A page-turner set in Zimbabwe and America. Rhino poaching, terrorists, romance, abduction and flying old fighter aircraft. This novel has it all.
Jerold Richert Novels
The owners of a wildlife sanctuary involved with darting and translocating endangered black rhinos from Zimbabwe to Australia, find themselves pitted against poachers and the might of a Chinese multinational intent on cornering the world market in rhino horn. In a page-turning action thriller, drama, humour, kidnapping and political skulldugery abound. So too, the worthier attributes of romance,love and forgivness. Attributes possessed not only by man, but also by wild animals.
Although wary, the female rhinoceros had no fear as she approached the drying river. She had come this way many times before, following the same worn path to drink from the dark still pool, and with the dank scent of it heavy in the air, she did not detect the musky sweetness of man.
Cover was thicker near the water, with many fallen branches and tangled vines, so she was not alarmed when the dry branch that she brushed aside in her passing rustled in the undergrowth, or when the vine-like object that lay in the sand over which she stepped rose to encircle her hind leg.
Only when it tightened, bringing her to a halt, did she pay it attention, turning from the path and kicking irritably to free herself of the clinging thing, but after only a short distance she was jolted to a stop once more.
With growing alarm she lunged against the restriction, shaking the stout tree to which the vine-like cable was attached, shedding brittle leaves and pods, but the grip remained firm, tightening and strangling, working through hide and flesh. And the pain began.
She twisted around to investigate the source of it, snorting at the man sweetness that clung to the cable together with the bitter scent of old fire. She hooked at it with her curved front horn, ripping at the bushes and small trees through and around which the cable snaked, flattening all within her limited reach, but to no avail. And against her violent lunging the pain grew worse.
She struggled to free herself throughout the long hot day then, with sweat darkening the deep folds in her grey hide, she stood with her prehensile upper lip brushing the trampled earth, puffing wisps of dust, searching the warm evening air for the tantalising scent of water, and when she detected its sweet moistness a long-drawn groan came from deep within her heaving belly.
Other animals came to drink, gently splashing, then departing in alarm at the snorts and crashing nearby. And in the full darkness the hyenas came to sniff and lap her splattered blood from the leaves and grass, retreating with drawn teeth from her three-legged charges to lurk restlessly in the shadows.
Throughout the long troubled night she remained standing, gaining what moisture she could from the surrounding trampled bushes and dry grass, chewing on dew-laden hairy leaves and soft branches, but it was too little to quench the burning thirst. And during the long hot day that followed it grew to surmount even the searing pain in its fiery intensity.
The hyenas returned with the dark, greater in number and ever more daring, crowding into her churned circle with weaving heads raised high, sensing her weakness, and with their foul scent intruding, her fear-driven rage exploded into red-eyed fury.
Squealing under the strength of it, she charged at their hateful presence once more, horn low and ready to kill, the pain forgotten and her great legs thrusting, and she reached the end of her circle with all of her two-ton weight driving forward at speed.
With a hollow thud that showered bark and twigs from the shaking tree, the cable snapped, breaking where the encircling loop on her leg turned sharply back on itself.
But not all of it was cast off. The loop remained embedded deep, drawn hard against the bone.
In time, after a full season had passed and her calf had been born, she learned to live with the pain, but the unravelled splayed ends of the rusted cable spiked and jabbed relentlessly, and the suppurating flesh never healed.
The yellow Tiger Moth flew low along the winding river, stirring the early mist that clung in wispy patches to the water like discarded veils, swinging from side to side in a graceful ballet of banking turns as the pilot searched for dugouts or other evidence of human encroachment into the wildlife reserve.
Tim Ryan piloted the biplane without conscious thought to the mechanics of flight, his bare feet on the cold metal of the rudder-bar working in practised harmony with his right hand on the joystick and his left on the throttle; resting there in readiness to apply instant power should startled birds rise suddenly from the green banks of reeds. His goggles were pushed to his forehead, the lenses fogged by the swiftly changing temperatures, and he squinted through watering eyes against the cold rushing air.
Only his eyes and nose were exposed, the remainder of his face protected by two green balaclavas; one inside the other. The wool covering his mouth was moister than could be expected from his condensing warm breath, for Tim liked to sing as he flew.
