We found ourselves in the rut of life, the same boring routine of trying to earn a living, and yet living hand to mouth. My brother-in-law was in Zambia on holiday, and phoned us one evening and was just so over the world about how beautiful it was, so much to see, and so wild and untouched. He called us from the harbour town of Mpulungu, Lake Tanganyika, and told us of a paradise on earth, not touched much by the Western world, and of the tropical fish he saw in the waters.
I imagine that everybody, at some stage in life, has a romantic notion to adventure the wild. If not, then it’s maybe just us, but we thought – what do we have to loose anyway?
One month later we were packed and ready to go, ready to leave our jobs and civilisation behind. We had an old ford bakkie, with a boat in tow, and it did look like we were of on safari. Our budget was shorter than a shoe-string, we had no real plan for the next 6 months, our families thought we had gone mad – but as we drove through the Zimbabwe border I felt a sense of freedom that I never imagined could exist.
I had the most amazing adventure; the experience is something I will never forget. Of course, many things that happened can only happen in Africa, and I would like to share my stories with you.
The main goal
We have always had tropical fish, and it has been a passionate hobby. The main draw to Lake Tanganyika was to catch tropical fish, and bring them back to South Africa to breed with. So, much research was done, and I had made friends with a professor , an ichiologist, from the University of the North – who gave us tips and advice on how to bring the fish home. The Department of Nature Conservation issued us with import permits, we had hand nets to catch with, snorkelling equipment, special bags and boxes, bottles of oxygen, and the knowledge of what we where looking for – in one of the longest lakes in the world.
I looked at the bakkie parked in the yard, and thought – WOW we are nuts – but I was way to excited to care anyway. I had supplies to last a lifetime, from toilet paper to BBQ spice, you name it. My medical supplies I found to be most important, and had everything packed in a steel trunk, which included anti-malaria medication, quinine, grand-pa head ache powders, liquid quinine with an assortment of saline drips, suture material (well I have sewed up dogs before) diarrhoea remedies – I’m sure I could have set up a hospital. Little did I know at the time, that my supplies would make the difference between my life or death.
I had dried paw-paw seeds to take with, and included loads of vegetable seed to plant on arrival. Husband had made a solar system for hot water, so hose pipes, taps, fittings, pvc pipe, 44 gallon drums, garden equipment and tools were packed. I had a tent made to my specifications – big enough for supplies and us, and mosquito/rain/heat proof. Stretchers, sleeping bags, mosquito coils, jerry cans, maps, Coleman lamps, a plastic baby bath, fold up chairs and tables – a list to long to think about, but although it was 16 years ago, I can still remember the organising, packing and chaos. After all – we were going to ‘camp’ in the middle of nowhere – in Africa – and me? I was ready………..
Journey to the Zambezi Valley
We had planned our journey to coincide with the border post times – which meant having to arrive at Biet Bridge for 05h30 and push through Zimbabwe to Chirundu , some 890 km, to arrive before 18h00 before crossing over to Zambia.
The previous evening we done the last bit of packing, prepared loads of padkos, and we couldn’t settle down. The kids where very excited – like kids are before a holiday, but they worked so hard helping us they just passed out after supper. After a restless few hours sleep, we were up, and left Pietersburg at a two in the morning. We must have looked a sight – this old Ford van piled high, towing a boat which was used like a trailer, and I was dressed in safari gear – khaki shorts, straw hat and flip-flops. It somehow felt quite odd not to have our rifles mounted on the bonnet. I had my shades hanging from the rear view mirror, maps easy to reach in the door, and all our documents stuffed into the cubby hole.
We travelled in September, and the air was dry but warm. Leaving Messina for the last few kilometres to Beit Bridge at dawn, the land appeared desolate. Not a blade of grass in sight, and the thorn bushes had pre-Christmas decorations on them, kindly attached by the wind – pieces of plastic and paper, blown up from the surrounding townships, in all colours imaginable. So early in the morning, only the odd goats and donkeys were about, the air didn’t have its usual divine smell which promised rain and spring. The air smelt lifeless, stale and uncared for, and I was glad to leave it behind.
On arriving at Beit Bridge excitement was again high, we piled out of our van, and went to stand in line to be checked out. Funny places these border posts. I kept on having the feeling of been watched somehow, almost like been on the run, and scared you get seized before leaving customs. Our checking out on Beit Bridge and checking in on Zimbabwe’s side went smoothly, so we drove a short distance into Zims, and pulled of the road for some breakfast. I stood next to the van, a piece of chicken in one hand, mug of steaming coffee in the other, noticed how clear and blue the sky was, and thought – wow – we are on our way. No more dull mundane routine, no telephones, no telly, no noise, no more hopeless one-day-after-the-next existence. But, my moment of quite pondering was rudely interrupted by a shrill cry out of the grass, as onto 10 black youths descended upon us – ‘’Mr Tourist Mr Tourist’’ they shouted with much excitement – with wades of Zim dollars in clenched fists. ‘’We give you good price…..you must buy……we are hungry’’
We weren’t quite sure what to make of this lot, as these shiny black faces stared at us with big innocent eyes and white smiles. We had heard rumours of been robbed, taken for a ride etc. by bands of hooligans on the road looking to make a buck out of stupid tourists. However, we had not changed our Rands yet, and the exchange rate on the roadside was very inviting. As we were only travelling through Zims, we didn’t need many dollars, so while myself and the kids kept an eye on our belongings, husband done the negotiating with a calculator and a box of South African cigarettes. This was to be our first experience in a totally free market economy found only in Africa – trading and negotiating the African way.
Our next stop was planned for Chinhoyi, north of Harare, so on we went, putting miles behind us, and just looking around all the time at a different country, different people, and different scenery. We passed police road blocks, but only had to produce our passports on each occasion. The people were tense, and at roadblocks almost aggressive, not even taking part in light banter or courteous greetings. We reached Chinhoyi in the afternoon, and using the advantage of getting 6 Zim dollars to the rand, bought some extra supplies, filled up spare petrol containers, and paid only 6 cents per litre of paraffin. Sandwiches we washed down with very cold Zambezi Export beer, at this stage we were so thirsty, dusty and hot, that we didn’t even feel the effects of the beer, and the kids also had one each, but I thought well, they would sleep all the way then as they were already bored.
At this stage we had decided to overnight in Zims, we heard that there were a few good B and B’s and a hotel closer to Chirundu, once again the exchange rate was in our favour. We stayed at a hotel just outside Chirundu – which cost us next to nothing, it was a pleasure to shower the days travel away, and we settled into bed by ten, ready to make our Zambezi entrance early the next morning.
We were up and ready to leave at 5 the following morning, and it was a chilly misty morning, only then realising that we were still on the plateau. It was only a short downhill mountain drive from there to reach the Zambian border of Chirundu. So, of we went, well rested and anxious to reach the border. We hadn’t travelled far and the mist started clearing, and the scene which unfolded before us, was breathtaking. Far below was a valley – a green carpet laid out in all its natural splendour – as far as they eye could see, heat waves shimmering on the horizon .We had found the Zambezi valley! I wondered what the likes of Stanley and Livingston must have made of the sight which lay before us. I gazed in awe at this beautiful Creation, and at the same time my mind drifted back to the arid desolate earth I had seen the previous day, with the decorated thorn trees, and I felt mournful emotions erupt for Africa.
As we descended into the valley, the temperature rose with alarming degrees, and very soon shoes, jersey’s and long pants were been peeled of. We arrived at the border post of Chirundu at 06h30, and it was already 38deg. This was a sight to see, driving over a bridge spanning the mighty Zambezi River. On crossing over, I sort of wanted to cry – just because we had made it so far, and because it was just beautiful – this was the Africa I had always dreamt of, always wanted to see. Baboons lazed in the trees, and ambled around the parking area as if they themselves were in charge. Massive long haulage trucks had already formed a long line in wait of passing through the border. The buildings reminded me of some dirty Mexican outpost in a Western movie. Paint was peeling of the walls, notices bleached by the sun vaguely said you aren’t allowed to take photos. The floors had cracks all over – but shone brightly polished, and the ceiling fan looked as if it would fall of, as it turned ever so slow – hardly moving the thick hot air. The customs officials sat behind the counter in pristine uniforms, their buttons on their uniforms polished – and worn with much pride.
We passed inspections and a lot of questions .My brother-in-law had applied for us before hand for investors permits – this gave us a special sort of status. If you held an investors permit, it basically meant – to a Zambian – that we had a lots of money, and could employ hundreds of people, in short – we would feed many. However, all this questioning took place with a lot of laughter, and a great atmosphere of been made to feel welcome to their country. Tom was the name of the customs official who processed our entry – I still remember his name, and the fact that he loved South African cigarettes.
We left the border post, and headed North, through Kafue Gorge onto Lusaka. The type of vegetation was something I had never seen before. Huge Baobab trees loomed like ancient castles in a mystic land; the road bleached white from the heat and sun, and streaked with elephant urine. Although the mopanie trees were mostly green, the earth was baked red and bare, waiting for relief from the first rains. The heat was all consuming, not a breath of air moved – it was as if life had been put on hold, while the seasons changed, preparing for the contractions of re-birth. We couldn’t drive with the windows open – or with them closed – our mouths dried so quickly we even had to stop speaking, the hot air burnt our skin and mouths. Later somebody told us that the valley has a high suicide rate during the hot months – it drives men mad, they said. I can well believe it.
The roads were surprisingly good, and I saw signposts saying who donated what as far as rebuilding the roads were concerned – Japan and Canada – quite surprising. Alongside the road, equipment and machinery stood idle – looking as if everything had been left in a hurry, weeds starting to encroach and rust setting in. The countries who were helping with the redevelopment of the roads, gave the equipment, started some training – and left. There was nobody now who knew what to do any more – so millions worth of bulldozers and earth moving equipment stood idle, to become fossils like the petrified trees of Kafue.
Lusaka was a vibrant chaotic African city. Not one robot was working, and it was only the bravest to dart across a road – either as a pedestrian or as something with wheels on. Buses drove with reckless speed around the city, kicking up the dry earth, packed high with baggage, furniture and baskets of squawking chickens. The passengers packed liked sardines in a tin. All of the robots didn’t have green glass on anyway – the glass had long since been stolen, broken into bits and sold to tourists as emeralds.
The streets were filled with hundreds of people going in different directions – well dressed businessman wearing Armani suits, beggars on the edge of starvation, women dressed in colourful traditional robes. Scrawny children playing with scrawny dogs. Markets were set up on the pavements, selling a variety of goods, in a hap-hazard fashion. The biggest open market I could ever imagine, called Soweto, sold anything from French letters to spare parts for your car (which would have been stolen of you the earlier the same day). Dirty water was running down the side streets, the main road through the city full of rubbish, and sign posts virtually non-existent. . A few half built buildings had been left for many years – trees and shrub growing through them, as if the buildings now housed mini eco systems, a relic of a colony. At least it was better than graffiti.
In Lusaka you could buy anything, gold, diamonds – whatever you could think of. You could go into a store and barter with emeralds to purchase your goods, or simple sit on the side walk and make money – from buying and selling money. US dollars however where the most sought after, and was generally used and accepted. We converted Rands to Kwacha at the border post after a good haggle of exchange rate (again with a group of youths), as where we were headed was the outback, no-man’s land untouched much by the Western way, and didn’t think US dollars would do much for us. I believe you could buy wild animals, and beautifully carved ivory as well – this they actually called black market trade – hard to imagine when anything else was so freely available. I did succumb however, and bought a hand made copper and malachite bracelet, and some hand made baskets to use in camp.
Farmers in the city on business, all with land rovers, as well as the more travelled tourists, had “keepers” looking after their vehicles. Young men desperate for some money would guard your vehicle and belongings with a machete, for only a few Kwacha. It was seen to be a respectable profession, and the community stayed clear – well aware that this person was “responsible”, and by been “responsible” would be held fully accountable by the law, should anything go missing. Not having a “responsible” person meant you could find your vehicle on blocks (well somebody may have needed the tyres) in the time it could take to buy a cold beer from a shop.
We had to meet up with a contact of my brother-in-law to collect our export permits for the fish, and hoped we wouldn’t be held up to long. All the hustle and bustle in this dry dusty city was a bit too much to handle, and I felt claustrophobic, wanting the wide open spaces. We had to meet at a camping site, which turned out to be a relief. We had a shower in the ablution blocks, and met some people who were camping while waiting for permits etc to be issued. I was surprised to find many South Africans – from all walks of life, looking to invest time and money in this country. We heard about a South African farming community in the Mkushi block, and apparently they had been doing very well. They had their own distance learning schools set up, a farming doctor looked after their medical needs, and they even had a dominie. Accountants/lawyers set up practise to help with the red-tape of permits and visa’s, some even offered a printing service, and import/export advise and agencies. Our investors permit meant that, should we stay and start a business or go into farming, tourism or game keeping, that we wouldn’t pay taxes for 5 years, and import duties and taxes would only be applied to goods that could not be made in Zambia – at the time it that was almost everything, except beer and coke. The word was out it seemed – this was the new country of opportunity, and the atmosphere in the camp was one of hope, new found excitement for life, and the brotherhood of standing together. I knew now what it felt like, to explore uncharted territory so to speak, a Klondike gold rush, the Great Trek – and I was high on life.
