30 Nov 93 - Capetown, South Africa
In the northeast of Zimbabwe, large granite domes rise from the earth and tower over lush fields of tobacco. Several people stand beside a little airstrip. They are waiting. "I'm certainly never going to fly on this airline," someone laughs. My eyes open wide at this magnificent country. We are winding between massive rock boulders, across fields, over power lines. The wildlife artist, Larry Norton, is shaking his head in disbelief and points towards a house on a rock. "There it is." We swoop low then around and over a fence. The dust swirls behind our wingtips and a little man waves from beneath a safari hat.
This is Larry's home. I have never met these people, but I know them all. The box of food and cookies that were waiting in Mali (after months of living on orange fanta and bread) - the phone calls to Congo in search of a little aircraft feared missing in Angola - this is the mother. The wonderful grumpy old man who never wrote a letter, even he is excited. We have quietly wondered for a year whether we would make it to this place. My eyes begin to water. I try to kick the tailwheel; a hyena has chewed a hole in it. In the plane, a rat has been living on wire insulation, film canisters and pen caps for over a month. There are two holes in the tail. I want to hug someone, but instead I just watch.
Near the town of Mvurwi, Larry lives on a farm. His house and studio are one, like a matchbox resting precariously on one end. Every time he showed me the picture, I would laugh. The pointed thatch roof makes me think of a rocket about to leave for the moon. He is so proud of this structure; he designed it himself. But there is something missing.
An African named Leonard and I locate some tools and a lumber mill. We begin constructing a bridge from the second floor porch thirty feet across to a large termite mound. Here, amidst a stand of shady trees, we design a deck to look out and hold this rocket firmly to the ground. Leonard is earning the equivalent of one U.S. Dollar a day; he is happy. It occurs to me that since leaving home over two years ago, I haven't built anything. I have fixed many broken things and avoided many bad things, but this is the first time I have been able to build something and touch it. It feels very good, and the artist is pleased.
Rhinos are still being killed. In 1987, I flew in a helicopter to Chiwore in the Zambezi valley. This was the "rhino war" - Zimbabwe's war against poachers. Sticks of men were patrolling with their FN and G-3 rifles; shoot poachers on sight. Men were killed; I saw the captured cache of rhino horns. This was "a desperate measure for a desperate situation," and I was convinced it was right. I hope I never forget my feeling this way, because it didn't work, and I was wrong.
Down to the south, I find what I think is an airstrip and land. If it is, it hasn't been cleared for many years. I'm not sure what is around that can eat me, so I stay by the plane. Eventually, an overloaded car rambles through the bush, and I am collected by flashlight. The operation begins tomorrow, but it is secret, and no one is supposed to know. We are all waiting for Dr. Kock to arrive. The British Military has sent a detachment with a truck and a crane; they all have radios and are saying important things to each other.
There is a fence around Lake Kyle, but there are several rhinos outside of it and in danger of being poached. Dr. Kock has arrived and the long procession of important people begins. The more important you are, the closer you are to the front; there is a lot of jockeying for position. "These are white rhinos," I am told. "If they were black, we couldn't do this." I have managed to become an important person and am following Dr. Kock through the bush. Looking past his ear, down the barrel, I film him sighting towards a gray space in the bush. The bush is too thick; we must move closer. One of the British fellows is there too with his instamatic camera; he has managed to make himself important as well, though no one knows how. He tells me he has never seen a rhino and he wants to take a picture.
I am filming Dr. Kock's feet as he creeps through the bush. He brings the rifle to his cheek, and the dart flies straight into the gray space. This is when you can hear your heart beat - waiting to hear what will happen. No one moves, except for the British fellow; he wants to have a better look. "Five minutes, it should be down;" we move closer. There is a rustle. A second rhino is standing beside his fallen friend. Time is critical to monitor and treat the drugged rhino. Vehicles begin crashing through the bush to drive off the beast. Dr. Kock grabs his medical box and moves quickly toward the scene. There is commotion everywhere as vehicles chase the rhino through the bush. I am filming needles and bottles as the Doctor begins. My eye has already picked out the biggest bush. The British fellow thinks this is exciting. There is a crash and a scream, "it's coming back." In the same instant, Dr. Kock and I are gone. I bump into something. The mass of gray whizzes past. Lying there in a sprawling mass of radios and instamatic cameras with wide-open eyes is the British fellow; it has just occurred to him that this might be dangerous.
