Flights of Tom Claytor:
Journals of a Bush Pilot
Tom Claytor is currently flying a C180 solo around the
05 Apr 1996 - Lusaka, Zambia
A woman scratches a lion through metal bars. Inside the house, there are more
metal bars; the lion lives in the house too. At 4:30 in the morning, you are
awoken by a soft but deep guttural roar. I have landed in a field with cows and
tall grass; it is also the airstrip. I don't know if I am welcome here; I
couldn't find any phones that worked, so I just came.
The last time I was here, there were several lions and a tiger; it was louder
then. David Irwin was a friend. We had stopped to visit while working on a film
about elephants called "Ivory Wars," and I had never seen such a
house. There was a jungle growing inside - a real one - with a stream flowing
through. All along the white walls were eyes staring back; there were dozens of
wildlife trophies, even a black rhino. We had sat in the bar together. There
would be a sharp musty smell. If you looked over your shoulder, you would see
that one of the lions had just joined you a few feet away - but behind bars. In
another room there would be a tiger. There were many levels, and as you climbed
up through the inside of the house, you could look down on the jungle and all of
the levels and eyes below.
David was a journalist, but his passion was flying. I guess that was what
kept us in touch with each other for some time. He was one of those gentle and
very kind people who make you feel welcome in a foreign place, and then I didn't
hear from him anymore. I think he had been flying the beaver, his favorite
plane, and was driving home. It was that place on the road by the bend, just
before it turns to dirt and potholes; he hit an army truck. It was dark; the
truck had no lights, and he was killed.
I am at that place on the road by the bend. I have spent the day in Lusaka
with my friend Andrew. I had to get an x-ray. A horse fell on me in Zimbabwe six
weeks ago in a dramatic way, and it has been hurting a bit since then. I asked
Andrew to look at my back. He said, "one of the bumps is missing," so
we decided that an x-ray must be the answer. I don't think my father or my
brother approve of my medical philosophy of fix-it-yourself; they are both in
the business of health care. My father has taken out a $200,000 life insurance
policy on me. I can't imagine that I am worth that much.
In Lusaka, we drive through an intersection. Two very fat lady police
officers come up to us and tell us they are getting into the car. "You have
committed an offense," they say. I am not driving, so I defer to Andrew.
"What is the offense?" asks Andrew. "No, you just drive on; you
are blocking traffic," they say. Andrew is from South Africa and is a bit
new at this game, but it should be good practice for him. "You know, you
have driven through a red light," they say; "this is a very serious
offense." I am quietly looking at all the traffic lights. I can't find one
that is operating. If the green glass hasn't been stolen to break up and sell as
black market emeralds, then there just seems to be no electricity. "You
must take us to the police station," they say; "you are going to be
fined 150,000 Kwacha and go to prison for 24 hours." A hundred and fifty US
Dollars sounds a little steep for a Lusaka driving offense, and Andrew is
supposed to be leaving for Mocambique in the afternoon to go and look for real
emeralds. "First, I have to buy some film," Andrew says. I am very
impressed at this time-buying tactic. In the shop, Andrew begins to hand me
fistfuls of Kwacha in rubber-banded packets. "Here, hold this," he
says. This is supposed to strengthen his bargaining position to one of poverty.
I fill up my plastic bag with the countless bundles of money and look at all the
eyes watching me. I feel like a mini-Rambo about to charge a heavily fortified
position without a machine gun. The bush telegraph works especially quickly in
the streets of Lusaka. Cha cha cha road is probably the most famous for getting
mugged; everybody knows how much money you have. We pull into a petrol station,
and Andrew lifts the hood (or bonnet) to pull the distributor cap off. "Ah,
I don't know what has happened, but the car is not working now," he says;
"I think maybe in 4 or 5 hours maybe they can do something to fix it, so we
can just wait." Andrew begins to be very sad and to tell them how going to
jail is going to ruin his life. He has never committed such an offense before,
and his family is going to be very disappointed with him. I am quietly amused at
the success of this sad strategy. The large officers are becoming less content.