The Bee Gees was his current favourite, and he sang their hit song Stayin’ Alive with gusto, pitching the falsetto notes above the deeper beat of the engine, timing them to suit, and hearing them resonate pleasingly in his covered ears.
Where herds of game were gathered at the larger pools he swung wide to avoid panicking them unduly, although his noisy approach and swift passing now caused only momentary confusion. They had become accustomed in some measure to the ritual morning disturbance, and had learned that it brought no harm.
When the river widened to join with the larger Sabi River on the north-eastern boundary and international border between Zimbabwe and Mozambique, he climbed the Tiger Moth above the surrounding hills, turning away from the gold orb of the rising sun to search the vast expanse of the Gona re Zhou National Park for signs of smoke. Not that he expected to see any. The new breed of poacher was too clever for that.
But Tim knew they were there. The game scouts had reported seeing their tracks and finding rhino snares, but the poachers were resourceful and cunning, doing without the comfort of cooking fires and the convenience of smoking racks. Now they simply abandoned any beast snared by accident. They were there to only fill empty pockets, not empty stomachs.
With his self-appointed dawn patrol completed, Tim replaced the goggles and set a meandering course for home. Tomorrow he would do it again, even though he knew it was mostly a waste of time. The air patrols were too regular and noisy to be effective, giving too much prior warning and ample time to crouch low in bushes or stand motionless beside a tree, but it made life a little more difficult for the poachers; kept them nervous, and that, as far as Tim was concerned, was better than doing nothing.
The reserve was too big for effective ground policing, and the government too concerned with directing money into more personally rewarding areas than remote wildlife reserves. That frustrating task was left to a few men of the Lowveld, and to a handful of dedicated rangers.
Nevertheless, Tim enjoyed his early morning flights. It was his favourite time of day, and this was his favourite time of year, with the Mopani forests transforming the Lowveld into a leafy ocean of bronze that stretched from horizon to hazy horizon. Despite the tingling ears, runny nose and watering eyes, flying over it at dawn in the old Tiger Moth with its open cockpit was his idea of heaven.
Like his father and grandfather, Tim was a staunch Mopani man. The small gnarled trees that changed colour with the two seasons were as much in his blood as they were the life-blood of the Lowveld. And he felt a proprietary interest in the two thousand square mile game reserve that adjoined the family property. What affected one bled onto the other, for neither the trees, the animals, nor the poachers had respect for boundaries.
His father had flown these same hills and rivers in a Piper Taylorcraft before it was burned by terrorists in the bush war. Gara Pasi had been abandoned then, his father and stepmother almost losing their lives, but that was in the past. Now the process of rebuilding the property was well under way, although, with his father spending most of his time developing their rhino sanctuary in Australia, and against the restraints of a run-down, tourist-poor economy and largely unsympathetic Zimbabwean government, it was an uphill task.
Tim made one diversion that morning, turning to investigate what had attracted a spiral of vultures. He joined their circle low above a tree in which several of the birds had clustered in the branches, startling them into panicky flight as he searched the ground below.
The remains of a carcass lay partly concealed in bushes, making it difficult to identify, although he could tell it had been something large. It looked to be bigger than a zebra, wildebeest or impala, which were the most common species to be taken by lion in this area. It could be a buffalo or eland. They, too, could fall to the big cats, but it could also be a snare.
Widening his circle, Tim climbed the biplane to look for a suitable landmark that would pinpoint the position with more reliability than the vultures, which could easily disperse in search of better pickings before a ground patrol could be sent to investigate. But the area was flat and featureless, and a long way from Gara Pasi, at least thirty miles. It would take a ground party most of the day, and even if they found the place, it could be for nothing.
Instead, he looked for a place to land. Small clay-pans were common in the flat country, and with the dry season would be firm. He used them often, and the Moth, having a tailskid and being an old crop-duster, did not object too violently.
He found one less than a mile away from the carcass. He took a compass bearing from it to the pan, then he slipped in to land, stopping the brakeless Moth at the far end with a controlled ground loop that faced him back the way he had come in a cloud of grey dust.
Taking a water bottle and his rifle, he set off at a brisk walk, his bare feet well accustomed to rough treatment. With the vultures still circling, and further guided by the lingering smell of rotting flesh as he drew close, he managed to find the carcass a half hour later and establish that it was a buffalo. The surrounding tracks, where scavengers had not obliterated them, told that it had fallen victim to lions.
