Flights of Tom Claytor:

The Journals of a Bush Pilot
Travelling Though Africa


    Tom Claytor is currently flying a C180 solo around the world.

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.

Tom Claytor

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Last modified on March 05, 2006 .
Virtual Horizons, 1996.