Custodian of the Grave

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It was the last day of the final safari for the 2000 season. As always, Garth was grateful. All his clients had shown up, enjoyed themselves, and gone back to their homes overseas safe and with fond memories. The Mana Pools in the Zambezi Valley was a febrile, vital celebration of life, and he was grateful for the opportunity to do what he loved in an area that had entered his bloodstream almost like a drug. Yes, he knew the dangers, but he could not get enough of it.

“My family has been in Africa since 1688,” he says, “spending eight generations as wine farmers in the Western Cape before moving up by wagon from South Africa to present-day Zimbabwe. It is here that our last five generations have thrived on an outdoor life as hunters, transport riders, farmers, ranchers, and now, my life as a wildlife guide. Zimbabwe is where all three of our children were born and raised and are currently being educated.

“I am sure that it is thanks to my family’s long resident history that a deep passion for Africa and its wildlife made me realize at a young age that I wanted to work with wild animals and share those interactions with my fellow man. Over the past twenty-five years, I have been fortunate to work as a guide in most of the national parks within Zimbabwe, as well as the Okavango Delta, the Linyanti and Chobe waterways of Botswana, the Skeleton Coast, and Sossusvlei and Etosha national parks in Namibia. There were also the Luangwa Valley and Zambezi national parks in Zambia, the Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater, and Selous national parks as well as the Mahale Mountain Chimpanzee park in Tanzania.

“I have dived the underwater gardens of Zanzibar, that fabled island reeking of spices and a cultural history of slave traders, sultans, and intrepid explorers. I have shared the summit of Africa’s highest mountain, Kilimanjaro, with like-minded friends from two decades of safari holidays together. Safaris have taken me as far afield as Rwanda and Uganda to spend time with Africa’s most endangered mammal, the mountain gorilla. On many occasions I have enjoyed the game-rich parks of Kenya, the climax being to witness Africa’s greatest wildlife spectacle, the wildebeest migration, astride a horse for up to ten days at a time.”

The young Garth Thompson, like many of his generation, had left school twenty years earlier and found himself flung into a furious war that turned boys into hard men in a sliver of time.

Looking to make some extra money, the young veteran found work moonlighting as a guard at Wankie Safari Lodge in the west of the country. Mothballed because of the hostilities, the facility was guarded against insurgents by off-duty soldiers. It was there that the young Thompson found the springboard he needed for his future.

Hostilities over, the management moved quickly to reopen the lodge, and wildlife activities were placed under the control of Dave Rushworth, a former national parks man respected as one of the most knowledgeable naturalists in the country.

Thompson seized the opportunity, placing himself firmly under Rushworth’s tutelage. He went to work draining every ounce of available information from his mentor and emerged a well-informed guide with the skills required to take himself to the market. With an endearing personality, a quick wit, and great charm, he traveled the world with a slide show, impressed hundreds of audiences, and built a successful business selling himself and his little patch of Africa.

This is one of his stories:

“It was 6:45 A.M., and we were driving through the well-forested three kilometres from Chikwenya Camp to the airstrip to meet our charter flight at 7:30. I intended to use this extra time to show my group, who had turned out to be exceptional wildlife enthusiasts, Chief Chikwenya’s grave, housed in a massive baobab tree on the banks of the Sapi River.

“When baobabs get old (over one thousand years), they rot naturally from the inside, and massive, smooth caverns form within. These have been used in the past as stores, toilets, jails, armories, bus shelters, and, in this case, a grave. This particular tree is thought to be about twelve hundred years old. Chief Chikwenya’s body was laid to rest inside it in the 1930s, along with some of his personal belongings, including a bow, arrows, spears, roof rafters from his hut, and a large clay pot. During the Rhodesian bush war the army pillaged the grave, taking all his memorabilia except the clay pot.

“Since learning of this tree tomb sixteen years before, I had taken a number of people to enjoy its inner secrets. I hadn’t brought anyone inside for at least three years, however. That was because of an old honeycomb high up in the hollow that had become active once again and home to a new swarm of bees. When exiting the tree from the inner cavern, it takes about a minute to scramble up and squeeze oneself out of the entrance, and if someone were attacked by the bees living above during that time it could prove fatal. In the past I had referred to them as the ‘Custodians of the Grave.’

“Upon arrival at the tree that morning, I squeezed my head and shoulders through the narrow entrance and shone the beam of my flashlight across the smooth gray inner walls. I noticed that the honeycomb had been abandoned, and I was delighted. I could now introduce my eager group to the inside of the majestic tree.

“The entrance hole is quite difficult to pass through. It is about eighteen inches wide and as high. This opening is three and a half feet above the ground on the outside of the tree. One worms oneself through the narrow entrance, which was made by the villagers to insert the body of their chief. It has become progressively smaller over the years as the tree slowly continues to grow. It would be impossible to remove the large clay pot that rests within, as the outlet is now smaller than it was when the entrance was neatly hacked open seven decades before.

“Once wiggling more than halfway through this elevated cavity, one drops down to a handstand on the floor, which lies five feet below the entrance hole. After worming myself in, I collapsed ungracefully onto my feet from my handstand, which was only a foot from the old clay pot. I was now able to enjoy the coolness of this massive hollowed tree in which about ten people could comfortably stand, the inside diameter being approximately twelve feet.

“Everyone was excited and keen to join me. I shone the light up at the comb—definitely no bees there—and then swept it down to the ochre clay pot. I began to play the light around the base of the tree. I hadn’t panned more than half a metre from the pot and there to greet me in the luminous beam was nothing less than a seven-foot black mamba, rearing up to three feet in height, swaying its coffin-shaped head from side to side, mouth wide open, presenting its characteristic black gape to my startled stare.

