Ghosts of Marromeu
of yesteryear • Adventure Sport • Africa: The Good News • Book Reviews •
Some years back I received a call from my friend Danie.
" Dave, I’m putting a trip together to look at a hunting concession just south of the Zambezi in Mocambique. Take time off your farming and join me."
Offers like this don’t need much persuasion, particularly as the third member of the party was another good friend Tom Yssel, a Kruger Park ranger who rose to prominence after surviving a crocodile attack.
The plan, after securing visas, was to drive to Maputo, overnight there and catch an early flight to Beira the next day. Joe, our Portuguese guide and concession manager would be on hand to meet us.
For me, the excitement of the trip and our departure was marred by an underlying concern for my wife, who having undergone a major operation for cancer, was left disabled and had to learn to walk again. Leaving the farm in her care was a worry, but with her usual cheerful demeanor, insisted that she would cope.
So we left early one morning, to be at the Lebombo border post at opening time. With formalities concluded, over the border we went en route to Maputo. The trip passed quickly and that night we celebrated my birthday at the house of Danie’s acquaintance who had kindly offered us accommodation.
Waiting in the departure lounge at Maputo Airport the next morning I somberly contemplated the airworthiness of each arriving aircraft, hoping by some miracle that we could be "teleported" to Beira without having to fly. Three sensitive heads from the previous night probably didn’t help either, but I’m sure we would have faced a charging lion with more confidence than climbing aboard a rickety plane.
Well fly we had to, in an aging, creaking, groaning Boeing 737 that Noah had used to round up his animals for the ark, serviced by three massively overweight stewardesses, and piloted by a speed maniac who thought he was at the controls of a Mocambican Air Force fighter. We made the fastest landing at Beira, and I made the fastest exit.
Joe was there and we thankfully climbed into his Toyota Landcruiser, shaken but undaunted. We saw a bit of Beira that morning as Joe collected two staff members and loaded drums of fuel and other provisions.
We left Beira with Joe and Tom in front, Danie and I perched on the open hunting seat and the two Mocambicans comfortably seated on the cargo. Danie, in true Danie style, produced a mouth organ and with us blowing and singing lustily the miles fell away and we turned north at Dondo en route to Inhaminga. Judging from the pained expressions on the faces of our Mocambican friends our musical talents were not appreciated, and their auditory discomfort became distinctly physical as we bounced from tank trap to tank trap, through water and deep mud.
The Mocambican civil war had been distinctly unkind to this part of the country, with numerous road and rail ambushes, land mining, and the digging of tank traps at frequent intervals by Renamo. Indeed the number of wrecked trains between Dondo and Inhaminga was remarkable.
Apart from war damage, the road was churned into a muddy morass by logging trucks and tractors. We passed at intervals through pristine forests with high canopy hardwoods ornamented with orchids and staghorn ferns – a botanists dream!
We stopped periodically to ease bladders and swop seats, and when I eventually rejoined Danie on the hunting seat, I noticed that my friend became less communicative and was staring ahead with a look of quiet desperation, knuckles gripped firmly on the rifle rail. Danie’s hoarse "Joe, stop, I need the toilet", and much banging on the cab roof brought the Cruiser to a slithering halt. Danie literally fell over the side and waddled at best speed for the bushes with his pants already around his ankles.
Not even Joe’s shouted warning of anti-personnel mines which had been liberally sown along the road edge in places would deter Danie, and the last we saw was his white, incredibly hairy bum disappearing into the vegetation. The explosion that followed was not from a land mine, and when Danie’s face appeared with a relieved, but idiotic grin, our Mocambican friends who had hitherto been much embarrassed by this noisy South African’s behaviour, could no longer contain themselves and collapsed with mirth.
Danie clambered aboard and we continued for about an hour. Danie started fidgeting and suddenly went white. I thought, here we go again. His cry to Joe to stop was even more desperate, but not as it turned out, motivated by his anal condition. He had left his moon- bag containing passport and the equivalent of R40000-00 in cash behind at his bush toilet. To our collective disgust, we had to turn around and retrace our steps, tired by now and sore, hoping to find a moon-bag in amongst vegetation at the side of the road. We found it, with Danie gingerly picking his way through the undergrowth. It was a thoughtful group of men that continued the trip to Inhaminga.
Inhaminga, like Inhamitanga, where we turned east to follow the Zambezi towards Marromeu, boasted Portuguese colonial architecture in the few buildings still standing but that is about all. Years of abuse had left their mark on most Mocambique towns and these were no exception.. It is always a relief for me to leave habitation and even the sugar lands on the Zambezi floodplain held no interest. I was waiting to get into the concession that we had come so far to see.
Eventually we turned south and entered Coutada 11 (Concession 11) run by Joe’s company. His responsibility was to build a hunting camp and market the coutada to outfitters, amongst other things. We couldn’t see much as we arrived well after dark, tired and aching after miles of jolting, but nothing that a few cold beers wouldn’t put right.
We were accommodated in reed bungalows erected on concrete slabs and slept on mattressed stretchers under mosquito nets – quite comfortable! A separate kitchen and dining area completed the living area.
