Zimbabwe’s Bottom Feeders
by Kevin Thomas
My two clients; a father and son from the UK had arrived in Bulawayo on the Saturday 25 June 2011 midday flight from Johannesburg. Jamie and Josh Cox had flown direct from Heathrow and were understandably feeling a bit jaded so after checking them into the Bulawayo Club I left them to rest, telling them I’d meet them at about 1800hrs and take them to the Cattleman restaurant for dinner. This I did and by 2000hrs they were back in their room at the club, and by 2030hrs I was also in bed at Rich and Liz Aylwards home in the Burnside suburb, my intention was to get an early Sunday morning start for the Bubye Valley Conservancy. Because I’m always paranoid about my vehicle security, prior to going into the house I’d checked the main steel electric entrance gate to the yard was closed, checked my Toyota Landcruiser alarm system was on and then locked my vehicle doors.
On Sunday morning 26 June I woke up at about 0500hrs, showered, shaved, and then sorted my rifles and other gear out before making a cup of coffee and going out into the yard to start my truck and leave it idling to warm the engine up in the cold winter dawn. I’d told Jamie and Josh to expect me at around about 0630hrs. Imagine my immediate reaction when I got to the car park and found my vehicle was no longer there. Initially I guess I went into a form of dumbstruck shock mode, probably because of sheer disbelief and nothing else. My first reaction was to stumble past Richard Aylwards collection of old Land Rovers thinking I may have parked elsewhere yet knowing I hadn’t. Then the rage kicked in, a frustrated impotent rage because what can you do?
Still in shock I managed to awaken the Aylwards and as Rich and I checked the yard the scenario of what had obviously taken place in the dark began to become clearer. Approximately four scumbags had removed the electric gate – a solid steel gate fabricated from iron sheeting – entered the yard, deactivated the alarm on my Landcruiser – got into it and then pushed it 30m out into Burnside Road and made off.
Zimbabwe is without doubt the hub of Southern Africa for the theft of Toyota Landcruisers, the Model 70 series pick up and preferably late model diesels are the main attractants. The syndicates involved in the specialised theft of Landcruisers are highly sophisticated, skilled and ruthless. Every PH colleague of mine in Zimbabwe has at one time or other had a Toyota Landcruiser stolen, and none have been recovered, nor seemingly has anyone ever been arrested for the crime. In the very few cases of a vehicle being found six months or so down the line and an arrest made, I believe the perpetrators were amateur wannabes and not linked to the organised syndicates.
From what I have been able to glean in my ongoing quest to try and come to terms with my loss, it seems that the Congo and further north in Africa are no longer the end destination for these stolen vehicles, Mozambique is the prime destination and for Landcruisers stolen in Bulawayo, Sango border in the south east of the country, where South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique all meet, is the exit conduit. It is only a six-hour drive from Bulawayo.
Before the theft of my vehicle I’d just spent the previous 22 days hunting two back to back buffalo and general plains game safaris on Zimbabwe’s Bubye Valley Conservancy – a prime hunting area if ever. My first client was the eldest brother of a Croatian family group; Ivica was a great safari companion and took some good trophies. His brother and father hunted with PHs Paul Zorn and Ade Langley, obviously with them being Eastern European there was a language barrier of sorts, certainly not too much of a limitation. Sport hunters worldwide have a way of communicating, and of an evening in the tranquil setting of Samanyanga camp, the Katavic family played a traditional and popular Croatian card game called Bella while we PHs watched, and enjoyed a few cocktails while talking a lot of hogwash – quite simply because we’d all gone to the same senior school, Umtali Boys High in a country once called Rhodesia – I was the elder of our group having left school in 1967 at age 16 just prior to Paul and Ade arriving. It was a long time back and talking ‘catch up’ on the intervening years, all forty-four of them, was fun.
