14-Sep-2008 -- The black mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis), one of Africa's deadliest snakes, swung like a lead-filled garden hose from a high branch in the cocoa tree, coming to rest only centimetres from the Toe Cutter's face. Moments earlier he had loped along the jungle path in the strange gait that had become his signature; a gait that incorporated efficiencies of both the llama and the ostrich, animals he had studied comprehensively and understood instinctively. The mamba froze him in his tracks, and despite the heavy jungle heat, sweat turned to ice on his brow. Time slowed to a fraction of real time as adrenalin pulsed through his arteries. Every muscle in his wiry body tightened like piano wire. The mamba took the Toe Cutter completely by surprise. His steel-grey gaze fixed on the lidless eyes of the snake gyrating within easy striking distance of his nose. The snake hissed loudly. For a micro-second the Toe Cutter contemplated the Browning 9 mm semi-automatic on his right hip, but sanity convinced him of the futility of this idea. To move now would be suicide. The coppery taste of Fear filled his mouth...
Those with only slight knowledge of the Toe Cutter called him Pat, which was indeed his name. But the rest of us were comfortable calling him the Toe Cutter. The origins of his nickname were now obscure. There were many explanations; including the one I liked best, namely that on a tropical Queensland night when, after a bottle of Bundaberg rum, a stunt involving a pair of garden shears and a jar of Vaseline went horribly wrong. But who really knows?
The morning started the same as most other days, except it was unusually cool. At the Ahafo mine mist shrouded the elephant grass meadows outside the 12-foot tall anti-personnel barrier. The sun's feeble orange rays played tantalizingly on the points and edges of diamond sharpened razor wire uncoiled on top of the formidable obstacle circling the camp and processing facility.
Kel Bendeich, better known as The Bullnecked Prussian, was a fireman from the Hunter Valley, eastern Australia. "Good day for a drive in the country," he bellowed. Most outsiders would not have made out a single word coming from his mouth, but those having spent time with him had no trouble understanding.
Joseph, the mission's Mercedes-owning driver, was a wiry youth and Kel's understudy. His skin the colour of licorice, he spoke little, but heard all. He planned our trips and kept a clear head under pressure. Word in the bush was that his prowess with a cutlass (the Ghanaian word for machete) was second to none. Despite being Ghanaian born and bred, he discerned meaning from most of the noises and grunts Kel made.
Kel had spent his youth brawling with miners in the Hunter Valley in the hotels and bars around Branxton. After one fight in which he beat a tyre fitter half to death, he fled to the jungles of Borneo where he laid low in mines for the next 15 years waiting for the heat to die down.
Riding shotgun in the front seat of the Prado was Dan, known as "Lieutenant Dan" to his friends mainly because of his military exploits in the jungles of Borneo late last century. The Lieutenant, a scientist by training, had squandered his youth and most of his middle age on dead-end projects in far corners of the world that, in his words, 'seemed like a good idea at the time.' On this mission he was the expedition's chief navigator.
Representing the female gender on this Mission, as she would argue, "and the voice of reason," was Dr. Anita, environmental engineer and lawyer. On R&R from a recent patrol on the graveyard shift in the streets of NY City, she refused to explain what had transpired on that mission. Eying the 18-inch Gurkha knife tucked casually into her belt, and knowing her reputation for willingness to use it, no one had the courage to enquire further. We called her Sergeant Major and she was comfortable with that. In fact "Too comfortable," the Toe Cutter mused... The Sergeant Major rode in the jump seat at the stern of the Toyota.
Also on board this morning was Jared, widely known as The Convict, a bad-ass youngster from Jersey via Idaho. The Convict's extreme youth and frat boy brain made him an endless fount of pranks and jokes that tested the patience and urges to kill of most other occupants in the four-wheel drive. The vile youth worked for Lieutenant Dan in a menial capacity too trivial to write about.
The final member of the team was a relative newcomer, known only as The Fireslayer. Others, in more formal circles called him Russel Xxxx... To call him by his surname was an instant death sentence duly imposed by the South African Secret Police. Enough said. The Prussian, The Toe Cutter, Joseph, and The Lieutenant: The Boys of Borneo were together for another mission.
