to publish three chapters in an unpublished book written by Dries Alberts, former warden of Khaudum National Park one of Namibia’s most remote wilderness areas.

1. “The Many Faces of Satan” – an account of Kalahari Bushman belief and the very strange hunt for a killer elephant (posessed?) by an angry spirit.
2. “Walking with the Dead” – an account of tracking a lost man in the bush. A race against time, thirst, and finally hyeanas and the oncoming storm
3. “Man’s Loyal Serpent” – the discovery of a rotting female elephant with her recently starved bull calf beside her precipitates a man hunt by the Anti Poaching Unit that ends in more blood.

If you’ve not read them, please do. There’s Wilbur Smith and then there’s Dries Alberts. Wilbur’s great and has made the most dreary airport waits and shite Air Sudan flights a positive joy, but Dries has actually done and seen all that he writes about.

As stated earlier, all three chapters are posted on this Blog. All events occurred and are (for the most part and where relevant) recorded in park logbooks. It should be noted that Dries is no white beard re-writing history filtered by decades of forgetfulness or reinvention over a brandy. He’s young, highly active, and a lot of the events he writes about occurred just before or after I came to know him.

Hugh Paxton’s Blog wants to get the book published, but so far publishers hve been unresponsive. I don’t think they ‘get it’. A not unusual phenomenon when it comes to publishers. So for the time being, Hugh Paxton’s blog readers are in a rather special position. You’re reading stuff most people have never seen.

BLOG ED NOTE: Enough preamble! Let’s get going!

START: AFRICA’S LOST CHILDREN

The three of us stood in the office, ready to embark upon our next assignment. It would not be an ordinary day today. Though it is what we are trained to do, the business of darting man-eating lions will cause even the bravest man to stand at full attention and listen with anticipation at the events which lead us to this task.

Accompanying me were a biologist, and a translator/tracker. We left Katima Mulilo in our Land Cruiser Station Wagon and headed straight to the site of the kill. Another vehicle from the Namibian Police followed us on our 150 kilometer track. They joined us to collect the remains of the body.

We reached the village, near Fort Doppies around lunchtime, 13:00. There was an eerie silence hanging in the air. Typically there would be fires burning, chickens wandering aimlessly about and dogs meandering from one hut to another. Today there was nothing. Not one visible sign of life.

The symmetry in the placement of the six huts within this village seemed quite religious. They were arranged in the shape of the half moon. The opening end of the half moon was facing where the sun rises and overlooked the Kangola flood plain. Over the flood plain the terrain was very dense with much vegetation – Delta. It seemed that one could see forever from this vantage point.

As we climbed out of the Land Cruiser I instructed the translator to call for the people in their native tongue. Suddenly the women started crying from within their huts. The sounds these women made was not that of ordinary sadness. The calls were that of sheer devastation and – fear. It became painfully obvious that this was not a normal problem animal situation. This one was scary. And when they cried out to us, asking if we could see the lions, we realized they believed the lions were still very nearby.

Approaching the first hut we saw some blood. The translator continued to call for the people to come out of their huts. This was a moment of drama I could only compare to the aftermath of war and the emptiness that is left for the survivors of her victims. Children and women alike, all crying out.

We found a shoe and picked it up. It still harbored the foot of this man who had succumbed to the fate of this hungry lion pride. Based on the freshness of the blood, we ordered the villagers to remain within their huts.

A period of time passed which seemed like an eternity due its stark sadness. One villager that had been trying to calm the people confirmed our report. One man had been killed.

Only 50 meters from the village we found part of the cranium, rib bones and part of the pelvic girdle. The bones were all very clean, as if they had been exposed for a long time. Now we realized that these were real man-eaters and that their hunger was ravenous.

The Police collected the remains and left for Katima Mulilo. We told the Police that we would deliver the lions to them for them to extract the remains of the man that had been consumed.

As the Police were pulling away, the villagers yelled out for them to stop. They were afraid of being left to the mercy of the lions who were inevitably still in the area. The lions had been at the village only one hour prior to this time. It was mid-day and quite unusual for the lions to have remained in the area for so long. Their fear was contagious. We knew they were near.

By around 16:00 hours we convinced the villagers to emerge from their huts. They proceeded to tell us the tragic details of this man’s demise.

Two young men were sent from the village to buy bread, food and other general supplies at a neighboring village just 2 kilometers away. Due to the likely dangers that prevail after dark, they were to have returned before sunset. The night brings death in Africa. Anything you cannot see coming is deadly, even to the most alert and clear-minded man. And in addition to the ever-present dangers of the night, these two men quite unfortunately were intoxicated. Vision blurred and motor skills hindered, it was nearly midnight when these two men clumsily foraged through the bush. The villagers were still awake around the fires, awaiting their return.

Suddenly they heard lions roaring – in very close proximity. The night air was cold and sound travels farther due to the coolness. This early warning was perhaps their only saving grace that night. The lion roars were that of a hunting call. It was easy for these villagers to determine the uniqueness of their mighty roars. And when the sounds of the older lions became audible, they recognized this call. They would instruct the young ones in the way of the kill.

The villagers then heard the two men calling for them.

“Where are you?” cried the villagers.

“We are on our way!” the two men frantically responded.

Since this was indeed a hunting call, all the villagers were quickly getting into their huts.

The first man narrowly escaped the hungry jowls of the pride. They were just behind him as he slammed shut the door of his hut. The lions plummeted head-first into the door as this man collapsed from exhaustion and fear in the safety of his home where his family had been anxiously waiting.

Now the lions focused only on the second villager they had been chasing. He was ever so close to safety when he tripped over a fire log and fell to the ground. For some reason he ran past his hut, past the open door that his family held for him. Some believe he may have sacrificed himself for fear that the lions would have followed him into the hut where his family would also have surely perished.

His wife and children could hear his bones crushing, his breathing stopping, the air being pushed out of his lungs and a very distinct smothering noise. Finally, the sound of blood rushing through his throat gave the family a sickening sense of relief. – Now at least, the pain was over.

After hearing this horrific account, we too were afraid for the villagers. We called in the Anti-Poaching Unit. Twelve men came and stayed at the village that night, with the order to shoot to destroy any lions nearing the village.

From Nature Conservation’s side, we were going in to kill. These were undoubtedly man-eaters, given the fact that they remained in the area of their first kill. These lions knew there was more meat to hunt here.

By sunset we had already located the pride. We were armed with the dart gun, the high powered hunting rifle and an automatic assault rifle. We considered getting the APU to come take out the whole pride with automatic assault rifles, but lions are much tougher than one would anticipate and we couldn’t risk only wounding a lion. A wounded lion has the strength of 50 lions, and taking them all on would be far too dangerous.

We decided that we would have our best chance at night, hunting these man-eaters, relying purely on our equipment and previous experience in problem animal control. But you begin to doubt your experience in a situation such as this. Each of us knew that this confrontation would surely be like none other. Hunting man-eaters at night; it seemed as if we were handing them the advantage card . . .

We checked the pride and found two large females, one young male and three sub-adults lying ever so peacefully, tails swaying in contentment and heads held high exhibiting all of the grandeur and confidence that the lion is known for. When these great creatures look at you, they look through you. Their eyes are like the sun. You cannot hide from the power that radiates from within them. It’s like capturing Africa’s soul and having it thrown right back at you. Their eyes burn through yours.

Perhaps it was because we knew they were man-eaters, but this pride was different. It was as if they were infinite. They clearly had a psychological grip on us. What they had shown us was the pride and glory of their victory.

There was no time to lose. Everything kicked into order. We did what we had been trained to do. The APU was charged with protecting the villagers. We would destroy the animals. Both teams were necessary as we feared the APU may only wound the lions.

We shot a Kudu cow just before sunset. We cut it open so the stomach was hanging out. We drug it behind our vehicle, leaving the trail of a fresh kill to entice the lions. We pulled the Kudu away from the village as our main objective was to keep the pride from the people. We then chained the Kudu to a tree and filled the entire carcass with sleeping pills. The lions then would eat from the carcass, ingesting the sleeping pills. They become sleepy; not aggressive and are far less threatening.

We waited close the Kwando River. We chose our spot carefully. We were looking up, in a defensive mode. We could easily see where we had chained up the Kudu. Everything must be in order. The maximum range for the dart is 15 meters. We would put a red filter on the spotlight as the animals cannot see red light. The light was necessary for the telescopic sights on the dart gun.

Now the sun was setting and we had a small braai. No one was spoke. We were all deep in concentration, still very caught up in the psychological grip the lions held over us. We could only focus on one thing; we were hunting man-eaters. It was like tunnel vision. They were staying – and they wanted more. One mistake would be fatal.