At the end of the safari the Katavic family departed satisfied, we three PHs seeing them off from the Bulawayo airport, and after they’d gone Paul and Ade too, went their separate ways because they had a gap before their next inbound clients. Ade Langley is a keen and dedicated falconer so was keen to get home to his falcons and English pointers. For my part, I remained in the airport terminal – if one can call the Bulawayo airport a terminal, shabby prefabricated building is probably a lot more apt description. My reason quite simply was because the plane taking the Katavic family out had also brought in the Espinosa father and son ex Madrid, Spain, via Johannesburg. They were on a 2:1 buffalo and general plains game hunt and Mazunga Safaris had contracted me to guide them.
Departing Bulawayo fairly late afternoon because of a slow exit from arrivals, we made good time and by late afternoon we had arrived at Dyer’s camp on the Bubye Valley Conservancy, where we found PH Brent Hein and his jovial Danish clients enjoying their final evening in camp. Frank Reynolds who runs a reliable shuttle bus service between Bulawayo and various safari camps was also there, he’d been contracted to convey the Danes back to Bulawayo. Allowing Brent to break away early the following morning and head back home to Mazowe Valley north of Harare – he’d been guiding back to back safaris for close on sixty days. Sitting round the campfire that evening, the Danes had some exciting stories to tell – helped along a bit by the amber liquid they’d been consuming.
One story was of a close encounter with an angry lioness in a riverbed who’d aggressively charged them, expressing her displeasure at their close proximity, understandably so I guess because she had newborn fluffy cubs with her, waddling, and still wearing spots. The Bubye Valley Conservancy is known for close black rhino and lion encounters, Ivica the Croatian and I had already had one or two incidents with both species on my earlier safari.
Getting back to my stolen vehicle, this nightmare scenario for a one-man freelance/contract PH spells disaster. In the African safari world of today big safari operators only employ contract PHs who have their own reliable vehicle. Thus far of all vehicles on the market in Africa, the hardy Toyota Landcruiser pickup has become the proven workhorse and is most certainly without peer. Fitted out with accessories by way of bull bars, safari rails, spare wheel cradles, high seat, winches, snorkel, long range fuel tanks, GPS, VHF radio, tool lockers, roof racks and many other customised gizmos dependent on the whims or eccentricity of the PH, a safari rig is an expensive and valuable asset. The scumbags of Africa know this and being the bottom feeders that they are prey on vehicles that others have worked hard to own.
My Toyota Landcruiser was a 2005 model and it was kept in pristine condition with every service done at the required mileage, and always at the dealership where I’d bought it. It took me two years working on a security contract with the US DOD in Iraq before I could afford to buy the rig for cash, and drive it off the showroom floor – a first for me in my entire life. At the time of it being stolen it only had 137,000km on the clock and in Toyota Landcruiser terms was still new. Stolen with it were all the accessories and my collection of tools, Hi-lift jack, spare wheels, skinning knives, spare tubes and many other sundry items, fortunately not my rifles or cameras. For sentimental value only, a small woollen camel I’d bought at a Baghdad souk hung from the rear view mirror – a reminder that Saddam’s oil money had helped finance my hunting truck.
Many have said that a vehicle is only ‘tin & plastic’ and can be easily replaced, I won’t argue with that, however to us, the small fraternity of freelance contract professional hunters who rely on a single vehicle to conduct our classical safaris in some of Africa’s most remote regions, our vehicles are more than tin and plastic. They are an extension of our individual personalities; they are as sentimentally valuable as our favourite rifle, hunting jacket or fishing rod, we often stand in safari camp car parks and lovingly discuss them, opening the hood and admiring engines. They are our comfort zone during long hours of lonely travel to far off safari venues before the season, or a safari commences. Quite simply they are ‘us’.
Replacing my stolen Landcruiser now in 2011 with all of the accessories would be in the region of R500, 000 – I simply don’t have it, even if a reluctant insurance company gives me a token pay out. While on the subject I could write an entire article about insurance companies – to me they fall into the same category as the sleaze bags who stole my vehicle, blood sucking leeches or vampires would be an apt description.
