By Al J. Venter
There is a game conservancy in Central Africa which nestles in the back and beyond of that great continent, not far distant from both the Angolan and Congo borders. A refuge of a large number of wild animals from the predations of primitive man, it is like none other.
Almost totally undeveloped - apart from five bush camps and a number of bush tracks - most of this game park which fronts the Kafue River for some distance lies in a region that is harshly primeval. If it were possible to refer to an isolated corner of tropical Africa as an oasis, Mushingashi – for that is its name, would be it because it is the ultimate wildlife retreat.
Game is abundant in this beautiful private reserve and there are many species living there that seek sanctuary from those wishing to destroy them. Among these are several large herds of elephant that, with time and a kind of innate sixth sense with which these beautiful creatures are blessed, have come to accept that the people who live and work at Mushingashi are there to protect them. And that responsibility rests with one man, Darrell Watt, who for the past 16 years has taken it upon himself to protect the animals in the domain for which he is responsible.
Former SAS operator across vast swathes of Africa during the Rhodesian War and thereafter, for a decade, the personal bodyguard to Rafiq Hariri, the Lebanese prime minister who was assassinated by the Syrians (which happened a year after he left his service in order to establish a wildlife preserve) Darrell Watt took it upon himself to create the wildlife miracle that is Mushingashi today.
Mushi, as it is colloquially known, is not an easy destination to get to: it’s a tough five-hour drive out of Lusaka, three of those across some of the worst roads on the continent and during the rainy season, often impassable.
Also, it lies adjacent to what should be one of the finest game reserves in Africa, but is not. The Kafue National Park is a government establishment and because of corruption, coupled to dereliction of duty and collusion with Chinese businessmen eager to acquire ivory, most of its animals and just about all its elephants have been killed by poachers.
Shortly before Easter 2016, at the invitation of Darrell, I took the plunge and drove the 2,400 kilometres across three countries - South Africa, Botswana and Zambia to get there. It was a three day trip and involved two border crossings, including a river ferry across the Zambezi.
If you have the time, spend a few more days on the road because along the way lies the mile-wide Victoria Falls, one of the seven great natural wonders of the world.
After a brief stop in Lusaka, one of developing Africa’s horrendous overcrowded ‘modern cities’ to stock up on food and drinks we set out for the unknown.
As always, for I have been there quite a few times before, Mushi was, as always, a same delightful experience .The Kafue River was in partial flood and the rains, while not constant, were sometimes vicious with cloud bursts coming down that could drown rats. That also meant a long detour to get to the camp because one of the bridges was down.
The death of the original owner of Mushi, Rafiq Hariri – at whose behest Darrell had originally bought the place – had brought numerous problems in its wake, the principle one being money, or lack of it. As a consequence on this visit, the camp was pretty run-down.
Not all that long ago there was a tall security fence around an area that would easily have enclosed a couple of dozen football fields, but that’s all been knocked down by the elephants. And that meant at quite often after dark there were lions around. Nobody ventured from their shambas without a rifle.
I had a 30.06 handy, which should have been useful, especially since we tended to move around quite a bit after dark for ‘sundowners’ or calls about some animal or other but I didn’t bother: I didn’t have the authority to use it should needs must.
Also, as I was quickly reminded on the first night there, insect repellents are a pretty vital sine qua non: without a mosquito net you simply do not get a good night’s sleep.
Not a lot else had changed at Mushi since my last visit. All the camps and game guard posts are well served by an efficient internal communications network with patrols able to call in at short notice to alert those responsible if there are poachers active. That meant that there was a constant stream of babble on the ether that rarely stopped before three or four hours after the sun had set.
What was new was the animals that had had moved into Darrell’s main camp and there were droves of them. We had three or four elephants that sleep close to the main structures and could see their tramplings quite clearly in the mornings. Darrell reckoned that at least two were wounded - shot by poachers, but not killed.
One poor creature was clearly suffering badly: she made a lot of noise , obviously painful and discordant when she reached the camp – sounds I’ve never heard a jumbo make before – and then found a spot to settle down and all went quiet, probably suffering from an internal injury.
The elephants did not quite lie down like other animals normally do, but usually leaned sideways against a giant anthill to get their rest.
That said, the bird life was, as to be expected, spectacular – 350 species around the camp and its environs: the bush around is never quiet once the sun is up.
Also, the camp seemed to attract enormous numbers of antelope (also seeking safety, I suppose, which is why the lions come). We had bushbuck, waterbuck, impala, puku and a host of other creatures like cerval, porcupine and occasionally a leopard. Out in the bush beyond, there are also eland and kudu.
