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  • Writer's pictureKev Thomas Writes

Arriving in West Petauke - Zambia

Some time back I was looking through my old photo files and doing the obligatory 'trip down memory lane' selection of photos. The batch I'm posting with this quick write up take me back awhile. During the late 1990s I booked some clients of mine on a safari into Zambia's west Petauke area of the lower Luangwa Valley. Just getting to the area on my own some days prior to their arrival was a lengthy drive from Zimbabwe. After entering Zambia at Victoria Falls I drove to Lusaka, overnighted, and then the next day finally arrived opposite the safari camp late at night, in the pitch dark.

Above: The normal mode of transport on Zambia's Luangwa River, and like many others across much of Africa is by mokoro (dugout canoe).

The last 15km or so were on game trails and through dense riverine bush, following the Luangwa River. At one point I had a cowherd of angry elephant making a serious amount of noise in the bush alongside the track. Eventually though, I spotted a light in the distance on the opposite bank, and given that I was on my own, stopped right on the river bank and shone my headlight beams across the wide river expanse, and blew the vehicle horn.

Above: A daylight photograph of the dense riverine bush I'd driven through in the pitch dark a few nights before in my efforts to find the camp.

A voice then hollered across the river that they'd send over a mokoro (dugout canoe) for me and that my vehicle would have to stay where it was until morning. When the mokoro eventually arrived, I clambered aboard with my daypack, camera, and rifles, and knelt in the few inches of water in the bottom of the mokoro. The guy poling set off upstream, while hugging the bank with his mokoro. He then swung away and poled out into midstream, and then let the current pull the prow round and we gradually angled our way across, in the pitch dark. Frustratingly, I couldn't communicate with him because he was a Zambian tribesman and spoke a language I wasn't familiar with.

However, we gradually worked our way into a powerful torch beam being shone across the water surface from the camp, and used the beam to guide us towards the bank. With only about 2" of freeboard the guy poling had been pleading with me to sit absolutely still (despite the language barrier I could understand his pleadings). Although it certainly wasn't my first time in a mokoro, and I didn't need reminding as the hippo were making a noise, and the Luangwa River has some huge crocs in it.

Pleased to be back on dry-ground I downed a few cold beers, and after eating a hasty meal, managed a good night's sleep. The following morning I crossed over again by mokoro, although this time and in broad daylight it was a lot more relaxing. We then brought my rig over on the camp's pontoon, an exercise which also had its moments. During the course of the safari it soon became obvious there was a lot of poaching going on in the area, and most of the poachers apprehended were using old hand-me-down muzzle loaders. Hand-me-down as in from the Arab slave trading days.

Each of their muzzle loaders had a tiny cloth bag full of fine wood ash hanging on the rear of the trigger guard. Throughout my bush career, I've used an ash bag as a wind indicator but I was intrigued as to how they used theirs, so I asked one of the poachers to show me. He pretended to be stalking a buffalo and constantly flicked the ash bag with the finger next down from his trigger finger. His eyes kept quickly glancing down, and then back to his rough fore sight. The very fine ash drift gave him adequate time to monitor the wind.

He explained further how he'd only shoot if he was within about 25 paces of a buffalo. Despite them being poachers, I had to admire their hunting prowess, and respect their pluck. Granted, they probably wounded more than they killed, however, they use homemade powder, and bullets made from bolts and cast iron pot shards. Buffalo are one of Africa's most dangerous and vindictive animals if wounded, and it certainly takes courage to hunt them like those poachers do. True backwoodsman if ever. Talking from experience it's men like those poachers who make the best trackers. Years ago in Zimbabwe a poacher I'd arrested on numerous occasions eventually asked me if he could work for me as a tracker. Although getting on in years, he proved to be one of the best trackers I ever employed.

Both of my clients were black powder enthusiasts and between them had an old 8-bore and a 4-bore. The 4-bore was reputed to have belonged to a well known South African Boer hunter. During the 19th Century the 4-bore was considered the quintessential black-powder elephant calibre. Although on bull elephant it reputedly lacked penetration on frontal brain shots. Recoil too, was severe, and although the famed hunter/naturalist Frederick Courteney Selous used a 4-bore for years, he ultimately stopped using it because of the negative effect on his nerves. By this he probably meant the heavy recoil was causing him to flinch.

Left: This is probably the most famous posed photo of Selous and shows him as a young man, holding a 4-bore. Once, during the heat of the moment while hunting elephant he erroneously loaded a double powder charge, and when he fired the weapon it certainly got his attention.

As mentioned previously, my clients also brought an 8-bore on safari. This calibre has an interesting history in that it didn't take long for the early 17th century Dutch colonisers of the Cape Colony to learn the standard muskets they used against local African game were hopelessly inadequate. Over the next century the preferred Boer firearm for African conditions would become the smooth bore flintlock 8-bore musket. These guns normally had a barrel of 5 to 6 foot long. In time the British settlers to the Cape Colony would also find specialist firearms were required for hunting Africa's game. During the 19th century it'd be accepted that the 4-bore was the standard elephant calibre, and the 8-bore the go to calibre for all other dangerous game such as buffalo and lion.

A typical 8-bore weighed 15 to 16 lb and fired a 1250gr conical bullet, giving about 1500 ft/sec, or a 860gr spherical ball at about 1650 ft/sec. The amount of black powder used was normally about 17.72 to 21.26g although they sometimes went a bit heavier, and especially so in Africa. Interestingly, 19th century British gunmaker William W Greener did extensive research into the requirements for the ideal African hunting calibre. His extensive research and discussions with returning hunters led him to believe the 8-bore was the largest practical calibre for hunting dangerous African game.

Although neither of my clients got lucky using black powder on that hunt, although it most certainly wasn't from lack of trying. And despite our not succeeding, we still had a fun, which is as safari should be. I'm posting a selection of photos with this blog to show how we crossed the Luangwa River.

Above: The vehicle pontoon being brought across from the opposite bank of the Luangwa River.


Above: Driving my vehicle down the hand cut track to the pontoon.

Above: Driving onto the pontoon. The river wasn't wide but it was fairly deep and any mishap would've meant a lost vehicle!

Above: Out in the middle.

Above: Having crossed successfully, I watch as another vehicle is brought over.

Above: The camp - I was pleased to have arrived safely after crossing over by mokoro.

Above: All you need by way of a dining room in a safari camp.

Above: Apprehended poachers. I had to admire their pluck and hunting skill when it came to shooting buffalo with their rather obsolete firearms.

Left: The muzzle loaders used by Zambian poachers in the west Petauke area are hand-me-down firearms some of which can be traced back through family lineage to the Arab slave trading days.

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