The rhino is sleeping; its dark eyes watching us all. Someone covers them with a cloth. The chainsaw is started, and Dr. Kock begins to rip both horns off of his face. We do this nine times in two days.
On the banks of the Okavango river in Namibia's Caprivi strip, I ponder this. Almost everyone, including me, had thought that killing poachers would solve the problem; we were wrong. I am now with a professional hunter, a German, and his client, an American. They are hunting elephant. I have been hired by the hunter to fly anti-poaching patrols along the Angola border. I am told not to fly too close. We can see vehicle tracks from the war. Unita has started fighting again. The air is bumpy, and after three hours, we start to feel sick.
Almost everyone thinks hunting elephants is bad and selling ivory is worse; I'm not so sure. I am allowed to watch the hunt. It takes forever. One night there is screaming outside my tent. A baby orphaned elephant has wandered into camp. The next morning, he has collapsed from exhaustion. A hyena has removed most of his tail. There are scratches across his back. The hunter tells us his mother has probably been poached. I have never seen such human qualities in an animal. Several of us camp by the fire to keep him company; at five in the morning, all 200 pounds of him crawls into bed with me.
On the tenth day of the hunt, all are becoming impatient except for the hunter. We have seen over 130 bulls, but the conditions are never right. Some have tusks as heavy as 70 pounds, and the client wants a big one. I am filming this from the hunters perspective - why is he here and what does he feel? Late in the afternoon, we watch a herd for over an hour, then the moment comes. Two shots ring out. The bull drops instantly with the client's brain shot; the hunter follows with a heart shot just in case. The herd explodes into a cloud of dust, trumpeting screams and pounding feet. One elephant pauses to see where his friend is; another shot rings out into the air to scare him off, and he is gone. The dust settles silently, and I watch the client nearly break into tears. "It is beautiful," he says. I almost don't dare to, but I raise my camera to his face and ask him why he hunts. "I hunt because I am a conservationist," he says, "and I love animals."
I start to see something. Foreigners spend a very large amount of money to hunt big game. In some poor African countries, this provides incentive for the governments to look after their wildlife and to attempt to control poaching. More importantly, it provides the money necessary to pay for management and protection of wildlife. Professional hunters have a vested interest in their concessions and therefore do the best job of controlling poaching in these areas. It is free control, because the government doesn't have to pay for it. The animals hunted, I am told, are the old bulls, past their prime, who have been pushed out of breeding herds. Their death provides and pays for the safety of the younger bulls and breeding herds. The poacher, however, kills whatever he can find for food or profit.
The increase in human populations has already mostly confined elephants to parks and reserves. The hunter controls populations from overcrowding reserves. Too many elephants in a certain area destroys the vegetation - which starves elephants - and forces them to raid local farmers; this causes bad feelings. The hunter kills only what he is allowed by the government and wildlife departments; the poacher kills as much as he can get away with. The hunter employs local people as trackers and camp staff. The spoils of the hunt are shared with local communities. The hunter removes unsafe and problem animals (lions taking cattle, elephants raiding crops). Hunting occurs in non-tourist areas that are too remote or inhospitable for normal tourists. Hunters are conservationists; poachers are not.
The only damage I can perceive is that of potential emotional scaring to the members of the herd that witness the kill. Elephants are extremely intelligent; they will often avoid the location where an elephant is killed for an entire year, even though there are no visible remains. If they come across the parched bones of a carcass, they will sometimes linger for hours - pushing and picking at them as if trying to remember whose they were.
Far to the south, Jan Oelofse has managed to combine hunting and tourism on his land. He keeps them separate, but as he points out, "45 hunters bring in more money than 7,000 tourists."
In a very different part of Namibia, I watch a tall bearded man with a pipe free a mountain zebra from a wire fence. Wereldsend looks more like a rocky mountain moonscape than the end of the world. Asleep in a dry river bed, I smell the most disgusting stench of rotting flesh; it is a dream. In the morning, Garth Owen-Smith points out the hyena tracks ten meters from my head. A friend of mine in Malawi nearly lost her daughter to a hyena in the night. They like to bite your face while you are sleeping; I now like to sleep with my face covered. Garth smiles and shows me his heel; the lion had grabbed the blanket, sleeping bag and his foot.
