Africa Vignette 10: Over Namibia

Late in the afternoon, as the light over the Sossusvlei turns sideways, a Cessna gains speed, pounding along the grass strip as a pilot named Lindy, an unsettlingly young girl with blond hair and blazing blue eyes, lifts us into the air for a trip out over the Namibian dunes.

Sometimes they run safaris on the beach (55 kilometers away), she explains, and it is most vital that if we see any cars we must let her know immediately!

That’s curious. Why?

They could spoil our fun, she grins. We are required to fly at 3000 feet, but out there we will joy ride at 500. Where in all this world can you flaunt the rules if not on the desolate coast of bloody Namibia?

They’ve numbered the dunes 1 to 70 or 80 by the road from the Sesreim gate to Sossusvlei. Lindy pinwheels the Cessna around Dune 45, a star dune that like certain celebrities has become famous for being famous. While Dune 45 is tall and striking in its own right, it is best known because it is close to the road and lots of people climb it.

Dune 45

Bernard, driving this morning, stopped for us to see it, too, and indeed, folks had already scaled Dune 45 and were clamoring back down. Before sundown though, dune 45 and all of the other dunes stand deserted. Everyone must leave the park at night.

We do a long turn around “Big Daddy,” which they repute to be the world’s tallest sand dune, and in the same sweep, take in the dead vlei and Sossusvlei, and the dune we climbed that morning. They call that one “Big Mama.”

The road ends here. Here to the shore, nothing but dunes, horizon to horizon. No place for engine trouble.

The coast gains focus, and in time we cruise over a fallen-in diamond mining settlement, its man-made perpendiculars entirely out of sorts with the natural swirls of the desert that resemble nothing more organized than crumpled bed sheets.

We swoop down low along the water’s edge above seal colonies, thousands of seals lounging for miles up the coast, up to the wreck of the Eduard Bohlen, a cargo ship that ran aground in fog back 1909 and still lies in place, four hundred meters from the coast.

The Eduard Bohlen

•••••

See more photos from Namibia in the Namibia Gallery at Earthphotos.com.

Africa Vignettes is a weekly series most Mondays this summer on CS&W.

Africa Vignette 9: The Man-Eater of Mfuwe

It’s more of a story than a vignette this week, the tale of a man-eating lion.

THE MAN-EATER OF MFUWE

Besides being visited by just about everyone who comes to the South Luangwa Park, the little town of Mfuwe, Zambia, will forever be known for the Man-Eater of Mfuwe, a lion that killed six people over two months in 1991.

Of the big cats, there are more famous man-eating tigers than lions in the literature, maybe because tigers and people live in closer proximity in India than lions and people in Africa. In fact, there’s an estimate of as many as 10,000 people killed by tigers in India in the nineteenth century.

The Champawat Tigress was said to have killed 436 people before she was killed in British colonial India in 1911, the year British King George traveled to Delhi to be crowned Emperor.

In Kenya’s Tsavo Park two lions killed perhaps two dozen railroad construction workers, halting the project to connect the interior with Mombasa in British East Africa in 1898.

The Mfuwe man-eater was no colonial-era killer. Its attacks occurred less than thirty years ago, thoroughly terrorizing the little community, then home to scarcely a thousand, a spare hundred miles west of the border with Malawi.

The first attack occurred as two boys walked along a road at night. One boy got away, but responding game rangers found only clothing and fragments of the other boy’s skull.

The second victim was a woman. The lion crashed through the door of her rondavel on the edge of her village.

The third attack was nearly foiled by a nearby ranger, who fired his gun, but the victim, a young boy, was bitten and died of his wounds.

Three more attacks were to come. People began to believe this was no ordinary lion, but a devil or medicine man taking the shape of a lion.

•••••

Wayne Hosek wasn’t the first to try to kill it. Two other professional hunters tried, but Hosek finally brought the man-eater down.

Today the lion is on display at the Field Museum in Chicago. 3.2 meters long, 1.2 meters at the shoulder and estimated at 249 kilos, it was male, and it was mane-less, similar in that way to the man-eating lions of Tsavo.

The lack of mane led some to assume at first they were after a lioness. A lioness was killed early in the Mfuwe terror and people believed they’d got the man-eater, but then a male lion entered a woman’s hut and stole a bag of laundry, taking the bag into the village and roaring over it.