We left Lusaka early afternoon, and by our calculations should have reached Lake Tanganyika by mid-night. We just wanted to get there now, and with both of us taking turns to drive, thought the next thousand odd kilometres should be a walk in the park, as we were sort of half way. The fellow adventurer’s we met at the camp site had told us of potholes and the bad conditions of the roads north of Lusaka, but we just thought – well, how bad could it be? A word of advise we did take, was to buy a ‘crate’ of cokes, which consisted of 6 250ml bottles – without an empty nobody would sell you a coke (so they said), and that was the only clean, cold drink affordable. So, we weren’t going to take a chance there. After all, a local had told husband “Bwana – this roads is no such beeeg problems” A thousand kilometres later we had learnt very well that when you are told “is no problems”, prepare for the worst as the local chap is just being polite.
The Great North Road.
Our journey North was to take us up to Kabwe, Serenje, Kasama, Kapiri-Mposhi, Mbala, and back down the escarpment to Mpulungu – Lake Tanganyika – end of the road. The kids had been so well behaved and patient, but there was so much to see, and we went through phases of singing by ourselves or to tapes we played, or chatting away, sometimes just quietly looking at the scenery, and they slept a lot.
Kabwe is not far from Lusaka, and we found the roads to be alright – nothing like the horror stories we had heard. However, North of Kabwe all civilisations came to an abrupt halt. All of a sudden there was nothing except the road, which had narrowed to single lanes – one going there and one coming back, and scrub-land. The scrub-land was actually forest, or what was left of it, after been plundered for charcoal, or burnt down for crops. The veldt was green, and we crossed a lot of rivers and streams. I could also tell that this land had not actually been used for a long time, as young saplings were battling their way up. Mounds of ground could be seen on places where wood had been burnt for the charcoal, as if to mark the burial sites of magnificent living creatures cut down in their prime.
We came across a row of rocks packed across the road. Now, this is almost as strange as seeing pink elephants, and wondered, if we stopped, would we be hijacked or something. We stopped anyway – not that there was a choice involved, and two little kids appeared from nowhere, I’m sure they couldn’t have been older than 6 or 7, they only had loin cloths on, and came up to the van with big smiles of their faces. In broken English and husband’s knowledge of a few African languages, we learnt that they had put the rocks across the road to protect us against a pothole further on – and we needed to pay them to remove the rocks. Not a bad warning service I thought, almost like a toll of some sorts, but better, as the locals benefited for a change. It only cost the equivalent of a few rand and a bag of sweets, and they were very happy with the agreed method of payment.
Rocks removed, we travelled only a short distance, and came across the first of the famous potholes. Well, I’ve heard that while travelling in Namibia, when you see ears poking out of a hole in the road that it’s a rabbit. All I can say is that if you applied the same logic to this hole that lay before us – it would most definitely be a giraffes ears. We stood with our hands on our hips, stared at the hole, looked at each other and said – “this hole – she is no beeg problems” and started laughing until the tears ran – this was going to be a long journey.
The travelling was now really difficult, as we could only drive at a snails pace. As soon as we picked up speed thinking the worst was over, we would have to slow down, sometimes stop, actually get out, and first see how we would navigate past. We couldn’t risk loosing a rim, tyre or doing any damage to the van or trailer. Our nerves where shot, we all stared at the road constantly, on the look out for potential disasters. I had become so pre-occupied with the road that I hadn’t noticed the change in vegetation. The grass grew right onto the tarmac, and we found ourselves surrounded by forest, the trees absolutely huge, with little undergrowth except grass and the odd bush. By late afternoon we were exhausted, and so tensed up from the journey. According to the map at least, we weren’t to far from a town or village, so decided to stop for awhile, fill up with fuel, and get our bearings back.
We found the village – which turned out to be a service station of sorts. Basically it was a spaza shop come shebeen, and the sole petrol pump was ancient as it had a lever on the side and you had to pump fuel manually. Rusty coca-cola boards in a 60’s style were nailed to the side of the building. We noticed for the first time then that there was nothing for miles around. No telephone or electricity poles, no road names, no sign posts and no people. We pondered on when last we saw a vehicle approaching or passing us – and realised it hadn’t been for hours. Villages had also become non-existent. We had seen a few, but these had been deserted and broken down. It also dawned on us that, even with the beautiful surroundings we had not seen a living animal/bird/creature since Kabwe, except for a few goats and cattle. The spaza shop owner was a very cheerful old man, his hair peppered with grey, his face wrinkled and thin, and he was quite excited to have tourists visit his store.
We gathered loads of information from him, and learnt that many people had been dying due to aids or malaria, therefore the deserted villages, and due to hunger and poverty everything living had been killed and eaten. He was very happy that Kaunda was now out of the picture, and spat on the earth when he spoke his name. He spoke perfect English, and told us of the horror of Kaunda’s regime, and how thankful the people were with Chiluba in power. He said that he could see things improving, as white people were returning to farm, and creating jobs, and tourists were coming in droves. For this old soul in the middle of nowhere the future looked bright – he had customers.
After having a rest and the last bits of padkos, we studied the maps, and with the information from the old man, realised we had a bit of a problem ahead. As signposts where now a thing of the past, we had to keep a close eye on how far we travelled between towns, as fuel would now also become scarce and at a premium price. If a petrol pump was found, the chances could be that the fuel was finished (and wait a week for the next delivery) or it could be closed after 18h00, or the owner might not actually be at home. We did have spare fuel with us, but didn’t really want to use it, knowing that the further North we travel, the more expensive it would be. According to what we knew, we were a few hours away from Kasama, and decided to carry on.
While we were getting ready to leave, we heard a loud banging noise coming from the horizon, and getting louder. In the distance a huge truck was bearing down the road, going like a bat out of hell – the banging was from each time the truck hit a pothole. The truck came flying past – the driver had his foot on the steering wheel, a beer in one hand, and the other hanging out the window, with a red bandanna flying from his head. We stood by the side of the road, and watched the truck disappear again – speechless. The old man then told a story of a truck that broke down, and the driver stayed for a month with his truck before help arrived, as well as a family who camped for a week next to their broken land rover.
As we travelled North the road only got worse, and some patches had no tarmac left at all, just a bit of ground with patches of tarmac, and holes caused by the previous rain season. But, we persevered, taking our time and been vigilant. It started getting dark, and that made driving worse, although a cyclist or person walking, would sometimes have been kind enough to lay a log or pile of stones in the road to mark a pothole.
Quite late in the evening we noticed road stalls – well – two poles with a plank on top – piled with eggs, tomatoes and cassava. The tomatoes were in piles of five, and this looked rather strange. As we passed one stall we saw someone standing there, and stopped, asking about these stalls. Well, the eggs were boiled, and all the produce available to buy. All you had to do was help yourself, and leave money behind – whatever you thought would be a fair price.
So, we had supper of boiled eggs and tomatoes, and ate cassava for the first time – which tastes similar to sweet potatoes. A few miles down the road, we had desert of wild banana’s and mango’s, which was like the roadhouses of old, as I helped myself through the van’s window, and left what I thought was a fair price.
It felt as if we weren’t making any headway, it was pitch dark, the road was endless, and we had know idea how far we had to go still. We were tired – and in those conditions, that made driving dangerous. Both of us leaning forward, driving slowly and watching the road was concentration in a big way. Suddenly something flew up in front of the van, leaving a trail of what looked like white silk in its wake. Well – we found ourselves wide awake, and had churning stomachs, as one has when you’ve had a fright. This was just enough for the day, so pulled of the road and decided to get some sleep.
When packing the boat, we made provision for a time such as this, so sleeping bags where close at hand, as well as a large piece of canvas, with two tents poles, some tent pegs and rope. It didn’t take long to get lamps going, put water on to boil for coffee, and put a bivvy up for us to sleep under. I was standing on the road, a warm coffee at hand, and the silence hurt my ears, there was not a sound, and the starlit sky seemed close enough to touch. The kids were stretching their legs, and walked up the road with a torch – and they found our phantom with the white silk – it was a nightjar, very similar to ones found in South Africa – except that these birds had long silky white plumes on the ends of their wings, and that’s what flew up in front of us. Just before I fell asleep, I heard a nightjar in the distance, and I drifted of without a care in the world.
Dawn came, and with it the sound of a rusty squeak….squeak……squeak coming closer to where we lay. Quite a distance from the van, the squeaking stopped, and a voice called out “Bwaaaaanaaaa………Bwaaaaanaaa……… .is the Bwana heving problems?” We crawled out of our sleeping bags, to be confronted by a corpse of an old man, with most of his teeth missing, holding his hat in hand, and looking at us with great consternation. He spoke fluent Fanagalho, which he had learnt from working the copper mines at Ndola. He seemed to relax when he found out we weren’t in trouble, and chatted away with Husband like there was no tomorrow. We reckoned we didn’t have much farther to travel, and asked the old man’s advise as to our location. He knew about the Lake, “The Kapenta are from this place” he said, and indicated with his hand up the road, saying – “No problems” – that it was over the next hill. He only knew the time it would take – by bicycle was one day, and – walking with feet would be three days.
Our excitement was now once again refuelled, and after coffee for breakfast we set of for the last leg of our journey. The roads where horrendous, travel was slow, and after every hill was another, with still no sight of another valley or the Lake. By mid-day we felt a change in the air, and the vegetation became denser, and we crossed many rivers. The town of Mbala was suddenly in front of us, but we just kept on looking to the horizon – how can the longest Lake in the world be so hidden we wondered? Mbala was dusty, and the road down to Mpulungu was crowded with people, goats, and buses – a highway of traffic to and from the Lake.
If we thought the road behind us was bad, this last piece was the worst, but we drove slowly, dodging goats, cattle and people on the way down. At last we could see big mountains ahead, and although the downhill wasn’t at all steep, we were at least descending. We drove around a bend, and out of the blue there it was – not a feint cloud on the horizon as we had thought earlier, but water, the Lake – and as far as the eye could see. A great expanse of blueness held in the bowl of the Great Rift Valley Mountains.
We arrived in the harbour town of Mpulungu, a bustling town of people and noise, dust flying after donkey drawn carts and buses. The heat and humidity was almost unbearable, and we were travel weary and tired. Amidst the crowds I saw a little blond head bobbing about – my niece – waving frantically at us, her face beaming with excitement. My brother-in-law and his wife had been waiting for us for nearly two days, we jumped at each other, shouting with relief, and all trying to talk at the same time – we had so much to say and share.
Our family had arranged for us all to stay at a build-in-progress camp site, set up by a German and his Zambian wife. So, of we drove following my brother-in-law’s battered land rover. The camp was on the edge of the lake, just on the outskirts of town, and once we had settled down, learnt that our final destination was still 25km over water, but, this was no problem. Or so we were told.
A transport boat had been arranged for early the following morning, so the plan was to take all of our belongings, as well as our boat, across the Lake. The vehicles would be stored at the Department of Fisheries, no problem. We unpacked a few things like sleeping bags and stretchers, and a few supplies for supper, and decided to take a walk to stretch our aching bodies, and actually take in our surroundings.
I took a bee line to the waters edge, over smooth pebbles, and stood with my feet in the water, which was lapping lazily on the stones. I bent down and sprayed water on my face and arms. Looking ahead I could not see land. The water was heaven on my feet, and I stretched my arms out, smelt the air, took a deep breath, and simply fell in love.
Spirit of the Lake
Some facts –
Lake Tanganyika is the longest fresh water lake in the world, stretching some 677km north to south, and on average 50km wide. It is also the second deepest in the world, an astonishing 1433m, and 642m below sea level. There are over 350 species of fish found in its waters, and most of them endemic. The Lake can appear as smooth as a mirror, without a ripple or slight movement, and in a short while, can turn into rough surf with waves of over 6m – without a breath of wind, sight of cloud or brewing storm. This is caused from storms far north in Burundi, which has a ripple effect right into the south. However, this surface movement is not enough to stir the deep water, which is ‘dead’ fossil water – having no oxygen, and is thought to be at least 20 million years old. The deeper water only has a temperature difference of about 3 degrees compared to the surface; the reasons are not as yet clear.
The following morning we were up at dawn, the weather was hot, humid and misty. We didn’t want to linger around; we had much to do and just wanted to get settled. So, of we went to the Fisheries small harbour to park the vehicles. My brother-in-law had arranged for 5 locals to help with the massive task at hand – to off load the van and boat, get our boat into the water, and then transfer all of our belongings onto the transport boat. It didn’t take to long, so while waiting for the transport boat, I had time to explore a bit. The scene before me was postcard perfect, with the mist hanging around the mountains, and ancient boats moored on the pier. Every building around the area looked ancient, peeled of paint, broken roofs and windows, some deserted years ago, just left to rot. I thought how sad this was, such beautiful natural scenery around me, but marred by mans imperfections.
In the distance I saw some boats approaching, surprisingly large, like tugs. As the boats got closer, I could see seagulls flying around them and hear their squawking, very strange so far inland, but seagulls have a flourishing nesting colony at the harbour. These where fishing trawlers returning from a nights fishing for Kapenta and shrimp, ready to off load their catch. The Kapenta/shrimp mixture is dried, and called kala-kala. This mixture is boiled and eaten with porridge made from cassava.
In between the commotion of these trawlers I had not noticed another boat approach us – and when I did, and realised that this was the transport boat – I was horrified. The crew waved towards us with great excitement, smile beaming from ear to ear, shouting out to the men who had been helping us. This boat was all of 25foot, driven only by a 25hp outboard motor, handmade, many years old, and had no floor. I thought “What? Me? Forget it – I have expensive equipment, my bikini, documents, food – nooooo way am I getting into this” Somehow I had a different picture of a transport boat in my mind – this did not fit the bill.