Across in the distance, halfway up a rocky slope, there is a black rhino and her calf. Her horn has been cut off. This is not a park or reserve; it is communal land. Conservation will never succeed until it is put in the hands of the local people; they must see its value and want for it to succeed. This means for profit. Recently, 160 animals were shot for food to benefit the local people. This is good. The area is patrolled by a system of community game guards; they are members of local Damara communities and are the most qualified to look after their environment. "Perhaps in the future, they can harvest rhino horn for sale and allow commercial hunting of rhino." Garth's words are not so surprising. Africa can no longer remain the white man's playground. If wildlife in Africa is to survive, it is going to have to be looked at as a financial resource - more valuable than development or change.
One-quarter of the world's free ranging cheetah live here. To the farmers, they are vermin. Unlike leopard, cheetah need fresh meat. They kill farmer's calves, eat a small portion, then kill again the next day. Unfortunately for the cheetah, they are very easy to trap. If the farmer can't sell them, he kills them. In one farmhouse, I counted 21 cheetah skins. A five hour drive brings us to the farm of Ernst-Ludwig Cramer. A young man of 24 greets me with an R5 South African assault rifle in his hand. "Oh don't mind this," he says, "it is, how do you say, a farm tool." Ernst-Ludwig is managing two 12,500 acre farms. He has just captured a female cheetah and five cubs. I am with two Americans, Dan and Laurie Kraus. They have come to Namibia to try to save cheetahs.
The problem is more one of communication; the Krauses believe that if they can explain the world cheetah situation to Namibian farmers, then the two can learn to live together. It sounds a bit optimistic for me, especially after meeting a few of these farmers. However, there is some wisdom to be shared. Several farmers have started keeping donkeys with their calves. The donkeys don't tolerate the cheetahs, and the cheetahs are afraid of getting kicked. It works.
I am hired to help radio track several of the cheetahs that the Krauses have collared. This is normally the job of Air Jacques, a Frenchman, from a nearby farm. Air Jacques wears gardening gloves when he flies, doesn't hear very well, and has told me that flying in Africa can be very dangerous. I draw a map for Air Jacques of a strip near the Krauses. There are two; I caution him to use the longer one. When Air Jacques arrives, he misses both of them and lands on a tractor path - between a antbear hole and a ditch. As he strides from his craft, he declares to the farmer, "you know, you have a very nice 'stripe'."
We mount directional antennas beneath each wing and wire them into a switch box inside the plane. The receiver picks up the beeping signal of individual collars. We start listening on both antennas very high up. Once we hear a signal, we begin switching antennas, descending, and turning the plane so the strength is equal on both sides. Low to the ground, the trees attenuate the signal until the cheetah passes directly underneath, then the position is recorded on a GPS. Three times a week this happens, and it is important. The Krauses have a theory. They believe that when a farmer kills a cheetah, he creates a vacuum effect on his farm drawing other cheetahs in - a good reason not to kill cheetahs. The cheetah's homing instinct is strong, and I watched three males move over fifty kilometers in a week to return to the farm they had been removed from.
Wayne Hanssen sits on a wall with a baboon named Elvis. Two pet female cheetahs stroll by and climb up onto the thatch roof. A warthog drops to its knees and begins chewing the grass at his feet. Wayne is selling all his cattle and taking all the fences down on his farm. He has started a tourist camp instead. This pays the bills, but he also has a foundation called Africat. He has set up study enclosures for cheetah and is planning to try negative association. He wants to help farmers by paying them for the cheetahs they trap. The cheetahs then go into an enclosure with a calf wearing a bell around its neck. If the cheetahs approach the calf, they are electrocuted; they will find other food. After six months, He will return the cheetah to the farmer along with a few bells. Some farmers consider this a better long-range solution, especially since they are to be compensated for their effort.
In the far east of Namibia, I have been invited to Tsumkwe to visit the Ju/'haonsi N!hai !uh (click as you say that). These are the Bushman lion trackers, and they are working with Flip Stander on a leopard and lion research project. When farmers have problems with lions, instead of killing them, they can hire the N!hai !uh to capture the lion and take it away. The Bushmen then get to keep the proceeds from its sale. In Bushmanland, they are gathering data to determine if their resident leopard populations can be sustainably utilized. This means hunted commercially. Normally, it takes a week to track most of the nine collared leopards in the 350 sq. km. research area. One morning, we sit in a circle in the sand, and the Bushmen suggest to Flip that while I am there, we should try using the plane. Flip and I find all nine leopards in 40 minutes.