Remarkably, as a child, the man who ultimately brought down the Mfuwe man-eater studied the man-eaters of Tsavo at the Field Museum in Chicago. Wayne Allen Hosek was born in Chicago.

As a boy, Hosek spent days standing in front of the Tsavo lions, trying to imagine the feeling of being in front of the real thing, as he put it, with nothing but a few seconds separating him from their wrath. He says the Field Museum has always been one of his favorite places on earth.

Hosek’s battle with the Mfuwe man-eater stretched across nine days, from September 1 to 9, 1991. The first day he met the hunter who had shot the lioness. Everyone hoped that solved the problem of the man-eater, but days later, two days before the hunter returned home to Japan, the sixth victim was attacked.

Hosek’s description, a pdf in the Field Museum’s archives, is unclear and incomplete, reading as an early draft of an incomplete story (Hosek later wrote a book.). There’s even a place in the .pdf where his narrative reads “SECTION TO COME.”

In that section perhaps Hosek would have introduced us to his hunting companions, for later we are assumed to already know “Charl” (Charl Beukes, another professional hunter), who was with Hosek the night the animal is killed.

Hosek began by visiting villages where the lion had been spotted, talking to people, learning about the cat’s behavior. The killer had dragged the last victim, a woman named Jesleen, from her rondavel in the Luangwa valley village of Ngozo, home to Kunda Bantu people.

The day after Jesleen was killed the lion walked into her home in the middle of the day and took a white bag with some of her clothing. People frantically beat on pots and pans to scare the lion away. It was seen playing with the bag like a cat with catnip. The bag was later found in a dry river bed a mile from Jesleen’s house.

Village women would wash their family’s clothes here, by walking to the middle of the riverbed and digging down to water. As Hosek writes, on this day “(e)ven the hornbills lounging in the riverbed seemed to be giving the bag a wide berth.”

Phillip Caputo, in Ghosts of Tsavo, writes that at this point Hosek’s trackers wouldn’t look him in the eye, and two of them wouldn’t look at him, as if they resented his getting them into all this.

The village elders decided the bag was bewitched and the lion was a sorcerer or a demon, “or at least demon possessed,” and villagers would not go near the bag. Authorities instituted a curfew at 5:00 over an area of some 65 square miles.

The hunters laid bait near the bag to keep the lion near and retired to camp. Hosek’s companion Charl counseled, “Remember to follow-up HARD as soon as you make your first shot.” Hosek, a devout Christian, woke repeatedly that night, and each time, he prayed.

The next day they built a blind using bamboo and elephant grass cut by villagers. Charl shot a small hippo and laid a haunch in the riverbed. They spent an uneventful night. The lion didn’t take the bait, but by day the hunters found its tracks some fifty feet from the blind.

The following day the hunters entered the blind at 3:30. Hosek writes of what he calls ‘blind sleep” – “my eyes were closed, but my ears seemed to have acquired an ability to listen to each and every sound.”

Again they didn’t see the lion, but by now, “(t)he man-eater had become the center of my life’s purpose.”

They adopted a new strategy. They would build a new blind elsewhere, hang bait, then leave the blind empty, in hopes the lion would get comfortable at the absence of its stalkers. Others built the blind so the cat wouldn’t get the scent of the hunters.

Charl selected the site. He felt that the lion was clever enough never to let the hunters spy him standing still, and that it would be moving whenever it allowed them to see it. He counseled that ultimately, therefore, they should expect to have no more than 2.5 to 3 seconds to take their shot.

When the hunters made their way to the new blind they saw that the man-eater had torn off part of the bait and had eaten it in a footpath used by villagers. As Hosek tried to take a photo of the lion’s tracks, his camera broke.

As a Christian, he took it as “possibly a sign from The Lord.” As he pointed out, the villagers saw the lion as a witch or a demon. They had their spirituality. Hosek had his.

On the day of the lion’s death, the hunters entered the new blind, again about 3:30. In less than an hour Charl spotted movement in tall grass. The lion approached in line with the trunk of a tree, masking his visibility. Hosek writes that he was “in a quick stride, almost trotting.”

Hosek shot the lion below and behind its left shoulder, and it was dead. One of the trackers sang the Kunda lion song and villagers converged on the place, spitting on the lion and beating it with sticks. Celebratory fires lit up the horizon.