It was the middle of the year, Winter was starting. Grass was tall and the river was rising because the floods from Angola come late, after our rainy season. Buffalo and many other herds migrate from the Okavango Delta. Our rivers flood in the beginning of winter, which is not normal. It rains in Angola the same time it rains in Namibia, and when the floods from Angola reach us, it is Winter. The lush, green and subtle grass draws the game –
the final brush in a perfect painting; the lions follow the game . . .

This night you could not hear the sounds of the river. The silence was deafening. The wind was blowing but we could not feel anything. By 22:00 hours, the quarter moon was rising. The old people would say that when the quarter moon rises it is “pouring out good luck.”

We started playing the mating call on the speakers, followed by the feasting sound. After five minutes the man-eaters were responding to this “trap” – answering the artificial call.

Looking through binoculars we saw them eating the carcass and we could now hear them devouring the Kudu as well. We allowed about 45 minutes to pass as they ingested the sleeping pills, giving ample time for the drugs to take effect.

We had planned everything perfectly. The route we had set to apprehend the pride was heading into the wind. The wind would blow from the pride towards us, rather than allowing the wind to carry the smell of man to the lions. One of us drove, one held the red-filtered spot-light and I was darting.

The next few moments unfolded like so many times before. We went for the big females first as they proved to be the biggest threat. Over-dosing was not a concern as our objective was to destroy them.

As I aimed for my first shot, one female looked up towards me. It was a picture perfect moment. The blood that framed her face and nose was warmly highlighted by those deep, golden, yellow eyes. As she raised her head the dart hit her in the center of her chest cavity. She made a small sound, then continued eating. The other female was shot in the thigh. One sub-adult dropped. The dart must have hit bone on the remaining sub-adult as the sound of impact was louder than penetrating flesh, and he was obviously in great distress. These two sub-adults ran off into the bush. The two darted females were already sleeping at this point.

The escape of the sub-adult male was frightening because of the dense grass. Filter light does not help in these situations. – They could have been anywhere. The big threat was the females, and we had eliminated them. Our best chance of eluding the others was to retreat, especially since the younger ones would return for the already fallen females.

We returned to camp about a half an hour later, then returned to the site. We saw the two lions walking about 30 meters from the females.

The biologist instructed us to take off the filter. We would attempt to blind them with the spotlight. When we took off the filter we changed to a high-powered hunting rifle with lead points. When the points hit a solid mass, the explosion sends lead riveting throughout that area of the body.

He pointed his .30-06 caliber rifle at the sub-adult as he got out of the car. Fear was the air that we breathed . . .

The young male looked up into the full spot-light. The shot rang out and the lion dropped. It felt like winning the world cup – lifting the trophy. When the young sub-adult is alone, he is at his most vulnerable state. And with the sub-adult out of the way, we felt as if we had tamed Africa, but it is impossible to tame Africa.

The biologist didn’t want to take any chances. He was making another cartridge ready to fire, but it wouldn’t load. He then saw that the cartridge had exploded within the barrel. This rifle was now out of commission. He urgently called for me to give him the assault rifle, but the problem with this weapon was the full metal jacket cartridge. It doesn’t have nearly the impact as the hunting rifle, but the purpose was just to ensure that the lion had been killed.

As the biologist was looking inside the car, he cocked the rifle in the air. As he was looking up he saw the lion that he was sure he had killed getting up once again. He proceeded to shoot him at least 10 more times, all in the heart and lung area, some shots in the spinal cord. This lion would not relinquish. He started to move out of the spotlight’s reach. As he ran off, the biologist managed to get one shot into his thigh which knocked him into a seated position. He looked around at us and we knew this was the beginning of our demise. The full-meal jacket was not powerful enough to kill him.

That moment will remain embedded in my mind in slow motion. Everything, time stopped. This young male, man-killer was looking straight into the spotlight. We knew that he was all but blinded, and still it was if he was shooting right back at us, manipulating us with his awesome strength, perseverance and power. Africa’s first born – “The carrier of her thrown,” some will call her.

Perhaps nature intended it this way, but during this brief interlude, man and beast shared the same fear. The lion continued in his quest for life despite his many wounds. The grass was waving, but we could not feel the wind. We saw no stars, only the stark, cold blackness of the African night. Tender thoughts of my mother came quickly to the forefront of my mind, but briefly. If was a most powerful moment. Life’s essence, pouring in from all sides. – The desire to live had been defined.

The lion ascended into a crouching position and lunged toward us, his chest filled with bullets and blood spurting violently from his wounds. His ears were fixed, flattened against his head – another indication of the full charge we were about to encounter. Using every last bit of survival tactics he had learned in his young life, he charged into the brightness of the blinding light. The lion does not know defeat. He will never surrender. Maybe that is what I admire the most. They never give up. They cannot give up, or death is certain. His existence will not be known, if the fearless lion forfeits the thrown . . .

With each stride the lion takes, another bullet exists the chamber. A melodic rhythm unfolded as the opposing players in this fight for life seemed to follow the other’s lead. The biologist was looking up at this point, no longer aiming at the lion. There was an overwhelming feeling that perhaps he would soon be greeting his ancestors. And it seemed only righteous in paying homage to this champion, to look death in the eye, rather than down the barrel of the gun . . .

It’s the way you leave this earth that counts. There may be nothing more glorious than being taken by a lion the African Bush. Your ancestors will greet you as a hero. And once you run away from danger, this badge of courage can never be reinstated.

So there lies honor in death. There lies great honor in death. For at that moment it was between the biologist and the lion. From the perspective of Nature Conservation it seemed the lion was running straight at the biologist. It was almost like watching a court case. Africa is the judge and she decides at this moment. Guilty or not guilty. By this time, the lion is ten meters away. I reached for my pistol. For the first time in my life – it felt as if I was greeting an old friend. I cocked it.

In the meantime the biologist is still shooting almost aimlessly. The lion finally dropped in front of him as the grains of sand kicked up at the biologists’ feet. The jury had deliberated. The young male is killed at last. This fighter – and he was a fighter. A mighty, grand beast –regal to his last breath.

Over twenty shots from the assault rifle were emptied into him before he finally dropped, in addition to the shot that exploded within the barrel of the biologist’s gun.

The sub-adult got away. Under the most optimum circumstances, he would have a 15% chance of survival on his own. We had destroyed his family. He was alone- and he was young; a deadly combination for any of God’s great creatures on these most sacred grounds. He would die. If not taken by hyaenas, he would surely die of starvation. The lion’s strength is derived from the pride; like a mechanical beast – one gear turns the other.

The only job left is to destroy the darted lions. I would use my 9 millimeter pistol. I walked over to where they slept, pushed the barrel into the ear lobe of the first female – and fired. Due to the size of these females, I fired three shots at each lion. Only two shots each for the sub-adults. As I walked over to the last big female, I was thinking to myself what a peaceful way to die this would be; a good way to die. I was about five steps from her when she lifted her head; her ears twitched. This was another indicator that the tranquilizer drugs were beginning to wear off. Those huge, yellow eyes – like the sun, and I drank this fear.

You get lost in their eyes. Their sheer power and strength caused me to think that maybe now I will die. And for a split second – there was comfort in knowing that perhaps I may be with my loved ones who have gone before me. Alive or dead – you will think of your loved ones in crucial moments such at these.

She looked up, and instinctively I shot her. It was different though, because she was looking at me. And her eyes delivered this message –

“Why do you seek to destroy me? I am the keeper of this land. You are the intruder.”

And the message was as clear, as if she had spoken to me in my native tongue. She said to me, “Can’t you see that I am the ruler of the land? I am on top. This land is mine, not yours. I am still to give birth to many young. I have to teach them the ways of the land. I want to smell the rain and walk under the moon.”

Then life was taken from her, robbed from her – ended.

And the struggle for her to make it to this point in life, in this harsh, unpredictable environment – all came to an end in front of my very eyes like the final curtain drawing in a Shakespearean play. The years of sacrifice by her pride, all the secrets she held within her, died.

“And you, you are taking it from me and my now unknown off-spring.”

This millisecond in life. The lion was still on top of the world. That female was the queen. There could not have been anything more powerful or beautiful than she. It was one of those moments that you only get once in a lifetime, as life was taken from her. This great, great creature; Africa’s first born, the lion is. She will never give up.

Our hunt was concluded. And as the Namibian Government’s policy stipulates, the skins of the hunted lions were presented to the father of the man that was killed. And on that day, a clear sunny June day, it was as if he too accepted Africa’s judgment. As he stroked the lion’s skin the old man said –

“I chose this life.”

