Inviting Trouble





Lesley Mukwacha




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Copyright 2023 by Lesley Mukwacha
Image by Brigitte JAUFFRINEAU from Pixabay
Image by Brigitte JAUFFRINEAU from Pixabay 

Dinner was served, a delicious cottage pie, green salad and roasted tin foiled banana with melted dark chocolate for desert; just the silence told you everyone was enjoying their meal. The big fire in the middle kept us all warm on this cold winter night. My clients were all happy, why shouldn't they be, I was doing a great job of guiding them through four Southern African countries they had only dreamt of. Being the storyteller that I was, every day had ended with either a chilling story or humorous one around the campfire, and, tonight, I was praying none of them would ask for a story so I could disappear to my tent soon after dinner, but as expected, that wasn't happening.

Jimmy, a young British in his mid-twenties put his empty dinner plate down and smiled at me with that, you know what we wanna hear look. He didn't even need to say out the words. I smiled back and looked over my shoulder at Mr Bombastic, my colleague who was busy putting up his tent by the big acacia tree in front of our bus. He just chuckled and murmured in our language, "Ndiwe wakazvitangira wega."(You stirred up sleeping dogs)

I was thinking fast, what story would be idea for this campsite? One not so scary since we were bush camping and we were obviously surrounded by the jungle dwellers, but unfortunately I could only think of one story at the moment, a lion story. I got up, took my empty plate to the dish washing table before coming back to the fire. Moving a few logs around in the fire to get some kind of flame going, I cleared my throat and began.

"This isn't my story, it's my late father's." I said, suddenly remembering my father telling me and my brothers and sisters the scary story about 10 years back just after dinner at our house in a national park stuff quarters, referred to as a komboni (compound).

Zambian Poachers had suddenly become a huge problem in our game reserves, especially those that inhabited the big five; with a significantly shocking rise in the numbers of dehorned rhino and elephant found dead. Rhino were killed for their precious horns that are believed to have some aphrodisiac properties in them, and, of course, elephant for their tusks used for ivory. The rhino horn fetched so much money that the poachers didn't mind the risk involved in finding and killing it. They also had suddenly become aggressive towards anybody that tried to get between them and their business. They would shoot to kill without hesitation and this made my father's job very dangerous.

To be more effective, the government decided to combine three forces, the national parks department, the police and the army. Each time they went out on patrol, there would be a game ranger, responsible for tracking, a police officer for arresting and a soldier as a marks man. They had been instructed to shoot first and ask questions later, if the poacher survived the bullet and what was clear was that even the poachers knew of this arrangement, so it was either kill or be killed.

One bright summer morning, my father took three guys out on patrol in an old land Rover used to take game rangers to areas of the reserve more than twenty kilometers away from the office. It took them a good five hours to arrive at their destination, Nyakasikana, an area deep in the wilderness about ten kilometers away from the Zambezi river where three suspicious men had been spotted crossing the river by a tour guide on a canoeing trip. They had AK 47s but wore no parks uniforms and had quickly vanished into the forest without uttering a word to the guide and his clients.

My father parked the car under a big mopane tree a few yards from the road. This was as far as the car could go. The three patrollers gathered their big back packs, water and guns and walked in the direction of a small river feeding into the Zambezi after my father told them he would pick them up in three days at the same spot. He then drove back to main camp.

Tom, the game ranger was an old man in his late sixties; a tallish man as fit as a fiddle even in his advanced age. He had been with the Parks department for over twenty years and knew his job well. He could track down a mouse, find it and tell you everything about it from its age down to its health status. He did not speak much. Jimmy, the soldier, was a short dark masculine guy who could literally shoot a bottle cap from six hundred yards. He rarely spoke but when he did, you heard intelligence in his voice and few words; he was in his mid forties. Jerry, on the other hand, was a young twenty five year old, fresh out of police training. He was light brown in complexion, tall, slim and very talkative. He had never been in the wilderness before and seemed very excited about being here.

After about ten minutes of walking, they found their spot, a huge baobab tree just a few yards from the river. They always camped near a river for water, and under a big tree for shade since in summer the heat in the Zambezi river basin was unbearable, with temperatures going as high as fifty-five degrees Celsius. They quickly scanned the area for any wild animals like lions, buffalo and elephant and were certified they were safe. They put down their backpacks, guns, and cleared the area of twigs, thorns and stones to make it as comfortable as possible. Tom and the young rookie collected some firewood and made a small fire in the middle, before settling down and checking their rifles just to make sure everything was OK. They all had Fn rifles, an assault rifle with a six hundred meter shooting range and capable of squeezing off six hundred and fifty to seven hundred rounds a minute.

They agreed that they would have their lunch first, chill and do a two hour patrol around the area around 5:30 when temperatures would have dropped a bit. Since they would be here for three days, they each had a small sleeping bag, a thin rolled up mattress, a plastic water bottle and a pair of binoculars. For food they had a couple of tins of beans and beef, dried game meat, sugar, tea bags and peanuts. Their lunch today would be ham and cheese sandwiches they had packed in the morning.

