In the good old days of newspaper reporting when facts were sacred and comment was a sin, one of the rules drummed into my juvenile head by hard-bitten professionals was that news rarely falls into one’s lap, you have to get out and look for it.
Being a wet-behind-the-ears lad barely out of his teens and consumed by an overwhelming curiosity, that was no problem. Whenever I had done my diary assignments and routine checks the news editor kicked me out of the newsroom and said “Go and talk to people, ask questions, find out what’s happening.”
It was the most basic instruction after the standard “Why, why, what, where, when and how?” every reporter is supposed to apply to every story he or she is covering, and may be the most useful.
Thus when I was given the job of covering all Africa for the former Argus Group of newspapers, I made sure all my staffers in several bureaux stuck to it and I drummed it, in my turn, into every new journalist I took on board.
Based in Johannesburg, this meant regular trips by me into countries like Botswana, Swaziland, Lesotho, Mozambique, Angola, Mauritius (there had to be some bonuses) and further afield, sometimes as far as West, East and Central Africa. That no word of anything interesting was emerging from them did not mean nothing was happening there; most were well off the news radar.
Insatiable curiosity led me into some startling, occasionally dangerous and often amusing situations. A baboon that herded sheep. Catching gemsbok by the horns. Counting fish in the Okavango Swamp. Meeting an African queen in Uganda. Riding camels in the northern Kenya desert. Dive-bombing a bamboo forest with the Royal Air Force. The list is long.
One of the most fascinating stories I did was a feature on a ritual in the remote jungle of northern Madagascar.
This huge island had long intrigued me, a kind of Lost World where seventy five per cent of the fauna and flora were unique, the people were very different to those of nearby Africa, their language had many similarities to those of the Indo-Pacific region - Polynesia, Indonesia, Malaya – and they had a colourful history. Also, their island was once used as a base by Captain Morgan and other renowned pirates.
So I made a point of going there to “… talk to people, ask questions …” It was so interesting I went back many times and found a treasure trove of news and features.
Lunching at the Hotel Colbert with Jacques Caradec, a delightful Breton with black caterpillar eyebrows, I mentioned I was flying north to have a look at the French naval base of Diego Suarez, today’s Antsiranana.
“Ah,” he said through a mouthful of delicious terrine, “I must go there again soon, I might get a chance to see Le Lac Sacré, The Sacred Lake.”
“Sacred Lake? What’s that.”
“It’s a place where the locals worship crocodiles,” he said, “I don’t know exactly where, in the Diego Suarez district.”
|Ankarafantsika - The sacred lake|
I had with me our staff photographer, David Paynter, a lensman with a great skill for anticipating an action, with a fine record and many awards.
Diego Suarez was occupied by the Vichy French and captured by the Allies to prevent it falling into the hands of the Germans or Japanese – one of the lesser known episodes of World War Two. The wrecks of several sunken ships and a bombed French submarine were still visible in the bay.
The town was a few dingy shops and a clapboard hotel that stank of overflowing toilets and was inhabited by flashily clad prostitutes catering to the French navy.
The Sacred Lake lay somewhere south. To travel there and see it I needed the permission of the regional equivalent of a district commissioner. I visited him and after much exchanging of compliments, explanation and deliberation which greatly strained my French, he agreed to arrange everything for the next day and gave me a printed, stamped and signed permit.
We set off next morning in a clattery old taxi with many more air vents than Renault intended and travelled through increasingly dense, lawn green tropical forest and jungle.
An hour or so later we reached an outpost of a few buildings and a couple of trading stores where we introduced ourselves to the district officer in another bout of brisk compliments and explanations. He had made all the arrangements but, he regretted, there were certain expenses to cover. He handed me a piece of paper with the hand-written details:
One heifer, several metres of rope, the hire of a machete, musicians, dancers, a master of ceremonies, a vehicle, various unidentifiable pieces of equipment, and ten litres of palm wine.