I voiced my concerns to all and sundry and was re-assured “Medem this boat she is safe, is no problems” and Husband tried to tell me this is how large cargo’s are transported around, so I shouldn’t worry. Well, again there wasn’t much choice involved, so the boat was packed, our boat, not designed to carry anything other than a few people to go fishing, was ready. After the children scrambled aboard it was my turn, if I stood on the floor of the boat I couldn’t see over the top, and the bottom was slimy, filled with about 15cm of water. I wondered if the damn thing was watertight, and looked for a better place to sit. Across the top of the boat, wooden struts served as seats, so I had to lift myself up onto the planks, pushing my feet up the inside of the boat to get a grip. Once we were all settled, the captain shouted out, and we were on our way. My brother-in-law, along with his wife and child took our boat, as it would be faster and they knew the way. I couldn’t imagine that the captain, crew, ourselves and all our goods fitted with remarkable ease into this vessel, with room to spare.
Even though we had been on the road for many days, a new sense of adventure surged as the land grew small behind us. By this time the sun was high, a cool wind was gently blowing, and the water was splashing up against the side of the boat, creating a cool mist. It felt as if I was in the middle on the ocean, but the waves were small, and we could barely make out land ahead. To the east in the distance were the shores of Tanzania, to the west the Congo, north would be Burundi. It was exhilarating to sit high on this boat, and survey the world, with the wind blowing through my hair, and gently rocking up and town in tune to the water .My attention was drawn again to the blue depths – I could see rocks and fish below, and something was swimming around trailing what looked like two yellow lights – this I thought must be the amazing Ventralis – I had only seen this fish in books, and couldn’t wait to get a better view, as its regarded as one on the most spectacular fish in the Lake.
My concerns about a leaking boat had just sort of drifted from my mind, when I took my eyes of my surroundings and looked down at the floor. The water would have been half way up my shins by now, but just then one of the crewmen produced a plastic bottle, which had been cut in half to form a type of shovel. He jumped down to the floor, and started shovelling water – it was an amazing site, as he done it so quickly, it looked like a solid stream of water been pumped over the side. Apparently this was his job – his sole purpose on this voyage was to bale water.
As we came closer to our destination, I could see that the slope of the mountains were almost naturally terraced, and sheer rock cliffs stretched from about mid-way to the top, which lead onto the escarpment. From the escarpment to the Lake is about a 250m drop. Not far below the cliffs, palm trees grew, as if making a pathway, following the shore line. I later learnt that these palm trees are not indigenous – they originated from the slave trade days, when coconuts were dropped by caravans of slaves, always using the same route. How could a tree that was so beautiful, that produced a product so sought after by society, mark such suffering and misery, I wondered. For the most part everything looked green, even though this was just before the rainy season. The trees looked huge, what we knew as Moekwa, or Rhodesian Teak and Kiaat, amongst others.
The shore grew closer, and while we had a jetty and pier to help us load, I didn’t see such luxury where we were about to dock. The captain gave a shout, and the anchor was thrown out, the anchor was a bag of rocks tied together. A short distance from us our boat was already anchored, and the family waiting on shore. The shoreline here was very rocky, and it was too dangerous to moor the boats closer, lest they get damaged by hitting the rocks when the surf got rough. We were instructed by the captain to go ashore, assured by him that he and his men would carry our goods ashore without harm. The kids thought this was great, and without invitation dived into the water and simply swam to shore. I sat at the back of the boat, and was last to get out. Husband climbed out, and I was relieved to see that the water wasn’t at all deep, and came to just below his chest. The crew had made a line between the boat and shore, and when I was about to venture in wasn’t against a swim as I was hot and sweaty, but to my surprise I was lifted by two men and carried ashore, with only my bare feet getting wet.
I actually felt so embarrassed, as they wouldn’t hear of putting me in the water.
Without further ado, everything was brought to shore, and by the time they left amidst friendly goodbyes it was late afternoon. We found ourselves on dry ground with nothing around us except dry bush, trees and the Lake – and little time before dark to get a big tent up. My brother-in-law had done very little to make his family comfortable, which annoyed me. They only had a 4 man tent, which was put up in haphazard style, with an open fire for cooking. He had been there for three weeks already. He had at least employed a local from a nearby village; his name was Early – because he was born early. Early spoke fluent English, and looked like a man who enjoyed good booze up, I wasn’t wrong, I would discover. We asked him if this area had a name, he said “This is Kapemb-wa-mpondo, it means Spirit of the Lake, because our ancestors are here”
The sun started setting, and the tent was up, and our belongings packed neatly in a corner. We had the chairs out, and sat having a well deserved coffee, exhausted from our day, while we watched the sun go down, and felt a small relief of cooler air. Sitting there I breathed in the Lake, and watched the last of the suns rays play on the water, while the surf made soft chatter noises on the rocks. The fire crackled softly, and I listened to my family’s quiet voices as they shared the events of the last few months. I was dirty and tired, but I was content.
The following morning we were up at 04h00, which was to become the norm over the next few weeks. I woke feeling sticky, dirty and stiff, and I’m sure we did not have a very pleasant aroma about us, so all trundled down to the edge of the Lake, with towels and toiletries at hand. Since seeing this stretch of water I had been impatient to swim and explore, and my chance had arrived. I stood knee deep in the balmy water, and washed the few days of travel from my hair and body, revelling in the freedom of bathing in the wild. I was a bit hesitant at first, but it didn’t look to deep, so put my goggles on and just took a dive to rinse myself.
The vision before me was magical, it felt as if I had been shrunk, and left to swim in a fish tank. The water was crystal clear – visibility at least 10 meters. Where ever I looked, there were fish of all shapes, sizes and colour. Tropheus Moori, Lamprologus Moori, Erectmodus, Compressiceps and many more I didn’t recognise at the time. This was a rock beach, so there was no flora, but the rocks were covered with a green type of under water moss, and the colour of the water in the deep distance appeared mauve. I was totally captivated and amazed at the amount of life, which you wouldn’t imagine existed from above. The beautiful Ventralis made an appearance, a simmering blue body, with a touch of yellow, and two long side fins, which have the brightest of yellow on the points. You could see this fish approach from miles away, just by looking for the yellow ‘headlights’. A school of small pelagic fish passed, only about 10cm long, and as they darted around, the sun reflected of their shiny scales, a flash of neon baby blue. I was mesmerized, and for a moment in time, nothing else mattered or existed – it was just me, the fish and the water. But, there were more important things to do on this day – the Lake certainly wasn’t going anywhere, so reluctantly I tread dry ground, and went back to camp.
Over breakfast we discussed plans for the next few weeks, and delegated who was doing what. My brother-in-law had already spoken to the local Chief, who had given us permission to stay as long as we liked – providing we employed a few of the villagers. Early was dispatched with a message to the Chief to set up a meeting, we needed to clarify our position and status, and by doing this the African way, the Chief was to receive a gift of good blessing – a box of spark plugs, and a 15hp Seagull motor. Early was also to get word out that there was work available, we had lots to do – and needed hands.
The men had the task of getting fresh water to camp, get the tents up more securely, organise an ablution area, and clear some ground for a living area. I had the task of unpacking and re-packing so we could find things, setting up a cooking area – and making a vegetable patch. I reckoned that veggies should grow very quick in the rich fertile soils, and as we weren’t sure how long we wanted to stay, wanted to make sure we had at least decent greens available. I also had a plan to build a miniature cool room. These were just some basics that we wanted done to make our stay more comfortable.
The heat became unbearable to work in before mid-day, but the tents had been secured properly, and I busied myself sorting out linen, stretches and mosquito nets – I was determined to eventually have good comfortable sleep that night. I arranged the tents with separate sleeping and storage area, and unpacked essential items onto shelving we took with, got table and chairs outside, identified my kitchen area. The most important thing of keeping a good camp was organisation – everything had to have a place. The children were champions – they had the task of digging a trench around the tent to drain of the rain, the soil was soft, and it kept them from wondering into unknown territory, and I didn’t want them alone in the Lake. They had their own tent and were well excited about having their own space.
The men had identified a small terrace on which to place the 44gallon drums, this was to be for running water. Just higher up, was apparently a small fountain, so the plan was to pipe fresh water into the drums and then into camp. All the DIY equipment had been unpacked, and the solar panel that husband made in South Africa was put in place – I thought that with the heat and sun, the water would surely be boiling and even in the heat I would relish a hot bath – or something close. They had surveyed the area and found thatching grass and reeds – and as it was before the rainy season these natural resources were right to be used to ‘build a bathroom’ An area close to the Lakes shores was also identified for a veggie patch, as well as a secluded area just away from camp for ablutions.
By late afternoon we were exhausted, and realised it would take a few days to adjust to the different climate, heat and changes we made to our normal dull office existence. Every muscle I had, and didn’t know I had, ached – and was somehow a good feeling of doing something productive and good with my body. We decided to call it a day, and hit the Lake to cool down and bathe.
After a cool swim, and feeling refreshed, we headed back to camp, and while resting with a cup of coffee, heard singing in the distance. The voices came closer, and brought a lump to my throat, as it was a sad song, in deep tones that rumble the earth, that you will only hear in Africa. The men were lead by Early – this was the workforce he had returned with. There were seven men in all, and my first thought was how would we afford to pay them – we didn’t need so many.
The local people who live next to the Lake are small in stature, with stocky builds. They have been fishermen for as long back as anyone can remember. Trade between the villages is common place, for example one village may have a man who can thatch, another may have someone who makes bricks, and so they barter between themselves with fish, fruit and skill. The people who live on top of the escarpment are tall, and built like Zeus; they are farmers, keep livestock and plant crops. Chiefs rule this whole area, no politics from Lusaka play a role in the rural outback, and it’s a totally peaceful community. The Chiefs rule with an iron fist, if you steal you loose a finger or even a hand – all depending on the severity of theft. If your crime is serious, such as rape or murder, you might disappear, or worse, the Chief will ostracise you, and you will be shunned and left to starve. Nobody messed with a Chief.
Early and the men stood a distance from camp, not moving closer until Husband indicated that they may. When they came closer, they almost crawled, heads down, murmuring respectful greetings, and then sat on their haunches. Husband told Early to tell the men to relax, we weren’t some important Chief’s, we just needed some labour, but Early said it is their way, and they would feel insulted if we didn’t respect their ways. This was going to be a huge learning curve.
A meeting was called, and the men sat in a circle around us, each having fetched a rock to sit on – to sit on the ground would be degrading, but they had to sit lower than the Bwana, all the while this procedure been explained by Early. To my surprise they all spoke English very well, which they had learned from Missionaries, most were around 30 or 35, and for all of them – this was to be their first jobs. They all needed work, money was scarce in these parts, but if we employed all it would mean a huge boost to the village. So, after some discussion it was decided that we could employ seven, and they would be paid according to status in the village, and in the workforce. At the end of the day, our total expenditure on wages and rations would be only R500 a month, each man would be well fed daily, and a 80kg bag of maize meal would be supplied to each man’s family along with his pay cheque. They thought we had been sent from heaven, and I thought it was a crying shame that these people had nothing.
The men had relaxed a bit, and the meeting turned into a discussion, they had so many questions about South Africa, and the chatting and banter lasted until dark, as we discussed with them what we would be doing over the next couple of days. Early called me one side, and said he had two men who I would need to help me. Fetching firewood and building fire to cook on was as Early described it ‘Medems not carrying these thing of men’s’. So, I met Henry – he was to be the cook and kitchen boy, and Peter, he was to be the fire keeper and security at night. Henry was slightly slower than the rest, and I was sure that Peter had aids, I later nicknamed him sleeping Peter, as all he did was curl up next to the fire at night and sleep, I seldom saw him awake.
We had Early, who as I said before, was born early, and then Firstborn – he must’ve been born first, Henry, Peter, Samuel, and 2 Simons, who we called Simon 1 and Simon 2. The following day a giant of a man came into camp looking for work, his muscles rippled as he walked, he was from the escarpment, proud and tall – his name was Obed, and he joined the team. Each of these men where to touch us in a different way, and I often think of them, and wander how they are.
Over the following weeks many things happened that I will remember forever. These Zambian people have such a great sense of humour, and even though they live for the most part in appalling conditions, and loose loved ones on a daily basis from Aids, malaria, dysentery, cholera or disease, they always smile and laugh, happy and accepting their simple lives. How often don’t we complain that we don’t have enough, but don’t take a step back and count what we have?
The Relish garden and bathroom
Next morning, as usual, the sun baked us out of our tents with the first light. I heard the men coming down the path, singing, and their song was added to the morning routines. My first priority of the day was to get vegetables planted. I gathered Henry, Sleeping Peter and some garden equipment, and of we went. The rest of the men were to get water on tap and the solar system on the go.
I had packed seed, ranging from carrots to paw-paw. Firstly we picked a spot not far from the Lake, and I showed them what needed to be done. The ground seemed rich and fertile, and quite soft, so I didn’t think it would take long to prepare the soil. While they were busy, I joined the rest to see what was going on with my running water. At this stage there wasn’t much for the children to do, and they wanted to explore, so Samuel was eager to take charge, and teach them the basics of our surroundings. After Samuel took charge, the only time I ever saw them was when they were hungry.
