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  • Writer's pictureKev Thomas Writes

Tracker Overboard!

Above: Chete Safari camp with Chete Gorge visible to the right in the photo. The landmass on the opposite side of the gorge is Chete Island which lies in Zambia (Photo credit Kevin Thomas).

Clinging to my tracker James Hlongwane’s right arm and waterlogged jacket, while I hung over the gunwale of the wildly rocking boat, the outboard motor stalled, and the hull at the mercy of Lake Kariba’s pounding waves, was not exactly how I had intended spending the early morning of Friday 30 June 2006. Given a choice I would far rather have been sitting by the campfire chatting to friends while enjoying coffee and toast. While I was hanging on to James, a PH colleague, Pierre, was struggling to lift the heavy outboard and free the rope tangled round the propeller. It was one of two ropes we had earlier thrown to the tracker who at the time was floundering and swallowing water. He had also been drifting away from the boat. The heavy lumpy wave swells pounding us mercilessly in a howling South-Easter. It wasn’t a good day at the office for any of us, and the heavily waterlogged and exhausted tracker James was imploring me, 'Please don’t let me drown …' then while puking more water, 'Please I don’t want to drown… please save me'.. My problem was James had so many layers of clothes on, plus a heavy pair of waterlogged leather boots, it needed two of us to haul him over the gunwale and back into the boat.

Unfortunately, my saving James was not going to happen and certainly not until Pierre, bent over the silent outboard motor once more had it running. He needed to be in full control of the boat, which at that point was still at the mercy of a raging Lake Kariba. How we had ended up in this situation had come about as a sudden and complete jolt to what otherwise should have been a pleasant, if not routine boat trip westwards across the lake from Chete Safari Area to Sijarira Safari Area. At the time, I was contracted to guide a few hunting safaris for HHK Safaris, and was moving back across to Sijarira from Chete, having assisted a Zimbabwean businessman on a short buffalo-cow hunt. After I had showered on that Friday morning, I joined Pierre at the campfire for coffee. He was looking somewhat drenched and cold, and after removing his boots and jacket was trying to dry them over the campfire. He also remarked how despite it being freezing cold out on the water so early in the morning, the lake was also abnormally rough, and could well worsen before we got back to Sijarira.

Above: My tracker James Hlongwane stands at left near the bow as we ready the boat to depart Chete harbour. The boat in the background was about to depart on a fishing trip with Zimbabwean businessman, Brett Roberts, seen standing in the boat. Pierre stands at right in the boat we were using (Photo credit Kevin Thomas).

Having finished our coffee, we decided not to waste any more time and loading my gear into a vehicle drove down to the boat jetty. James Hlongwane, my tracker, helped me store my rifles and other personal gear in the lockers under the seats. For some inexplicable reason he chose not to place my daypack in one of the lockers. Choosing instead to hold onto it and although I noticed this, I said nothing. Inside the daypack was my GPS, my .458 Lott ammo and cartridge belt, skinning knife, my wallet with my ID, my Zimbabwe PH license, credit cards, Zimbabwe driver’s license, petrol cards, hunting boots, and binoculars. All of them important items to me. In fact, in this day and age of digital red tape it could be said it was me in the daypack.

Above: We travelled west through the gorge with Chete Safari Camp just visible on the high ground in the centre of the photo (Photo credit Kevin Thomas).

After departing the sheltered harbour, we entered Chete gorge and travelling west took it easy, allowing me to get in some photography. However, on the western side and towards the mouth of the gorge we suddenly hit extremely rough water, and the wind driven spray soon saturated us forcing me to store my camera in the locker underneath my seat. Pierre was at the steering console and I was seated on a small bench seat moulded to the console, immediately in front of him. Tracker James was sitting on a full width bench to my front and with his back towards me. My daypack was on his lap. None of us were wearing life jackets, and James was looking decidedly nervous. Fully understandable given the pounding the boat was starting to take. By then too, even I was getting a bit concerned. As we headed away from the gorge into the high white capped swells, Pierre gunned the powerful outboard and within seconds we were drenched in spray as waves began to crash against, and over the hull.

Above: As we headed away from the gorge the water started becoming exceedingly rough (Photo credit Kevin Thomas).

Slowly the Zimbabwe shoreline and Chete Island which lies in Zambia began to recede behind us. There was no let-up in the rough water and if anything, the tempo began to pick up. Not having rain gear, I soon began to feel the wind chill through my saturated PT shorts, T shirt, and soaking jacket. So much so, I started trying to turn around and face the direction from which we had come. Suddenly, I felt the boat swing hard to port as the bow dug into a wave, lifting the stern and causing the hull to yaw violently. Thrown completely off balance, and with water cascading over me I slid off my seat and crashed into the starboard gunwale, against the seat James had been sitting on. James in turn, was hit by the full force of a huge wave which lifted him and then swept him straight overboard. As he went into the water, I tried to grab him with my one hand while holding on with my other, so I too didn’t end up in the drink. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get purchase on his smooth nylon jacket and my final glimpse was of him being swallowed by the waves.

Pierre in the meantime, was fighting to steady the boat in the howling wind and raging water. James then popped up about five metres away in a deep trough off our starboard side. Just his head was visible and he was holding it at an acute angle while trying not to swallow water. At the same time, he was trying to shout above the noise of the wind for us to help him. As Pierre attempted to swing the boat around, I threw a heavy nylon rope towards the floundering tracker, only to have it fall short due to the unrelenting wind. Pierre also threw a stern rope to him and it too fell short. On my next attempt the rope landed on James’s head allowing him to grab it. Pierre then came forward and helped me pull my waterlogged tracker alongside but as we tried to haul him onboard the motor cut out. Once more placing us at the mercy of the waves.