Jerry, who all along had been scanning the area surrounding them through his binoculars, suddenly lowered them, turned around and spoke. "I have never seen a frigging lion. "

The old man suddenly sat up from his backpack that he was using as a back rest while having his sandwich. There was a distant worried look in his eyes as he spoke. "Hey, sorry I forgot to tell you, but you can't say those things here."

"Why not?" Jerry asked, looking at the old man.

"These areas are sacred and there are things we can't say or something bad will happen to us. We can't swear or trash talk anything from the trees, animals, birds and snakes. Even fruits that are rotten, we can't say, these fruits are bad or rotten or don't taste good, we just eat the good ones and thank the owners of the land."

Suddenly excited, Jerry went and leaned against the baobab tree, "Really? Whaoh!" He said, "and who might those owners be, coz I don't see nobody here except us?"

"The ancestors." The old man answered.

"Oh, OK, and what would be wrong about wanting to see a lion, I mean, I have never seen one and since I am finally where they are supposed to be, it would be nice see one." Jerry took a sip from his water bottle and put it down, then went to crouch by the fire, moving a couple of logs around.

"Just know you can't say those things here, or else the lion will appear."

Smiling, Jerry spoke, "And Jerry here will be so happy for his dream would have finally come true, his wishes granted."

"You don't understand!" The old man snapped, his voice a bit harsher. You could tell he was loosing his temper. "The visit won't be a friendly one!"

Unmoved, Jerry persisted. "That's why we have guns." He made a shooting gesture with his two fingers. "Twaaa, lion is dead."

He laughed out loud.


The soldier, Jimmy, who had been quietly following the conversation, from where he lay by the tree, turned his head towards the two and said, "Hey, young man, you should listen to your elders. Uncle Tom here knows what he is talking about. He has been around longer than you and the wise thing to do is to pay attention when he gives you advice."

"Well, man," Jerry, rising and walking off towards some sickle bushes for a pee, spoke softly, "I was just saying."

For the next two hours nobody spoke. Jimmy's head had dropped to one side and he was snoring. Unbeknownst to them, a few hundred yards from them across the river, curious, red eyes were intently watching them from under a shady shepherd tree.

About two hours later, when temperatures had dropped, the three left for a two hour patrol around the area. They did not see any poachers or tracks. During the walk, the young police officer had absently uttered again that he wished he could see a lion, a big male one; the other two had just given him stern looks that told him to shut the hell up. When they got back, just before sunset, they made the fire bigger, prepared a simple dinner and shared a few stories before retiring. They slept on one side of the fire, the police officer in the middle.

Long after the old man and the soldier had fallen asleep, the young officer was still wide awake. Being a moonless, pitch black night, he could not see anything, even with his eyes wide open, which made closing them pointless. The only sounds audible belonged to frogs and crickets. He thought he heard a twig snap by the river, like someone or something had stepped on a dead piece of wood. He turned his head from side to side, circling his eyes around for any movement but saw nothing. He could feel he was being watched from all around and, suddenly, his heart started pounding loudly against his ribs. For a moment he wanted to unzip his sleeping bag, get his torch from his backpack that lay beside him but fear would not allow him to do that. What if whatever was out there suddenly noticed him and came straight at him? He just couldn't bear that thought. Being still seemed like his best option right now.

He was about to fully relax, assuring himself that he had just imagined the noise, when suddenly there was a sound of something, or someone wading across the river. His heart started racing again when the noise stopped because he knew it meant whatever was out there was now on their side of the river, just a few yards from them. He knew he had to wake the other two up but didn't know how. They seemed dead asleep without a worry in the world. He knew he was not imagining things, or dreaming. His fear multiplied when he heard soft foot steps approaching them from the river side. He opened his eyes even wider but still saw nothing. The foot steps got louder and louder until they were literally by their feet, then stopped. He was now pretty sure there was an animal in their camp, he could hear it's breathing and sniffing but still couldn't make out what it was. He knew he had to get his gun which lay beside him but to do that, he would have to open his sleeping bag zipper, making a sound that would alarm the intruder, so, he decided to remain frozen; hoping whatever it was, it would go after the other two, not him."

I paused, looking around at my clients who had suddenly become very quiet and still. I could see fear in their eyes. One part of me wanted to stop right there but the other said, "they wanted a goddam story, didn't they?"

"Well," I proceeded," being scared of something you can see is one thing, being scared of that which you can't see is unimaginable. You have no idea what it is, or when it's gonna strike. You're just waiting. The young rookie now clearly remembered the old man's words. "Just know you can't say those things here, or else the lion will appear."

The sniffing started again, and, this time he felt something touch his feet. Even though they were inside the sleeping bag, he was pretty damned sure the intruder was sniffing the bottom end of his sleeping bag. He wanted to pull up his legs but they had momentarily become numb with fear. He felt something grab the bottom end of the sleeping bag and start pulling. He was being dragged away, by something very strong, slowly at first. He knew if he didn't cry for help at this point, he would be taken away. He fumbled for the sleeping bag zipper, found it and pulled it down, screaming as loud as he could.

"Guys, lions! Please help! They're taking me away!'