The next few days were spent looking for trophy buffalo through forest, swamp and grassland islands. The fact that it was the rainy season didn’t help and many of the tracks were under water. In fact the plains of Marromeu are extensive swamplands which once supported huge herds of buffalo, decimated by Frelimo and their Russian henchmen for food during the war.
The remnants find refuge in the swamps and one hopes that with correct management numbers will increase.
Joe did his best to give us an overview of the coutada in what became really trying circumstances for man and vehicle. When we bogged down we really went deep, but winch, jack, and ingenuity got us out, wet, muddy and relieved to get back to the comforts of camp.
We found an impressive amount of leopard sign in the forested areas which pleased Danie no end, as the potential for baiting these elusive animals looked good.
Time was starting to run away. I think it was the fifth night there, after sterling efforts by Joe’s cook and much evening yarning about many things that we retired. I was still hoping to hear the rumble of a distant lion when I climbed under my mosquito net, said goodnight to Danie with whom I was sharing the bungalow and fell asleep.
It is strange how outside influences can impact ones dreams. I vividly remember dreaming that I was being strangled by something/someone whose hands held my throat in a vice-like grip. I fought back and woke up, conscious of a steel band around my throat without anybody being there. As I thrashed about trying to get air I managed a gurgle and fell off the stretcher.
I desperately tried to wake Danie and at the same time release the grip on my throat. Danie is fortunately a light sleeper and through a red mist I felt rather than saw Danie pick me up and shake me violently all the while calling out "what’s the matter, what’s wrong with you?" I of course couldn’t reply – I was still scrabbling at my neck, trying to remove the pressure to get air to my oxygen-starved brain.
As suddenly as it started, I felt release and I gulped great lungfulls of air. Tom, by this time, hearing all the commotion had run through from the adjoining room. His suspicious look was a mixture of concern and mild annoyance at having been woken up – suspecting a Danie and Dave prank!
Once I had calmed down and could communicate in a croaky kind of way, I tried to explain that something had tried to strangle me. Danie, having witnessed my desperate, but futile attempts at breathing was more accepting than Tom, who quite naturally blamed the event on everything from nightcaps to a warped sense of humour.
After satisfying themselves that I was going to live my friends went back to bed. I would not lie down again, and spent the rest of the night sitting on the steps of the bungalow, swatting mosquitoes and trying to understand what had happened.
Around the breakfast table the next morning, levity got the better of Danie and Tom, and I became the butt of their leg-pulling as they recounted my misfortune. Joe, notwithstanding my protests, accused me of staging the whole thing. Hovering in the background - and obviously listening - was Joe’s cook who could understand a fair amount of English. As we left the dining area he approached Joe and entered into an animated discussion in Portuguese. I saw them a while later in conversation with other camp staff. Joe then approached me with a very serious look on his face.
"Dave, I don’t know how to explain this, but my cook at breakfast overheard snippets of our teasing and asked me for clarification. I of course told him that you had played a joke on your friends the night before, pretending to have been strangled.
He protested immediately and said it was no joke, but that you had been strangled by a ghost of a dead Renamo soldier. On seeing my disbelief he called other staff together who volubly confirmed his story. Others living in the area have had similar experiences."
I could see that Joe was a bit shaken, particularly as his bungalows had been built on an old Renamo camp, on the periphery of which was a burial ground for Renamo soldiers who had succumbed during the war against Frelimo. It seems that I was the first white person to have been attacked.
When Joe asked why he had never been told about these events before, the cook replied with unassailable African logic that Whites’ do not believe in witchcraft and ghosts until they experience them, and thus there was no point in discussing the matter.
I wasn’t too happy. We still had two more nights there and I certainly did not want a repeat of my experience. Danie and Tom were suddenly much quieter, and Joe more thoughtful as he had to spend much time there in the course of his duties. Having had to endure my friends jibing up to this point, I tried to cover my discomfort by planning sweet revenge.
I thought that perhaps I should more gently strangle one of my sleeping companions but then sanity got the better of me. Danie for one is a powerful man and I would probably have ended up with more than a bloody nose!
We still tried to find our trophy buffalo but they turned out to be as elusive as the ghost strangler. None of us slept particularly well until we left two days later. On our departure the camp staff gathered around me and with Joe translating, invited me back.
It seems that they felt some kind of kinship with me, that my strange experience which they understood and had an explanation for had drawn us together.
The story finishes on another strange but perhaps coincidental note. On the morning of my attack, my wife back on our farm in South Africa fell as a result of her disabled leg, sustaining multiple fractures to her left ankle. She had to undergo emergency reconstructive surgery. I knew none of this of course as there was no communication where we were.
I’ve often thought back to the ghosts of Marromeu and a strange but terrifying event that I cannot explain. Danie went back to hunt there, finding his buffalo where we couldn’t.
He was never troubled by ghosts, and neither was Joe to my knowledge who stayed on to manage the coutada for a considerable time.
The local Africans continued to speak of disturbed Renamo spirits who roam the area at night, and the attack on a white visitor.
I have not returned, but often wondered why I was the only person on the trip who had this chilling experience.
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