Rough Ride on the Rufiji River

 by Hannes Wessels – 

In sub-Saharan Africa there are few river-systems as wild and wonderful as that of the Rufiji as it wends its way to the sea through the Selous Game Reserve in southern Tanzania. To add to the natural excitement it reeks of history. Up these waters the Sultan, from his seat in Zanzibar sent his surrogates to find slaves and ivory for onward transmission to Muscat and Oman. Those that came laden with the white gold and black misery were rewarded with their freedom.

It was the murky waters of the Rufiji that ran scarlet with the blood of the savages killed in the ‘Maji Maji’ uprising against colonial rule. The tribesmen believed the bullets in the German Mausers would turn to water. They were wrong.

In the First World War German General, von Lettow Voorbeck created a legend here. Ridiculously outnumbered, with a few hundred Prussian officers and a brigade of loyal Askaris, he fought the British and their allies to a standstill in a masterful guerilla campaign forcing Britain to commit over a quarter million troops to a theatre that was of questionable strategic value. A poignant reminder of this clash of arms; the banks of the river provide the final resting place for Courteney Selous, explorer, hunter, naturalist, pioneer and soldier, who fought his last battle there falling to a bullet from a German sniper. Von Lettow was devastated by the news and called an immediate truce to mourn his passing, grieved that he would never get to meet the man.

Beyond, in the delta lie the skeletal remains of what used to be the Koningsberg, a boisterous German ‘Man-o-War’ that blighted Allied shipping from her lair in the estuarine labyrinths of the mouth of the river. But for the determined efforts of the remarkable, ‘Jungle Man,’ Major Hannes Pretorius, she may never have been discovered. Braving the crocodiles, he swam at night to report her position to the British. Soon, corvettes with shallow drafts left Portsmouth, crossed the Indian Ocean and sailed up the river to blast the ship to her exotic African grave.Juffiji_Mike2

Eighty years later Mike Rowbotham studied the maps. Hailing from English landed gentry, the recipient of a fine Public School education he received the King’s Commission in the Gordon Highlanders prior to engaging the Germans at Arnhem, closing out the war in Norway. Hostilities over, the prospect of life in the sopping, grey climes of England left him colder than the wind that blew through the shires. He bolted for the sunshine and storm in Africa, bought a farm in Kenya and married. Soon tiring of all that he oiled his Westley Richards, loaded the hunting car and went to grab a share of the fun in the halcyon days of Kenyan hunting leaving wife to mind the estate and rear the progeny. When not carousing within the rum confines of the Norfolk bar in Nairobi with Harry Selby, Robert Ruark and sundry starlets on the ‘Happy Valley’ set he plied his trade with skill and panache. Then south of Voi a buffalo with an attitude problem flattened him making a few new holes in some interesting places, leaving him less attractive to women and less attracted to hunting. He limped back to wife and kids but not for long. The Kikuyu were busy in the Aberdares with their grisly rituals, oathing death to all the Wazungus. The Mau Mau rebellion shattered the colonial dream and blood flowed. London quickly called ‘time-out’ and a bearded former terrorist called Jomo Kenyatta became President. Rowbotham called his dog ‘Jomo’ in his honor. The real ‘Jomo’ was unamused and ‘Jomo’ the dog, with owner were booted out the country. Deportee, hound and brood went south to sanctuary in Rhodesia.

Irreverent Rhodesians, immediately seized the chance to play on his name and Rowbotham, to his irritation, soon became ‘Paddlebum.’ He had arrived just in time to enjoy the bush war.

Later, restless, on his farm in Zimbabwe a gnawing urge to get back to the wilds of East Africa proved irresistible. Enterprising operators had started canoeing the Zambezi, he decided to tackle the Rufiji.Juffiji_Mike5

To open it up the services of two men of differing backgrounds were solicited. Hannes Nel, a young, tough as teak, Afrikaner, son of a farmer, born in Rhodesia had lived a life in the outdoors. He rose instinctively to the challenge, paying little attention to the details or the dangers. The other, Nick Wilson, an intrepid Englishman who had also forsaken his homeland for the sun and spaces of Africa. Making his way south by road through Egypt, to Eritrea and through the Sudan into Kenya, Tanzania caught his eye and concluded his peregrinations. Rowbotham’s entreaty sounded exciting, and was quickly accepted.

‘Paddlebum,’ with a flippancy that comes easily to English eccentrics fobbed off warnings from hunters who knew something of the wild waters of the river system. A suggestion that an aerial reconnaissance would be prudent was dismissed.

Word had it the course they would follow was packed with outrageously aggressive crocodiles and hippo, the river banks lined with mambas, cobras, adders and vipers and then there were the predators – lion, leopard and hyena would be everywhere, and liberally supplied.

There was also the small matter of rapids which, depending on the level of water, may not be negotiable. Worst case, they could be dangerous. Either way, they needed to be plotted and planned for.

None of the hazards were seriously considered. Weapons, radios, first-aid kits, snake anti-venom, flares and the like were dismissed as ‘junk.’

After several nights hard drinking in bars en route the intrepid trio set out for the start point at the bridge on the Ruaha.

