18 May Down at Jika Jika Tavern – Excerpt
Excerpt. © All rights reserved.
Down at Jika Jika Tavern (Prologue)
A terrible mistake
29th November 2012
The driver parked the old Nissan Sentra in an informal layby between the dirt road and the railway lines; the cut of the tracks, thin and bright, in the dark fabric of the night. A sudden gust of wind blew in through the open windows but did little to mask the varying odours of unexpressed emotion inside. For within the shoddy interior, two men, and a boy on the cusp of manhood, prepared themselves for the dangerous task ahead.
The boy, Mandla, watched as the man in the passenger seat pulled out a battered water bottle filled with muddy brown liquid. A string of tiny red and white beads on a thin white thread hung from the bottle’s neck, a talisman of luck. Bheki untwisted the cap, sniffed the contents, and recoiled with a grimace; but then, after a deep breath, he pinched his nose between two fingers and let the bitter brew run down his throat.
Bheki’s attempt to pass the bottle to the man in the driver’s seat resulted in the rolling of the man’s eyes and an adolescent turn of his head. Bheki clicked his tongue against his teeth in irritation and handed the bottle to Mandla. Mandla hesitated. He’d never drunk muthi before, but he didn’t want to offend the ancestors and create bad luck for himself. He took a tentative sip and then glugged down as much of the liquid as he could manage. And then he waited. After a minute or two, his bottom lip – which tasted like he’d licked the floor of a cattle kraal – protruded in disappointment.
‘Hawu, Bheki,’ he whined. ‘I can still see you; can you see me?’
Bheki’s serious face lit up and he roared with laughter, smacking the driver’s arm with delight as if Mandla was joking.
‘That’s good, little man. But it’s not me you should be worried about. It’s the men with the big guns and the dogs that you need to hide from!’
Mandla felt the blood drain right out of his head, and a whimper escaped his lips.
At the sound, the man in the driver’s seat finally spoke. ‘Wena!’ he scolded Bheki.
‘Don’t listen to him, Mandla,’ Nkosi said, twisting in his seat to glare at Mandla.
Mandla sat up immediately. He knew that Nkosi had taken a big risk bringing him on this excursion. It was his chance to prove himself, and perhaps get the opportunity to join Nkosi’s team, permanently.
When Nkosi finally indicated that it was time, the three quickly emerged from the vehicle. They set about covering its dusty body with acacia branches, which they’d ferried in the boot of the vehicle, from Nkosi’s village. It was a necessary precaution as a small copse of trees missing branches, near a game reserve, might alert a patrolling security company to illegal activity going on. Out of the boot came tatty backpacks and gear, which they shouldered according to their rank and role. They ran up the slope into the dark and began the thirty-minute walk along the railway line, headed towards a large marula tree, which marked their entry point. When the tree was in sight, Nkosi swore and stopped dead in his tracks. Mandla, who had been trotting to keep up with the two men, bumped into the back of Bheki who had pulled up alongside Nkosi. The majestic marula tree had been chosen as their entry point because it had a large, solid limb that stretched over the fence into the reserve. Nkosi had planned for them to scale the tree and drop to the other side from the low hanging branch. But now, that branch was gone, only a stub coated in bleeding sap was left of the freshly hacked limb.
Mandla felt a wave of worry wash over him, and he immediately reached for his lip, his fingers plucking at the thin skin. Nkosi, who had been staring at the tree, suddenly came to life. He spun Mandla around so that he could access Mandla’s backpack. Out came a wire cutter, and in less than a minute, an opening was created, allowing all three to leopard crawl through and melt into the tall grass of the open veld.