The Toyota left the security gates at 06:15 hrs as planned. "Good to see we're leaving on time for a change," said Lieutenant Dan from the front seat of the Prado. He checked the settings of his Garmin GPS and motioned in a vaguely westerly direction at the first T-junction. The small communities en route were waking up and travellers, some walking, some on bicycles, competed for road space along the narrow tracks on which we travelled. Women cooked porridge in large cauldrons, and kids huddled for warmth next to wood fires.
We hit the metropolis of Sunyani shortly after sunrise. It was too early even for the political marches that pock-marked the landscape of this time in Ghana. Soon we were through the city, when Joseph turned the Prado south along the main highway to Kumasi some 70 kilometres to the South.
The road snaked through derelict villages built from mud and daub. The Toyota hummed along the hardtop as church-goers spilled onto the shoulder of the highway. From somewhere in the back of the wagon a Carlsberg suddenly appeared in Dan's hand, and he realized that the clock must have reached 9 a.m. The sound of cracking aluminium seals filled the vehicle. The wheels whined; the beer tasted good.
One large billboard announced "The Virgin and Abstinence Club." "Hey boss, we could do some damage there," the Convict called out.
"Shut your face, you reprobate. You bring shame to your family," Lt. Dan retorted. He was too deeply into his first of many libations for the day to tolerate frat-boy rhetoric. The miles passed and the chunky off-road tyres whistled pleasantly on this overcast day.
With keen eyes on the GPS the group noted the ever-closer confluence of 7N 2W. Though none of the team could get overly excited about re-visiting an already documented confluence point, we were nevertheless interested, most of all because it had been described as a "short 70 meter stroll" by its discoverers.
"It's a girls' confluence," the Prussian opined, studying Google Earth images of the coordinates.
"Eat your words, Prussian," the Sergeant Major said softly. The fingertips of her left hand caressed the black bone handle of The Knife in her belt. "Don't make me hurt you." Her eyes and his locked; he noticed she was not smiling.
"Eh, did I say that or think it out loud?" the Prussian asked, trying to make light of his sexist comment. He knew how close he had come to bodily harm.
"Skip it," the Sergeant Major said. "You can buy the first Star Beer at Rosie's." Her point was made.
We hummed along the blacktop, through Sunday villages. As the Confluence drew nearer, the arrow on the Garmin swung tantalizingly towards the east, we all watched it. "Less than a kilometer away," the Prussian announced.
Suddenly, Lieutenant Dan directed Joseph to turn left along a rutted track high in the landscape. The hunt was now on; instinctively Joseph knew this and slipped the Toyota into 4WD.
The road led us through a derelict village filled with folk milling around a former main road clad in their Sunday best. The road was a perched embankment, braced on both sides by gullies more than a meter deep. Large fig trees growing there were wilted and tired because the soil that once covered their roots had long since been washed away by the same rains that now left the road resembling a bridge more than the main thoroughfare that it once was. We were celebrities, probably because the last foreigners that passed this way were our fellow Confluenteers who passed this way some three years earlier.
Before long, the perched "highway" transmogrified to a narrow bush track, winding and muddy, and marked by orange mud puddles resembling wallows made by water buffaloes. Thoughtful locals had laid wooden cut-offs across the ugliest wallows, including creek crossings. Joseph, of course, was not fazed by the very slight obstacle placed in his way. His Mercedes would have negotiated these minor obstacles without even changing gears... Elephant grass and clusters of banana and cassava lined the track ever closer squeezing the Toyota on both sides. As the wallows worsened, the Team dismounted in the interest of vehicular safety, and pursued the Confluence on foot while the vehicle, now carrying approximately half a tonne less, negotiated the muddy track with much greater ease. The scream of chainsaws filled the morning as we ankled down the track.
"Lucky this is only a social run," The Toe Cutter complained. At breakfast The Prussian had convinced him to slip into his street clothes (which were not that different from his work clothes) as we would NOT be hunting confluence today. The best laid plans of mice and men...
On each side was fields of cassava and plantain now being tended to by ambitious locals who hoed and cutlassed with great vigour. "Damn, this place is humid," the Convict observed loudly. No one acknowledged what we had all noticed and needed not reminding.