The fountain that we had hoped to use was dry, as it only ran during and for a short while after, the rainy season. But, as the tanks were situated next to the path back to the men’s village, Simon 1 said that if they each take 25L of water when they leave, the tanks would stay full, as it was only water to wash with, and for dishes. So, pvc pipes were laid from the tanks to camp, and filled up. One tank would feed the solar system, and the men were amazed at this piece of equipment that could make water hot. While this was been done, some of the men set of in search of reeds and poles, that we wanted to use to make an enclosure to bath in. Fine pebbles were hauled up from the beach; this was for a floor in ‘my bathroom’
The garden patch was ready for planting in no time, and I sat with Henry and Sleeping Peter, showing them the different type of seed, and how we would plant. Henry knew all the type of veggies, by recognising the pictures on the packets, he told me they had taught him in school, but he had never tasted carrots or peas, he had never eaten an apple, and was disappointed that I didn’t have apple seed. I had to explain that apples grew on trees, and it was to hot to grow apples. I remembered then that I still had a few apples in the tent, and fetched one each for him and Sleeping Peter. They ate the apples like children having sweets for the first time, with gleeful smiles and juice running down their chins, while shouting over to the rest of the workforce that they had received a special gift from the ‘Medems’ , and this caused loud jolly banter back and forth for most of the day. I left them to plant and water the seeds, hoping that it would be a successful exercise.
I was pleasantly surprised when I saw the progress made back at camp; I had a quaint reed bathroom, totally enclosed, with a reed wall just about my height. Inside was a cool pebble floor, and a tap with running water. I fetched a big plastic baby bath and toiletries and – wow – we had a bathroom, and it even had a mirror hanging from the reeds, and makeshift hooks for towels and cloths. A big stump of wood sufficed as a stool. There was no ceiling, but I thought the clear blue sky was fitting.
When I approached the veggie patch, I saw some chalk writing on a big rock, and it said ‘Relish Gaden’. Sleeping Peter and Henry had been so proud of their achievements, that they gave the patch a name. Anything you can eat with porridge they call ‘Relish’, and as I had told them this was to be a shared garden, they called it the ‘relish gaden’ From that moment on it was never referred to as anything else. They had done a fantastic job, paths had been made in between the beds, and the empty packets of seed stuck neatly onto sticks, to indicate what had been planted where. Between themselves they had agreed a watering routine, and now we just had to wait for the seed to grow. I knew the pumpkins would yield our first harvest, but not the actual pumpkins, the soft new leaves, which are delicious when cooked like spinach.
Before the men left that evening they just had to test the solar system. They yelped and shouted when they scalded their fingers, even after the Bwana warned that the water would burn, but they found it funny and magical, and literally rolled around laughing at each others burning fingers. We all ended up laughing, and the more we laughed, the funnier it all seemed. Henry, Sleeping Peter, Early and Simon 1 had asked to stay in camp as it was to far to walk to their village every night, so they had a fire just below our camp, and slept in the open.
Every night it became routine, that after supper, the men would join us around the firelight, and stories were told backwards and forth about hunting, fishing, the Lake and politics.
I couldn’t wait to try out the bathroom, so left the men to chat and, had a ‘bath’. I had a Coleman lamp for light, and sat starker in a warm soapy baby bath with my legs over the side, the sky was clear, and the stars close enough to touch, a soft warm breeze cut through the reeds to cool my skin. This was heaven, while I listened to the laughter at camp, as Simon 1 told his story of having to rescue a tourist from a Nile Perch. He had seen people catch something just of shore, and were been pulled around in the boat, so rowed out with his dugout to help them. The tourist had caught a Nile so big, that they couldn’t get it into the boat – and the boat was all of 6 foot long. Simon 1 told his story with much drama and body movement, while the rest of the men gave their two cents worth, amid howls of laughter.
Toilets and kitchens
Sanitation was of major importance. Fresh drinking water was unavailable, and with so many nasty bugs around, we had to make sure that we lived as hygienically as possible. I had water purification tabs, so boiled Lake water, and when it cooled, still added a tab just for good measure. I had water bags hanging in the shade fro drinking purposes, and if kept a bit damp, made for a cool drink. All containers and eating utensils were also rinsed in a weak bleach solution.
The cooking area was built the following day, looking more like an outside braai that you would find in a lapa. The men used flat rocks to build it with, and stuck the whole lot together with termite mound – which had been mixed with water and tramped by foot to create a smooth plaster. It was quite a professional job, and with the heat of the fire, would bake into a virtually indestructible outside oven. They made a table of sorts as well, leaning of a huge tree, to use for washing up, and drying dishes. Henry cleared the whole area, and stocked up with wood .He smoothed the ground, and swept the ‘kitchen’ with branches, and we unpacked pots and pans, hanging them from the table and branches by the tree. I hung a large portion of lace curtains from a higher branch, to cover the area when not in use, as the sand flies where a plague. I don’t know what idea I had in my head when I packed the curtains in – but they sure came in handy. I then noticed a ground pepper like ‘stuff’ accumulating on the lace, and asked Henry what it was, so he promptly climbed into the tree, and brought down a branch with tiny caterpillars on it – ‘ Medems it’s this werms, very good to eat’ – we had set camp on the verge of Mopanie worm season. With the ‘kitchen’ area settled, I felt almost at home. Henry had brought a wild tea for me to taste, and I set about teaching him to make tea and coffee, and he was to be in charge of cooking for the men as well. He was very proud of been the Medems cook boy, despite the men’s teasing.
Next was to arrange some sort of toilet facility, so Husband and the men set about digging a hole for a long drop. This is probably anyone’s worst nightmare – I mean – where do you go to the toilet in the middle of nowhere? The hole proved to be a problem as, although the ground was soft, as soon as you dug deeper, huge rocks prevented any further digging. Obed was as strong as an ox, so whenever a particularly big rock posed a problem, he was called in to lift it, or break it loose from the soil. After struggling for most of the day, it was decided that the hole would have to do. Planks were cut from fallen logs to make a floor over the hole, but the problem was still apparent – how would you squat and keep your balance? The planks covered the big hole, but we still needed a smaller hole too actually squat over. Simon 1 seemed to have some experience with bush toilets, so he came up with the same plan that they used in the village. The whole toilet episode was discussed at length – a person would think this was some new-age architectural project, when all we needed was a place to squat in relative comfort. The same termite mound mixture that was used to build the cooking area was to be used – it is actually the most crucial building material. It is used to make bricks, floors and to plaster walls. Anyway, the mixture was used to cover the planks, and in the centre, a hole was left open. Around this hole rocks were packed and plastered together, until it was a smooth ‘mound’ – the right height to sit on – with the centre been left open, and smoothed to resemble a pipe inside. Poles were then planted around the floor, and covered with reeds. I had a designer toilet – rustic is probably what an interior decorator would call it.
Chickens and a Fridge
I heard a scratching on the door of the tent – dawn was about to break and it was already hot. I went to see what was making the scratching sound, and here was Henry, with a tray of coffee mugs. He had given himself the task of getting the family up for the day, with a beaming smile, and of course the coffee. He had also already got a fire going, and a pot of soft porridge was gently hissing away. I was more than surprised. Our breakfast consisted of soft porridge, with melted margarine and sugar, followed by wild mangoes. The Margarine was a problem, as well as some of my medical supplies, as the heat was unbelievable – on most days around 42deg and humidity high – and I needed to find a cooler place for these supplies.
I had read about how pioneer farmers had built cooler rooms with charcoal and wire, and taken advice from my father-in-law, who had one built himself in Tzaneen, way back in the 1950’s.The problem was that I didn’t want a huge building – I just needed a very small fridge size of constant coolness. I sent Henry to find me charcoal and a few bricks– as much as I didn’t want to, as I knew the charcoal would’ve come from one of the amazing huge trees that surrounded the Lake. I then set about modifying one of the baskets I had bought in Zims, and gathered some thin plastic fish tank tube. Henry returned, and we found a small ledge just below the water tanks, in the shade. Again the termite mound mixture was used to make a floor, which was left to dry. I then packed the bricks on small pebbles, for air circulation. I cut a large piece of lace curtain, and ‘sewed’ it onto the outside of the basket, with thin strips of bark. The charcoal was ground quite fine, and the lace curtain then filled up with the charcoal – it was a job and a half, but we got it right. The basket was then placed upside down over the bricks, and the whole contraption drenched with water. I used the thin fish tank tubes to suction water from the main tank, and made holes in the pipe with a needle, so that there was a constant dripping of water all over the charcoal. We placed the tubs of margarine, liquid quinine and saline drips on top of the bricks inside – and with a constant breeze in the shade, the margarine had set again within a few hours. We also used this small ‘fridge’ for drinking water and later, eggs. Henry had also brought a rooster and two hens from the village – the chickens, charcoal and bricks cost me two packets of Rothmans 30 cigarettes.
We had been at the Lake for a week, and looking around I could hardly believe that we had made such progress in setting up a comfortable organised camp. It had been hard going, by 12h00 we would be exhausted from the heat, and it was then siesta time – nobody was allowed to work, until 15h00. During this time we would sit in the shade, have lunch and generally do things slowly until the worst of the heat passed. We normally stopped working at around 19h00. Even in this short space of time the Mopanie worms had grown, and we could hear them munching away in the trees, and I was dreading their decent. By this time we had all turned to golden brown and our already blond hair bleached to almost white, all I lived in was shorts, vest and leather thong sandals. We had sent the men home – Sunday is a day of rest, but I missed their morning song and the sound of their deep voices.
We decided to explore, and for the first time since our arrival, took our boat out. I packed wild mangoes and banana’s, tomatoes, cassava and boiled eggs for a picnic. We had to swim to the boat as it was moored quite far out, and while we got our bearings discussed building a jetty with all of the big rocks along the shore. The scenery along side the Lake was beautiful, natural forest was still abundant, although some places had been burnt for crops and charcoal. We just let the motor idle, and slowly made our way along the shoreline. Our rock beach ended abruptly, and we were over sand. The sand beach did look inviting, but crocodiles prefer to use these beaches, and so we steered clear. Looking over the side of the boat I could see a very different habitat in the water, there weren’t so many fish here, but I saw shells laying in the sand, and some flora growing. These shells become very big, and I read that they have been found packed in heaps at around 20foot below, and it’s not yet discovered why. When the shells are found empty and quite small, you would be guaranteed to find Neolamprologus Brevis living in them – a beautiful dainty Cichlid, having fine blue and yellow colouring on the face and fins.
The whole Lake is naturally divided up into stretches of rock and sand. The fish have evolved to an amazing degree, according to sand or rock beaches. The rocks provide shelter from predators, so they do not venture over the sand. The result is a bio-diversity not seen anywhere else in the world. On one rock beach a species of fish will be black and yellow in colour, won’t be found on the sand, but will be found on the next rock bed – a totally different colour, yet the same species. These colour morphs are endemic to their own stretch of rock beach; this is what makes this Lake so special.
We found a cove, surrounded by forest, over a stretch of rock, and threw out anchor. All of us dived in the water, with goggles and snorkels. My favourite pastime was to sit with a rock on my lap – just deep enough for the top of my snorkel to reach air, and to watch the fish. It is mostly Cichlids found in these waters, and they are very territorial, so a pair will dart around their own little rock, fiercely defending it against anything that swims past. That included me, and many times a fish would dart out from nowhere and try and scare me of. I saw my first Neolamprologus Leleupi and Sexfaciatus in this cove, and I was so excited. I had seen Leleupi in pet shops back home, but they must have been tank bred, as they paled in comparison. These were the brightest of orange, and so sleek.
The Tropheus Moori I had seen at our camp site were what is known as ‘Red Rainbow’ morphs, their stout faces bluey red, and a slight tinge of lime green/red/yellow body. The ones I saw in the cove, known as ‘Red Kachese’ and more yellow in colour. Julidochromus Marlieri was also to be seen, but the spectacular Julidochromis Buschieri and Dickfeldi were in deeper waters, and I had no way of seeing them in the wild without been able to scuba dive. I had an encounter with a Compessiceps, this is a strange but fine looking fish, they are narrow in build, with up-pointing minute mouths, ranging from brownish to yellowish, the latter called Calvus, and although they look identical, are classed differently. If you catch one, it will curl up like an old leaf and freeze, even falling to the bottom, and only moving again when it thinks it’s safe. My skin was all wrinkled by the time I felt I needed some sunlight again, and we basked on the boat, eating our food.
After lunch we ventured further into the Lake, until the shore was just a hint of land on the distance. I was still too unsure of the depth and unknown, to swim here, but looking over the boat I could see schools of fish below, and I was certain they were Frontosa’s. I had only seen them in pictures, and thought they must be beautiful. They are a very pale baby blue, with very deep blue – almost black – horizontal stripes running from head to tail. When explorers started identifying the fish in the Lake, they first thought that the Sexfaciatus were baby Frontosa, until they counted the stripes – Sexfaciatus have seven, and Frontosa six, the Sexfaciatus is also more slender. Frontosa also have a lobe on their heads which get bigger with age, and are found at a depth of 30 odd feet.
There was a company on the opposite side of the Lake that exported live fish in a big way, using a private air strip to fly the fish out. The biggest market been the Netherlands, and there was a lot of money to be made. A healthy wild caught Frontosa of 15cm fetched $250 on the open market. However, the deep fish were not easy to bring to surface. You would have to scuba dive deep, and lay traps or net them, which would be checked daily. Netted fish were then placed in baskets connected to a long rope with a buoy on the surface, and had to be pulled up a few meters a day for decompression. No easy task in an area without any electricity to fill oxygen tanks, or decompression chambers for a mis-calculated dive. Basically if a dive went wrong, and you got the bends, you died, as air lifting would be fatal.