As we drove away from the village, we turned back to see the old man looking around, perhaps for one last glimpse of what he had lost. We saw this old man looking out over the flood plains. He eventually kneeled down. Maybe he was saying a prayer. Africa is so pure. So straight-forward. You can’t take chances. But sacrifices – we all make sacrifices. The dear loss of this man actually may have caused him to respect Africa more – as it should. I knew I had indeed gained a greater respect for her . . .

Just as this wise old man had lost a son, Africa had also lost her sons and daughters.

It was a lose, lose situation. My heart was bleeding for this old man, and for the fallen lion pride. But it makes you strong. You’ll never know where this strength comes from. You don’t know it exists. And I know that the day will come when we will meet again in the land were only peace exists. – And within that magical moment, we will admire our combined strength.

As I think back on that day, I long for the simpler life. The simple, clear, uncorrupted way of life. Let Africa be the judge. She will rule with a wise hand as she’s always done. She is the sayor of the law.

I pray for the lion’s roar never to end.
For its power and strength never to fade.
In Africa, oh – how so wholesome made . . .

Namibia: More in our series by Dries – gun fight with UNITA elephant poachers

September 12, 2011

Hugh Paxton’s Blog is proud to present another entry by Dries – this one describing a gun battle with UNITA elephant poachers. Enjoy! If that’s the word. It’s strong stuff.

Over to Dries.

“MAN’S LOYAL SERPENT”

The stench burned deeply. You could feel your stomach turn and the thought of what you just had for lunch made things worse. We could not hide from the smell. It drenched our clothes – and our souls. Our hearts pumped strong, stronger than before . . . because suddenly we found ourselves amidst a slaughtering ground, so revolting and disgusting that it is not even worth a single thought.

At our feet, an elephant cow laid dead. She had been dead for at least three days. The vultures had started cleaning up, and it was actually them that had brought us to this place of death, for they are great creatures. On the wind currents they glide and stare with eyes as sharp as the leopard’s claw. From as far as 10 kilometers away, their wings seem like flares shot into a dark night; pointers of death.

Lying near death, at the cow’s side, we found a week old calf. At first we found it hard to believe that the rest of the breeding herd would abandon this mother and babe. Then one of the APU (Anti-Poaching Unit) pointed to the cow’s front leg and shoulder. It was burnt and grounded – separated from the rest of her body. “Pom Z.”

I could not stand anymore. My legs felt weak and my knees began to buckle under this dark cloud of death. My stomach gave in and my lunch blended in with the fluids leaking from the carcasses. It was not because of the smell, nor the utterly disgusting sight. The reality of the scenario had instantly robbed me of my innocence. Fear – man’s loyal serpent.

One of the APU went over to the tree next to the carcasses. He picked up an invisible piece of wire.

“A trip-wire with a Pom-Z. Definitely Unita rebels.”

His calm voice made me feel humiliated. The story he sketched was short and clear.

“This cow was eating the leaves of this tree. The whole herd was dispersed over this area.” He pointed to a line of about 50 meters. “The cow walked through these two trees, tripped the wire and exploded the bomb. Pom Z. The rest of the herd heard this loud noise and ran. Maybe they came back later. Maybe they were shot at.” He walked over to the calf, rested his hand on the baby’s head. “He was not hurt. He did not know what was going one. He only knew his mother would protect him! But she was dead . . . could not walk with three legs and a heart sprayed with steel. She died quickly. But he . . . he maybe only died this morning. The vultures have not started on him. This baby bull only knew his mother. And he stayed with her until the light in his eyes turned black.”

By sunset I still felt sick. The dancing flames of our camp’s fire made me wish that I was somewhere else . . . at home – in the safety of my family’s presence. Then it hit me. Be it man, be it animal, when danger lures . . . we all long for the safety of our families. My eyes glided over the experienced and sun-resistant faces of the 12-man APU team I was with. They were my family for now. They were my brothers. And my full-automatic R5 assault rifle was my father. My chest-webbing, safely harboring 8 full magazines, was my mother! Another loyal serpent to man . . . the gun. It has been said that there are little men and there are big men. Mr. Samuel Colt made them all equal.

I woke to the Fish Eagle’s conversation with the river . . . and the fish therein. The Caprivi! Namibia’s own little “desert” rain forest. Ever-green trees and ferns everywhere. With plenty of rain and many perennial rivers, this piece of earth flourishes in life. Game is plentiful. With rare tree-orchards and even swamps, this land grows with water plentiful. Our camp was a mere 7 kilometers South of the Angolan border. We were on a routine patrol in the West Caprivi Game Reserve. Hunting people that were hunting game in our Park. – Strictly prohibited and defendable by weapon, using ultimate force if deemed necessary.

We returned to the elephant carcasses and started removing the cow’s ivory. The baby bull did not have any. At least they were not ivory hunters . . . I thought to myself. The Unita rebels do not agree with the Angolan Government and have lead a 27 year civil war against the political possibility of democracy. They were renowned fighters and expert survival soldiers. And that was the reason they came into Namibia, to poach for meat and to hide from the Angolan government, treading death with every step taken. They were armed with Russian technology and the pure spirit of fighting for a cause. Many admired them. More despised them.

Two days later and nearing the end of our 14 day patrol –

I adjusted my chest-webbing and made sure my weapon was on “safe.” The trackers were starting to walk slower and slower. Why, I did not know, until I almost fell over the clear footprint sunk deeply into the moist soil in front of me.

“Ah, a track! Unita!” I yelled. We were walking in a horizontal line and this “find” of mine made me feel valuable to the team.

“We know. We have been tracking them for the last hour!” I was not worried about my self-confidence and the humiliation factor did not take its true grip.

“Them . . . them? As in – more than one . . . ?

“Seven.”

Time stood still. Why did I ever get myself into this position? Am I fucking crazy to hunt expert guerilla fighters in the densest of thickets? What man am I, to ponder this thought of rushing my life for the sake of a mere animal? What makes my heart different from that of any other man? What is this new warmth I feel in my heart pumping strong? Why am I thinking that my life is but worth a blink in this great cause? Why does my trembling hand not feel the cold of the trigger?

The whole team suddenly crouched down onto their knees, I clumsily followed. The Ranger, the head of the team, asked if anyone wanted to go back. I could sense that we were on very, very fresh tracks and that a confrontation was inevitable. No one answered. The Ranger called for our radio operator – carrying a portable long-distance high frequency radio. He rumbled down a couple of numbers and ended with the words – “radio silence.”

The sound of sliding metal pieces and bullets forced into narrow barrels made our objective clearer than the sun’s light. The thought of the baby elephant dying next to his mother drove the messengers of fear deep into my trigger-finger. The letter “A” on the side of my weapon showed that my gun was at full automatic fire.

It was not necessary for my Ranger to tell me that I should be quiet. He pointed with his left hand, and we obediently lined up side by side, 10 meters apart. Somehow I managed to look where I was walking and at the uncertain bush in front of me at the same time. It felt as if my breathing had stopped, for I could only hear my heart beating, thundering with the adrenaline rush of a lifetime. Gentle drops of sweat rolled down my forehead, though I felt nothing. All that I could anticipate was anxiety and the vision of what was to come . . .

If only I had known what was to happen, them maybe I would have chosen to be a coward.

Every step taken, every breath awakened . . . we followed the tracks of the intruders with true passion for our purpose, following the commitment we had pledged to our country. I believe I only blinked my eyes once every minute, – too scared to miss even a split second. To miss one clue, one sign of danger; only that one split- second, and your life has ended.

Heavily armed and trigger-happy, we slowly moved through the dense bush, all senses at peak performance. Any movement, any leaf swaying in the wind, is worth launching a bullet – especially if it involves guerilla soldiers! How could we ever compare to their instinct and expertise – to kill.

Our dark green uniforms blended in perfectly with the surroundings. Many times I did not even see the men to my sides until they moved. And so we proceeded . . .

Right foot forward – look out for that dry branch. It will break the silence, like a bomb . . . My eyes focused on a Buffalo Thorn Shrub, berries red and leaves shiny. I look, I stare at every color and shape. To its right, a Sliver-Leafed Terminalia Tree. Still a young plant, the leaves are too shiny, and the streaks of brown will fade. My eyes glide on, over the bush. Streaks of brown? My mind freezes. It feels as if I am pulled from earth to a distant planet. Although I am a young nature conservator, I definitely know the Silver-Leafed Terminalia does not have streaks of brown on its leaves. As my body becomes weightless and ignorant to the heat of the walk, I am compelled to look again.