Relieved it had not been a snare, he set off back immediately. A long day lay ahead, with the stockades they were erecting in preparation for shipping the rhinos well behind schedule. Finding suitable logs had proved harder than anticipated, and he did not want to be caught short after all the bureaucratic battles they had fought, both at his father’s end in Australia, and his in Zimbabwe. After stressing the urgency, he would look silly if the approval arrived before he was ready.
And he could not rely on the labourers to carry on without him. They would be sitting around yapping and waiting, no doubt recovering from hangovers, and with Juliette about to leave for her veterinary board exams in America, he still had to catch up with all the treatment details for her sick animals.
Thinking about it, Tim glanced at his watch, then broke into a jog. Maybe he should stop the dawn patrols, he thought, until the stockades were finished. Once the approval came, John Singleton would start jumping up and down, wanting to get the darting done before the rains, when his job with National Parks and Wildlife would require him elsewhere. He did not fancy the idea of darting without John’s expert assistance. And, he thought cynically, if he didn’t pull his finger out there would be no rhinos left to catch.
With the plane in sight, its yellow fabric clearly visible through the trees, but still busy with his thoughts, it took Tim a few moments to realise that the pounding he could hear was not all from his own two feet, and he turned to see a rhino trotting fast towards him over a stretch of barren ground. Its head was up, its tail stiffly erect, and following behind was a galloping calf.
Tim knew a lot about rhinos. He loved them, black or white, and had studied them for years in preparation for the translocation program. Books on them were stacked on the toilet floor, with Anna Merz’s on top, and he believed that he, too, if given the opportunity, could understand the irascible beasts’ snorting language and have them eating from his hand. And he also knew, without any doubt, that this particular rhino was not going to give him that opportunity.
Fortunately there was a nearby tree. Tim dived for it, dropping the water bottle and tossing the rifle into the branches ahead of him, hoping it would snag. It didn’t, clattering down onto his head. Luckily, he managed to prevent it falling any further to what would have been its certain destruction under the heavy feet that thundered below a few seconds later.
The tree shook as the rhino hooked and butted at the trunk, shedding leaves, but not Tim, who hung on with both hands and feet, the rifle tucked precariously under his chin.
The calf arrived, blowing and mewling, trying to get between its mother’s angrily driving legs, but getting knocked roughly aside. The mother gave her attention to the water bottle instead, which she attacked with grim determination, nosing it along the ground, followed by her confused calf.
She lost interest in the unaccommodating bottle and turned to glare belligerently at the tree, huffing and puffing.
‘Bugger off!’ Tim yelled. ‘What the hell’s your problem?’
It was all the incentive she needed. The second charge shook the tree to its roots, shedding more leaves and twigs, but again not Tim, who had taken advantage of the short respite to get a secure grip on the rifle.
He remained silent during the second attack on the inoffensive tree and, after giving the bottle one more go, the beast finally retreated. Favouring one hind leg it trotted haughtily away with the distressed calf cantering after it, and both of them heading directly towards the plane.
‘Hey!’ Tim shouted. ‘Not that way!’ He followed up with a piercing whistle. ‘Get back here, goddamit!’
Unaccountably, this time his shouts were ignored. In desperation he fumbled with the rifle and fired a shot in the air.
The startled calf veered away, and the mother turned with it, taking them past the Moth, although still so close that Tim remained holding his breath, his finger crooked on the trigger until they were out of sight.
He waited a good minute after their departure before climbing down and going quietly to the plane. He took a long drink from the battered, but miraculously still intact bottle, then waited another few minutes to be sure before tossing the rifle and bottle into the front cockpit and setting the throttle and magneto switches.
He stood behind the propeller to swing it, stepping onto the wing, then into his seat in the rear cockpit as the Moth trundled forward under power. Dispensing with the balaclavas and goggles, Tim looked up to check ahead and stiffened.
The rhino was trotting across the pan towards him. It came in the same determined manner as before, head up with ears pricked and tail erect, and far behind it came the galloping calf in a thin haze of grey dust.
‘Jesus!’ Tim swore, and pushed the throttle all the way forward to the stop.
The beast was too close to think of jumping out and running for a tree again. The rhino would either get him or the plane, and neither option appealed. All he could do was carry on and hope the noise of the engine would distract it.