“Under no circumstances did I want to be in there with this new ‘Custodian of the Grave.’ Unfortunately I could not leave my tree cavern by the way I had entered, as the mamba was less than a metre from where I needed to stand to pull myself up five feet to the hole that offered my escape. And then, no sane person would attempt to scramble up a smooth wall three feet from a weaving black mamba. A shiver crept over my now clammy skin as I realized that my head, neck, and arms had been a little more than two feet from where the coiled snake lay when I had come down into my clumsy handstand position a minute earlier.

“I had nowhere to run, and no stick or weapon with which to defend myself. I was incarcerated in a hollow tree with the fastest, most aggressive, and most deadly snake in Africa. I had often encountered black mambas in the past, but never in a confined area like this. I’d always had a weapon or room to run. I informed the group of my most unpleasant predicament, and some of them went off to find me a stick to defend myself with. Others stood by, at a loss to offer anything more than encouragement.

“All this time the snake continued to rear and weave, threatening me with its wide, black gape and reflecting a dull glow to the beam of my light. There were a few thin fifteen-foot-long poles leaning against the wall closest to me, possibly rafters from the chief’s hut. In an attempt to distance myself from this lethal reptile, I tried to clamber up the sticks, but being old and rotten they snapped, one breaking toward the mamba and nearly hitting it. That made the serpent even angrier. I wasn’t overly pleased with this state of affairs. Soon a stick for doing battle with the mamba was passed through the entrance. The stick was less than three feet long and quite thin—about as much use as an ashtray on the back of a motorbike.

“I quote from the handbook Snakes of Zimbabwe (Donald Broadley and E. V. Cock; Longman, 1989):

“Black mambas inhabit termitaria, hollow trees, and rock crevices. Unlike the cobras, the mambas hunt by day. When disturbed it will rear up and spread a narrow hood, at the same time opening the mouth wide to show the black interior. Any sudden movement will provoke a strike, which is likely to be inflicted on the upper body or face of a human intruder. This snake has a very potent and dangerous venom of the neurotoxic type; bites usually occur on the midtrunk, hands, arms, or head.

“Initially the victim will feel a variable burning pain, cold clammy pale skin, faintness, nausea, and vomiting. Then a tightening of the muscles across the throat and chest, partial paralysis of the lower jaw and tongue, drooping jaw, profuse salivation, and slurred speech will occur. The victim has difficulty in swallowing, the eyelids start to droop, the pupils become fixed and do not contract in response to light, and the eyeball is immobilized in the socket, producing a “staring” effect. Muscle twitches and spasms occur, and the victim shows abnormal sensitivity and pain to even a light touch on the body. Respiration and movement of the ribs becomes progressively more difficult and painful, and as generalized paralysis sets in with spasmodic convolutions, breathing stops, followed shortly by the heart.

“Charming!

“The minute that had passed, like an eternity, had been a standoff, the snake continuing to weave, as did my thoughts. Foremost in my mind was the possibility of its lunging forward, striking with lightning speed, and attaching itself to my left cheek or neck while those long fangs injected their fatal venom.

“The mamba must have been feeling quite uncomfortable, too (thank goodness!), as it then found a hole at the base of the tree in which its deadly head and long, slender body began to disappear. I experienced absolute relief. It continued to disappear into the base of the tree, and I was informing my anxious friends on the outside of the positive developments—there being still eighteen inches of tail left—when all of a sudden the angulated head popped out of a crack in the bark on the inside of the tree, about twelve inches from the hole that I entered by. That put a dampener on things. I thought of future tourists visiting Chief Chikwenya’s grave—and that of some fool guide named Thompson who hadn’t made it out alive.

“The snake surveyed the scene, and I felt trapped and helpless. After no less than thirty seconds, its head withdrew from the exit hole and its scaled, reptilian body began to coil only feet from me. In no time at all the mamba was back in its original position and once again swaying from side to side, displaying its hissing black gape of death, opened to about 150 degrees. I thought that my only way out would be to kill the snake—not a good conservation ethic to display in front of my guests.

“My mind wandered. I reflected on how I had enjoyed my recent safari with such passionate, like-minded new friends. To think that I had put myself in this predicament for a ten-minute diversion on the way to the airstrip was utter lunacy! I drifted back to reality, realizing that I had to do something soon to extricate myself. In the gloom of the hollowed tree, which was well scented by bat urine, my eyes focused on an old mopane stick leaning against the inner wall behind my back. It was about seven feet long and as thick as my forearm. The outer sapwood had been carved into wavy shapes by termites, but the dense heartwood was sturdy and firm.

“I used the miracle stick as a support, finding incredible strength from the fear and excitement that coursed my body. I levered my legs up onto the smooth, living wall like a gymnast. My body was now at 90 degrees to the floor, and I informed the group outside of my plan to escape feet first from the entrance hole. Using the log for support and as a pivot, I walked my legs along the inner wall of the bottle-shaped tree cave. Eventually I managed to wedge my legs into the hole through which I had gleefully entered five minutes earlier. Immediately, eager hands from the group latched onto my ankles and pulled me through the tight hole like a rifle cleaner out of a barrel. I lost a fair amount of skin in the process, but it was a small price to pay, considering.

“There was much relief evident. It had been an extremely unpleasant experience, certainly one of life’s worst. As we excitedly hopped around, shaking hands and slapping backs, we heard our aircraft overhead. What a pleasure to be going home in one piece! I silently vowed never to disturb the grave of Chief Chikwenya and its custodians again.”

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