We then drive in and begin tracking on foot. Xomo has just returned from jail. He was drunk and threw a brick through a car window because he wasn't getting a lift out of town. He holds up a small antenna and turns in a circle to pick up the leopard's signal. The only thing more important than tracking leopards is gum. Gao scrambles up a thorn tree and plucks off a large ball of dried sap. He smiles at me and takes a huge bite - "mmm, gum." We are tracking back in the same direction we have come from. Xomo is studying tracks on the ground, but this is not good ground to track. There is another stop for gum; this time I try it. My teeth slide through a sweet sappy clear ball of "pritt glue," and I become the subject of high amusement. We are now off in the previous direction again. I am beginning to wonder if we are tracking anything at all. I start filming. There is confusion; wherever the antenna turns, the sound is the same. The sound is so loud, I can hear it coming through the headset on Tsisaba's head. Five meters to my right, there is a low rumbling sound like a jet engine taking off, a flash of motion, then nothing. The two British research assistants are nowhere to be seen. Next to me are three wrinkled little smiles; we have found the leopard. I remember a hunter's tale of stumbling upon an injured leopard. The leopard jumped on his client; the front claws pulled the client's scalp down over his face, the rear claws removed the entrails from his abdomen, the teeth tore at his throat. I am wondering what the purpose of this exercise is. One of the researchers explains that we are only looking for the leopard's last kill to weigh and identify, but sometimes this happens.
I sit one evening and watch. Gao and Xomo take two sticks, a pinch of sand, the blade of their knife and a handful of dried grass. In less than five minutes, amidst much instructive clicking, they have produced fire. They smile up at me in between puffs, then glow in satisfaction. I have never seen such a proud and wise people - living in complete harmony with their world - oblivious that the rest of the world is racing past them. The hope for the Ju/'hoansi is that they can find a niche. Xomo points to the tracks on the ground; he explains that the leopard has seen something over there. Now it is stalking; here, it is about to spring. Behind the bush we see the signs of a terrible struggle. The drag marks lead us further into the bush; there we find the half-eaten carcass of a male cheetah. The leopard will return tonight. Flip shakes his head, "each one of these guys has a Ph.D. in tracking, ecology and animal behavior." Like expert detectives, the entire kill has been re-enacted from the leopard's spoor. This is their project. If commercial hunting is viable, the Bushmen will be able to adapt their traditional skills to earn money and continue to live in harmony with their world.
Before I leave, Tsisaba decides that he would like to fly; his knuckles are already white. We strap him in and hand a radio to !hui - his friend on the ground. Heading across Bushmanland, Tsisaba describes what he sees to !hui and the others. He is nervous and holding tightly to the seat. As we approach the airstrip, Tsisaba starts clicking again followed by a faint chirp; this time from the top of a gentle barrel roll. He says to !hui, "I think my soul is leaving me." I have never heard someone describe so well that feeling of weightlessness suspended above the earth.
"If you pull the first trigger, the second will release under the slightest pressure. Go for the neck, so you don't spoil the meat." Hans swings the truck so the headlights just light up the yellow-green eyes of a female kudu. "Okay, go now, quick." I have never done this before, and I don't want to make a mistake. The old German Mauser snaps, and the kudu drops into darkness.
"In Germany, it is a tradition to drink this." There are many Germans in Namibia. In the coastal town of Swakopmund, it is the first language. There is an old German South West Africa flag hanging over the bar. "And after that, we always drink this." My throat is burning; I am not much of a drinker. "Now since you have shot your first kudu, you are on your way to becoming a jaegermeister, so we must celebrate with this." The night begins. Hans Erpf is 32 and owns over 80,000 acres. The bush is incredibly thick. It never used to be like this. After it became illegal to burn, the bush started to take over and now there is not much grazing for cattle. I am interested in the farmer's perspective toward cheetah. "I like them, but not when they kill my springbok." There were plenty of springbok here before the bush took over, now the thick bush provides good cover for stalking cheetah. Many farmers in Namibia are starting to turn to game farming. It is big business to have clients come out from Germany to hunt. Hans and I pick up two cheetah carcasses killed on the road that morning. "The farmer ran over them on purpose," Hans says.