“We arrived at the bridge, Mike exited the car, immaculately attired as always, sat on his canvas chair and like Caesar pointed vaguely to the east, ordered us forth to Utete about one hundred and eighty miles away. Our kit consisted of, a canoe, two tatty sleeping bags, some tinned food and utensils in a wooden box, one machete, a couple of knives, some vegetables, cigarettes and a camera.

‘Find Selous’ grave,’ he blurted, ‘some camp-sites and do a recce, I expect a full report when I see you next.’ That was it.

Hannes asked politely to borrow his sponge, a treasured item used to clean his car – Mike glared at him. ‘Don’t bloody lose it!’

‘Paddle’ then sat on his chair, studying the distance while watching us load our meagre possessions then looked solemnly on as the current took us away. ‘Don’t forget my sponge,’ were his parting words as we waved goodbye. Not long after hitting the water did I realise some interesting times lay ahead.Juffiji_Mike3

“Barely out of Mike’s sight, shallow rapids buffeted us. The river’s character changed hourly; fast-flowing, to points where it widened and slowed so much in the shallows it allowed us to walk alongside and circumvent some of the rapids.

“I knew the Zambezi,” remembers Hannes, “crocs were a problem but they avoided you – not these things. They saw the canoe and came straight at us. From the start we were beating them over the head to keep them at bay. It was terrifying, I’d never seen anything like it, but they had never seen a canoe before, had no fear of man and wanted us dead. The hippo were as aggressive as the crocs and there were hundreds of them, females with young were a nightmare. We were scared and fearing for our lives from the beginning but nowhere to run.”

“I think it was day three when there was a steep drop in the river leading to manic rapids, but we found a quieter stream on the north side which had a waterfall enabling us to lower the canoe down the fall without a problem till finding our path blocked by angry hippos. Not wanting to retrace our steps we decided to go for them shouting and screaming, banging the side of the boat. At first they looked bewildered but that quickly gave way to aggression and they came at us en masse. No doubt about it, an Olympic Gold would have been a cinch.”

Meanwhile from the veranda of the Dar es Salaam Yacht Club, Mike studied the view. The sea seemed to change from blue to turquoise, a light wind ruffled the bay and the ripples shimmered in the sunlight. The Tiger-prawns, grilled in lemon-butter and garlic washed down with a chilled Australian Chardonnay were tip-top. Satiated, he moved back to the bar and launched a determined assault on a bottle of ‘Johnny Walker Black.’ From his post there he was able to regale the other ‘soaks’ with tales of yore. Hell in Africa!  Maybe, but his men on the river were seeing it from a different perspective.

“One day, a large croc came up from behind and nudged the boat. I looked around just in time to see it about to close its jaws on Hannes’s arms, who was looking the other way. I shouted, and he drew his arm in, then I bashed the blighter on the nose with my oar. But it kept on coming, snapping at Hannes’s arm, biting the oar, and Hannes kept belting it as hard as he could, as I paddled like hell up front. Finally I think he got it a poke in the eye and it gave up. We almost became inured to fear. There was no time when danger was distant.

“Day seven brought a roar and white-water ahead stretching into the distance, closer, the spray in the sunlight made a pretty rainbow in the sky. Weighing it all up it looked like two days work trying to porter everything down through rugged country. Hannes suggested that one option was to try and run them. We decided to toss the knife and let it decide. The knife said run them and our canoe took off like a rocket, going like the clappers through the foaming water. Hannes did a great job steering, and I was trying to bale out water faster than it was coming in.  Then we hit what was like a giant whirlpool, or something, and our ship capsized.  Seemed like little point in hanging on, so I baled out, surfaced and shouted, ‘Hannes!’ He had the rope in his teeth, opened his mouth to reply and that was the canoe – history! Now both in the wash we just had to go with the flow. I eventually made it to a pool where I could grab a rock and climb out. I had lost Hannes, then relieved, I saw him come up behind me. Happy to be alive but alone against Africa with very little in the way of possessions our future looked rather bleak. Hannes had a knife strapped to his calf and his shorts. I had a knife on my belt, shoes and a shirt.

“From the north bank I caught sight of our wrecked canoe on its belly. To get to it would require braving the crocodiles and it looked like our kit was lost anyway so that idea was abandoned. Later that afternoon, sitting forlornly under a tree pondering an uncertain future one of the sleeping roles came drifting into view.  Consisting of a canvas cover bound by webbing straps and brass buckles, inside was a roll of foam, a blanket and a mosquito net. An old ‘Bic’ lighter that must have fallen out my pocket while asleep the previous night was also there. The flint worked but it had no gas. Cheered by this small act of providence, we cut the bag up and fashioned two simple smocks, some foam-lined shoes for Hannes and the rest into a backpack in which I placed the mosquito net. With what was left of the blue blanket it was cut into an arrow and secured to a large piece of driftwood in the hope that an aerial searcher would note our direction.

“With not a clue where we were our only option was to start walking. It was tough going and soon Hannes’ feet were lacerated by the sharp stones but he staggered on, never complaining. Tsetse flies hammered us all day, God knows how many pints of blood the two of us contributed to their welfare. After a couple of days stomach pains worsened, a bird’s nest was rifled of eggs which were gobbled then with the mosquito net a couple of fish were caught but it was slim pickings.