Most Sundays we would explore the Lake, and then tried our hand at fishing. We have both always been fond of the sport, and Husband had packed all sorts of lures and equipment but – try as we might, we couldn’t hook a game fish amid the fish-full water. Besides giant Goliath Tiger fish – with teeth 3cm long and a record weight of 80kg, there is a game fish called Nkupi that we were after, and we just had to have the thrill of a catch. Early was voted as the best fisherman, so the men came to camp one Sunday to watch the sports and see if this Big Bwana could actually catch a fish. We went out in a handmade boat of around 12foot – and somehow after a few weeks this was now fun, and no longer daunting.
We had all the fancy gear, but Early only had a bag with rocks in it, and a very long length of gut. He also had a lure which he had made out of a bully-beef tin, having made a tiny propeller for it as well. I looked at our production line deep-sea lures, and then at Early’s, and knew that we would be loosing the competition that day. So of we set, while the rest of the men sat along the shoreline – with the usual shouts, laughing and banter. As Early rowed, he tied – with one hand – the gut to his big toe, with the lure and bag of small rocks attached to the end, and promptly threw the lot overboard. Husband bravely cast out the opposite side of the boat to trawl. Every now and again Early would jerk his toe up without so much as a hesitation to his rowing, and husband patiently watched to see who would get the first hit. We were out in deep water when Early’s leg shot straight into the air – I just collapsed laughing, it was surly the most hysterical sight I have ever seen. Husband’s mouth just dropped – and I giggled for the rest of the day. Early had caught a big Nkupi, we didn’t have a scale, but it fed 7 of us. The fish in the Lake are the best I have ever eaten, the Nkupi was quite oily, but had firm white fillets and few bones, which we ate with pap, and gravy.
Samuel had done a great job with the children, as they were on the water early everyday on dug-outs fishing and exploring. Very often they would come back with a variety of fish for breakfast, so proud of their catch. I would sometimes see Samuel and the children quite far out, and could pick up the blond heads in the distance. The children also learnt how to cook fish on open fires, and tried the eyes and brains, but I wasn’t so brave. They would also stand knee deep in the water, and swallow tiny fish alive – just to see the horror on my face.
One day we noticed an old man with a dug out, loaded with a massive basket, just off our shoreline. The men told us that he catches fish with the baskets. The baskets are lowered to great depth with the help of rocks and rope, and some bait – like a dead rats, are placed inside. The basket traps are left for a few days, and then brought to the surface. So, we asked that when the old man lifts his baskets to call us, as we wanted to see what he catches. A few days later we were called, the old man had come to shore with his catch. I saw for the first time that this old man was all of eighty, and when I saw the catch, found it hard to believe that he had pulled the baskets up from a depth of around 20m by himself. He had caught 3 Vundu, or giant catfish. The Vundu were about 5 foot long, and laying on the ground, nearly as high as my knee. They were extremely ugly, with lots of whiskers, and well, they just stank. We bought one for our men, and I watched them slaughter it like an animal. It had red meat, was very bloody, and the smell to vile to imagine, but the men were happy. They cut the fish into strips, rubbed salt on, and hung the stuff in trees to dry.
Fresh caught fish became a big part of our diet as fresh supplies dwindled. My favourite had been the Nkupi, but the Bream and Lake Salmon were just as delicious. There is also a pelagic fish, something like a sardine, called Boeka-boeka, these fish were very tasty left whole, and placed over a slow bed of coals until crisp. A local man had heard that white people were living alongside the Lake, and he made good money out of us, as he arrived on a weekly basis – by boat – to trade fish, fruit, vegetables and wild rice. He also tried to trade in raw gold, emeralds and turquoise, but we declined his favours.
There were no roads to our side of the Lake; the terrain would have made it almost impossible to build. Some basic supplies started running low, and we picked a day to go shopping in town. We had found that our boat, although fine for slowly coasting the shore, would not really be suitable for a long trip over unpredictable waters, and also with a load to return with. We had already bought a ‘local hand made craft’, which had a 25hp motor, which was made for the Lake, and could apparently withstand any type of wave or weather.
On the planned shopping day, I was woken to the sound of dull thumps coming from the shore, and went to investigate. Here was the boat, hauled out of the water, with Simon 1 hitting the boat with a rock. On closer inspection, I saw that he was hitting bits of cloth into the seams of the wood, with a screwdriver. This he explained, was ‘chalking’, and needed to be done every time a long journey was planned, as it prevented leaks – not having any other materials to use, bits of cloth done the trick. Remember, this was a hand made boat made out of planks of wood, no fancy fibre glass or modern materials had been used in the building process.
The surface of the Lake was like a mirror that morning, the surf didn’t move, and I felt an eerie calm in the valley. For a few days we had noticed a thin line of cloud on the distant Northern horizon. It was also more humid than normal, and the men told us that the big rains would be coming in a few weeks. Until now the water had been quite calm, and to be honest, I imagined that, like a big dam, this is how the Lake would always be.
We packed some food for the day, and set of for town, a trip of some two hours at least. It was a more relaxed trip than the one we had going to our camp that first day, so had the opportunity to look around and actually take in our surroundings. Simon 1 joined us for the outing, and was more than willing to act as a tour guide for the day. The mountains were majestic around the Lake, and dotted with small villages or huts along the shore. There were other boats out as well, some loaded with thatching grass, others heavy with bricks, and a fleet of fishing boats returning from a nights catch. We had since learnt that there was quite an enterprise here for Kapenta, and these trawlers would have been on the way to have the catch frozen, to be sold all over the country as a basic food source.
As we neared Mpulungu, I was amazed at the islands which I had not noticed before, and they created a protected cove for the harbour. Simon 1 told us they were sacred places, surrounded by crocodiles, and some chief’s spirits lurked on them, so few people ventured near them. We docked at a smaller jetty just outside the actual harbour, as only the big vessels would be allowed in there, and Simon 1 appointed a responsible person to look after our boat for the day.
After the peace and solitude of our camp, we were bombarded by noise and commotion. People were everywhere, having either just arrived, or just about to leave – all by boat, and it dawned on me how much they depended on this mass of water. It provided a means of transport, as well as basic food, and an influx of currency and jobs into the area.
We headed of to the town centre, the roads made even walking difficult. On the way to town, was a shop that I could only describe as a spaza shop, and we stopped for our first cold Coke that we had had in ages. The bottle was freezing cold, and it felt like the best thing I could ever have had. The owner of the shop was an Indian man called Dennis – how he ended up with a name like ‘Dennis’ I wouldn’t know, and didn’t want to be rude by asking. He ran a backpackers camp, which was apparently quite successful, and he gave us an open invitation to come and see him, or to stay over if we had lengthy dealings in town. It was difficult to get away from him, as he had the talent of talking, and just wanted to volunteer any information he could think of to make our stay easier.
Mpulungu we found, was a very busy place. A big ferry, called the Liemba, transports people and goods from as far as Burundi, calling at ports all along the bordering countries of Tanzania and the Congo. We wanted to do some sight seeing before shopping, so went to the harbour first, to find that the Liemba was in port. There was a ramshackle building which served as customs and excise, and all other building looked derelict and neglected, and rusted beyond repair. The Liemba was an amazing sight indeed – It was built as a cargo vessel, and converted to a military vessel when Germany occupied Tanzania. It was used against British forces in Northern Rhodesia, and bombed by the Belgians in 1916. She has been sunk and raised twice, the last time it was raised by the British, who converted her into a passenger vessel. I just had to get a closer look. We approached a customs official and asked if we could go on board, and after some discussion and a few cigarettes, he introduced us to her captain, and we were taken on board for a tour. The walkways on the ferry were almost hollowed out from so many feet over so many years. Every copper door knob, or piece of beading had been polished well, and it felt as if time had stood still for this beautiful vessel, and she truly was handsome. This ferry could take 500 passengers, and was always full. It also transported cement, bricks and foodstuffs from Tanzania, which would have originated from Dar es Salaam. This same route, and on to Zanzibar, would have been used for the slave trader’s way back in the eighteen hundreds.
We then went into town, and well, it was more of an open market than a town. A circle of shops, with quite high pavements, surrounded an open market, the size of a football field. The pavements and steps had long ago crumbled to almost nothing, but there were bright signs on some of the shops, mostly advertising soft drinks. We came across a shop which, surprisingly, had a lot of South African produce available, Lux and Palmolive soap, Surf washing powder to name a few. The store also smelled of soaps and paraffin – but only a wealthy person would have been able to buy here. A bottle of Klipdrift brandy stood proud on a shelf – for R85, and this was 12 years ago. I would have given my big toe for a brandy and coke at that moment – but these things happen when you see something you can’t buy. We didn’t buy from the shop – the prices were just too high.
Next, we came to a rather large store – it could be described as a supermarket, or the closest to it. It was cool inside, and Simon 1 told us we should buy, as the prices would be right. There were long white steel shelves running the length of the shop – but they were mostly empty. Along one stretch you would find a few bottles of cooking oil, along another some toilet paper. It gave the word ‘browse’ a whole new meaning. I felt sad for Zambia that day, and amongst the basics that I needed, bought a huge packet of sweets for the men back at camp. When I went to pay, I found that they did not have carrier bags – there was in fact – not a carrier bag of plastic or paper to be found in Zambia. You had to buy your own, if you could find any. So, we held out our shirts and packed our goods in, while Simon 1 found another responsible person with a wheelbarrow, to take our goods back to the boat.
The open market was for fresh produce mostly. Women sat on the ground with hesian bags laid out in front of them, packed with tomatoes, potatoes, cassava or onions. The veggies were made up in piles of five items, and if you bought a whole pile, of say five onions, you would get an onion pasela. This was a basic way of trade from all of the traders. Some of the greens I did not recognise, which looked like a type of spinach or cauliflower leaf, so I bought some, as well as wild bananas. The bananas tasted sort of strange – until I realised that I was tasting what a banana should actually taste like. Peanuts, wild rice, salt and crushed mealies were in big bags, which you bought by quantity – peanuts, rice and mealies were charged for by the handful and salt by a small bottle cap. The rice was grown local, and I had seen the rice paddies from the boat. Our responsible person with the wheelbarrow was all of ten years old – but he was very proud to be seen with the tourists, as the big Bwana ended up pushing the wheelbarrow with him on it, as he wasn’t old enough to cope with the load.
The market had many smells in the air, and I picked up the smell of baking bread. Simon 1 took us to the bakery, which was a dark, very hot room. The floors had been made of cow dung – I knew the colour and shine that such a floor would have. The walls black from years of smoke from the oven fire. Huge loaves of fresh white bread were neatly stacked on the floor to cool – my mouth watered at the thought of fresh hot bread and jam. Outside the bakery was a wooden bench under a tree, and we sat there sharing the hot bread, washed down with a cold Coke – it was a real treat.
The fresh fish market was only to be explored by the bravest of brave. The smell was overpowering, and I had to stop myself from hurling in the middle of the market. Flies swarmed in the million over the fish, and you had to wave the flies away to see what you wanted to buy. It was disgusting, and although the men were keen to find a new species of fish never seen by the western world, I steered clear. I eventually bought some fresh frozen Boeka-Boeka from the fisheries department on the way back to the boat.
It was time to head home; it had been a tiring but exciting day. We set of for the boat with the wheelbarrow loaded, but Dennis caught us walking past his spaza shop, so bought us a beer in exchange for some company. I can’t remember what the beer was called but it didn’t touch sides, and Dennis told us how dodgy the beer was, as one bottle would have virtually no alcohol content, and another would knock you flat. He could apparently tell by the smell of the beer. He was a very funny man.
On nearing the jetty we were horrified to be hearing the sea – that is at least what it sounded like. Well, surfs up as they say, as we found the calm waters of early morning to have turned into 20 foot waves. There wasn’t a cloud in sight or even so much as a breeze. I was terrified, and just wanted to get to camp. Simon 1 explained that although it looked bad, it would be ‘no problems’ to go home with the rough water, as the boat was the right length to cope with the waves. Husband had also explained the wave swell ratio to boat length to me, another reason why our modern boat would not do – but I didn’t care much for the science of it all, it was to scary. The jetty where the boat was moored was in a protected cove, so as Simon1 explained, once we had loaded, he could navigate between the waves, we would be on our way, and we should stay safe.
We managed to get through the worst of the waves into deeper water, and were all drenched by this time. I clung to the side of the boat in despair, and it seemed so surreal. It was late afternoon by the time we set of, and it was slow going with such a small motor. I had been on rough water before, but nothing like this. The swells were huge, and one minute we were in the air way above water, and the next, surrounded by water and not been able to see land. Although I was scared, it was exciting, and made me feel very much alive, so as our journey progressed I felt more at ease with the rough water, and clambered my way to the nose of the boat, and sat there taking in every feeling and movement of the Lake. Once I had done that I was fine, and saw as well that the children were loving the danger.
It was dark by the time we reached camp, the water had settled slightly, and I felt lost in the darkness, not having a clue as to where we were, or how far land was. I heard Simon1 and Husband talking and pointing – in the distance a row of lights could be seen. The men at camp had realised we would return over treacherous water in the dark, and stood on shore in a line with their lamps burning, like miniature light houses. As the boat approached shore, they put the lamps down and dived into the Lake to guide and steady the boat over the waves – we were going to dock on the rocks. It was tough going, but we landed safely, the men laughing and cheering each other on. Henry stood to one side with his lamp, and held my arm to steady me as I climbed out of the boat, he lead us up the path to camp, and it was a welcome sight that one only has when you are ‘home’. Henry had swept the whole camp sight clean, a fire was burning low with a kettle of water ready for coffee. A pot of porridge had been prepared, with a pan of fresh fried fish. Lamps hung from the trees to light the whole area with a soft glow. The inside of the tents had been swept, the stretcher beds had been ‘made’. I thanked Henry, as we did all the men, as they were not expected to stay overnight. They told us that it was their duty to look after their ‘mother and father’, and it wasn’t to be the only time that these people made me cry.
