As natural resources surveyors, the first pit that we would dig and describe, sample and classify, when we settled into a new area, would be the pit latrine. Then we would cover it with saplings, leaves and earth before building pole and grass walls for privacy. Up in the foothills of Mount Morrumbala, just north of the Zambezi valley, Mozambique, where Charles Howard (Jed) had established his camp near a trading store, he put all of his newly acquired labour to work for a week, digging just one single round hole, seven metres in diameter, a bit more than a metre deep.
After Jed had been away from me for a week, he returned to my camp at Mopeia in order to guide me back to his own. From there, we were supposed to go to the season’s first field meeting at the camp of Trevor Tawse, Derek Tawse’ brother. We didn’t get away as early as we had hoped, that Friday evening, as we were unavoidably delayed at the only pub in Mopeia. When, eventually, we set out, it took us twelve hours to cover the one hundred kilometres. Yes, of course the roads were terrible, but not a problem for our Land Rovers. It was the drivers that were suboptimal and the ditches at the side of the roads exerted an extreme magnetism. Once, when Jed came back for me, he got settled into the same ditch only fifty metres away up the road. Eventually, we made it, well after sun-up. There were only a few minutes to look around his camp before setting off for the meeting.
“What the hell is that!” I gaped in astonishment at the enormous hole.
“Red sandy clay-loam,” he replied, straight-faced.
It was his snake pit. I was aghast to hear that it was the only test hole his labour had dug in nearly a week. I dreaded to think what Frank Merryweather, our boss the party-leader, would have to say about it.
Fortunately, the meeting passed without embarrassing questions being asked. It was more social than anything, each field member relating their adventures and problems. Frank was based in Mutarara, westwards, beyond the Shiré River. He co-ordinated the work of the rest of us, a vital role, to tie the whole survey together and recognise similarities where the field men swore that their X type association was nothing like his adjacent neighbour’s B type. Derek and Trevor had two sections along the Shiré River. They told of paddle steamers that carried grain and supplies up and down river from near Malawi to Morromeu and Luabo on the Zambezi.
A new recruit, an Englishman named Brian Nicholson, was situated just north of Jed. He had potable water problems and shared a mud puddle with the local villagers. It was local tradition by the Sena tribesmen to place a photo of their deceased father on the outside wall next to the entrance of their homes. Brian put up a picture of the comedian, Benny Hill.
A fortnight later, I again came up to stay with Jed on the Friday afternoon, only a three hour journey when sober, for the following day’s meeting. Jed, normally very poker-faced, was showing some signs of excitement. He took me to the pit at once. Now there were half a dozen puff adders, in it, and two of the most hideously beautiful snakes that I have ever seen. They were much larger than the puff adders, with pink and purple diamonds and huge, lozenge shaped cream coloured heads. They were gaboon vipers, locally called mbungasekanya. Of all the areas that could have been given to Jed to survey, his was the only one with gaboon vipers.
Let me not give you the impression that Jed never did any work. He was one of the most conscientious men I have ever known, totally loyal to whoever paid his salary. He had already caught up with his quota of test pits. He caught puff adders only when he came across them. By now, his reputation was well established with the locals. He was known in awe as Boss Nyoka and he was sent word, whenever there was a snake to catch.
As I arrived, he told me that he was just off to collect a ‘gabby’, as he called them. The messenger got in the back of his Land Rover and we set off, taking my dog, Shakwe, along.
“Not far, Boss, not far.” We drove and drove and drove. The sun was setting when we at long last reached a group of huts and alighted to start walking.
“Not far, Boss, not far.”
We walked and walked and walked. It was all but dark when we got to the place. They say that if you sup with the devil, you should use a long spoon. Well, attached to a basket, was the longest handle I have ever seen, perhaps eight metres. Under the basket was a ‘gabby’. The bush around had been cleared to give him room and the crowd that had followed us stood in a tense, expectant circle.
Jed chuckled about the long pole as he tipped off the rock that held the basket down, and threw the basket aside. The villagers let out a collective wail and retreated. He handed me a pillowslip. Jed laid a short stick lightly on the huge reptile’s head to prevent it from rising and reached for its tail. I sharply called Shakwe away and opened the pillowslip wide.
So wide, I almost tore it. Jed lifted the ‘gabby’ high, its own weight making it impossible for it to rise and strike, and steered that monstrous cream-coloured head into the pillow case between my hands. I nearly wet myself; nonchalantly.
“How!’ said the crowd.
Jed slung the pillowcase up across his shoulder and set off up the path through the forest. Not far off was a little clearing with a cassava patch. Shakwe ran on ahead, stepping neatly over a puff adder that lay on the path in the gloom. My heart nearly stopped. Jed stooped and picked it up by the tail, setting it down a few metres away, admonishing it for lying where it could be trodden on.
The crowd said, “How!”
It was dark when we got back to the huts. Jed paid the messenger fifty Escudos and we set off home to his camp, another ‘gabby’ richer.