In the river itself – which the camp faces onto - there are three huge pods of hippo (about 50 or 60 in a pod) and they can be bloody noisy at times as they come close to forage in the swamp below the lodge. If they gather in the river near to where you’ve got your head down, it takes a couple of days to get used to the persistent grunts and snorts.
Two things that were immediately worrying on our arrival were large swarms of tsetse fly that arrived with every vehicle that comes in from the bush, but that’s a summer rains thing, which are late this year. They cling to the hood and once the Land Rover stops, the bastards spread out. Once these large flies settle on a bit of open flesh (like your neck or arm) they draw blood in seconds. If we open our windows when travelling, there might have 20 inside the cab in a minute and their bites can be severe. They don’t infect you with sleeping sickness in these parts but after a dozen or so bites, the tiny amount of blood thinning fluid they inject (like mosquitoes) does tend to make one a bit ill.
Snakes are everywhere. Dennis, the young professional hunter (PH) employed by Darrell (who likes to go barefoot in the bush) had a scrap with a forest cobra as thick as my wrist a few in his bungalow a days ago. He was separated from his rifle (as he would be, inside his bungalow) so he tackled it with a broom. Bottom line: don’t leave doors open because then the visitors quietly arrive.
Also, Darrell had his dog taken by a python while we were there and it hardly helped that his other pooch had been snatched by a croc the month before.
The only other visitor I had night before last was what I thought was a large moth that had somehow got under my mosquito net. It was on my face so I swotted it away with my hand and went back to sleep. I woke at first light to find a huge spider half the size of my hand hanging from the net about 6 inches from my faces. Dammit, I got a fright!
And Dennis has just walked in while I'm scribbling this with a scorpion he found in his shower...small and deadly, the kind from which Caroline took two hits when we were in Northern Mozambique a year ago. In remote Africa you simple do NOT just step into the shower without carefully checking first.
Enough for now. The bush (more like jungle after the rains) is quite a difficult environment for someone who has been city-bound for so long so I am not certain I will head for the Zambezi after this lot.
Also, we are all being seriously harassed by mosquitoes the moment the sun dips, so let see what happens there. I have a good prophylactic so all should be well.
AND A FEW DAYS LATER Basically things are fine with the book but with Darrell in Dubai I am losing a week. So I better just get around to enjoying the river. It is quite beautiful to be back here again, I'm sure you appreciate. Early reports speak of a large baboon killed by a leopard in an adjoining camp.
Driving here from Darrell’s farm – 2 hours from the Mushi game conservancy (across bad roads and huge bodies of water that sometimes needs a tractor to haul the vehicle out) - this morning we had a black mamba on the track and stopped to take a closer look. I wanted to get out and 'play' with it a bit but the driver was worried about my opening the door of the cab with an horrendous mass of tsetse about.
The other news is that Darrell is now talking to Walter (my pal in South Africa who dives with tiger sharks south of Durban) about setting up a croc diving enterprise along the Kafue. From about May, the river is crystal clear and cool too. I got up at 5.30 this morning and it was actually a little cold - nice, after a terrible summer apparently - driest summer ever and now the rains have arrived in force.
For the rest, it is very quiet and I am really enjoying the bird life - everywhere! There is also a huge amount of other animals such as porcupine, three warthog ‘families’ and the rest. The elephants continue to come and go. Three big lions right outside the residential area this morning when Dennis set out to fetch me at the gate.
Healthwise things are OK. Had a touch of fever a few days ago but double-dosed so all OK. Lots of noise around the chalet last night with the buck taking shelter, probably from lions. In winter – now that the security fence is no more - the big cats like to sleep alongside our water heater, which could probably cause a problem or two when the cold arrives.
Well, I’ve almost come to the end of my stay at Mushi and its blowing like billy-ho. The wind is coming in so hard I could just as easily be along the coast at Brighton: premature easterly Monsoons, it seems. Cool too – winter is on its way.
The good news is that for the first time in the three weeks I’ve been here, there are elephants in the grass and marshlands across the river: a pair of them. The tuskers that once made the area their home were all killed by poachers (and we’re talking about scores, possibly hundreds).
The two there now have explored the entire ‘peninsula’ (partly waterlogged, with plenty of croc therein) and at midday they settled on a small area directly across from Darrell’s villa. When I came out to go to the office – the front door faces the river – they watched me keenly, obviously suspicious of any two-legged ‘animal’ (as they would naturally be of potential poachers).
Bad news (though good in one respect) in that the camp has acquired a squatter, a lone bull elephant that has taken up permanent position right outside the door of the guest house that Caroline and I always use.
This old codger, a huge beast, is not aggressive, but one has to be very careful about not running into him by accident as the bush is thick after heavy rains and that can easily happen. Worse, he has now cut us off from the freezer where we keep our meat and other perishables.