Worms and Wind
The weather had so far been very hot and humid, and everyday the distant bank of clouds seemed to be more visible. It had not rained since our arrival, but in the evenings the air felt cooler, and I could often ‘feel’ the rain on the breeze. Full moon brought its own magic to the Lake, as it would shin a long silver path over the water. I had seen trawlers in the distance often, marked only by their paraffin lights which attract the Kapenta, but with the full moon they didn’t go out, as it was just too bright.
The men told us that the rains would come when the Mopanie worms had disappeared. At this stage they were growing fast, and you could clearly hear them munching away at the leaves. Some trees seemed to battle against the feast, and looked quite bare. However, this was now a season of plenty for the locals. Women and children strolled through the bush with buckets and bags, collecting Mopanie worms of the lower branches, like harvesting fruit of trees. Apparently the worms were ready for eating now, having good layers of fat, and still young, although I couldn’t imagine using culinary terms such as ‘juicy’ or ‘tender’ for a worm. My western mind didn’t somehow see the logic.
The children joined in this mass collection, and my eldest son climbed quite high into a tree to collect worms, while he made his brother stand below holding a bucket. This was a sight to behold, as the youngest one stood looking up at his brother, with his mouth naturally open due to the angle of his head, while his brother would be telling him to move a little either left or right – and in the process aim for his brothers open mouth, and drop a worm in to his mouth. I had never seen a worm fight before, but it was pretty soon and the worms were flying between them. In my imagination I could see a worm take flight, and the look on its animated face.
Henry wanted to show me how to cook worms, and the children dared me, so reluctantly I took up worm-cleaning-frying-classes. Basically you break the head of, and squeeze the guts out, give them a rinse in salt-water and you are ready to go. They are then fried in a little oil and salt added for taste. Yeah right. I added my own cooking skills, by using margarine, garlic, a pinch of curry powder and black pepper. This was served with pap, tomato gravy and a tin of spinach. When it came to eating, we all sat looking at each other, wondering who was going to go first, I must say the food did smell divine. The children of course, had the first mouthfuls, along with the laughs and dares, so I had little choice. Bearing in mind that Henry was watching my every move, I tried to blank out the fact that I was about to put a caterpillar in my mouth, closed my eyes and just took a mouthful. I was surprised, pleasantly so, as the worms tasted like something between snails and oysters. The taste I could live with, but not the thought. Needles to say, I have never been able to eat worms again, as mind over matter doesn’t work for me. I earned respect from the men though, as my concoction did taste good.
I looked forward to cool evenings and a refreshing bath under the stars, it made my day complete. All would be quiet, and I loved falling asleep to the sound of soft voices and lapping water. I felt a comfort that I have yet to find again. As the rains grew closer by day, the nights brought stronger breezes and it became cool enough to cover myself with a sheet. One evening we were sleeping soundly, and I woke to the sound of a train storming past the tent. I was really startled, and thought it must have been a dream, but the sound was real – and deafening. Husband also woke, and we went to stand outside the tent, to hear a gust of wind roaring down the mountain, from the top of the escarpment. It was panic in camp.
Sleeping Peter stirred from his fire, and rushed over to us ‘Bwana, this is the mountain of winds – she is calling for the rain’ The soft ground turned into small dust devils around our feet, and you could feel the force of air pressure as the wind grumbled down the mountain – and it smelt like rain and dust. We hurried to collect loose items lying around – but we were unprepared for this force of nature. The wind hit us in one sudden gust, and took with it camping chairs, kitchen utensils and empty water containers – we could hear the water containers making plonk-plonk noises and then splashes as they landed in water. The tents swayed to and fro, and one of the tent ropes came loose, flinging the tent peg into the dark.
No sooner had the wind hit, and it was gone. The world returned to silence as we surveyed the chaos. Sleeping Peter told us the wind doesn’t always come, and when it does, normally only a few times. So, we went back to our tents, everything covered in dust, and my refreshing bath was only a vague memory. The following morning we walked around picking up bits and pieces we could find. There was no damage done, but I made plans to pack things away at night until the rains finally arrived, and the wind no longer posed a threat. For many nights after that, the wind would come down again, and I would lie in the tent, feeling as if I was about to become airborne, as canvas flapped around and tents ropes pulled taught. I also wondered about the rains, as there was almost an excitement in the air, as nature was in the process of preparations.
We had decided to build a sort of jetty-come-pier, as beaching our boat was a problem. At the same time, we needed some level ground around our camp site, to make moving around and packaging live fish easier, when the time came. The idea was to level the terrace around the tents, and push large rocks over the side, which would almost land in the right spot for a jetty. It looked like an easy enough task, as small rocks protruded from the ground, so it was a matter of digging them out, covering the holes left behind – and well, that was the plan.
The men sat around the Bwana, as he told them what the plan was, and after the usual haggle and banter, it was decided how this task was to be accomplished. Clearing the terrace was to be done first, so an area was marked out, and work started. I loved the way the men worked, as they would start singing, and kept a steady pace while they sang. It was truly beautiful to hear. If they got hot, they would drop whatever they were doing, and run down to the Lake and dive in. Simon1 would take a running leap and dive in, and time and time again, would resurface with a fish in his hand. I would just cringe, as there would be no hope of rescuing a bruised tropical fish – worth a lot of money alive – and inevitable the fish would be lunch.
Work progressed well, the ground was quite even, and then it was the rocks which had to be lifted out. Although small portions stuck out above ground, it was a very different matter beneath ground. Simon1 was inclined to be a bit of a show of, so he decided that this one rock ‘is no problems for Simon’, and started digging around it. Eventually all the men were involved, as this was a mountain of solid rock buried in the sand. After a few hours of digging, and using poles to lift it out, they managed to roll the rock over the terrace, and stood clapping and waving as the rock hit the bottom. Simon1 stood proudly with his hands on his hips, and proclaimed, laughing, that ‘it was a small stone’, and was ready for the next one.
Every rock they started on seemed bigger than the last, and each time the rock was proclaimed to be a small stone, amid howls of laughter at Simon1, who was sweating buckets. Obed was by far the strongest of the men, built like a greek god, and used to hard labour with his cattle. But, the men who lived next to the Lake had an issue of pride when it came to asking for help from a man from the escarpment. So, throughout the unearthing of ‘small stones’ Obed kept himself busy with raking the ground even, as it would also have been seen as below his stature if he offered help. Husband was well aware of this, and to keep the peace, always kept the men busy with tasks which would keep them apart. Over a period of three days, we had a good sized level area, and plenty of rocks to build the jetty with. One rock remained, which from the surface, seemed about the same size as ones already uncovered. But, this was not the case. The men dug forever, and still could not get to the bottom of the rock to remove it. Simon1 carried on and on about this now ‘small stone’ which nobody can lift, as Obed looked on, and teased everybody else about not been strong enough. There was much banter and debating about this rock, of all things. However, nobody referred to it as a rock – it was still ‘a small stone’. Eventually Simon1 was digging in a hole so deep around the rock that you could just see the tip of his head – but he was determined. Poles of all shapes and sizes had been cut, and placed around the rock to be able to pry it loose, but this rock was going nowhere.
Husband then told the men to stop – and they looked at him is disbelief, not ready to give up. He told them to fetch firewood – lots of it, and pack it in the hole around the rock, enough to cover it completely. Like children the scattered into the bush, coming out with loads of dead wood and fallen branches. We were going to have a bonfire. Once the rock was packed tightly with wood, it was set alight, and the fire was huge. I’m sure you would have seen the light from Tanzania’s side of the Lake. The rock burned all day and all night, constantly been fuelled with wood.
The next morning the men were told to fetch containers, and form a line from the Lake to the burning rock, so that water could be passed on in a steady stream. This was done, and as water was passed on, it was thrown onto the rock, to cool it quickly as possible. After the second bucket of water hit the boiling rock, the rock cracked, making a sound like a rifle been fired. Simon1 was ecstatic – his ‘small stone’ was reduced to ‘smaller stones’ the men cheered and jumped around, amazed that the rock had cracked into bits. Obed came closer with a long pole, pushed it under the rock, and lifted the cracked rock in one go, while his muscles rippled and shone in the sun, telling Simon1 that this was just a ‘small stone’ which had caused a big problem. The rock was split using bits of wood and hammers, and when the last piece fell down the side of the mountain, Simon1 said ‘Oh Bwana – this is Armageddon’
One Sunday we decided to take a hike up the mountain, instead of our usual venturing on water. We were up early, packed with water and food for a picnic. There was a path of sorts, but we didn’t follow the path, we wanted to see how high up the mountain we could get. From the boat on the Lake, we could see a steep rock cliff, and this was to be our destination. The whole side of the mountain was naturally terraced, so climbing from one terrace to the next was quite a challenge in some places. The forest was beautiful; we came across many Moekwa trees that, even holding hands, we could not fully circle. I wondered how old some of them must be. Because the trees are quite big, the undergrowth is made up mostly of loose leaves and the odd bits of grass, and small shrubs. Moss and lichens grew on the trees and rocks.
A terrible smell was about in one area, and I thought an animal must have died somewhere. As we had yet to see signs of a living creature besides a few birds, we started looking around to see what had died. Against one of the trees we found the source of the smell – and it was in fact a carrion plant. I now know why it is named so, as the smell of death was over powering – amazing how crafty nature can be. I couldn’t stand near it for to long, as I just wanted to throw up, so bad and realistic the smell was.
We had reached quite a height, and through a clearing could see that we still had very far to go if we wanted to reach the cliff. Distance can be deceiving at times. We took a break, and walked to the edge of the terrace to have a look at the view, and I was in awe of what lay before me. I was looking down at the Lake, and from where I was, it looked like a mirror of blue before me. The shades of colour changed with the depth of the water, like a postcard picture of the Mediterranean, all that was missing were fancy yachts of the jet-set crowds, but that would have been out of place here. I could see for miles, and I just sat and enjoyed the view, with a light breeze against my face. A hawk came gliding by on an air current, so close I could see the feathers on his wings, and close enough that I wanted to reach out and touch him.
It was disappointing not to find even the spore of animals, and I thought that it was such a shame, all this natural vegetation and forest, devoid of life. It was around mid-day, and we didn’t think we would make the cliffs in time to return back in daylight, so started back down again. One thing I did see a lot of were insects, and really weird ones that I had never seen before. I saw termite mounds built like mushrooms, so that the rain can run of the mounds properly. Termites had also built ledges against trees, which looked like steps. Wild mushrooms were all over, but I didn’t want to pick any, as I had no clue as to which ones would be poisonous or not.
We had almost reached camp, and found ourselves on a well worn path, so needing a drink, stepped just of the path to sit on a log. There were strange wasp type of bugs flying around, one was the brightest of pillar box red, with little red pom-poms on the antennae – it looked like a miniature alien. Beetles of all shapes and sizes were common, and also in a variety of colours, shapes and sizes. The biggest I had seen so far, had flown into camp one evening, breaking the glass on one of our lamps – it was the size of a saucer.
We heard a soft huummm huumm approaching and here came a young boy of about nine or ten, carrying a big load of grass on his head, and he was singing softly. He looked very nervous, and kept on stopping, looking behind and around himself. This was, after all, Kapemb-wa-mpondo, spirit of the Lake area, so been very superstitious people, could imagine been a child and having to walk here alone. We stepped back onto the path, ready to head of home, and when this child saw us he started screaming. One big roll of grass was thrown into the air, he turned around and ran faster than I have seen a person run before, screaming as he ran. His screams echoed through the forest, and as he ran his voice became loud, then soft, then loud again, as he went over the meandering path. We looked at each other, mouths open – what did we do? Not been able to comprehend what had happened, we set of home.
We reached camp, and had a swim to cool of, and had just sat down for a good cup of coffee, when the local chief arrived – by boat – in all his glory. Well, he was quite a modern chief, so wore a safari suit and shades, and his use of the English language outstanding. I invited him for coffee, and discovered a packet of rusks, well – that’s the closest I had to biscuits. He was not old, probably mid 50’s, but his whole demeanour was one of leadership and respect. Not the type of person a villager would look for problems with. He had a small problem to discuss with us, and our first thought was trouble, as we had just made a child scream forever. But, he found the situation very funny, and explained that many children in his village had never seen a white person before, so the child thought we were spirits. His only request was that we bear this in mind when walking about. I wondered how many fireside stories we had started.
Henry couldn’t speak much English, but we somehow understood each other, as he basically knew what was expected to keep the camp in order. One Friday night we heard a ruckus coming down the path, and it was a very drunk Early and Henry, both of them hardly able to stand up straight. They ambled into camp very loudly, just to say hello in passing. To my amazement Henry was speaking the most perfect English and Early just giggled at everything and anything. The Bwana managed to get them to quieten down, and they straggled of home. Lucky they were not working the following day, but we wondered what they had been drinking, as beer was very expensive.
