The early stages of my bond with the wilderness always took place in the Kafue region of Zambia, camped on the banks of the crystal clear Kafue river at a spot that was known as the 'italian rocks' in a hunting area called Mumbwa. Today much has changed, the land is privately owned by a group of arrogant foreigners and nobody seems to remember the italian rocks at all except for a few of the old timers around the bar at Pete's Steakhouse who break into a smile and look longingly at their beer glass when you mention the name.
Being close to the capital city, Lusaka, it was a popular spot in the later years - those that everyone now refers to as 'the good old days' - especially once the hunting season was in full swing and it seemed each year, more and more people would flock here for different reasons. To my family it was tradition, my grandfather had been coming here for decades, ever since the game had started receding from the close proximity of the capital and when he was still young and strong and before parkinson's had got hold of him. They had moved further and further out to seek their annual supply of game meat and family reunions and the italian rocks was the eden close to Lusaka.
It was where I first sat on top of a Buffalo, riding in the back of the land rover with pride gleaming out for my dad and our success. It was where I first cried over a dead elephant, where I had my first meeting with an old elephant bull and it was where the love of the bush was instilled in me. However, as with all hunting areas in Zambia, the game got scarce, people crowded in and we found ourselves having to move ever further for the solace of spending time with family and nature.
It was my step dad with his feverish hunting obsession who started the long and arduous drive to what still remains Zambia's best wilderness areas today, the Luangwa Valley, and it was here that I began to cut my teeth as a hunter and develop a passion for what I do today. However the early stages of a child's life are often cloudy except for a very few important events and they tend to remain with you and flicker into your mind at times when you are alone and at peace.
Thankfully it was a long and tiring trip which kept the Lusaka weekend warriors at bay and the game plentiful, a perfect place for the annual family forays into what we all called 'the valley'. The trip would start out with at least 2 days on the road with loaded Land cruisers and older tired Land rovers towing heavily laden trailers; we even took a goat one year (to lure in a leopard my uncles had said) and always had the coop of broiler chickens for fresh poultry.
The area we hunted was called Chifunda, for the chief that reigned over this territory, part of a much larger hunting block Musalangu, and we camped under a ancient camel thorn and mahogany canopy at a point where the Lumezi river flowed into the greasy Luangwa on the opposite bank to our camp. It seemed a popular spot and one year a full thatched safari camp was built here which we were able to utilize as it was deserted. At the confluence a very large pod of hippo had taken up residence over the years, usually with one of the bulldozer sized bulls at the helm - the massive body dwarfing the cows and calves and one we'd eventually dispatch for Lion bait.
Yet it would always be remembered in my mind as the spot where a man named Peter Hankin died, an old gnarly PH who ignored the warnings of his trackers and was taken by a man-eater in the dead of night. Stole him out of his tent while he slept, my uncle had said, didn't even feel her pulling on his leg. My uncle was the oldest of the party, had never married and had lived the very early days of the northern Rhodesia colony glued to my grandfathers side - he was the sidekick - and I guess many of the stories he told I remember hearing from my grandpa.
He had a penchant for telling stories, sitting at the fireside trying to lure in anyone who would listen and of course out of respect for your elders, it was us, my cousins and I who would be the sponge like targets. His stories were about family mostly but the one about Peter Hankin never failed to widen our eyes and quicken our step as night approached. I often believed it was a ploy planned out with my mom, to keep us kids well behaved, but one of the old scouts who had patrolled this area for many years always knew about Bwana Peter and shook his head in a solemn manner, tutting through his teeth when he heard the name. I also wondered if these man eaters only ate Peter's, or if they also would pull on the leg of a George or a Connie, my cousins. In fact we were so taken by this man eater, we firmly believed she was still alive and prowling the very banks of the luangwa river where we were now camped.
Despite being big hunters, when the sun started setting my cousin George and I would always make sure our flashlights had fresh batteries, sometimes swapping them out with my uncle's as he rambled on about shooting 20 buffaloes and we would never wander too far from the light of the campfire where the adults sat telling stories and when we were sent to bed we made sure the rifles were close to our beds even though we never were allowed ammunition in the camp - it made you kind of feel safer.
The lioness had come the evening prior and woken Peter Hankin's trackers as she wandered around the camp and fireside, knocking over cups and licking sugar off the table where he had taken dinner. The next night, she came in silently and dragged him, still sleeping, out of his tent before killing him a little way out of camp - because she knew he would make a noise and wake the trackers! His trackers found a gaping hole in the canvass tent, much like the ones we slept in right now my uncle had said, where she had ripped through with her razor sharp claws before biting his ankle and sneaking off with him like a kitty carries a fur toy.