•••••

I asked Adrian Carr, a member of the Norman Carr Safaris clan, about Hosek’s account. Carr found it to be “pretty accurate and factual.”

Carr played a role in the man-eater story, but downplayed his role as minor. He sat up for him one night, saw him but never managed to get a shot.

Here is what he says:

“I had got involved because one of my workers insisted that I come and see something.

He had got up in the night  and gone outside for a wee. The lion had tried to catch him but somehow he got back in to his hut – the lion followed him in and he miraculously managed to get back out again – though the door. All this in the pitch black with all the terrifying growling. It was a small mud hut without windows and luckily he had been alone. The doors are on the inside opening inwards – so when he got back out he pulled the door closed and the lion was stuck inside. This is what he wanted me to see. It was like a bomb had gone off inside – the lion had totally destroyed everything including the roof from where he had eventually got out.

I then put a bait up nearby (a hippo haunch) and the same lion fed on it that night – he had a big distinctive track.

I decided to sit up for him the next night.

My plan was to commandeer one of the cylindrical grain storage bins (kokwe) around the village as a blind or shelter.
It was September (I think) and the grain storage bins were mostly empty. Traditionally they are made from split bamboo and woven together very tightly. They are quite heavy, very strong and I felt (in the daylight) impregnable. I would plonk myself down on the ground 30 yards from the bait – the basket, 6 feet in diameter and 8 feet high would be placed over me, I would cut a little window to shoot through and await developments….

I was a bit late arriving that afternoon, – a small crowd gathered. I dispatched 5 strong men to go and collect a kokwe and received some quizzical looks…

I watched as one guy sauntered up to the kokwe and effortlessly lifted it up above his head!

Oh dear…. !! Made of millet stalks instead of bamboo! That’s like pith and balsa wood with no strength at all.

Too late however to do anything else if I was to retain my casual demeanor and reputation of aloof imperturbability and disdain for the magical beliefs that are always associated with man-eating lions.

Privately, of course, I was seriously doubting the wisdom of the whole enterprise!

He came soon after midnight. Or at least that’s when I first became aware of him. I could hear his footfall circling my paper-bag fortress. My two heavy rifles, three flashlights and a handgun were little comfort. It went quiet for a bit and then I heard him feeding on the bait. I let him settle in to the feeding for 20 minutes and then put the light on him. I still have the mental image of him standing up on his hind legs, very big and tall, maneless and pale. I was ready to shoot but the instant the light hit him he dropped and was gone. He never came back and Charl and Wayne got him two nights later.”

•••••

Quotes from Adrian Carr come from email correspondence kindly arranged some time ago by Norman Carr Safaris. My thanks to the Carr family and Adrian Carr.

See lots of African wildlife in the Animals and Wildlife Gallery at Earthphotos.com.

Africa Vignettes is a weekly series most Mondays this summer on CS&W.

Africa Vignette 8: Dining with Elephants

Luangwa Park, Zambia

We’re dining at a long table set on the lawn under the stars. The proprietors, Georgina and Denis, lived in the remote northern town of Broome, Australia (population then 9,000), and Georgina is telling improbable stories about people thereabouts who compete in competitions using whips, extinguishing candles and the like. People, says she, like “Jack the Whipper.”

It’s all silly and we are laughing and gabbling on when, from the other end of the table, Denis cuts us off in an urgent voice. “Georgina, Bill, will you please be QUIET. There’s an elephant right THERE.”

And there are seven. One at the edge of the trees, and as she grazes her way onto the lawn, another and another, then another follow. Denis commands that everybody, including a table of Lusaka bankers drinking over at the pavilion, sit perfectly quiet and still.

They say elephants can’t see much but shapes in the dark, but they can see movement. So there the nine of us sit, immobile and transfixed. The bankers flee to a chalet and watch from a window. The elephants eat their way to not ten feet from the table and you have never thought elephants were so big until you’re looking up at them, stuck with your legs under a table, hoping nobody sneezes.

The night crackles alive. Hyenas call and we can’t flee to our room because the elephants have stopped to eat between here and there. Earlier, a hippo took over the road. Abraham observed laconically as we sat waiting, “You have to give a hippo room to maneuver.” Words to live by.

Once we’re home the elephants put on a hard-to-sleep-after show, tearing at the trees behind the patio, even putting the occasional elephant foot on our stairs just an arm’s length away as we cower and watch through the cracked-open door.