On the Sunday Early came into camp, bringing with him a bottle of clear liquid, which to me, looked like a bottle of water. He told the Bwana he had brought a gift, and it turned out to be a potent brew made of cassava. He poured a small amount into the cap of the bottle and offered us each a taste. I first smelt it, and it nearly took my breath away, I was sure this was pure alcohol. Never the less, I felt brave, and tilting my head back, eyes closed – downed the contents of the cap. Well, I didn’t think I would ever suffer from sinus pain after that, and if I had had tonsils, they would have been burnt to a crisp.
Monday morning the men all seemed to be ill, they were sweating buckets, and we learnt that there had been a wedding celebration over the weekend. Simon1 complained bitterly of a headache, and his usual shiny black complexion had turned to ash. So, we called the men to camp, and Husband asked me to fetch some Grand-pa headache powders. The men stood in a half circle around us, waiting to see what this was all about. Husband made quite a spectacle, he slowly unwrapped the Grand-pa, and tapped the powder into the middle of the paper, explaining to Simon1 that this was powerful muti – he – Simon1 – had to keep the powder in his mouth, and move it around slowly with his tongue. Simon1 did so, with all of the men watching him, not sure if they should be laughing or not, so kept on looking at husband and then at Simon1. The Grand-pa powder is of course extremely horrible, and Simon1 turned from ash to green at the bitter taste.
While Simon1 went through this ordeal, Husband prepared another powder, by rolling the powder into its paper wrapping to resemble a cigarette. He then passed some water to Simon1 to wash down the bitterness in his mouth, which at least turned him back to ash. Husband then took out his lighter, and put the Grand-pa cigarette in his mouth, and with perfect timing, blew out the powder, lighting it at the same time. Even I was speechless, as I had never seen this before. A big blue flame erupted in the air as the powder burnt, and the men stood rooted and terrified, their eyes stretched wide. Simon1 first looked at his stomach, then put his hands on it – and proclaimed ‘Bwana I can’t be smoking today’ I thought I was going to collapse laughing. Nobody ever came to work with a hang over again.
Every day on the Lake I made discoveries – of nature and people, but most of all of myself. I was no longer in a comfort zone of flicking a switch or driving to the shop, and I allowed myself to look at life from a totally different angle. My days passed from one to the next without any the pressures or stress that modern living seems to create, and it does free ones thinking. Most of the time I spent in the water, and I found that the depth of the Lake had enchanted me, and indeed, would be an enchantment never to let me go.
I had always kept close to shore, and never felt any fear of what I didn’t know was lurking in the water. Now, years after, I ask myself if I would do the same again – and I probably would, even though the crocodiles reach a good 15 foot and more (which I didn’t know then). One day in particular, the water was most calm, without so much as a hint of surf, and having become quite fit, decided to head out to deep waters. I swam slowly, all the while looking into the water, and sometimes diving – just with goggles. I had become good at free diving now as well, so felt great freedom of just swimming with the fish, lingering on the bottom to pick up a shell or a rock, or to take a close look at anything different. I had not realised how far I was from shore, and floating on the surface, could still see the bed of the Lake clearly, which would have been at least 20foot below. That was too deep for me to dive, so just kept on floating. The bed of the Lake changed, and turned from turquoise to black in an instant – and it was then that it dawned on me. I was floating over miles of empty space, an abyss, totally vulnerable, out in the open and I had no way of protecting myself from any dangers. And was I scared? No, it was more of a ‘wow’ feeling, here I was, and in the bigger scheme of life, what and who was I? Questions that I had never thought of before, and the more I thought about them, didn’t want answered.
I swam back to shore, feeling humbled.
We had all been having headaches, which is the first signs of malaria. So, daily we drank quinine tabs, and planned a trip to a hospital at Mbala, for blood tests. The boat was corked and ready, and we left camp feeling tired and not well. On landing in Mpulungu, we stopped over with Dennis for a chat and beer then fetched the van to drive to the hospital.
Up we went, and the noise of people and machines after our quite life, seemed to penetrate every pore in my body. The hospital was once a great building, but now looked very neglected and run down. There was no pretty garden or surrounding lawns – although the signs were there that this must have once been so.
People were sitting all over the grounds, under trees or umbrella’s, and along the hospitals veranda’s in the shade. On entering the building the first impression was, oddly enough, one of cleanliness and coolness. The corridors smelt of disinfectant, the old cement floors polished bright red, and although there were very few beds or equipment, everything that could sparkle was clean. The beds were bare, there was no linen, no curtains, and the material on old bed screens torn and broken. The windows had long lost their mosquito gauze covering, so even if you lay here been treated for malaria, the mozzies would still feast on your blood.
After filling out hand written registration cards, we were taken straight to the lab for the blood tests. The lab technician drew blood from each of us, and I made sure he wore gloves, and that the equipment he used came out of sealed containers. He did however, explain his small problem – he had loads of hi-tech equipment, like microscopes, donated by Denmark and Finland – but no electricity to use them. The electricity only came on for a few hours – and we would have to wait until it came back on again, before he could give us any results.
As we carried our investor’s permits, and had to show them for identification, we were considered important enough for an invite with the hospital administrator. Her office was modern and richly furnished, nothing compared to the sparse furnishings we had seen outside the office doors. Tea was served – colonial style – with good china, and I wondered how the water had been boiled, as there was no electricity. The administrator told us how to treat our malaria, and she produced quinine tabs, and a box of water purification tabs, and some aspirins. I asked for some extra supplies for the men, and by the time she was finished, we had quite a bit of medical supplies to dish out – supplies they would not have been able to get as ordinary citizens from the clinic in town.
The lab technician returned shortly with our results – and yes – we all had a touch of malaria. I was very worried, as before departing SA I had done some research, and spoken to our GP and chemists. Many years ago governments in Africa would spray buildings and villages for mozzies, which did help to a certain degree. However, as African governments had a knack for squandering money, and having infrastructures decline, these spraying programs didn’t exist in Zambia any more. The malaria parasite has also mutated, and there are many strains which are now quinine resistant. The result is an epidemic of malaria which is very often fatal if not treated in time. Basically, I had learnt that you first have a course of quinine tabs, if that doesn’t sort you, you have to have liquid quinine, if that didn’t work, you were in very serious trouble.
We returned to camp, and Husband and the children seemed fine, with just slight headaches and fever. I also didn’t feel too bad, so for the next few days we took things easy, drinking lots of fluids, keeping cool and resting. We had a thermometer at hand, and kept time of raised temperatures etc, as the parasite would multiply every few hours, during which you would have a fever. As the fever intervals got less, it was a good indication that the parasite was dying, and the quinine tabs working. So, it was a relief when I noted the families’ normal temperature return for 8 straight hours, and although the out of danger, they still had to finish the course of quinine tabs.
My intervals of fever had not changed, but I felt fine, and thought that my body was just taking longer to fight the parasite. Over the next few days things were back to normal, Husband and the children carried on as normal, and I was banished to my stretcher. I was not amused, and overheard plots to get me across the Lake to hospital. I insisted that I was going to be fine – I was the healthiest and fittest I had ever been, I felt lean and tanned, and just wanted to wait another day or two, as I had not finished my course of tabs. So, eventually Husband agreed, if my fever did not break totally eight hours after my last tabs, I was going to hospital.
The following morning I drank the last of my pills, and sat about anxiously in camp, telling myself that my fever wouldn’t return. Husband was a way up the mountain with the men sorting some pipes out at the dry spring, in preparation for the rain, and I was lying on a stretcher under my favourite tree. Henry kept the tea coming my way, just to prevent me getting up to make my own. Early afternoon I started feeling very tired, and my fever returned with a vengeance, so I sent Henry up the mountain to get Husband back to camp.
By the time they returned it was late in the afternoon, so we planned to set out to town at day break the following morning. My fever was now staying for longer periods, and was higher that the last few days, so I took myself to bed, without having my cherished bath and slept like a baby. The following morning I woke to feel quite disorientated, and the fever didn’t abate. I could hear the men corking the boat, but also remember clearly the sound of very rough surf, it sounded like the sea. I dragged myself out of the tent, and was horrified to see that the usually calm Lake had turned into gigantic swells. Husband was having whispered conversations with his brother and the men, and it was quite clear – there could be no crossing this expanse of water as planned.
Husband set about unpacking drip lines and the liquid quinine. He was a medic in the bush war, so he at least knew what to do. The saline solution bag was strung up on a tent pole inside the tent, and before I knew it, I had a drip in my arm. Husband made calculations as to how many drips per minute or whatever I needed of the liquid quinine, which was difficult as I had lost so much weight, but at that stage it was kill or cure. My temperature soared, and I drifted of into my own world, and lost a few days in the process.
I vaguely recall a few things between bouts of very high fever. I remember husband sponging me down, and I cried as my skin was so hot, that the cool water hurt. I remember seeing Henry sitting at the entrance of my tent, just watching me, and holding my head up to drink some water. I remember telling husband that I wont allow myself to die just because of a small bug – who or what was a bug to cause my death I demanded from him, and it made me angry. I couldn’t tell days apart, and simply floated in and out of consciousness.
At some stage, I woke one night, and I was wide awake. The air was cool, and my bedding was drenched in sweat. My mind was crystal clear at that point, and I knew that my fever had broken, and I had beaten the parasite. A pool of sweat trickled of my chest as I tried to sit up, and when Husband heard me stir, he was over in a flash. He told me that I had been out for three days, but my fever had been subsiding slowly the last few hours, and I was in the clear if my fever didn’t return. Husband fetched me some tea, helped me into dry bedding, and I slept until morning, to be woken by Henry with the smell of food, and to look forward to another day.
Malaria was the deciding factor in returning to South Africa. It could have been one of the children next, and we weren’t going to risk it. So, after many conversations, planning started to set a date for our return, and capturing and packaging live fish would have to be included in the plans. I was still quite weak for a while, but took things easy, ate like a horse, and rested, so it wasn’t long before I was back to normal.
About a month before our intended departure we received word that our van had been broken into, so we set of to town to survey the damage. This was something we did not expect – we had a responsible person whose only job it was, was to look after our vehicle. The windscreen and battery had been stolen – according to the police; the thieves would have only needed these items, as all other equipment such as tools and radio, had been left behind. The windscreen had also been removed without any damage to the van.
The police were very helpful, and informed us that the responsible person had vanished, so he was the prime suspect and would be hunted down. We, however, had a problem. Batteries were not so difficult to come by, although extremely expensive; the windscreen was a different kettle of fish altogether. There was no quick fix solution, and we discovered that even sheets of plastic were unobtainable. We left Dennis to try and source a windscreen or possible solution, and he had a second hand battery that we could buy. At the time it didn’t dawn on us that the rains were on our doorstep. We purchased some supplies, and set of home, as there wasn’t much else we could do.
Our days in camp were made up of looking for netting sites where we knew specific types of tropical’s could be found, and making lists of what we wanted to catch, and compared this to our export and import permits. Our import permits into South Africa listed specific species of fish which were allowed to be brought in live, so we could not risk catching a forbidden species by mistake. The export permits gave only quotas, and we had to pay accordingly. We sent one of the men with a letter to the local Department of Fisheries, giving a date of departure, so that our catch could be checked before leaving, and to ensure that our paper work was in order.
A few days after going to sort out the theft at the van, a policeman arrived in camp. He had a letter for the Bwana – which was very crumpled, as he had held it in his hands all the way from town – walking a distance of onto 15km via the footpath which surrounded the Lake. The Bwana was requested to ‘attend a police matter of utmost urgency’ and to meet the local Chief of Police in town when convenient. So, Husband noted a reply, we gave the policeman food and drinks, and sent him back. At this stage another trip into town was daunting, but it had to be done, and weather permitting, planned for the following day just to get it over with.
Next morning the weather and Lake were perfect for travel, and we set of in great spirits – to travel by boat has always been an amazing experience for me. We asked directions for the police station, and, not for the first time, my mouth literally hung open with the site before me. On the side of a dusty dirt road, was a small white – or what was white – building. It was built quite high, and the steps which lead to the veranda had long since crumbled away, so we had to climb up the broken cement sides. The floor of the veranda was red and well polished, and my mind went back to when I was a child, to the smell of freshly polished floors in my mother’s house. The door was barely hanging on its hinges, and inside the station it was quite dark. Piles and piles of documents were against the walls, tied with string, and blocked out the light from the windows. The piles of papers looked archaic, and I wondered what one would find amongst these records. I imagined rare stamps and collectors items, secret maps to buried treasure, and smelt the mustiness of old things.
In the middle of the small room, was a rickety table, complete with a desk pad, a stationary holder of pencils and a telephone. The policeman who delivered the message was sitting behind the table, and immediately got up, almost in military style, and told us to wait while he called the commander, disappearing into an adjacent room. A man came out to greet us. He was small in stature, but walked with authority. His steps and bearing were stiff, as if on a constant burial march. His uniform was immaculate – every brass button shone, as well as an array of medals, and he held a staff under one arm, seemingly on parade. The other policemen in the room appeared quite terrified of this man. I would also have been if I was a suspect or employee. He requested an interview with the Bwana, and it was quite obvious that this was not a matter for a woman, so I made a discreet exit, and sat on the crumbled veranda outside.
Husband was informed that the suspect – the responsible person – had been found and held in custody. However, he had not been interrogated yet, as permission was needed from the Bwana, and maybe the Bwana would prefer to be present during interrogation. So, Husband informed them that he trusted the police’s ability to do their job properly, and told the commander to proceed with the interrogation, as all we required was the return of the windscreen. The commander was to send word with regards to his findings.