In a child's mind, the images grow quicker and more menacing after dark, especially if you had to go to your tent alone without any adults around, or worse still needed to go number 2 and had to walk to the bush outhouse alone, a long and hazardous journey through half light and jumping shadows far from the safety of the fire's light where adult ears would never hear your blood curdling screams. It was as if the ghost of the lioness still lingered and played tricks on your mind, a hollow beast of the night who had survived all these years - the one they killed when they found his body was another - I was sure of this, the real man-eater still lurked along this very path to the pit latrine!
We'd camped here for many years and the man eating lioness would rear her savage blood soaked face at the first night's campfire without fail, my uncle always leading off with how nobody even knew he was gone, that's how good she was. However, the old lioness, with her sneaky habits gave way to more important things, like our very own hunting rifles and now she'd not stand a chance, we were at last prepared! The first year my cousin George and I got our own rifles, we cleaned them and fondled them so much that the blueing wore off after 3 weeks. In my uncle's day, he said, he'd never be more than an arms length away from his gun and that's how we kept it for 3 weeks, with our rifles cradled like babies in our arms. Of course we were not allowed to wander around camp with them but they were strategically placed near the path to the pit latrine or in our tents in bed with us, just in case!
Today when I wander from camp off into the night for a midnight pee, I stand in sleepy silence and usually look up at the moon or stars but she is always there in my mind, the old lioness and her prowling ways. I wander how many times I have done this, in complete darkness, and stood oblivious to a leopard or lion that may be lying crouched close by - often when you first open the tent there's a scuffling which I dismiss as hyena's or small cats. Yet the great predators are far more stealthy and alert than we give them credit, they are brave and sometimes insolent enough to stand their ground.
Last year it was an elephant that killed one of our camp staff, not a lion or leopard, yet over the years there have been numerous man eaters across Zambia, non creating a history or name for themselves with multiple kills, but never the less a steady number of incidents of death by man eater.
On a Lion safari early one morning as we approached a small cluster of huts which lay next to our hunting road, my tracker Godfrey said to me that something was amiss here, the village was deserted, unusual for this time of day as kids were usually flagging us down for a lift to school and the women sweeping the yards clean in front of their huts. I turned off the motor as we glided to a halt next to the village and all was silent for a while until Godfrey yelled 'hodi' upon which a cacophony of relieved voices came from within one of the larger huts and the door swung open and women and children and dogs spilled out onto the dusty ground.
Two male lion had come in the early morning hours, their approach marked by roaring calls until they ended up at this cluster of huts. Here they had remained until our vehicle approached trying to get into the hut where the women and children slept - their claw marks were evident around the small windows which allowed air into the huts and their giant pug marks lay imprinted into the sand at the doorway where they had spent the night. Although not confirmed man eaters, these two males would without hesitation have taken any live thing from this hut had they the chance. When we eventually shot one of them, his right ear half missing, my tracker Godfrey recognized the beast as one who had confronted his wife and kids the previous year.
In 2005 I was hunting in the western Kafue, Lunga Busanga, where the lions grow great big manicured black manes and the prides are large. Our scouts were called to a scene in one of the maize fields which lay far off in no mans land, out of the hunting concession and devoid of wildlife. Here they found the remains of a mother and a young girl, half devoured and decaying from what appeared to be a lioness, only their skulls distinguished their age. There were no witnesses and it had been a number of days before anyone had noticed them missing - they had been cultivating their fields in preparation for the oncoming rains. Typically the women will go out in groups of force, to their fields which often lie many miles from their home villages and prepare for their annual planting of maize, a staple food they would not make it through the year without. Here they erect rudimentary huts and platforms to see them through this time and in these areas where wildlife is almost depleted, the worry of predators is usually distant and forgotten.