It was not a big reserve, and Nkosi guided them through the unknown terrain, walking to a set of coordinates he’d tapped into a Garmin. The veld, lit up like a soccer pitch at night by the glow of a full moon, was dotted with acacias and ant mounds. Mandla felt cold fingers caress his neck; the oddly shaped ant mounds looked like children frozen in play and old women bent with age. He jumped as a movement to their left brought the trio to a halt. A ghostly journey of giraffe cruised slowly through the trees, like a ship in the Zululand night, charting a course to the nearest dam. As they waited for the giants to pass, Nkosi consulted his Garmin and then veered north, leading the group into a stand of luminous fever trees.
Mandla shivered as the moon disappeared from view and the darkness wrapped itself around them. The bush went still, the constant chirp of frogs and crickets, the persistent call of a fiery-necked nightjar, silenced. In the trees, amongst the shrubs, on the game paths, fur bristled, ears pricked, and noses twitched. Then, abruptly, the bush came alive as an alpha baboon let forth a volley of barks, upsetting birds that had roosted for the night, and sending animals crashing through the undergrowth. Mandla yelled out in terror. His first thought was to run. Run as fast as he could back to the fence, back to safety. Before his brain was able to engage his feet, Nkosi grabbed him by the back of the neck, pulling him further into the shadows. He found a tree and shoved Mandla against it.
‘Don’t move,’ he hissed. ‘Or I’ll kill you.’
Mandla listened as the two men went over the information they had. According to the SMS that Nkosi had received a couple of hours before, the rhino was not too deep into the reserve. The large solitary bull had camped out at a waterhole earlier that day, making no signs of moving off. He would be a perfect target if he were still stretched out in the mud. But there was a possibility that the rhino had become hungry and ventured out in search of food. Nkosi signalled to the others to pick up their gear and they continued north, eyes peering through the bush, seeking out any potential threat, whether animal or human. Mandla hurried to keep up with them. As it was his first mission, he’d been given the lowly task of carrying the bag with a few supplies. If, and he hoped this would not be the case, things didn’t go as planned and they couldn’t reach the fence, they would have enough food to get them through a night in the reserve. Mandla’s fear grew by the second; his body was rigid, and his legs made jerky oversized steps. His eyes swivelled in their sockets as he sought out the slightest movements around him.
A short while later, Nkosi dropped to his knees, motioning for the others to join him under a large tree. The water hole was in sight. They quietly placed their gear on the ground, and Bheki drew out an axe and unstrapped a hunting knife, from the bags. Nkosi double-checked his hunting rifle and took aim at an imaginary rhino, with a soft bam-bam. As the men disappeared into the night, Mandla leant against the large tree. He wrapped his arms around his skinny frame to keep the tremors he couldn’t seem to control from consuming his body. His only job was to look after the gear, while Bheki and Nkosi went in search of the bull. With the two men gone, he finally allowed a tear to escape down his dusty cheek. He’d made a terrible mistake, but there was no turning back now. Though the moon was bright out there in the veld, there was less light under the canopy, and he had no idea how to get back the way they’d come. He’d just have to sit still and wait for the men to return.
Except he couldn’t sit still. He sat bolt upright at a deep throaty grunting that sounded like a large animal ready to charge but seemed to come from the tree above him. The grunting stopped, and he heard the faint ruffle of feathers as a large bird shook itself, before launching from the branch above, on silent wings. Mandla sat back and tried to relax, but then came the faint crackling of dry wood and leaves behind him. He made himself as small as possible, held his breath, and kept one eye open. A flash of white made his heart leap in his chest, then he sighed with relief as a large buck picked its way slowly through the undergrowth. Then the slow crawl of a thousand legs tickled his neck. He managed to stifle a scream but leapt to his feet in a dance of fear as he swept the unwelcome guest onto the floor. He brushed the area around the tree furiously with his shoe, then threw himself at the trunk as if it could protect him from the bone-chilling wail of a terrified child, which shattered the silence. It was the sound of a child trying to escape from the hard fists of an angry uncle. A sound Mandla knew too well. Waow, waow … waow, waow. A sound so traumatising that Mandla, no longer able to control himself, released a warm river of urine, which flowed down his leg and into his shoe.