The Moth responded with a challenging roar, lurching forward and bouncing violently as he turned away from the oncoming animals to follow the rough edge of the pan.
The speed increased as the tail lifted, but not enough to get airborne, and Tim watched anxiously as the rhino turned with him. It too had picked up speed, lowering its head and homing in on the roaring machine with the deadly intent of a two-ton guided missile.
Tim had few options. If he increased speed too much he ran the risk of dipping the lower wing into the ground as he tried to follow the pan around, and he could not get a clear run across for a take-off while the cantankerous animal was blocking the way. Rhinos did not play games of chicken, they played for keeps.
To take-off he would have to get the beast to the side of the pan, to chase him from behind. But not too close. And he would have to slow right down, maybe even lower the tail, before turning the Moth to face across the pan.
Fortunately, like missiles, rhinos did not have the capacity to think ahead and cut him off, and the solid beasts were not built for long-distance running. It began to slow, going back to a limping trot, but still determined, and Tim eased back on the throttle with relief, enticing it closer, then accelerating with a sudden burst when it spun in behind in a cloud of dust, narrowly missing the tail with its long front horn.
‘Ole!’ Tim yelled, and slammed on the power as it charged after him.
The dangerous game of tag lasted for another complete, bumping, hopping and skidding circuit of the pan before the rhino lost interest and stopped, allowing Tim to lower the tail and turn for a take-off, only to see the calf standing in the middle of the pan, directly in his path.
‘Get out of the bloody way!’ Tim shouted.
It was the wrong thing to say. At the sound of his voice above the reduced noise of the idling engine the mother found hidden reserves. She lowered her great head and thundered in to attack once more.
‘Bitch,’ Tim muttered, and pushed the throttle forward hard, holding it there as if to gain every last erg from the clamouring Gypsy motor. A quick glance behind revealed only a thick cloud of dust, which must have adequately screened the plane, for the expected impact never arrived.
Tim gave his full attention to the calf, which was now running erratically across the pan, apparently wanting to escape the roaring machine coming towards it, but also anxious to join its dam that was somewhere behind it.
It chose in favour of the plane at the last instant, turning aside in panic, and Tim eased the stick back a moment later, lifting the Moth off sluggishly, and with barely enough speed as the trees raced towards him. He held it down for as long as he dared, allowing it to accelerate, then pulled up, lifting his feet instinctively as the undercarriage clipped the top branches of a Mopani tree.
Circling the pan while he regained his composure, Tim watched his adversary moving out of the dust and into the trees with her calf.
The activity must have taken its toll, for she was limping badly now, the right hind leg seeming not to touch the ground at all, and causing Tim to wonder what might have happened had she not been handicapped by the injury. By now the Moth would be scattered all over the pan and his intestines dangling from a tree to dry in the sun. He shivered at the thought, and made a silent promise that when the approval came through, she and her calf would be the first candidates for immigration.
He took a compass bearing on the distant Sibonja hills, jotting the numbers on the chalkboard tucked between his seat and the fuselage. It would be worthwhile sending a scout to keep track of the injured beast’s movements, maybe to camp permanently on her trail until he could dart her and put her in one of the as-yet-to-be completed stockades. When Juliette returned from America she could attend to the injured leg. He had little doubt it had been caused by a snare. With luck the poachers wouldn’t get a second chance.
Juliette was waiting for him at the airstrip, still in her short pyjamas, a coat hastily thrown around for decency, and her dark curls a tousled mop. ‘Do you realise you have a branch stuck in your wheels?’ she greeted him as soon as the engine had spluttered into silence. ‘What happened?’
‘It’s a long story,’ Tim replied.
‘You should be more careful.’
‘Absolutely.’ He extricated himself from the cockpit and stepped from the wing onto the damp grass to remove the branch, tossing it aside before giving his younger half-sister a quizzical look. ‘So, what brings you out so early, Jules, wet the bed?’
‘Dad called from Aussie this morning.’ She seemed smugly pleased with herself, waiting for his reaction before continuing, and he supplied it reluctantly, guessing what was coming.
‘Good news. The approval has come through at last.’ She beamed at him.
Tim sighed despondently, thinking of the increased workload. ‘Bloody marvellous,’ he muttered.