"Oh my God. Pleaaaase!"

Upon hearing his screams, the other two scrambled up and within a fraction of a second, they were at the top of the baobab tree. 

Now, my father used to say to us, if you ever see a ghost or something dangerous, never say to the others, do you see that ghost over there? They will always panic and bolt, leaving you alone to face it; This is what happened here. 

Somehow, the young man managed to wiggle out of the sleeping bag and ran back to the baobab tree he couldn't clearly see, and by some miracle, he found himself holding onto one of it highest branches, panting like a dog. Even though all three of them were in the same tree, they couldn't see each other because of the darkness. They could only hear each other 's loud breathing. The old man found his touch and switched it on, shining his light down on to the ground and moving it around in search of the intruder. The light picked up two glowing big eyes and their fears were confirmed. Only a lion's eyes reacted to light that way at night.

There was nothing they could do but stay put until daybreak. Their guns lay on the ground beside their backpacks and climbing down to get them would be suicidal. So, using their thick army waist belts, they secured themselves to big branches to avoid falling down. No one slept that night. No one spoke. No one moved until it was light in the morning when the old man suddenly said, "You invited trouble, you wanna go down there and have a chat with him?"

"Am sorry," the young officer said softly, his voice faint and audibly shaking.

The lion was a huge black maned male that could easily have weighed 260kgs. His blood shot eyes barely left them. He was lying among their backpacks by the fire and occasionally biting into the backpacks, helping himself to their dried meat and scattering things all over the place. The young officer 's sleeping bag lay a good ten fifteen yards from the rest of their stuff near the river. The lion had dragged him all the way there with the intention of taking him across the river. The lion spent the whole day watching them from under there, occasionally walking down to the river for a drink of water, and if anyone made a slight movement of climbing down, it would run back, growling with it's formidable teeth bared. Since all their food was down there, guarded jealously by the lion, they spent the whole day without a bite of food and a sip of water. Long story short, they spent two nights without food and drink in the hottest driest part of the country and on the third day by day break, they could barely move or speak. They were weak with hunger, their throats were dry and anytime soon, they knew, if the lion didn't go away, to they would start fainting one by one.

Around midday, my father pulled up by the same area he had dropped the guys off but they weren't there yet. He killed the engine and decided to give them a bit more time, perhaps they were just running late. Half an hour passed without any sign of them. Pulling his rifle from behind the seats, he got out, locked the car and started off in the direction of the river. It was an easy ten minute walk, made even easier by the fact that their foot prints were still clearly visible. When he got to within twenty yards of the baobab tree, he stopped, his eyes moving around in their sockets. Something was not right. It was as if someone had ransacked the campsite. Tins of beef and beans were scattered all over and the backpacks, torn up and covered in dust. There was no one in sight. Sensing danger, he cocked his rifle, raised it and slowly approached the tree, his heart racing and his finger steady on the trigger. It must be the poachers, he said inwardly.

Suddenly, a movement somewhere up in the tree caught his eyes, he looked up and his eyes lit up when he saw the guys hanging from up there. They seemed to be telling him to back up but their arms seemed too weak to be communicating that. His gaze left them for a moment, going to the things strewn all over the place and then picked up a tail movement in the grass just beyond the tree. Immediately, he understood. That same instant, the lion that had been lying flat on its side, having suddenly felt his presence, rolled over on its stomach and glared at him, he was less than fifteen yards from him. My father took aim and for a moment wanted to squeeze the trigger but his inner being advised him not to. He remembered something about the Nyakasikana lions his elders had told him sometime before, that they were harmless to harmless people and deadly to deadly people. Someone had actually said you could speak to them and they would understand; how far true that was, he was about to find out. 

Without wasting time, he started speaking, his eyes never leaving the lion's for a second.

"My big brother, I come in peace. The weapon in my hands is just for my own protection. I do not intend to use it against you in any way and I know you mean no harm to me or my colleagues up in there too. Whatever happened was just a mistake, please forgive and let them be."
 
As he spoke softly, the lion's red eyes turned white and grey, a sign that his anger was turning to understanding. He shook his big head, causing his large mane to vibrate, rose to his feet, and yawned, showing large sharp canines that would have easily torn a human's arm off. He gave one look up into the tree, turned and slowly walked down to the river. Before wading across it, he turned his head again, stared at my father who had lowered his rifle for a good one minute and jumped in. He got to the other side, gave one last look at the campsite, and shook water off his body before disappearing into the thick forest.

The three guys used what little strength was left in them to release themselves from the branches and fall to the ground like bags of cement. Realizing how weak and helpless they were, my father started feeding them slowly whatever little food was left and giving them small sips of water until they had regained their strength. They gathered their belongings and headed back to the car. The moment they sat on the seats, they all fell asleep. My father would have to wait to hear what had transpired back there.

Lesson learnt by the young officer, respect the laws of any land you visit and that not all wishes are granted amicably."

With that, I got to my feet, said good night and decided to go on the roof of my bus for the night, not my tent.

As I was about to drift off, five clients joined me up there. I just chuckled, rolled over and closed my eyes.


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