We cautiously ‘visited’ the elephant yesterday afternoon alongside the furthest lodge, which he seems to now call ‘home’ and Dennis, the professional hunter spent about 10 minutes ‘talking’ to him, as he does with all animals he encounters in the bush.
As he suggests, you need to carefully watch its body language: whether it keeps its straight, its demeanour ‘impatient’ and whether it is feeding or possibly ‘fake feeding’, which these creatures do when they are unsettled and watching you. That trait suggests that they feel threatened, but the old bugger knows Dennis now and doesn’t react in any way.
Since I wrote the above, two more elephants have joined the old man and now we have three. Late flash, last night a dozen more arrived. Though they head out into the bush to feed during the day, we need to be especially cautious, especially when we head back to our beds after dark]. We are certainly not in favour of chasing any of them away from the camp; they come here knowing they are safe from slaughter. Still, wild animals can be intimidating and you are never sure how they might react.
The lions are also still around at night: lots of low roars and grunts outside the camp. I had one of these cats outside my window a couple of evening’s ago, giving their characteristic ‘hunting’ grunts [by means of which they stay in touch with other lions in the pride nearby].
So that night, when I headed back to my chalet after the lights had been cut, I was accompanied by a game scout with his rifle and, of course, two flashlights are better than one. It’s a sensible precaution because both lion and elephant roam the camp freely after dark and the bull elephant seems to like foraging around my walls.
God knows what I’d do if I had to reach out to Darrell or Dennis in an emergency, though that’s unlikely. For the rest, I am heading for the Zambezi shortly. We will leave Mushi and its animals, fish eagles, meandering crocs, snakes, hundreds of hippo and an astonishing array of spiders - large and small - at 4 am, the idea being to make the morning flight from Lusaka to Livingstone. Mac – a former mercenary aviator who, together with freelance Cuban pilots taken off the streets of Miami in the early 1960s flew WW2-era piston-engine Harvard and Trojans fighter planes in the Congo (at the behest of the CIA).
He’ll hopefully be picking me up in his small plane (the he built himself and we’ll head down the Zambezi valley towards Lake Kariba (or just short of it) and his magnificent hilltop home in that region that he built with his own two hands. God knows how he did it because it’s a 9-hour haul by road from Livingstone across some of the worst bush tracks on the continent. [110 miles divided by 9 – work out the average speed for yourself]
On the book, I now have many hours of interviews with Darrell: good strong stuff, together with a note pad with pages of notes as well as about 100 photos. The new work will deal with Darrell’s Watt’s life after his experiences related in Hannes Wessels’s A Handful of Hard Men. [which is getting quite a few five star reviews on amazon.com and amazon.co.uk ]. Check it out because it is an outstanding work,]
Meanwhile, I have told my old pal Freddie Forsyth that with all the drama surrounding the illegal ivory trade, he has here the basics for an excellent new novel. I also suggested that he get his butt to Zambia and that Darrell would host him.
It has been confirmed that the Beirut owners of Mushi will now be putting this wildlife conservancy on the market, that is 15 years ago the place – three separate properties, one of which was owned by my son – was bought for less than $1 million. They are now asking eight or ten times that and it is no surprise that there are several potential buyers waiting in the eaves.
Ultimately, everything will hinge on whether those who wish to shoot all the animals will prevail. Only one man is able to effectively control the havoc caused by poachers and that is Darrell, the no-nonsense former SAS operative who has dedicated his life to this place.
Last December the associates of this rum bunch tried to get him deported, and when that wasn’t successful they attempted to have him killed (in January this year). Now, thankfully, he enjoys the protection of the Office of the Zambian President, which says a lot. Interesting too is that four poachers were stopped by his game scouts yesterday: two ran off and the other two taken into custody and handed over to the police (together with their brand new .375 Magnum hunting rifle, courtesy of a Chinese businessman in the area). Bastard!
For the sake of security, please do not pass on this missive: too many sensitive issues at stake.
Meanwhile, if any of you want a delightful break from the troubles of the civilised world, Darrell is waiting to host you and yours. Bring your own food and get a set of wheels (4x4 is essential) and it’ll cost you a miserable $100 a day.
When the new owners take over, they envisage (after a substantial jack-up) asking $1,000 a night – per person - which is what some five star safari outfits operating in the remote African bush tend to charge [but then they will also feed you...)
Late Flash: We’re out of Mushi now but the last morning Dennis came to breakfast and said that the camp elephant population was now 15 – a dozen or so more tuskers had arrived overnight. And when the males come, females follow, so Darrell could have a hundred elephant around the camp pretty soon. Lovely!
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