While they men went about men’s business, I sat outside and watched people come and go. It was extremely hot and humid, but there was a slight breeze on the air, and it was pleasant enough in the shade. A policeman was sitting outside as well, and I asked him about the rain. He told me that as the worms had now gone, it would be at any time. He told me that it rains in the afternoon and at night, but I was not to worry, as in the morning it would be sunny and hot enough to dry anything that got wet the night before. I didn’t find this comforting somehow.
We reached camp that evening, once again the men had lights on the shore to show us the way home. That will forever be a vivid and fond memory, as it was such a welcome sight of reaching what I felt was my home. It was more than just light in the darkness for me. While on the boat going home, just before sunset, we had seen that the huge bank of clouds that had been so distant had in actual fact edged closer, without us really noticing.
A Danish couple ran a filling station and spaza shop in town, and had a dairy on the escarpment. Every so often they would have fresh meat and chicken, and the most delicious home made cheese on offer. So, while we were in town I bought some fresh beef and cheese – the first we had had in all the time at the Lake. Supper was divine that night, our mouths watered at the smell of the steaks, which we covered with cheese, served with pap and pumpkin leaf spinach. There is surely nothing more satisfying than eating totally natural unprocessed food in front of an open fire.
I noticed that the air had changed – it stopped moving, as if holding a deep breath. The night was balmy and dead quite, even the water of the Lake was like a mirror. There were no insects about, which although a blessing, was odd. The night became darker, and then we saw that clouds had moved in from nowhere. I hoped that we wouldn’t have mountain winds that night.
As we settled for bed, a light breeze started filtering around the tents – and I could smell rain. In the distance thunder was grumbling, but you had to listen well, as it was far away. I got comfortable, and drifted of to sleep with the cool breeze. My peaceful sleep was short lived, as I was jolted awake by the most deafening burst of thunder. I have always loved stormy weather, so long as there is no lightning involved, but I was to experience the worst storm I had ever seen. The wind had picked up, and we were all outside checking tent ropes and poles, and making sure everything was secure. Nature was about to give birth, and I had nowhere to run and hide.
We sat at the door of the tent, and watched the lightning dance over the water, and smelt the burning sulphur on the wind. The lightning crackled and as it hit the water, would run a bit, like mercury on a flat surface, shooting out silver veins. I tried burying my head under the pillows, but it was an irresistible sight, so I huddled next to Husband instead, and held my ears closed, watched in fascination how nature was heralding the coming rain. Thunder exploded around the mountain, and as quickly as the storm had started it stopped – only for a few minutes all was calm. Then we heard it – a very loud sssshhhhh noise coming from the Lake, the smell of rain and water intense, the atmosphere electric. I discovered where the saying ‘sheets of rain’ come from, that night. The loud noise from the Lake was in fact a wall of rain moving towards us.
We braced ourselves, and when the rain hit, it felt like tons of water falling onto the earth. Luckily we had built trenches around the tents to drain of water, and our tents were well made, and treated for extreme weather conditions, the ground sheets had been put down in a special way to ward of water and bugs – amazingly we stayed dry. We held buckets out of the door of the tent for fresh drinking water, and drank enough to burst.
And so the rains came, in torrents every night and late afternoon. When the sun did shine, the humidity was almost unbearable, and you wished again for rain. I now had showers in my bathroom at night, what an amazing feeling to stand naked in the rain and bathe. The rain didn’t go down well with my designer toilet though, as it washed the smooth mud away leaving fine sharp bits of stone behind, and it then felt like you were sitting on sand paper, so I insisted on having a roof made, which actually spoilt the experience of ablutions in the wild.
Time For Leaving
We were nearing the time to start packing up and head back to South Africa – and the return journey was to be a long exhausting one. During our time at the Lake, we had baskets floating in the water, and from time to time caught Chiclids, and put them in the baskets to be ready for packing and transport. Special plastic bags and oxygen were to be used for the packaging, and the bags of fish were to be packed into boxes lined with styrofoam to insulate and keep the temperature of the boxes at a constant. Timing was crucial, as the fish could only survive so long in a bag with a small amount of water and oxygen. So, we decided on a date, and started preparations.
My brother-in-law was staying behind with his family, so our return trip was not such a huge load, as the boat and all the equipment including the tents etc. were to stay for them to carry on with. We only had to load live fish, the children and ourselves – and drive back over the pot holes, in the rainy season – without a windscreen on the van!
On the day of departure, we were up before dawn, and started the task of bagging the fish. The net baskets were brought closer to shore, and the fish netted into smaller buckets and brought to the beach. Each bag contained two to three fish – depending on their size, half a teaspoon of salt was added to 500ml water to help prevent infection if they got bruised, the bag was then filled with oxygen, and sealed up tightly with elastic bands. The bags were then packed tightly – standing upright – in the boxes, enclosed also with newspaper for further insulation, and sealed up. We packed in excess of 300 fish!!!! With all of us working it took most of the morning, by mid-day our transport boat had arrived, and thankfully the Lake was calm.
The transport boat was loaded, and while navigating the Lake into Mpulungu, I looked back towards the Lake, the Mountains meeting the sky and wondered if I would ever come home again. I was heart broken, as my journey here, with this place and these people, was not yet finished. We packed up the van, made sure we had our documents in order, had our load inspected by the officials from the Department of Fisheries, and simply left. I could not speak as had I started speaking, I would have stayed behind, such was my grief at leaving behind what had become my sanctuary from a very cruel world, where my life in South Africa had become some one else’s, and I didn’t want it back.
The Long Road Home
Denise had organised us a strong sheet of plastic to use as a windscreen, and all in all this was going to be a challenge. We pulled the plastic tight, folded it into the van and shut the doors, which did keep it in place to a degree – but visibility was poor, so husband cut a piece out of the drivers side, so one had a proper view of the road, and so long as we wore glasses it was do-able – although to be fair we didn’t have much choice.
It was getting dark by the the time we eventually set off, and we planned to drive in shifts, so that there was no need to stop overnight. We wanted to make the journey back as quick as possible, so hoped to reach the border into Zimbabwe the following evening, which gave us roughly 48 hours to travel the worst possible roads in very difficult conditions.
The going was tough – travelling at night after so much rain, the potholes had filled with water and we couldn’t see them easily, so we drove slowly, hoping we didn’t miss one and end up with a broken vehicle. Bugs for a million miles were attracted by the vans headlights, and hit the plastic windscreen with alarming force – and occasionally coming through the hole – so it didn’t do to have your mouth open. Every so often husband would duck as a bug the size of a golf ball shot through the gap in the plastic, which in turn would reduce us to howls of laughter! Although we were in quite a serious predicament – it was hilarious. We took turns at the wheel, pushing a slow but steady pace, and had a rather uneventful trip reaching the Zimbabwe border in time to take a break and have something to eat, after a full night and days driving.
Going through the border post was surprisingly easy – we had our paper work in order – and a lot of sympathy for the lost windscreen. We were already travel weary, but had to push on. The condition of the roads in Zimbabwe were better, so we could travel at better speeds, much less nerve wrecking than what we had so far experienced. And so the road became endless, the humid heat was unbearable, and every so often we were caught in a deluge of rain, that poured through the gap in our plastic windscreen like water from a fire hose. It was either insects or water, Im still not sure which was the worst of two evils. Roadblocks came and went, without any questions – but then we had learned about getting around the African way – and had more than enough goodies to barter
This was a long hard journey, we seldom stopped – only for ablutions and to have a bite to eat – and just slogged on. We reached the Biet Bridge border post an hour or two early, it was still dark, and this was the first time we caught a nap since leaving the Lake. There was already a long queue of trucks waiting to pass through, and by some miracle there were not many cars or tourists about. After a brief nap, we had a wash, some cold coffee and hauled our documents to the clearance offices hoping that we would not encounter any problems – and it must have been our lucky day – the official on the South African side was more interested in finding out about our catch that what he was for paper work, so I took his details and promised that I would send him some fish for his display tanks in a few months. He stamped our papers and off we went – I don’t think he knew that the Department of Nature conservation was supposed to inspect our catch, as that is what it stated on the import documents. We took the signed stamped documents, and just as we were about to pull away, a traffic inspector on the South African side decided to inspect our vehicle.
We had driven for two nights and a day, through the monsoon, heat, police roadblocks, border posts and some of the worst roads you could ever lay eyes on. We were the first to have ever taken a live consignment of tropical fish through the Beit Bridge border post (so they told us) We were dirty, hungry and tired. You couldn’t see the colour of the van it was so full of mud and dust, and this silly man in his khaki uniform wanted to know where our vehicles licence disk was, and why we didn’t have a windscreen – and his tone of voice made it clear that he was in charge, and demanding some answers, and didn’t seem to understand that said licence disk was indeed still attached to the windscreen – on some Zambians vehicle in the middle of Africa. He was Afrikaans speaking, and although we are all fluent in Afrikaans, insisted on speaking English, as it seemed to irritate him slightly more, and his broken English then became quite funny. It wasn’t long and he was on the radio back to the customs office, enquiring about our border crossing, we felt like criminals on the run, especially the way he was carrying on. Eventually we were allowed to continue, and he was kind enough to give us a fine for not having a licence disk, which I anyway had overturned a week later.
Four hours later we pulled up the drive of my in-laws home – our journey was almost – but not quite – over.
My husband was exhausted as he had done most of the driving, the children tired of been cooped up – all starving and dirty, so I just had a quick cup of coffee, left them behind, and took the last leg of a few kilometres to get the fish settled. We had advised our professor friend an estimated day and time of arrival, as he had holding tanks ready for us, and he was very excited about what I was about to bring to him. He had studied many of these fish – only from books, and many of the species we had packed he had never seen alive. He had been all over the world to different rivers and lakes – but had never been deep into Africa.
I arrived at the professor, and no time was now to be wasted – we had to get the fish into the holding tanks before they started dying from overheating or lack of oxygen. The first few bags we unpacked were heart breaking, as the fish had already died, and I was devastated thinking that we had maybe lost our whole consignment. At the end of the day, we had lost about 30% of the catch, and considering that we were perhaps ill equipped and lacked the experience and knowledge it wasn’t to bad going. We had enough live specimens to breed with – and that was after all, the main objective. The fish had to stay in quarantine for a few months, to acclimatise to new water and food, during which time the professor could do some studies on them – the dead ones went straight to his deep freeze for autopsies to be carried out later, and I let him keep live ones that required rather specialist breeding conditions.
After we had unpacked the fish and cleared up the packaging materials, we sat outside drinking coffee as the sun was about to set, and only then did I realise how exhausted I was, so went home, and slept like there was no tomorrow.
For months afterwards we would go and see how the fish were getting on every weekend. Once they were eating well and looked healthy, we took some of our collection home to their new 400L fish tank, some stayed with the professor who went on to successfully breed in captivity species that were difficult to do so, and some we sold to the pet trade. A little part of the Lake was in my lounge, which was very beautiful, but would never be the same, and would never take the place of the amazing Lake Tanganyika.
An Unexpected Return
Once we had returned to South Africa, life returned to the normal routines, the adventure was over, and we had retold our story so many times to friends and family. We heard about large groups of farmers leaving South Africa to go and settle in the rich valley’s of Zambia, we heard about people taking their money to start safari lodges and tourist centre’s – and I always felt quite heart sore at the prospect of having to face day to day reality – I could not go back, at least not permanently.
Six months after our adventure I had a lot of complications around my personal life, to the point of wanting to run away – and no where to go to, when out of the blue, my other brother-in-law wanted to go to the Lake to see what it was like. Without thinking, I offered to go with him, and put my children into hostel for a month, and before long I was on the road again, this time enjoying very much my brother-in-laws reactions to everything wild and different that can only be found in Africa.
As it was my second trip, I could navigate our way around things much quicker, and knew the road, where to go and what to do, so the journey going up was quick and relatively easy.
My brother-in-law who stayed on at the Lake, had prepared another consignment of fish, so we were just going up for a few days, enough to rest after the journey, pack the fish and return. I already had buyers lined up with some tropical fish importers in Johannesburg. I just wanted to go, because I needed the peace that I had found at the Lake before, I yearned for the tranquillity, the beauty, the wide open spaces, and was hoping to find some answers for myself, to put my life back into perspective, to clear my mind.
We arrived in Mpulungu around mid-day, the rest of my family waiting at the harbour, and a transport boat ready to go. But I looked passed them all, as there was Simon, Early, Obed, Sleeping Peter and Henry – big white smiles on their faces, all talking at once – their ‘mother’, the ‘medems’ was back. I didn’t care then what society dictated or frowned upon, but I ran up and hugged them each in turn
What Memories Are Made Of
We had the transport boat loaded and ready to go, I sat on the point of the boat with my legs and feet dangling over the side, by this time the sun was starting to set, and what a sight to behold. I looked out over the Lake, to the majestic mountains surrounding it, and tears streamed down my face – I was home, I was safe, this is where I needed/wanted to be. This place, these people.
My family had started building a house of sorts – all made from raw materials, and it was quite a luxury out here in the wild. The cottage was cosy and inviting, blending in perfectly with the surroundings. The following few days I avoided camp – I preferred to walk alone into the mountains, or swim out so far that I could hardly see land. I needed to feel humbled by Nature around me, to let go of pride and allow myself quite moments of self-pity that no-one else could see.
And so a week later I had to return once again to reality, however, this brief, and last visit had made me stronger in a way, my mind clear and set, on what I had to go and do. I will never forget the impact the people and the Lake have made on my life – I will always have strong memories of my adventure into Zambia, the Lake will always feel a part of me. I often sit during quite moments, when life becomes to hard to bear, and re-live that joy of discovery, and things then dont look so bad after all.