“The first two nights on the river weren’t bad as we managed to make a fire by rubbing the old ‘Bic’ to get it warm, it just produced a flame. The third night it rained, the ‘Bic’ didn’t work and it was miserable. Freezing cold, dark, no moon, we buried ourselves in the sand to try and keep warm and were attacked by sand-fleas while what skin was exposed was covered by mosquitoes. It was a night, seemingly without end. Then a hippo charged just before dawn. We leaped out of our sandpits, yelling, brandishing our knives and turned him away at the last minute.

“The fourth day was our big meal. Walking alongside the edge looking down I caught sight of a crocodile in a pool below, not very big by their standards – about seven foot. He lay there staring at us as, just those mean eyes out the water. We only had one thing in mind – food! Eat or die. But how to catch the blighter?

“Hannes suggested I distract it while he jumped it from behind and stabbed it in the brain. I said I’ve got a better idea – you distract it while I jump its back and knife it. We argued a while then decided on Plan A.

“Sun-bronzed, blonde, blue-eyed, heavily muscled, Hannes pounced from the edge like some sort of Tarzan, landed on its back and with a mighty blow buried his blade in the back of the beast’s head but must have missed the brain because it went berserk sending him flying into the pool. The water was churning and the croc was snapping and convulsing all over the place when I jumped in to help and the two of us just kept slashing at it with our knives eventually stabbing it into submission. The water was red with blood and the action rendered us utterly exhausted. It was literally kill or die. Lying there panting Hannes said, ‘do you think it’s dead yet mate?’ I said I hope so or it’s going to be a lot of fun trying to skin the bastard.

“I was ready to eat the meat raw. Hannes wanted to cook it. Frantic rubbing of the lighter yielded no flame. Using elephant dung as a shroud I tried to get dried grass alight with the flint but to no avail. I punched the dung with my fist in frustration and it must have released some methane as I gave the Bic a despairing flic and blue flame lit up our lives. The tail cooked beautifully and a great feed was had.  Many trips to the toilet after that meal but amazingly the only thing I got sick of was Hannes’ jokes!Juffiji_Mike4

.           “The nights after were long. Muscles ached, mosquitoes swarmed on us, tired, cold and uncomfortable. Sleep came but the lions roared and the cackle of hyena rattled our nerves. Utterly defenceless and in pain a strange nonchalance overwhelmed us. Fate ruled – what would be, would be. Then the morning of the sixth, having just set out I heard the thunder of hooves, looked to my right and saw a waterbuck heading straight for me followed by a large male leopard. The leopard stopped in his tracks and glared at me. I thought now what? If it came for me I was toast. I just stood looking into yellow eyes, my heart thumping against my ribs. Then Hannes came shuffling up behind me, head down, oblivious, bedraggled all tattered and torn. The leopard took one look at him and I think ‘Spot’ was a little offended because he shook his head and slunk away in disgust. That night a quick swim took us to an island refuge, it was our best night.

“Morale was getting lower by the day with still no idea where we were or how much longer we could last. Hannes was finding it harder and harder to walk. We tried to cheer each other along but both knew we were in with a good chance of not making it.

“Spirits at an all time low we hooted with joy when pans came into view revealing our position close to Mbuyu Camp and salvation. Crocodile and hippo infested, a long two day walk around was considered but fatigue was a factor. Out came the trusty knife again to be tossed for a decision and it sent us diving into the water swimming for our lives. Adrenaline pumping, exhausted, we made it and hugged each other. Twelve days against pretty tough odds and alive. It was a wonderful feeling.

“Stumbling into the camp the first people to see us were some American tourists.  What a sorry sight: half dressed, covered in mud, welts, bites, sores, scratches, bruises and blood, but still smiling. I felt like having just woken from a long bad dream. They asked us if our car had broken down! ‘No, we lost our canoe,’ we said!

“A day or so later an aircraft took us back to Dar es Salaam. Thrilled, we scrubbed, ate and drank ourselves stupid, and were asleep in the middle of the afternoon in a room at the old Agip Motel, when the door burst open and in walked ‘Paddlebum.’

“Sartorial, in double-breasted blazer and cravat, flushed from a boozy lunch at the club a strange look appeared on his face; disdain, a mixture of anger that we had botched the operation and some concern, as from the looks of us we’d obviously had quite a hard time.

“He sat down on the end of the bed and resumed the role of General.

‘Gentlemen,’ he ordered gruffly, ‘in your own time. Situation Report if you please!’

“We recounted our story – shipwrecked, how we’d walked semi-naked and starving for eight days across the Selous braving every animal, insect and reptile in creation that enjoys killing people; a fight to the death with a crocodile and a close encounter with a leopard.

Finished with our long tale of woe, Mike stood, hands clasped behind back and looked down at us imperiously. His cheeks reddened, lips pursed, eyes narrowed, brow creased into a dark frown, nostrils flared as if a bad smell had wafted in. There was silence in the room as he drew a deep breath.

‘And I suppose you lost my fucking sponge too!’ he barked.”

 

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