•••••

See photos from Zambia in the Zambia Gallery at Earthphotos.com.

Africa Vignettes is a weekly series most Mondays this summer on CS&W.

Africa Vignette 7: Night Drive in Zambia

Site of the new ferry crossing

We cross the Luangwa River at a hand ferry in its first night of operation. They’ve been working on it all day.

Two men sit on a wooden platform mounted on pontoons with us and the Land Cruiser aboard. They work wooden handles to slide the barge along a cable that stretches to the other side of the river, and pull us across.

The grass on the other side has grown to waist high. The Land Cruiser parts it like a ship, until we come around a corner and pull up short to admire a dramatic full moon rise. Then John, the guy in charge of the Land Cruiser’s spotlight, swings into action.

An undefined scatter of ground animals scurry around the ground, rodents that would be alarmingly big back home. Turn the spotlight up and dozens of reflected eyes stare back from a stand of impala, who must feel vulnerable, exposed from cover of darkness.

Genets and civets, which are related to one another and to mongooses, the civet more elongated, the genet like a cat with fox ears. The bush baby, or ‘night monkey’, is a tiny primate whose eyes, when caught in the light, glow like the red end of a smoking cigar.

A beehive clings to the side of a baobab. Here is a porcupine.

We’ve stayed out so long it’s cold coming back. These are extensive drives. They might run from 6:00 to 11:30 in the morning and well after dark in the evening. Long past sunset we come upon a sign that reads, “Main Gate, 15K.”

Abraham offers around blankets.

•••••

See photos from Zambia in the Zambia Gallery at Earthphotos.com.

Africa Vignettes is a weekly series most Mondays this summer on CS&W.

Africa Vignette 4: It Takes a Long Time to Get to Zambia

Hippos in the Luangwa River, Zambia

Sure, the getting here was miserable. The long haul was more than thirteen thousand kilometers – leave shore over Charleston, South Carolina and don’t see land again until Cape Town. As if the continents were mountain peaks, you slid down the valley called the Atlantic on the flight map. That got us to Cape Town where it never dawned. The gray of winter just brightened up.

Nine more hours of airports, and these were the difficult ones, desynchronosis raging, hours 18 to 26 or so straight in a public place, no time to yourself. Now, finally, Lusaka. Here we are.

We hunt around the Lusaka airport and somehow find a woman who’s going the same place we are. She’s named Beatrice, from the copper belt up near Lubumbashi, Congo.  Up there, there are tons of ex-pats in the mining trade, so it’s a place that needs a travel agent, which Beatrice is. Next we find Ryan, the pilot from Durban, and finally Kitty and Maeva who are also lost and that’s all of us, so we load up the Cessna and head for a town on the Zambian border with Malawi called Mfuwe.

As we walk across the tarmac, Maeva, Kitty and my wife Mirja discover that they’re all three Finns, which is incredible. Three out of six random people in a Cessna from Finland, a country of just five million.

There is a lot of anticipation in this little Cessna.

See photos from Zambia in the Zambia Gallery at Earthphotos.com.

Africa Vignettes is a weekly series most Mondays this summer on CS&W.

Africa Vignette 2: Wildebeest Crossing, Mara River

A little more than a vignette this week. A story.

•••••

We ride out to the Maasai Mara in a Cessna Caravan I, Model 280B, drawn theoretically in the safety material to transport twelve passengers in staggered rows of four each but in fact refitted with a bench seat for three behind the pilot then five seats staggered behind, one on each side of the aircraft.

•••••

We have come to watch what we can see of the annual wildebeest migration, perhaps the greatest periodic movement of biomass on earth. Specifically to watch a crossing of the Mara River, in which, if the herd is big enough, invariably a few of its members will fall victim to a crocodile. We are here in fact to watch the brutal murder-by-crocodile of a few wildebeests.

Our guide is Richard, and his approach to finding a crossing is simple enough in the fundamentals: You go to a herd and watch its behavior. If it begins to head to the river, race it to reach the general spot before the herd, but stay back. Wait and watch to see what develops. Approaching the water’s edge too soon is an error. Not only might you choose the wrong spot, but the presence of a big, mechanical thing looming on the cliff might dissuade the herd from approaching.

Richard goes to work without much theory, much book knowledge, but he has worked every day for twenty-five years on his home ground, these same plains.