With the slight turn of my head, or perhaps just the shifting of my gaze – I clearly saw the black barrel! My weapon jumped to my shoulder, my finger glued to the trigger, forcing it until the sound of thunder spewed from its repetitive lunging snakes of fire. I could feel the first shot push the weapon deep into my shoulder. From that moment on, I felt nothing. Another magazine. Thirty rounds already spent? That was too quick, it seemed like less than a second! The next clip sounds clear as it finds it position required.

Had I made a mistake? Had I opened fire on nothing? I looked to my right as I cocked the rifle, staring at my Ranger. Why was it only me shooting? My question was answered as I saw a shiny, golden-colored, spent cartridge being ejected from my Ranger’s weapon – and another – and yet another. I heard nothing! I could only see the empty shells flying through the air like acrobats, twisting and back-flipping out of sight. With my eyes turning back to where I had opened fire, I could see pieces of bark splitting and crumbling from the trees above our heads. The Silver-Leafed Terminalia Tree was on fire! Smoke and flames pointing like arrows erupted everywhere, and now they lunged towards us! My finger pushed with anger onto the trigger. The weapon jumped around in my arms as yet another thirty rounds were let loose. I had not aimed. I was shooting in a general direction. Another magazine, my third! I went down into a prone position, looking up only to see a bush covering my sight. Nevertheless, I once again opened fire. The bush in front of me danced to the creation that makes man believe he can tame nature; a powerful mechanical beast that flattens all that stands in his way. Another magazine – fire!

As I clipped in my fifth magazine, I switched my weapon to semi-automatic, the weapon only firing upon single trigger impulses. The bush in front of me was no more! I could see men in camouflaged uniform running deeper into the bush. My sights followed one man, my weapon slamming one bullet after the other onto his path, onto him. Soon, I could see him no more. My sixth magazine slides into place. A mist-like cloud covers the area. But it is not mist, it is gun-fire smoke. My weapon continues to kick into my shoulder again and again. Where does man’s boundary lie! The smell of gun-powder is the same as that of a rotting elephant. Why do we put ourselves through so much punishment? Is the world not enough? Another bullet running through the barrel! Can we ever live in peace with one another and with earth? The trigger is warm now. To what extent must we go to realize that we humans are the true culprits in this race against world destruction? What is this world of ours? – This world that obeys only the laws of nature? My weapon fires again and again. I look down in awe at the empty magazines to my side. Six magazines empty. One hundred and eighty full-metal jacketed rounds thrown at the “enemy” just in front of me. Enemy, barbarian, follower, rebel, angel . . . What do we call the people that kill just so that they can live?

My Ranger looks at me and nods. “Good work.” He throws me an extra magazine. All of our men are accounted for. That is good – very good! Afterwards the men said that we had only survived because we sighted them first, thereby securing the “advantage card” with the element of surprise.

We got up from our positions and could not help but stare at the hundreds of empty cartridges littering these Holy grounds. We walked over to where the men had been camping. We indeed had caught them totally off guard. In their camp we found dried Buffalo meat, RPG7 Rocket launchers, AK47 assault rifles, 40 hand-grenades, 10 Pom Z mines and – blood; their blood! We had succeeded in wounding at least 4 judging from the different blood trails.

By nightfall, we had returned to our main APU camp at Susume – the APU “headquarters” so to speak. We had not bothered to take the blood-trail of the wounded soldiers. We knew they were on their way back to Angola. To follow would mean a full-fledged war on foreign soils.

And I am haunted, still. So clearly I recall my weapon’s sights gliding over the horizon, sticking to the human silhouette that matches my own. – Shot after shot, cartridge after cartridge, until he went down . . .

In the end . . .
I can only pray for man’s blind stare
to be overwhelmed by nature, oh so fair —

Namibia: More from the diary of Dries and Stacey: “Walking with the Dead”

September 10, 2011

Hugh Paxton’s Blog rates this latest diary entry of Dries, former warden of one of Africa’s wildest national Parks as intense. And macabre. And a real testament to the people who care about saving a life.This one should be a movie. But it isn’t! It’s a Hugh Paxton Blog post for the time being.

Let Dries, begin!

START: WALKING WITH THE DEAD

The Great Khaudum National Park. Tucked away in the North-Eastern corner of Namibia, there lies a place forgotten by man. Her borders stretch to Botswana in the east, to Bushmanland in the south and to 50 km south of the Okavango river in the North. Her creation was based upon the migratory route from and to the Okavango Delta in Botswana. This park is many times called a dream, purely because there are no fences to keep game movement limited. During the winter months, thousands of elephant move into Khaudum. It is here that they find water artificially pumped specifically for their consumption, and food plentiful and rich in needed supplements. The Ministry of Environment and Tourism – Namibia, faithfully vows to guard and protect this haven that breeds in beauty and cries in death as the cycle of life continues, undisturbed.

I call this park my home and my strength is derived from her harsh and gorgeous days. She inspires me. She has raised me like her own – mostly to appreciate life! Her grassy river-beds and her tall Teak Trees, her golden sands and winter-blooming flowers . . . they are in my heart forever.

I received the first radio call at 21:00. The information that was drilled into me was clear and simple. I had to make very quick decisions. By 21:30 the Namibian Police radioed me again. The incident had been reported to them and they were expecting me to handle the situation. I gave them my word, that I would sort it out.

By 05:00 the next morning, I was on my way to the Leeupan (Lion’s pan) watering hole in the Khaudum. With me were 3 Bushman trackers and 2 Rangers. Time was of the essence. By sunrise we had managed to catch up with one of the Anti-Poaching Units in the area. They were excited and eager to get started.

It was 09 March 2001, the rainy season in our country. For tracking purposes, this gave justified reason for concern . . .

As I walked over to the drilling contractor’s caravan, the rising sun sounded Africa’s power. The manager greeted me with sleepy eyes and morning breath.

“What’s happened?”

“We lost him 2 days ago . . . did not even bother to look for him. He is a worthless worker!”

“Did you have rain since then?”

“No. My men told me that he was smoking dagga (Marijuana) on that day. Maybe he lost his sense of direction . . . He was sitting under that tree the last time we saw him.”

The drilling contractors were working in the Khaudum, drilling new boreholes for the sake of water provision for game. A very worthwhile endeavor, but historically these men have proven to be disrespectful of the environment and fail to take notice of the many dangers that surround them. I particularly sensed ill-will in this manager, with his three-fingered hands and scrawny beard. It was not my duty to ask him why he had not reported the incident 2 days ago, but I made it very clear that I considered him to be a worthless human being – the same way in which he had described his “missing” worker.

I immediately informed my men that we had to catch up on 2 days. With the Khaudum’s warm sun, dehydration sets in quickly. At the most, this lost man would live two days more before he would die of thirst. The Bushmen trackers were the best I had, the best in the world —

“We have to ‘bundu-bash.’ There is no other option. If we can, we must run.”

“Bundu-bashing” means to drive off-road. We would follow the trackers on the ground by vehicle. Normally this exercise would be quite expensive on vehicle tires, but we were prepared. We carried 4 spares along and the whole kit to repair punctured tires. 200 ltrs. of water, and an ample food ration were also on board. We could not anticipate how long we would be on the spoor.

The first 3 hours of our search proved to be the most difficult of all, and we only managed to cover 5 kilometers. I look with great intensity at the ground, then to my men’s faces. There is a level of concentration which registers in their expression for which there is no comparison, and reaffirmed our determination and will to succeed in finding this man. They literally searched every grain of sand to see if it had been disturbed or moved in any way. I saw nothing, not one sign. The Bushmen would point to the ground and explain that the missing man had been sitting in a certain spot for maybe an hour or so, looking west. The precision of their tracking skills will never cease to amaze me. It is truly an art that can only be mastered after years of experience and a true connection to this terrain and to our Mother Earth.

“He realized he is lost. He is walking in the shape of the half-moon. We will find him soon, sir.” I was pleased to hear this.

“How long since he has been here?”

“One and a half days ago.”

And that is how we continued. Driving through grass-hidden warthog holes and over thorny shrub-bush. By lunch time (13:00), my heart started to pound in loud rhythmic leaps.

“He slept here, sir. In the tree.”

My trackers showed me the pieces of bark on the ground, and for the first time during that day, I could faintly make out a human foot-print.

“We are close.”

Suddenly one tracker got onto the truck while the other two men started to jog, their dedicated steel gaze never leaving the ground. A smile crawled onto my face as the familiarity of this scenario unfolded. I knew we were drawing nearer to our target.

I felt so proud of my men. They had not eaten that day and never did they complain about the work at hand. They wanted to save this lost man, with everything they had within their hearts. The increased pace of the team and the exuberance in the air was contagious. It became difficult for me to keep up with the vehicle. Their jog got faster and faster —

By 15:00, my men abruptly stopped – dead in their tracks. They began to converse at a very rapid pace in their native Ju/’hoansi tongue, repeatedly pointing to the ground.