Despite my anger and frustration in the aftermath of my vehicle loss, I had to stay focused because I had Jamie and Josh on the threshold of their long dreamt of buffalo and plains game safari. Rich Aylward kindly collected them from the Bulawayo Club and brought them to the house, while I sat at a table giving an indifferent bunch of policemen and detectives a statement. It soon became patently clear that it was probably an inside job; the duty security guard at the adjacent gate disappeared at 1800hrs on Saturday and only reappeared at 0600hrs on Sunday. This fact though, didn’t even interest the cops, again, and quite simply because the Mugabe regime ethos has it that stealing from a white man is fine (having started with the 2000 land grab and ongoing), and not even considered a crime, this mindset has permeated most sectors of the civil service and society, a case of “If it belongs to whitey take it because it is really yours and not his”.
After the cops had left, Rich Aylward again came to my rescue and using his Landcruiser conveyed my clients, the trackers, me and all our gear to the Bubye Valley Conservancy. I sat with the trackers atop the gear in the back of the rig for the 4-hour journey to the BVC, where Blondie Leatham the conservator kindly loaned me a BVC vehicle to complete the safari, which although I struggled to stay focused was a success, Jamie rolling a good buffalo on the second day.
In the interim Brenda my wife readied herself for the long 2000km (one way) drive to rescue me post safari. Flying wasn’t an option given all of my gear and guns in soft bags. On the penultimate day of the safari I awaited her alongside the road 100km north of Beit Bridge border post. She then spent the night in camp with us and next day, using our microbus we took Jamie and Josh to Bulawayo, before we too, headed back to the Eastern Cape two days later.
In summary and hopefully this will be of help to 4x4 owners entering Zimbabwe, my own belief is that the monitoring of a late model Toyota Landcruiser begins at your Port of Entry, particularly Beit Bridge, it is without doubt the most corrupt border post in Southern Africa. My advice is:
1) Don’t ever put the correct address of where you intend staying in Zimbabwe on the TIP (Temporary Import Permit), use a false one culled off a map of whatever town you’re staying in. Those involved in this theft of Toyota Land cruisers include customs officials, police and army personnel. A colleague of mine chased his stolen Landcruiser all the way onto an army base but was stopped from entering the base – he never got his vehicle back.
2) Ensure you never leave your vehicle unattended if you’re shopping or sight seeing.
3) Don’t stop alongside any roads within Zimbabwe between towns and cities.
4) Keep a close eye on who is lingering outside the yard of where you’re staying, or in the car park, or sitting on a curb opposite any premises you might be staying at. This form of monitoring an individual’s movement to and from is called ‘dicking’ in British Army parlance, and I became well used to it in Iraq when driving off of bases. I saw it happening to me opposite the gate to the Aylward’s home and remarked on it to Rich yet failed to act – it cost me my vehicle. What happened was that 3 days before the theft of my vehicle four goons started sitting on the curb across the road from, and opposite the security gate. Each time I drove out the gate they were watching me with the palms of their hands covering their faces, and with their fingers widespread (trying to avoid recognition). On one occasion I actually pointed at them and remarked to Rich, “Those bastards want to steal my vehicle” – failing to react to my gut feel cost me big time.
Tomorrow I once more depart my home for the long drive back to Zimbabwe, however, this time I’m basically hitch hiking because I’m getting a lift with a friend, Carl Malcomess and we’re driving to Chete Safari Area on Lake Kariba’s central basin to conduct a 28-day safari. I’ll be using Carl’s Nissan Patrol, also a 4x4 and a good one; however for a freelance contract PH it isn’t how it’s meant to be. Hopefully this story will help other 4x4 owners intent on visiting Zimbabwe to not lose their vehicles to theft, a growing industry in a country that is in political limbo.