Perhaps, this sad story of life might go on for the next 4 or 5 hours. They
suggest that maybe this should just be a warning, because they can now see that
he is sorry for his offense. Andrew gives the officers 15,000 Kwacha to thank
them for their warning, and they walk off into the hot afternoon sun to look for
more lucrative offenders.
We celebrate with a Fanta. A Locust crawls across the counter of this small
shop. I am told that it is a "chukanono" and start joking that I would
like to eat it. The joke is not taken in the correct way, and there is hardly a
pause before the lady grabs it, rips its wings off, and drops the fat bug in a
pan of hot cooking oil. There are several quizzical eyes on me now. I politely
turn the conversation to whether many people eat chukanonos in Zambia.
"Yes, we eat them," I am told. My chukanono arrives brown and crispy
dripping with oil in front of me, so I eat it. My x-rays come back, and they
look fine to me; the doctor thinks so too, so I am on my way back to the house
with the lion.
It is after that place on the road by the bend; the road has turned to dirt.
It is dark, and I have missed the turn to the farm and the house with the lion.
I turn around by a sign in the middle of the road that says, "neighborhood
watch." I am suspicious of signs like this in the African night, for this
is the favorite way of thieves to seize your car. I am surprised to hear the two
popping sounds; they sound like toy guns. I look as I turn and see two figures
with AK-47s running toward me. Their figures are only shadows in the dusty
light, but they are form enough for me to realize that something is not right. I
turn off my lights and race into darkness. There are 15 more pops, maybe more;
some are bursts, and some are alone. I splash through a pool of water which I
cannot see and disappear into darkness to that place on the road by the bend.
I am not really shocked by this. I look at my hand; it is not shaking. I turn
around and this time do not miss the turn to the house with the lion. The gate
is locked, and the man with wide spaces in his teeth does not have the key. He
tells me that I must use the other entrance past the police road block.
"Are those police?" I ask. "Yes," I am told. Perhaps, thirty
minutes has passed, and I drive up to a neighborhood watch road block. There is
a vast amount of confusion like bees out of a nest looking for someone to sting.
Some guys are wearing military uniforms with orange berets; some guys are
wearing unbuttoned shirts. They are all carrying around machine guns. It smells
like burnt gunpowder. There is a fat bald guy on a radio and a vehicle with
flashing lights. I am desperate to ask questions, but instead I ask directions.
I drive for a long time down a dusty road wondering if they were trying to hit
me or to scare me into stopping. Neither answer seems more real than the other.
I eventually find a dusty turnoff in the dark and follow the road into the farm.
At the house there is a black mamba hidden next to the step. The house boy
arrives to open the house. I say, "what is it?" He says, "a
snake." I say, "is it bad." He says, "yes." I say,
"should we kill it." He says, "yes." I don't want to do
this; he is not aggressive, but I don't pause to think. I put a stick by its
mouth; my adrenaline is pumping. The inside of the mouth is black; as it strikes
the stick, I push down and crush its head until nothing moves.
In October of
last year in Lusaka, some thieves hijacked a Norwegian's car and kidnapped him.
His friend called the police, and there was a chase. At one point, the thieves
threw their captive out of the car. The police drove up to the Norwegian and
shot him. He was then taken to a state hospital where he was put on hold. The
following day it was too late, and his leg was amputated. I think, in the place
where I come from, we are too naive to believe that someone will shoot at you -
especially if you haven't done anything wrong. I come from a protected place,
and in different places, there are different rules. I drive back to the
neighborhood watch road block in the daylight. There are four men there. The
words "Msasa Police Post" have been scratched with a piece of charcoal
on a concrete wall. They are decent men. We take a photo together and talk of
America and about a "stolen" car from the night before. They fired two
shots in the air when it was at 30 meters, but it didn't stop, so they fired at
it until it reached a pool of water 200 meters down the road. They were not
successful, they said, because it got away. I shake my head and smile, but then
I think of the snake - how similar we were - and the smile goes away. One just
luckier than the other.
Continue with Part 4 of Tom
in Africa. Click Here.
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