Hunters of the Thundering Mist

Nkose and his friend, Nyati, were tired. The sun was high in the sky and beat down upon them without mercy. Their ebony bodies, slender but well-muscled from years of hunting in the rolling hills and plains, were covered in a sheen of sweat, and their thighs and calves ached from the exertion of tracking the large male pumba through the groves of thorn trees that dotted the rolling hills near the serpentine Zambezi River. Their leopard skin loin cloths were soaked through with sweat.

They had been tracking the large wart hog since the sun’s first rays crept over the hills far to the east. Here, in the vicinity of mosi-oa-tunya, the great ‘smoke that thunders,’ there was much easier game; elands, impalas, and other grazers that, though fast, fell easy to the spears they carried, but the pumba looked like it weighed than both of them together, and if they could fell it, the village would eat for days on its succulent meat after it was roasted over a fire.

The hog had darted into a large thorn tree grove that bordered the river. Nkose and Nyati followed its sounds as it moved through the brush, keeping the grove between themselves and the river. They could hear the roar of the great waterfall, and in the distance, over the tops of the trees they could see the perpetual mist thrown up by the water as it plunged into the gorge below.

Soon, they were in sight of the falls. The trees became thicker in the area moistened by the mist, forming a great rain forest filled with colorful birds, and which was a favorite grazing ground of the pumba. At the same time, they kept a wary eye for the elephants that also favored the succulent leaves of the trees that grew in the always wet ground. While the men of the Ndebele tribe, descendants of King Mzilikazi, who had grown apart from Shaka of the southern Zulu, and moved with his people north, across the Limpopo to settle in lands east of the Zambezi.

As they neared the thick grove, dominated by a towering baobab tree in the center, Nkose signaled a halt. Placing his lips close to his friend’s ear, he said, “I think the pumba is nearby, and probably with others. From here, I will move along the river bank. You go straight, and I will drive him to you.”

“But, brother Nkose,” Nyati said. “You will then lose the honor of the kill.”

“It does not matter, brother,” Nkose said. “There will be other hunts. For now, our people will feed and it will not matter which of our spears brought down the meat.”

“Well spoken, my brother. That is why you will be the greatest hunter of our village, and some day it’s chief as well.”

Nkose snorted. “We have but seventeen summers between us, brother. We have yet to take wives, and you talk of my being chief. Keep your mind on the hunt.”

They laughed at what had become a standing joke between them. Nkose patted his friend’s shoulder and trotted off toward the river. As he moved slowly along the sloping bank, he kept his ears tuned for sounds from the brush to his right. He wanted to get the wart hog, but at the same time, did not want to disturb a mamba or cobra that might be sleeping in the grass. He heard the rustling sound of an animal moving through the foliage to his right front. From the sound, he was sure it was the animal they had been tracking. As he angled in toward the brush in an effort to get the pumba between himself and Nyati, he noticed out of the corner of his eye a movement on the island that sat in the river just downstream from mosi-ao-tunya.

Thinking at first it might be a baboon, he was about to ignore it, until the figure stood. Nkose froze in shock. The creature standing in the short grass at the edge of the island was clearly not a baboon or any other simian. It was covered in some kind of brown cloth from neck to below the knees, and the feet were shod in some strange brown covering.

Under the broad brimmed hat, even from a great distance, Nkose could see that the man, and it had to be a man of some kind, had hair on the lower part of his face, but the skin above the hair was light, almost the color of the bottom of Nkose’s feet. Such a strange person, never before in his life had Nkose seen. Then, he remembered the stories told by wandering hunters from villages far to the south, of strange men with pale faces who called themselves ‘white.’

This one, though, was not white. The square he held in his hands, upon which he seemed to be scratching, was white. His skin was a pinkish brown. The man alternated between staring at the cascading water and scratching on the white square.

Nkose, the hunt momentarily forgotten, crouched behind a flowering bush and watched. He wondered how this pale stranger had come to be in this place. To the south, yes perhaps; their Zulu cousins had become weak and such pale strangers might be welcomed in their midst, but thus far, they had not come north to Nkose’s village. Now, here was one far north of the village. Could this be a sign from the gods, that the world was coming to an end? Nkose wondered, and looked at the stranger with as much awe as he seemed to have looking at mosi-ao-tunya.

He was thinking he would ask one of the elders when he and Nyati returned to the village, when he heard a squealing sound and a thrashing, followed by the ululation that signaled Nyati’s successful slaying of the pumba. All thoughts of the stranger were flushed from his mind as he sprang up from behind the bush and plunged into the thicket.

He found Nyati, sweating, but beaming with pride, standing over the carcass. He had already taken his knife from his belt and was about to slit the animal open to allow it to bleed.

“Brother Nkose,” Nyati said. “Cut a strong sapling to make a pole so that we can carry this pumba back to the village.” Nkose searched around until he found a suitable sapling, which he hacked down, and cleaned of small branches. They used some vines growing on a nearby tree to secure the carcass, and heaving, they put it on their shoulders and headed south.

It was a long trek to the village; they would not arrive before the sun was perched on the far horizon ready to slip down for a night’s rest. Nkose’s mind was filled with thoughts of the feast they would have, and the adulation he and Nyati would receive from their kith and kin, most especially the young women, for bringing back such bounty.

All thought of the pale-skinned stranger had vanished.