“Today’s tracks!” They smiled at each other and shook hands; commemorating their success.

“We will find him within this hour, sir. He is very, very tired!” I too laughed and gave due praise to their skill.

It was not a 100 meters further when the men stopped again.

“Hyaena! On his tracks – Two!”

The Anti-Poaching Unit members methodically disembarked the vehicle and ran to the flanks of the trackers – armed.

“Go!” I said.

Half an hour later, the trackers changed runners. The exhausted men got onto the vehicle and asked for my binoculars.

“He is very close! We will find him soon!”

And then it happened – The runner stopped. The disturbing and confused expression on his face caused me to immediately realize that our flow had been interrupted. He looked up . . . but not at me or the other men. He was looking at the sun. A shadow covered the land. And the men on the vehicle cursed. They yelled something to the runner, who obediently continued with the task at hand.

Dark clouds had moved over the sun’s light. When tracking, the angle of the sun is very important. Any indentation on the soil will be marked out with a slight shadow, making it easy to follow the tracks. With no sun, no shadow, the work is much more difficult.

The wind came from the north. On its wings it carried the sweet smell of rain. Life! Rain is the most important of all things! Without it, Mother Earth will die . . . and so will we.

The 2 trackers on my vehicle got off and started running at a frantic pace. There was a sense of urgency like no other I have ever experienced. The Anti-Poaching Unit had spread into a line and were running in a zig-zag pattern in front of the trackers, so as to find the tracks more quickly. The missing man had been proceeding in a state of confusion, and his path was inconsistent. We could no longer predict his direction. We had now covered 67 km. from our starting point at sunrise.

And again, the trackers halted – dead in their tracks. So too did the APU. One Scout looked at me and yelled something I could not discern. I switched off the engine . . .

It sounded like a water-fall. A familiar noise, not a noise, but rather – music. Rain! I turned around, only to see the horizon disappearing in a white/grey cloud of water. The APU were quick to store their weapons in the safety of the dry vehicle. The trackers and the other men returned to the vehicle and crawled underneath, seeking shelter.

I was looking at the ground when the first drops of rain smashed onto the soil, like carpet-
bombing. Grains of sand were jumping up all around us from the force of the rain. Thunder started exploding in the air, and the lightning was like veins on the clouds. It was the most unfamiliar feeling, to wish the always welcome rain – away.

After the storm, all the tracks – even that of the vehicle’s, were covered – completely concealed. We scanned the area, using every man available, but to no avail.

We returned to base-camp by 22:00. Though we were a disheartened troupe of broken and empty hunters, we all carried in our souls the unspoken understanding that Africa had again reclaimed one of her own. Our gallant efforts will never match her greatness and where she wills, so it will be.

The missing man was never found.

He was, in essence – killed by life . . .

The Khaudom Diaries continued: The many faces of Satan

September 10, 2011

Hi, chaps! As promised here is the first diary entry of Dries. It concerns a demon elephant.

Enough preamble. Over to Dries and read what happened. He and his partner, Stacey, call it …

“The Many Faces of Satan”

Africa can sometimes be so powerful that even the great Sun glistens like a weak little star. She can deceive and mislead you so many times that you will end up believing in ghosts and dark spirits. Her ways are strict and she will do anything to hide her treasures from the non-deserving. Your life is but worth a blink in her eyes filled with warmth and cold at the same time. You can never know, never tell what will happen on her soils of death and beauty. And there – where her magic works the strongest, lies a place hidden from mankind. Be warned my friend, for if you believe that your spirit cannot be broken, and that you can tame her, then do not tempt her. For she will break you and your body will return to her veins . . .

Hit hard by the notorious “Tick-bite Fever,” I wearily answer the phone. It is 22:00 and a sudden shock turns my illusions into reality. On the other end of the phone, the Chief Warden of the Kavango Parks informs me of a terrible accident in my area. My sick-leave ends abruptly –

My eyes glide over the green Omatako Omuramba (dry river bed). This is God’s paradise, I think to myself. There she lies in her fullest coat of glory, Bushmanland. It is January 2002, and the seasonal rains have brought drops of hope and life to her soils. So proud I feel to call her “mine.” She is mine, just as much as I am hers.

The three-hour drive from the closest town to Tsumkwe, the capital village of Bushmanland, passes quickly. My mind is pre-occupied with the orders given to me by my supervisor. The gravel road ends with another day, another sunset indescribable in its beauty and magic. The “owners of the land” also described this piece of earth as “The river that never reaches the ocean.”

Located to the North-East of Namibia, Bushmanland borders Botswana and lies in the migratory route system from the Okavango delta – the place where life started. This is the land of the African Elephant – their Holy grounds.

After a very early night and cold fever tearing at my body, I finally manage to get some sleep. With first light, I report to my office only to find it abandoned. My epaulettes were the only reminder that a Nature Conservation office existed in Tsumkwe. On my table was a report with a bright red reminder attached to it, marked “Urgent.” The words I read did not really shock me as much as I would have thought they would. For I have seen it before during previous problem animal control operations.

A 40-year old Bushwoman of the Juohansi tribe was killed by an elephant 1 kilometer outside her village, !Auru, in Eastern Bushmanland. Her name was /Nkoro/. She and three young girls had gone to look for veld food (a vital part of the Ju’hoansi’s tradition and existence) when their path crossed with three elephant bulls browsing on the succulent green leaves of the Camelthorne tree. The young girls fled and the older woman decided to “hide” herself in a thicket of small trees. Only there, caught between trees and thorn bushes, did she realize a fourth bull had been waiting upon her – to take her to the never-ending sunset of her ancestors’ new-found land in the sky. She was killed instantly, the mighty elephant broke her neck as she was literally thrown from where she had crouched behind a tree. The angry bull then proceeded to rip off both of her legs and crush her chest and one arm.

Her frail body was collected by Nature Conservation officers and the case was reported to the Police.

The culprit’s tracks were destroyed by rain and by the time I caught up with my men, the man-killer had been hunted for 10 days already, without a trace of his whereabouts. Confidently armed with the expertise and loyalty of my faithful Bushmen trackers and my ever-loyal, Lucinda (.458 caliber elephant gun), we searched and searched until it felt like we had covered the whole 9,000 square kilometers of Bushmanland. I would have given up, if it were not for the expression on the faces of the family that had suffered the great and dear loss of a loved one. My men were tired. They had been in the bush for many days with limited food – and even less confidence.

Exactly 14 days after the woman had been killed, my team caught sight of 3 elephant bulls. We did not give notice, until Dawid (undisputedly the best tracker in Bushmanland) suddenly froze and pointed to a dark shadow amidst a patch of trees nearby. He did not say a word. His ghost-like face yelled out in a thunderous voice. “It’s him . . . the Devil!” I do not recall if I was afraid, or if instinct had taken over. When I turned to my men, they had already formed a firing-line, side by side. Our order from Head-office was clear . . . Destroy! And the whole time that we had been hunting, we were specifically looking for this bachelor group of four bulls.

The Devil’s opposition consisted of five passionate and determined men, two elephant calibers and three 7.62mm rifles. The bull in the shadows did not move; he did not even flap his ears in the 45 degrees Celsius heat. Elephants rely on an extensive and complex vein system running through their ears to cool their blood in warm conditions.

The mammoth beast stared through each of us. The awesome strength of his authority crept slowly over our skin and was indelibly embedded into our young souls. Dawid pointed out the abscess on the place that once harbored his right tusk. Suddenly a strong gush of wind came from behind him, towards us. The smell of rotten meat was burning into our spirits, for then we realized that we were faced with an elephant bull living in extreme pain. His great discomfort soon became ours. Our guts were touched by the stench, and quickly turned our tired bodies into weightless objects. I spoke with a dry mouth, “We will not run. We will do what is expected of us.”

Slowly, with a fixed gaze, we assembled into place. The silent ballet was mechanical in it’s uniformity, yet graceful as the agile dance of my Rangers once again conformed to another unique stage.

The extreme weight of the .458 rifles’ tips required a minimum of 30 meters distance between us and our target for maximum penetration and knock-down power. Just before opening fire, I briefly glanced upwards and saw Weaver birds constructing a new nest. I did not hear them, and it is impossible for them to work silently. I could feel my heart jumping wildly in my chest as if it wanted to be let loose on the vast pan to our right. Our position was a mere 1.2 kilometers from the village where the woman had been killed.

“We stop here,” Dawid said. His voice was soft and trembling. We were 40 meters from him. Then it happened; everything within the blink of an eye. He charged! I can still recall how the trees disappeared under his massive body, crumbling and snapping like so many toothpicks.

