Monday, November 19, 2012

Now that's hungry

One of the guides here by the convenient to western tourists name of John grew up in the Delta. His people used to hang spears attached to rocks in trees under hippo trails. When the hippos came out of water to feed at night they tripped a line that released the booby trap.

The villagers always had a feast when they bagged a hippo. Fat was rendered into oil and all the meat not eaten at the feast was dried into jerky. But the feast meat? Grilled to allow most of the fat to escape. Even so the meat is so oily that feast-goers stripped naked to eat it cuz the squirts came violently and without warning. Think about that ye mourners of the Twinkie, you could be sitting in a pile of your own hippo-infused excrement at the family barbeque.

We zipped around the bend to find the channel choked with hippos. The water was so low that there often wasn't room to go around them so we had to wait to see what they'd do.

Males run the show in hippo groups and the big guy lunged toward us then dove under the water. He surfaced a few seconds later much nearer to us and closing the gap. Jacques threw the outboard into reverse and we decided the sandbank back downstream would be just fine for fishing, after all.

Once the boat was turned around and motoring, we noticed a dead hippo in a little back channel. I grew up on a mink farm, pierced the stomach of the first deer I skinned, and have removed boa constrictor shit from a terrarium, so I know stink. The top fragrance in the "Worst smell" category now belongs to dead hippo.

Bubbles escaped from the mouth and anus of the rotting animal as the gases of decay made their way to the surface. We marveled at how big they are when you're only a meter away until the gag reflex threatened to win.

I decided to fly the guests over the hippo two days later. I was pretty sure I had the right bend in the river because I could see lots of crocs on the sandbanks as the heli got closer.

Reason 719 that helicopters are superior to airplanes: You can hold a helicopter in a hover over a dead hippo whose hide is a vibrating, undulating mass because the crocodiles are tearing it apart from the inside out while tourists from Spain snap photos.

The skin is too thick for crocs to bite through it to get to the goods. What's a hungry reptile to do? Well start where there's a hole and make it bigger. That's right, kids, crocs rip the hippo a new asshole and crawl inside for hunks of greasy goodness.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Burning baobob

It’s just as well that Basile is on leave. Basile lost his hearing as a young boy to a fever. He provides the occasional camp amusement by starting a weed-wacker next to a poolside lounger, oblivious to the racket. But he always gets angry at situations like the one we face now. He has to stay in camp while the other men go out to fight because last time, they couldn’t find him for hours and they thought he’d been burned.

Botswana law requires men to fight fires. Law or no law, this one needs fighting. The only thing between the fire and the camp is the hangar, which has a helicopter and 80,000 liters of Jet-A.

We spotted the fire early in the day. I met a group out on their morning activity and picked up passengers at Baobob Island, named for the iconic tree at its center. By noon, the tree had been engulfed in flames.

We’ve had fires near the camp in recent weeks. When the fire burned at Kiri, we felt safe behind our moat. But that moat dried up days ago and Kiri is 8 km away. The burnt baobob tree is 1.4 km south of camp.

Senior staff and I made small talk at the Fish Eagle Bar with guests as we watched the smoke roll over the trees. Jacques sent a crew out to access the situation with the benefit of daylight.

I scheduled all my flights for the next day and went to change into my best fire-fighting flowered shirt because the crew came back and said they would need more help to turn the fire.

Jacques and I had driven to the end of the airstrip to have a look at the Kiri fire weeks ago. It was a dull glow off to the southwest. While a threat, it felt more like something that deserved monitoring, especially with an easterly wind.

We loaded up two land cruisers with men, Chantelle and a bunch of beaters. Chantelle is the other half of the camp manager team and beaters are flaps of rubber mounted on the end of poles about the length of a broom handle made from mopane saplings.

My stomach clenched when we turned the corner from the maintenance shed to the airstrip. The fire brightened the sky, smoke roiled, and it roared like a microphone held to a bowl of Rice Krispies with the speaker turned up to eleven.

The glow of the Kiri fire had earned an indifferent shrug. This fire made the fear flow. Evacuating camp looked like a real possibility in the very near future.

We needed to get to the north end of the fire to get between it and the camp but had to drive around and up from the south in a frustrating, “You uh can’t get ther’ from here,” moment.

The flames raced through the grass and spouted embers whenever they hit a bush or thicket. The sound changed in intensity each time it greedily encountered fuel more substantial than grass. We bounced along in the lead Land Cruiser watching it consume everything in its path.

Finally we were as near to the front as we dared park the vehicle and everyone hopped out, grabbing a beater on the way.

In the beginning, there was no direction, no management, just primal fear. We quickly learned that we needed to attack short grass in small groups. The tall grass threw embers over the top of the crew and the thickets burned too hot for us to get close enough.

We charged at the fire en masse, a group of fifteen men and one woman, smacking at a line of fire three km long with rubber mats screwed to not even broom handles. The group split, making a break in the fire, one group wacking its way east, the other west.

Sometimes the flames were too hot and you could only get a swing or two in before you had to run away. Other times you stood in the black soot, killing the fire from behind.

Whenever the flames reached a thicket, the temp soared and all one could do was let it burn past and attack it again once it hit the grass. We came to appreciate those little thicket flare-ups. While we hated them, they forced us to rest.

Soon our energy output turned from manic to calculated to what my friend Brad used to refer to at the end of a ski day as ‘short bursts.’

We made headway, sometimes beating flames in grass higher than our heads, grass none of us would feel comfortable walking through on a sunny day. But this wasn’t a sunny day, this was a night brightened by the destructive force of a fire headed toward our home. No need to fear snakes, they lay in burrows hiding. And any leopards or lions would’ve had the good sense to run away. Only man protecting his possessions that have no place in the natural order of things would stand to fight fire.

Fight we did. Cheering when we put out a section, laughing at a ember smoldering on a mate’s shirt as we beat it out while he howled, wondering at the audacity of the reed frogs to keep on singing hoping for one more chance to get laid before they sizzled, appreciating the beauty of a fire raging across the Delta under a nearly full moon.

When we had stopped the progress of the fire, people began hooting to each other, two Land Cruisers and a tractor full of people, gathering on the edge of a hippo trail that served as a natural fire break to make sure everyone was accounted for before we went home, closer friends than we’d been five hours before.