Due to our precarious situation Pierre released his hold on James and leapt back across to the helm where after lifting the motor, he discovered the drifting stern rope he had thrown to James earlier had become entangled in the propeller, stalling the engine. While Pierre was trying to sort the motor out, I was left hanging over the starboard gunwale gripping James by his jacket collar. I could not for the life of me work out why he was just hanging onto the rope with his right hand. His left arm and hand remained beneath the water surface hidden from view.

Shouting at him to give me his left hand I became even more concerned when I noticed how he was struggling to raise it to the surface from beneath the murky green water. The thought went through my mind that perhaps when being washed overboard he had injured his left arm. Finally, his left hand made it to the surface and I saw the reason for his struggles. He still had a firm grip on my daypack! It was amazing how he had kept hold of it because the pack, a British Army pattern, is bigger than your normal day-tripper pack and in addition to the contents, the pack was totally waterlogged. It was only when I recovered the pack from James, I remembered he had been sitting holding it on his lap when we had departed Chete harbour. Exhausted, in shock, and at great risk of drowning he had held onto it throughout his ordeal in the unforgiving Lake Kariba waters. A true measure of the loyalty of some African trackers.

Above: While waiting in a sheltered bay behind an island, a still clearly shocked and saturated James Hlongwane wears a life jacket I had just given him. We should have all been wearing them from the onset. (Photo credit Kevin Thomas).

As soon as Pierre had managed to bring the wayward boat back under control, and once more pointing it into the waves he quickly came forward and between us we hauled the waterlogged James over the gunwale and onto the deck. When I asked him why he hadn’t just let my daypack go, he replied, ‘Because it is my job to look after the pack’. Although extremely thankful to James for having held on to my pack despite his risk of drowning, I made it clear had it been me in the water and even if the daypack had belonged to the president it would have gone to the bottom of the lake.

Even with James once more aboard, our ordeal was not quite over given the rough water and howling gale. We limped into the shelter of a small island where we switched fuel tanks before braving a bumpy ride directly south into the wind. It was only when we got into relative shelter against the mainland shoreline that the water quieted down, allowing us to parallel the shore back to Sijarira. Throughout this stage of the trip James remained in a state of delayed shock clutching at the bright orange life jacket he now wore. The moral of the story quite simply is we should have all been wearing life jackets; they were onboard and stowed in a locker. However, being blasé we never bothered to put them on, and I was doubly at fault for now insisting my tracker wear a life-jacket for the crossing back to Sijarira. There was nothing wrong with the boat design. It was a Pelican, and one of the safest hulls on the lake. However, once the human becomes separated from the boat in angry water such as we had experienced, the survival of the individual in the water takes on a different perspective.

Above: After arriving back at Sijarira, a still wet and in shock James Hlongwane holds my daypack which he had been clinging to throughout his ordeal in the water (Photo credit Kevin Thomas).

This unfortunate ordeal of ours could also have taken on nightmarish proportions had James drowned. Zimbabwe had been in a state of political meltdown for some years, and very sadly the Mugabe ZANU PF regime likes to play the race card. Stirring up anti-white rhetoric at every given opportunity. Compounding the race issue is the fact there is little or no rule of law as western society would interpret it. In rural areas the rule of law is more often than not interpreted as the individual policeman sees fit to interpret it himself. Chete Safari Area falls under the administrative centre of Binga on Lake Kariba’s western basin, and had James drowned, Pierre and I would have had to report the incident to the Binga police. In the Zimbabwe of today two white men arriving at an isolated police station to report the only black person aboard their boat had been washed overboard and drowned, would have aroused extreme and immediate suspicion, the consequences of which do not bear thinking about as it could have translated into a long time, if ever, before we saw our homes again.

Above: Guest chalets at Sijarira Camp on Lake Kariba front the lake. Despite the relative calmness of the lake's waters, they are capable of becoming treacherous at fairly short notice, with strong wave action and cross currents (Photo credit Kevin Thomas).


As a reminder to me of just how badly the saga of my tracker being swept overboard could have turned out, for myself and Pierre, I read an extremely humbling book titled Beating Chains by respected ex-Zimbabwe cattle rancher, and safari operator Rusty Labuschagne. I would recommend this book without reservation to anyone wanting to know more about the inhuman conditions within the Zimbabwe prison system. Bulawayo born Rusty was a respected businessman in Zimbabwe, until a fateful December weekend in 2000. In his own words, “I went on a fishing trip with friends to my fishing resort on Lake Kariba. On our way back, we spotted two fish poachers in a steel boat, who immediately upon seeing us, started paddling hastily for the shore in an effort to get away from us. Knowing that they were known poachers, I drove the boat towards them to scare them off and the wake of my boat tilted their boat, causing them to jump out into the water. They scrambled to dry land. My friend and I then watched as they ran away into the bush and thought nothing more of it.”

The following day, Rusty and his friend were shocked when the police arrived and accused them of drowning one of the poachers. Rusty was later framed in what can only be described as a politically motivated case. After being accused of murder he was sentenced to fifteen years in prison. Because his colleague had not been steering the boat at the time of the incident, he received a $10.00 fine. Rusty served ten years of his fifteen-year sentence in some of Zimbabwe’s harshest prisons. After being sentenced he says, “Arriving at my first Maximum Security Prison I was stripped naked. I was escorted through huge wooden doors into the maximum-security exercise yard. Thousands of curious prison eyes followed me, wondering what this white man was doing there, since I was the only one. I know now, that even when horror lies ahead, we have to face it. It is the only way to overcome it!” Rusty shared a cell with 78 other inmates.

Beating Chains by Rusty Labuschagne is available from his website at or on Amazon in conventional book form, and in Ebook format for Kindle devices.

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