Steve Pope Safaris

Semi-participatory Camping, Bushwalking, & Canoe Safaris

Excerpt from Steve Pope's Book

The following is from his upcoming book:

   I was told by the Council that I should meet and consult Chief Chundu so as to establish an amicable relationship with his people. Chief Chundu is the guardian of the Iron God Chimombe and communicates with Chimombe through the spirit medium, Kavhinga.  Messages were duly sent and Tim Barnes, two of my senior staff and I met him at the Elephants walk Motel on his way back from Karoi and we followed him to his Kraal. On this occasion he was very offhand and wouldn’t have given me the time of day. It was explained to him that I was going to lease the concession and would be paying his people a concession fee that would go towards the building of schools and grinding mills. He grunted his acknowledgement and told us we could go into the concession and look for a suitable camp site but we were not to start building until a “cleansing” ceremony had been conducted. During the next month or so Tim and I drove up to the concession with our trail bikes on a trailer. We then spent hours riding on Elephant trails getting to know the rugged and mountainous terrain. Besides the Pfundundu which flowed from the west into the Rukomeshi there was another river called the Chitiva in the east of the concession flowing into the Chitake River . Not far down from the headwaters of the Chitiva is a rock pool and a grove of tall Ebony trees nearby. The terrain was such that we could get a bush track to the site easily with very little road building. This was a perfect site providing shade, water and easy access. Having decided on this site a message was sent to Chief Chundu to arrange the cleansing ceremony. A couple of weeks later, at full moon we collected Chief Chundu, Kavhinga and some elders and took them into the concession where we set up camp on a ridge above the headwaters of the Chitiva river and about one kilometer from the proposed site. That afternoon Chief Chundu and Kavhinga went off into the bush and returned in the late afternoon with two pieces of bark about ten centimeters by four. We all assembled and followed them down to the site. Chief Chundu was dressed in a suit while Kavhinga wore a blanket and headdress of long thin Porcupine quills that represented a Lion’s mane. On arrival we were all sat down in a semi circle with our shoes off about five meters from the base of the Ebony trees. Across from them was a termite mound and a well worn game trail ran between the trees and the mound down to the pool of water. Kavhinga settled himself down at the base of the trees and busied himself with the pieces of bark and a calabash then began chanting in a loud hoarse voice and clapping his hands. He was asking Chimombe to show a sign that it was OK for the camp to be built here. After about twenty minutes he climbed to his feet and allowed us to inspect the two pieces of bark. They lay next to each other, the first had a loose pile of maize meal on it, the second had some snuff on it and the calabash filled with water. He explained that if the maize meal was disturbed it meant that Chimombe disapproved of the camp being built there. With this information we set off back to our temporary camp on the ridge. I was walking with Tim and Denny Tom, my trainee guide, just behind Chief Chundu and Kavhinga. They were jabbering away and after awhile I asked Denny what they were talking about. I had grown up on a farm but all our labour force had been migrant labourers from Malawi so I had learnt to speak Chinyanja and not Shona. Denny had been listening to them and said they were talking about a family that had migrated from Masvingo and wanted to settle in Hurungwe and open a shop. The same “cleansing” ceremony had been performed but Chimombe indicated that they should not do so. They ignored the sign and within months the whole family had died of various diseases and accidents. This information was not presented to me as a warning; if I hadn’t asked I would not have known. However it was a bit disconcerting. That evening we sat and talked about safaris and conservation for hours around a well stoked camp fire. At about three o’ clock the next morning I woke up and could hear a Hyena calling from the direction of the pool of water and proposed camp site. I lay there thinking that that had blown all chances of building a camp there. The pieces of bark with the offerings were only about one meter off the game trail leading to the pool. I lay there thinking that Chief Chundu and Kavinga had set me up and they were not interested in the concession being established. The next morning soon after sunrise and a cup of coffee we all set off for the site. I was convinced that the maize meal would be scattered or even consumed by the Hyena or else at least disturbed by a field mouse or even a beetle. I followed them down wondering all the way if I could offer a bribe to re do the ceremony with more favourable conditions. Kavinga was leading with Chief Chundu close behind. When we arrived Kavhinga strode up to the trees, paused and then turned around exultantly clapping his hands and shouting that Chimombe had given the sign in the affirmative – the maize meal had not been touched! Up to this point Chief Chundu had always been reserved in dealings with me and not addressing me directly but now he approached me clapping his hands and said I could build the camp. From this moment on he was amiable and we entered into a great relationship with invitations to camp at his Kraal. His son, Joe, became a tracker and assistant on safari.

I started as soon as possible establishing a semi permanent tented camp. Knowing that ablution facilities would be the most important a lot of effort went into the toilet. It was a “long drop” based on the Blair design. It consisted of a deep hole of about eight meters. This was covered with a reinforced concrete slab with a hole in the center just big enough for a ten liter bucket with the bottom cut out to wedge in. On top of the bucket I fitted the top half of a glass fibre toilet bowl. The building was stone wall with the door facing into the prevailing wind and a ventilation pipe set thought the slab behind the seat and out through the thatch roof. This ensured a hygienic building with no smell or flies. A basin fitted to the wall below the window and a drum of water piped to it completed the facility. One of my clients was a participant of the annual Air Rally and a tour operator from Kenya . He complimented me on having built the best “long drop” in Africa . It was certainly the coolest place to be on a hot day.