Some 500 meters after disembarking, we arrived at a small creek where the GPS pointer indicated that we were as close as we could be while staying on the track. "This is where the going gets tough," Lieutenant Dan announced while pointing to the North. Instinctively the Team followed him into the dense undergrowth comprising more elephant grass, cocoa trees, and a yet unidentified murderously thorny creeper...
The Toe Cutter's lope through the dense undergrowth soon put him at the head of the pack. His feet moved swiftly through the tangled morass that tripped up the rest of the group in the half-darkness on the jungle floor. The only one of us able to keep up was Joseph who walked, nay, strolled, light-footed immediately behind the Toe Cutter, swinging his cutlass effortlessly, seemingly oblivious to the sauna-like humidity that hung like a blanket over the small team.
The Toe Cutter crashed out of the thicket into the relative clearing of a cocoa plantation that had painstakingly been weeded to clear soil by its owner. The terrain was now tailor-made for his ultra-ergonomic lope. He sped ahead of the rest of us who were still trying to untangle ourselves from the unforgiving undergrowth some thirty meters behind him. With Joseph trailing only moments behind him, he picked up speed.
The Toe Cutter and Joseph were almost at the far edge of the cocoa plantation some 50 meters ahead, by the time the rest of us broke through the creepers and grass that seemed intent of keeping us in their grasp. "One ninety meters to go," the Prussian barked leading the pack in pursuit of the Toe Cutter and Joseph into the cocoa grove. Across the relative clearing the Toe Cutter froze. As if mesmerized his gaze was fixed on a grey hose dangling centimetres from his face. "That's a bloody snake," said the Prussian, pointing helplessly in the direction of the Toe Cutter who stood motionless like a statue in the cocoa grove.
Joseph had followed the Toe Cutter for most of the walk only a dozen steps behind. As usual he had said nothing for most of the mission, seemingly in a world of his own. When the Toe Cutter's lope suddenly stopped, Joseph knew something was wrong. As he drew level with the Mamba, its eyes locked in contact with the Toe Cutter's, he saw the predicament into which the Toe Cutter had blundered. Effortlessly, yet with lightning speed, he swung the cutlass in his right hand in a precise, seemingly lazy arc. A microsecond later the Mamba's body recoiled like a hose under pressure spraying blood in a two-meter radius as its severed head dropped in front of the Toe Cutters boots.
"What kept ya, Joey?" the Toe Cutter asked, spitting dryly, and wiping the snake's blood off his cheek with a red bandana pulled from the pocket of his cargo pants. He then exacerbated the stain from a large blotch of blood on the front of his brown cotton dress shirt, a keepsake from the Andes. The blotch grew as he was rubbing it in a vaguely circular motion, mixing the fresh snake blood with his own sweat.
"Sorry boss," Joseph replied, with the hint of a smile on his face, before drifting back into his own world, and then paced away towards the Confluence that by now was tantalizingly close. By now the Prussian and the rest of the pack reached Toe Cutter and the dead snake. "Jesus, Cutter, what happened?" the Convict asked, shaken by the sight of the two-and-a-half meter snake still twitching at Toe Cutter's feet.
"A black mamba, Cutter," the Fire Slayer blurted, "You're lucky to be alive."
"Nothing to worry about," Toe Cutter said, embarrassed by the fuss the mamba incident was generating. "Only forty meters to go," he barked, then set off in the direction dictated by the GPS, regaining his customary lope as he picked up speed.
The Sergeant Major looked at the snake and looked at the Lieutenant. "Not so fast, Princess", she interrupted. She unsheathed her knife and tossed it to him. "Skin the snake," she ordered. "We'll eat it tonight in a Thai green curry on a bed of Jasmine rice. I have a couple of bottles of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, back in camp." Without a word the Lieutenant skinned and gutted the dead mamba, and slipped it into his backpack.
A passable tracked through the grassy thicket formed behind the team as they pressed through the final thirty meters or so to the Confluence. Joseph was already there double-checking the reading on his Garmin.
This was our fifth confluence in Ghana, and in terms of distance and terrain the least challenging. The Prussian announced busied himself by photographing the page of his GPS that showed the 7N 2W coordinates followed by many zeroes.
"Off to Rosie's it is," he grunted, putting away the camera, then turning around, walked back from whence we had come. Cold beer and a half-decent pool table awaited us. Without further instruction the team formed into single file and followed him.