From our crouched positions we rose to face him standing. Believe me, this is where courage is tested. One mistake, one shot wrongly placed . . . and you will meet your fate. The kick into my right shoulder sounded Lucinda’s mighty prayer of life. The guns next to me exploded with lunging snakes of fire. Reload. Another kick into my shoulder. My ears were stunned and I could hear nothing.

About 20 meters from us, the bull lowered his head and plummeted into the trees. A wave of sand came curling towards us as the big bull ploughed the soil with his eight ton body. For nearly 5 minutes, we could only stare at him and allow the previous moments to register in our minds as reality. Little red circles on his head showed us the light of victory. That was not so bad, I thought to myself. It is strange how brave a man can be after surviving a dangerous situation.

We climbed on top of him, feeling quite proud of our conquest. Our other hunting party caught up with us and we joined in the homage of paying our last respects to this great creature. And as the law of the land stipulates, we placed a branch of green leaves on his trunk, resembling his last meal before joining the elephant kingdom in my dreams. The sun was setting quickly and we decided to return the next day to get the ivory. With festive spirits we returned to Tsumkwe.

That night, I felt a strange cloud moving over my mind. I had not given a final shot, I had forgotten to shoot him one more time, even as I was very sure that his life had ended. And I knew that this final shot was always given – regardless of our certainty.

The next morning I woke with a smile and a headache. A few beers too many. Tsumkwe had greeted me with laughing people, their faces lit up by the thought of the “man-killer” meeting his match. I started gathering my men for the final duty, removing the white gold from the elephant. I drove to the first location where all my trackers lived and left the vehicle idling as the nicotine of my first cigarette made my head feel much better. My senior Scout walked up to me and said, “Sir, there are problems. We are scared”
“Scared of what?” I asked.

“The Elephant sir, the devil! He lives!”

I started laughing, but quickly stopped as the gravity of his expression yielded no room for humor.

“Did you not stand on his body yesterday?”
“He lives sir! Jhonny . . . Jhonny was told so by the spirit.”

I was stunned. The Bushmen were strict believers in the strength and reality of the spirit world. Their traditional healing lives and thrives off of the power of the spirits and the world that we cannot see.

“The spirit came to Jhonny last night in the form of a man. He spoke to Jhonny in a bad way – He is angry!”

“What did the spirit say?”

“The spirit does not understand why we shot the elephant. He has children and grand-children to care for. He must teach them the ways of the land – where the water lies and where the best trees are to eat. The spirit asked why the white man is hunting him. You see sir . . . the spirit that came to Jhonny last night, was the elephant that we shot yesterday . . . the evil spirit. He also told Jhonny that he will hide his tracks. He will trick us and deceive us with his wisdom of the land. And he will hunt us now . . “
“Who will go with me?” I asked.
“We are all scared sir. But I will go with you.”

Out of my four trackers, only two joined me. And out of my other hunting parties, only four out of the ten men did not believe in this evil spirit.

“He is the Devil, sir. We are hunting the Devil” Dawid said, as we drove out of Tsumkwe on our way to where we had made our kill.

I re-lived the shooting a few times on our way. I was sure of my shots. How can he live? Impossible!

About 10 kilometers before the site of the shooting, villagers stopped me. It was clear they sought some sort of assistance as they spoke in familiar, high pitched voices. My translator later explained to me that another elephant bull was chasing people around their village. As was required of us, we drove to this village and followed the tracks of this reported ill-tempered bull. About 15:00 that afternoon, we were fast on his trail. We fired a couple of warning shots over his head and he fled North, away from the village. The sun was throwing balls of fire at us. The heat was unbearable – and it was time to collect the white gold from the fallen elephant.

I remained seated in the vehicle, allowing the adrenaline to circulate. My men were hovering like angels sacredly blessed with the holiness of justified fury. Perusing the area briefly with hopeful anticipation of sighting the carcass, my men pointed to the ground. My heart sank into a bottomless pit. I did not blink my eyes for fear of missing some clue as to the whereabouts of this elusive beast . Dawid remained seated next to me. “We are hunting the Devil, sir! – And he will be hunting us . . . “

The Elephant was gone. The place where we had left his body just a day before, was empty. Vanished from this site, he had walked away after being “killed.” How could this be possible?

I walked over to where I knew his body had crushed a few trees as he fell. My men could only look at me, as if they were expecting some sort of logical explanation from the white man who is unfamiliar with their spirit world. – I had nothing to offer.

“The Spirit – Jhonny was right.” Dawid walked with me for a while. “This blood, it comes from the lungs.” Dawid pointed to the trail of blood filled with little bubbles. It gave me hope. But still I could only think of the humiliation of wounding an animal. In my culture it is considered to be a sign of weakness to wound an animal with the intent to kill.

“We will have to find him.” After I had spoken, my men looked up at me.
“Sir, we will not find him. And we do not want to die!”

Jhonny’s words hung in the air and were carried by the wind . . . “ . . .Will cover my tracks, — Will deceive and hunt you . . .”

The sun was setting. Dawid studied the tracks and quickly pointed out that his hind right foot-print was not in line with the other tracks. It appeared that the elephant may have been injured when he was younger. Dawid also showed me the many Hyaena tracks following the wounded elephant.

“They were following him before we had wounded him. He was on his way to the burial grounds, to die, sir. We will find him – soon.”

Back in Tsumkwe, we packed our gear and food rations for at least a week. And in the darkness of the night, I prayed to God to keep us all safe. I was afraid. One of my Rangers later came to my home – and in pensive silence, cleaned Lucinda.

By sunrise we were already on his tracks. Two trackers in front of me and three men behind me. We did not speak. The trackers’ eyes were glued to the ground. They walked fast -hard. My eyes and those of the men behind me were scanning the horizon for any sign or movement.

“We will find him dead. His lungs will soon be filled with blood.”

The voice behind me broke the silence of the morning. The cool air was soon smothered by heat waves pushing into every corner of the bush. We walked and walked, and then we walked some more. Concentration levels were falling rapidly and it was if we were in some sort of trance. My eyes fell from the horizon and I could only watch the tracker’s feet in front of me. The oppressive heat combined with pure mental exhaustion yielded to this pace to keep the beat of my heart. My shoulder started hurting and I moved Lucinda to the other for a while, then back again.

By midday, we had already walked 25 kilometers. We did not carry water as the weight would only drive us further into the hot soil and hinder our advancement. There was not a cloud to be seen. There would be no relief from this sweltering heat.

We rested for a while under a big Leadwood tree. My eyes were burning from the sweat that gently rolled from underneath my hat. Not a word was spoken as we rested. The heat waves danced on the horizon, luring us into slumber. The wind avoided us, making the heat worse. “We go now.” Dawid was so strong.

My feet ached. And oh, how I wished I had taken another sip of water before we started walking that morning. But although I could sense that my men shared this pain, my rank required me to lead without hesitation. It is under extreme conditions such as these, that a following reinforces the ambition which lead me to this place.

By sunset we stopped on the main road leading from Bushmanland into Hereroland. We were close to the border – too close. The elephant was heading straight for Botswana. If he crossed the border, we would not be allowed to follow him. One of my Rangers arrived with a vehicle, as they were told to patrol all the roads throughout the day. We quickly consumed the hot water he had with him. As we drove to our base-camp, the wind cooled the blood pumping through our veins. We had walked 45 kilometers by the end of that day.

By sunrise the next morning, we were on his tracks again. The morning started with a cloud-bank hiding the sun. Around10:00 a.m. the heat came again, but this time the humidity also loomed; the most unbearable combination for walking in the Kalahari.

“The Devil” suddenly changed his route and turned away from the Botswana border, heading north. And from the open plains, he led us into thick bush. This slowed us down considerably, and we would now take extra care not to “walk” into him. Our line of sight never exceeded 10 meters. In the thicket the wind is rare and its cool hand escaped us again. It felt as if we were walking aimlessly through a dark and dismal dream.

By midday we took our first break. Again we all crowded under the closest shade, hiding from the sun like scared animals. By 16:00, we had stopped to rest 5 more times. We were all very tired, exhausted. By 19:00 with the absolute last light of the day, we headed for the closest two-track road. A Ranger picked us up and we drove back to our camp under a rain shower. It had come from nowhere, but we welcomed it. That night at camp, I changed our strategy.

“Tomorrow we take the pick-up truck on his tracks. It will save time. We are still on his first day’s tracks. Tomorrow we need to run.” My men were pleased and soon we were all snoring away.

