The first time I ever saw a rapid-fire assault rifle…it was pointed at me.
We all get in situations when we’re traveling (especially in foreign-speaking countries) where there is tenseness, right? You’ve been nervous at a border even though you have nothing to hide, or unsettled by a security pat-down that seemed a little too rough. But this was nothing that I had ever experienced before, hope I never will again; and yet, travel is travel. Completely unpredictable and, at times, vulnerable.
Two nights earlier we were in a game reserve park, and my partner and I were nearing the end of our African trip. We were in Zambia at a rustic lodge, hours away from even the smallest town. Many of the other group members were going on an extension to Kenya, but we had already been to Kenya and several other countries and were ending our trip. It had been arranged that someone would give the two of us a ride to Livingstone (Zambia), approximately a half-day drive away, where we would catch our U.S. flight the following day.
Then we received word that our guide’s wife went into labor. She lived in Cape Town, South Africa, hundreds of miles and a flight away; so the guide, James, had to change his plans and leave before dawn the next morning in order to witness the birth of his child. The two of us were offered a ride with James, leaving about a half day earlier than originally planned. We were fine with that. We would have to leave at 3:30 in the morning, they said, but it would be a much faster ride than the one that had been arranged for us.
The offer for the early morning ride would take a different route and would be faster. Though, the guide warned, it will have its moments of discomfort. We were fine with that too, since the road on which we had come into the game park was one of the most hellacious roads I’d ever been on in my life. Potholes big enough to swallow a small car—we had to slow down for every pothole, thump through it, plod along. A few hours drive had taken the whole day. (Money, they explained, had been allocated for road repair but the repairs never happened and the money was gone.)
Another thing James warned us about, should we choose to accept this ride, is that we would see nocturnal wildlife along the way but he wouldn’t stop to observe it. This was a no-nonsense no-stops drive, not a game drive. Yes, we understood. His wife was having a baby, their first, and he wasn’t going to miss it, that was understandable. So we said, sure, let’s do this, let’s take the shorter ride, the 3:30 a.m. refresher. Whatever discomfort we would experience couldn’t be any worse than the way in.
So we took off at 3:30 the next morning: James, his assistant, and the two of us. It was cold and dark but we got packed up and left on time. And we did see numerous mammals and birds that we flushed from the brush as we zoomed down this dirt road. In fact, we saw more owls on this drive than we had seen for the whole trip. He drove very fast and with the open air vehicle, it was chilly, extremely windy, and wild. There was a little refrigerator in this vehicle and it kept lifting onto two legs because we were being severely jostled and jolted. We were properly dressed with wind guards on our faces, hats, scarves, gloves, and bundled from head to toe. It was uncomfortable, yes, but it was an adventure.
When we got to the border of the game park, the gate blocked the road. But we had seen this before. When you’re out in these vast and unpopulated places, often times the person in the front passenger seat gets out of the vehicle and opens the gate for the driver to pass, then closes it. It’s how they keep the cattle from wandering into areas that are wildlife-protected.
There was a tiny one-man guard-like building beside the gate, it was empty and dark. So James’ assistant got out of the passenger seat, lifted up the gate and…oh. my. god. Alarms started shrieking, floodlights flashed, birds and animals fled. We squinted (suddenly it was bright everywhere, lights blazing in our faces), covered our ears from the incredible alarms. We looked around, shocked by the commotion, and oh, wow, a bare-chested man in his boxer shorts was running at us with a high-powered rapid-fire assault rifle. And another. We saw TWO seriously armed men running barefoot across the dirt toward us and they were mad and wildly frazzled.
James opened his vehicle door and the two guys shouted something in a foreign language at him. He held both hands over his head and slowly exited our vehicle, shouted something to the guards, also in a language we did not know. As he got out, James said quietly to me, “You are very sick. Act like you are very sick.”
Without knowing a word of what was being shouted, it was clear we were in big trouble…those assault rifles sternly pointed at us spoke volumes. Not a good time to argue about ethics and lieing. Okay, I’ll do sick.
Still with his hands above his head, James slowly walked to the guards. Frenzied words were exchanged. Then one of the guards came over to me while the other guard circled our vehicle. I was bent over in my seat acting sick, holding my gut. I sat up when the guard shouted gibberish at me and held my eyes at half-mast, shrugged my shoulders demonstrating confusion. I shook my head, uttered a few words, held my stomach, writhed in feigned pain.
There was more shouting and jerky gun movements, but in a few minutes the alarms stopped and soon after that they let us through. (They thought I had malaria.) They were still furious, there were no niceties ever exchanged as we drove off. We continued our speeding drive along the dark dirt road. James asked if we were okay, we nodded yes, and with the wind of the moving vehicle deafening any words, as well as the fright of the event, we remained quiet until a half hour later when we stopped for a break.
James explained that it is illegal to be in the game park during dark hours. It is a serious offense due to illegal poaching. From time to time groups of men come in and kill the animals and steal the tusks or other internal organs for black market sale, and they do it in the dark of night. The gunmen are there to take these poachers down. Both of us are avid wildlife and environmental enthusiasts and have read plenty about poachers. We knew that poachers are dangerous and armed, and these park guards are trained to kill poachers on sight.
And we knew then that James had been aware of the rules and danger all along. We had known that he was a risk-taker, an African cowboy. Days before we had watched him pursue an angry Egyptian Cobra with his bare hands. It was a troubling and dangerous event and should have been handled differently.
But as it goes with travel, we just moved on. We knew that our guide had been disrespectful on many levels, had endangered us, and it could have turned out fatally different. We also knew that in two hours we would probably never see these two people ever again. What we needed was to get to our next hotel and not miss our plane the following day.
We made it in good time to Livingstone, enjoyed a cup of hot tea and breakfast at our new hotel. We sat in wooden Adirondack chairs overlooking the Zambezi River and shook our heads in disbelief at the fiery fiasco we had experienced.