 With the access road and camp established it was time for the “blessing” ceremony. This was set for the next full moon in a couple of weeks. Tim Barnes asked if he could bring a friend to the ceremony. I was about to meet Ian Nyschens. Ian had been an ivory hunter in the Zambezi valley in the late 1940s and early 1950s. He had stayed in Chief Chundu’s villages along the Chewore River shooting crop raiding elephant for them. On one occasion he went down with a particularly bad dose of malaria and the tribe nursed him back to health. On the due date I purchased 100 liters of Chibuku, a very popular opaque beer relished by the black people. I was also supposed to collect a buffalo leg from a hunting camp but this was not forth coming so bought three goats on the way back to camp. My parents, wife and three kids, Tim, Ian and my staff made up our party then Chief Chundu, his family and Kavinga and his drummers were transported in. Another fifty or so villagers walked the six kilometers from the communal lands and joined the proceedings. Fires were built, the drums set up and the beer distributed. The dancing started off slow but as time passed and beer was drunk so the tempo increased until the drummers hands were a blur and the dancers were whirling like dervishes. It was quite late before Kavhinga appeared apparently in a trance. He was wearing his headdress and a belt with animal tails and strips of skin over a pair of shorts. He addressed the assemblage in a hoarse voice interspersed with lion like grunts. The next morning Kavhinga gave us a “briefing“of what Chimombe had told him during the ceremony. He said that the business would be successful and that all would be well. Then he said that the Lion will not be afraid of me and will not run away. Most of what he said was in the way of informing the villagers who I was; what we were going to be doing and that Chimombe had approved of our presence.

    Ian spent a while talking to some of the elders who remembered him. He had spent a lot of time in the afternoon and evening by himself gazing northwards over the rugged terrain leading to the edge of the Escarpment and the Zambezi Valley . I resolved then to invite him to join safaris at Chitake when I had small groups of clients and so began a friendship with a controversial figure. In his books, “Months Of The Sun” (referring to September and October) and “Footsteps Of An Ivory Hunter” he freely admits to poaching elephant in Mana Pools and selling the ivory on the 1 licences he had purchased for hunting in the Tsetse corridors and for hunting rogue and crop raiding elephant in the villages. He told me that he did most of his hunting in the “months of the sun”, after it had got too hot and dry for the farmers who had bought the same licences so they could hunt for meat rations for their labour – he would have the valley to himself dressed in a loincloth and accompanied by a tracker and a water carrier. Ian was arrested a couple of times but released because of lack of evidence but  eventually, in 1954, was offered a job he couldn’t refuse by Archie Fraser – the position of first Game Ranger for the Department of Wildlife Management before it became National Parks and Wildlife Management. Ian’s main task was to put hunting pressure on the Elephant herds in the Lowveld to move them off the new cattle ranches. He resigned in 1958 because of disagreements on some conservation policies. It was his efforts to publicize the plight of animals drowning on submerging islands while Lake Kariba was filling that led to the media pressure that established Operation Noah for which Rupert Fothergill became famous.

From then on several times a year I would phone Ian and he would drive up to Makuti and leave his beat up old pickup at the Hotel and join us for a four day safari at Chitake. Ian was supremely confident of elephant but could not get used to my handling of Lion. After a close encounter I would find him with his rifle at the ready, shaking his head and telling my clients that I was going to be eaten one day. As mentioned in chapter six I had learnt to face charges and 1995 and 1996 were the years that the Chitake Lion were particularly aggressive, trying to chase us off from kills and cubs. Eventually they were to become totally habituated and would lay in the river bed in front of camp with their cubs.

             A few weeks after the blessing ceremony I was running a camping safari at Chitake. One afternoon we found four lioness feeding on a warthog. We stood in a close group and in the open about thirty meters from them. I kept every one quiet and still and there was not much aggression – a low rumbling growl from the one that had possession of the head. After a while there was the growling of Lion mating. I moved the group slowly past a thicket and saw the male and female about forty meters from us. He stood looking at us over his shoulder for about three seconds then followed the Lioness who had walked off a few meters. I moved forward slowly, a step at a time, closing the distance to about thirty meters and into a position where we had a clear view. The male kept an eye on us but there was not a single growl from him. When they moved off again we followed them at the same distance but I decided not to push my luck too far so after their third mating we left them. This was unusual as a male Lion is normally very aggressive when mating. It was also the first time we had ever had a reasonable sighting of him since 1992. The next day we saw them again and were allowed to approach to about thirty meters before he began paying close attention to us.

                   A few weeks later we found him fast asleep in the open soaking up the afternoon sun. I walked us up to about 15 meters standing behind his back. Everyone was a bit nervous but very quiet and still. I signaled that I was going to wake him up and to have their cameras ready. I gave a soft cough. He woke instantly and in a flash was on his haunches in a crouch with his head turned towards us. He gave a long rumbling growl and his tail flicked agitatedly from side to side. I avoided eye contact and in fact turned my head away from him and was about to signal for us to back off. Unbelievably his growling stopped and I saw that he had relaxed. I signaled for us to move back. We hadn’t gone three paces when he flopped back down with his back to us and didn’t even bother to watch us depart.  I discussed this behaviour with Vice, my tracker and assistant, referring to what the Spirit Medium had said after the Blessing ceremony. We decided to name him Kavinga after the Medium. He became well known with the public and other Safari Operators. In fact there is a newly registered operation – Kavhinga Safaris. Kavihnga is the only male Lion to become habituated at Chitake.