Again, with first day’s light we were on his tracks where we had left them the previous day. The rain had covered them substantially but Dawid could still see things which I could not. The vehicle we were using had 2 extra spare tires. This was a requirement when we would “bundu–bash.” Bundu-bashing is driving off-road, where there are no vehicle tracks. Subsequently, it would also mean many punctures to our tires as we would be driving over many thorns and rocks. Soon this new strategy was working perfectly.

Two trackers would run in front of the truck while the other men would rest on the back of the vehicle. Once the running trackers tired, they would change with the rested men. During the first 4 hours, we had covered nearly 30 kilometers.

Suddenly the runners in front of the vehicle stopped. They pointed to a solid slab of bed-rock covering a massive area. The elephant had walked onto this rock formation, hiding his tracks even from the keenest eyes of my trackers. This behavior is extremely uncharacteristic for elephants. Any type of rock formation is typically avoided at all costs as rocks give elephants a false sense of security. The sensation is such that their balance may be broken and they could fall. This “Devil” however, carried no fear on this quest. He boldly advanced despite the imminent uncertainty of the terrain.

“He is hiding his tracks sir.”

The Bushmen trackers laughed as they started the long walk around the rock formation to see where he had emerged into the sand once again. The clever maneuvering of this giant robbed us of at least three hours of precious time.

Just as it finally seemed we were making up for this lost time, he outwitted us once again by walking straight into very, very thick bush – Thornbush. From running, we changed to walking with weapons. The bush was dense and we did not want to take any chances. But the obstacles that we were to encounter persisted, as a sudden hissing sound made me stop the vehicle. It was a familiar sound, one which we hated dearly. My men shocked me as they explained that the two tires on their side were also punctured. For a vehicle to have all four tires rupture at the same time is extremely rare, but then the events of the last few days had acclimated us to the “paranormal.”

“We are hunting the Devil, sir.” And I had begun to tire of this reaffirmation despite the strangeness of these circumstances. It was no use to put on the two spare tires, so we decided to walk to the closest road, abandoning the vehicle in the middle of nowhere. We arrived at camp by 20:00, tired and shell-shocked from the events of the day. It was clear that we were not dealing with a normal elephant. This one was different.

The next day we rested while our Anti-Poaching Unit returned to our vehicle in the bush. They repaired the vehicle and returned to camp by midday. By that time we had prepared our lorrie – (a 5 ton truck) to go out onto the tracks again. The lorrie’s tires were much stronger and we were confident that we would find our elephant soon. After we had reached the spot where we had left our first vehicle, we were amazed to find the “Devil” leading us onto the tracks of a 60 head strong breeding herd of elephants. We had lost his tracks yet again.

It is highly unlikely for the breeding herds to be in Bushmanland in January . They normally arrive during the winter months when they migrate from the Okavango Delta in search of food. They were a full 6 months early for Bushmanland and it now seemed as if we had truly been defeated. There was no way we could find his tracks again. This herd of elephant comrades had successfully concealed him from further pursuit.

By sunset we had made our camp and were sitting around the fire with broken souls. I could not believe this was happening. The rains came again that night, hiding the “Devil” from us even more. There was only one thing left to do, and that was to investigate each of the game watering holes the next day. The elephant we had shot would be hurting; his wounds would be burning like the sun. And he would spray his wounds with cool water, in an attempt to relieve his pain.

I was woken by the excited tone of the voices talking around me.

“Look! Do you see the vultures? Maybe it’s him!”

My eyes soon adjusted to the bright light of the sun rising. And I was greeted by one of the most spectacular sights I had ever seen. The dark shadows of vultures drifting on the morning breeze caused an explosion in my heart. An explosion of hope. Something was dead, and the vultures were moving in to feed.

We had made our camp the previous evening only 200 meters from where we could now see 20 vultures circling in the air. We would walk in. I followed my lead tracker, second in row. After only a few hundred meters, the tracker stopped abruptly in front of me. My finger instinctively moved onto Lucinda’s trigger, ready to open fire. Though my eyes perceived no threat, I clearly sensed imminent danger. Our trackers do not break their pace without just cause.

He quickly pointed to a nearby tree, and there, once again – I could not believe what my eyes were looking upon. The notorious Black Mamba! After being bitten by this highly poisonous snake, an adult person would have an average of 4 to 5 hours before dying. The poison attacks the muscles and her victim eventually succumbs to a heart attack – and certain death. It was and still is one of the most respected reptiles in Africa. But the Black Mamba I was looking at, was no ordinary Mamba. This was the Mother of all Mambas.

My men and I were keenly aware of the fact that this was the Mambas’ egg-laying time – when they are most aggressive. Females would protect their nests and their eggs with their lives! Every red flag of caution was raised in my mind and would guide my next movement. It is said that Mambas can “stand” or raise their bodies up to two thirds of their body length. And there she stood, in front of our very eyes. I watched in awe as she raised her body – without any support from branches or trees – far over my head. Gently she slid onto a small tree’s canopy and disappeared. Her raised body was far over 2 meters tall, with the rest of her body still curled up on the ground. I have seen many snakes as I’ve traveled these grounds, but this was the largest I have ever encountered. We knew without discussion, not to disturb her.

Respect and intimidation chartered our change in course. We soon came upon the carcass of a Blue Wildebeest that was killed by Cape Wild Dogs. Our hopes sank again, and we returned to our vehicle talking about this monster Black Mamba that we had encountered. Again I was reminded that we could not go on hunting this Devil, that he will be hunting us soon. I was further fueled by this warning, with the determination to persevere.

But we had no hope left. Only fear and confusion. Still, our passion to succeed prevailed. But how – by the laws of natural right, could this be possible?

By midday we had visited all the game watering holes in that area – and we did not find one sign of our elephant. At the last watering hole, we rested for a while. This watering hole was the closest to Botswana, and there was an old cut-line running west towards Tsumkwe. These cut-lines were created as fire-roads to stop veld fires burning too deeply into our beloved Bushmanland. We all agreed to follow it back to Tsumkwe. There was nothing more that we could do. We had no hope left – nothing.

Soon we were “lost” on this cut-line as it had not been cleared for many years. Thick bush hid the road and we were forced to aimlessly advance in a general direction towards Tsumkwe. The sun was burning and our bodies ached. We no longer could even smell the stench of the sweat on our bodies. Most of my men, including me were sleeping on the back of the truck, when the vehicle suddenly stopped. I was handed a set of binoculars and asked to look at an elephant standing about 300 meters from us. As I wearily adhered to this suggestion, my dry mouth suddenly felt even drier. There he was- The one-tusked bastard! He was well armed with badges of courage; little red circles and streaks of red painted onto his face like a true warrior. It felt as if he was looking right through my soul. Time stopped. I could feel his pain and his immense power. This was no Devil! He was no bastard. This was the King and the protector of his land. It was at this very moment, that the elephants’ plight was crystal clear in my mind – and in my heart. The humans are wrong. We are too many, and we steal land from the elephants like it was a child eating candy. We are the Devils!

My men suddenly looked up, “Let’s take him!” They were standing next to me within seconds. Like a mechanical dragon, all the weapons were loaded with their metal parts rubbing and sliding over each other. The truck drove closer on my order, until we were 30 meters from him. He was standing in a small pool of water – spraying water over his wounds. It appeared, just for a second – as if he was glad to see us; that we had finally arrived to take his great pain away. Or perhaps it was an internal defense mechanism within me, attempting to justify what was to transpire within moments.

Again, the well rehearsed ballet unfolded. Our steps and aim accurate, Lucinda’s kick into my shoulder was welcome and familiar now. The thunder of her exploding bullet rolled over Africa, as did the other eight full-automatic rifles, each capable of penetrating two centimeters of steel. His body shook as the bullets ripped deep into his flesh. Still, he proudly stood his ground. Again the spray of bullets. He did not want to die! Again, Lucinda thundered, and this time the old bull slowly leaned sideways and fell to the ground. Unbelievably, he rose again, as if he was greeting this world, one last time. Then his body folded, back to the earth from whence he came – lifeless.

My men slowly surrounded the slain giant. Some of them started cutting off his feet, as a guarantee that he would not get up and walk away again.
“We do not want to hunt him anymore sir,” they said as they loaded his feet onto the truck. A strange combination of sadness and conquest struggled within me.

When we took his ivory, we saw that the first shot of the initial encounter had hit just millimeters below the brain, commonly referred to as a “Baffled Brain Shot” according to various hunting magazines. This was the reason he had gone down on the first day we met with this great King. We greeted him on his way to his ancestors – again, with respect – as the law of the land stipulates. But this time – we did not smile . . .

We loaded his carcass and transported it to the village where the woman was killed. Namibia’s Government currently has no compensation system, so the people only receive the meat of the slain problem animal. But nobody in this village would eat from “The Devil.”