•••••

Sweeping horizon to horizon vistas here. Showers play across the south end of the escarpment that serves as a western marker of the Maasai Mara. Its southern terminus, easily visible, is in Tanzania.

Each morning as our wake-up coffee comes at 6:00, factory sounds waft across the river, puzzling at first. A pole with a windsock rises from behind trees on the opposite bank. Shortly on the first morning comes the explanation as the shell of a balloon rises over the trees, inhaling hot air from its flame-thrower. It seems that they send up expensive balloon rides from the other side of the Mara River, from the adjacent camp.

In effect that wind sock shows the balloon pilot how long his passengers’ dream ride over the plains will be, for, if it reveals winds blowing straight along the escarpment the ride will be short, the pilots being required to put down before the Tanzanian border, to provide his passengers their wilderness champagne breakfast brought by Land Rovers madly chasing the balloon across the plains.

Richard started out as a balloon driver before he was a guide, all those years ago. Given his not so apparent school training for his driver job I don’t wish to speculate on the training required to lift early-morning clients across the way and carry them about in a fire-powered mylar envelope.

•••••

On these safari trips you spend the first three or four days getting to know the back of your driver/guide’s head, with which you establish the nature of your new relationship.

Richard, we find, is a man of few words. My wife asks a question ripe for elaboration:

“Do you drive around film crews, sometimes?”

Richard replies, “Yes.”

•••••

This morning from a distance we spot two lines of animals moving in the direction of water, and the chase is on. The smaller, closer line moves toward the main river crossing. We take the low road, nearer the river than the hills up on the plain.

Seeing the same movement we have seen, other jeeps early on the plain converge on the same area. We circle the herd on the low road and when they reemerge they are above us, and behind where we expect them to be. They have stopped to graze.

The full, unfiltered sun beats down now, three hours past sunrise. We go to height. This close to the herd we find we need some distance to discern movement.

The herd masses, the rear still a line but the front collecting into a grazing mass. The Serena Lodge perches ungainly on the opposite overlook, a row of prefab chalets not exactly aligned along the ridge.

They come for forty-five minutes, continuously massing, and for all their substance, they seem to whisper. They pronounce the sound of the letter ö but the wind in the trees and bird chatter drown out all but the most fervent.

We shed our morning wraps. The herd grazes. We take a forward position along the river’s edge to eat breakfast in a protected place. Although we cannot see the wildebeests they are close enough above us that if a mass movement starts we will hear (feel) the movement of all those hooves.

The herd moves beyond us.

How does it know where it will cross? There are no individual decision makers, but collectively, it seems to know where it is going. Today’s herd is bigger than yesterdays and a line from the opposite direction moves to join up with them. They seek clarity of mission and they have a destination in mind.

Richard stops the Land Cruiser to raise his field glasses. He sees a “huge group” on a cliff beyond. We have been following our own smaller group all morning but now we abandon them for the chase. We stop, as drivers do, to confer with one another. “Thousands and thousands” ahead, he says.

We speed on.

This is the biggest crossing of the season.

We are surrounded. We are in its midst. A group crowds the water here and another behind us dives, energy and a frenzy of dust and mud and movement, each body splayed out, hooves wide-spread, over and off a cliff many times their height, diving blind into the river. The herd marches ahead. Crocodile jaws, open and evil, claim their due. The herd marches ahead and reconstitutes of the far side, and the whole thing takes half of an hour.

The aftermath continues for an hour or more. Mothers have been rent from offspring. They return to the far bank and look this way, searching for their young. Will they cross back?

A few do recross the river, individuals, at considerable peril. Most do not.

Zebras venture close to the water to drink in the aftermath, even a very small baby. Crocodiles lay at the water’s edge and do not attack. Must be still sated from yesterday’s crossing. A pair of giraffes approach the water but we do not see them drink.

A line of more zebras comes back.

How many do you think have crossed, five thousand, six? Richard thinks so.

•••••

More photos from Kenya in the Kenya Gallery at EarthPhotos.com. Another Africa vignette next Monday.

Even Hyenas Are Cute When They’re Babies

Hard to believe, but true. Consider:

The littlest guy pokes his head up from the nest. Staying close to mom.

 

This guy’s brave enough to stand up all by himself.

 

And the whole clan.

From the Mara North Conservancy, Kenya, just at dusk one afternoon. Click ’em to make ’em bigger. And there are lots more wildlife photos at Earthphotos.com.