In an attempt to placate the family, our group of scouts camped at the scene under a makeshift thatch lean to, they were used to sleeping in the open and were armed with the standard issue AK-47 machine guns. During the night, the head scout, a young well educated upstart called Sneddon woke to relieve himself and out of habit slung his AK over his shoulder as he rose. As he stood in the open field staring up at the stars a noise to his right stopped him in mid stream - in the soft moonlight he saw a shadow close to the ground, a black shape moving with purpose towards him. Sneddon was one of the brighter scouts we employed, he had a high school education and excelled at the written word. In his report to the chief game warden he described the incident as follows:
" .... it was upon passing water when I heard the lion snickering up to me and the eyes were intent upon feasting on my body.... when I loaded the gun it started running to me but stopped when I was shouting for my comrades to come and help me.... I blasted the lion.... it fell to the ground wounded and making growling sounds.... my junior scout then blasted it again and it was dead."
In Africa today, man eaters still prevail although perhaps not as famous as those hollywood boys in 'The Ghost in the Darkness'. It is a fact of life for many - kids walking down the road to school are an easy target not only for predators but also irate Elephant - step out of of your hut to go pee at the wrong time and bump into a hungry predator! If you're cycling down the road you have to watch not only your back but also front and sides and don't stay out after dark.
This is the reality for millions of people living in Africa, you could walk down the road and be eaten by a Lion or trampled by an elephant. Some think man-eaters are more prevalent where human populations are exceedingly high, like in India for example, however they do exist and carry on their business year in and year out.
Some believe man eaters are not animals at all but take this shape in the guise of carrying on evil. In Zambia, often these events are attributed to powerful witch doctors or medicine men and their doing of mischief - in one village the villain took the form of a Hyena and would sneak around at night pouncing upon young girls - especially virgins - and deflowering them before turning back into a 4 legged beast. They never caught the evil spirit but the hyena population was pretty much thinned out by the time the rape had stopped. It is perhaps simply a way of putting explanation to gruesome realities that exist within a society but nobody wants to face up to - this is how humans deal with such catastrophes, they find a way of explaining the reality.
This is life in much of Africa, it is complex and never soft and cushy and chewy like a gummie bear, life is hard and it is real - people live on the borderline, often of life and death - and this is something the so called advanced cultures or societies - those where bambi has equal rights and meat is the root of all evil - it is these who will never be able to understand Africa.
What gets me is that while sitting in safe comfort in Malibu or Palm Beach or Cape Town for that matter, these eco activists have the audacity to castigate Africans when they start poisoning predators which have moved into their tribal territory and are killing their children and their livestock! They have no right to judge us unless they are prepared to go and live amongst those cats and know what it feels like to be trapped in a flimsy mud hut with two 500 pound growling predators trying to break in because they want to eat you, because you are meat - this is not hollywood, it isn't Jurassic Park - they will kill and eat you - there's no helicopter rescue at the last minute!
The status of the predators in Africa - Lion and Leopard - is healthy and stable in many countries, they are are not highly endangered as we are led to believe, they exist peacefully in those areas demarcated as protected zones, the national parks and reserves, this is their domain and here they are safe. Our concern for the wilderness and it's inhabitants these days is far greater than it was 20 years ago and these cats are far from disappearing under all our forms of conservation.
What is disappearing is their habitat because of the need for space - space upon which the western or civilized world is founded - the one being forced upon Africa by the Bambi brigade - space so we can drive our luxury cars on paved roads and have G 4 cell phone towers and factories for fancy clothes and room for skyscraper cities with bright lights and cinema's and air conditioned offices where we can form fancy animal welfare organizations and draw fat salary checks from others people donations while we sit back and poopoo those who are making a real difference in the fight against the destruction of wildlife!
Thank god Africa has remained mostly untouched by this thing we call a civilized society, it is her savior in the end and best that it leaves us alone - Africa has her own solutions and they work pretty fine thank you!
One of Zambia's more famous man-eaters, Chiengi Charlie, was a supposed witch doctor as he lived a charmed life, eluding all those who set after him, even the efforts of a famous great white hunter, and took his total tally to around 90 confirmed deaths!
Chiengi lies near the border with the Congo and Lake Tanganyika in the far northern reaches of Zambia's Luapula Province. Mostly it is a quiet sleepy place with much fishing on Lake Mweru and subsistence agriculture in fertile fields, yet it is also the scene where one of Africa's greatest Man-Eaters operated for a number of years.
Chiengi was probably the first colonial post in what was to be called North-Eastern Rhodesia and was one of the most remote outposts of the British Empire, a lonely posting which drove more than one colonial officer mad. Historically it was the scene of a power struggle between Belgium and Britain (Cecil Rhodes's British South Africa Company), for the mineral wealth of the Congo's Katanga province.
READ MORE ABOUT CHARLIE HERE!