Various rumors have circulated throughout the villages justifying the “Devil’s” actions. It has been said that this elephant was the spirit of an old witch doctor that had lived in Bushmanland. It is believed that he was married to the woman that was killed by the elephant, and it was he that had returned from the spirit world in the form of an elephant to collect his beloved wife, and take her with him to the other world.

Even now during these days of peace, I think of him. He was no ordinary elephant. He will remain in my eyes, and as a reminder in my soul – the King of all elephants. He did not want to die. He did not want to be found. And his fate was only met with the unfair opposition of the supposed technological advancements our modern world has provided for man’s utilization. Mother Earth and the laws of nature were walking with him every step of the way. Somewhere, he is at one with her.

One day soon, we too would meet him in the other world – but not yet.
And still I wonder . . . how will He greet us?

– Forever I will bow to the elephant’s trumpet
and his resounding cry for life.
Let man realize.
Let him prevail.

Namibia: The Unpublished Wilderness Book – new Hugh Paxton Blog Series (pt 1). Intro. Demonic elephants and death by hyeana coming shortly!

September 9, 2011

Hugh Paxtons blog has met many wild and wonderful people.

We were particularly lucky here. This guy, Dries, and his lady, Stacey, can write, and write well. They’ve been front line conservationists in a land they love – the Khaudum. I’ve been there too, a few times, and I like it, too!

Hugh Paxton’s Blog will be publishing a series of their combined diary entries. They deal with the day to day business of managing a national park, in what many might perceive as a corner of nowhere. There’s life and death, superstitions, beliefs, diamonds (maybe) and above all an abiding love for their land. The diary entries are very moving, sometimes not for the faint hearted. A few may draw tears.

I’m going to post the first two chapters of what really should be a published book in half an hour. Before I do that here’s an intro to the two authors:

Introduction –

A.H. Alberts

BLOG ED NOTE: That’s Dries being formal! Think of him as Dries!

Inroduction!

My career in conservation started almost 8 years ago. The Ministry of Environment and Tourism (Namibia) awarded me with a bursary to study Natural Resource Management at Windhoek, the capital city of Namibia. I had just finished school when I returned to learn more. But this time I learned about the things that had always captivated my mind and thoughts through the “growing years,” namely – wildlife!

During my studies I worked in the Caprivi and Kavango parks. Ever since then, I have never looked back. It didn’t take long for me to realize that you are only taught the basic administrative duties whilst at University. Real conservation only starts in the bush, in the wild. How can you teach a person to face a charging elephant ?

The greatest moment in my career would surely be the day my loyal men and I repaired a dry game watering hole in the Khaudum National Park. We worked relentlessly and our bodies were burning pure adrenaline. We didn’t sleep, we didn’t eat. With every drop of sweat that we shed on the dry and holy soils of Khaudum, we became more motivated. Elephant herds were patiently standing at the dry watering hole, watching our every move with thirsty eyes. It was hot, the sun showed no mercy and the wind didn’t sing that day. But still, we knew the importance of our work. Water provision for wildlife is the most crucial aspect of game management and conservation, especially on the dry northern Kalahari plains where the Khaudum protects all. After 48 hours of non-stop work, water finally rushed onto the elephants’ little pan.

With exhausted bodies, we sat for a while and watched nature blossom. Elephants stormed the water outlet block, trumpeting. With ears waving and trunks raised high, they thanked us. Then the birds came, sitting in trees above our heads, singing songs to ease the pain of bloodied hands. Butterflies painted the grey bush with colors that could only belong to the rainbow – our eyes were filled with beauty that can’t be explained to another. A few Kudu antelope watched from a distance, waiting for the elephants to finish drinking. With their big ears and proud stance, they stared at us. They too were pleased. An eagle came drifting in, gliding on the wind’s wave that dried our sweat.
Nobody could talk. It was such a perfect moment. Forever it will remain the greatest single moment of gratitude and testimony to the necessity of our work. The true inhabitants of this land wanted us to be there.

This book was born with the intention to teach others of fear, respect and honor. These words symbolize Africa; a great and beautiful continent that I will always feel proud to serve and protect.

If everyone around the globe could for one brief moment, stop and stare at life, then this world would be a better place. The miracle of life will never cease to amaze me. And all you need to appreciate life more, is a close encounter with a dangerous animal . . .

S. A. Main

Blog Ed Note: That’s Stacey being formal!

Namibia came to me in June of 2001. I was privileged to participate in an archeological dig with one of my professors from the University of Missouri, St. Louis. I had been employed at a telecommunications company for the past several years, most recently in advertising and marketing, and had been working on the 40th floor of the highest building in the city. Africa and an archeological dig were just matters of interest. The dig sounded like a good opportunity, and the chance to see a little bit of Africa fascinated me.

After three weeks in the Khaudum National Park, the location of our dig, and meeting some of the people who inhabited the tiny community of Tsumkwe, the capitol of Bushmanland, I realized that three weeks had not been nearly long enough.

When I returned to the States, small, everyday things such as the futility of waiting in traffic to punch a time clock began to encourage my desire to make a change. The security of the corporate life at times seemed like spinning wheels in a mud rut; repeatedly witnessing the same scenarios unfolding; the dynamics of climbing the corporate ladder in an effort to obtain a more elaborate title, more money to buy more things, creating the need for more space, a bigger house, more gadgets and less time to appreciate the things that you “can” take with you. Though I had enjoyed my work in marketing, and could never have imagined living in a land so far from my very dear family and friends, I was compelled to investigate broader opportunities.

I was given a glimpse of a simpler life, where the media barely seeps in to poison minds, where marketing and the bombardment of the suggested need for material possessions is only surfacing, where the sunsets are worth more than your best Christmas bonus and rain is valued at a greater price than a fair and generous commission structure.

So I found a place that I loved – for the wildlife, the space, the air, the terrain, the very few people I had the opportunity of meeting. And in that same place, I was offered a job.

I enjoy people, water and cold weather. I moved to the desert, in one of the most lowly populated countries on the planet. I was out of my “comfort zone,” but as a Namibian once suggested to me –“After all, nobody wants an easy victory.”

By October of 2001 I was back in Tsumkwe helping to manage a small lodge where we took tourists to visit the bushmen and view the plentiful game in the Khaudum National Park where I had been only a few months earlier on the dig. It was one of the easiest and most natural decisions I’d ever made. I never hesitated, I’ve never regretted it, and I’m still here.

Dope of the Day Awards: Don’t lose your head!

October 22, 2009

This Dope of the Day Award doubles as a Namibian tourism travel advisory and is  for camping star gazers. And drunks.

Let’s start with the travel advisory! It’s fairly straightforward! Don’t fall asleep with your head sticking out of your tent!

Christian Goltz, one of our Hugh Paxton Blog’s contributing photographers,  has just returned from Khaudom National Park.  Khaudom is remote. North East Namibia. Formerly designated ‘Bushmanland’. Very limited infrastructure. Actually last time I visited there wasn’t any infrastructure, with the exception of a ranger station (that was haunted), an ablutions block that had burned down, tough tracks,  deep sand tracks, AND some exceptionally well constructed hides overlooking water holes courtesy of Raleigh International volunteers.  Bless em!

The Chief warden of this wonderful wilderness is Dries Alberts, a tough young Afrikaaner who shoots game to appease adjoining communities, engages tribal elders in conservation and co-operation, arrests poachers, has had his car pushed 500 meters backwards by an elephant that wanted to kill him etc.

He also organises Medevacs.

And Dries also writes beautiful sometimes ghastly stories about his experiences. I’ll post a couple in the near future.

But this post is about tents and heads.

Let’s add hyenas to the equation!

Christian informs me that a couple set up their tent, drank far too much and after admiring  the dazzling star scape (Namibia has clear air, wonderful night views, stars so close they almost spike your eyes, and as usual make you feel totally insignificant in the total order of things)…

…and after they’d finished  admiring the star scape they fell asleep. A hyena then ignored the stars, skipped the brandy and chewed the guy’s face. It then came back for second helpings and gulped down half a kilo of the girl’s leg.

The really extraordinary aspect to this tale is that both of them slept through it! They slept through the whole thing! Then woke to find themselves chewed, important bits of them probably semi-digested, and, as usual Dries had to get them out.

The hyena had, perhaps out of sympathy, not severed any key blood arteries. A bite in the inner thigh would have been fatal.

Advisory: If you are in a tent, zip the bloody thing up.

Keep well!

Hugh.

PS It’s raining now. A lovely sound, drips, pings off our roof, new leaks in the roof, a mutter of thunder, and the rain water releases a chocolate odour from the sun baked soil.  Lovely!


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