Down the road towards Otavi, I have been invited to visit another farmer; he has a pet cheetah, but he is a private man. I open the iron gate and begin a long drive down a dirt road. The fences are immaculate. I am not coming to see his cheetah. This is a man who has seen many things, and I want to learn more about him. He is old, but sturdy. His face is gentle, and his eyes are clear. The wrinkles on his face make him appear very wise. He has many books. On the wall is a photograph of a man in uniform; "I was his battle driver." The picture is signed by Rommel. There are other photographs of the Field Marshall and him together in the desert. We sit down for tea. There are so many stories. He smiles as he tells me the time he fooled the Americans while commanding a Panzer division that had run out of gas. This man received one of Germany's highest military honors. In the final days of the war, he was taken prisoner by the Russians. He escaped from a railway car by cutting a hole with a piece of knife. He was captured again, then spent ten and a half years in Siberian prison work camps. For seven months, he was kept alone in a two meter square box and never saw the light of day. What I start to see is the strength of his mind; that is what kept him alive. He didn't stop dreaming, and one day West Germany paid an incredible sum to free him. I thought of Vietnam, and for the first time, I wondered how many men of such strength and hope had not been so lucky.
The Namib desert is the oldest and driest in the world. The northern part is called the skeleton coast. Fog creeps over the shore in the morning; it is cold and harsh. Inland ten miles, the sun is beating down on the sand dunes creating a mirage of reflected light. At Mowe Bay, a massive whale jaw rises from the sand. In a wooden shack, there is a human skull sitting on a shelf. Along the entire 1,300 mile coast line, there are skeletal remains of shipwrecks; the wood is preserved and the metal flakes away - massive structures silhouetted by glaring sand. Jen Bartlett heaves the end of a fishing rod toward the sea; we are trying to catch our dinner, but without success. She and her husband have lived in this desert for over nine years. Their camp is on the inland side of the barrier dunes. People very seldom come here; access is restricted. Along the shore, The hyenas and jackals feed on sea birds and seals; their tracks are everywhere. I remember a photograph taken several years ago of a young male lion feeding on a seal with the surf crashing in the background; this is a place of incredible images. Meandering sand rivers flow from the east. When the rains do come, the raging torrents are swallowed by the sand. sometimes they break through to the ocean and days later are dry again. This is the world of the desert elephant. There are not very many. Last year about forty were seen. They live in the riverbeds and travel from water hole to water hole. They are not visibly different from normal Savannah elephants, but their behavior has adapted for them to live in this harsh environment. The elders are the key to their survival, because in times of drought, they have experienced drought before and can guide the herd to forgotten waters.
Bad news travels very quickly in the bush. Two lions ate a tourist last night. I left Okaukeujo yesterday, and The crippled lioness was lingering by a waterhole. Early this morning, she and a young male jumped over the wall and found the young German asleep on a bench. A helicopter has also disappeared. It was supposed to be in Caprivi two days ago to begin darting elephants. So far, there has been no word.
Thanks to Chris Weber and others, National Geographic has finished making a film on the trip. "FLIGHT OVER AFRICA" (53 min.) will premier this fall on TBS Cable Television. Also in 1994, Geographic will begin to show the footage I have been shooting for their "Explorer Journal" program. Thank you everyone who has supported and believed in me so far. It will be nice to share these characters and places with you.
I would like to thank: Jimmy Buffett, Dee Slater, Nan Rees, Caroline DuPont
Prickett, Frank & Bitsy Carey, Dippy Bartow, Julie & Lee Folger, The
Folger foundation, Maggie Kelly, Anonymous, Jack Wicker, Steve & Lynn
Bedowitz, Ted Steckbauer, Mick & Carol Rue, Kent Butts, Dee Morgan, David
& Kim Coleman, Colby College, Sally Baker, Jack Hall, Billy Huger, Carter
Leidy, Julie Emerson, James Schlegel, Frank Desguin, Joseph Fill, Richard
Kovars, Boyce Budd & Frank Gennaro (Air Compak), Brad Fischer (Parker
Airborne), Ken Resner (Terra Avionics), Pat Foley (Summit Aviation), Dick Brown
(Goodyear Airtreads), Tim Casey (Garmin), Ruby Reyes (Explorers Club), Dian Maul
(Aerofusion), Mike Ross (BFGoodrich Flight Systems), Bill Williams (Microlon),
Sheldahl-Hoskins, Dave Cyr, Century Avionics and TPSC for their recent generous
assistance. I would also like to thank Rolex for their recognition in the "1993
Rolex Awards for Enterprise", Larry Norton for the Illustrations, Norris Claytor
for logistics at home, Effie Wister for tolerance out here, and Chris Weber for
pulling off an incredible task and making it possible to share this voyage with