Why the heifer? For the sacrifice, of course. And the palm wine? To put the musicians and dancers into the proper mood. Stupid question.
It all came to a few score thousand Malagasy francs, about two hundred rand, including tax. I added something more for the official, of course.
Outside his office he introduced us to about twenty young men and women. They climbed on a light truck, heifer and all, which set off into the bush. We followed, our cab creaking and rolling on the uneven tracks.
We stopped fifteen minutes later beside a grassy bank. Paynter and I followed our rented crowd up it. On the other side it sloped down to the placid blue water of a lake. It did not look very large, less than a kilometre to the far side which curved away so we could not see the full extent.
Our team got busy. The leader used the rope to tie the heifer to a shoulder-high wooden stake on which were fastened several pairs of horned skulls from previous occasions.
The musicians and dancers dipped freely into the palm wine and in no time the air was thrumming with drumbeats and chanting as they leaped and bounced around, skirts, arms and legs flying.
When the dancing approached frenzy level the leader slaughtered the heifer with one stroke of a panga on its neck. It fell in a heap at his feet. He chopped it crudely into chunks.
Grasping one bloodied lump of bone and hoof he walked to the water’s edge and called out in a long, singsong voice. We watched expectantly.
The leader placed a few chunks close to the water and stepped back to continue his work. The dancing, singing and thumping of drums around us became manic.
A crocodile broke the surface a few metres from the edge and lumbered slowly up the bank. It came fully out of the water, tilted massive jaws to grasp a big piece of meat and bone and threw its head back to swallow.
It was huge, larger than any I had seen. It must have been at least six metres long. Its belly was as big as two or three oil drums lashed together. Its dragon-like dorsal scales almost a high as a shark’s fin.
It downed the hunk of heifer in a few gulps and lay there looking expectantly at the butcher working nearby, its huge white teeth glinting. He walked towards it and from less than two metres tossed another hunk which it caught neatly in jaws wide enough to swallow me whole.
The feast went on to the the mesmeric, frantic rhythm of the music while Paynter shot picture after picture, sometimes from so close a croc could have taken him with a lunge. I stayed a little further back.
It lasted about fifteen minutes. I lost track of time. One heifer doesn’t go far with half a dozen crocodiles that size. By then the drummers were thoroughly drunk on their mix of wine and adrenalin.
When no more meat came the crocodiles slid back into the still water and the dark blobs of their snouts glided away. Our performers collapsed on the grass. The leader mopped up bits and pieces, gathered the rope and rammed the heifer’s head on the stake.
It was over. We were left still brimming with tension and excitement. Never had I seen crocodiles so close before, and never such giants. The let-down was palpable. Looking at the lake it was hard to believe what we had seen.
We said goodbye to the tired ceremonial team and rattled back to Diego Suarez with a fantastic photo-feature in the bag.
The strange ritual of The Sacred Lake goes far back in Malagasy legend. Many centuries ago, they told us, a prosperous village stood where the lake now fills what appears to be a small, shallow volcanic or meteor crater.
One day a wrinkled old woman appeared and asked for water because she was thirsty. The villagers refused her, laughing at the old hag leaning on her crooked stick. It was a fatal mistake.
She was a witch. She waved her stick and the village vanished to be replaced by the lake. She turned all the villagers into crocodiles. The local people revere them and make regular sacrifices because they believe the crocs are their ancestors. If you could look down into the lake, they say, you would see the original village still there.
All of which proves one should never deny a thirsty woman, whatever she looks like.
The episode gave me another moment of pleasure weeks later when I presented my list of expenses to the office accountant. He looked at it – heifer, rope, drummers, dancers, ten litres of palm wine – glared at me, shook his head in disbelief and signed it. He clearly did not want to ask why.
There is an interview with Wilf on writing DARTS OF DECEIT in the News from South Africa column in June's Big Thrill from ITW.
Michael - Thursday